Chapter 1: Dragon Hannibal
They had spoken of the latest case, a killer who recreated men and women in the semblance of dragons. Hannibal envisioned the scene as Will described it: the delicate human skins splayed into wings and tails, held outspread with line and fishhooks. The results would be amateurish, but the impulse toward transmuting that which is base into something greater was not without worth.
He watched Will pacing the office, restive and aimless, frustrated by lack of progress and sleep. Hannibal considered the timing only for a moment.
"Have you ever ridden a dragon, Will?"
Will glanced in his direction without meeting his gaze. "Every force has a DER team."
"Emergency response, of course. But to be carried is not to ride. The semantics are quite different."
"I guess the opportunity never arose."
"Have you ever wished to?"
Will's brow twitched, but if he was quizzical about the line of questioning it was subsumed at once into a half grimace, half smile. Deprecating. "Maybe when I was six. I think that was right before my astronaut phase." The smile faded. The pacing resumed in slower motion. "I see it sometimes. When I look. Not riding but...flying. If the killer flew to get there. Or to move the body."
"When you assume a dragon's perspective."
A terse nod.
Hannibal settled back on his haunches. "The dream of flight is endemic to Homo sapiens. So many of your great thinkers have set themselves the problem of how to slip the bonds of Earth without assistance from my kind. As if in a race to undo the fundamental bargain between our species: the use of your hands and minds in exchange for our wings and brawn."
Will huffed. He gave a lopsided shrug to acknowledge or dismiss centuries of fraught history. "The bargain's hardly that simple now. You seem to do just fine trading on your mind, Doctor. A DER can still get to a crime scene in the middle of a swamp faster than anybody else."
Hannibal inclined his head. "How fortunate we are, to live in an age when each of us may be known for his true talents." There was a pause which he let lazily extend. "Would you like to try riding me?"
"Wha--" Will stopped. Nearly gawked. "Why would--" Then his mouth pressed shut. He turned aside, jaw muscles flinching. "I don't need help working through some kind of...flight-related trauma. It's not the flying part that messes with my head."
"That's not why I'm offering." Hannibal leaned forward, pitched his voice mild and earnest, lowered his head so it was level with Will's. "A conversation may help one gain clarity and perspective. A physical change in perspective may do the same. I offer this for the same reason I invite friends to dine at my home: because it pleases me to do so."
Will eyed him sideways. The landscape of his shoulders shifted. "You do this with all your human patients?"
"You are not my patient, Will. And no."
There was no rebuke in his tone, only gentle correction. It seemed to serve. Will's gaze dropped to their feet: to his own scuffed shoes, Hannibal's neat and gleaming talons. Emotions chased across his face, obscure at first and then gradually cohering. Hannibal could see it, the dissipated boyhood dream reforming within the man. It was predictable. It might have been boring. He was surprised by the degree to which he was not bored.
Will's hands moved at his sides in inarticulate muddles of thumb and forefinger. He continued to shake his head, but his face had begun to come alight. "Where would we go?"
"Aloft. Anywhere. No destination needed, unless you prefer to choose one. Come."
"You will want your coat and gloves. A hat, if you have one." Hannibal turned to exit the rear door of his office without looking to see that he was followed.
The evening cold outside was stark. The lamplight swam in golden pools. Hannibal waited in the pavilion yard for Will to emerge, clad in a coat unequal to the occasion. A short flight, then, he thought. An appetizer merely.
When it came to mounting Will hesitated, as if the intimacy of the act had only just occurred to him. Amused, Hannibal exuded scrupulous courtesy, extending his foreleg with an unspoken allow me. Will permitted himself to be lifted. Hannibal held perfectly still as he felt Will's leg slide over the musculature at the base of his neck. Felt the heat of him settle: how warm he was, how small, how slight an imposition. How easily dislodged if Hannibal wished to fling him off. He breathed in, inhaled the rising scent of fever. Felt the grip of Will's legs around him tighten at the motion of his breath.
"Don't we need some kind of--" Will sounded winded, almost giddy. His hands flopped like landed fish before groping for the edge of Hannibal's collar, a Fabergé neck-cuff in platinum and bone. "Gear for this?"
Briefly Hannibal contained the urge to ask if he had never heard of going bareback. "It's unnecessary," he said, though of course flight would be safer for the rider with proper tack. He unfurled his wings slowly and snaked his neck around to look at Will with lidded eyes. "I would never let you fall."
Chapter 2: "Mirabilis"
Hannigram vs. the zombie apocalypse.
Hannibal was delighted when the zombie staggered across his lawn. After so many meager newscasts and maulings glimpsed only from afar, at last a chance to observe one of them firsthand, at close range--to gauge its capabilities, test its clumsy efforts to seize and devour. The dead man was unknown to him, but the state of the body and the wound to the throat suggested recent reanimation. The blood smelled fresh.
Reports of the virus had convinced him of a need to adjust his meal plans, at least until the mechanism of transmission was better understood. It was regrettable, but for every door that closed, another opened. Every lurch and gurgle from the zombie raised new possibilities of kinetic art.
In that moment the cavalry arrived, heralded by the roar of an aging Volvo. Will burst out of the driver's seat, shouting for Dr. Lecter, gun in hand.
The zombie turned as Will fired. Its cheek burst as bullets tore through it, spattering globules of flesh and brains.
It flopped to the ground and lay still.
The sight of Will--eyes wild, chest heaving, adorned from chin to rumpled chinos in flecks of gore--trumped any disappointment a more churlish version of Hannibal might have felt at the sudden end to his investigation. In fact the zombie signified more for being reintroduced to death by Will's hand; what better fate could have awaited it? His heart skipped as Will fired again on the fallen corpse, putting an extra shot in its head.
Will lowered his gun but didn't holster it. Hannibal saw how his hand on the pistol shook.
"Will," he said.
Will tore his gaze from his handiwork and drew nearer, eyes searching Hannibal for signs of injury.
"You're all right?"
"I'm fine. I'm unhurt." Hannibal closed the distance between them. To reach out seemed the most natural thing; Will came to his arm like a tiercel to the glove. "You're all over blood," he said, as if in dismay.
"It's not mine, I...there were two. Outside my house. I didn't know they were there. I let...I let the dogs out." Will swallowed. The mirrors in his eyes reflected mangled, ruined things. His grip tightened on Hannibal's sleeve. "You can't let them get too close."
"Will," murmured Hannibal.
The shudder with which Will mastered himself was lovely. He drew a breath, holstered his gun, and cast about the two of them, returning with grim persistence to the now. "We need to get out of the city."
Hannibal agreed. "Conditions may deteriorate, I fear. Have you heard from Jack?"
"He left a message. Said get to Quantico if we can."
Hannibal savored the we and the assumptions that infused it. He took a step closer, sidling further into Will's space and meeting no resistance. What a day of wonders it had been.
"I've packed a bag," he said, "provisions, some medical supplies. I realize it would've been prudent for you to go to Quantico directly, and I'm selfish enough to be glad of your detour. Thank you, Will. For coming for me."
Will blinked up at him with something like bewilderment, as if he'd hurt his eyes trying to peer into too bright a light. He gave a little headshake, a soft exhale.
"I couldn't not," he said.
Chapter 3: "Snake on a Plane"
For the "Daily AU" prompt: I made a horrible first impression at the gate but now we're sitting next to each other AU.
"Not fond of air travel, are you," said the man in the neighboring seat.
Will wondered which of his tics had given him away. To think he'd been tepidly glad when the gate agent told him economy was overbooked. Nothing made flying comfortable, but it helped to have fewer neighbors and more space. Now here he was, trapped in first class next to the guy whose sleeve he'd sloshed coffee on at the gate.
There'd been a clumsy coed with a duffle, a collision as they stood in line to board. At least both the coffee and the guy's jacket were brown. It looked like a nice jacket: expensive, maybe tailored. Will had apologized and offered to pay for dry cleaning, which the man declined. When they'd found their seats he'd apologized again, and now regretted mainly that he hadn't crammed his earbuds in faster, before his spill victim decided to chat.
He grimaced in the general direction of 3B without actually looking at its occupant. "It's not my favorite. I'll be good once I can use my devices."
"A relaxation playlist can be helpful," said Mr. 3B. He sounded approving. "If you experience anxiety about flying, perhaps I might offer some further suggestions. I'm a licensed psychotherapist."
Not Mr. but Dr. 3B. Who sat as if the airplane seat were a chair in his home office, embodying relaxed confidence. Will prayed for strength. He squinted from behind his glasses.
"I dump coffee on you, and you offer me in-flight therapy?"
"Suggestions only. And please, the accident is forgotten."
It was only reasonable self-interest, Will supposed, to prefer a seatmate who wasn't going to hyperventilate or puke. He risked a sidelong glance, reviewing his earlier impression. Sandy hair with a suggestion of grey, cheekbones straight out of the kind of men's magazine Will never read. Eyes the color of brandy. Top-shelf brandy. The expression in them was mildly benevolent, otherwise opaque.
Will shrugged. It was too late now to take refuge in his case files. His earbuds dangled uselessly around his neck. He was a captive audience until they reached cruising altitude.
"Therapy tends not to work on me," he said. "But I'm listening."
The doctor folded his hands in his lap. "One technique is to identify exactly what it is about flying that you fear. Is it the prospect of a crash? A hijacking? That the plane with all of us aboard may simply vanish from the troposphere, never to arrive at its destination?"
Will frowned at the back of the seat in front of him. "Nothing that specific. Just...generalized dread. Or--" he paused, feeling out the truth as he uncovered it. "Not so much fear of any of those things happening, as that I wouldn't be able to do anything about it if they did."
"You fear a loss of control. Of agency."
"Sounds about right."
"A dread shared by many. Do you experience the same fear when you ride in the passenger seat of a car?"
"Depends who's driving." Will's mouth twisted. "No, not really. And I'm aware a car crash is statistically more likely."
"Far more likely."
In the aisle the flight attendants were giving their safety spiel. Will checked that his seatbelt was securely fastened and his tray table in the upright and locked position. Then he leaned back, flattening his shoulders against the cushion, curling his fingers on the rigid arms of the chair.
"That's the thing about fears, isn't it? They're not rational."
"Sometimes not. I had a colleague who also experienced anxiety about air travel, although her work demanded it often. Her habit was to reenvision her worst imaginings prior to every takeoff. An explosion in the cockpit. The cabin engulfed in flames. A water landing that hurtled the plane to the bottom of the sea, drowning every passenger."
Will closed his eyes without meaning to, listening to the voice as much as the words. He couldn't place the accent: European, but none of the obvious flavors. For a therapist the guy sure liked to hear himself talk.
"By allowing these fantasies to play out in her mind, she felt she could gain control of them, prevent them from becoming reality."
"Sounds superstitious," said Will. "Like saying 'break a leg' instead of 'good luck.'"
"Perhaps. But for her, an effective strategy."
Will could see the flames, the plunge into the ocean, the inundating waves. The bodies caught in their seatbelts like flotsam in a net, unable to drift. He saw dark things, native to the abyss, moving in darkness around and through the sunken hull.
The plane had begun to taxi. Will opened his eyes and glanced out the window as the runway inevitably unfurled.
"Yeah," he said, "I don't think that's going to work for me."
"In that case I would suggest a breathing exercise. Calm the body, calm the mind. I could lead you through one, if you like." A hesitation. "There is one other technique I recommend."
The doctor paused again, as if he were telling a knock-knock joke and Will was supposed to say who's there. Will turned away from the window.
The brown eyes shone at him, almost innocent. "Friendly conversation."
Will let out a huff through his nose. His lips crooked sideways in spite of himself. "Sneaky, Doctor."
The man extended a hand. "Hannibal Lecter. I'll leave you to your devices once we're in the air. My word of honor. But I hope I may be of use until then."
Something caught in Will's chest, a warm twinge; he felt abashed for having discounted the kindness of strangers. Even strange psychiatrists. He reached for Dr. Lecter's hand and shook it. The clasp was dry, firm, encompassing.
"Will," he said. "Graham."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Graham."
"Will's fine," said Will, as if Dr. Lecter would have occasion to call him anything after their two and a half hours of enforced proximity were up.
"I believe he is," the doctor agreed. "Tell me, Will, what takes you to Minnesota?"
Chapter 4: "Pale Horse"
Hannigram in Valdemar, part 1.
:I Choose you,: said a voice in his mind, and with it came a flood of wholly alien feeling. Hannibal staggered, backing away from the half-dismembered corpse. He turned from the altar to stare in the moonlight at the white creature that wasn't a horse.
He knew its nature, unlikely as it was to meet one outside the borders of its native kingdom. What he couldn't account for was its presence in the woods on his estate or the words it had just spoken in his head.
"I don't understand," he said at length. "There must be some error."
:No, no mistake. You're my Chosen. We've never had a former Blood Mage as a Herald before, but Valdemar needs you. Congrats.:
The Companion took a step closer, craning his neck to better peer into Hannibal's eyes.
:You've got all kinds of stuff going on in this funhouse, don't you? Mindspeech, Mage Gift, little bit of Bardic, whole lot of Healing...something like FarSight, but smell instead of sight? Huh.:
Hannibal continued to stare. The roil in his breast declined to subside. In fact the Companion was quite beautiful, if one had an appreciation for such things: a young stallion of perfect conformation, none too tall, easily mounted--
:I heard that.:
Suddenly they stood not in front of Hannibal's altar, but in the foyer of his mind: a reconstruction of the Palatine Temple in Karse which he had always admired. The Companion spared a rueful glance at the mosaic beneath his hooves, then looked around. His eyes were blue and depthless. Hannibal had the sense that he could see keenly and without effort through the immediate walls around them, as if they were transparent, to gaze deep into the catacombs and halls beyond.
The intrusion should've been offensive, even intolerable. But it was all so unexpected, and ForeSight had never been among Hannibal's gifts.
:Well, we'll work on your decorating. I'm not going to kick down any locked doors, but you're not alone in here anymore. Get used to it.:
The arch of his neck was particularly fine, thought Hannibal. So purely luminous. How striking he would be in a dark hackamore, a martingale of dripping red--
The white ears flickered. :Maybe you missed what I said about former Blood Mage.:
"No," said Hannibal, "I did hear you. May I have your name?"
:Will,: his Companion said.
"I'm glad to meet you, Will." From the pocket of his robes Hannibal withdrew a square of silk to wipe clean the knife in his hand. "I believe we have much to discuss."
Chapter 5: "Unstable"
Hannigram in Valdemar, part 2.
It was evening by the time Hannibal emerged from the Collegium, dressed in the drab uniform of a Herald trainee. They weren't even new Grays, but an altered set, handed down from the last time someone had Chosen a grown man instead of the usual striplings. Will stifled a snort. He could imagine how Hannibal felt about the uniform, even without using his Empathy--but Hannibal said nothing against it, only came to greet Will with warmth in his eyes, and something like relief.
Will fell in at his side. :How'd your session with the Weaponsmaster go? I tried not to listen in. Didn't want to distract you.:
"He insisted on testing my proficiency with a knife, among other things. He also insisted I approach the trial as if my life depended on it." Hannibal switched to Mindspeech without missing a beat. :Fortunately I was able to Heal the damage. He can expect a full recovery.:
Will shot him a look. :Just when I was about to give you kudos for not maiming anybody yet.:
"And you? How did you spend the afternoon?"
:Catching up, mostly.: After another round of grilling by Taver and the Queen's Own about what Will thought he was doing, Choosing a Hardornen mage of dubious provenance to be a Herald of Valdemar. If they knew even the half of it, his tail would really be in the fire. Will kept the thought to himself. :Did they find you a room?:
:I've been installed in a dormitory full of half-trained children, yes. I was surprised to learn Companions are housed quite separately from their Heralds--that you're consigned to a stable.:
:We are more or less horse-shaped. It's a nice stable. You want to see?:
Rain had fallen off and on throughout the day, softening the grass underfoot. A drizzle resumed as they approached the Companion's Stable. When they entered, a stablehand appeared, looking back and forth between them for instruction. Will saw Hannibal's gaze flicker toward the mud that flecked his shanks.
:Things got pretty sloppy in the Field today. I could use a rub-down.:
:I am at your disposal.:
:She'll bring a kit for us if you ask.:
Hannibal made the request, then let Will lead the way down the long row of mostly deserted stalls. Those occupants who were present paid little overt attention to them, though Will caught a few ears and eyes swiveling toward Hannibal as they passed.
He could feel Hannibal's surprise mounting. When they came to Will's box--at the far end of a row, with a grain storage partition on one side and an empty stall on the other--Hannibal stopped in his tracks, staring at the feed bin and water trough, the layer of clean straw on the floor.
Will halted with him, trying not to laugh at his expression. :You were expecting something fancier?:
:Some greater concession to your personhood than a barn, perhaps. Let alone your stature as agents of divinity, lodestars of the realm.:
Will flicked his tail. :We don't spend much time in here, unless the weather's bad. It's comfortable enough.: He watched Hannibal frown and survey the distance between Will's stall and the nearest fireplace. :I like the quiet on this end. My neighbor's on circuit on the southern border, so she's never around.:
:You yearn for solitude and privacy where none can be had. Yet the most unsuitable of Herald trainees receives a room of his own. And what if you wish to host a guest? There's not even a chair in which your Chosen may sit.:
:That's because you're supposed to be getting me cleaned up,: said Will, :not putting your feet up.: He gestured with his chin toward the two buckets the stablehand had brought, one holding combs and brushes, the other half-full of clean water. :Or should I call for a groom after all?:
Rolling his sleeves, Hannibal knelt. He dipped his fingers into the water in the bucket, testing its warmth before wetting a sponge. Then he wiped Will's forelegs carefully, knee to pastern, until the mud was gone. After bathing each foreleg he rubbed them dry with a soft cloth, then moved to Will's hind legs to do it all again.
Will knew what other things those hands could do--had seen them do it--but their gentleness no longer seemed incongruous to him. When his legs were clean Hannibal took up a brush and began to stroke him with it, starting from the crest of his neck. The brushstrokes were firm, consistent. Hannibal's other hand rested warmly on Will's withers, palm splayed. Will sighed and let his eyelids droop. Reaching out with his Empathic sense, he felt in Hannibal a matching swell of contentment. And amusement. He blinked.
:What's so funny?:
:My mind unclothed before yours, your body entrusted to my hands. An asymmetrical symmetry.:
:You can get physically naked too, if you want. No one's stopping you.:
Hannibal looked down his nose at his Grays. :Were it not for the climate, nudity would be preferable.:
Will whickered. :Peacock.: He craned his neck to puff a breath into Hannibal's sleeked hair. :I know what you'd do with the uniform. How would you arrange our quarters? If it were up to you.:
Hannibal was silent for a time, though his hands moved the brush over Will's flank unabated.
"Come into my mind and let me show you."
It made Will pause, less with hesitation than with pleasure. He hadn't gone charging in uninvited, not since the moment of Choosing. He didn't see a reason to, not once he'd proven he could do it--proven that the shields Hannibal raised against the rest of the world were gauze to Will, the flimsiest of veils. He hadn't wanted to push too much, not when he'd been pushing hard enough to get them both to Valdemar. But on their journey Hannibal had surprised him more than once by opening the door to Will, of his own volition, where before no door had been.
It was open now. Will stepped into the foyer, over the gruesome mosaic, past the altar lit with its array of small flames. Hannibal walked beside him, hand still on his withers, dressed not in mage's robes but in the Grays he wore now in life. He ushered Will to another door, one that stood open to reveal a green space beyond. They stepped through.
The garden was vast, enclosed by a cloister of milk-colored stone. Paths of pale gravel crossed the sward to converge around a fountain in the center, where a winged horse carved from marble bent as if to drink. Ivy spread in froths of dark green over the cloister's columned arches, and yew bushes grew along the paths.
The cloister led into a dormitory. Will saw that the rooms were arranged in sets of two: a Herald's quarters on the left, Companion's on the right, always adjoining. The Companion's room was just that: not a stall but a room, a home, with doors one could open or close, to create solitude or welcome company, just as one wished. And one's Chosen would be always near, within reach of not only mind but sound and sight, scent, touch.
Will had stilled, but a tremor overtook him. He turned to Hannibal.
:Is there a real place like this?:
:The cloister is modeled after the Sesserine Abbey in northern Ruvan. I've taken some liberties with the design.:
Will opened his eyes. The vision dissolved. For a disjointed moment he stared at the reality of his own stall as if it were foreign to him.
"Do you see?" murmured Hannibal, and Will nodded. He almost wished he didn't.
:Not...not everyone would like it. Sometimes Companions and their Chosen get in each other's heads too much as it is. Physical distance can help.:
"Is that how you would characterize our situation? Yours and mine."
His hand lay on Will's neck, buried beneath his mane. The brush had been abandoned. Will turned to look at him, into his dark eyes, and felt himself pitching forward, untethered, as if into the freefall of Choosing all over again.
"Nor would I," Hannibal said.
Chapter 6: "Maiden Race"
Hannigram in Valdemar, part 3.
The Herald's Collegium was silent after midnight, dark except for the few lamps that glowed from older trainees' rooms. No crickets sang in the garden; the recent frost had silenced them. No sounds but the intermittent rattle of dried and fallen leaves.
Will stood outside, looking up toward a window on the uppermost floor. He wished, as he had wished on more than one occasion, that Hannibal had taken one of the ground floor rooms, so that Will might come to the window and look inside. As it was, he had seen the room only through Hannibal's eyes, when Hannibal shared his mind with him. If Will wanted to see for himself, he'd have to enter the building and climb the stairs.
His hand was on the door.
He stopped and stared. Lifted the hand, flexed the fingers, felt the pull of the white sleeve along his arm. His heart began to pound, and he felt with sudden keenness the narrow span of his chest.
It wasn't the first time he'd dreamed like this. Memories of his old life came to him sometimes, patchy and dim, seen through a haze at some remove. Other Companions told him it was much the same for them. Some remembered more than others, in moments of fear or need.
It should've been strange to have hands again, to walk on two feet, but with the ease of the dream it felt only familiar, like slipping on an old saddle to find it comfortable still. He opened the door to the Collegium and ascended the stair.
Hannibal's room was at the end of the hall. The door opened without sound. Faint moonlight outlined the wardrobe, the chair, the small desk with its oil lamp, the stack of papers fastidiously aligned with the edges of the desk.
There was a bookcase, already filled in the short weeks since Hannibal's arrival. On one wall hung an awful tapestry: Darshay and Windrider entangled in constricting darkness. Pinned to the other was a series of drawings on paper: a Companion posing in full regalia, bending to drink from a stream, leaping a stone wall with tail streaming. And the latest sketch, given pride of place above the desk: a Companion seen from behind, his neck curved to look back at the artist, like a lady glancing over her shoulder at an admirer, arch and amused.
Will turned to the bed. Hannibal lay facing the window, a silent shape under the blanket, his body stretched in a long slope from shoulder to leg. His breath came slowly, unhurried with sleep.
Lulled by the steady sound of it, Will eased himself to the foot of the bed.
Hannibal woke at once. He lurched upright with hand raised and fingers spread, teeth bared on a spell of rending. Then he saw Will and knew him, despite the strangeness of the circumstance and Will's shape.
His face changed in an instant. He lowered his hand.
"Ah," he sighed, sinking back against the headboard and his pillow. "I beg your pardon. I didn't expect you at this hour."
His gaze traveled over Will, up and down, avid and without pretense. His lips pressed together on a smile.
"Now that you're here, you're just as I thought."
:In what way?:
:In that you're quite as beautiful as I imagined, though precision eluded me in the details. Was it difficult, becoming a new incarnation of yourself?:
Will shook his head. His curls fell over his brow and caught on his lashes. He pushed them back with one unsteady hand. Had his hair been so long, before? He couldn't remember.
Hannibal tracked the gesture with his eyes, a hawk seeing stirrings in the grass.
:It's not new,: said Will. It's how I used to be.:
:Do you miss it, then? Being as you once were?:
:It had its advantages. Better at opening doors. Better for creeping into people's rooms at night. Easier to...:
Hannibal was moving, shifting his limbs the way a great snake might unwind its coils. Deliberately, telegraphing intent. It occurred to Will that he ought to do any number of things: stand up, retrench, return to his waking self. At the very least, get off the bed.
He kept still.
:This is a dream, yes?: murmured Hannibal. :And we cannot control with respect to what we dream.:
The moon went to ground under a cloud, leaving no light in the room at all. Will stayed where he was, taut and on the verge of fraying. A nervous yearling trying not to bolt.
Hannibal's hands found him in the dark. He touched Will's shoulder, slid his palm to the nape of Will's neck. Will had thought himself used to those hands, believed himself to be past stupefaction when they touched him.
The heat was different on bare skin.
:That's true,: he said faintly. :We can't.:
They didn't speak to one another all morning. Hannibal had his session with the Weaponsmaster in the salle, and Will put himself through the practice course in the Companion's Field, thinking of nothing but the next jump, the next hazard, the next and the next.
At noon Hannibal appeared at the stable, dressed for riding. Will lifted his muzzle from the water trough and emerged from his stall. He didn't meet Hannibal's eyes.
:Get on,: he said. Then, when Hannibal began to reach for the saddlecloth, :No tack. I don't want it. I want to feel you.:
He heard Hannibal's sharp inhale. Mercifully, Hannibal said nothing, either aloud or in their minds, only fisted his hands in Will's mane and pulled himself up, throwing a leg over Will swiftly. The weight and heat of him settled. Even before he was fully seated, Will was pacing toward the exit. He scarcely cleared the stable doors before he broke into a run.
The field, the palace grounds, the avenue to the city gates passed in fragmentary blurs. The guards may have wondered at a naked Companion and gray-clad Trainee bursting through the gate at full gallop, but Will left them no chance to question.
On the straight road that arrowed east from the capital he flung himself into the wind. He ran as if he were running for their lives, as he'd run when they fled from Duke Verger's men before crossing the border. As if he were fleeing now. He felt the legs around him tighten, felt Hannibal bending low over his neck.
:That's it, my darling. Go on. Hard as you can.:
Will clenched his teeth. His body wasn't made for crying, even if he'd had the breath to spare.
He didn't know how long or far he ran--it felt like candlemarks--but at last he began to flag, the well that had seemed bottomless suddenly dry. His pace dropped like a sack of stones. He stumbled to a jerky walk, hooves dragging.
Hannibal continued to lean over him, one hand still gripping his mane, the other stroking his
:Jog for a bit longer. You'll make yourself ill if you don't cool down.:
It was only the truth. Will raised his head again and forced himself to a lope. That was when he saw the riders approaching from the east, cresting a hill: a party of travelers bound for the capital.
He was in no state to represent Queen and country, and neither was Hannibal. Will veered from the road, descending the bank, then mustered a canter again long enough to cross the adjoining field, a shorn stretch of winter wheat. A copse of trees stood beyond the wheat field, part of the woodlot of some nearby estate. Will made for the cover of the trees.
When they were hidden from the road he halted at last, flanks heaving. Hannibal slid from his back and came around to his front, drawing Will's head into his arms. They stood for a moment, only breathing.
:Did it help?: Hannibal asked.
Will shook his head, which mostly served to nudge his face back and forth against Hannibal's jerkin. That felt good--dreadfully so. He did it again, despairing.
:I thought I could run it off, maybe. I'm not sure why I thought that.: As the heat of exertion faded and his sweat began to cool, his skin prickled, leaving him too conscious of the winter chill. When daylight waned it would worsen. A shiver chased across his withers, down his shoulders and chest. :It's not supposed to be like this. The bond.:
The question seemed genuine. As if six weeks at the Collegium hadn't been enough for Hannibal to observe other Heralds and Companions, to draw conclusions about what they did and didn't do. Or dream of doing.
:It's supposed to be safe,: Will said.
"Was it safe for me," asked Hannibal, speaking aloud and almost roughly, "to leave my life and home and come to yours, only because you asked me? To place myself in the central hive of those who would destroy me if they learned what I have been?"
Will flinched a little from the vision in his mind of Haven as a swarm of white insects, crawling in relentless search of the dark. He didn't try to contain his distress; he let Hannibal feel it. Hannibal continued more softly, stroking Will's cheek.
"You are the gods' creature, and you chose me for your own. Is what grows between us then not also gods' work?"
Will huffed. :You'd think that.: He pushed his nose into Hannibal's chest, shutting his eyes, as if to shunt whatever energy was left in him into nuzzling. :I don't know if I can hide this. Someone's going to notice our bond is different. They'll want to know why, and then they'll come poking and prodding and trying to get into my head. I don't want anyone in my head but you.:
:Nor do I.:
Will opened his eyes again. :What are we going to do?:
"For now, find a place to stay the night. Tomorrow we'll return to make arrangements, collect our things, say goodbye to your friends. Perfectly polite. After that, we'll leave the kingdom."
:I can't just run away,: said Will, even though he'd attempted exactly that. In body, if not in heart.
"No. You are what you are, and I wouldn't ask you to become anything other than yourself." Hannibal reverted to Mindspeech. :Her Majesty and the Queen's Own have been discussing how best to make use of us, of my particular skills. They'll propose a mission to Rethwellan; we will accept.:
Will stared. :They've talked to you about this?:
:Not yet. They will.:
He could feel Hannibal's surety. Reams of confidence, unfurling. He wondered whether Hannibal had been planning this, for how long-- wondered how he could be so sure of the will of the Queen--but the wondering passed as soon as it formed. In the end it made no difference. He let Hannibal gather him close again, let him press his mouth to Will's poll. His ears twitched as Hannibal murmured into them.
"But what a wicked boy you are, asking me to ride you bareback. And after last night."
:That was a dream,: yelped Will. He reared his head, yanking it from Hannibal's grasp. Then he stopped, nostrils flaring. :Was that my dream or yours?
"A joint effort, I think. Not bad for a maiden race."
He wanted to toss his head again--to tell Hannibal that at this rate he'd find himself walking back to Haven--but Hannibal was smiling, his delight in Will translucent and spilling through them both. The eddies of it buoyed Will, warming in their wake. He pawed the earth once, then stood to let Hannibal mount. If his neck arched more than it ought to when Hannibal's leg slid over him, no one saw it but the shadows of the wood.