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They came to the cabin in the spring.

The reasoning was that the authorities would expect them to head south, to Mexico or even South America; or east, across the Atlantic, to Hannibal's old stomping grounds. No one would expect them to make for the frozen north, much less to a cabin in the Northwestern Territories. Why did Hannibal even own such a cabin?

"You never know," was Hannibal's reply, when Will asked.

But unlike the rest of the safehouses they stayed at, this cabin on the Mackenzie River had mouse droppings on the floor, an unsound roof, and minimal provisions. Hannibal had foreseen this, and that was why they'd waited until spring--make that late spring, almost summer. It gave them time to recover from their injuries as well, though Will would never regain full motion of his arm, no matter how much grueling physical therapy Hannibal put him through, and Hannibal himself no longer had his old stamina.

"But between the two of us, we're one whole person," Will said. Hannibal almost smiled.

They got to know their neighbors very well--the closest one was over a mile away--and John, the owner of the hardware store in Fort Simpson. Will let Hannibal be the sociable one; Hannibal enjoyed it, and he was the less recognizable one besides, with his beard and hair grown long and streaked with gray. Will was self-conscious about the jagged scar that his beard refused to grow over. It rendered him more memorable than he'd like, though they stared less here than they had in Vermont or New Brunswick.

-----

"We'll need dogs," Hannibal said.

"We don't have time to train them," Will said.

"We don't have the luxury of not having dogs," said Hannibal. "What if the snowmobile should fail? What if we need more ammunition? How would we buy more?"

"We'd ski into town," Will said, and then, "let's look around."

They cobbled together a team: Lefty and Pancho, who'd been rejected from a Iditarod team for being too lazy; Minnie, who pulled like a champ but was a little smaller than ideal; Churchill, another competition castoff who'd been deemed too aggressive; One-Eye, whose name was self-explanatory; and Rocket, who'd been charitably described as "not the brightest bulb in the box." They were a motley crew, not a purebred husky or malamute among them, but purebred didn't translate to the best pullers. Any competitive dogsled racer knew that, and so did Will. Besides, he wasn't here for the racing anyway.

-----

Will returned from another training run with the dogs to find Hannibal outside, splitting logs. To Will's knowledge, all their wood was already split, and drying nicely in the woodshed.

"Charlotte brought it," Hannibal said by way of greeting, once Will was far enough away from the dogs that he could actually hear anything. "I think she's worried about us."

"I think she has a crush on you," Will answered.

"Are you sure it's not you?"

"No, otherwise she would have brought the wood when I was home," Will said. "She should have stayed. Splitting wood is a good look on you." Hannibal had the sleeves of his red flannel rolled up, revealing strong and muscular forearms, and his shirt partway unbuttoned as well. He had his hair gathered back in a loose bun at the nape of his neck. He hadn't cut it since the cliff. Will had said he liked Hannibal's hair longer.

"Are you going to help?" Hannibal asked.

Will picked up the pieces of the log that Hannibal had just split and put them in the pile. He placed another whole log on the block. "This wood won't dry before winter."

"It may be ready by late winter," Hannibal said. His blade flashed down, and the log fell into two pieces. "And in any case, there is always the year after."

Will stared at the pieces until he remembered to retrieve them and put another log on the block. "The year after?"

"Yes," Hannibal said. The axe came down again. Thwok. "Unless you object?"

"No," said Will. He hadn't thought about it.

-----

Will thought that he knew how to cope with long, cold winters. He'd lived in Maine, after all. He knew how to operate a snowmobile; how to hunt and fish in the snow and ice; in theory, how to train a dogsled team, though he'd never had one himself. But none of them prepared him for the shortness of autumn in the Northwest Territories (which was a shame, because autumn in Maine had been beautiful) and the ferocity of winter.

Certainly nothing prepared him for the dark. First the sun did not clear the horizon until eight am, which was much later than Will had ever remembered the sunrise at Moosehead Lake. Then nine am.

One morning, Will found himself staring at a digital readout that said it was almost ten, but the bedroom was dark as the tomb. Panic sat on his chest and stared down at him with unsmiling familiarity. The sun would never come up again. Will would be trapped here in the dark and the cold, until he forgot what warmth was like.

Hannibal stirred beside him. "Will?" he asked. "What's wrong?" His voice was blurry with sleep.

"Nothing," Will managed.

The mattress shifted beneath them; that was Hannibal raising his head to do what Will had just done. The numbers on the battery-powered clock glowed red and smirked. "It's past time to feed the dogs."

"I know."

Hannibal waited. "I'll do it," he said at last.

Will wanted to protest, but the tail end of it lodged in his throat, trapped under the suffocating weight on his chest. So he stayed under the covers while Hannibal got out of bed, dressed, and left, shutting the door behind him to keep the heat in the room. Will curled into a ball on his side and stared until the windows distinguished themselves from the rest of the wall. They'd hung light-blocking curtains in the bedroom, but the sun always crept in around the edges. By the time Hannibal returned, what had begun as dim rectangular outlines had become incontrovertible proof of daylight.

Hannibal pulled the curtains open, and weak winter sunshine poured in. He had two mugs of coffee. Will sat up in bed, feeling sheepish. Hannibal handed him one of the coffees and slid into bed beside Will, wrapping one arm around him that was not occupied with holding a hot beverage. His hair hung loose and tickled Will's bare shoulder.

"The solstice is tomorrow," Hannibal said. "Then the days will grow longer again. It doesn't last forever."

"I know," said Will.

-----

Will should have known, when Hannibal had made that remark about the solstice, but he was still surprised.

Plastic tinsel wound around lampposts. Ornaments dangled from sidewalk trees. An enormous Christmas tree towered above City Hall. Inside the hardware store, "Jingle Bell Rock" piped faintly through some sound system Will had never noticed before.

"What day is it?" he asked the man behind the counter.

The man evidently considered this to be a normal question, because he merely replied, "Friday."

"Yes, but--what's the date, I mean?"

The man jerked a thumb at the nearby rack of newspapers. The one on top proclaimed the date to be December 23.

Jesus Christ.

Will collected the ammo they needed and wandered over to the supermarket in a daze. Orange juice, milk, flour, sugar. Toilet paper. Dog food. Will added a bar of overpriced Lindt chocolate to the basket. No chocolate and prison, and only rarely since. Will wasn't into sweets, but he suspected Hannibal was. His meals had always come with a dessert course.

What else? Neither of them needed clothes; all their winter clothing had been purchased this season. Hannibal didn't need or want a red sweater patterned with reindeer, or festive mittens, or a Santa cap with a white puffball at the end. He didn't need or want a new hunting knife or a portable DVD player, and Will couldn't strap a large-screen TV to the sled, even if either of them wanted to watch TV.

In the end, Will bought a sketchbook and some colored pencils. They weren't high quality--they were Crayola, for Chrissakes--but it was too late to order anything to be shipped.

The dogs barked and whined, tails wagging, when Will approached, laden with all his parcels. He was so distracted that they almost ran away without him.

-----

Hannibal came outside just as the sled slowed to a stop; the barking of the dogs always heralded Will's arrival. Will unharnessed the dogs and led them to their kennels, fed them, and made sure their straw was clean and dry and that they had plenty of water. By that time, Hannibal had unloaded the sled and gathered the groceries inside.

The inside of the cabin was warm, almost hot; Will started sweating almost immediately. He shrugged off his layers as quickly as he could, hanging his hat and coats up by the door and leaving his snow-crusted boots to puddle on the mat. Hannibal was going through the parcels in the kitchen. Delicious smells emanated from the pot on the stove.

"You bought chocolate." Hannibal sounded surprised.

"I thought you might like it."

Hannibal gave Will a look. He looked at Will often; in the early days it had been raw adoration, and uncomfortable to see. Now it had faded to something more like faint bafflement, like Will was a puzzle Hannibal had yet to work out. Will couldn't help him; he had yet to unravel the mysteries of his own feelings.

"Oh." Hannibal had reached the sketchbook. It was the only one stocked by the general store, spiral bound, with a fake leather cover and heavy paper. It had cost ten dollars. Hannibal handled it like it was a precious rare volume. He opened his mouth and shut it again. A pinched line formed between his eyebrows.

Will went to stand next to him. "What's the matter?"

Hannibal's nostrils flared as he sighed.

Will blinked. "You didn't get me anything."

Now Hannibal winced. It was distressingly similar to the way he'd winced in those early days, when his gunshot wound had still been healing.

"I'm not mad," said Will. "Just surprised. You knew Christmas was coming up, didn't you? You were in town just last week; you must have seen the decorations. I had no idea," he added, a note of reproach creeping into his voice.

"It's a problem I've been working on for weeks," Hannibal admitted, his voice heavy and self-deprecating. "But in truth, I've no idea what it is you want."

"I don't want anything," Will said automatically. It was the same thing he'd said to Molly, every year, and every year she'd gotten him something anyway. One year, a new leather wallet; the next, a new cordless drill for ice fishing. Wally always got him something too, with obvious help from his mother: a new scarf, a new pair of gloves. Will had been helpless in the face of their generosity, and his gifts of perfume and books and new sports equipment had never seemed like enough to convey their importance in his life.

Hannibal ran his fingers down the fake pebbled surface of the sketchbook cover. "In another time, I might have bought you a bottle of aftershave," he murmured. "But now I find I like the way you smell of honesty." He looked up at Will. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Will said, though he was well aware what his gift looked like: cheap, thoughtless, last-minute.

-----

They ate dinner of cassoulet, made with elk sausage and dried beans, which Hannibal said had been simmering for much of the afternoon. Afterward, Hannibal spent the rest of the evening sketching in front of the fireplace, lips pursed and eyes hooded, while Will repaired a dog harness. Will had been afraid they would be bored, during the winter, and a bored Hannibal was never good. But Hannibal seemed to have learned methods of amusing himself in prison, or perhaps it was that there was always something to do: traps and snares to check; clothing and gear to repair; dogs to feed and exercise.

Hannibal closed his sketchbook with a reverent sigh. Will took that as his cue to check on the dogs. They were fine, of course, curled up in their little doghouses with noses tucked under tails. Will would normally have gone right back inside, but he didn't, because the sky was dancing.

He'd seen the Northern Lights a few times in Maine, but those had been distant and unspectacular compared to the ferocious green ribbons that spanned the whole sky here. And they made a sound here, a distant sputter and crackle like a radio dial tuned between stations up in the sky. Will stood beneath them with his hands at his sides and his head tipped back, and remembered watching those faint displays in Maine with Molly on one side and Walter on the other, gripping a warm thermos and thinking, I never want this to end.

Snow crunched behind him. Will turned. It was Hannibal, bundled up in parka and scarf, carrying a leather-wrapped flask in one gloved hand. He handed it to Will, already open. Will tipped its contents into his mouth: brandy and hot cocoa. The hot cocoa was the kind that came from a packet. Will smiled as he swallowed.

"This is all I want, really," he told Hannibal. His breath fogged in the air.

"This?" It was too dark to see Hannibal's expression.

"You. Me. The Northern Lights." Will gestured with the flask. "Together. Like this. Not fighting, not hunting anyone else. Not hurting each other."

Hannibal took back the flask and took a sip himself. "You're very demanding."

"You like me that way." Will bumped Hannibal with his shoulder, making sure not to jostle the flask. "What about you, though? You were just going to get me a present and not even tell me that it was Christmas?"

"Perhaps," Hannibal said.

Will snorted. He reached out and bumped Hannibal's hand with his, the one not holding the flask; they couldn't really hold hands when they were both gloved. "What do you want, really? You can't be happy with a shitty sketchbook and a bar of chocolate."

Hannibal craned his face up at the sky. "I am, actually."

---end---