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The Mongoose Under the House

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          In Will’s mind, Castle Lecter had always been something out of a Bram Stoker novel. Dark parapets, gothic iron gates, and a lighting storm constantly happening in the background. There would, of course, be ravenstags prowling the grounds and wendigos behind every dark corner. And in the middle of it all would be Hannibal, dark and terribly beautiful among the horrors.

          The reality hadn’t disappointed. Will had stopped to smile when the bleak, rotting building loomed large before him, waiting a few beats for an appropriate crash of lightening, or some wailing from a ghoul. When it didn’t happen, Will shook off his gothic fantasies and set about scaling the fence. He nicked his hand on the descent, which seemed oddly appropriate. There was always a blood price to pay with the Lecters.

          What surprised Will was the beauty he found, even in the decaying bricks and overgrown garden. Fireflies gave the grounds a warmth that wouldn’t have been apparent from the exterior, giving a glow to the long-forgotten pieces of fountains. Just like Hannibal, if you survived scaling the fence, the interior was surprisingly beautiful.

          Chiyoh allowed him to roam the hallways, not very threatened by the man bearing Hannibal’s smile. She returned to her charge, leaving Will alone to walk through the hollow space that must have formed the footprint of Hannibal’s first mind palace.

          Poking his head into rooms, Will ran his fingers over molded sheets, left trails along dusty picture frames. He liked to think of himself as running through Hannibal’s mind, leaving his mark as Hannibal had so gleefully left his in Will’s head.

          But there was very little of the man Will knew to find in this crypt of a home. Like Hannibal’s person suit, it was grand, but ultimately empty. He learned little about the Lecter parents from their formal bedroom. Portraits of long-dead relatives lined the walls of the great hall – their impersonal faces and chipping oil paint hinting at a great, but remote lineage. His gut churned when he realized he couldn’t even find a bedroom to definitively call Hannibal’s. There were three candidates, each bedroom stripped bare of anything that would hint at the boy Hannibal was or the man he would become. Will had thought he’d know right away, the moment he opened the door and inhaled the stale air – some lingering scent of brilliant madness that would draw him in.

          What he found were just abandoned rooms, no sketches on the wall in charcoal, no opera recordings, not even a paisley and plaid suit in the closet to hint at his cannibal’s presence. He thought to ask Chiyoh, but dismissed it. Admitting he couldn’t find Hannibal among the ruins of his childhood seemed shameful, something he should have been able to do without begging help from a stranger. He’d found the heart in Palermo, waiting for him and dripping with regret. He’d never needed help finding Hannibal before.

          The last door at the end of the east wing swung open with a groan and Will paused at the entrance. This seemed like an oddity among the grandeur of the Lecters. Instead of austere tapestries and portraits, there were soft draperies and a canopy bed. Will walked into the room, drawn to the bed. He ran a finger over the duvet, sun bleached and filthy. It might have been a pale pink or red when it was new.

          She was not my child, but she was my charge.

          Will blinked, his mouth coiling into a small smile at the memory of Hannibal’s voice. This was the girl then, the one who had managed to make the monster feel, to tame it for a time. This is where he’d find Hannibal, find the bits of him he’d been searching for, the bits he’d been cut open trying to save.

          “Hello, Dr. Lecter,” Will whispered to the room.

          The closet was open, small, delicate dresses still hanging under a lace of spiderwebs. He ran his fingers over the skirts, fine, intricate patterns that were no doubt hand stitched and vibrant before forgotten to time.

          “You dress like her,” Will murmured, smiling softly as he pulled a skirt from the mass of cloth. Red flowers bloomed on what should have been a white skirt, like blood on bone. Will’s fingers tightened on the material, wanting to take it, stuff a scrap of the fabric into his pocket to touch when he couldn’t find Abigail’s voice in the darkness.

          Shelves filled with dingy wooden toys and dusty stuffed animals sat on either side of the fluffy bed. He inspected each, trying to discern which was the most well-loved, which Hannibal had probably dangled in front of her, playing for long hours as children. Perhaps a few were passed down from Hannibal’s childhood? The age and neglect of the toys made it difficult to discern, Will passing a finger over a large stag with a chipped antler before giving up.

          Moving back to the bed, Will flopped on the mattress, a billow of dust erupting around him as the bedframe groaned. He stared at the canopy, moth eaten and sinking toward the bed. Had Hannibal laid here; a little girl wrapped in his arms?

          Rolling his head toward the pillows, Will tried to imagine him. Younger than the picture Pazzi had shown him, still a solemn little thing with cheekbones too big for his baby face and eyes full of wild darkness yet to be honed. Will would have loved him then, too. He made a note to look downstairs for any photos that might have survived in this crypt of a home.

          Something seemed to be watching him from between the pillows. Will furrowed his brow, raising up slightly to focus on small gap between them. He reached forward and pulled out a stuffed weasel, long of body and fur matted with years of neglect. Pulling it to him for closer inspection, Will smiled at the black glass eyes, fingered the ear that looked like it had been chewed. Will could see a little girl, gnawing on the bit of felt, watching her big brother with wide eyes.

          Holding the toy aloft, Will studied it further. Not a weasel perhaps…something more specific…

          The mongoose I want under the house when the snakes slither by

          Will clutched the toy, feeling the stuffing give beneath his fingers as he tightened his grip. He brought it to his nose, hoping to draw a sent other than damp from the creature.

          “Where were you when the snakes came for them?” He asked the toy, his lip curling into a snarl when it offered no response.

          Hannibal had let Will see him, had offered him a rare gift. And Will…

          “I did want it,” Will told the mongoose. Setting the toy back in its cove beneath Mischa’s pillows, Will rose from the mattress, running a hand over the sheets to smooth the wrinkles he made.

          He walked back through the halls of the Lecter’s tomb, listening for Chiyoh. It wouldn’t do for her to hear him as he wandered down to the wine cellar.


 

          It had taken nearly a year for Will and Hannibal to heal after they defeated the dragon. Will had been content to let his broken body slip beneath the waves until he realized Hannibal had already started to sink. Something fierce and vicious rose in his chest, furious that Hannibal would let himself drown without Will in his arms. It took forever to find a way to keep Hannibal’s head above the waves as Will dragged them to shore. Longer to revive Hannibal, as he pounded on the doctor’s chest with broken fingers, spitting mouthfuls of blood on the sand as he ignored the pain from his ruined cheek.

          When Hannibal coughed, seawater gurgling from his chest, Will smiled. Blood dripped from his mouth onto Hannibal’s lips. The doctor opened his eyes, his tongue smearing a red stain across his mouth as he licked it away.

          Another blood price, another chance with Hannibal Lecter.

          Chiyoh found them in a Days Inn in Georgia. She set their bones and stitched their wounds, mouth hard and grim as she watched over them. When they were well enough to move, Will helped her ease Hannibal onto a boat, slightly bigger than the NOLA, though the seas seemed rougher as Will was bounced from injury to injury while they drifted around the Atlantic.

          Will would fish, take turns on the helm when he convinced Chiyoh he wouldn’t sail them directly to a port the FBI would be watching, and spent his evenings watching the stars. When the skies were particularly clear, he’d wake Hannibal, who slept long hours as his bones mended and his stitched skin scarred. Together, they’d limp to the deck and sit in silence, watching the heavens pass before him.

          By the time they reached Gibraltar, Hannibal could limp around the cabin and the deck by himself, steps still unsteady but finding his balance. He would sit on the deck with Chiyoh, discussing their destination and what they would need once they reached it. He heard a few options, most sounded like they were in France, as Chiyoh spent long hours vehemently arguing against a return to Florence.

          Will didn’t bother listening. It didn’t matter where he headed, the destination was always the same. Now that he was by Hannibal’s side, their location didn’t really interest him. Besides, there were dogs on every continent, but Antarctica, Will could adapt.

          They had been at sea seven months before Will noted that Chiyoh had plotted a distinct course.

          “We stopping for supplies again?”

          She blinked at him and went to check on Hannibal. Evidently, it took eight months to warm up to him. 

          They docked in Sète. Will helped Hannibal into the back of a rented car while Chiyoh “saw to the boat”. Apparently, that meant a small explosion and a fire. Will had watched the flames as he leaned on Hannibal’s uninjured side. He hoped they had a fireplace in their new home.

          Chiyoh drove for what seemed like hours – down back roads, doubling back on the route, stopping only to start again after she checked the roads for cars that might be following.

          “Let them follow,” Will said from the backseat, his head still pillowed on Hannibal’s shoulder. “We’ll need meat for dinner.”

          Hannibal squeezed Will’s thigh. Will felt warm for the first time in days.


 

          Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert looked like an illustration in a children’s book. Medieval stone buildings and precariously narrow streets lead up the mountains. Time, it seemed had frozen for the small village. A white stone abbey overlooked the town, round parapets and windows watching all who stood beneath it.

          “A fitting place to live after slaying a dragon,” Will tilted his head slightly to address Hannibal’s collar.

          “Abbey of Gellone is an excellent example of Romanesque architecture.” Hannibal’s voice was rough from disuse. “It watches over Hérault Gorges, keeping them safe.”

          Will hummed as Chiyoh drove them further up the mountain.


 

          The house looked as if someone had painstakingly stacked stone against the mountains. A patio of hand-laid flagstones looked out over the valley, a small table and chairs seemingly waiting for Hannibal and Will to occupy as they dined. Inside, the world was a little more modern, with two white walled bedrooms and a kitchen that, though it only had one oven to Hannibal’s chagrin, did have granite countertops and a cold stone island for pastry making.

          “Do we get WiFi?” Will joked. Hannibal ignored him, inspecting the stove burners and investigating the stocked cabinets. Chiyoh raised an eyebrow and held out a piece of paper.

          Will unfolded it, glancing down.

          Unworthy.

          Will frowned looking up.

          Chiyoh shrugged. “I thought you wanted the WiFi password?”

          “Thanks.” Will rolled his eyes.

          “If you don’t like it,” Chiyoh said as she walked past him. “perhaps in time you will figure out how to change it.”

          “Wait.” Will reached out, but thought better of grabbing the woman’s arm, leaving his hand to dangle midair. “I have a favor to ask before you go.”


 

          The box arrived three weeks later.

          Will and Hannibal came back from a stroll across the Pont du Diable, arms full of bags from the Montpeyroux market when Hannibal stopped mid-sentence.

          “You OK?” Will shifted the bag of produce on his shoulder, feeling the muscles protest. “You didn’t finish your thoughts on the beef and morels dish you were going to recreate tonight? Should I be worried? Am I on the menu?”

          “We have a package.”

          “It’s mine,” Will bustled into the house, dropping the bags along the counter haphazardly. He turned on his heel to find Hannibal studying the label.

          “What did Chiyoh send you?”

          Will smiled, taking the box from Hannibal’s hands and walking up the stairs without another word.


 

          “Will? Will dinner is ready.”

          Will sat on Hannibal’s bed, adjusting the little toy mongoose. Chiyoh had had the thing cleaned, but it still looked rather ancient and well loved.

          “What do you think, buddy?” Will asked the creature as he listened to Hannibal climbing the stairs. “Think I got a chance here?”

          The mongoose didn’t say much, but Will couldn’t fault him. He had assumed that he and Hannibal would be sharing a bed once they reached their home. He’d deflated a little when he found his bag in a separate room from Hannibal’s, and the doctor made no move to correct it. They’d spent so long together, and now it seemed ridiculous that any barrier still remained between them. He thought offering Hannibal a piece of his home, a piece of the doctor that Will uncovered on his own and cherished, would do the trick.

          “Will, I’ve been calling you. Why are you in my-” Hannibal stood in the doorway, eyes locked on the tattered toy watching him from the middle of the bed. Will had expected a smile, that almost imperceptible coil at the corner of his mouth and the warmth that would subtly crinkle the corners of his eyes. What Will got was a tensed jaw and a tight line. “Will? Would you mind eating on your own this evening?”

          “What?”

          “I have a headache, I thought perhaps I could go to bed early.” Hannibal stepped forward and gripped Will’s arm. Will rose, bewildered as he was ushered out of the room. “Please remember to wrap the meat properly when you’re done and only store it when it cools.”

          “Hannibal, wait-”

          The door closed in his face.


 

          Will was up early the next morning, camped by the coffee pot and waiting for Hannibal. When the doctor didn’t present himself by seven, Will’s gut churned. He started the coffee, one eye on the stairs. When there was still no sight of Hannibal by the time the scent of roasted espresso filled the air, Will was well and truly concerned.

          Filling two coffee cups, Will marched up the stairs to – well, he wasn’t really sure. He was nearly certain an apology wasn’t in order. But he needed to make sure Hannibal understood the gift as intended. Will hadn’t wanted to throw a dead loved one in Hannibal’s face, just show him that their histories, their stories could be further intertwined.

          Juggling the cups in one hand Will managed to open Hannibal’s door without spilling Hannibal’s expensive coffee on the even more expensive floor. Hannibal was still in bed, tanned shoulder and arm stark against the white sheets. He seemed to have cocooned himself on his side, an unusual position for the doctor. Will remembered the long months on the Atlantic, watching Hannibal sleep flat on his back, perfectly still, like some sort of vampire.

          A few more steps around the bed, Will found that sheltered in Hannibal’s arms was a tattered toy, a chewed on felt ear resting against his lips. Will took in a shaking breath, not sure if he should flee the scene or stay and memorize every strand of hair falling across Hannibal’s brow in the morning light.

          Amber eyes slid open, saving Will the choice.

          “Hannibal, I uh…” Will looked around before settling on the mugs. “Brought you some coffee.”

          Hannibal’s arms tightened around the mongoose for a moment, just a slight protective reflex before he moved to sit up, the little toy guarding his hip. “Good morning, Will.”

          At first light, Hannibal was warm and rumpled, the sun falling through the large window overlooking the valley and making his greying chest hair shine. Will’s mouth felt dry. “How’s the head?”

          Hannibal’s mouth quirked, he ran a hand through his hair, trying to straighten it, but it fell back into a wild arc across his brow. With a sigh, Hannibal dropped his hand. It landed on the little mongoose by his hip. “I was quite rude last night, please forgive me.”

          “I thought…When I found him in her room, I thought it would be a nice gesture. Something-” Will closed his eyes for a moment, taking a breath. “I never meant to-”

          “When you visited our home, did you happen to notice the crest?”

          Will nodded, smiling half-heartedly. “I think I climbed over it.”

          Hannibal smiled then, his eyes creasing at the corners. Will wanted to climb into the bed, rub his lips along the edges of that smile.

          “My sister Mischa, as it turned out, was not fond of it.” Hannibal’s fingers began to stroke the toy mongoose’s furry tail, worrying the fraying edges of it. “Especially the large piece above the gate. She saw it while we walked the grounds one day and became convinced that there was a man-eating snake on the premises. I told her that snakes of that size wouldn’t reside in Lithuania, and if they did, certainly it would eat the servants first-”

          Will snorted, picturing Hannibal gravely attempting to comfort his sister with the idea of human sacrifice.

          “Mischa remained resolute, however, that the serpent was not only on the grounds, but surely lurking beneath her bed every night. So, I went to one of the maids and asked her for assistance.” Hannibal’s fingers still petted through the fur of the mongoose. “She was a skilled seamstress, and I asked if she could perhaps make a toy for my sister, to help with her fear. I gave her a sketch, a rough approximation of a mongoose to be sure, but enough for Lydia to understand what I wanted.”

          Hannibal smiled, picking up the toy and studying its face. “I should have used a better reference, it’s not nearly as accurate as it could have been. Still, Mischa was young and she rarely saw the flaws of any endeavor I undertook.”

          Putting the creature back down, Hannibal let his eyes fall closed, leaning against the headboard. “I went to Mischa’s room that evening with the mongoose and a copy of Kipling. I read her-”

          “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” Will finished, smiling. “The brave little mongoose who kills the cobras.”

          Hannibal nodded. “I handed her the mongoose and told her that no snake, no matter how fierce would dare to slither by her door when Rikki Tikki Tavi was with her.”

          “Smart. She must have taken it everywhere.”

          “Yes, through every mud puddle and by every bramble bush.” Hannibal’s mouth curled again. “Mother hated it, but whenever the servants attempted to clean it, Mischa would throw a fit. Eventually Lydia had to slip in during the night and clean it before she woke.”

          “You were a good brother.”

          “Perhaps,” Hannibal took a small breath and glanced down at the mongoose. “But there is more to fear in the world than cobras.”

          “Hannibal-”

          “I confess I’d quite given up on the idea of mongooses.” The doctor looked up, eyes shimmering. “Then I found you, fierce, righteous Will, ready to bare his teeth at any threat and stand victorious over it.”

          Will felt his eyes prickling. Moving closer, he sat the coffees on Hannibal’s nightstand. The doctor didn’t seem to notice, back to inspecting the chewed felt of Rikki Tikki Tavi’s ear. “Had you been with me, then – with us…”

          Will climbed into the bed, sliding beneath the covers and gently tugging the mongoose from Hannibal’s grip. He paused long enough to kiss the tattered ear before setting it beside the coffee. Wrapping his arms around Hannibal, he tugged gently. Like always, the doctor let himself fall, landing on the bed in the cradle of Will’s embrace.

          “Kipling left a bit out of the story.”

          Hannibal pressed close to Will’s chest. The empath felt a surge of warmth flow through him. “Did he?”

          Will nodded, reaching up to tug at the bangs falling across Hannibal’s eyes. “It’s very hard to tame a mongoose, you know.”

          Hannibal smiled, angling his cheek to brush across Will’s hand. “Is it?”

          “It is,” Will smiled, twirling a lock around his fingers. “They’re nasty little creatures. They bite and snarl constantly, even if they don’t mean it. Even if they love you.”

          Hannibal hummed, his eyes half lidded in pleasure as Will continued to stroke and tug his hair. “Sounds terrifying.”

          “It is,” Will agreed. He let go of Hannibal’s hair and drew his hand down, letting the stubble from Hannibal’s jaw catch on the pads of his fingers. “Sometimes, when you get close to taming them, they’ll run away.”

          “Oh dear, how upsetting.”

          “Yeah, it can take years for them to find their way home.”

          “What confounding little creatures they are.”

          Will inched closer, lips resting on the nob of Hannibal’s jaw before drawing back. He shivered at the sensation of the stubble abrading the tender skin. “But once you win them, they’re yours for life. They’ll never leave your side, no matter what comes to call.”

          Hannibal pulled back, eyes shining again. “And how do you know if you’ve won your mongoose?”

          Will huffed a small laugh, tilting his head. “Oh, that’s easy – it throws you off a cliff.”

          Hannibal pulled back, smiling broadly – his fangs bared for he could not contain his joy. “Well. that is excellent news.”

          “I thought so.” Will whispered before winding his hand around Hannibal’s neck and pulling him into a slow kiss, their coffee left to cool on the nightstand.