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“Is there anything else on your mind, Will? You seem uneasy this evening.” Will laughs, a little bitterly.

 

“When am I not, Dr. Lecter?” He asks, and the doctor nods the point, lips turning up in a small smile that does not reach his eyes. At least, Will assumes it doesn’t, although he doesn’t bother to check. Hannibal’s smiles are so rarely genuine it doesn’t seem to merit the near-painful discomfort that will come from any sort of prolonged eye contact.

 

“More uneasy than usual then, shall we say? And please, Will, it's Hannibal. We are friends, are we not?” Will shifts in place, uncomfortable despite the plushness of the chair.

 

“Friends having unofficial, casual conversations at least three times a week that just happen to closely resemble therapy.” Will reminds Hannibal, rather acerbically. Since he is avoiding Hannibal’s eyes and watching his mouth, he clearly sees the lips turn down into a frown that Will would wager is much more heartfelt than his earlier smile.

 

“If you do not enjoy my company, Will, you need only say so. I will not force my companionship on someone unwilling.” Will shakes his head and actually manages to make eye contact for a brief moment before his gaze skitters away.

 

“No, that’s not—I’m sorry, that was rude, and it wasn’t true. I tell you things that I would never tell a therapist. Actually, I tell you things that I never thought I would tell anyone. And I like this.” He gestures around the spacious office. “I’m just not… very good at this friendship thing. Hannibal.” He adds as a peace offering, and the lips curve up again.

 

He dares risking a peek at the man’s eyes, that odd shade of maroon that Will can never quite get used to seeing. Will likens the shade to not-quite-dry blood, and immediately chastises himself. Not everything is a crime scene, and it’s unkind to treat one of his only friends as such. It’s crazy to.

 

Crazy.

 

“I think you are doing admirably well. I enjoy our meetings greatly, and I'm certain you are aware that I am as selective in my company as I am in my cuisine.” Will laughs a little at that, just a little huff of sound.

 

“And I make the cut?” He muses, privately wincing at his rather clumsy attempt at a pun. Hannibal inclines his head regally, politely amused.

 

“Very much so, Will.” The genuine warmth, almost mirth, in his voice makes Will flush. He gets the feeling that Hannibal is very good at hiding his emotions. No one can be that calm and collected all the time. It’s one of the reasons Will finds it so hard to read him, a welcome respite from the unwelcome cacophonies of feelingsthoughtssecrets that fill his head around everyone else. Still, he treasures these rare moments when Hannibal allows a few glimpses of his feelings beneath the cool glass walls of his public persona to show through.

 

Hannibal hides just like Will does, but Will isn’t sure why.

 

“And as your friend, who cares greatly about your well being, I wish to understand what is ailing you so that I may help. Is it your headaches? Nightmares? Stress?” All the things that Will has grudgingly admitted to in previous sessions. They all add up to crazy. Will huffs out another short laugh.

 

“D: all of the above.” He admits dryly, and then closes his eyes for a second, trying to gather his thoughts into something that will actually resemble something more than babbling. “My heads feels like, like a faulty battery, leaking all over the place and corroding what little sanity I have left. It’s getting worse. It wakes me up at night and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing because at least it ends the nightmares.” He gets out all in a rush because maybe if he says it fast enough it won't be quite as pathetic. Hannibal nods, and the lack of judgment in the parts of his face Will can see makes Will relax a little. He has the face of a friend, not another doctor that wants to pick his damaged brain to pieces and see how it works.

 

“Yes, the nightmares." Hannibal murmurs knowingly. "What has been their focus of late? You have mentioned aspects of your investigations sometimes finding their way in. Has that continued? I realize that you have come from a case that is being dealt with as the work of the Chesapeake Ripper, is that correct?” Hannibal asks, voice calmly inquisitive. Will blinks and he’s back at the scene.

 

“Yes.” It's all he says, because he knows that Hannibal has heard the details from Jack and can read the rest from Will’s eyes. He’s never met anyone who can do what he can with eyes and emotions, but Hannibal comes close. He also has the benefit of ironclad control and natural charm, things that Will is sorely lacking in. “It’s not him.” He adds bluntly, and one of Hannibal’s immaculate brows arches in question.

 

“If you are so certain, may I ask why Jack seems so adamant to deem it the Ripper’s work?” Will rolls his eyes. Hannibal is being deliberately obtuse; the man will do anything to goad Will into speaking ill of his superior. It really is almost entertaining, and somewhat cathartic on those days when Jack is being particularly irritating.

 

Today is one of those days.

 

“You know very well how desperate Jack is to catch this guy. It makes him see things that aren’t there—and believe me, I know a thing or two about that. But this… this wasn’t the Ripper.” Hannibal nods as though he takes Will at his word, a refreshing feeling if almost definitely a manufactured one. He would bet his bottom dollar that Hannibal has a flawless poker face, except Will wouldn’t be betting anything due to the aforementioned flawless poker face. Will's pretty sure Hannibal would slaughter him, no matter what game Will tried to play.

 

“You have a very good sense for these things.” Hannibal allows easily. “But I must question what makes you so certain. I was told that the man was bound with piano wire and his… liver, I believe, was removed. With surgical precision, I was informed.” He says it with a sort of clinical detachment, as though talking about a man's innards being torn out is about as emotionally evocative as a sneeze. Will snorts.

 

“Not every surgeon is the Chesapeake Ripper, even the ones who go around killing people and taking their organs for kicks and giggles. I'm sure you know that, Doctor Lecter." He reminds Hannibal wryly, thinking of the man's own history in the medical field. Hannibal's lips curve in an acquiescent smile.  "Besides, the man had cirrhosis. The Ripper never takes organs that aren’t in peak condition. I think the very idea of one of his prizes being subpar offends him.” He smiles grimly at the idea, and then continues thoughtfully. “Besides which, it was too… not sloppy…artless, I guess. There was no deeper message, no vision.”

 

“And you believe that the Ripper is driven to create what he considers art, in his murders?” Hannibal urges gently. Will hesitates, and then shakes his head.

 

“I don’t think he’s driven. It’s not a compulsion—the level of premeditation and care in his kills shows that it’s not something he does out of an addiction that he can’t control. And sometimes there are long stretches between his sounders. He doesn’t need to kill all the time, just when he wants to. I think it’s like a hobby with him, like painting or crocheting is to other people.”

 

“An interesting take. You do not paint him as the bloodthirsty beast that Jack does.” Hannibal notes delicately. “You make him sound almost noble.”

 

“Not noble. What he does isn’t noble.” Will hastens to correct him. “He’s good at it, but that doesn’t make him good.” Hannibal nods the point, face inscrutable.

 

“I see. But the lack of skill in this murder leads you to believe that the Ripper is not involved. It is not ‘good’ enough.” He says, using Will’s own words. Will nods.

 

“I think it’s someone who wanted people to attribute the murder to the Ripper, but wasn’t smart enough or skilled enough to properly mimic him. The piano wire was an afterthought—the guy had it in his house, fixed pianos for a living. And the binding was done post-mortem—in fact, so was the organ removal. The victim’s death was swift and simple, a blow to the back of the head with something heavy. The Ripper’s sadism would never allow for something like that.” Will explains, words coming quickly now that he’s started. “The feeling I got from the scene was hot anger and jealousy, heat of the moment stuff. The Ripper runs cold. I’d guess that it’s the husband or lover of someone the piano man was sleeping with, someone smart enough to attempt to cover it up as something else after—or stupid enough, considering the job he did. Probably a doctor, yeah, judging by the cuts, but only an average one. Not the best husband. Sort of mundane.” He sighs in what even he must admit is disappointment, realizes how that sounds, and then adds swiftly, “Awful, I mean. But mundane.”

 

Hannibal seems to see right through his lie, pursing his lips but saying nothing.

 

It’s not quite a lie, really. Will does think that murder is awful. Other than being a horndog, this victim had done nothing to deserve it, nothing like what other people do—hurting, breaking, destroying. It’s just that when Will thinks about a murder, his first thought isn’t about the morbidity of the scene. His second thought isn’t either, or his third, or his fourth. Maybe it’s from being in the mind of so many killers, or maybe it’s just Will’s own screwed up psyche, but he’s rather desensitized to the whole thing. It’s ‘mundane’ to him, a man’s life being snuffed out.

 

That doesn’t mean he wants anyone else to know that. People think he’s crazy enough as is.

 

“Do you think that this man, whoever he may be, will feature in your dreams, Will?” Hannibal asks, harkening back to the start of their conversations.

 

“No. There’s nothing really… haunting, I guess, about this guy. I didn’t have to delve in that deeply to suss him out; he was a shallow sort of killer. I only really dream about the ones that I can drown in.”

 

Ah, well. Hannibal already knows he's crazy.

 

“Like Hobbes.” Hannibal offers easily, indeed taking the disturbing statement in stride like he does all of Will’s disturbing statements. “Or Tobias Budge.” He’s taking the merciful route, offering Will an easy out if he wants to take it.

 

Will considers the fact that Hannibal has just listened to him rant for close on ten minutes about the tedium of a murder without a word of censure or complaint. The man deserves something for his trouble, and Will knows that his dreams are a juicy bone for any self-respecting psychiatrist.

 

“Like the Ripper.” Will offers back, frankly. “Sometimes the others, but the Ripper… he’s there the most.” He murmurs, thinking of the ravenstag that haunts him through his dreams, the rustle of feathers and the scent of fresh blood lingering in his ears and throat long after he wakes. Hannibal nods, a pensive light in his eyes when Will dares look for a moment.

 

“Why do you think your mind chooses him to focus on, Will?” Will shakes his head instead of answering, tries to read the titles on the bookshelf on the other side of the room. He can’t quite do it, but he knows them anyway, each spine etched into his fingertips. The books feel safe, and they have no eyes that he cannot meet.

 

“I don’t know. I’ve caught the others; maybe he sticks because he’s still out there. Still killing.” Will hedges finally. Of course Hannibal sees right through him.

 

“I once promised that I would never lie to you. I had hoped that you would extend the same courtesy.” That stings. Will wilts, fidgeting in his seat.

 

“It’s not a lie, not really. It’s just… not the only reason.” He bites his lip, fiddles with the cuffs of his shirt. “Can we do this another time? I’m sure my hour is up by now.” He evades lamely. His hour was up an hour ago, he realizes, glancing at the clock. Hannibal hadn't said a word.

 

There is a moment of silence, and then a soft sigh.

 

“If you will agree to return to this matter later. It is clearly a source of distress and must be addressed.” Will nods meekly, already planning a fake emergency that will ensure his escape before such a time, should the need arise. “Very well. I’ll see you next week, Will.”

 

Will smiles weakly and flees.

 


 

“What would you like to talk about this evening, Will?” Hannibal asks. He always asks, so polite, but Will knows that by the end of the session it won’t matter what he chooses to start the session with. Hannibal will steer and maneuver the conversation to make Will talk about anything Hannibal wants him to. Will rarely notices until the end of the session, when he sees the faint smile of satisfaction on the man’s lips. One of the few real smiles Will has seen.

 

The man’s manipulations are uncanny. Will wonders if he affords such meticulous persuasions to all his patients. Will pities them if he does.

 

So, Will could start with something simple—how his dogs are doing, what sort of fish he caught yesterday, what he had for lunch (an amusing topic when he wants to horrify Hannibal with his tales of preservatives and MSG). If he does, Hannibal will be annoyed in his own subtle way, and he will steer Will towards his real issues with a firmer hand than usual. The man is petty in the extreme, though it’s hard to see it when you aren’t looking for it. Will is a paranoid bastard, so he’s looking for it.

 

He clears his throat, looks down at where his hands fiddle with his overlarge shirtsleeves. He feels like a child—has done things like this since he was a child, self-soothing exercises, anything to keep his hands busy, and a shrink like Hannibal must be making all sorts of notes about it in his head, but he says nothing and for that Will is grateful.

 

He almost manages to talk himself out of what he is about to do, tell Hannibal about his Wonder Bread and bologna sandwich and watch the man wince. He forces his mouth to move before he can fully do so. He wants so badly for someone to know, someone who will not turn away from him, and Hannibal has seen him at his worst. If there is anyone in the world who can understand Will Graham, it is Hannibal Lecter.

 

“Do you have a soul mark?” He asks, wincing at how loud his voice comes out in his haste to get the words out. For possibly the first time since he’s known him, Hannibal looks ever so slightly taken aback. In a moment his cool calm is back in place, but now there is a reprimanding slant to his brow.

 

“That is a very personal question, Will.” He chastises, and Will flinches and looks back down at the fabric twisting in his hands. “However,” Hannibal adds indulgently, forgiving the slight with his usual aplomb, “I’m sure you’re aware that the only documented cases of unmarked individuals have been found in diagnosed sociopaths, usually those with a violent criminal history. Is that how you see me, Will?” He asks, and although he sounds good-naturedly amused at Will’s blunder, Will scrambles to correct it.

 

“No, of course not. I was just trying to…” He gives up, rolling up his rumpled sleeves to show Hannibal his pale wrists, unmarred where there should be a mark. Where on everyone, every normal person, there is a mark. “I’m sure you’ve seen my file, so you already know, but for most people seeing it in person is…different.”

 

Hannibal observes Will’s wrists for a moment of silence before managing through a devious slant of his head to catch Will’s eyes for a moment. His own are almost soft—at least as close to soft as Hannibal can be, which Will is learning is not very much at all. The man is as smooth and slippery as ice, and about as cold. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as transparent. It should unnerve Will, but instead he finds it somewhat comforting. When he first met Hannibal, he’d thought the man simply stuffy yet congenial. The fact that Hannibal now shows his coldness, what Will believes to be his natural state, proves that the man trusts him just a little.

 

“It was in your file, yes.” Hannibal says plainly. “I do not find it discomforting, if that is what you fear.” And he doesn’t, Will can see. He’s curious and calm, and that’s all he lets Will see, but they’re both genuine. He takes a breath.

 

“Most people do. I was already the weird kid, growing up, and this didn’t help. I started wearing longer sleeves as soon as I understood, but sometimes people see anyway when I’m not careful enough, and I can’t not see the way they look at me. No matter how hard I try.” He mutters, bitter.

 

“Pure empathy.” Hannibal offers softly, and Will nods tightly. “What do they feel, Will? What do you feel, when they see?”

 

“Fear.” Will answers immediately. “Repulsion in some cases, unease in others. Pity—I think that’s the worst part, the pity.” Hannibal hums thoughtfully.

 

“Why is the pity the worst? Most people would resent the fear or the disgust. Those are overtly negative emotions.” He presses gently. Will shakes his head.

 

“I’m used to disgust and fear—I feel them every time I look at a victim and feel what happened. They’re natural, primal emotions. Pity though… It’s an emotion built on the bedrock of assumed superiority, a luxury of those approved by society’s standards. It’s insulting, almost. They think that this makes me broken.“ He gestures to his wrist. "And it doesn’t. I am broken, but not because of this.”

 

Even Alana, with all of her affection for him, looks at her own sky blue wristband, hiding what Will is sure is a mark as beautiful and vibrant as the woman herself, and then she looks at his bare arm and she feels pity. A pity softened by compassion and real worry, but pity nonetheless.

 

Hannibal places a cool finger on Will’s wrist, running his finger across the blue vein of Will’s lifeline. Will startles and flinches, but he calms himself quickly when he reads no fear, disgust, or pity on Hannibal. He can’t quite tell what the man is feeling at the moment, but it’s not pity, and for that Will is grateful.

 

He sees the man’s shirt cuff ride up slightly at the motion, and feels a swoop of disappointment before he can stop himself. It’s not that he’d thought that Hannibal might be like him, but he’d still hoped… The tasteful sleekness of a black wristband is glaring against the oxblood color of the man’s dress shirt. Will swallows and looks away, tries to hide his petty disillusionment somewhere Hannibal can’t find it.

 

“You are not broken, Will Graham, least of all for this.” Hannibal sounds so certain, like it is a fact written in one of his medical texts that anyone could look up and see. Will doesn’t pull his hand away like he wants to, grateful for that certainty where he has none. He lets the man stroke the skin that no one else has touched since he can remember, and after a minute or two the urge to flee abates. He feels almost comfortable, actually. Hannibal’s light touch feels almost pleasant against the sensitive skin.

 

“Perhaps you simply do not need one. You do not seem the type to let fate decide anything for you.” Hannibal says, and Will is almost flattered.

 

Hannibal says ‘fate’ as though it’s something distasteful, and Will silently agrees. There are so many people out there who assume that if they find their soulmate, everything will fall into place and they’ll live happily ever after. Will knows better. He’s seen mates that hurt each other, hate each other, kill each other. Marks are a chance to connect, not an ironclad contract built on rainbows and sunshine. Will doesn’t know if he would choose to have a soul mark or not, given the chance.

 

“Why do you not wear a band? Those who have access to your records would still know, but you would not face the judgment of the rest of a small-minded society.” Hannibal seems genuinely curious. Will grins, and he knows the thing is more savage than it should be.

 

“Because I’m not going to hide. If they fear me for something that I can’t control, then I don’t owe them anything.” Hannibal looks at him for a long moment, and there is something in his eyes… Will can’t quite grasp it, and it is fleeting in its presence.

 

“I do not fear you, Will.” He offers quietly. Will’s snarling grin softens in surprise. All the fierceness drains out of him in the face of Hannibal’s confession.

 

“Yeah. I know.” He responds just as softly. “…Thanks.”

 


 

“You have one, right?” Will asks, gesturing to his wrist frenetically when Hannibal tilts his head in question. “I mean, you wear the band, so of course you do, but… what is it like, for you?”

 

Hannibal considers him for moment, eyes unreadable. Will thinks in a moment of insight that Hannibal is deciding whether or not to lie. Will wonders why he would need to.

 

“I have always considered it little more than a mark on my skin. A blemish, to be blunt.” He says, and Will is certain that this is the honest answer, mostly because it is the least pretty one. Most people wax poetic about the feelings of contentment and anticipation they get from seeing or touching their mark, but Hannibal shows no such elation. In fact, he shows the same cool calm that he always does, and it’s not a smokescreen. Will has never seen someone so detached towards his own mark.

 

It makes him pity Hannibal’s soulmate, just a little, but he’s more grateful that he has someone who won’t try to regale him with mushy claptrap.

 

“So you don’t get, you know… flashes? Feelings, impressions, that sort of thing?” He asks, and Hannibal’s lips quirk into an indulgent smile.

 

“Most people do not, Will. I am not the exception. Such powerful connections are quite rare, in spite of what the fairy tales teach us.” He says with tolerant amusement. Will remembers the stories too, of some pairs being able to share thoughts and even memories in addition to emotions. Except Will knows. They're not just stories. “Why do you ask?”

 

Will runs a nervous hand through his hair, wanting to get up and pace but also wanting to respect Hannibal’s space. He knows the man finds such actions rude, and so in the spirit of some sort of twisted camaraderie, Will has been trying to accommodate him. Hannibal allows him his tics, and he allows Hannibal his.

 

“If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone, even Jack? Especially Jack?”

 

Hannibal looks rather intrigued, which is exactly what Will would expect. There are already so many dark twists to Will’s psyche that Jack is aware of. The thought of learning one that the man does not know must be tempting, most especially to someone like Hannibal. Will is well aware that the man has something of a superiority complex, armored and bolstered by the fact that he is very good at knowing more than those around him do. He likes being the smartest one in the room, and he likes holding all the cards.

 

It is because of this that Will is taking the chance at all. Hannibal hoards his secrets like a dragon hoards gold, and telling Jack would cheapen the prize. Hannibal likes to know what others do not, and he likes to laugh at them because of their ignorance.

 

The man is significantly more of a bastard than Will first assumed.

 

“Of course, Will.” Hannibal assures him with a magnanimous smile, as though he’s not salivating at the thought of having even more power over Will. Will likes the man, but he’s not blind to his flaws. In addition to having a superiority complex, Hannibal Lecter is most definitely a control freak.

 

“I… I get those. The feelings.” He admits cautiously. Hannibal looks perplexed, and perhaps a little disappointed.

 

“We’ve discussed your empathy in great detail in our past sessions.” He says almost crossly, obviously dissatisfied at the seemingly anticlimactic statement. “Extending your gift into the realm of bonds is not impossible, or even unlikely. Such bonds are the crux of emotions in many people.”

 

Will considers for a moment letting Hannibal believe that he’s being overdramatic and whiny and letting the subject drop. The thought rankles a little though, oddly. He’s never really cared what others thought about him, provided they were willing to leave him alone, but he cares what Hannibal thinks. He wants the man to respect him. Like him, even, in a way that no one else seems to.

 

“Not other people’s bonds.” He says, taking a breath. “Mine.”

 

He watches as the puzzlement fades slowly to be replaced with a dawning sense of rapt revelation, mouth softening in a moue of thought.

 

“Will, you have shown me your wrist. Are you saying that you possess and can feel a bond even without a mark?” The man clearly finds the thought captivating. Will almost hates to burst his bubble, but on the other hand, it’s fun to correct the man where he can.

 

“Actually, I… do have one.” He admits quietly. “A mark, I mean.” Hannibal looks askance at his wrist again. Will fidgets, pulling his sleeve further down his arm as though the skin isn’t already covered. It’s instinct not to let people look. “It’s just not on my wrist.”

 

Hannibal’s expression is possibly the oddest Will has ever seen on him, mostly because it’s not an expression at all, or at least not one that Will is familiar with. Hannibal’s face is somehow both completely blank and yet the most focused he has ever seen it. There’s not the usual sly inscrutability that means he’s hiding something, or the masks he wears to hide his true feelings. It’s not like hitting a wall—it’s like looking into an abyss.

 

It sends off at least a dozen dusty little alarm bells in the back of Will's head, and he's not sure why.

 

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Hannibal tells him, and Will can practically feel him pushing his professional fascination down to be replaced with the interest of a wise friend. Will knows which one is real, but the other is not quite false anymore like it once was, and so he accepts them both. “But bonds in which emotions bleed through are known to be rather strong, as I recall.” Will laughs a little bitterly.

 

“Strong, yeah, that’s one word for it. Unbearable is more like it. I feel too much already, and with this… You know what they say about the colors?” Blue for serenity, green for nurturing, yellow for good cheer—all the colors and shades of the rainbow charting out a person’s destiny with little regard for their wishes. Hannibal nods. Of course he knows, Will thinks, cross with himself. The man probably knows them more than Will ever will about the subject, what with his history and education. “Mine is black. All black and red and nothing else.”

 

Red for passion, and it’s the darkest red that Will’s ever seen. Consuming, he thinks, like the living red of a monster's mouth right before it swallows you whole. Black for—well, Will’s never met anyone who had a black soul mark, but there are all sorts of theories Will has come up with on what black could mean.

 

None of them are good.

 

“And the placement? It must be in a unique place for no one to have seen before now.” Hannibal prompts with what doesn't quite pass as mild interest. His glee about being the only one to know Will’s secret is well hidden, but not well enough that Will can’t ferret it out.

 

Will gives a mirthless smile and gestures jerkily, watching the man’s widen almost imperceptibly as his motion spans wider and wider.

 

“Everything but the wrists, basically. It’s why I…” He gestures towards his baggy long-sleeved shirt and his dark pants. “Let’s just say people would look at me a lot differently if they could see me in a bathing suit.” Or naked, he thinks, although he's not going to add that particular part out loud. 

Hannibal’s gaze is considering, running up and down Will’s body in a languid movement. Will supposes the man is trying to deduce the exact placement of the mark and what its significance might be. He’s not vain enough to think Hannibal’s visualizing Will in a bathing suit—or anything less.

 

“I can imagine.” Hannibal murmurs lowly, reflective. “What is it?” It’s asked bluntly, and Will chuckles at the man’s uncharacteristic impoliteness to hide his own nervousness. It’s as though the good doctor cannot help himself, too excited to censer his response.

 

“That’s a rather personal question, isn’t it, Dr. Lecter?” He teases, echoing the man's words in a previous session. When Hannibal nods curtly, looking slightly chagrined, Will sighs and relents. “It’s fine, I trust you not to tell. I wouldn’t have told you otherwise. But… it might be easier just to show you. Would you mind?” He runs his hand along his buttons and Hannibal gives him an unreadable glance.

 

“Not at all.” He drawls after a weighty pause. Will stands and only realizes what a spectacularly bad idea it is to be stripping in front of a very straight male friend, let alone one who serves as an unofficial therapist, after half the buttons are undone.

 

Oh, god, what is he doing? He’s never shown anyone—one of the many, many reasons that he still remains as fumbling and unversed in the acts of romance as he was when he still thought girls had cooties. He’s never wanted to show anyone, even to make the pity go away. He can’t stand people looking at him on the best of days; laying himself bare like this is something that he never imagined he could be convinced to do. No, not convinced—he’d suggested it.

 

He glances at Hannibal, but the man seems unaffected, patiently watching Will’s face until the man is finished disrobing. Ever polite, Dr. Lecter, like he’s waiting in line at the bank instead of watching his not-patient strip. Crimson in embarrassment, Will continues. It’s the first time someone outside of his family will see the mark. That had been the first time he’d seen pity—on his mother’s face. He’s never seen pity in Hannibal, not once, and he thinks perhaps the emotion is too tacky for the man’s cultured sensibilities. He hopes it is.

 

Finally, Will pulls his shirt open with shaky fingers. There’s no way he can take it all the way off, not with the way he’s already trembling, and as soon as Hannibal gets a good look he’s going to button it up as fast as he can, but he can do this. He can do this much.

 

Hannibal looks… there’s no word for it, but enchanted might be close.

 

A web of pitch-black branches weaves all the way across his chest. He knows they continue around his back, delicate tendrils winding upwards around his shoulders and roots trailing tenderly down over his hips. Everywhere but his wrist, he’d said, and he’d been speaking the truth.

 

“A tree.” Hannibal murmurs.

 

Will glances down at his mark. It does indeed resemble a tree with crimson teardrop leaves (blood) clinging to the branches (antlers) and falling freely as they do in autumn (crimedesigndeathsomuchdeath). Exactly over his heart, a perfectly symmetrical facsimile of the organ—almost cartoonish, like some sort of bizarre Valentine—sits starkly against the branches winding around it.

 

“It’s beautiful, Will.” Hannibal speaks, real awe in his voice, and Will blushes. He is intensely grateful that Hannibal does not try to touch it; Will has more than met his quota for personal contact tonight and he’s already out of his element at the moment as is.

 

Will has often wondered sort of person his soulmate must be, to have cast such a sinister mark onto his skin. The larger the mark, the stronger the bond, the stronger the influence of the other partner. He thinks of the marks he’s seen—pastel flowers, shimmering butterflies, tender words of love and connection.

 

He gets a twisted tree right out of Halloween Town.

 

“Can I?” He asks, shrugging meaningfully, and at Hannibal’s slow nod he hurries to do the buttons up. He hesitates about sitting down again, but Hannibal gestures lazily to the unoccupied chair and it seems rude to refuse.

 

“Never in all my life have I met someone with a mark so magnificent.” Hannibal says. “Those who pity you are fools.” Will flushes brighter and ducks his head at the warm words. “And the one who holds your heart will be a very lucky soul indeed.” Will bites his lip at the intimate praise.

 

“He might not agree with you.” He admits lowly. Hannibal’s gaze sharpens, then. Will can feel it, even though he only manages to see the slight jerk of Hannibal’s chin, a minute sign of surprise.

 

“’He’?” Hannibal questions, and Will nods sheepishly.

 

“That’s not a problem, right?” He asks cautiously, shifting his gaze to Hannibal’s eyebrows, which are slightly furrowed. His somewhat nebulous sexual orientation is another thing he doesn’t share with people, less because they might be put off and more because it’s none of their business. Hannibal quickly waves off his concern.

 

“Not at all. Do not think so lowly of me, Will. I was simply considering the implications surrounding the pronoun.” He regards Will with shrewd eyes that narrow in suspicion after less than a moment. Will realizes he's been meeting Hannibal's eyes, and with a jolt of shock quickly lowers his gaze. “Will, do you know who your soulmate is?”

 

Will considers lying for all a moment. He knows that Hannibal will see through him, and he’s already tested the man’s patience by avoiding the truth once tonight.

 

“Yes.” He says quietly, a mass of tangled emotions caught in the word. He knows Hannibal can pick apart every one, like they're sitting under a microscope.

 

“And you haven't told him? He could not have refused you, that I am certain of.” Hannibal says as though the possibility is ludicrous. At Will’s baffled expression, Hannibal offers airily, “You are a treasure, good Will. No man with any sense could turn you away.” He considers Will for a moment. “Did you not like him? He didn’t hurt you, did he?” His face darkens slightly in way it does sometimes when he thinks Will isn’t watching. There is a contained sort of fierceness in Hannibal, like a predator that remains presently unprovoked but eternally poised to strike. Will can barely sense it most of the time, but it is certainly there now.

 

“No, no. It’s… we haven’t met.”

 

“You know him but you haven’t met? Are you sure?” Hannibal sounds bemused. Will nods miserably. “Why ever not?” Will looks down at his clasped, trembling hands.

 

“I know who he is—sort of—but not where he is. And…” He swallows. “It might not be a good idea to find out.” Hannibal regards him steadily. “He… I feel him, sometimes, even when I’m not trying to. He sort of… leaks through. I know it’s rare, but with my empathy and the strength of the bond… I feel him, and it’s… He’s only happy when he’s hurting people.”

 

“Will…” Hannibal begins carefully, a wealth of questions in the simple word. Will swallows again, clenches his hands so tight that the knuckles turn white.

 

“It’s the Ripper, Hannibal. My soulmate is the Chesapeake Ripper.” He’s never said it out loud. It sounds strange, echoing in the room even though it was uttered in a whisper.

 

“Is he?” The faintness of Hannibal’s reply startles Will, who flinches back in his chair. When he dares to look at Hannibal, he sees the strange blankness Hannibal had shown when when he’d revealed that he had a mark. It’s not shock really, Will muses. It’s more like Hannibal doesn’t quite know what expression to settle on, and so chooses none at all. Will’s heard about it with psychopaths—when they can’t read what emotion is expected in a certain situation in time, they shut down and show no emotion at all. It’s a defense mechanism, in a way. It’s safer than showing the wrong emotion and making people nervous. Nervous people notice more, more than you want them to.

 

And it’s true that the more Will gets to know Hannibal, the more he sees the way the man effortlessly manipulates others and wears more masks than can be found at a masquerade ball. It’s true that the man is cold rather than cool, and that he must have a morbid slant of mind if he’s willing to listen to Will’s rants about his crime scenes without comment. He shows several prominent signs of having antisocial personality disorder.

 

Then again, so does Will.

 

And it’s ridiculous when he thinks about it. Jesus, he can’t turn his twisted mind off for a second, can he? This is the man that watches Will’s dogs and feeds them homemade sausages, the one who brings Will protein scrambles in the morning and treats him to dinner when Will forgets to feed himself. He listens to Will and he never judges—indeed, he offers consolation, even when it creates inconvenience for him.

 

No, Hannibal is an odd man, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad one. Will himself rates pretty high on the crazy scale.

 

Still, even an odd man might think this is one step too odd for them, Will thinks. He eyes the door, ready to bolt once this calm before the storm fades. Hannibal’s going to emote eventually, and the likelihood of his reaction being one that doesn’t end well for Will is high.

 

He knew this was a bad idea, he’s so stupid. And now Hannibal’s going to tell Jack and everything will fall apart and—

 

“How do you know? Will, you must tell me how you know.” Hannibal's voice carries a quiet urgency, but still no anger or horror. Indeed, his intensity carries an almost serene quality.

 

Will risks a look. Hannibal looks remarkably composed, all of his earlier disquiet smoothed away and only the tightness of his shoulders betraying him. Will licks his lips, unsure how to proceed. He’s never had to explain it to someone else.

 

“He gets angry, a strange anger. It’s contained, focused, and yet shallow—more irritation than rage. And yet there’s an edge there, a primal hunger for violence that usually only accompanies true fury. But with him, even when he’s just mildly displeased, this bloodlust wells up, like something Pavlovian.” He shudders. “And then he gets happy. Sated. And then… then we find the body. It’s like clockwork.” He takes a deep breath, lets it out. “I didn’t know, at first, when I was younger. I thought maybe he just, I don’t know, meditated or something and the anger went away. When Jack brought me in on the case, I thought it was just coincidence, the first few times. And then it kept happening, and… I only realized recently. And now I look back and I remember all the times he’s sent me the hungry anger, and…I felt every time he was killing someone, and I didn’t know.”

 

“Will.” Hannibal murmurs as Will feels tears prick at his eyes, but now that Will’s started he can’t stop and there’s no one else he can tell and it’s eating him up inside.

 

“And I feel what he feels and it makes him so happy when he kills, it’s the only time he’s happy, and I… I feel happy too, even though I know what’s happening now. I can’t help it. I, I…” He only realizes that his trembling has progressed to full-body shudders when Hannibal takes and holds his hands to stop the tremors.

 

“Oh, Will. Dear Will. All this time you’ve been carrying this burden alone. You will never do so again, I swear to you.” His smile is slow and should be soothing, but instead it makes Will even more unsettled. He doesn’t know why. “I’m right here, Will. Right here with you.”

 


 

“What if he finds me?” Will whispers, daring to look at the Hannibal’s face. He needs to look, to be grounded in the serenity he finds there. Will never knew how much he needed this until he had it—someone to talk to. Someone to trust.

 

Hannibal doesn’t need to ask whom he’s referring to. The center of most of their discussions has become Will’s connection to the Chesapeake Ripper. Will is sure that the headaches, the hallucinations and fevered thoughts—no, not truly fevered, because Hannibal checks and it's never a fever because Will's mind is the fever—must be the result of the Ripper’s bond with him. He’s almost relieved at the thought. Even though it’s not a physical problem that he can fix with medicine, at least it’s not his own mind snapping.

 

It’s someone else snapping it for him.

 

“Is that a possibility? Do you have a stronger theory on who he may be?” Hannibal asks carefully, always treading lightly when it comes to the Ripper. Will shakes his head, frustrated.

 

“No, I mean, I know it’s him, but I can’t… it’s not like I get a face and a name, that’d be too easy. I just get impressions and… and the emotions, and they’re so strong. Hannibal, the hate and the wish for pain, they’re so strong they make me dizzy sometimes, and I keep thinking...What if I was the one making him angry? What would he do?”

 

“Do you think that he would hurt you, Will?” The man asks, sounding honestly curious and yet with very little in the way of concern. It’s a little unnerving, but then Will knows that Hannibal probably doesn’t want to spook him with too much worry on top of his own. Will immediately nods his head, then hesitates and shakes it.

 

“I don’t know. There’s so much cruelty in him, so much fury and coldness. A year ago I would have said yes without a doubt in my mind. But lately there’s more than the cold cruelty. There is a happiness now without the bloodlust, a calm sort of contentment that was never there before. And there are times… times that he seems almost… tender. I don’t know how, but something’s changing him.”

 

“It would have to take a remarkable thing indeed to change such a man.” Hannibal agrees mildly. “Perhaps he is thinking of you in these times of tenderness.” Will laughs, a little bitter.

 

“I don’t usually inspire such soft sentiment, and he doesn’t seem the type to entertain it." He says wryly. "Besides, I’m the one who’s trying to catch him. Even if he knew about me, I doubt that would win what little tenderness he possesses.” Hannibal hums, pensive.

 

“Perhaps. Perhaps he sees you as a worthy opponent as well as a possible equal. Perhaps he can feel your mind the way you feel his, and he appreciates it for its complexity and craft. Or maybe, dear Will, maybe he just likes you.”

 

Will cannot help but laugh again.

 

“I think you and Alana are the only ones in the world that like me.” He tells Hannibal honestly. “And it can’t be that he sees me like I see him. He can’t feel my mind at all, I can tell. I'm not even sure he even knows I exist, the connection's so one-way. There’s this wall keeping me out—keeping everyone out. It never cracks. I can’t help but feel… he might be lonely. Being alone for so long, even just inside your own head… I know what that’s like.”

 

“You empathize with him, even knowing what he’s done? Knowing his cruelty and seeing its fruits firsthand?” Hannibal presses gently, expression ever so even. Will nods, the quickness of his response shocking even himself.

 

“There’s so much more to him, Hannibal. I know it. I feel, when I think of him. He’s not good, I know that, but he’s… fascinating. Magnetic. As awful as it sounds, I think if I met him and didn’t know what he was, I would… I would like him.”

 

Hannibal does not tell him that is awful. Hannibal does not pull away in disgust and leave Will cold and alone. Hannibal does not tell Will that he is a freak for daring to imagine befriending a killer.

 

Hannibal does sigh, and rubs his thumb against the knuckles of Will’s hand with a touch so delicate it almost tickles. As it is, it just sends a tingling down Will’s arm that erupts in goose bumps.

 

When did they start holding hands? Will doesn’t remember reaching out, so it must have been Hannibal, but Will also doesn’t remember pulling away. He’s never not noticed someone touching him, and even now that he has he finds that he doesn’t mind the touch. He knows that he likes Hannibal, and that he trusts him, but this is a step that Will had not anticipated. He’s never trusted anyone at all, let alone this much.

 

When Will looks up, he sees that the man is smiling, one of the small but real ones that turn his eyes from maroon to something lighter, more vibrant.

 

(Blood.)

 

“Oh, my good Will.” Hannibal murmurs softly. “So much light in you, and yet enough darkness to offer love to a monster.” His smile widens a little, wistful. “To make a monster love where before there has only been dark.” Will makes a small sound of alarm, shaking his head.

 

“I-I never said love.” He stutters. Just because a mark (all over his body, smothering, covering, cradling) tells him that this man is his perfect match doesn’t mean it’s true. “He doesn’t love me. How could he love me, when we've never even met?” Hannibal smiles patiently.

 

“You will. It’s quite inevitable at this point.” He says with a startling amount of certainty—but then everything Hannibal does is certain, meticulously planned and executed with the skill only a surgeon possesses. He is never unsure of anything he does or says. After a moment, Hannibal then cocks his head to the side, thoughtful. “And I think he will, in time, grow to care. Even monsters may love. And you, Will, are very easy to love.”

 

Will turns red, eyes going anywhere but Hannibal’s face and shifting in his seat.

 

He does not pull his hands away.

 

“Hannibal, I, that is, I—“ Hannibal laughs not unkindly at his disquiet.

 

“It is a general observation, Will, not a personal declaration. Although I do admit that I hold you in high regard as my friend.” He puts casual emphasis on the last word. Will calms slightly when it is clear that he’s not going to have to deal with a surprise romantic overture.

 

Still, in that one moment, it hadn’t entirely been panic he was feeling. There had been something like… exhilaration. Will examines the strange emotion carefully. Hannibal is his friend, of course, and Will has a fierce loyalty towards the few friends he has. He’s already admitted to himself once this night that he likes Hannibal, likes that the man can make him feel more comfortable than even Alana can, that Will can sit with him for hours and still not want to run away and hide under a bed somewhere.

 

Hannibal makes him happy, happier than Will has been in a long time. He even makes Will laugh, offering bursts of the surprisingly morbid humor that Will himself is partial to. He makes Hannibal laugh, or at least he has once or twice, and the sound is as unexpected as it is pleasant. Hannibal’s house isn’t home, but it almost is, and that in and of itself is strange and yet…natural. Everything about Hannibal is so natural. Will is drawn in despite himself.

 

He thinks that if given the chance, he could grow to care for Hannibal, to the point that if the man did give a personal declaration, Will might be able to return it.

 

As if the Ripper would let him.

 

“If he finds me, he’ll never let me go, will he?” Will whispers, dread clawing its way through his stomach to his throat. He forces out the words through the tight terror. “He’ll either kill me or keep me, but he’ll never let me go.” Hannibal regards him solemnly from over their joined hands.

 

“I do not think it is in his nature.” Hannibal admits quietly.

 

Will remembers vaguely a book he'd read as a child, the story of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion needs to cross a river, but he cannot swim. He finds a frog and tricks him into helping, promising favors and friendship and all manner of wonderful things. They get almost halfway across the river, where the water is at it's very deepest, before the scorpion stings the frog despite his many promises not to. As the frog is dying, he asks the scorpion why he stung when he knew it would mean the scorpion's own death. The scorpion replies simply: it is in my nature. They are both doing what is in their natures, and it kills them both.

 

Will swallows down the terror, already feeling phantom water filling his lungs.

 

But am I the scorpion or the frog? He wonders. The predator or the prey?

 

“If I can find him first…” he muses slowly. “If I can find him, catch him, then he won't be able to follow me. I can get away.” He can feel Hannibal’s gaze, heavy on his skin, but he doesn’t dare meet his eyes.

 

“Is that what you want, Will? To get away?” Hannibal asks quietly, voice unreadable. Will clenches his eyes shut, wanting to tear at his hair and vaguely grateful yet frustrated that Hannibal’s hold stops him.

 

“I don’t know!” He all but wails. “I should. The things he’s done… Most days I think I do, but then I think of the softness and the solitude that he keeps hidden, and I want…” He breathes out slowly, gathering his treacherous thoughts and offering them to Hannibal to pick apart and condemn. “I don’t think he is the sort of creature that can be put in a cage. Catching him would be killing him, and I don’t… I don’t want him to die.”

 

Hannibal says nothing, obviously sensing that Will is not done sounding out his thoughts, the ones he’s only considered in the darkest parts of the night when they haunt him like waking nightmares.

 

“What does that make me, a man that wants to save a murderer? A man that wants to know him, understand him? A man who thinks that he can?” He laughs grimly. “What sort of person has a serial killer for a soulmate?”

 

“A very special one.” Hannibal tells him with terse primness, and Will laughs again at the ridiculousness of that statement. Oh, sure, Will’s special all right—the sort of special that gets you a padded room and a straightjacket for the rest of your unbearably long life. “Will, is it that you fear that your connection with this man will make you a killer as well?”

 

“I already am a killer.” Will reminds him tonelessly, remembering the goblin grin of Hobbes’ ghost that looms in the corner of his vision everywhere he goes.

 

“Not in self-defense. The kind of killer that he is. You know that.” Hannibal chides him for his evasion, and Will swallows, closing his eyes. He makes himself think, truly think about it for the first time. Hannibal deserves the truth.

 

“I don’t think I could do what he does.” He ventures slowly. “I don’t like people most of the time, but I don’t want to hurt them—not permanently, at least. But still…” Hannibal leans forward just a little, nodding encouragingly. Will bites his lip. “When I see the things he makes, I don’t feel repulsed. I see… beauty, in what he does. Artistry done with a true talent, a symphony conducted by a maestro. It’s gruesome, and I mourn for the victims in a shallow way that only a stranger can, but the whole time…I can’t look away.”

 

He open his eyes and looks at Hannibal, desperate. The man’s face is once again blank, in the way that makes Will think he must be hiding very carefully what he feels. Will cannot help but worry that it’s for his benefit, that Hannibal is trying very hard not to show just how Will’s gruesome statements affect him. It’s more consideration than anyone else affords him, but the thought that Hannibal has to lie upsets him.

 

“Every time I see one of his kills, I have to face that I’m just as much of a monster as he is. I’m just a different kind.”

 

“Oh, Will.” Hannibal, smiles at him, blank face seeming to decide on gentle compassion. He looks intently at Will with something brewing in his eyes, something at odd with the gentleness of his words. Disgust, maybe? Fear? Both seem to be emotions that Hannibal eschews. “May I?” The gesture he makes, pulling Will towards him with their linked hands, speaks for itself. Will hesitates, because he’s never wanted anything like this before, but he realizes that he wants it now, suddenly and without reason, and he nods.

 

He allows himself to be pulled to his feet and towards Hannibal, nearly collapsing beside the man in his spacious, too-soft chair. The doctor shifts so that he can tuck Will into his side, and Will is shocked at how perfectly they fit together. Like puzzle pieces. He rests his head on Hannibal’s shoulder, both for comfort and so that there is no chance the man can try to meet his eyes, and breathes out shakily. Hannibal has one arm wrapped around him waist and another stroking his hair, careful and kind.

 

Will has taken comfort in the steady rise and fall of his dogs’ breathing, the pressing warmth of their soft bodies around him like a shield, but having a person who can hold him back is… different. With anyone else, he thinks it would be unendurably awkward, almost painful, but he has just told Hannibal his darkest thoughts and the man has accepted them with open arms—just literally now in addition to figuratively. He can trust Hannibal.

 

Hannibal won’t hurt him.

 

Probably.

 

They stay there for an indeterminate amount of time, Will focusing on matching his breathing to Hannibal’s and slowly, slowly letting the tension drain out of his body. He does not tell Hannibal that he is comparing his embrace to Will’s dogs’. If he did, he is quite sure he would find himself on the floor and out the door in short order, and he sort of… likes it here. He never would have thought it was possible.

 

Is this the sort of thing that friends do for each other? Will's never had one long enough to ask.

 

“When you find him, please consider telling him what you have just told me. If he is as lonely as you say, I think they will be the sweetest words he will ever hear.” Hannibal murmurs into his hair. The sensation sends chills down the back of Will’s neck, but not entirely ones born of nerves—at least, not the kind he’s used to.

 

“Me saying that I’m a monster will be the sweetest thing he’ll ever hear?” Will asks, scathingly doubtful. Hannibal chuckles.

 

“We are all searching for someone whose demons play well with ours.” He quotes easily, and Will huffs a breath of laughter against the column of the man’s neck. Hannibal responds by tilting his head so that it rests on Will’s, tucking him even closer. Will sighs.

 

“Do you really think he would listen? That he might… like me?” Hannibal’s quiet inhale is buried in the bird’s nest of Will’s hair. Will bites his lip against the crushing realization of how pathetic he must sound, whining about whether a serial killer will like him, like he’s some sort of lovestruck tween girl.

 

“I have told you already how simple a thing it would be to love you.” Hannibal reminds Will. Will sighs.

 

“And I still don’t buy it, but even if it’s true, I don’t think the Ripper loves the way other people do.” Hannibal's hand stills, fingers still tangled in Will's hair.

 

“Oh? How so?” Will frowns, thinking. He's not quite sure how to put it. He knows what he wants to say, but it's hard to find the words to explain it to someone else. Finally he takes a deep breath and tries.

 

“Most people love in a soft way. They want warmth and comfort and something natural. They might even think that their love is selfless, although I don’t think that’s always true. But the Ripper…I think that he loves like… like a battlefield. There’s blood and pain and every inch he gains he will never give back. I think he might even approach it with a plan, a strategy. Impulsiveness has no place in his affections. Like his art—his murders, I mean. He sees them as art.” Will scrambles to cover his slip, and then realizes that he doesn’t really need to. He’s already told Hannibal that he finds what the Ripper does as bewitching as he does brutal. The man knows how twisted up Will is about this.

 

“You seem quite well versed on the matter. Have you felt this sort of love from him? Perhaps recently?” Hannibal urges gently. “You’ve said that you’ve felt a new sort of tenderness. Perhaps the Ripper has finally been tamed.” Will laughs.

 

“Tamed? Someone like him can never be tamed. I don’t even know if what he’s feeling right now is love. He still gets angry and hungry just like before, but then there are times...” He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

 

“I wonder. Can you tell me what he’s feeling right now?” Hannibal asks idly. When Will jerks, Hannibal soothes him with a gentle hand down his back. “Just a thought experiment. You’ve said that he cannot feel you, so I do not think you will risk revealing yourself.” He makes it sound so easy.

 

"I don't think I should. I don't even know if I could." He could. Will can feel too much already—if he looked, it might be a million times worse. Hannibal sighs and strokes his back again.

 

"It's alright, Will. It's just a harmless little test." Hannibal encourages him kindly. "I know you can do it." Will hesitates. Hannibal sounds so warm, so certain that Will's going to succeed. And Will wants...

 

“Okay. I can try.” He still thinks it’s a remarkably bad idea, but he shuts his eyes and reaches. It’s easier than it ever has been, trying to find the Ripper. He’s somehow closer, and Will isn’t sure that it’s a good thing. He pushes only a little bit, more a nudge than anything else, and he has only a moment to realize that something is different before everything shifts. It feels like a gear shifting into place, a lock clicking open—like thin ice cracking under his feet. He falls.

 

There is a rush against his mind, all the feelings pushing in at once, a glacier melting into a flood.

 

He gasps, jerking in Hannibal’s hold once again. He might have fallen to the floor if the man wasn’t holding him so tightly.

 

“Will? Are you alright?” Hannibal prompts, sounding a little alarmed (but not enough, not quite enough). “What are you feeling?” Will swallows, still a little lost in the feeling.

 

“It’s nothing like… oh, God. It’s like looking at the sun. It’s so bright, and it hurts a little, but it’s so bright. Hannibal, I can’t…” He shivers, even though he’s warm, so warm, the sun beating down on him from the inside out. “It’s beautiful.”

 

The feeling shifts again as though it can hear him, deepens. He feels the heart painted on his chest warm against his skin as though bathed in the sunlight, warmer and warmer until it stings against his chest like hot metal on a summer day—too hot, it burns.

 

Metal. Iron. It feels like sun-warm-hot iron. Blood. Hot blood, vital red pulsing and choking and drowning him and he’s the frog, he’s the frog and the feeling is filling him like venom and he can’t breathe, it’s too much and not enough and it loves him but it’s killing him and—

 

The abyss gazes also into you.

 

He shuts off the connection, slams the door shut and padlocks it and throws away the key. He realizes that he’s breathing too hard, raggedly against the skin of Hannibal’s throat. It is too quiet, the ticking of the clock deafening in the silence.

 

“He saw me.” Will says numbly. Even now, when he’s trying so hard not to, he can feel the Ripper’s presence along the edges of his consciousness. Prowling like a tiger pacing in a cage, but he sees the bars now, sees the door and it’s only a matter of time before he finds a way out. A way in. Will’s poked and prodded at the wall for years and he’s been wearing it away bit by bit without even knowing. Now it’s fading when he needs it most, dissolving like spun sugar in a tsunami.

 

“Hannibal, he sees me. How can he see me? He’s never seen me before. He couldn’t. He can’t. But I broke the wall and he sees now. He sees and he knows and he’s going to find me and I can’t—“ He pauses in his frantic babbling, inhales in realization. He sees.

 

There’s a sort of manic, fierce energy filling him and he pushes back against the presence, hard. He can feel all the scratches and scars that were hidden to him before. The connection is open, but a connection goes both ways, now doesn’t it?

 

“I can find him first.” He realizes in a burst of elation, premature victory. “I can see him now, see him clearly, and it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it? Before I find him. He can’t hide anymore. I can—“ He pushes again, filling all the empty places like filling a mold. He can make a cast, a mental pattern, a design, and then he can find someone who fits.

 

Cinderella’s slipper, he thinks a little hysterically. Though neither one of us is quite Prince Charming, are we?

 

And it starts taking shape, in his mind. A sly sense of cunning, a sort of lofty humor that few can appreciate. A mind like a steel trap, sharp and dangerous when triggered. Surgical precision, in every aspect of his life. Clever hands, always moving, molding, making. A smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. An undercurrent of lulling tranquility, even when he’s... working—soothing, sedating the most skittish of creatures.

 

He’s not good, I know that, but as awful as it sounds, I think if I met him and didn’t know what he was, I would… I would like him.

 

If I met him, I would like him. If I met him. If I met—

 

“You have more than one trick up your sleeve, don’t you, Dr. Lector?” He says, numb, turning his head just a little to see the black wrist band he'd dismissed so easily before.

 

(Will has come up with theories on what black could mean. None of them are good. Black and red and nothing else.).

 

“Oh, Will.” It’s like the prick of a needle against the meat of his mind, a cool rush of calm in the fevered flailing of his thoughts. Will finds himself going still, almost boneless against Hannibal. The deluge (anticipation, approval, exultation, see me, save me, love me, please) of the Ripper’s thoughts in his mind slows to a trickle (affection, indulgence, arrogance, mine, mine, mine).“My stubborn little mongoose. Always too clever for your own good.”

 

Will attempts to pull away, and to his surprise Hannibal lets him. Will realizes why a moment later, when his legs fold under him and he falls forward. Hannibal catches him easily, pulling Will back into his lap and arranging him like a rag-doll, legs just so and arms around his neck. Will doesn’t think he could stay upright if he let go, so he clings exactly like Hannibal knows he will and watches the smile spreading across Hannibal’s full lips.

 

“There. Much better, don’t you think?”

 

Will hadn't felt something like the prick of a needle, as he’d thought before. He looks down at the syringe held between elegant fingers.

 

“Flunitrazepam. Hypnotic, anxiolytic, relaxation of skeletal muscle. Amnestic.” He guesses, numb tongue struggling to form the words. A bitter breath of laughter leaves his lips. “Really, Hannibal? A roofie?”

 

“Chloroform is risky at the best of times, and a little too quick.” Hannibal tells him offhandedly, and of course he'd know, wouldn't he? “I would hate to cut our conversation short. So, Will, what sort of tricks do you think I have up my sleeve?” Warm fingers tilt his face up, making it impossible to avoid looking no matter how hard Will might try.

 

Will doesn't try. There’s nothing in Hannibal's eyes that he doesn’t already know is there, after all. No more secrets to find.

 

“Show me.” Will orders. To his annoyance, it comes out more plaintive than accusatory. Hannibal chuckles, obviously hearing the same tone, but obediently lifts his arm into Will’s sight and slowly peels away the band.

 

Nothing. Smooth, pale skin and nothing else. Will closes his eyes briefly, the pain he feels at the blank flesh unexpected. Why would he want to be bound to this man anymore than he already is?

 

But he is bound, and he knows what binds him.

 

“Only known cases found in diagnosed sociopaths with criminal histories.” Will scoffs. “I feel what you feel, Dr. Lecter, and you are no sociopath.”

 

“I think I’ll take that as a compliment.” Hannibal tells him lightly. “You do bring out the best in me, Will.” He lowers his arm, smiling indulgently at Will like he’s done a cute little trick. “You’re right, of course. Much like you, my own mark is somewhat… unique. Would you like to see?”

 

“No.” Will lies. Hannibal’s lip quirk knowingly and he moves, carefully lifting Will and placing him against the plush chair so that he remains upright. He moves to stand in front of him, and in a bizarre mirroring of Will’s own reveal, he slowly unbuttons his shirt.

 

“It's not a strip tease.” Will speaks slowly so that each word is clear and cutting. Hannibal smirks, sharp and smoldering, and goes even slower than before.

 

“I wasn’t lying when I said that it was nothing more than a blemish. It's always felt dead to me." Hannibal tells him absently as he works. "To be honest, I thought they might be dead, when I bothered to think about it all.” Will winces. That’s fairly harsh, even considering the circumstances. Hannibal’s smile is nothing like his cruel words, soft and serene. “And then I met you.”

 

“How. Romantic.” Will grits out. Hannibal laughs.

 

“It rather was, actually. Meeting you was the first time I'd ever cared about who I might be bonded with. I thought I might kill them if they weren't already dead, because they would never quite measure up and it was really quite rude of them to be so late." He sighs. "But then you showed me. You keep your heart hidden.” He tilts his head, smiling in reminiscence. “We’re both of us hiding, aren’t we Will? Wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

 

He lets shirt hang open, and Will sees. There, directly over Hannibal’s heart, there is a crimson hand print. In the center, a paw print overlaps, black as pitch. A wolf’s print, trapped.

 

“Caught red-handed.” Will muses with a hiccuping laugh. His whole body shakes with the thing, like a sob. Wolf traps and red hands and antlers and blood. Red and black. Passion and something darker.

 

“A bit crude, but evocative nonetheless.” Hannibal agrees., shrugging. “I wonder…” He kneels in front of Will, not a hint of subjugation in the movement, and takes one of Will’s hands gently in his own. Will watches, entranced, as Hannibal places it over the print on his chest.

 

Cinderella’s slipper. Will thinks, a little hysterically. A perfect fit.

 

“I thought so.” Hannibal says warmly. “Lock and key. And now that you’ve opened the door, there’s no need for you to hide anymore, Will. We both see each other now.”

 

“Your. Design.” Will hisses. It's harder to form words, now. He has to concentrate on forcing out each one without slurring. Hannibal nods indulgently, still holding Will’s hand to his chest. His other hand moves up to stroke along the back, tenderly trailing fingers over each knuckle.

 

“I know you won’t remember this, but I want to tell you that I am so very glad that it’s you." Hannibal tells him fondly. "Oh, and I am rather glad that you’re not dead, as I’d previously assumed. Let’s try to keep it that way, yes?” He pats Will’s hand patronizingly. Will shoots him as derisive a look as he can, considering his eyes can't keep focused for more than a moment.

 

“I’ll know. Remember.” Hannibal nods agreeably.

 

“I believe your epiphany occurred before the administering of the Flunitrazepam, so you’re correct. Well, under normal circumstances you would be. But we're neither of us normal, are we?”

 

“What?” Will asks, a sense of dread barely managing to surface before it is submerged in the serene stupor once again. Hannibal reaches forward and places his free hand against Will’s own chest, directly over the heart mark with eerie accuracy. There is a strange sort of strange pulse that travels down from Hannibal's fingertips to Will's heart, his whole body shivering in response.

 

Tingling shocks race across his mark, snaking sinuously over the curves of his tree's branches (antlers).

 

“Your mind is so malleable, Will.” Hannibal murmurs tenderly. “It’s part of what makes you so charming. Let’s see just how malleable it can be, shall we?"

 

“You…” Will stops, shakes his head as another wave of cool cloudiness hits him. For a moment, he looks at his hand on Hannibal’s chest and he doesn’t remember how it got there. Everything feels so muddled. Like he’s dreaming.

 

“That’s right.” Hannibal murmurs, pressing a little harder. “Charming, Will. Absolutely charming.”

 

The larger the mark, the stronger the bond, the stronger the influence of the other partner. Will's heard stories of some pairs being able to share thoughts and even memories in addition to emotions. 

 

He’s taking it away, Will thinks in dawning horror. He’s taking this whole night away. It’s not just his feelings that are no longer safe. It’s his memories, his thoughts. What little of his mind he has left.

 

“You’ve had a trying night. I think it might be best if you slept here tonight. You're certainly in no condition to drive home in your current state.” Hannibal’s voice is soothing and indulgent. Hypnotic, a snake charming a mongoose back into its basket.

 

Another pulse of the strange static running through his veins and over his skin. Another moment of time fades.

 

“No…” Will protests, but he can’t quite remember why. After all, he’s still tired from his nap and Hannibal just wants him to be safe and happy, doesn’t he? Why is Will fighting him? Wouldn’t it be easier to…“Get out of my head.” He hisses, shaking it to try and clear away the crushing cobwebs.

 

Hannibal smiles up at Will benevolently.

 

“You’ve just woken from a nightmare, after all, and you’re still a bit disoriented.” He narrates in that same soothing tone, ignoring Will’s command. Will can almost see it now, those antlers that haunt his dreams blossoming behind his eyes. Just a dream, a nightmare. Another pulse, a wave beating on the shore and wearing away what fragile castles have been built in the sand. “I must say I feel honored that you feel safe enough to fall asleep in my presence. It shows an incredible amount of trust.”

 

Will blinks incredulously at the gall of this statement, but finds it hard to open his eyes afterwards. He’s so tired… When he does manage to, he finds Hannibal still smiling at him, soft like he's got a secret.

 

He should be terrified. He’s not sure why, but he should be. There’s something in his mind now, something that wasn’t there before—a killer, a murderer, a scorpion crawling through his mind and spreading poison as it goes.

 

He’s never felt so relaxed in his life.

 

“Please don’t.” He whispers as he feels the memory of Hannibal’s bright-warm-hot-metal mind fading away, setting like a dying sun. He’s reduced to begging, but he can’t lose this. Even if Hannibal takes away Will’s memories of the Ripper, he can’t lose the feeling of realizing that someone truly sees him and loves him anyway. No one has ever loved him as much as Hannibal does (so much red).

 

Hannibal’s smile softens further, compassionate.

 

“You feel what I feel, Will. That won’t change." He promises gently. "It will just require some… monitoring, from now on. Some remedial sessions when your head catches up with your heart.” Hannibal smirks up at Will in a way that is not nearly as reassuring as he seems to think it is. “Now that I know how simple it is, you needn’t fret. It will be quick and painless—you won’t feel a thing. Or think a thing, I suppose I should say.”

 

“Please.” Will asks again, all he can manage with his heavy tongue. He’s not sure what he’s asking for anymore. Maybe for a bed to stay the night in? After all, he’s just woken from a nightmare, and he’s still a bit disoriented. He really shouldn’t be driving in his current state.

 

(Not a nightmare. Real. Remember.)

 

“I’ll make it a dream, Will, one you can’t quite recall. Something nice, a lullaby to put you to sleep.”

 

Will doesn’t even notice that Hannibal's risen, that he’s being pulled to his feet. When his legs fold again, Hannibal scoops him up without missing a beat. Will looks at the clock on the wall and thinks in his mind: My name is Will Graham. I am in Baltimore, Maryland. It is 2:30 AM, and I'm missing something more than time. 

 

“You must be very tired, Will.” Hannibal says, cradling Will in his arms as he heads towards the stairs, the clock getting smaller and smaller until Will can’t read the numbers anymore. How can he know that he's not crazy if he can't see the numbers? Will whimpers, and Hannibal hums sympathetically. “Let me help you.”

 

No one can help me. Will thinks, and the terror seems far away in his tranquil mind, muffled, just the dregs of a bad dream. He feels tired, and warm, and cared for (too much care, pointed edges pinning him down like a butterfly in a shadow box, locked away behind glass and safe, don’t you want to be safe, Will, away from the messy, cruel, ugly world?).

 

He feels himself being laid down on a soft bed, the covers pulled up like a funeral shroud over a corpse—a victim. Hannibal smiles down at him and presses a brief kiss to his sweat-damp forehead.

 

“There, see? You need your sleep, Will.” There’s something strange about Hannibal’s smile. It’s too big and too sharp and it doesn’t fit right on his face, sewed on sloppily and somehow more real than any other smile he’s ever seen. “Don’t resist what your mind is telling you. Is it such a bad thing, to be sent sweet dreams by a gentle hand?”

 

Yes. Will wants to say. Yes, because you’re not gentle and you will pull me apart, piece by piece, until there’s nothing left of me. I will not be safe in my own mind, not ever again. And I can't even remember why.

 

But it is gentle, he thinks (not him, someone else, already losing ground in the battle for his mind). It’s so gentle. Will’s last thought before he fades is that it feels like… it feels like…

 

Like slipping into a warm bath.