The house sat at the edge of the plain, the dark bulk of the taiga looming up the mountainside behind it like a wave about to break.
Inside, all was dim and quiet, dust undisturbed since the days of Brezhnev.
Will tried the faucet. “Pipes frozen?”
“Drained. I saw to it last time I was here.”
“Drained the pipes but didn't cover the furniture. Very unlike you.”
“There were no covers to be had, and it was already dusty,” Hannibal said. He moved between the dim hulks of furniture with just a shadow of familiarity, here twitching open a curtain, there lifting the lid of an old turntable and looking pleased to find the record where he'd left it.
Will went to the window and slid the curtain back gently to avoid unsettling the dust. Down in the valley, past the curve of the road, the river glinted dully under the November sky.
He turned back to find Hannibal watching him.
“I know it lacks something in glamor,” Hannibal said, “compared to Budapest, or Prague.”
“I hated Prague,” Will said.
Hannibal's breath – quite visible, even indoors – mingled with dust motes as he stepped into the shaft of watery daylight by the window.
They were quiet for a while, looking out.
“I'm...sorry,” Hannibal said at last, “that this is the best I can offer you, for now.” The request for forgiveness was tacit, as it always seemed to be these days, though not quite rhetorical.
Will tried to see through the dust or across the branching lives he might have lived to a version of himself that found anything about Hannibal unforgivable, let alone something as innocuous as a house in the wilderness. But it was all one, in the end, as that person wouldn't have been here to begin with – if, indeed, the potentiality for such a person had ever existed. Will was inclined to think it hadn't, now.
“Oh, you know me. The road less traveled is the one I tend to stumble down.”
“The Khakassian taiga is significantly less traveled than Wolf Trap.”
“Significantly better, then.”
Hannibal looked at him as if he didn't quite believe it but was interested in unpacking the particulars of the lie.
“Perhaps you're right," he said. "We'll see."
There was tackle in the cellar – usable, though the flies had been cheap thirty years ago and were now falling apart with age.
Will tried not to read too much into this as his knees ached in the icy shallows of the Abakan. It was the first time he'd fished since they fell. The body into which he'd been reborn still found new ways to surprise and vex him; there was the post-traumatic arthritis, aggravated by cold, and the pain that shot through his right deltoid as he drew back to cast.
Hannibal would be interested to hear about that one. He pored over Will's injuries with an attentiveness that never exceeded the carefully clinical, his eyes shuttered as he examined scar tissue and tested the range of joints. Withdrawing further with every touch.
There was space here to be distant from each other. The house wasn't a mansion, but it had obvious pretensions in that direction; each room seemed slightly too large for the furniture in it. Viewed from the river, it reared up incongruously at the treeline, its deep gables softened a little by the morning fog. Will was reminded suddenly of tenth-grade English; the house on the moor, great and lonely, rising above a silvery vapor; the ghost at the window, and the mad, doomed people inside.
Whether Cousin Algimas had been mad was unknowable, but he did seem to have been doomed. Hannibal had offered vagaries to this effect on the first leg of the train trip from St. Petersburg, where their latest set of cover identities had been blown by a CCTV operator who'd happened to be using a copy of Tattle Crime as a coaster.
“No one knows about the house?” Will had asked. “It's not in your name?”
“No. It still legally belongs to Algimas, a second cousin removed from the Lecters by so many degrees that no one would think to connect us again.”
“But Algimas isn't in the house?”
“Because he's dead,” Hannibal had said, stirring his sbiten delicately with a cinnamon stick and nudging the little samovar in Will's direction. “Can I tempt you?”
Will had decided to leave it at that.
Possibly Cousin Algimas had died of the cold. His baseboard heaters certainly wouldn't have saved him.
Breaths hung visible indoors until Will took the initiative and built a fire in the masonry stove. There was a strong smell of burning grass and plumes of smoke that sent him and Hannibal into a brief panic of coughing as the abandoned bird's nest in the flue burned off; then, for the first time since stepping off the train in Abaza, they were warm.
The house's previous occupant had left a little stack of firewood mouldering against the wall on the terrace. On the morning that the stove consumed the last of it, Will found Hannibal at the kitchen window, looking out into the cloistral dimness of the pine forest the way he might once have looked at a careless tailor who'd stuck him with a pin for what he'd just decided was the last time.
“Curiously, this isn't the first occasion on which I've wished that I had a chainsaw with me in the depths of a forest,” Hannibal said. “But I've found that an ax will usually do well enough.”
Will laughed at this and thought, straying back as he often did, that it would be interesting to see Hannibal use an ax for its intended purpose.
But watching Hannibal was the closest Will would come to using an ax, as it turned out; on the first swing his wrecked shoulder screamed at him and sent him staggering back into the house for painkillers. After that Hannibal put him on wheelbarrow duty.
Cutting and splitting the pines was too much work for one person, Will knew. For all his uncanny bursts of strength Hannibal was injured too, badly, the soft tissue of his feet battered to permanent tenderness, fractured vertebrae healed sloppily without proper traction. He limped out of the house in the mornings like an old man. One day, Will swore to himself, in weeks or months, he would pop a preemptive Oxycontin and make Hannibal stay indoors – in bed, even – while he went out to sweat in the cold over the chopping block.
But for now, there was little Will could do but range across the forest floor in search of dry sticks for kindling as the thud of the ax rang dully among the silent trees. The forest here was quieter than any he'd known in America; the birds and animals weren't jostled together by the encroachment of civilization, and with room to disappear they did so. Up near the ridge top he found a hunter's stand, long abandoned, and the block for a salt lick, but no hoof prints.
There wasn't much to do in the evenings besides drink and talk, and nowhere to do it but in front of the fire.
“I wouldn't have imagined your family rebelling quite so openly against the strictures of society,” Will said, trying to picture a nineteenth-century Hannibal leading insurgents in a revolutionary frenzy.
“They were only cousins,” Hannibal said demurely. “And it was almost a hundred and fifty years ago. Their particular brand of nonconformity always bubbled rather close to the surface.”
“While your side of the family kept a tight lid on the pot?”
“But you all overflowed to the same place, in the end.”
“I overflowed. They were rounded up like cattle in the spring.”
Will rolled the last of his whiskey around the bottom of his glass. “Is there really such a difference between escape and exile? We're as much prisoners as they were.”
Hannibal mulled this over for a minute. “I had hoped you wouldn't see this place as a prison.”
“Not sure what else to call a place you can't leave.”
Hannibal looked away. His face was soft in the firelight; angles gentled into curves. Will thought he might offer some less grim-sounding alternatives, but he only set his glass on the floor and leaned back into the depths of his armchair. “It isn't a prison without a jailer,” he said, “and nothing is keeping us here but an excess of caution.”
“And a lack of passports.”
Hannibal said nothing to this.
Will slept badly. Nothing about the long nights on the slope of the Sayans was conducive to rest. Wind roared up from the plain with a noise like a freight train passing endlessly. It rattled the windows, insinuated itself through every crevice and wafted down the halls as if the house was drawing long, cold breaths. The slight over-largeness of every room seemed to swell in the darkness, dwarfing the furniture even more; it drank greedily at the heat from the stove and left little for the house's human inhabitants. Dawn came slowly.
The nights loomed over Will as they hadn't since that first fall he'd known Hannibal, when his brain had created its own darkness. Here, the dark was external and self-sustaining and lingered a little later every morning.
He lay under the faded starburst quilt – pre-Soviet – on the sagging mattress – Soviet, most definitely – and wandered the halls of his thoughts. They were warmer than his surroundings; the rooms smaller, the shadows less complete. Outside, his stream was slower than the Abakan, though it had taken on some of its clarity. He could see right to the bottom, if he looked. Nothing left in the depths to surprise him.
Sometimes he would jolt out of a half-doze to the creak of a floorboard as Hannibal prowled around the house, tending the fire and running the faucets. He didn't seem to sleep much either. Once or twice a night his shadow paused silently at Will's open door; then Will would strain against the dark and the wind for a long moment to catch some detail of his face or the sound of his breathing, knowing that Hannibal was doing the same. He always seemed to find what he wanted and vanish again before Will could reciprocate the little touch of awareness. For Hannibal, smell was probably enough.
There was a certain recipe for fire which they'd been unable, in their extremity, to follow.
Fresh pinewood wasn't quite dead, Will found, and like all living things it didn't want to burn. It wouldn't catch a spark. It smoked bitterly. When thrown on a bed of hot coals it painted the inside of the stove black with creosote. It ate matches and drank lighter fluid like it was trying to grow again.
Will got accustomed to sitting painfully on his haunches in front of the stove and saying “fuck” a lot.
“Fire,” said Hannibal, watching from an armchair, “has been man's helpmeet since he first learned to tame it. Older than the dog, and far less constant, with a sharper bite. It needs caging, but it also needs – ”
“What it needs is a fucking propane torch,” Will said. “Put one on the shopping list, okay?”
One morning in the early days of December, Hannibal came back inside from scenting the weather with a purposefulness that was easy to interpret.
"We must go today, if we go at all," he said. "I only hope we haven't already delayed too long."
Outside, the smell of snow was so heavy in the air that even Will found it oppressive. It prodded at instincts buried deep under generations of soft living with roots wound into the animal core of him, whispering hurry, hurry. They hurried.
It was half a day's drive to Abaza. Most of it passed in silence. Will watched Hannibal's hands on the gearshift, the steering wheel. The road was narrow and tangled, like a skein of yarn tossed unthinkingly across the Sayans, and Hannibal's grip lacked its usual effortless solidity. After the car heater had sputtered along for a while, he held out one hand and then the other for Will to tug his gloves off and Will noted with a jolt of surprise that they were damp with sweat.
He couldn't quite believe that a mountain road would leave Hannibal like this, tense and sweaty-palmed – Hannibal, whose pulse beat out a steady metronome-tick behind the music of his own life, the sweet stanzas and the harsh, all subtly pleasing to his ear. His discomfort was discomforting. Will's inability to suss out its cause was even worse. There in the front seat of the ancient Lada he felt the nightly darkness pressing in on him – the blindness. Hannibal only a shadow shifting at the edges of his vision.
Rebirth was a funny thing. In the past months Will had found himself searching for suggestions that it had all been inevitable, the fall and what came after; that their lives continued to unfold in accordance with the same laws as the rest of physical reality. Sometimes, looking back, he saw himself and Hannibal on the cliff as a singularity; the whole of existence together in a point of white-hot nothingness. By this logic, his act had been one of creation. The universe had been reborn with them on the waves of the Atlantic, and had rushed out from itself on the receding tide; it was inevitable, then, that they would be carried away from each other, like everything else in the inexorable swell of the cosmos.
Already Hannibal was fading in the distance. Soon his light would redshift beyond visibility and Will would be alone again in the star-speckled dark. The idea carried a sweet, sad ache; but at least it was lovely in its clarity. Less bearable was the notion that nothing had an explanation. That the trajectory of their new lives was random, and there was no one reason why he couldn't understand the fear radiating from Hannibal in the seat next to him.
With this thought Will realized he was wringing Hannibal's gloves like the neck of a bird, and they were in Abaza.
“You might put your hood up, if you aren't too warm,” Hannibal said. He'd parked outside a liquor store.
Will blinked back the distress he'd been steeping in. “Priorities,” he said.
“Precisely. Any particular requests?”
“You know what I like better than I do. Reds over whites.”
Hannibal was busy with the clothes they'd brought. He put on one of Cousin Algimas's uniquely hideous ushankas and tied the ear flaps down around his chin, then augmented it with a lime green scarf. Will motioned for him to pull the scarf a little further over his face. “Tawdry beyond any chance of recognition,” Will said.
Hannibal lingered before getting out of the car. “May I?” he said, after a moment.
It took Will a beat to realize what his outstretched hand meant.
“Of course,” he said, and let Hannibal very gently remove his glasses and settle them on his own nose. “Try not to walk into any walls.”
“It will be fascinating to see the world through your eyes for a while,” Hannibal said, going a little cross-eyed in his attempts to focus.
“That's a nice way of putting it.”
Hannibal fussed with his scarf, stalling. “I'll be ten minutes at the most. Please be here when I get back.”
The request prickled something at the back of Will's thoughts. “Where else would I go?” he asked, quite genuinely.
“Anywhere,” Hannibal said, “though I'd certainly prefer that you wouldn't.”
The wind was thick with little scouring snowflakes by the time they hauled their purchases from the car to the house. Great sacks of wheat and rice and sugar and salt; apples and potatoes and beets straining against overfilled plastic bags; Moldovan champagne and sweet red wine from the Caucasus; down parkas, work gloves lined in shearling, and an auger the length of a man's leg to bore open the Abakan and get at its fish. Enough for a winter, though Hannibal would undoubtedly be chafing under the lack of perishables before the road to Abaza was passable again.
But for now, he looked unusually happy for someone carrying bags of root vegetables through the snow. His spirits seemed to have risen as their bundle of cash dwindled and the drive back hadn't rattled him, though the snow made it doubly treacherous.
Will held the door for Hannibal and peered into his face – the only face he'd see for the next four months, or longer. An abundance of long nights to lose him in.
Winter came in earnest after that first storm.
The cold had been fierce before, but now it had teeth. It turned Will's face red and left ice in his beard when he went out to get firewood. The stove was ravenous. Its hinges squeaked four times a night as Hannibal fed it.
Despite his best efforts, the nights had become nearly unbearable. Will packed towels around his window frame, and closed the curtains, and cold air still drifted over his bed in waves. He took to sleeping in layers of wool and fleece, but even so, the heat leeched inexorably out of his extremities by morning. Under two pairs of socks his feet never quite warmed up.
On blizzard nights, sleep was impossible. The windowpanes rattled, the walls groaned, and Will was haunted by the feeling of phantom snowflakes stinging his cheeks. He pulled the quilt up over his head and his knees to his chest and curled into himself like a child. In a minute or two, when the air became stale, he was forced to breach the cocoon again and cold poured in as cutting as ever.
And then that creak in the hallway, again.
Perhaps he had been drowsing a little, because he was out of bed, scooping up pillows and blankets in a brimming armful, before quite realizing what he meant to do.
Hannibal's shadow drew back like a spooked animal as Will stumbled out into the hall.
“Will?” He sounded satisfyingly nonplussed. “What are you doing?”
“Making it easier for you to watch me sleep,” said Will. “Come on.”
The fire was roaring yellow; Hannibal must have just added wood. Will dropped the blankets in the armchair on the right – his, tacitly – then, after a moment's consideration, moved them to the floor, knowing he'd end up there anyway once his neck cricked and his sacrum began to ache.
“I'm sure there are enough restless spirits wandering around here every night to adequately haunt the place without your assistance,” Will said, looking up at Hannibal where he lingered in the doorway and holding his gaze for a second. “Let them do their jobs in peace for a while?”
Will laid down in his blanket heap without waiting for a response. The floor was harder than he'd expected. By the time he'd acquainted himself with the way his shoulder blades intersected the floorboards, Hannibal's carpet slippers were under the second armchair and his bare feet propped on the hearth.
“They aren't much in the way of conversationalists, anyway,” Hannibal said at last, from above.
“I can't quite believe in you believing in ghosts, after all this.”
“Not the ghost of Cousin Algimas, that's for certain.”
His ankle was within arm's reach. A half-formed impulse to extend his arm and touch it washed over Will, slow and warm as the heat from the stove, but he couldn't quite conceive of how that would feel, or what he'd do afterward. If he was going to start touching Hannibal in the thrall of such warmth, his ankle probably wasn't the best place to start, Will decided.
“Which do you prefer – the knowledge that we're all alone out here, or the uneasy feeling that we might not be?” he asked instead, not too coherently.
“We're not alone out here any more than we are haunted.”
Will was warm now, through and through; too warm, even. But to shift away from the stove seemed insurmountably arduous. His heart beat anxiously against the stupor of heat and sleep.
“The way you say that has a ring of literalism to it.”
“As it should. Deep in the taiga there is no one to uphold the barrier between the literal and the fantastic. The woods turn living humans into players in a fairy tale.”
“Tell me,” Will said.
Hannibal stretched out a foot to the stove, turning it back and forth to warm it in the dancing orange light.
“Once upon a time,” he said, “a man was in mortal danger, pursued by those who thought him evil. So he took his family and fled with them, and fled again, until they were deep in the taiga above Abakanas, in a spot where human feet had never before trod. And there they made a home out of mud and sticks. Wolves stalked outside its walls and wind blew through the cracks each endless winter and their bellies were empty more often than full, but they lived, for their only true enemy was man, and they thought man would never find them.
“Years slipped by without number and they began to forget that a world outside their fairytale existed. They themselves had changed almost beyond recognition. The man's children spoke to each other in voices like the cooing of birds and had never seen a city, or a car, or even a human outside their own family. Nor did they want to.”
“What happened when they were discovered?” Will asked, half asleep.
“What makes you so certain they ever were?”
“Because you're telling me about them. Go on.”
There was a sniff that might have been Hannibal stifling a laugh before he schooled himself back into seriousness.
“They were found by a team of geologists. This was long after the Bolshevik purges and they were no longer in any danger. But they refused to rejoin the outside world. It had been too long since they'd known anything but the taiga and each other.”
“They're still out here?”
“Just one. Agafia. The youngest daughter. She survived her family and lives much as she's always done, but alone.”
The room seemed thick with firelight and Hannibal's voice. It was too much, suddenly; Will wanted to go outside and feel the air, check for stars in the shifting gaps between clouds, but he felt pinned to the hearth. The desire to move got lost halfway to his muscles.
“We should invite her over for dinner sometime,” he said, breathless.
The springs of the armchair creaked and he felt Hannibal watching him.
“Do you really want to have guests?” Hannibal asked finally. “Or do you prefer our privacy?”
The storm had quieted, Will noted distantly. He couldn't get his voice above a whisper but it seemed deafening in his own ears.
“I don't know,” he said. “I don't know.”
Will kept Cousin Algimas's little Cosmos radio on the arm of his chair and listened to it, sometimes. He didn't know enough Russian even to follow a weather forecast, and the music was mostly unfamiliar, but it touched some growing need to confirm the existence of voices other than Hannibal's.
One day, Will found with surprise and an unexpected flare of homesickness, the voice was Bing Crosby's, and the music was very familiar.
“Should we cut a tree?” Hannibal asked from within a plume of steam by the range.
“We cut trees every day,” said Will. “I think not cutting any would contribute more to the holiday atmosphere.”
“Candles in the window, then?”
“Carols on the Cosmos.”
Hannibal pursed his lips over the onions he had begun to dice; they were canned, and insufficiently recherché to draw the attention of anyone who might be hoping to catch him the same way twice.
“Dressing for dinner would also contribute something,” he said, not looking up from the offending vegetables. “I can scarcely remember the last time I was fit to be seen at the table.”
Will smiled at the idea of Hannibal ever looking unfit to preside over a dinner table – even at his most disheveled, his strangest, his most or least human, it was his kingdom to rule – but then he caught Hannibal's gaze, sudden and sharp through the steam and the smell of lemon and dill, and knew, with a flash of cathartic synchronicity, that today was to be the day.
“I'm much worse,” Will said. His voice sounded quite normal, though he felt anticipation building in his chest like a scream. “Let me go get the dirt out from under my nails.”
Only one bath in the house was fit to use, across the hall from Hannibal's room. Hannibal sat at the end of his bed, waiting his turn, and watched Will through the doorway as he brushed and flossed, combed his hair and trimmed his beard. It reminded Will of how he'd sometimes watched Molly put on makeup, on the rare occasions she'd bothered with it; her hair would keep falling into her face and she'd swat it away angrily until Will offered her a hair tie, laughing.
There was no laughter in the way Hannibal watched. Will felt his gaze warm and heavy; not lustful, exactly, but intent – and, one would think, content. He didn't try to touch; never had, since the time Will had told him goodbye and sent him on his way.
Will wished he would. Wished it with a sudden certainty like a weight pressing down on his sternum. It was solid and he clung to it. The prospect of certainty was almost as appealing as the prospect of touch; they were tied up in each other, the touching and the knowing, as they had been on the cliff, though he couldn't have said which would come first.
Heart beating high in his throat, Will went into his room – little-used now, the derelict mattress hauled downstairs in front of the fire – to change. He hadn't worn a suit or any part of one since St. Petersburg. The row of jackets in his closet had gone rather native; they shed moth wings and a light flurry of dust as he rifled through them.
It wasn't until he'd taken one from its hanger – dark gray wool, his warmest and least formal – that he noticed what was directly behind it.
A section of clapboard paneling at the back of the closet seemed to have come loose. One of the boards protruded from the wall slightly, like a door ajar.
Will got his nails under the edge and pulled.
The piece of board came away in his hand.
Where the the board had been, there was now a dark space like a mailbox sunk into the wall. Will had known what he was about to find since the moment he'd seen the loose board but he reached in anyway, for confirmation, feeling blindly until he felt what he was looking for pressed against the back.
Three manilla envelopes. Inside, three bundles of security-printed papers. Three red Russian passports.
Will flipped through two of them to note his face and Hannibal's. The third he replaced gently in its envelope without opening. In another universe.
He stood for a long time in the musty quiet, staring down at the passports in his hands, the warm sense of certainty from earlier cracking and hardening like clay in a too-hot kiln.
At last he bent to pick up his jacket where he'd dropped it. By the time he'd put it on and brushed off the worst of the dust, the feeling had crystallized to a decision, in shards.
He slipped one of the passports into his jacket pocket.