Will turned off the main road and into the woods.
He followed the path through a dark tunnel of snow-capped firs. When the road was well out of sight and he was sure no one had followed him, he stopped and turned off the engine.
Flashlight in hand, he got out and opened the trunk. He found the hatchet and hauled out the tarpaulin.
"This may be the stupidest thing you've ever done," he muttered to himself. “And that’s saying something.”
Then he set off into the frost-bitten darkness, snow crunching under his boots, breath steaming in the beam of his flashlight.
And to think that the day had started off so well.
It was three days until Christmas. Will woke up to a house surrounded by another fresh blanket of snow and the scent of spice and burned sugar. Downstairs he found Hannibal still in his dressing gown, sandwiching snowflake-shaped pepparkakor cookies with the whiskey-spiked caramel they had made together the night before.
"Smells amazing," Will said, leaning in for his morning kiss. “Smells like Christmas. What is it?”
"Baked persimmons. They’re still in the oven, but ought to be done by now. Please feel free to have some with your oatmeal."
"Smells like Christmas, but not quite," Will added, and glanced towards a conspicuously empty spot near the dining room windows.
The crinkles around Hannibal's eyes deepened, warmed with a smile. "You mean, of course, that we’re missing the distinct aroma of conifer terpenes."
Will stole another kiss, hand resting over the warm V of skin above the folds of Hannibal's robe, just above Hannibal's heart. "I mean if we're gonna do the whole festive thing—"
"Then we had better find the perfect tree to celebrate around," Hannibal said.
They set out after breakfast.
Will should have known how it would all turn out when Hannibal dismissed out of hand the idea of getting a tree from a supermarket.
"If it's the crowds you're worried about—"
"The trees there are too commercial and often of poor quality."
"Fine," Will muttered. "You want an artisan tree, let's get one."
Three hours later they had visited five independent Christmas tree purveyors, including an actual lumberjack. Some trees were deemed too tall or too fine-needled or the wrong color; others, in Hannibal's words, were “unbalanced" or "gaudy”.
By the time Hannibal had bad-mouthed what must have been the hundredth perfectly good spruce, Will was seething.
“How can a tree be gaudy? For fuck’s sake, it’s a tree.”
“If you don’t think a modicum of patience is worth expanding in order for us to have a Christmas—“
“Don’t finish that sentence, Hannibal. I know you’re a killer, but I never realised you were also capable of actually killing joy.”
They drove back in silence, and without a tree.
At home, Will felt the first pangs of regret. Hannibal was more quiet than Will had ever known him, including when they were recovering from their tango with the Atlantic. He complained of tiredness, as he often did in the afternoons — his old injuries still took their daily toll.
He went to sleep on the sofa before Will had a chance to talk to him, to take back or at least explain away his anger.
Will watched him there: curled up on his side, blanket drawn up over his shoulder. The roaring fire burnished the silver strands in his hair with gold. Sleep and flickering shadows made him look older than he was and, Will thought, somehow mournful.
Will glanced outside. Snow was still falling and the last of the light was draining from the day. The house was achingly silent.
He swore under his breath. He stuffed one of Hannibal’s cookies in his mouth, grabbed the car keys and set out with a singular mindset that enraged him.
Despite his fears and the conspicuous appearance of his car, no one tailed him home. And he’d managed not to hurt himself in the freezing wilderness — bonus.
Before long he was crossing last stretches of the remote road that led up to their gate.
He stomped the snow off his boots and crept back inside. He'd hoped Hannibal would still be asleep, that Will would have a chance to set up his surprise, for better or worse.
He found Hannibal standing in the middle of the kitchen instead, expression blank in that particular way of his Will knew meant an overflow of some kind of emotion. He was clutching his phone.
“Hi. You been up long?”
“I woke up an hour ago. I thought you‘d left.”
Will moved towards him, very slowly. “What do you mean: you thought I’d left?”
“I tried to call. Several times. You didn’t answer. And you didn’t leave a message.”
Will closed his eyes. If he had Hannibal’s olfactory talents, he would now be smelling the emotion overloading Hannibal’s blank expression: fear.
Will’s phone — of course. He must have had no reception in the middle of the forest, and he didn’t think to check for missed calls afterwards.
“You thought I left you.” Will said. “Three days before our first Christmas together. Because we fought. Just like that, after everything.” He laughed, wanted to shake Hannibal out of his frozen stance.
For a moment, Hannibal broke eye contact, and that was rare enough to tighten Will’s heart with a sweet ache, the same he felt when he had watched Hannibal sleep.
“Of all the dreams I have had since we fell,” Hannibal said, “the most persistent one sees you walking away from this. From us. The one I had just now seemed more vivid than all the others. And then I woke up.”
”If ever you wanted to exact your revenge for all I’ve done, this would have been the moment to do it. In the middle of this domestic complacency of happiness I find myself in.”
Will stared at him, speechless, even though there were a hundred things he wanted to say in that moment: justifications and objections and truths he felt with the unquestionable depth of certainty.
“There’s something I want to show you," he said instead. "Wait here."
Outside, he untied the ropes and pulled off the tarpaulin. He hauled the tree from the roof of the car and struggled as he dragged it to their front door, just as he had struggled to drag it through the forest after he'd cut it down.
He pulled the tree inside, through the kitchen and into the dining room, just registering the moment the blankness fell from Hannibal’s face.
He propped it in the corner with a grunt and looked up to behold it for the first time in the light.
It rose almost to the their ceiling, a splendid conical spruce with soft pale green needles and dense branches sweeping gently upward like arms held open in prayer. The scent of it warmed the room, sharp and familiar. Snow still clung to some of the branches.
Will wouldn't have been surprised if they found an owl hiding in it later. He turned to Hannibal.
“I chopped it down myself,” he said. “I could have gotten caught. Easily. After everything, after how careful we've been, and I risked it all with— with illegal logging, Hannibal. And I don't even care if you like it or not." He stepped forward and took Hannibal by the shoulders. "You thought I'd leave you. When all I want is to have this Christmas with you, with all the clichés, all the stupid traditions, I—"
He was interrupted by Hannibal's arms coming around him, drawing him in close and oh so tight. Just as well: he felt on the verge of tears.
Hannibal’s breath fell in a warm exhalation against his hair.
"It's perfect, Will. It's perfect."
Will buried his face in Hannibal's sweater. It smelled good, of Hannibal’s familiar soap and body heat.
"Why?” he muttered. “Why is that one perfect? You looked at a hundred goddamn trees today. You hated them all."
"Intent. The risk and the trouble you took tonight speak to me through this tree with more beauty than its physical shape ever could." Will peered up and saw Hannibal’s eyes, bright and smiling and fixed on the tree — their Christmas tree. "Though as it happens, it is also a very handsome spruce.”
Will breathed a laugh into the warmth of Hannibal's body. "Glad you like it. You can decorate it yourself though. I'm not helping."
Though he already knew he would help. He saw it too clearly: the lights, the ornaments, Hannibal’s cookies strung on red velvet ribbons from the branches. The two of them together sharing in the tree’s splendour and its promise of more trees and more years to come.