The snow crunched under the wheels of Will’s SUV when he parked it in front of the Maple Oaks Ski Lodge. That sound used to make him happy, bringing up wistful dreams of Christmas.
Now it just made him sad. Odd, how Christmas of all times had the most persistent habit of doing that. Oh, why had he agreed to this? What had he been thinking?
“What are you thinking?” Molly smiled, reaching over from the passenger seat to pat his cheek.
Will couldn’t say, I’m worried this trip is going to be a total bust because I inevitably ruin everything. He wanted this to work, wanted his relationship with this kind, lovely woman to last. Molly deserved someone who tried hard to make her happy, not a man foolish enough to squander a chance with her simply because he feared himself and his past.
“I’m thinking, I can’t wait to hit the slopes with you,” Will smiled playfully, taking Molly’s hand and pressing a kiss to the back of it. She grinned as her eyes sparkled and he felt warm inside to have brought that joy to her, almost as if it matched his own feelings. Perfect empathy was a blessing and a curse in equal measure. He was all twisted up inside, but he added merrily, “This trip is going to be amazing.”
“Well, of course it is, sweetie,” Molly enthused. Her expression turned softly reproving then as she continued, “Just don’t spend so much time focusing on whether I’m enjoying myself that you forget to relax and have fun yourself.”
“Oh, I won’t. I’m ready to unwind, Molly, I promise.” His jaw ached from the smile he forced; his teeth felt somehow too primal, his mind too dark for the light-hearted affection she offered. He did not quite know what to do with it.
“I hope so.” Slight concern brewed behind her pretty blue eyes.
Dammit, she was too smart; he could not fully convince her that he was as blissful for their winter getaway as she was, as he should be. As he would be were he not mortally wounded in the heart, thanks to -- well, now was definitely the last time Will should let himself think about the man responsible for his incurable broken spirit.
Was it really his fault? Or more your own?
Shit, why was he still musing on this, as if excavating the break-up from years before was somehow magically going to force things to make sense? It was never, ever going to make sense, and probably neither was he.
So if he could only make Molly believe he was happy, maybe he would believe it too, and they could have the absolutely perfect dream Christmas together one imagined when booking a romantic week-long stay at the sort of enormous, yet cozy ski lodge they now regarded with delight (Molly’s, sincere, Will’s, secretly, exhaustedly cynical). He wanted to believe in miracles again, without quite knowing why such a whimsical notion still held meaning for him.
Maybe it was all the idiotic, saccharine, wishy-washy sentimentality floating in the air at this time of the year, Will theorized almost bleakly as he and Molly got out of the car and retrieved their travel bags from the trunk. He tugged the ends of his black knit hat a little more fully over the tops of his ears, God it was cold up here, further north in Maine than he’d traveled before. His breath puffed in front of him in the air as Molly let out a brisk, cheerful “Brrr.”
“Here,” he laughed, taking her bag like the gentleman he so desperately wanted to be, and walking side by side with his girlfriend to the entrance of the lodge, bedecked with criss-crossed candy canes over the door.
The place was gorgeous inside, class personified. Woodsy and immense, it smelled of hot cocoa and peppermint, and the flames from the crackling fire in the cozy fireplace in the lounge right next to the lobby. There were large, comfy-looking couches positioned in front of the fire, and near the many big windows looking out onto idyllic, snowy views, the glass glistening with delicate ice crystals that could have been painted by Jack Frost himself.
All in all, the air buzzed with magical possibility and brimming excitement. Guests chatted as they cradled mugs of hot chocolate and cider, bundled in the ever-mandatory ugly sweaters of the season. At the check in desk, the staff were incredibly friendly, and Will felt almost as if he’d stepped into the sort of charming, old-fashioned reality you saw in silly movies like White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street.
It was silly, but this year, this Christmas...was Will ready to believe?
“This is way beyond what I expected,” Molly marveled as they trailed the bellhop to the elevator. “I feel like I’m breathing in the Christmas spirit just by being here.”
“That’s exactly the ambiance we strive to cultivate here at Maple Oaks, Miss,” said the bellhop, an older man who, with his portly figure, pure white beard and bright red sweater, certainly could have passed for the local Kris Kringle.
“Well, mission achieved!” Molly congratulated as they stepped into the elevator, “And by the way, bonus points for calling me ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Ma’am.”
When the bellhop winked, then gave a merry laugh, Will almost expected him to say, “ho, ho, ho!” He checked his name badge quickly, discerning that the man was called -- not Kris or Santa or Nick -- but simply “Edmund.”
Will was ready to get into the spirit, he decided, coasting along on Molly’s exuberance and the zest of holiday adventure in the air. He would get closer to Molly, learn how to love her properly, make it right at last, instead of only a facade of rightness. They’d go skiing, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, the thrill of zooming down fluffy slopes as if this really was a movie. At night, they would cuddle by the fire simply relaxing, without a care in the world.
Yes, it would be --
“Hold the elevator, please!” called out a familiar, bright and friendly voice.
Will froze as his heart seemed to seize up. It all happened much too fast: He recognized the woman’s voice, then saw her rushing towards them, squeezing into the elevator as Santa -- Edmund, that is -- hurried to press the “hold” button.
She was Alana Bloom, looking as gorgeous as ever with her silky brunette locks tumbling wildly around her shoulders at the moment, her cheeks flushed with the slight exertion of moving quickly before the elevator departed. A lock of dark hair got stuck in her lipstick and she was just a little out of breath, which is why she didn’t notice Will before her companion did. As it happened, Will didn’t mind seeing Alana at all; she was a former professional associate from his days back in Quantico teaching at the FBI Academy and consulting on serial killer cases. A talented profiler herself, Alana had always been perfectly nice to Will, liking him, for one thing, which relatively few people seemed to do. He was a bit too gloomy and introspective by nature for most people’s taste, not to mention that with his overactive empathy and ability to place himself in the mindset of violent criminals, Will could be considered creepy. But Alana was always one to assume the best of people.
It was because of who she was probably still dating that the sound of Alana’s voice sent a chill down Will’s spine that might have been terror or elation, or both, he couldn’t tell, he was much too busy freaking out.
Of all places--
“Will,” said Alana’s boyfriend, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as he stepped into the elevator after her.
For one split second, there was no one else in the elevator, just Will, with his big blue eyes looking lost and found at the same time, falling immediately into Hannibal’s deep cinnamon gaze, hypnotized by the sound of his name in that warm, husky voice, the lush accent that used to whisper filthy and tender and wonderful things to him all night long. It was him, the man who could tear Will apart and put him back together again with nothing more than a look, a word, the immediate, fervent longing for a kiss and so much more. The man he should despise, whom he told himself he must continue hating under pain of losing himself forever to the temptations of a darkness they could share, which no one else could understand.
Hannibal Lecter was Will’s ex-husband, and unbeknownst to anyone but the two of them, he was not only an elegant, refined and respected Baltimore psychiatrist. He was also a ruthless, cannibalistic serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper.
Hannibal’s heart stopped short in his chest when he saw Will, and he almost could have burst into tears of excruciating joy to set eyes on that beautiful face again, to see his beloved. Of course, moments later he berated himself for the fleeting lapse into nonsensical sentimentality. He’d been vulnerable with Will before, and look where it had gotten him. Surely he was above falling prey to such childish emotion now.
“Hannibal,” Will greeted crisply in return as his gaze darkened. He adjusted his glasses and squared his shoulders, and Hannibal’s clever eyes flicked down to see how his ex-husband’s fingers flexed and unflexed by his sides; he was nervous. Part of Hannibal was inadvertently rather intoxicated all at once to see he could still bring Will to an immediate state of agitation, even if the feeling behind it was no longer love, but burning resentment.
At least Will still burned for him in some small way, although Hannibal could not quite imagine why on earth he himself should care.
“Will!” Alana realized, breaking the terrible tension by giving Will a quick hug. “I can’t believe we ran into you here, what were the chances?”
“Indeed,” said Hannibal coldly. Will glared at him, then down at the floor; Hannibal bristled with heady, bitter feelings he would very much prefer to decline putting a name to.
Alana looked from Will to Hannibal, quickly gleaning that the former spouses had not parted as amicably as Hannibal had led her to believe. With another attempt to make this encounter less awkward, she put her hand out towards the attractive woman by Will’s side and greeted pleasantly, “Hi, I’m Alana Bloom, I used to work with Will at the FBI -- well, we both consulted.”
“Alana, so nice to meet you, I’m Molly Foster,” Will’s paramour smiled, clearly baffled by the smoldering aggression simmering in the air between Will and Hannibal.
She was also probably wondering why Will had not introduced his acquaintances, and as far as Hannibal was concerned, it really was rather insulting that Will did not even consider him worthy of meeting his new lover. He looked the woman up and down, doing his best to remain subtle in his instant hatred of her. Well, he supposed she was comely enough, with her apple-cheeked, innocent face and lustrous dark blonde hair, and he shouldn’t expect Will to remain single forever. After all, he had moved on himself -- very well, he had attempted to move on by dating the beautiful and thoroughly charming Alana Bloom, whilst remaining painfully in love with his ex-husband, a man who had rejected him after Hannibal bared his soul.
It really would not do for Hannibal to rip this “Molly” woman’s neck open with his fingernails at this juncture, but the way she slipped her hand into Will’s made his stomach churn, and he regretted the rather obvious impossibility of the impulsive, murderous urge.
“And this is Dr. Hannibal Lecter,” Alana continued, her brow ever so slightly furrowed at the way Will remained sullenly silent while Hannibal smiled at Molly in a way that looked almost venomous. “He’s a renowned psychiatrist and not-so-secretly an amazing chef.”
“Then you must be planning on entering our holiday baking contest,” chimed in the bearded bellhop, causing Hannibal to look at him sharply before realizing that the imposing stranger was actually quite correct.
“Oh, yes,” Hannibal answered, infusing his sophisticated tone with the usual smoothness that normally worked quite well in cloaking the ravenous killer beneath his handsome and appealing person suit. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“So, you two are here for a couples’ vacation?” Will very nearly snapped by way of small-talk.
“What an incisive observation, Will.” Speaking tartly, Hannibal made the most of his slight height advantage over Will to almost loom over his former spouse, and Will’s brittle glare in return excited him a little too much.
The elevator had begun its ascent, but in Hannibal’s opinion seemed to be moving almost in slow motion, much to his annoyance. He wanted to extricate himself from this horrific social nightmare as soon as possible, then avoid Will for the remainder of his stay here with Alana. There was no reason why he should have to miss a moment of the pleasant respite he had planned to enjoy at the lodge, and he certainly wasn’t going to run away simply because his ex-husband happened to have selected the same holiday destination. He would leave the running away business strictly to Will, who had shown such a remarkable talent for it, after all.
“Just trying to be sociable,” Will grumbled, surly.
“Never your strong suit,” Hannibal retorted.
“No, I leave the strong suits to you,” Will snapped, looking over Hannibal’s typically pristine dark blue plaid suit with an acid-eyed loathing.
“Oh, Will, always full of accusations for those around you, never one to spare for yourself.”
Hannibal smiled, wishing there was anything more he wanted in life than for everyone else to leave so he could slam Will against the elevator wall and fuck the daylights out of him, kissing those petulant lips with all his might. His Will, his Will, was even more stunning than in his damnably persistent memories. Now it was clear to Hannibal he never had let go of Will, despite telling himself for several years that he had succeeded in the goal.
He had missed Will so much that to see him this suddenly was an agony too sweet to be endured. It was impossible to tell what was holding him together right now; he seemed to be composed of nothing but love for this man who hated him -- what was he doing here, right back where he started? What had happened to so quickly decimate his mighty pride? It infuriated him that Will still had this power.
“You know what, Hannibal, why don’t you go to--” Will began, his eyes blazing.
“Your room,” the bellhop put in. “You’re on the fourth floor, aren’t you, Dr. Lecter, Dr. Bloom?”
Will and Hannibal looked at each other, and it was as if their anger and desire, which felt palpably mutual, crystallized to the point they might both shatter into pieces on the floor. Hannibal was sure he must be sinking into wishful thinking by even remotely entertaining the notion Will still cared for him, or held him in any regard other than loathing.
Alana and Molly looked at the men they had arrived on vacation with, then at each other. Molly was wide-eyed with utter bewilderment, while of course Alana knew a bit more of the situation, and looked suspicious as well as concerned, an interesting combination (not one that boded well for Hannibal’s relationship with her).
“What the…” Molly blinked quickly, trying to compute the absolute mess of a reunion they had just witnessed.
Hannibal shot her a smug look. “Good evening, then,” he said with arrogant dominance of the situation. “I hope you both enjoy your stay.”
Alana sighed in slight annoyance at his antics and said to Molly, “It was so lovely to meet you.”
“Great to meet you, too!” Molly replied, looking certain that it had been, even if everything else about the situation was suddenly very confusing.
Will still stood there holding her hand but otherwise looking disconnected from her entirely, much to Hannibal’s satisfaction.
Hannibal exited the elevator when it opened and strolled off down the hall with Alana, rolling their suitcases on wheels behind them. He did not cast a single look back over his shoulder at Will.
That would show him.
“Will, what in the world was that all about?” Molly asked as they got off the elevator on the fifth floor and quickly found their own room.
Will slid the keycard into the door, blushing up to the tips of his ears and the roots of his hair. Dammit, why was he always such a tempestuous fool the moment he got around Hannibal fucking Lecter? It was as if there was some narcotic essence rolling off the man’s presence that sparked something primitive in Will, a need to argue, to prove himself right, underneath which lurked a far deeper, equally animalistic desire.
Maybe it was the cheekbones, the plush lips, his handsome goddamn obnoxious face, his beautiful body always decked out in the most annoyingly perfect attire. His smokey, all-consuming gaze, his luscious, deep voice in that sexy accent that still drove Will--
“Oh, it was nothing,” Will said as lightly as possible, considering the fact that his heart was still racing and he couldn’t quite keep his hands from trembling.
“Wow, would you look at this room,” he said in an attempt to quickly transition from further discussions of Hannibal. And it was a wonderful room.
The walls were simple, plain wood, and the combination of that rustic vibe with several more elegant design pieces created a lovely effect, welcoming and perfect for the holidays. A pretty chandelier hung over a king-sized bed covered in a cranberry duvet with a subtly sparkling pattern of snowflakes. The mattress felt like a dream, as Will discovered when he sat down and let out a contented sigh that did not at all match his feelings.
“It’s fantastic,” Molly mused, wandering to the window which overlooked the shining white slopes and the ski lifts, the sun slowly setting behind them in lazy winter gold. She held her own arm, then scratched it under her festive Christmas sweater with a picture of a reindeer whose antlers were decorated with twinkle lights.
“Umm...I feel like you’re being a bit evasive about this Hannibal guy,” she finally admitted. That was a lot for her: Molly hated confrontations. “Why don’t you two get along? Is there something I should know?”
He felt bad to be making her worry over his past mistakes, and worse that he had to now explain himself (or make some attempt, anyway).
“Okay. See, we used to be married.” Will considered if there was a way to make that sentence less awkward. “At one point,” he finished, only to realize there was no saving this conversation from the realm of the supremely weird.
“You what?” Molly asked, astonished as she turned around to gape at him.
“For a little while,” Will said, running his fingers over the silky, yet soft fabric of the duvet.
“Will, we’ve been together for five months and you’ve never even told me you were married?”
“It didn’t last very long.” Will put his hands together in his lap now, over his blue jeans.
He looked down at the plain, slightly wrinkled black shirt he wore, noticing that one of the buttons was close to falling off. He felt like that himself, a fraying thread. If he kept thinking about Hannibal, he was going to fall apart, and he didn’t want to go back down that road, feel those emotions again after fighting so hard to lock the man out of his heart.
“How long?” Molly asked, quiet and sensitive. She sat beside him, their thighs lightly touching, and placed a tentative hand on Will’s knee.
“Six months,” Will recalled, poisonous renewed grief gushing through his veins.
Oh, God. They used to be so happy. They used to be more than this, a retired profiler stewing in stale resentment and the snobby, stand-offish therapist who used to love him. They used to be Will and Hannibal, and they were everything to each other; they set each other’s worlds on fire, they were larger than life. He’d been so alive back then.
“I’m sorry.” Molly caressed his hand, and Will bit his lip against the urge to push her away.
He didn’t want her touch at this moment, not with gnawing thoughts of Hannibal pulling him apart inside, rough and fearful with reignited, terrible old feelings he should excise at any cost, even if it killed him -- that would be safer.
“It’s a hard thing to love someone enough to marry them, and then have it not work out, so quickly.” She sighed, nuzzling into his shoulder, and Will breathed in her scent of jasmine, completely aghast at himself that he was still half-drunk off the scent of Hannibal’s sultry, spicy cologne and the heat of his body lingering just a little too close in the elevator. They didn’t have to touch for him to feel Hannibal on him, pressing hard and too deep, smothering him, eating him alive. The pleasure, the fury and the fear battled harshly in his heart.
“Yes,” Will acknowledged, swallowing past a lump in his throat. “I’m sorry I never mentioned it to you before, Molly. I knew you’d understand, it isn’t that. I...have a hard time talking about it.”
“That’s only natural,” Molly answered, making excuses for him already. She was so good at that, and Will could never tell if it would be the glue to bind them together, or their undoing. “He hurt you,” she guessed softly.
Will wanted to cry, but if he let himself (which he never had, not even on the day he found out Hannibal was the Ripper, not even in the car after divorce court), it would never end. He’d cry forever. He’d scare Molly if he let out even an iota of his feelings about Hannibal; he would scare himself. All he could do was nod weakly, longing for another convenient subject change.
“Yes. He really did,” said Will.
Hannibal and Alana had passed an awkward night, neither of them caring to directly broach the topic of his bizarrely intense behavior towards Will. They went to sleep on the very opposite ends of the big, luxurious bed in their room, and curled up on his side Hannibal thought to himself that the room smelled of pine needles. The scent reminded him annoyingly of that cheap, repugnant aftershave Will always wore, the one that still, unfortunately, hit him like a powerful aphrodisiac, with a strong undercurrent of emotional longing. It wasn't repugnant at all, he realized as yearning washed over him, memories of loving Will all night until the break of dawn, wearing his beautiful body out with all the adoration his overflowing heart could conjure. The two of them twisted in sweaty sheets, possessing each other as no one else ever could, Will's voice, softly rough in his ear, begging for more...Hannibal's dreams were full of such visions for hours. Will smelled, looked and felt exactly like home, and without him, Hannibal had been rendered a listless wanderer, impossible to satisfy.
The next morning, he rose early and took a shower while Alana kept sleeping. As he dressed, opting for a soft-looking outfit of an oatmeal-colored, cable-knit sweater over a white oxford with pale tan trousers, Hannibal considered his situation more frankly than he had previously allowed.
Swiping a hand over his wet hair and leaning into the mirror, he caught himself not so much preening as usual, but checking for any new creases or imperfections in his skin. Of course, there were none, except for those that added dignified character and sensual maturity to his otherwise flawless visage. Satisfied and somewhat relieved that he looked more than presentable, Hannibal admitted several truths to himself.
1. That his relationship with Alana had been slowly laboring towards an uninteresting ending for quite some time now. In fact, that they were mutually allowing the affair to fade away while still blandly enjoying the convenience of each others’ company and having a date for such times as the holidays was almost as boring as the relationship itself. It was going to be over soon, they both knew it.
2. He was still devastatingly in love with Will Graham. In spite of every way the former profiler had broken his heart, he had also ruined Hannibal for anyone else by rendering him an eternally devoted fool where Will was concerned. There was no escaping this fact.
3. Hannibal was unlikely ever to have a chance like this again: here they were, miraculously turned up at the same vacation destination, almost as if...almost as if Christmas magic truly did exist. While he found that idea to be complete poppycock, there was no denying that this was a special circumstance, of which he should take full advantage. Perhaps there was a way to win Will back.
Should he...make Will jealous? Contrive to find times for the two of them to be alone together, make himself as irresistibly sexy as he possibly could, draw Will to him so that his ex-husband could no longer deny the way they were absolutely made for one another?
He checked his phone’s calendar to confirm what he already knew, as if seeing the physical fact of the date would underline and cement the plan in his mind, the plan to get Will back in his arms, no matter what it took, who else got hurt or eaten, and however much he would have to sacrifice his pride in the endeavor (this was the only bit that disturbed him, but he knew he would have to let it go, at least a little, in order to succeed).
Hannibal walked to the window before the balcony of their suite and opened the door, stepping out to admire the lovely view, early morning skiers gliding down the high hills, sending cascades of fluffy, sparkling, perfect Christmas snow in their wake. The sun, while not nearly hot enough to begin melting the snow-covered grounds, was pleasantly warm on his lifted face. He closed his eyes and offered something like a prayer or a renewed wedding vow to the universe, the usually uncaring God above, his own understanding and resolve.
It is December 20, and by Christmas day, Will Graham will be mine again, this time forevermore. Hannibal had less than a week to work his miracle, and had therefore not a moment to lose in beginning his scheme.