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.
Chapter 7: "Bell the Cat"
For #ItsStillBeautiful. Special thanks to tumblr user anti-chambre for help with the French.
"Well?" Hannibal took the chair across from Will's, the one with matching clawed feet. Even in their hideaway in the Portes du Soleil, there was no escape from claw-footedness. Hannibal looked at the gift box perched on Will's lap. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Will had yet to learn the nature of the occasion. Containing his misgivings, he opened the box. When its contents became visible, he failed to contain his disbelief.
"You want me to wear a collar," he said.
Hannibal sat primly, hands folded. "It's yours to do with as you wish. I had thought you might put it on me."
"And you thought this...why?"
"It's a testimonial. A symbol of my decision to place myself in your keeping, much like one of your strays."
Will's eyes narrowed. "You're not a dog, Hannibal." He didn't say because all dogs go to heaven, and neither of us is headed that way. "You're never going to be a dog."
"I could be, if you asked me to. I have a knack for charades." When Will's stare continued full bore, Hannibal met it with a soulful gaze and an even more soulful "woof." Or maybe it was a wouaff, à la française.
Will held up the collar, fiddled with buckle and strap. The brown leather was pliant in his hands, soft on the side that would lie against skin. He pretended to reconsider it.
"Could get you a nice ID tag to go with. In the shape of a bone. Or a human skull. Monogrammed R-I-P-P-E-R--"
"Will," said Hannibal.
"What, did you have something else in mind?"
"I had in mind that you might acknowledge with a greater degree of honesty the control you wield over me and my life." He was beginning to sound peevishly aggrieved.
Will lowered his arms. "I have as much control over you as Siegfried and Roy did over the tiger that ended their stage show by puncturing Roy's carotid artery. And that's what you'd be if I put this on you. Not my dog. A big cat that likes to accessorize." He tossed the collar back into the box. "And maul people."
A silence fell. The fire sputtered in the hearth. Hannibal sat with eyes downcast. His lower lip moved faintly, as if he meant it to quiver, but had never quite mastered the trick. This continued--at length--until Will sighed, picked up the collar, and flipped his glance upward as if to pray for strength, despite awareness that no help would be coming from that direction. He rose from the chair.
It took some doing to get the collar fastened around Hannibal's neck, neither too loose nor too tight. Hannibal held breathlessly still. When it was done Will took a backward step to survey the result.
Hannibal raised his hand to touch the leather at his throat, like an ingénue dazzled by her own finery. It deserved another eye-roll, but Will found he didn't have it in him.
"All right," he said, "now what."
"Now, perhaps you might like to tell me what to do," said Hannibal, eyes bright, "and I would do it."
"Anything you ask."
Will didn't have to chew on that for long. "Okay," he said, "quit murdering. For good. Quit encouraging other people to murder. That includes me. No mauling, either."
Hannibal clutched his collar as if it were a string of pearls. The aggrieved look was back. Will could picture the lashing tail behind him. He thought: if he hollers let him go, eeny meeny miny--
"That's a list of prohibitions," said Hannibal. "I was under the impression animals respond best to positive training. Positive reinforcement."
"Much like humans," said Will, under his breath.
Hannibal sat back, chin lifted, pointedly averting his gaze. Luckily for him, the claw-footed chairs were roomy. Will stepped forward, between Hannibal's knees. Leaning in, he hooked one finger around the collar--he'd have done as much with a paisley tie--and slung himself across Hannibal's thighs, against his chest.
"You're a little too big to be a lap cat," he said.
"Mais je ronronnerais pour toi si tu t'assois sur mes genoux," murmured Hannibal.
"Big cats don't purr. They chuff."
Will huffed a laugh--or chuffed it--against Hannibal's neck, nose to leather. He wondered whether the collar would fit him as snugly as it did Hannibal. He had a feeling it would. Might as well get the extra use out of it.
"All right, purring's allowed." He petted Hannibal's head and watched his eyes thin to contented slits. He could almost hear the ronronnement. "Purr all you want."
"Dieu merci," Hannibal said.
Chapter 8: "Worser Living Through Pheromones"
More or less "Au Jus (The Omega/Omega Remix)," for the anon who asked what would happen if both Hannibal and Will were omegas. :3
Will opened the door, expecting Jack--but it wasn't Jack. A deposition, Dr. Lecter explained. He took one look and one sniff at Will's disheveled state. Concern sobered his face. He asked to come in to the room.
Will shuffled back to let him enter, grateful in spite of himself for the arrival of a doctor, any doctor, even one who'd tried to ogle the cleavage of his brain. At least Dr. Lecter wouldn't start slavering over a whiff of him. Will clutched at the hem of the t-shirt in which he'd slept. Its back and armpits were soaked.
"I don't know why this is happening." He paced the dim span of the room from wall to bed. "I took my suppressants. Same as always."
"Are you taking Vitexa?"
"There's been a recall. You may have received an ineffective batch."
Will sank onto the bed. "Shit," he said.
The room felt close, the air stifling. His mind was slowing already, turning sluggish and dopey with the oncoming haze. He was too far gone for a belated dose of anything to halt it, short of knocking him unconscious. He dragged a damp palm over his mouth and chin.
Dr. Lecter stood watching, not without sympathy. "How long has it been since your last--"
"Years," grated Will.
"I see." Dr. Lecter paused. "I imagine you're aware of this, but your heat may be of unusual intensity or duration."
Will's throat felt too raw for laughter, even the despairing kind. "Yeah, I'm aware."
"Will." The doctor's voice gentled, shed its clinical edge. "There's no need to be distraught. I can help you, if you want me to."
"Help with what?" Two days of unsated agony, or dialing up a stranger to fuck Will in the ass? He hunched in on himself. He swallowed against the tightness of his jaw. "I need an alpha."
"You don't need an alpha," said Dr. Lecter. "You have me."
The vial from Dr. Lecter's satchel was small, made of brown glass, like something from an antique apothecary. It bore no label. Dr. Lecter inserted the applicator, brought it to Will's nose, and dabbed it just under Will's nostrils, on his philtrum. Wet coolness clung to Will's skin. The scent of musk was almost too faint to detect.
"While I enjoy sharing heats on occasion, dependence on an alpha is inconvenient," the doctor said. "I've been managing my own heats with this for some time." He displayed the bottle to Will. "A suspension containing isolated pheromones, blended with fragrance."
Will stared down at his hand as it drew away. Dr. Lecter returned the vial to his bag. He sat beside Will on the foot of the bed, collected in his jacket and trousers next to Will's sweaty disarray. Will's legs had slumped open of their own accord. His breath came in shallow pants.
"Self-stimulation on its own fails as a palliative because without the presence of alpha pheromones, the body knows it is alone," said Dr. Lecter. "We must convince your body there is an alpha in the room. Responding to your heat. Take a deep breath, now. In and out."
Will shut his eyes and breathed.
"And another." When Will obeyed, Dr. Lecter said, "Very good. You should feel the effects very soon."
The pheromones themselves worked beneath conscious detection, seeping into the substrate of his brain, but the hair on Will's arms and nape began to rise. His flush deepened, even as the strain of panic eased. His body began to open, dripping slick to welcome the alpha it perceived to be there.
There was no alpha. There was only Dr. Lecter, sitting at his side, eyes warm as they rested on Will. Warm with congenial understanding.
Will managed a nod. He'd forgotten this part, in the intervening years: the need for closeness, for touch, to press his body tightly to another's. The way that craving swamped and swallowed everything else. Before he knew it he was leaning into Dr. Lecter, pitching toward him like a capsized boat. The contact felt solid. It felt good. Will bit back a thin sound and hung his head.
Dr. Lecter's arm slid around him, assuring and warm. "We'll need to repeat the application," he said, "but there's no fear of running out. I have a good supply."
"You don't have to stay," rasped Will. His forehead sank to Dr. Lecter's shoulder.
"But I'd like to," came the answer, low, and Will had no defense for that. Dr. Lecter tipped his head down to meet Will's. Their foreheads nudged together. His palm slid up Will's back and paused there, on the sweat-damp collar of Will's shirt. His voice softened further. "Would you like me to put my hand on your neck?"
Later, as they lay curled in a nest of bedclothes and cushions, Will roused from his daze enough to ask, "Where'd you get that stuff?"
"It's not available on the mass market," said Hannibal, still stroking his hair. "Difficulties with production on a large scale. And the pharmaceutical lobby has an interest in the status quo. I make my own supply myself."
Will stretched his legs under the covers. He wound them against Hannibal's, still bemused by how comfortably they fit. He'd forgotten this part, too: the sleepy aftermath, the sweet and easy drift when it was good. Or maybe that was new. Maybe no alpha had ever brought him this.
"That's some home brew," he said.
Chapter 9: "Friendship is Magic"
Abigail/Marissa for #EatTheRare
Something tapped at the glass of the motel window. The sound was small, but Abigail flinched. She sat up on the bed.
She went to the window and pulled one curtain gingerly aside. A pale face loomed in the darkness, nose pressed to the glass. Pale fingers twiddled at her in a playful wave.
Blinking, Abigail went to the door to let Marissa in.
Marissa wore leggings and a Hollister hoodie, ponytailed hair, no makeup. As if she were in for the night. A tote bag was slung from her shoulder. Her knuckles curled into her sleeves. Abigail closed the door behind her.
"Don't tell me your mom changed her mind,” she said.
"Are you kidding?" Marissa sat down on the end of the bed, bag slumped against her hip. "I'm grounded for a week."
Abigail sat down beside her. Their knees tilted toward one another. "For a minute I thought you were that guy again. The one you threw rocks at."
Marissa stared. "Is he following you? Did he come back?"
"Creeper." Marissa dug into her bag and pulled out two mini bottles of Captain Morgan. "Does this place have a Coke machine?"
"Probably by the lobby."
"I'll go get some. Didn't have a chance to raid the fridge when I was sneaking out. I brought my iPad if you want to watch our heroes save Equestria from Discord."
"Not sure I'm in the mood," said Abigail, but she managed a wan smile.
"I get that." Marissa opened one of the mini bottles. She took a swig from it, winced, and screwed the top back on. "Needs Coke."
"Your mom thinks I did it," Abigail said. "That I helped my dad."
"I doubt she gives a shit what actually happened one way or the other. She just doesn't want our family mixed up in it. Any of it."
"You still think I didn't do it?"
Marissa leaned back, bracing her weight on her palms. "Keep asking like that and I might start to wonder," she said. But she didn't seem fazed. "Even if you did, it was because your dad made you, right?"
Abigail thought about that, about the two meanings of made. To be forced, and to be shaped. Brought into being. A thin pain flashed through the scar on her neck.
"I mean, I'd do what my mom said if I thought she might kill me and eat me." Marissa shrugged her hair over her shoulder. Her face was deadpan, as if grousing about getting eaten by your parents were a standard part of the teenage script. "I sure wouldn't call her a bitch to her face."
Abigail stared, and then spewed something out, something that felt like a laugh. It made her throat hurt again, worse this time, as if her body had forgotten how to do it. Or maybe she couldn't laugh anymore without opening the cut.
The knock at the door startled them both. Dr. Lecter's voice sounded, muffled.
"Abigail? Is everything all right? Is someone else in there?"
His tone suggested he already knew the answer to the latter. Abigail raised her voice to call out. "Everything's fine."
"Open the door, please."
Abigail glanced at Marissa, who wrinkled her nose. She went to let Dr. Lecter in. He stepped into the room, regarding Marissa with bland disapproval.
"Miss Schurr, was it? Does your family know you're here?"
"Is that any of your business?" Before Dr. Lecter could do more than open his mouth, Marissa added, "I didn't want Abigail to be by herself. She should have someone with her."
"Of course," said Dr. Lecter. "Will and I--"
"A friend," said Marissa, with radiant scorn. Dr. Lecter looked at her as he might have at a cur on the street that had lifted its leg on his shoe.
Feeling faint, Abigail fled to the bed to sink beside Marissa. Her hand fell onto Marissa's hand and clutched.
When Dr. Lecter spoke again, he sounded chiding, almost amused. "Miss Schurr, we really can't have you here against the wishes of your parents. Come. I'll be happy to drive you home."
Marissa ignored him and looked at Abigail. Looking for direction. What do you want, Abigail, her eyes said. Her hand stayed right where it was on the bed. Her thumb curled over Abigail's little finger.
Abigail tightened her grip. Terror surged, threatening to stifle her--what if Marissa left, what if Marissa got into a car with Dr. Lecter--but she swallowed around it.
She wanted to be done with being made.
"We'll call her mom and make sure it's okay," Abigail said. "I'll ask her. She won't say no if I ask. You have your phone, right?" At Marissa's nod Abigail turned back to Dr. Lecter, widening her eyes. She let her lower lip tremble. It wasn't hard: the fear was real.
"Please," she said. "I don't want to be alone."
Chapter 10: "Havana"
A bit of S4 in Cuba for #HannibaLibre.
There were a great many dogs, both in and around the city.
There were so many that one could not stop the car for every stray on the road. One might stop for the first, perhaps the second, but within a quarter mile another would appear, then another and another. All of them thin, some skeletal, ridden with ticks and mange. Too many for one car, for one house, however spacious. For one man, or two together.
A chorus of barking greeted visitors to 128 Principe in Centro. The man in the linen suit seemed unfazed by the noise. He took off his hat, baring sandy hair gone to grey, but didn't remove his sunglasses. He'd come alone, without calling ahead. Lora led him to the courtyard to observe the dogs. He made no attempt to pet them.
"Are you looking to adopt?" Lora asked. She extended a hand, and a cheerful beagle mix came bounding up. "This is Molly. She's a sweet girl. Aren't you, cariño? Qué linda!"
The man stared down at Molly's wriggling. Lora couldn't see his eyes behind the mirrored glasses, but his mouth had thinned.
"Not at the moment," he said. The accent was continental. His attention returned to the rest of the gamboling dogs. "You house sixteen here. On the streets there are thousands."
"It's a sad reality that not every animal is a good candidate for adoption," said Lora. "We do what we can with what we have."
The man nodded in understanding. He asked if he might speak with the director.
"The director is me," Lora said.
They sat in Lora's narrow office, facing one another across the desk.
"I have an interest in reducing the population of homeless animals. Humanely." The man's voice held a faint note of rue. "Tell me what you would need to redouble your efforts."
"A vehicle to use as a mobile clinic," said Lora, without hesitation. "More staff. Veterinary staff, to perform sterilizations. More space. Medical supplies. Food, bedding."
Drawing out his wallet, the man produced a cashier's check issued by Banco Nacional. He slid it smoothly across the desk.
"Begin with that, for now. Draw up a budget and present it to me next week. I'll call on you here. No acknowledgements, please. I'd prefer to remain anonymous."
Lora picked up the check. She stared at the sum. She held it with both hands, thumbs tightening, trying to impress its reality upon her skin. "You must care for animals very much."
His lips moved in the flat likeness of a smile. He stood up and donned his hat.
"Only by proxy," he said.
He found Will in the garden behind the villa, working with Tia, one of the new arrivals. Training her to take food gently from his hand. She was wary still, mistrustful, inclined to greet the world with raised hackles and to bare her teeth if Hannibal got too close. Will had deduced, dry-voiced, that she'd been treated very badly in the past.
"Where've you been?" he asked, when Hannibal lingered on the terrace, hat in hand.
"Into the city. An errand."
Will's glance flickered, more turbid grey than blue. "Do I want to know?"
"One day, perhaps," said Hannibal. "I hope so."
Chapter 11: The Black Stag
The beginnings of a fairy tale. Written for Hannictober 2016.
There was an old fisherman who lived with his son on the edge of a lake. The lake was stream-fed, full of pike and sunfish and trout. The fisherman had a little boat, which he and his son took out on the lake, and sometimes his son would fish the stream. They sold all the best of what they caught, but even so, their house was small and rickety and dim, and they had little in the way of money or clothing.
One autumn evening, as the fisherman sat outside the house, mending his nets, a great black stag came out of the woods and approached him.
"Good evening, Mr. Graham," said the black stag.
"Evenin'," said the fisherman. He paused, then peered down at the flask by his boot. When he peered up again, the stag was still a stag.
As stags went, it was big—more of an elk than a deer—and there was something not quite right about it. The feathers, for one thing. The talking, for another. Before the fisherman could make up his mind that he'd misheard, the stag spoke again.
"I’ve come to propose an exchange,” it said. "If you will give me your youngest child, I will see to it that you want for nothing."
The fisherman went on squinting. "Only got one boy," he said at last. "Don't want for much as it is." He hawked and spat.
"Your wife," said the stag, "who is lost to you. She could be returned."
That set the fisherman back a pace. He hooked his thumbs in the strands of the net. "My boy for my wife, is that it?"
The stag lifted his crowned head. "If you agree, you have my word that you, and she, and your son will want for nothing."
The fisherman mulled. The boy was old enough and more. Prospects were scarce, beyond whatever passing interest a dark head of curls and a pair of wide eyes could snare. His mother's eyes, those were. Color of the river, or the lake on a cloudy day. Not one color but a dozen, none of which added up to only grey or only blue.
The fisherman hadn’t thought to see those eyes again, not in this world, except in his son's face.
He thought of the way his wife's toes had tilted as she stepped up to greet him on the dock. The way she'd smiled. Thought of the way heads turned to watch Will at the market--high society folks, ladies and gentlemen--only to turn their noses at the smell of fish.
Maybe it was no surprise a stag, too, might turn his head. Maybe a stag wouldn't be any worse a choice than a lady or a gentleman, if he didn't turn away.
"I need to talk to Willy," the fisherman said. "You come back in a couple days, and we'll see."
"What do you mean, a stag," said Will. He put down the shirt he'd been trying to mend and stared at his dad across the kitchen table.
It took some explaining. When his dad had gotten out the gist, Will rose from his chair. He grabbed the flask from his dad's wavering hand. He tossed it into a kitchen drawer, in with the wooden spoon and ladle, and shut the drawer.
"How can a stag bring Mom back?" he asked. His voice caught on the ache in his chest. He barely remembered his mother, had been too young to know her as anything more than a warm, sweet-smelling presence before she'd disappeared.
"Got me there," said his dad. He scratched the grizzle on his chin. "How can a stag talk? This one did. Stands to reason he’s more’n just a twelve-point rack."
"You were looking at his rack?"
"Hard to miss it."
Will scrubbed his face with his palms. He'd have to find the bottle and confiscate it. More than likely it was hidden on the boat.
"Fine," he said. "If Mr. Twelve Point shows up again, come and get me. I'll talk to him myself."
The trees were turning, changing their coats of green for gold. The day was bright, neither warm nor cool. A wind came up in fitful gusts, ruffling the lake. Will sat at the kitchen table, working on a lure.
"Willy?" called his dad from the front porch. "He's here."
"Who is," said Will, coming to the door, and then he saw the stag.
It stood under the turning maples, in the dappled light, poised with one hoof raised. Its black crest flared and gleamed. Then it dipped its antlered head and bent its forelegs, making a little curtsy or bow.
The bow was for himself, Will understood. Not for his dad. It was more stately than the play-bow of a dog, but the sense of it struck Will as not so different. An invitation. He stared, and went on staring.
He hadn't believed, of course. He had to believe now.
"Hello, Will," said the stag. "Your father tells me you wish to speak with me." The voice was like a man's, deep and resonant. A man from somewhere very far away.
Feeling he'd strayed into a dream, Will stepped down from the threshold and onto the grass. He extended his hand as he approached the stag, palm flat and facing upward. The dark muzzle bent. It didn't touch, but Will felt hot breath on his skin. The stag gazed at him with strange eyes, liquid and maroon, then fell into step at Will's side.
They walked a little way into the woods. The leaves were golden all around. Their rustling sounded restless to Will’s ears, like they were ready to be gone.
"Who are you?" asked Will. He looked the stag up and down, from tines to tail. "More to the point, what are you?"
"Come away with me," said the stag, "and learn for yourself."
"You told my dad you could bring back my mom."
"I can and I will, if you’ll agree to come with me."
"How do we know that’s true?"
"You don't. You have only my word, to trust or mistrust as you please."
"It doesn't please me to mistrust," said Will.
"Then it's a good thing I keep my promises," said the stag.
They stopped on a rise overlooking the lake. The water glittered through the trees. Will pictured his dad going out alone in the boat to fish, coming back to the woman whose loss had hollowed him for as long as Will could remember. Maybe she'd be better at confiscating bottles than Will was. Maybe there'd be no need for bottles anymore.
He turned back to the stag. "Why me?"
The stag seemed to smile with his strange eyes. "I've seen you, fishing in your stream. You feel at ease in the waters and the wild, perhaps more than in the houses of men. I believe we could come to understand each other." When Will made no reply, the stag said, "I've brought you something. A small gift. Reach into my ruff."
The feathers on the stag's neck were sleek with iridescence. They moved like breathing gills. Will stepped close and slid his hands beneath them. His fingers met a small pouch made of skin.
He drew out the pouch and opened it, then laughed aloud. "How does an elk make roasted chestnuts?" he asked.
"Come with me," said the stag, "and find out."
Will drew one of the chestnuts from the pouch. He rolled it like a die in his palm.
"All right," he said. "Let me go tell my dad."