The late summer breeze brushes Hannibal’s cheek, rustling his hair. Thoroughly bored, he watches the roses wave gently in line along the patio, deep red dancing on thorns.
Lady Murasaki is entertaining guests, which means Hannibal is obligated to serve as the decorative heir.
With a spike of envy, he thinks of Chiyoh, given a pass to hide in her room while the guests are present. Tea with the painted sheep has been almost enough to make Hannibal regret his fluency in French.
He shakes himself from the sulk, shifting his focus to Will seated beside him. One of Will's hands is inching subtly, restlessly, towards the silverware on the tablecloth, the other yanking at his already wrinkled bow tie. Hannibal’s mouth quirks, admiring Will’s faltering self-control.
“But have you seen Merlain’s ring?” one of the ladies practically shouts across the table, penetrating Hannibal’s inattention. “Her fiancé outdid himself terribly, it’s tacky.”
“Very audacious,” another agrees, sipping her tea.
“Yes, wealth should be displayed only subtly,” Lady Murasaki says, casting meaningful eyes at her guests’ silk gowns and glittering gold chains, the fountain and sterling silver spoons.
Hannibal clears his throat abruptly to cover his laugh. Lady Murasaki meets his eyes across the table, hiding a narrow smile behind her teacup.
“Ni,” Will whispers as the ladies chatter on, oblivious, “What’s a feeancy?”
“Fiancé,” Hannibal corrects quietly. “It’s a person you’re going to marry.”
“Oh. Like Lady and Uncle Robert?”
“Before they were married, yes,” Hannibal says, his smile for Will soft, inevitable.
“But my,” Lady Carlile suddenly exclaims, yanking Hannibal’s eyes to her. “Here we are chatting away the afternoon and we haven’t allowed George and little William to get to know one another!” the woman says, bestowing a sugar spun smile on her son and Will in turn, who freezes under the sudden attention.
“It’s Will,” Hannibal corrects her, polite expression brittle.
“Yes, as I said,” Lady Carlile smiles back.
“Of course, the boys can go play,” Lady Murasaki cuts in, speaking to Will. “You want to go play with George inside?”
Will's eyes slide to Hannibal beneath his lashes. Hannibal gives a short nod.
George is a mousey-haired boy around Will’s age, perhaps a year older. He sits with his chin elevated to an angle of superiority that pricks at Hannibal’s nerves. A spoiled, ordinary child that belongs to the herd. Hardly a fitting playmate, but another five minutes at the garden table and Hannibal knows a meltdown from Will is likely.
“Ok,” Will says, giving George a glancing look. He slips from his chair and waits at the door, right hand gripping his elbow.
George catches up and leads the way inside, brushing past Will with the authority of a host. Hannibal watches the boys go, eyes narrowing before he pulls them back to the table.
With Will’s absence, his mask feels stiff and tight, the breeze stifling. He finds his index finger tapping once against the table, displacing the dessert spoon. He corrects the angle, irritated, and looks up to find Lady Murasaki watching him. He looks away, focuses on maintaining his veneer of patience and interest.
He wants to scream. Flip the table, maybe, smash plates on the flagstone patio, just because he can, because it would be interesting.
Keep smiling, Bedelia whispers in his head. He does that instead.
Jules arrives with a tray of desert pastries and Hannibal takes advantage of the pause in conversation. “Should I check on the boys, Lady Murasaki?” he asks. He tries to pitch the question neutral, bored, polite, but he can taste the plea in the words.
“Yes please, Hannibal, I was going to ask you,” Lady Murasaki answers, tone sideways just enough to tell Hannibal she’s laughing at him. He ignores it, too eager for the escape to be embarrassed.
“If you’ll excuse me, madams,” Hannibal says, rising from the table and giving a slight bow. He heads sedately for the door, restraining the violent urge to chase upstairs at a run.
“Such a charming boy! And to think I’d heard he was quite wild,” one of the ladies says, tactless, as he retreats. The door closes behind him, blocking out the rejoinder, if any came.
Safely inside and out of sight, he removes his shoes, lets the mask blank out to neutral. It feels like an exhale after holding his breath.
“Yes,” Hannibal says to the empty hall, nearly silent. “How fortunate for you that I’ve muzzled myself.”
Moving quickly through the hall, Hannibal then takes the stairs two at a time. He strides down the carpet, silent, listening for Will. A coarse sense of apprehension stings at the back of his neck, warm and sharp. He hears voices in the library and stops a few feet from the door, open just a crack.
George is asking, imperious, “who was that older boy again? At the table?”
Another strike, Hannibal notes. He hadn’t been paying attention while Lady Murasaki greeted her guests.
“That’s Ni,” Will says, like it’s obvious.
“Ni? Is that Japanese or something?” George asks, followed by a rustle and a thunk. A book being replaced on the shelf.
“No. That’s his name,” Will says. “Hannibal,” he adds.
“That's a weird name. Is he your brother?”
There’s a beat of silence before Will answers, voice tight, “No.”
“Then who is he?”
“Hannibal,” Will repeats, syllables like knives.
“Ok,” the boy says, drawn out, confused.
It's quiet for a few moments, and Hannibal moves to step closer to the door. He stops when George speaks again.
“So is he your cousin?”
“No,” Will says, “He’s… Hannibal is my, my feeancy.”
Hannibal blinks, reviewing the conversation about Lady Merlain, certain Will had understood what it meant. He feels his stomach swing and twist, stringing itself up near his heart. The feeling is pleasantly painful, like tasting vinegar.
“It means we’re getting married,” Will says, voice smug.
“What? You can’t marry him,” George says, derisive.
“Why not?” Will asks. Hannibal hears a clatter, a book dropped to the floor.
“Cause he’s a boy!”
Will pauses again, but only for a second. “So what?” he replies, voice low.
“Boys can’t marry boys.”
“My dad. He says you marry girls.”
“You don’t have to!” Will shouts.
Hannibal hears a click down the hall and glances over to see Chiyoh's face looking out from the doorway of her room, frowning.
“Yeah, you do!” George's voice rises, wavering but indignant. “That’s the rule!”
Hannibal meets Chiyoh's eyes and shakes his head once. She nods in turn, closing her door again as Hannibal returns his attention to the climbing argument.
“No, it’s not!”
Another clatter. Hannibal ghosts forward, quickly, towards the door, towards Will.
“Yes it is!” the other child shouts.
Then there’s a hollow crash, the scuffle of elbows on wood, a scream. Hannibal slams through the door and finds both boys entangled on the floor, a bookshelf knocked over. Will’s teeth are embedded in George's arm, one hand clawing at the boy’s swinging fist, the other tight around his neck. Hannibal blinks once, breath rushing inward, stilling in his lungs.
Will’s expression is twisted in feral fury. He is a creature of fire and purpose, and the moment hums, vibrating through Hannibal like revelation.
Openly crying, George is bright red in the face as he struggles to escape, eyes lit with fear.
Hannibal exhales, the breath shaking out of him, letting reason claw back into awareness. “Will,” he calls, voice snapping across the room.
Head whipping up, Will immediately locks eyes with Hannibal, then drops his gaze. He releases his grip on the sobbing boy, scrambling up and to his feet. Will wipes his mouth roughly with a sleeve. George rolls to his side on the oriental carpet, cradling his arm, pierced and red with the bite wound.
“Will,” Hannibal repeats, gentle this time. Will’s eyes, dark with cooling anger, jump to him from the floor. The blue softens, pleading, and Will’s hands twist against each other.
“I was angry,” Will says, quiet, pitched high but decisive, “He said, he said—”
“Never mind what he said,” Hannibal replies. “He’s wrong. Please go to your room, Will, I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Will nods jerkily, hands coming up around the back of his neck, bracketing his head with his elbows. He walks past Hannibal, ocean scent blackened with distress.
“Will,” Hannibal says. He hears the boy stop behind him. “I am not upset with you. Be calm.”
Will says nothing in response, but his breathing slows. The library door clicks shut.
Hannibal waits a single moment before stepping further into the room. He approaches slowly, circuitous, toward the child still on the floor. George's head is raised, eyes on Hannibal, pupils wide with fear, surprise, pain.
Standing over him, Hannibal appraises the child, his cheeks blotchy and damp, the collar of his shirt at angles. He stinks of acrid humanity, tainting the pure copper scent of blood and saliva that spirals gently through the air.
“He— He attacked me—” the boy begins.
“Get up,” Hannibal commands. His words are clipped, reigns held tight on the animal howling for release.
The boy’s breath shudders, but he slowly obeys. He keeps his bitten arm close to his chest, tears flowing down his cheeks.
“Stop crying,” Hannibal orders, venom pouring from behind his teeth, hot and liquid in his throat. To provoke Will, to endanger him this way. Unforgivable.
The child in front of him gives a single broken sob.
Hannibal exhales slowly, willing the animal to calm, reminding himself this is, indeed, a child. “You’re fine,” he says, “That’s quite enough.”
The boy hiccups twice but stops weeping. He regards Hannibal with bright eyes, body radiating instinctual deference. That soothes Hannibal’s fury, banking it to an ember burn.
“Please allow me to be very clear,” Hannibal says, voice iron and ice. “You will tell no one— not a soul— what just occurred. You started a fight with Will, over nothing, over the books, and he defended himself. Do you understand?”
George says nothing, fresh tears spilling over silently.
“Do you understand?” Hannibal snarls, mask lifting to reveal his teeth.
The child nods quickly, repeatedly.
Hannibal considers him, eyes narrow, sharp. “Good. Go to the washroom and clean your arm. Pull yourself together and tell your mother you wish to leave.”
Jerking a final nod, the boy nearly runs from the room, air moving in his wake.
“One last thing,” Hannibal says, abrupt. He turns lazily toward the door to find the boy frozen at the threshold. “So that you’re aware. Your father is, if you'll pardon the expression, an ass,” Hannibal breathes. George flinches. “You would do well not to become him.”
The boy rushes from the room.
Hannibal sighs, slow, fists loosening. He raises one hand, frowning slightly, considering his palm. Red crescents mar the skin, bitten into place by his own nails. He hadn’t even realized he’d clenched his fists. How long had it been since his control had slipped?
Hannibal sees a flash of cascading rubies and cold dew, warm wetness and stinging glass. The rush the memory brings crests over him like a wave.
Pushing his bangs from his eyes, Hannibal knows that it is Will, Will alone, who makes it so easy to loosen the leash. He unravels Hannibal’s fragile control with the ease of stripping licorice.
Hannibal heads after Will. Padding down the hall, he hears the water running in the nearby washroom. Good, he thinks, pausing for only a fraction of a second, mind already dispensing with the boy.
Arriving at Will’s bedroom, Hannibal knocks softly on the door. “Will?”
Several moments later, the door opens a crack, revealing Will’s face. His expression storms with lingering anger and uncertainty, eyes nearly glowing. Hannibal breathes in the scent of him.
“C’min,” Will says, low. He retreats inside, letting Hannibal enter.
The room is dark, curtains pulled tight, only a single strip of light racing through a gap across the carpet. Will immediately climbs onto the end of his bed, pulling his knees to his chest. He won’t look at Hannibal.
Hannibal allows him a moment to settle into his presence, saying nothing as he heads to the windows. He slowly pulls open the curtains, letting sunlight and the garden view enter the room. He watches the fountain for a moment more, then turns and approaches Will.
He kneels at the foot of the bed, looking up the boy, seeking out his eyes. Will denies him, turning his head towards the window instead, frowning and squinting in the light.
"Mielas,” Hannibal says, gentle, “Didn’t I say I wasn’t angry with you?”
“Yeah,” Will says to the window.
“Then what’s wrong?”
Will looks at him then, eyes blazing. “He’s stupid! He said— He’s stupid!” Will announces, pressing his forehead into his knees.
“I agree,” Hannibal says levelly, “I'm sorry to say you’ll meet many stupid people. Worse, you don’t always get to bite them.”
Will laughs into his legs, muffled. He peeks at Hannibal over the edge of his knees, but the amusement in his eyes quickly falters and fades.
“I… Ni, I didn’t mean to,” Will says, quiet.
“Of course you did, Will. I wanted to bite him too,” Hannibal says. The simplicity of the statement doesn’t capture the feeling that had gripped his throat at witnessing Will's distress, but it’s accurate enough.
Will’s head snaps up. He unfolds his legs quickly to hang over the bed, Hannibal deftly missing an accidental socked foot to the face.
“Really?” Will asks.
“Yes, really,” Hannibal says, resting his hands on Will’s feet. “He was very stupid.”
“Yeah. He was. But Uncle Robert says I’m not... s’posda bite.”
Hannibal gives Will’s feet a brief squeeze. “He’s only right to an extent. You shouldn’t bite if you'll get caught. If adults will see you, or find out."
“How come?” Will asks, head tilting slightly to the right.
“Because other people don’t understand. They’ll look at you differently, if they know you hurt people." He pauses. "I don't want them to look at you like that.” Like how they used to look at me, Hannibal doesn't say.
“Oh,” Will says. He chews his lip for a moment, then slides carefully to the floor. He invites himself into Hannibal’s lap, the older boy wordlessly shifting to sit cross-legged to accommodate.
Will settles against Hannibal. “Am I different?” he asks into Hannibal’s shoulder.
The question, so quiet and uncertain, spears Hannibal through. He squeezes the boy, brushing his cheek against Will’s. “Yes, mielas, you are different, and you are perfect.”
Will squirms, pulling away to put his hands on both of Hannibal’s shoulders. He levels Hannibal will a stern look, eyes narrowed.
“Are you lying, Ni?”
“Will,” Hannibal says, low, drawn out, “I am not lying. You are perfect as you are.”
Will chews his lip again, looking aside. “Then why am I different?”
“Because nearly everyone else is mundane and abysmal,” Hannibal answers instantly.
“Abysmal. Lacking,” Hannibal clarifies. “But as they are the majority, those of us who are different have to be careful, to protect ourselves. That’s all, Will.”
“Oh,” Will says again. He still doesn’t look convinced.
“I’m different too. You like me just fine, don’t you, Will?”
“Of course!” Will snarls, throwing himself back against Hannibal’s chest. “You’re my favorite.”
The admission, so fierce and certain, strings through Hannibal like spider silk. Sticky and paralyzing.
“You’re my favorite too,” Hannibal whispers. “Always.”
The two sit in silence for a few moments, Will twitching in thought. Despite the reassurance, his scent is still off, too much sodium, too warm.
“You’re still upset,” Hannibal says.
Will doesn’t answer immediately. He presses his brow hard into Hannibal’s shoulder, bone digging against bone. Finally, he asks, “Can… can boys marry boys?”
“Yes,” Hannibal says, fast, like metal, stomach dropping and soaring at once, leaving him with a sick sense of vertigo. “Of course they can,” he continues, despite not knowing whether it's legal. Legality seems irrelevant, absurd to Hannibal, in this, in all things. “I told you he was wrong, remember?”
“Ok,” Will says, tone lifting. “Yeah. He was really stupid.” Will shifts off Hannibal, smiling at last and pulling at Hannibal's hand to make him stand. “Let’s go get some snacks, Ni. Maybe, will you make me cake, please?”
“Yes, Will,” Hannibal says, agreeing without thought, stomach still spinning. That Will appears determined to marry him, with all the innocence of any small child, has Hannibal feeling tangled, happiness and apprehension competing in his heart. Will is only six. He’ll age, he’ll fall for someone else, someone suitable, something real, he’ll change his mind. The idea is ridiculous, it hadn't occurred to him.
The future hadn't occurred to him. Not since a dream, a lifetime ago, of a life with Will in America. He'd been so caught up in surviving, adapting, hiding, he hadn't realized that one day they would both be grown. What then?
Hannibal doesn’t want Will to change his mind.
The realization leaves chalk in his mouth, even around the taste of cake.