The pavilion where his great-aunt had wed was grown over with wildflowers and climbing vines, but it was the perfect way to meet in secret, as the servants and his father, too busy with maintaining the household, would have no reason to suspect he was here.
Far enough from the painstakingly groomed main property, it is also conveniently located to mask Will’s highly vocal moans of pleasure as he presents himself over a dusty bench littered with withering leaves. His knees are smarting, and the angle is awkward, but the hand Hannibal has wrapped around his neck and the one braced at his hip is enough to keep him from toppling over. Though at the rate they’re going, he thinks to himself, half-hysterical, it is unlikely that falling would distract either of them for long.
“Stop, you know you can’t—Not unless you’re willing to add laundering my clothes to your already substantial list of duties,” Will hisses, though the thought is more of a temptation than he would ever admit to aloud. He swears to himself that his ass tips up for a better angle to fuck, not because he’s silently begging for Hannibal’s spend.
Oh, bugger it, it’s not as if I don’t know how to wash my own bloody clothes.
He’d survived ten years as a poor fisherman’s son before a man from the Stafford Bank had knocked on his father’s door and shown him a ledger and living will declaring him next in line to a distant relative’s earldom.
“I already run most every crucial aspect of your life,” Hannibal scolds, though the impact is lessened by their compromised position. He curses in another language Will does not know, both their thighs shaking as he empties his seed into Will’s grasping body, Will pretending to pout as Hannibal exhaustedly turns him onto his front, hands scrambling for purchase on Will’s dripping member.
“And yet I never hear you complain,” Will says, rolling his eyes heavenward in mockery, then in pleasure, vision crossing as evidence of it splatters all over the bench. Aimed so that the mess doesn’t cover either of them, Will notices, through the haze of temporary blindness that seems to accompany most of his orgasms at Hannibal’s hand.
“You think of everything,” he pants, feeling woozy, with an alarming urge to cuddle close rising in his chest before he tamps it down. Hannibal’s far too practical to want for something like that when there’s only a sliver of time remaining before dark and someone makes note of them both being absent from the dinner table.
Still, he lets himself linger over the moment, running the backs of his knuckles against Hannibal’s still semi-pristine shirt, fingertips barely grazing the stubble on Hannibal’s jaw. He would probably never see him properly in the mornings, in the servant’s quarters before he had a chance to shave, but the universe’s great compromise was that he would be able to see him in the evenings, when the dark shadow of hair began to show.
He could count a handful of white hairs in the lock currently obscuring Hannibal’s left eye, and he wondered, with a thrill bordering on inappropriate (yes, Graham, as if it were completely appropriate to let your servant roger you till you saw stars) whether his lover’s hair would start to grey soon, even young as he was.
“Come now. Supper,” Hannibal reminds him, in a tone of voice so tender it nearly stops Will’s heart.
The name is on the tip of Will’s tongue, but he just can’t ask whether Hannibal had once said these words (albeit in strictly platonic circumstances) to his lost sister.
All he knows is that they had been separated as children, after a highwayman killed their parents, and that—by the amount of blood Hannibal had awoken to, his own thoughts fuzzy from the head injuries he had sustained—Mischa had been killed too, and dragged away to God-knows-where.
Will’s own father Billy never questioned why thieves or bandits hardly ever plagued their property, despite its comparative lack of size and larger vulnerabilities to its neighbors, but Will had a sneaking suspicion that Hannibal’s late-night disappearances might have something to do with it.
There had been a point in his life, when he was achingly young and Hannibal had not even started looking at him with a gleam in his eye, that he would do anything to stay with his servant, bordering on madness. He would start rows with his father about going into town; bite at any of the other staff who would attempt to pry him from Hannibal’s grip. And Hannibal would smile blandly and politely at Will, knowing they would be able to reunite after whatever errand Billy needed to run, but Will always wanted to err on the side of caution when it came to his favorite person. For who was anyone to say that his life would not change from riches back to rags in the course of a single day, as it once had before, and take Hannibal along with it?
Hannibal understood him. He was polite, not kind, but he always tried to accommodate Will, and Will hoped to give him the appreciation he deserved in exchange.
He deserves something in exchange, Will thinks sardonically, whimpering in discomfort as Hannibal offers a kerchief to Will for his leaking nether regions.
“I’ve got it,” he snaps, the vestiges of the intimate moment before shattered by the irritation in his tone, though the mood dissipates into familiar, comfortable silence once more as he refastens his trousers and straightens Hannibal’s clothes , Hannibal straightening his, without a single discomfited comment between them.
They’ve made progress today. If they keep it up at this rate, they’ll be a moderately functional couple in no time, Will thinks fondly.
“You will need a thorough washing-up before you join your father at table,” Hannibal says, and Will hates how fast his ears perk up at that, like a dog’s.
“Are you going to help me, then?”
“My duty and my honor,” Hannibal smiles, and Will loves him, loves him, loves him for his sincerity.
Winston trots out to them, promptly as always when they return, but Buster and Henriette have gotten out as well, which is unusual, and their tails aren’t wagging. Buster’s sharp nipping is shrill enough to wake the dead, and the hairs on the back of Will’s neck prickle, the ribbon holding his hair back suddenly itching at the base of his skull.
“That’s a police carriage,” he whispers, Hannibal’s expression hardening.
God, let his father be alright.
A copper wearing a lieutenant’s markings strides out of the house, more hounds at his heels, and then Will’s father, face pale and contorted.
“Is it true?! You bloody ungrateful cur, I gave you a house and good work—I let you look after my son, and this is how you repay me?” he shouts, and Will tries to sidestep between his father and his servant, though Hannibal’s already stood his ground in front of him, ready to meet his father head-on.
“Papa!” Will gasps, trying not to snarl as his father shoves him out of the way, back towards the waiting copper, who grabs Will by the arm to hold him back.
“They found a note, on the body at the mill, as if it had fallen out of someone’s coat pocket. It was a bloody shopping list! Took it around town and the surrounding villages trying to recognize the hand, and the woman at the grocer’s told them it was you!”
His father is shouting vitriol at Hannibal, and jabbing him in the chest with a pointed finger, turning redder and redder as Hannibal’s eyes darken.
Will would like to say that he was surprised, but Hannibal is not denying anything, and this is not the first person to be found dead and mutilated since Hannibal has joined their staff. There were only a thousand people in this town—a few of the landed gentry and some of the rare recluses of the ton—but someone was bound to notice something eventually.
Why did it have to be now?
“If you have nothing to say to dispute the evidence against you, I’ll have to take you in and question you formally. At this point, I can only recommend thinking about how you’ll explain yourself to the executioner.”
It was well-known that magistrates would take pity on beloved underlings should others accuse a house’s servants of a crime, but there would be no help here and no trial if Hannibal’s titled employer was the one to accuse him of murder.
A lesser man than Hannibal would have pointed out that had the war not ravaged the Lecter fortune, he would have been entitled to a trial and have been on equal standing with the Grahams, but Hannibal is entirely calm when he points out, “I filed a report with your department earlier in the week. My coat—with my things in it, surely including that list—was stolen while I was out performing my weekly errands on behalf of the Grahams.”
Will watches his father swallow visibly, mouth gaping like a fish as he tries to form words and find none forthcoming. Now, he turns crimson in shame rather than anger at jumping to conclusions, the lieutenant narrowing his eyes and begrudgingly letting Will free of his gloved grip.
“Can anyone attest to this?” the lieutenant says suspiciously, and Hannibal nods.
“Miss Du Maurier, of Du Maurier—,” he starts, and the lieutenant snorts.
“Well, there’s only one Du Maurier family here,” he says. “Goodnight, gentleman. Pray I don’t have to call on you again, Lecter.”
“I will indeed, sir,” Hannibal says, not sparing the copper another glance.
Will’s father is not in the mood to eat in the dining room, so Will chooses to take his supper in his own rooms after a requisite bath, marveling at the waste of his great aunt’s cavernous house. So many rooms, plus the servant’s quarters, and only a handful of people to fill them. Occasionally, the parson would stop by, but once a religious man, Will’s father had given up on the practice entirely and only accepted company if the parson was coming over to play gin.
It was lonely, but Will enjoyed solitude. Or so he thought, before he realized that his father may make the choice to let go of any of the servants, including Hannibal, at any time, and that the possibility of his already small world shrinking even more drastically made his chest constrict with something worse than fear.
“Did you kill that person at the mill?” he asks, Hannibal’s regular scrubbing motions at his back stopping for just a second. But what a telling second it is.
Hannibal being caught by surprise was a rare occurrence. They both liked order—Will with the strict organization of his closet, the pictures he hung in his room, the fishing lures, each with their own place, Hannibal with the care he put into his heavily alphabetized library, the plating of the dishes he carried in from Cook, how sharp he kept Earl Graham’s skinning knives, always prepared for the hunt—and did not function well without it.
If this was to be the moment when Will fully invited disorder in, he hoped Hannibal would feel brave enough to tell the truth.
“It was a man, if you were wondering. And yes,” Hannibal says, and Will, not expecting to hear the confession delivered so nonchalantly, slumps against the tub.
He should accuse him, furiously as his father had, but all he can manage is a shaky, “Why?”
Realizing that this is perhaps the worst question to ask—Hannibal won’t answer until Will has discerned why for himself—he finds himself trembling with rage at the equally blunt, “Because I wanted to,” Hannibal gives him in reply.
“You nearly got yourself fired—Would’ve gotten yourself killed had they arrested you for execution! Will Du Maurier really say that your coat was stolen? What reason would she have to support you?”
Hannibal smiles, and only now can Will see the mad glee behind his usual unruffled demeanor. That almost unhinged delight calls to him, and he does not know how to continue further without giving this terrifying fact away.
“She owes me a favor. Enough favors to save a life.”
“Hopefully it’s your life and not hers. What did she do that you can use as leverage against her? You’re quite confident in your arrangement; did she kill someone that you know about, too?”
“That would be her story to tell, Will,” he says, tipping Will back beneath the surface of the water to rinse.
Will surfaces, sputtering. “I won’t waste time on her—She looks at me whenever I walk into her precious store like I’m scum. She thinks I’m just an old poor fisherman’s boy who had a stroke of luck, and she’s right. It’s none of my business if she killed someone, as long as it doesn’t affect me.”
The moral dilemma pulls at his heartstrings, but would it be right to save strangers by destroying the one man outside his bloodline whom he’s learned to trust implicitly over the past decade? They all live quiet lives in the countryside, (mostly) harming no one, going about their days as usual. They don’t deserve to become victims of anyone, murderer or common thief or someone who knows something but won’t say.
What Hannibal does may not be acceptable by society’s standards, but Will knows the other man thinks it’s...necessary.
“How very mature of you,” Hannibal says, patronizing. A decade more advanced, he still thinks of Will as half his lover, half his charge.
“How is this for mature, Hannibal? How much money do you have squirreled away? I want to go to the Continent.”
Hannibal’s brow creases at the sudden declaration but quickly smooths, something like encouragement in the smile around his eyes. This is how Will knows his proposal is a terrible idea.
“We will be hard-pressed to answer questions when we return. I was just questioned about the murder of a local citizen, and choosing to take flight with you not a day later is reckless behavior at the least. At worse, condemning.”
“Maybe,” Will says, with great effort. “Or maybe we don’t return. Not for a while, anyway, till the murders are just a bad memory. Till all you’ll get in public is dirty looks instead of public accusations.”
“Take the pack with us. Leave a note to your father. It’s almost polite,” Hannibal says, and doesn’t that make him an awful person, Will thinks, running away from home with a confessed madman and all he can linger on is he remembered the dogs.
The overwhelmingly musty aroma of the cellar is enough to make Will’s stomach heave and his throat tickle, so he can only imagine how it must seem to Hannibal, who had once commented on Will’s ill-thought-out plans to ride to town one day, his destination determined just by the lingering stech of the city on his jacket.
“Come,” Hannibal urges, as if coaxing a spooked animal, but Will ignores the guiding hand Hannibal offers him, descending down into the mud-colored dark, running his finger down jars holding pickled onions and rows upon rows of sweet beets.
On a corner shelf, hidden behind a small army of glass containers, is a painting. Wrapped in butcher’s paper, Hannibal unrolls the edge of it to show a Master’s mark on the heavy canvas, and Will’s eyes go wide.
“Christ, that must be worth a fortune,” he whispers.
“I managed to rescue it from a man who was attempting to fence it in Liverpool. He didn’t know its true value, and attempted to increase its value by.” He pauses. “By removing a few imperfections from the back of the canvas.”
He runs a big hand over a space with the faintest black smudge on it.
“My sister was playing in the basement, where my parents hid the things they would wish to hide or flee with if the war ever reached our doorstep. She swiped her hand through the grime on the floor, and left a print here.”
The lantern in his hand flickers and wanes. Nearly out of oil, and the wick’s burnt down.
“It is long over,” he says wistfully, “We must leave, before the rest of the house wakes.”
Will gulps at the image of the note he left in his father’s study, him tiptoeing like a thief to weigh it down with inkwell and quill flashing through his mind’s eye. Contemplates the worst that would happen if they stay.
“Hannibal,” he says, at a loss, and follows his servant back up to the surface without another word.
In abstraction, it is possible for Will to separate the murders Hannibal has committed from what he is like every other moment of the day: charming, competent, and wholly unassuming.
This illusion is quickly dispelled on their steamship journey to the Continent, during which Hannibal kills and tosses one man overboard, and later threatens to do the same to his wife.
Will had spent much time in the water as a child, but hardly in the open ocean of the Channel, quite this far away from land, and he had been feeling peculiarly seasick, quietly sneaking out to the deck in hopes that the fresh air might calm his roiling nausea.
No such luck, it seemed, as he spied a familiar shadow hoisting a man into the sea with a muted splash. The man’s neck was bent at an odd angle, and Will resisted the urge to gag. He had shivered and sweat, but after his initial recoil, he felt nothing but curiosity at who the man was and why he had died.
Why are you doing this to me? he wanted to ask Hannibal, though it was a far more appropriate question to ask himself. He had chosen this alternative. He had written a goodbye letter, though he had not mentioned outright where he was going or who he was going with. His father would find out soon enough, but he had been the one to decide that anyone who attempted to find them would not have an easy time of it.
In such close quarters, there is no hope of distracting himself by making love or attempting anything more than petting, and he finds their normally scintillating discussions of art, literature, and philosophy lacking their usual verve. Was this what had drawn him away from his home? The fleeting pleasure of a little death and someone he had become dependent upon?
Hannibal had never lied to him, he thinks wistfully; he did really control most aspects of Will’s waking life.
Don’t let it stay that way, he tells himself, though the protest becomes weaker and weaker, and falls all but silent by the time they reach the Continent.
“You may find these identities a bit difficult to maintain,” Hannibal says, Will raising a brow, though it is mostly hidden by the spill of his undone hair.
“You might find yours difficult to maintain. I will find it completely easy to play a spoiled brat because your affections have reduced me to such, and thus, I have the advantage. You, on the other hand, have never had the opportunity to flaunt your wealth, privately or publicly, and you will find that spending to excess may go against your usually frugal ways.”
They are in a hotel in Paris, and Hannibal frowns in distaste at the bill they receive for “harboring a large number of wild animals at the monsieur’s request”.
By the second week, they are in Rome, and Will is proved wrong, Hannibal taking to the nobleman’s skin like a fish to water, gifting them both with rare books and trips to the opera. They dine at parties with waiters in gold cravats, and watch their shadows grow and fade as they wind around the Colosseum at dusk.
If his father is looking—and Will knows he shall be—he will be searching for two shabbily dressed young men, a curly haired earl’s son who thinks his inheritable title a joke, and a wayward servant who presents all possible dangers to the earl’s son in question.
Still, he cannot resist the lure of cheap pubs and the smarmy establishments of his younger years, the places that remind him of his father before the earl practically boarded himself up in a beautiful, lonely house that would’ve been Will’s untimely fate had he not been forced to act.
Someday, perhaps, they will return to that sort of life in a countryside somewhere, though this time, the chores will be divided evenly, and the dogs will not be confined indoors as often. All he knows is that a place like this is not the place he ultimately belongs. While educational, neither is the city, with its crushes of fashionable people and endless sources of entertainment.
“You’re not bound to me anymore, you know. I’m afraid of what’ll happen if the day comes when we finally bore each other for good,” he confesses, when they are lying by the fire in yet another hotel, the dogs surrounding them, the whisper of their contented snores broken only by the crackle charred kindling as it is continually eaten by the flames.
“The things that bind me to you are invisible,” Hannibal tells him, after a long silence, his chin resting on Will’s crown. “But they are more powerful than the strongest of irons.”
And there, by the fire, Will knows he’s found a place to belong.