Cairns, Northern Queensland. Early December.
Things were a lot messier than anticipated.
They crouched in a hot, tin shack slouched deep in the tropics. Sweat and blood alike dripped from their muzzles, the shining of their blades the only thing catching the light from the fierce sun outside. Around them rusted towers of cages held as much of the roof as the walls did. Some dogs snarled in fear when Hannibal stood and offered a hand to Will.
Their first week in a new country was not meant to end with three bodies on the floor. But Will had asked very nicely and Hannibal, despite rumors to the contrary, can at times be human, especially when it comes to his lovely Will Graham.
“The meat would spoil,” Hannibal sighed.
Will grunted softly.
If Hannibal were a less dignified person he might pout and point out, "Well it would," but instead he raised a dignified eyebrow and pulled the bodies into a pile. "After seeing their humans perish fighting as so many of their kind have done, we could grant the dogs a feast.”
“Hannibal!” Will gently scolded, already moving toward a row of whimpering dogs with open, non-threatening body language. Most cowered. One wiry tawny-colored beast nosed through the bars at the scent of blood.
For a while, Will soothed the dogs enough so they probably won’t attack them as soon as their cages open. Hannibal spent this time divided between what to do with the bodies, and commiserating their impending flight south, away from fresh mangoes.
“Do they not deserve to take back their pound of flesh?”
“I don’t trust humans. We don’t know whether that would lead them to be euthanized.”
It turned out to be a moot point. As soon as Will released them from their cramped prisons, the dogs fled the hot tin shack. On Will’s behest, Hannibal inscribed an elegant note for the police to clear dogs’ names: “Yours truly, a concerned citizen xx.”
He duct taped it on the ringleader’s mouth. An inelegant finish, but they had agreed to keep a low profile. This didn’t stop him from duct taping shut the other dead jaws, just as in life they had duct taped bait animals so they couldn’t fight back.
Will used the landline to call in “a large number of dogs” to the RSPCA – the local animal authority. They were by their stolen vehicle and Hannibal’s in the process of removing their plastic suits – they needed to run before the charity arrived – when a black matted form plonked down on his shoes.
“She’s got tags,” Will observed.
“We’re not keeping any dogs,” Hannibal reminded Will, keeping carefully still.
Will pried her head up until he could read the name, an address in “Queanbeyan” and a phone number.
“No, but we can return Tracy.”
Townsville, Northern Queensland.
They watched their car roll down into scrubland on the outskirts of the city. The dry flora and red dust swallowed the Ford slowly. Tracy sat on Hannibal’s shoes again, slightly less a ball of quivering black fur now – Hannibal could see now two small tan “eyebrows” quivering over her lowered brown eyes.
Will helped Hannibal into his backpack and hoisted Tracy into his arms so her paws wouldn't burn on the asphalt.
“Show some leg, Hannibal. Might get us picked up faster.”
They get into town a few hours later in the back of a dust-stained ute, and they thank their driver with fake accents.
“I totally sound British,” Will argued, looking refreshed from his dog food purchase. Hannibal eyed him carefully. The store was probably air-conditioned. Whoever made the “no dogs inside” rule deserved death. He resisted the instinct to maim and hunt and instead grabbed Will’s now-cool hand.
“You sound like a South African,” he pointed out, Tracy at his heels.
“I sound Oxford.” But Will laughed, and Hannibal let it slide. Especially when Will revealed two ice creams from his bag.
Will slapped his hand over the ingredients when Hannibal tried to take a look.
“Just enjoy it. Besides,” he paused, smiling when he read the tagline. “It’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own.”
They spend two days in Townsville.
On the first, Will called the number on Tracy’s tags, where he discovered her relieved family lives in a town near Canberra, a short 23 hour drive away.
“And you live in...” Will squinted. “Queanbeyan?”
“Queen-bee-anne,” the voice on the phone gently corrected. “Where are you?”
“Near Cairns I think.”
“Cairns?” the voice replied, making the place sound more like cans.
“We’ll get there before Christmas,” Hannibal promised.
The second day they spend relaxing near The Strand, walking up the promenade with ice creams in hand and a less-shy dog stuck to their legs. They walked here calmly despite having seen the news reports this morning of their last kill. Despite a local (albeit disreputable) rag already fingering the “Murder Hubbies from Hell!!!”
They hadn’t had lunch for one. For two, they intended to purchase a campervan.
In the shade of a palm tree, Hannibal fondly watched Will prepare to let Tracy go into the sea for a swim.
“Wouldn’t do that mate,” called an older man. His accent was thick and smooth like tar in the sun.
The man sat next to them. He seemed, at first, grateful to have a conversation with someone. Then they talked about how he needed to transfer his old 4WD to NSW for his daughter.
“Me nephew Declan did it with a combi last year. Mudgee to Woolloomooloo.”
“Are you sure?”
“Youse yanks are trustworthy.” Hannibal held his tongue and caught Will's amused look with one of his own. “Come in for a cuppa and I’ll get the papers.”
“And after that, will you permit that we leave for your daughter straight away?”
“With a few stops,” interjected Will.
“With a few stops,” amended Hannibal.
“Nah, yeah just get there before New Year’s.”
Paluma Range National Park, Northern Queensland.
Between kisses and a friendly Tracy, Hannibal and Will found their first snag in the journey. In the dappled shade of the gum trees, refreshed from swimming under waterfalls, Hannibal produces a coin.
Will nodded his head and pushed aside the road map. “Heads we go inland with all the small towns, and tails we go along the coast and big towns.”
Tracy, having just rushed back from tobogganing down the natural waterslides, knocked the coin away before it could land. Hannibal stared at the mutt with something like betrayal crossing his sharp features.
“Zigzag?” Will suggested. His voice was quiet compared to the cacophony of cicadas and bell birds around them.
Hannibal looked up surprised, his eyes soft. He held Will’s reddened face in a gentle tan hand.
“As long as you wear sunscreen this time.”
Near Emerald, Inland Queensland.
The night clung heavy and black in front of them. Their headlights remained on high beam as they had done for the past two hours, but it seemed to scarcely illuminate the endless scrubland.
Hannibal grit his teeth. “She is a trace much.”
“I told you to watch her.”
“It was steak! How was she to know?”
“And I’m sure the just couldn’t help herself to your creme brulee either.”
“Hannibal,” Will growled. “I’m in pain. I’m peeling from this sunburn and you’re complaining about our dinner.”
“Pain is good for the body. It is sharpest the reminder of life.”
Tracy licked Hannibal’s cheek. Hannibal flinched.
Hannibal jerked the wheel to the right, narrowly avoiding the creature that had come out of nowhere. For a while, the occupants of the four wheel drive sat stationary in the middle of the road. Eventually, Will’s hand came to rest on Hannibal’s where it gripped the wheel.
“I nearly killed Skippy.”
Will’s bark of laughter was short-lived, the empath meeting Hannibal’s quick and desperate hug.
Noosa, Coastal Queensland.
The white-gold beach stretched out for miles in either direction, dotted with the occasional local and fisherman. About two hundred yards in, Will leaned over their boat’s edge. Hannibal dived, his body cutting an elegant shape in the sparkling water.
“Swimming in December,” Will laughed as Tracy jumped in after Hannibal, her long legs outstretched, her tongue lolling and her once-matted coat now as sleek and glossy as a black diamond in the sun.
“It’s very warm.”
They swam with dolphins there, not far from the beautiful town of Noosa. The creatures loved Tracy and Will, and Hannibal loved Will. He was happy, even as their radio updated the nation on the current chase of the “Dog Fighter Killers.”
“Apparently we’re in the Northern Territory,” Hannibal relayed, surprised barely registering in his voice.
“Huh?” Will looked up from where he treads water with Tracy, a large dolphin circling around his feet.
“The news report. They think we’re in the NT.”
“They suspect us.”
Will’s forehead creased slightly, so Hannibal swam up to kiss the line away.
Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
The day yawned overcast when they delivered the four wheel drive to the Townsville man’s daughter. From Wagga Wagga they picked a campervan and camped overnight in the Southern Alps. Hannibal woke early, left both his dog and his man ensconced in bed, cooked breakfast, and sipped a misty mug of instant coffee. It was a testament to the view that he didn’t even flinch at the taste.
For Hannibal the air changed electric when Will woke, his partner's soft feet padding around the campervan. The door opened and then Hannibal heard Will’s soft gasp.
“Thank you, my love.” He snaked a hand around his waist.
Will ignored him and his proffered mug of coffee. “Is that really snow? It’s summer... right?”
Hannibal hummed and kissed Will’s jugular.
“Oh, thank you. Did you cook breakfast?”
“Yes. And now that there is no trace of Tracy...” He leaned closer.
Will groaned at the pun. “You’re lucky I love you.”
Hannibal smiled, smug.
Queanbeyan, New South Wales. Christmas Eve.
Tracy started howling as soon as they pulled into her home street. Hannibal winced, winding down the windows to stop the sound echoing. Will needled him for it, but Hannibal doesn’t point out how Will’s eyes drew tight around the edges.
Tracy bound from their car as soon as the door opened, running desperately to the flyscreen door. She barked and barked, so loud after weeks of being a quiet but faithful companion. At first, Will and Hannibal shared a worried look. Then the screen door opened and a child bounded down the steps.
Hannibal didn’t feel upset when Tracy didn't look back. No, not even a tiny bit.
Will took his hand and squeezed it. “We can always get another.”
Hannibal sighed and leaned into his partner. “I have the feeling I couldn’t stop you even if I wanted to.”
Will kissed him and steered them back to the car. “That’s the Christmas spirit.”
“I confess feeling somewhat drained.”
Will shoved him good-naturedly. “Old man.”
Hannibal watched the sunset daub golden light onto Will’s face. Over the pink-blossomed trees the cockatoos glided like clouds, screeching goodbye to the final moments of the day.
Will’s voice broke the scene, quiet and small. “Should we... next time we can wait a bit longer before hunting?”
Hannibal tilted his head. “Though things were messier than anticipated, I’m finding pleasure in adapting to my life with you. And if that means going after animal abusers, I will find no greater beauty than that which swells in your heart.”
“Oh thank god—”
Will rolled his eyes. “Hunt tomorrow, then? I’ve always wanted to terminate puppy farms. Well. Puppy farmers.”
Hannibal hesitated. It was a small hesitation, wherein his breath halted and his eyes slid from Will’s eyes to his cheeks. Will noticed it all the same and blushed.
“But first,” and here Hannibal paused to allow a flicker of something warm dart across his face. “I thought we could enjoy a honeymoon?”
“I... A what?”
Hannibal gracefully bent to one knee. With hands as sure and steady as they would be on the operating table, Hannibal opened a ring box.
Will started laughing. Hannibal’s hands trembled. His maroon eyes looked at the simple, gold band he had chosen and refused to move further.
With a wry shake of his head, Will clasped the shaking hands before they could retreat, anchoring Hannibal in place. His spare hand he snaked around to his own back pocket to retrieve a small, palm-sized leather pouch. The giggles stopped.
“You bastard,” Will sighed, giving Hannibal the pouch. Curious, Hannibal felt its ring-shaped contents and smiled a smile all jagged teeth and flushing cheeks.
“My turtle dove.” Hannibal ducked his head until their foreheads touched.
“Yes,” said Will.
“Yes,” said Hannibal.
They traded rings.
“But two puppy farms first.”
“One. And I get to keep the farmers' organs.”
Hannibal smiled and nuzzled into Will’s neck. “We could go to Tasmania, catch a ferry.”
“To New Zealand,” Will breathed.
“To the other side of the country.” They kissed. Together they stood, hands interlocked.
“We are on a land as big as western Europe.”
“We can go anywhere,” agreed Hannibal, leading them to and filling two wine glasses.
“Then let us go.”
Their glasses chinked together. “To our future.”