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Taken for Rubies

Chapter Text

Who can find a good woman? For her price is far above rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

*

Branches tapped against the tall windows of Hannibal’s office, invisible outside in the dark. Will stared past Hannibal at the blank glass.

“We spoke before, briefly, of your family,” Hannibal said.

“We did.”

“You were reluctant to discuss your early life.”

“Still am.”

“You lived with your father.”

“Until I was sixteen.”

“You moved often.”

“If you can call it moving when you live in a pay by the month motel and all your stuff fits in a suitcase and a cardboard box.”

“Did you wish for things to be different?”

Will shrugged. “It was the way things were. I didn’t think about it much.”

“And when you did?”

The tip of a twig scraped across glass. Will listened to the high, eerie noise it produced. He thought back to similar nights, waiting for his dad to come home, hearing things move outside in the dark.

“I watched a lot of TV,” he said. “Sometimes I wished it was like that. Mom at home, Dad with a steady job, nice house, everyone around the dinner table every night. But I think I knew that was bullshit even then.”

“Is it?”

“No one’s life is really like that,” Will said, and he could hear the bitterness in his voice and how much he was giving away. He decided not to care. Hannibal had heard much worse from him. “Dad hits Mom, or Mom hits the kids. Someone gets a coke habit. They can’t pay the mortgage. Happy families on the outside, quiet desperation on the inside.”

“The idealized situations you saw on television as a child have embedded themselves into this nation’s collective unconscious. The resentment when they fail to materialize is often more damaging than any other obstacle encountered in a relationship.”

“Because it’s just a fantasy. It’s not real.”

“What if it were? Is that something you would want? Your wife waiting at the door with a drink when you came home from work, dinner in the oven?”

Will smiled a little. “I think we were watching different shows. I didn’t grow up on Leave It to Beaver or wherever you’re getting that from.”

“You might be surprised how many men have sat where you are sitting and described that to me as their ideal.”

“Well, it’s not mine.”

“Perhaps the other way around then.”

Will had kept his eyes on the dark windows, but now he looked back to Hannibal with a frown. “What?”

“Perhaps you find it easier to see yourself in the role of caretaker. Tending the home fires, waiting for your partner’s return from battle.”

Will struggled with his own expression and didn’t dare look at Hannibal’s. He kept his mouth shut. Anything he said would sound defensive.

Hannibal leaned forward in his chair. “Your empathy makes you unusually aware of the needs of others. Perhaps you would prefer to fulfill them rather than have someone tend to your own.”

Memory caught at him abruptly, an unexpected hook in the bait. “I used to do it for my dad," he said slowly. "Put a couple beers in the fridge for him, find the game on TV so he wouldn’t have to look for it when he came home.”

"Did he thank you for it?"

"Why would he?"

"Gratitude would be the appropriate response," Hannibal said mildly. "The polite response."

"You couldn’t say much for my dad’s manners."

“Do you still wish to fulfill the needs of others?”

“That’s why I came to dinner at your house the first time.”

Hannibal blinked slowly once. “Because I needed you there?” he said, slight emphasis on need, as if he was considering the idea.

“Dad didn’t need a beer after work, but it sure put him in a better mood.”

“It’s an interesting comparison to make. I don’t feel particularly paternal toward you.”

“Good. Then you won’t expect filial piety in return.”

Hannibal’s tongue touched his bottom lip, and Will watched the wet shine it left behind. He uncrossed his legs and leaned back in the chair.

“Do you feel the need to improve my mood?” Hannibal asked. “To appease me?”

“It’s not about appeasement.”

“A gift then. An offering.”

“My company isn’t a gift.”

“That’s a matter of opinion, I think.”

Will shifted in his chair and passed a hand over his mouth. It was half a desire to prove Hannibal wrong and half a desire to be proven wrong himself that made him ask: “Do you want to come to my house? For dinner. Friday.”

Hannibal smiled very slightly. “I would like that very much, Will. Thank you.”

*

Hannibal stood in his wine cellar and touched the bottles on the high shelves one by one. Eye level was for everyday vintages. The top shelf held the best he had, wine worth hundreds or thousands and certainly worth more attention than it would receive at Will’s table.

It wasn’t the first time Hannibal had been tempted to throw his best at Will’s feet, knowing it would be neither recognized nor acknowledged. It was the oddest sensation, the desire to give without receiving, to do it in secret. The same desire had spurred him to kill Cassie Boyle and Marissa Schurr.

He resisted this time. Will had the oddest collection of knowledge stored away in his head. If he did, by chance, recognize the label, it would not create the impression Hannibal intended.

He knelt instead and inspected the lower shelves, with their dust covered bottles and cheaply printed labels. The last of his stock from the family vineyards, decent but not exceptional. A gesture Will would appreciate far more than the 1947 Cheval Blanc on the top shelf, if Hannibal ever told him where it had come from.

*

Will left work on Friday with a loose plan involving striped bass and roasted potatoes. Simple, straightforward stuff. Trying to live up to Hannibal’s standards would only end in disaster. He was home by four, which should’ve been plenty of time, but the more he looked at his house, the more he inevitably saw it through Hannibal’s eyes: the dog hair, the dust, the piles of books, the empty glasses.

It started with carrying the glasses back to the kitchen and doing his breakfast dishes and a futile attempt to sweep at least the area around the kitchen table. It ended with enough dog hair to make another dog and him vaguely sweaty and more than vaguely irritated with himself.

He hadn’t planned to clean. The house wasn’t dirty. Messy, all right, and the dog hair built up, but it wasn’t as if Hannibal had never seen it before. It wasn’t as if Will had any thought of impressing him, except that clearly he did. More accurately, he had no chance of impressing him.

He put the broom firmly back in the closet and started dinner.

As he chopped potatoes, he tried to recall the precise moment and emotion that had led him to issue the invitation: the odd combination of peace and turmoil that he had felt in Hannibal’s office more than once. It was a haven and a shipwreck all in one.

He dropped the potatoes into the pot and rinsed off the knife. It was a good knife. Old now, but solid and sharp. The little—very little—cooking he’d done as a child had been with cheap ones, plastic handles and wobbly blades, often taken from previous rentals or left by previous tenants.

He remembered one with a bright orange handle that had snapped and cut his thumb open. He’d bled heavily on the apple he’d meant for his dad’s lunch. No one had been happy that morning.

Hannibal had asked if his father had been grateful. Will couldn’t remember ever having considered that as a possibility. He hadn’t done any of it it for gratitude.

*

Hannibal arrived just before seven and greeted the dogs patiently at the door. He handed over a bottle of wine.

“If it doesn’t suit your menu, please save it for another occasion,” he said.

“Why don’t you tell me if it suits my menu. That seems safer.”

“Fish? Yes, I believe it will do nicely.”

Will turned and frowned at the kitchen, but the bass was marinating in the fridge like it was supposed to be. “How—?”

“The scent.”

Hannibal’s expression said he knew Will would have questions, and therefore Will elected not to ask them. He opened the wine instead and poured a glass for each of them.

“I’ll get it in the oven,” he said. “You can sit, or… Or whatever you want.”

Hannibal leaned against his kitchen counter. Will couldn’t help noting the faint crease in his shirt, the less than perfectly crisp pocket square, the five o’clock shadow. He must’ve come straight from the office.

“Long day?” he asked, and closed his eyes briefly. Too many connotations to that question after their last conversation. Hannibal home from work, Will with dinner waiting.

“Do I look so tired?” Hannibal asked, warmth in his voice and creases around his eyes.

“A little,” he said, and put the bass in the oven so he didn’t have to look at Hannibal when he said it. “I assume even you have a bad day once in a while.”

“Perhaps it was long. My profession provides its own trials. There is a patient I expect I’ll need to refer to someone else shortly.”

“What does it take to get you to give up on someone?”

"Our relationship has become such that I believe he's no longer benefiting from our time together."

Will started the salads and picked his way through that sentence. "Did he hit on you?"

"What makes you say that?"

“Relationship is a nice way of referring to his personal feelings for you, since you obviously don't have any for him. I can't imagine any amount of antagonism would put you off, so he doesn't dislike you. He likes you too much."

"Astute as always. But no, he didn't make romantic advances. He wants to be my friend, and that's not possible."

"Why not? We're friends." Will paused for a second with his knife blade about to pierce another tomato. Hannibal had told him that at least a dozen times. It shouldn’t feel so dangerous to say it out loud.

“You said it yourself. I have no personal feelings for him.”

“And you do for me.”

“Does that surprise you?”

Will glanced at him and then quickly away. He went to set the table. “No,” he said. “Not at all.”

He finished cooking, and they sat down together.

Will had never given a second thought to using paper napkins until he saw Hannibal unfold one and smooth it into his lap with the same practiced gesture he used for his own at home. The weight and thickness of the cloth pressed against Will’s fingers in his mind.

"This is very good, Will. Thank you," Hannibal said.

Will couldn’t answer. He was too caught up in memory and in the soft glow of this moment, somehow tinted by nostalgia, as if it were already lost to him.

Hannibal was pouring them more wine, asking him what he thought of the case they’d just wrapped up. The lost boys.

“His parents want him back,” Will said.

“Did you think they wouldn’t?”

“I didn’t think they’d fight so hard. They’ve got a boatload of lawyers. And it’s not like he’d be a ward of the state forever. They’ll bankrupt themselves to get him home a few months sooner.”

“He is their child. Wouldn’t your father have done the same?”

“I was put into foster care five times between the ages of four and twelve. What does that tell you?”

“It tells me that he got you back.”

Will raised his glass, conceding the point for the moment. “Would your parents have done that for you?”

Hannibal looked past him and swirled his wine gently in his glass. He set it down and took a bite before he answered. “They would have, yes. Out of duty if nothing else. For my sister, they would have done it without question or reserve.”

“Which part of that sentence am I supposed to ask about?”

“That’s up to you. Conversation is a dance, and dancing requires a partner.”

“Someone usually leads.”

“I usually lead. But this is your home, not my office.”

“You’re my guest.”

Hannibal nodded once, but said nothing.

“So I should change the subject, not take the bait. Do the polite thing and not press you.” 

One corner of Hannibal’s mouth twitched upward. “Your manners often leave something to be desired. Perhaps I’m counting on that.”

Will shook his head. “Too easy. Nothing’s ever easy with you.”

“Or with you.” 

“I was an awful kid,” Will said. “Bet you were too. I don’t really need to ask why you think your parents would’ve gotten you back out of duty, do I?” 

“I was difficult,” Hannibal admitted.

“They didn’t understand you.”

“Doesn’t every child believe that of his parents, sooner or later?”

“Some sooner than others.” Will pointed his fork at him. “All right. If I’m leading this conversation, your typical day back then. Go.” 

Hannibal considered for a moment. “We had an apartment in town, but all summer and most of the autumn we stayed in a house in the woods. We rose early. My mother cooked breakfast, usually porridge of some sort. Sometimes my father drove me to school in town, but more often I walked. I preferred it. The journey through the woods, the emergence into the light of society and education. A daily progression through savagery to civilization.”

“You thought about that on the way to school when you were nine,” Will said flatly. 

Hannibal smiled. “Perhaps not in so many words. But the sense of it affected me even then.”

“And how was school?”

“The lessons were dull, but there was a small library. I read all that I could, often during class.”

“Didn’t you get in trouble?” 

“My father was a prominent member of the Communist Party. I seldom got in trouble for anything.”

Will considered that and filed it away to think about later. “Okay. After school?”

“The walk home—”

“Back into savagery.”

“Yes. And the more primitive pleasures of hearth and family. Sometimes I helped my mother with her baking. I had chores, which I often ignored with little to no consequence. Homework. Dinner.”

“Everyone’s faces red in the firelight, candles, the clink of silver on china. A ceremony for the closing of the day.”

“An apt description,” Hannibal said quietly. 

“This is before your sister was born. What about after?”

“Past a certain age, my parents chose to let her cry so that she might learn to sleep on her own. I could never let her cry.”

“You snuck out of bed to be with her. Talked to her, told her your secrets.” 

“What do you imagine my secrets were at that age?”

“That you were smarter than the other kids at school, that you knew you weren’t supposed to say it, but it was true. That you were different. That your parents knew it.”

Hannibal set his fork down. “That’s an unusually accurate read of the situation, even for you.”

“Speaking from experience," he said, which was more or less the truth, though he still didn’t know if his father had ever realized just how different he was.

“And what of your typical day?”

“Next time,” Will said. 

“Is that an invitation?” 

“Next week. If you’re free.”

Hannibal nodded, and the conversation moved on to the less perilous topics of murder and food. 

*

The case was in Illinois, about an hour from Chicago. An old woman had wandered into a cornfield and never come out again. Local law enforcement found her tied up like a scarecrow in the middle of the field three hours later, drained of blood. 

“The biggest thing we’ve dealt with in the past year was a rabid raccoon in the Carruthers’ barn,” one of them told Will. “Thanks for coming so quick.” 

The trip had been approved by Jack, but Will was on his own, consulting. He’d done it before when he worked for New Orleans Homicide. Louisiana, Georgia, even as far away as Texas once. He’d had a reputation. Now he had a slightly different one, but apparently it hadn’t spread this far. The locals were almost confusingly friendly and pleased to see him. 

It was an enormous relief to have no jurisdiction, to give them his opinion on the killer—mid-30s, skilled labor, maybe plumbing or carpentry, local, first-time killer but definitely not his first crime—and be done. The locals started looking for someone who fits that description with a criminal record, Will dodged an invitation to dinner, and everyone parted on more or less friendly terms.

Will, having lied about the time of his flight to avoid further hospitality, was left with several hours before he needed to get back to O'Hare. He got dinner at a small diner that advertised home cooking and, for once, seemed to deliver the kind of food that people actually made at home. Will ate grilled cheese and applesauce and limp green beans. Afterward, he walked to stretch his legs and ducked into a kitschy antique shop with the vague and probably terrible notion of finding something for Abigail.

Shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, filled with stacks of hatboxes, old books, doll clothes, and the other cast-off detritus of a thousand lives. Will paused by a display of silk scarves. He pictured handing one over to Abigail, pictured Alana’s expression when she found out. He drifted further back between the shelves.

Three hours until his flight. He’d be safest just showing up early at the airport. He could use the time to work out what he was going to serve Hannibal tomorrow night.

His fingers caught momentarily on the hem of an apron draped across a leather trunk. Blue flowers had been embroidered on the pocket. For a moment, he could see himself in it, standing at the stove, waiting for Hannibal to arrive.

He moved quickly on, mind dodging the image out of long habit. He didn’t think about that kind of thing. His job and disposition made life hard enough. He didn’t need to give himself more problems. These dinners with Hannibal were dangerous enough on their own.

A sagging stack of napkins caught his eye. He paused, ambushed by the memory of Hannibal’s elegant hands smoothing over the cheap paper in his lap.

If Will was going to keep having him over for dinner—no. Not as bad as the apron, not impossible, but still a terrible idea.

He looked through the stack anyway. Most of them were printed with polkadots or flowers, or had fiddly bits of embroidery on them that he would inevitably destroy in the wash. At the bottom, lay six tied together, plain brown linen, with two thin red stripes along the edge. The price tag said five dollars.

“Bad idea,” he told himself. Saying it out loud didn’t help. He picked them up and flipped through them, hoping for some disfiguring stain. Nothing.

Hannibal would inevitably notice. He would know that Will had bought them, essentially, for him. He’d be pleased, of course. Probably he’d be polite enough not to embarrass him by mentioning them. But he would know, and Will would know, and the thought made him feel a little too warm for reasons he didn’t really want to examine.

He took them up to the desk and bought them anyway. He could stick them in a drawer when he got home. There was nothing to say he had to put them on the table.

*

Hannibal finished up with his last patient just before six. The small parking area in the alley behind his office was being repaved, and he’d had to park three blocks away. Inconvenient, but perhaps something to be grateful for in this instance. The cold air and the exercise emptied his mind of other things and let him look forward to tonight’s dinner with focus and clarity.

It also meant that he passed a small florist shop, where his attention was snagged by a froth of yellow azaleas in the window. They spilled over the shelf and onto green velvet, lit like grass in the sun. He stepped inside and emerged moments later with a bouquet of them, swaddled against the cold.

It was too soon, too impulsive a gesture. Not quite a misstep, but something close. He could pass them off as a centerpiece, but it would be better—

But he had them in his hands, and Will would like them. Hannibal could see the expression on his face perfectly, guilt and poorly concealed yearning and surprise that anyone would bother. Joy and pain sat with equal beauty on his features, and Hannibal wanted to give him so much of both.

*

Will spent Friday afternoon typing up a report on Illinois for Jack. It took longer than he had expected. He had more fish defrosting but no real idea of what to serve with it. He hit send on the report and went to stare into his fridge. If he’d been on his own, he probably would’ve settled for canned vegetable soup and toast. If he was going to keep having Hannibal over, he’d have to learn to make at least a few more things that normal people were willing to eat.

The fridge contained carrots, onions, and last week’s lettuce, which was disintegrating into a liquid pool at the bottom of its bag. Pasta would be safe. And carrots. Carrots with mint and butter. He was pretty sure he’d had that in a restaurant once, and there was wild mint growing in his backyard.

He went out to pick some, barefoot in the wet grass. Dusk gathered around him. The dogs nosed at his legs, snuffled at the mint, and backed quickly away. It was later than he’d thought. He squinted at the last glare of the sun on the horizon.

Hannibal hadn’t set a time, just said that he would come after work. Once again, Will liked that thought a little too much. The memory of Hannibal’s easy gratitude last week didn’t help.

Hannibal knocked while Will was still heating water and chopping carrots. He let himself in. He’d brought wine again, which he set on the kitchen counter. He’d also brought a small bouquet of yellow azaleas. He set the vase down in the center of Will’s table.

“Good evening,” he said.

“You brought me flowers.”

“A centerpiece.”

“No bird skulls or peacock feathers?”

“The adornments one chooses for one's table should suit both the food and the surroundings.”

“Plain and simple.”

“You live a calculatedly plain and simple life.”

“I don’t see the point in dressing things up.”

“Then perhaps you will allow me to set the table.”

“Be my guest.” Will stared at the flowers and then turned quickly back to his carrots. “Napkins in the top drawer next to the stove.” He hoped he’d remembered to take the price tag off.

Hannibal took down the plates and glasses first. Another trip for the silverware. He seemed to almost deliberately draw out the process until Will was glancing over every few seconds to catch his reaction when he finally laid out the napkins. Of course, when he did, nothing showed on his face at all.

Will looked over at the table: two simple place settings, white plates, wine glasses, the napkins with their flash of red, the yellow flowers. It seemed out of place in his house. Too much a constructed image, though nothing like the ones that Hannibal regularly built on his own table. Deliberate nostalgia rather than fine art.

“Thanks,” he said.

Hannibal nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help with dinner?”

“I’ve got it. It’ll be ready when the pasta’s ready.”

Hannibal opened the wine and poured for both of them. He brought Will his wine glass. Their fingers brushed when Will took it from him.

“This is uncomfortably domestic,” Will said.

“Is domesticity always uncomfortable for you?”

“It’s an alien concept.”

“Like family.”

“Yeah.”

Will stirred the mint into the carrots. He’d seen the multicolored ones at the grocery store and almost bought those instead, a mix of orange and red and purple and yellow. He'd left them on the shelf and gone for plain and simple instead. Maybe he was constructing his own image.

Hannibal stepped closer. “You were going to tell me about your typical day,” he said.

“Up early. Sometimes fishing before breakfast if we lived somewhere close enough to water. Cold cereal. Lunch money if Dad remembered. School. Whatever I could do afterwards to make some extra cash. I always wanted a paper route, but we were never in one place long enough. When I was thirteen, I knew a guy at school whose dad owned a restaurant. I got an underage work permit and washed dishes there for a while. Worked the tobacco fields for a couple of summers, but that was really bad pay.”

“And when you got home? Dinner?”

Will drained the pasta and started transferring food onto plates. Even disregarding the lack of bird skulls, it looked nothing like Hannibal’s elegant presentations. Just food on a plate, but enough of it, and fresh, and hot. He wiped a spot of melted butter away from the china with his thumb and sucked it clean.

“I ate a lot of cheese sandwiches,” he said. “Frozen dinners. Canned soup.”

He took the dishes out to the table . Hannibal followed with their wine glasses.

“Your father didn’t cook at all?”

“He wouldn’t have known where to start. A lot of times he was still at work when I went to sleep.”

They ate in silence for a minute or two, or Hannibal did. Will stared at the white and yellow flowers in the center of the table for too long before he remembered to take a bite. When he did, he winced. “Jesus, that’s a lot of mint. Weren’t you going to say anything?”

“I’m your guest. It’s not my place to criticize your food.”

“How am I supposed to learn if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong?” Will ducked his head and ran a hand over his eyes. The implication was too clear. Learning to cook for Hannibal’s benefit, because on his own he’d still be living in a childhood world of Oscar Mayer and Chef Boyardee.

“You recognize your own mistakes,” Hannibal said. “For myself, I value the attempt over any potential perfection.”

Will’s jaw tightened. “An A for effort? It’s the thought that counts?”

Hannibal looked at him, steady and sincere. “Yes. Sometimes.”

“Hardly ever, in my experience.”

“It depends on the effort involved and on the person making the effort.”

Will sighed. “I can’t wash it off, can I?”

“The mint? I’m afraid not. It’s a strong flavor and it will have permeated the dish by now.”

“I can redo the carrots.” He paused for a second. “I can’t redo the carrots. I’m all out.”

“We will eat what there is to eat. Neither of us will go hungry tonight.”

They ate pasta and catfish. By Will’s standards, it was a good meal. By Hannibal’s, it was undoubtedly dismal, but he made no indication by word or tone or expression that it was anything less than what he was used to.

“This will probably happen again,” Will said. “If you keep coming over.”

Hannibal smiled at him, small but clearly pleased. “Is that an invitation?”

“If you want it to be.”

“Shall we say next Friday?” He lifted his wine glass.

Will clinked his against it in agreement. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You’re unlikely to make this particular mistake again, I think.”

“I’ll use a recipe next time. No,” he added, seeing the glint in Hannibal’s eyes. “Don’t give me any of yours. It’d be like giving oil paints to a five year old. You’d regret it.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Hannibal said. “In any case, I’m interested to see what you will come up with on your own.”

“Me too,” Will muttered.

Chapter Text

Will showed up early for his appointment with Hannibal the week after their dinner, planning to get some work done in the waiting room. He’d barely pulled out his laptop when the door creaked open and a small round man with a beard shuffled out.

With the private exit, Will had never actually seen another one of Hannibal’s patients before. He sometimes felt as if he saw Hannibal in a vacuum, that the office or even the man himself might flicker into existence shortly before he opened the door and cease to be when he left the building. Proof to the contrary gave him an oddly visceral sort of shock.

It seemed to shock the other man as well. He stared at Will, and Will stared back at him.

"That’s the wrong door, Franklyn," Hannibal said, deep and disapproving, from within his office.

Franklyn flinched and rubbed his hands together. "It’s fine. I’ll go this way. I’m already here."

"The private exit is not there solely for your protection. You’re fortunate that no one is scheduled—" Hannibal appeared in the doorway and stopped abruptly. "Will. You’re early."

"It’s quieter here then at Quantico." Will nodded to his laptop and shrugged.

"You work for the FBI?" Franklyn said.

"Please, Franklyn," Hannibal started. He looked pained.

"What?" Franklyn said. "It’s okay. He doesn’t mind." He looked at Will. "You don’t mind, right? If I had a job like that, I’d tell everyone." He stuck out his hand. "I’m Franklyn Froideveaux. I usually come in the mornings."

Will shook briefly and didn’t offer an introduction of his own. Franklyn just stood there, hands twisted together into a knot of nervous energy. Hannibal stayed in the doorway, apparently trying to get Franklyn to follow him to the exit by force of will alone. It might’ve worked on anyone else. Will could feel it like a physical yank on his shoulder.

Franklyn seemed completely unaware. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and pulled them out again to mirror Hannibal’s stance, hands clasped behind his back, feet set squarely apart. He didn’t manage Hannibal’s elegance and dignity, but he was trying like hell. Wanting to borrow Hannibal’s armor.

He was scared, and the first thing he’d focused on was Will’s job.

Will dug his ID out of his pocket and showed it to him. "My name’s Will Graham. I teach at the FBI Academy in Quantico and I work with the Behavioral Analysis Unit." He said it as gently as he could, as if Franklyn were one of his dogs, scared by a storm. "Is there something you want to tell me, Mr. Froideveaux?"

Franklin collapsed into a chair with a gusty sigh. "It’s so stupid. Dr. Lecter thinks it’s stupid. He didn’t say that, but I can tell. He thinks I’m overreacting. I’m always overreacting."

Will waited, leaning forward, interested despite himself, if only for Franklyn’s connection to Hannibal. He’d lay odds that this was Hannibal’s problem patient.

"It’s my friend," Franklyn said. "He keeps making these jokes. Just, weird dark stuff about how anyone could get away with murder and— Oh, I don’t know. This is stupid, isn’t it? I’m being stupid. Dr. Lecter’s right."

"What did he say that made you uncomfortable enough to bring this up to a stranger in the waiting room of your psychiatrist’s office?"

Franklyn stared, mouth open just a little, and then he swallowed. "He said a violin maker in the seventeenth century used human gut for string. He said it would be better for the environment than the synthetics. And cheaper to make. There are so many surplus people."

Will felt certain that the last line was a direct quote. It made the back of his neck itch like something was standing just behind him, baring its teeth. But bad jokes and a callous attitude toward humanity weren’t prosecutable crimes. "Has he said anything specific? Threatened anyone? Mentioned a name when he was…joking about murder?"

Franklyn’s shoulders slumped. "You think it’s stupid, too, don’t you? But you were right here, and something in my head said, tell him, Franklyn! It must be fate! So I did. Do you believe in fate, Agent Graham?"

"A lot of people believe in fate," Will said, which was what his partner in New Orleans used to say when people asked her if she believed in God. "Anything specific?"

Franklyn deflated. He shook his head. "Nothing specific. No threats. Dr. Lecter was right, wasn’t he? He’s always right. I was overreacting."

Will glanced up at Hannibal when Franklyn was done speaking. "Is he overreacting?" Will said. Hannibal’s only polite answer could be no, and Franklyn deserved to hear that.

"It’s an important issue," Hannibal said slowly. "He was right to address his worries."

Franklyn looked up at him, expression a jumbled mix of adoration, hero worship, and hurt. "Do you really think that?"

"Of course," Hannibal said.

Will took Franklyn’s information and got his friend’s name and address. Hannibal got Franklyn’s coat. When Will and Hannibal were alone in his office in their respective chairs, Hannibal sighed.

"I assume he’s the one you wanted to pawn off on somebody else," Will said.

"Yes."

"He didn’t seem that bad."

"He’s not."

"He makes you twitch."

"I hardly think so," Hannibal said, with the faintest hint of exasperation creeping into his tone.

"Not externally."

"Do you intend to check out his story?"

"I can run a background check on his friend. Do you think he was making it up?"

"Franklyn is almost pathologically honest."

"You don’t say."

"You like him."

"I recognize his brand of desperation." Will smiled a little. "Don’t you?"

Hannibal just looked at him, carefully blank.

"It might be kinder just to tell him you don’t find him that interesting," Will said. "Don’t you think?"

For a second, Will could see a flicker of some deeper emotion surfacing in Hannibal’s eyes, and then it was gone. Hannibal smiled at him, genial, showing his teeth. "Perhaps I am not as kind as you are," he said.

"I don’t think you’re kind at all," Will said. Hannibal had radiated quiet irritation throughout Will’s interview with Franklyn, no compassion for the man’s obvious trepidation. Hannibal had watched him like an obstacle to be removed. "You usually hide it better than that though."

Hannibal leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. He smoothed his pants down and rested his hands on the armrests of the chair, palms up and fingers spread in supplication. "You’re right, of course. I am impatient with him, and he doesn’t deserve it. It will be better for both of us when I find him another therapist."

"You’re really going to give up on him? Come on, how much trouble can he be?"

"He followed me to the cheese store," Hannibal said.

Will wasn’t expecting that, or his own explosive snort of laughter. Hannibal’s expression, like an offended owl, didn’t help. He held up a hand in apology. "Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had a stalker."

"I’m glad the situation amuses you."

Will cleared his throat and stomped on his laughter. "If you feel threatened at all—"

"Don’t be absurd."

"Okay. But if that changes, you know where to find me."

Hannibal nodded once, the minute signs of irritation fading from his face. He walked to his desk. Two of his pens were out of alignment, and he nudged them until they were level with his leather bound notebook. "I was going to ask you if you have plans for Saturday," he said.

"Changed your mind?"

"The moment no longer seems propitious."

"You can ask me tomorrow if you’re still coming for dinner."

Hannibal looked up at him. "I’ll do that."

Hannibal readjusted his pocket square and moved the conversation smoothly onto other things. Will listened with half his attention. Ten minutes into the session, he got up to pace the boundaries of the room. Dinner at Hannibal's house. Dinner at Will’s house every Friday for three weeks running. Saturday night plans. Was he inadvertently dating his therapist? It wasn't the vibe he got from Hannibal at all, but Hannibal was next to impossible to read most of the time.

Friends went out on Saturday night together. Friends had dinner. Maybe not intimate candlelit dinners with five courses that stretched until Will was lucky to be home by midnight, but Hannibal was Hannibal. He wasn't normal any more than Will was normal.

"Do you find you have difficulty with—" Hannibal was saying.

Will interrupted him. "Who else do you have over for dinner?"

Hannibal blinked slowly at him. "Alana, fairly often. I have invited Jack over a few times. A few others whose names you wouldn’t recognize. More rarely, I host dinner parties."

"Okay. Good." Will fell back into his chair and pulled his glasses off to clean them.

"Good?"

Will looked up at him. "Will you do something for me?"

"If I can, of course."

Will studied him for a moment, almost shocked by the sincerity he heard in that statement. "If you want something from me, tell me. Don’t assume that I know."

"A simple enough request."

"You’d think."

"I won’t make any assumptions about you, Will. That sounds like a dangerous pastime."

*

Will was early for his class the next day and filled the time by looking on the internet for recipes that were simple enough to prepare in the time he was likely to have between when he got home and when Hannibal showed up at his door. If they went together even passably well, so much the better.

One of his students arrived fifteen minutes early and out of breath, trying to remain unseen and quiet as she slipped into the room. He saw her stop and take in the empty seats.

"It’s quarter to one," he said. "What time does your watch say?"

"Quarter after. I got back from running and— Shit."

"Someone set it forward for you."

"I checked it against the one in the locker room! They must’ve— God, I didn’t even have time to shower. Ugh, I’m so gross." She stopped abruptly. "Sorry, sir."

Will suppressed a smile. "Sit in the front row if you’re worried about offending your classmates. You’ll have most of it to yourself."

She sat and left him in peace for a few minutes. And then she cleared her throat. "Did you know the projector’s on, sir?"

Will glanced up at the risotto recipe looming above him. "I’ll switch it to the PowerPoint in a minute. I’m almost done."

"Cooking dinner for someone?"

"In theory," Will muttered. This was what he got for talking to his students, but he’d felt sorry for her. He’d had the watch stunt pulled on him at the New Orleans police academy. Sad that no one had come up with anything new in the intervening two decades.

"Does she like Italian? Because there’s easier stuff than risotto if you’ve never made it before."

"He," Will said absently.

"Oh," she said, and he heard the surprise in her voice.

He’s my friend and he’s my therapist both seemed inaccurate, or at least insufficient. He’s the only person who’s ever come close to understanding how my mind works was probably more information than she wanted and definitely more than he wanted to give her. Colleague was the right word, and he opened his mouth to correct her misapprehension, if only so he wouldn’t have to deal with the rumors. He wasn’t fast enough.

"Well, maybe pasta and some kind of vegetable and you could get one of those rotisserie chickens from the grocery store? Those are pretty good. Then it’s like you’re only really cooking one thing. Artichokes are pretty fancy and you can just steam them."

Will frowned at her. "Ardelia Mapp, right?"

"Uh. Yes, sir." She looked wary, but he was used to that from his students.

He would’ve liked to say something squelching about concentrating on her studies instead of giving him unwanted advice, but, unfortunately, she didn’t really need the extra time. She might be the only one in his class who was up to date on the reading. And it was probably good advice.

In the end, he said nothing. She pulled out her textbook and gave every appearance of being absorbed in it. He got the recipes off the projector before anyone else came in and decided it was open season on his personal life. But the rotisserie chicken did seem like a good plan.

He picked one up at the store on the way home, along with arborio rice for the risotto, because he was nothing if not stubborn, and asparagus. He had enough time to take the dogs out and feed them before he got started on dinner. Hannibal called while he was chopping onions.

"Will. I’m just leaving now. I’ll be a bit later than usual."

"That’s fine. I could use the time."

"What are you making?"

"Lemon risotto with asparagus and chicken."

"Impressive."

Will snorted. "Not to you. And really not to anyone. The chicken came already cooked from the store."

"If I may make one suggestion."

"Go for it."

"Taste the risotto as you prepare it. That way the final flavor will not be such a shock."

Will grinned to himself. "Not kind at all."

"I think you prefer honesty."

"I do. See you when you get here."

"Goodbye, Will."

About an hour later, the dogs clustered near the door, making low excited noises. Will was standing at the sink rubbing dish soap into a grease stain on his shirt. "Come in," he called when Hannibal knocked.

Hannibal paused just inside to hand out bits of sausage to the dogs. Buster stood on his hind legs and turned in circle for him. Sunny whuffed and gathered herself to jump up. She’d land with her paws on Hannibal’s chest, and both Hannibal’s hands were full. Will got there just in time to catch her collar and keep her down.

"Sorry," he said. "I’ve almost got her trained out of that, but she gets excited."

"I imagine she doesn’t have a lot of experience with visitors."

"Low blow, Dr. Lecter."

Will took the wine from him. Hannibal followed him to the kitchen and set the flowers in the center of the table. Live orchids this time, butter yellow stained with rust brown, like spots of old blood.

"I’m going to kill those if you leave them here," Will said. He touched one soft petal and quickly drew his hand back.

"They have an undeserved reputation for delicacy. In truth, they will thrive under conditions where many other plants might fail."

"Subtle. Are you going to bring me flowers every week?"

"Can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t?"

That pulled Will up short for a second. He could think of a dozen reasons, each more pressing than the last, but none he wanted to share out loud. Apart from the probability of acute embarrassment, Hannibal might take it to mean that he should stop.

Will glanced at the flowers. "Waste of money," he said, finally.

"Beauty is never wasted."

"It’s wasted on me."

Hannibal looked at him steadily. "You don’t like them?"

Will turned away, chest oddly tight. "I’m going to change my shirt. You could stir the risotto if you wanted."

Hannibal nodded graciously and took up the wooden spoon. Will grabbed a clean shirt from the dresser and was left with the awkward option of changing in full view of the kitchen, which seemed rude, or of retreating to the bathroom, which would make him feel like an idiot. He glanced at Hannibal and saw he had politely turned his back.

He stripped off the plaid flannel he’d worn to work and pulled on a white t-shirt in its place. He remembered the apron from the antique store where he’d bought the napkins and imagined putting it on over his jeans. Imagined wearing it over something else entirely.

He wrenched his mind away from that line of thought, but it was getting harder. The thing to do—the only thing to do if he wanted to put the brakes on this completely—was to stop having Hannibal over. See him at his office. Keep things contained, keep them simple.

He glanced from the orchids to Hannibal standing in the kitchen, stirring the risotto in a precise figure-eight pattern. He’d taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Will watched the way the kitchen lights fell across his hair, the outline of his shoulder blades through his pale blue shirt.

He looked different than he did in his own kitchen. Softer somehow. Maybe it was the familiarity of Will’s things surrounding him or the warm yellow of incandescent bulbs instead of the blue-white halogens that lit Hannibal’s kitchen to a perpetually cool calm.

Will preferred him here. That was just as dangerous in its own way. He cleared his throat.

"How’s the risotto?" he asked.

"I haven’t tasted it," Hannibal said. "That’s for the chef to do."

"I had some a couple minutes ago, but it was still crunchy. Okay apart from that."

Hannibal offered him the spoon back, and Will took it. "The consistency is good," Hannibal said. He looked Will over from head to toe, but said nothing. When they sat down to dinner, he left his suit jacket where it was, folded neatly over the back of a chair.

"This is quite good," Hannibal said.

"You could sound less surprised."

"But we’ve already established that you prefer honesty."

Will tried not to smile. "Guess we have. So, Saturday."

"Lenora Park is performing at the Baltimore Museum of Art for the opening of the Titian exhibit. I am attending. Perhaps you’d care to join me."

"Who’s Lenora Park?" Will wondered if that admission of ignorance would get him any reaction, but no, not a twitch.

"One of the finest sopranos alive today. To hear her perform in such an intimate setting is a rarity."

"Just out of curiosity, what makes you think I’d enjoy this at all?"

"I don’t know that you would, though the piano in your home, however out of tune, suggests some appreciation of music. I do know that I would enjoy your company."

The windows presented pure black gaps in the wall, the reflections in them far darker versions of himself and Hannibal. Will wished he’d thought to draw the curtains.

"Do I have to wear a suit?" he asked.

"Do you own a tuxedo?"

"I could rent one," he said, and caught Hannibal’s briefly pained expression in the window.

"A suit will be perfectly acceptable."

"What time?"

"If you come to my house at six, we can eat first."

"It’s a date," Will said, and got nothing in return but a small smile for his deliberate phrasing. Oh, well. Until he could work out how he felt about it, Hannibal’s intentions didn’t matter much. The only feeling he could conjure about any of this was a vast and looming sense of unreality. He looked at the orchids, shook his head a little, and went back to his dinner.

"Do you play?" Hannibal said, with a nod at the piano.

"Better than I cook, but not by much."

"Even so, I’d like to hear you."

"Why?"

"Is there a reason I shouldn’t?"

"You somehow managed to cook scrambled eggs and sausage in a shitty motel room in Minnesota. That suggests you’ll go to pretty extreme lengths to avoid bad food. I’d guess that’s even more true of bad music, so why would you deliberately expose yourself to mine?"

Hannibal lifted his wine glass to his nose and scented it, but didn’t drink. Instead, he set it down to brush one finger over the orchid’s glossy leaf. "When one seeks to understand something, one should be open to every aspect of it. Focus on the more obvious beauty of the flower and ignore the root at your peril."

"I’m not that hard to understand," Will said. "And I’m ignoring the part where you keep comparing me to a hothouse flower."

"Would you prefer to be a weed?"

"Is that what you think you are?"

Hannibal gave him a tiny smile. "Sometimes I forget how quick your mind is."

"No, you don’t. Every opening you give me is deliberate."

"And where do they lead you, these openings?"

"I’m not the one you’re trying to understand. Or not just me."

"The connection between us is worthy of investigation, is it not?"

Will let out a slow breath. "Yeah. Maybe it is."

"Are you surprised to find that I feel it too?"

"I’m surprised we’re talking about it."

"We’re talking around it, as befits a psychiatrist and his reluctant patient. Or two men navigating unfamiliar territory."

Will looked at him for a few seconds. "Finish your dinner. I’ll play for you when we’re done eating."

Hannibal let out a breath of laughter and picked up his fork again.

When they were done, Will stacked the dishes in the kitchen to deal with later and went to sit at the piano. Hannibal stood by his side. Will looked up at him. "Are you sure about this? Apart from my playing, I’m told it’s out of tune."

"You didn’t notice?"

"I haven’t touched it in a year."

"What made you stop?"

"One of the strays I picked up bit me." Will showed him the scar on the heel of his left hand. "Got infected, took forever to heal. By the time it did, I was out of the habit."

"Do you still have the animal in question?"

Will smiled and pointed him out. "Yeah, that’s Buster." Buster yipped at the sound of his name and wagged his tail so hard his whole rear end wiggled.

"You bear him no ill will?"

"He was just scared. Everyone does stupid things when they’re scared." Will dug out old sheet music from a nearby stack of books. "You can sing along if you know the words," he said and ducked his head to hide a smirk at the faint alarm on Hannibal’s face. "What did you think I was going to play? Ode to Joy?"

"I wouldn’t presume to guess."

Will wiped dust off the keyboard and set his fingers in the correct position. The song had been familiar to him, once upon a time, and it came back to him after a few false starts. His fingers dragged, and he played at about half the intended speed, but it was still better than he’d thought he’d do after so long.

He looked up when he was done. Hannibal was watching him. Reflected shadows moved in his eyes. The kitchen lights glowed behind him and lit his hair with gold. He stood perfectly still.

"I don’t know the song," he said.

"Sixteen Tons. It’s about working in the coal mines. Load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. One of my dad’s friends used to sing it."

He could remember Mr. Hamm plucking out the song on his guitar. Fall in the Erie boat yards, crisp and clear after the humid slog of the Georgia summers. Storm clouds boiling across the Great Lakes, the jagged flash of lightning, rain that battered red and yellow leaves until they hung limp from the trees like laundry on a washing line. Will’s father gone again, the long, uncertain wait for his return.

"Thank you," Hannibal said.

Will looked down at the keys, uncomfortably aware of just how much of his past he would spoon feed Hannibal to keep that rapt look on his face. "I think most people would say no thank you."

"Most people are fools. But my gratitude is not for the quality of your playing."

"Good thing. I’d have to question your taste. What’s it for then?"

"For giving me something that you would prefer to keep to yourself. Your privacy is often all you have. Its sacrifice is worthy of note."

The truth of that pressed against the inside of Will’s breastbone, a fluttering, sick feeling. He stood abruptly. "I’m going to clean up the kitchen," he said, and walked away without waiting for Hannibal’s response.

He ran a sink full of water and squeezed soap into it until the bubbles rose up around the mound of dirty dishes. He cleaned them one by one and stacked them on the counter. Hannibal came to stand next to him. He took up a dish towel and dried the plates in silence.

"You don’t have to do this," Will said.

"I don’t mind. It cements the picture of domesticity, doesn’t it? The shared meal, putting the kitchen to rights afterward."

"Is that the picture we’re painting?"

Hannibal didn’t reply until Will had finished the dishes and shut off the water. He paused with a plate and the damp dish towel in his hands. "I think it’s one that we both value more than we would prefer. The least glamorous of tasks are those which ground us most securely in our surroundings. I remember helping my mother clean up after dinner. Standing on a stool. The feel of the soap on my palms."

"We mostly ate off paper plates. Or TV dinner trays."

"And now, though you use a space heater as a substitute for the primal hearth fire and confine your life to one room, you eat off of matching china." Hannibal glanced at him sideways, faint amusement in his eyes. "And, of course, there are the new napkins contributing to the picture as well."

"I liked it better when we were ignoring those."

"And you wash your dishes by hand, despite owning a dishwasher."

"It came with the house. It’s broken."

Hannibal waited.

"I could probably fix it," Will admitted.

"But you won’t."

"It’s easier to do it by hand. You expect me to believe you like this?" Will gestured around at the half cleaned kitchen, his mismatched decor, the dogs asleep in various corners of the room. "I’ve seen your house. I know how you live."

"You know I have designed the space around me to harbor the things that hold meaning for me. You have done the same."

"Interesting way to put it."

"May I dare to suggest that our lives are not that different?"

"If you said that to anyone else, they’d think you should be the one in therapy."

"But I’m not saying it to anyone else. I think you see the resemblance."

"Controlled environments. Buffers against the outside world."

Hannibal nodded. He dried the last plate and put it away. "You seek to strip away and simplify, and I seek to enhance and to gild the banal, but the end goal is the same. Our domestic lives are stylized almost to the point of theater."

"Mine’s not for show."

"Neither is mine. But both, when displayed to strangers, inspire the pity and fear that Aristotle spoke of in his Poetics."

Will’s mouth twitched. "Did you just call your interior decorating tragic?"

Hannibal let out a breath of amusement. "In the most literal sense. And not only mine."

"Do you want a drink?" Will asked.

They hadn’t done that up to now. They had eaten, talked a little while over the carnage of dinner, and then Hannibal had said his goodbyes and left. Now Will poured them each a whiskey, and they sat out on the porch in the chill of the night. A half moon hung over the trees. Will left the porch light off. Their breath steamed in the air.

"We can go back in," Will said. Not everyone wanted to sit out in the dark and the cold. It had been force of habit on his part. It made him more conscious of the warmth inside him.

"You once spoke of your house lit up from the inside like a ship on the ocean," Hannibal said. "Will you show it to me?"

Will hesitated for the space of a breath and a burning sip of whiskey. He stood. "Come on."

They walked out into the fields. The ground and the gold grass underfoot crunched with frost. He led Hannibal around the back of the house, further into the dark. They stopped at last, but Will didn’t turn around and neither did Hannibal. They looked out toward the line of trees in the distance, a blacker black against the sky.

"The birthing ground of nightmares," Hannibal said.

"Not mine. It’s darker in my head than it’s ever going to be out there."

"And so you fill your house with light."

"And you fill yours with reminders of mortality. What should I infer from that?"

"Perhaps that I feel my nightmares are not intrinsic to my nature."

"Then you’re lying to yourself," Will said.

"Do you think so?"

"Our nightmares don’t come from the outside."

Will stared into the dark. He could feel Hannibal’s warmth by his side. A mist gathered, a cloud composed of white steam and the sound of breath. The feathered stag stepped delicately forward out of the shadows. Will whipped his head around to look at Hannibal, but, of course, he showed no reaction. He couldn’t see it. It wasn’t real. Will knew that, even as it passed by so close that he could feel the brush of its feathers, warming his left side as Hannibal warmed his right.

He turned to watch it go, and Hannibal turned with him. The moment he caught sight of his house, a warm beacon in the distance, the stag dissolved into shadow again.

*

Late that night, Will lay in bed. Something moving outside triggered the motion sensor on the light out back. The orange glow sent shadows around the room.

He closed his eyes and replayed the scene in the kitchen, the light, the warmth, Hannibal’s solid presence at his side. For a few seconds, he let himself imagine having that at the close of every day, a nightlight against the gathering dark.

The image, once allowed to form, expanded irresistibly. He shied away from the details even now, but, like the shadows at the edges of his room, they prowled the corners of his mind: softer clothes than he ever wore, softer touches than he ever received.

Chapter Text

Saturday night, Will put on his funeral suit, fed his dogs, and drove into Baltimore. He’d left his tie off for the drive and forgot entirely about it until Hannibal opened the door and his eyes drifted down to Will’s bare throat.

"Sorry, one second." He jogged back to the car to snag the tie, dark blue and slightly crumpled. He tied it as he walked back to the house. Hannibal waited for him in the open doorway.

"Something light, I thought," Hannibal said. He put his hand on Will’s elbow and guided him through to the kitchen. "Poached quail’s eggs on black rye toast. A salad of beet and mustard greens with pickled cherries and prosciutto. There will be refreshments at the opening, and I have something prepared for afterward if you can spare the time."

"I can always make time for your food," Will said.

Hannibal looked pleased and set about preparing their plates. He wasn’t dressed yet, unless he had skipped the tuxedo in an effort to make Will feel less out of place. The suit was gray and green plaid. Will was reasonably sure he’d seen him wear it before at work. Which would make sense if he had come from work, but it was Saturday.

"Seeing patients on the weekend, Dr. Lecter?"

"Not today. Why do you ask?"

"The suit."

Hannibal blinked at him once. "What do you wear on the weekends?"

Will shrugged. "Jeans. T-shirts."

"And did you expect me to do the same?"

"I’ve seen you wear clothes that aren’t suits."

"I had things to do today. I prefer a certain minimum standard of dress when I present myself to the world."

"More theater."

Hannibal smiled at him over the rim of his wine glass. "Always."

"Where was your stage today?"

"The Bridgeville farmers’ market. For the quail eggs."

Will smiled and shook his head. "Right."

"My performance delights them. They view me as something exotic."

Will could see him vividly, moving with precise steps in his polished leather shoes between the stands. Crushed vegetable matter underfoot, the discarded tops of carrots, sticky spills, fallen children’s candy. His polite but thorough inquiries after the provenance of the eggs, the stall owner captured by his single-minded charm.

"You are something else." Will felt himself flush and took another hurried sip of wine.

"Do you think so?"

Maybe it was his fear of the night ahead that made him bold, pushing him to be honest while he still could. "You know I do. Or we wouldn’t be here."

"I have a gift for you," Hannibal said. He held up his hand to stave off Will’s protests. "It’s nothing extravagant, and I think you will find it useful. Will you have it now or after we get back?"

"After," Will said, without a pause for thought. Looking for an excuse to come back to Hannibal’s house. He didn’t need one. He had an invitation.

Hannibal went up to change after dinner and left Will in the study. Will prowled the edges of the room and touched the spines of Hannibal’s books, everything from ragged clothbound ancients to thoroughbreds in leather and gold. Will pulled down a slim volume in cream cloth. The title was in German, and a cocoon in faded gold hung from a branch on the cover. The inscription inside was also in German, but it was addressed to Count Lecter and signed by the author of the book. Will touched the faded brown ink with one finger.

Hannibal stepped into the room a moment later, and Will put it quickly back. Hannibal’s tuxedo was black with dark blue lapels and a blue waistcoat. Will glanced down at himself and his black suit and blue tie. They might have dressed to match. Hannibal caught his eye for moment. His expression was conspiratorial, an invitation. It bowled Will over with a rush of longing that had nothing to do with lust and everything to do with shared perspective.

"I had planned to wear this one before I saw you," Hannibal said.

"Of course you have more than one tuxedo."

"Of course," Hannibal agreed. "Shall I change? People will talk."

"They’ll talk about you."

"They will talk about us in conjunction."

"They’ll never see me again."

"Are you so sure of that?"

Still bold, Will looked him up and down, deliberately slow. "Don’t change," he said.

Hannibal raised his eyebrows a tiny fraction. Will felt too warm and had to stop himself from loosening his tie, but he held his ground.

Hannibal nodded. "Shall we go then?"

They walked out to the Bentley, and Hannibal held the door for him.

*

People in tuxedos and evening dresses filled steps of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Hannibal gave the keys to the valet and steered Will forward with a light touch on his elbow.

"I feel like Jonah," Will said, as the glittering throng converged on them.

"While they are as likely as Jonah’s whale to eat you alive, few people here tonight would be kind enough to spit you out afterward," Hannibal said.

"Would you?"

Hannibal gave him a quick, flashing smile. "Never," he said.

The social deluge broke over Will in a tidal wave of handshakes and introductions and curious looks. He’d met easily ten or fifteen people before they made it in the door. "I thought we were here to listen to someone sing," he muttered to Hannibal.

"We are. But a great many people are here to see and to be seen."

"To see you and be seen with you.”

"I have a few acquaintances here, yes."

Hannibal’s effortless grace drew them in, and he spoke to each with a certain formal familiarity that made Will almost envious. None of them touched him, but the impression of intimacy wrapped around them, a combination of proximity, body language, and carefully chosen words. Hannibal sent them away smiling.

"You should’ve been a politician," Will said in a lull between introductions.

"He would’ve made a good one," someone said.

Will turned and saw a guy about his age, thinning brown hair, skinny, half a head taller than Hannibal.

"Dr. Lecter. We met once before. Douglas Wilson."

"Of course," Hannibal said, and shook his hand. "My friend, Will Graham."

"Nice to meet you," Wilson said, and then, to Hannibal. "I was sent. Mrs. Rackham asks if you’d please meet her and her husband by St. Mark Enthroned." He nodded toward the painting at the far end of the gallery. "They’re having a disagreement over the brushwork."

"I wasn’t aware you knew the Rackhams," Hannibal said.

Wilson smiled. It looked strained. "I don’t. They may have thought I was a waiter."

He wore a black suit with a thin black tie, as did all the catering staff. "Should’ve gone for blue," Will said, twitching his own tie.

Wilson’s smile looked easier this time. "At least she didn’t send me for drinks."

Mr. Rackham was waving across the room. Will had met him earlier in the evening and could do without a repeat encounter.

Hannibal seemed to sense his reluctance. "I’ll be back in just a moment," he said.

"You go ahead, Dr. Lecter. We’ll find the bar," Wilson said, which sounded like a fantastic idea to Will.

Hannibal looked mildly disapproving, but nodded to them both and strode away. Will watched his retreating back until he could no longer pick him out of the sea of black cloth and graying hair.

"Haven’t seen you at one of these things before. Where’d you come from?" Wilson said, and not as if Will had crawled out from under a rock, which put him a step above some of the other people Will had met tonight.

"Georgia."

Wilson smiled. "And how did you get here?"

Will was severely tempted to say by plane, but that was rude even for him. "I teach at Quantico," he said. "Forensic criminal psychology."

"Wow. Guess that explains how you know Dr. Lecter." Wilson frowned at him. "Are you… You look familiar."

"I caught the Minnesota Shrike," Will said, with a sinking feeling. Better to get it over with.

"Dr. Lecter was there, too, wasn’t he? He saved that girl’s life."

Will clutched his champagne glass too hard. He saw Abigail’s blood flowing like a fountain between his fingers. He nodded jerkily. "We were lucky to have him."

"It must have been terrible for you," Wilson said. "I’m sorry."

It wasn’t at all what Will had been expecting. How exciting, maybe. Or something glib about justice. The quiet and sincere sympathy was a thousand times worse. He took a gulp of champagne and coughed when the bubbles hit the back of his throat. Over Wilson’s shoulder, Garrett Jacob Hobbs smiled at him.

"I’m sorry," he mumbled. "I should go." He didn’t know if he meant go home or just away from Wilson, but escape seemed imperative.

Wilson frowned. "You don’t look so good. Do you want to head out to the patio, get some air? It’ll be quieter."

Quiet might help. The place was filled with a genteel, echoing roar that made Will’s head ache. He let Wilson steer him outside. Darker, colder, fewer people. Easier to think. Will leaned against a stone balustrade and sipped his champagne more slowly.

"I’m sorry," Wilson said. "I shouldn’t have asked about it."

"It’s fine. It’s not like I haven’t talked about it before."

"But not at parties, I imagine."

"I don’t go to parties." Left unsaid, but heavily implied: and there’s a reason for that. "You can go back inside. I’m fine."

"Rather not."

Will wanted to snap at him, but Wilson really wasn’t giving him any excuse. A diffident expression hovered on his face, as if he’d like to apologize again but wasn’t sure it would be welcome. Will turned away and set his glass down on the balustrade. He braced his forearms against it and looked out into the dark. He didn’t realize he was looking for the feathered stag until he saw it, fifty yards away and one story down. It rubbed its antlers against a tree, lowered its head, and snorted at him.

"Do you want me to find Dr. Lecter?"

Will shook out two aspirin and swallowed them dry. "I’m fine," he said. He turned his head to look up at Wilson and met his eyes briefly. "Really."

"You said that very sincerely. You must be used to people worrying about you."

Will shrugged. He thought of Alana, of Beverly, of Jack. Even Zeller casting him looks that might be interpreted as concern and bringing him a Snickers bar from the vending machine. "I don’t usually work in the field."

"God. What a thing to have happen. I could never do your job. I could barely get through the newspaper articles on that one, to be honest."

"Don’t read them," Will said, more forcefully than he’d intended. "Don’t fill your head with that shit if you don’t have to."

"And you have to?"

"Someone does. Might as well be me."

"I wish no one had to," Wilson said quietly.

"Yeah." Will picked up his champagne. He took a sip and then let the flute tip and a few drops dribble over the side. "What do you do?" he said, mainly to change the subject.

"Oh, I play trombone. In the Baltimore Metropolitan Orchestra. Just joined a few months ago. I used to live in Vancouver. Have you heard us?"

Will shook his head. "Never been, sorry. If Hannibal has his way, I probably will."

"So you two are…together?"

Will was still staring at the feathered stag in the darkness, and the unfiltered truth slipped out of him. "If we are, he hasn’t told me."

Wilson snorted and tried to turn it into a cough halfway. "Well, he is a little hard to read."

"Are you speaking of me?" Hannibal’s voice, just behind them.

Will turned his head, surprised at the relief and warmth that gathered in his chest at the sight of him. "Might’ve been."

Hannibal stepped in close to him and laid a hand at the small of his back, very warm even through his shirt and suit jacket. "I’ve been looking for you," he said, tone low and intimate and addressed solely to Will.

"I better go and mingle," Wilson said. He gave them a cheerful nod. "Nice to have met you."

"You too," Will said.

"Was it?" Hannibal asked, when he was out of sight.

"Nicer than I expected. He seems like a decent guy."

"His contribution to the brass section leaves something to be desired."

"He’s new. Maybe he’ll get better."

Hannibal raised his eyebrow slightly. "You’re familiar with his playing?"

"Never heard him. He just told me he moved from Vancouver a few months ago."

Hannibal’s eyebrows rose another quarter inch and then subsided. "I’m happy that you enjoyed his company."

He kept his hand where it was, a firm pressure against Will’s back. He stood with his body between Will and the few other guests braving the cold. Will could feel himself yielding both to Hannibal’s touch and his unspoken possession. He wondered at himself, but maybe it wasn’t that surprising. If Hannibal had him, he had Hannibal. Out here in the dark, away from his admirers. Hannibal had stepped out of the spotlight to follow him.

"How much more of this is there going to be before the music starts?" Will asked.

The lights dimmed briefly behind them. "None at all. It’s time. Shall we?"

Hannibal turned to go. "Wait," Will said.

"What is it?"

Will nodded to the darkness below. "Can you see anything down there?" He knew the answer had to be no. The stag was only in his head. But the world was spinning slightly with champagne and too many people and the stained memory of Garrett Jacob Hobbs’s kitchen. He wanted to be sure. And part of him wanted Hannibal to see what he saw.

Hannibal leaned over the balustrade. "What am I looking for?"

"You’d know it if you saw it."

Hannibal shook his head slowly. "Are you experiencing hallucinations again?"

"I saw Garret Jacob Hobbs before," he said. Hobbs could be explained as stress or trauma. The feathered stag, maybe not.

"Was there an inciting incident?"

"Wilson asked about… He asked if you were there."

"I’m sorry I left you with him."

"I can take care of myself."

He could, but it didn’t stop him from enjoying Hannibal’s light touch on his arm, just above his elbow, guiding him inside and through the crowd that parted in front of them. They reached their seats, and Hannibal sat Will next to the aisle. An easy escape route if he needed one.

Will listened to Lenora Park sing with half his mind on the music and half on Hannibal. He knew almost nothing about opera, but her voice called to mind an image of clear water flowing over stones. Hannibal watched with fevered concentration. He did not remove his eyes from the stage once, and it gave Will the opportunity to study him without fear of being studied in return.

Will had seen people in church with that same expression of dedicated longing. Hannibal’s eyes grew bright and glassy with tears toward the end. He was the first to rise to his feet and applaud her. Will followed suit, but he wasn’t thinking of the performance as he clapped. He was remembering the ghost of the same expression on Hannibal’s face when he had finished playing his tinny, out-of-tune piano and relinquishing a shred of his childhood.

Afterward, more champagne, more introductions.

"Mrs. Komeda," Hannibal was saying. "Lovely to see you, as always. This is my dear friend, Will Graham. Will, Iris Komeda."

In the interests of avoiding one more limp handshake, Will bent over her hand as he had watched Hannibal do a dozen times tonight. He managed a weak smile. "Pleased to meet you, ma’am."

"Iris, please. What a charming young man you’ve brought us, Hannibal."

Hannibal was looking at Will with barely veiled amusement. "I’ve always thought so," he said.

"Liar," Will muttered.

"The bare truth, I’m afraid. From the moment we met."

Will had no answer for that, but he didn’t need one. Mrs. Komeda filled in the conversational gap with a question about the exhibit, and Hannibal’s answer was just winding down when Will saw Franklyn approaching.

While Hannibal tried to avoid outing Franklyn as his patient, Will took the opportunity to study Franklyn’s friend, almost certainly the same friend who had spoken of using a surplus of human gut to string violins.

Tobias Budge stood straight and tall. Each step he took reeked of controlled power. Every expression had been previously tested for effect. Fervor rose up in his eyes and grace in his hands when he spoke of Lenora Park’s singing.

"What instrument do you play?" Will asked.

"How did you know?" Tobias asked.

"Oh, Agent Graham works for the FBI," Franklyn said with a nervous smile. "He’ll figure out all our secrets by the end of the night, right, Agent Graham?" He laughed, a hollow, breathy effort.

Will looked at Budge and said nothing.

"The cello," Budge replied. "I own Chordophone. Maybe you know it. The cultural arts community in Baltimore is surprisingly small."

"I’m afraid not."

"He sells the best strings in the city," Franklyn said, proud and beaming and still radiating nervous energy.

"For the cello?" Will asked.

"For anything that requires strings," Budge said.

"Piano?"

"Restringing, tuning, and repair."

Will dug a card out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile. "Maybe you’d give me a call. I could use your help."

"Of course. I’d be happy to."

Those were the last words Budge said to anyone. Franklyn did enough talking for both of them, and Budge watched. He watched Franklyn with the same cool distaste that Hannibal had shown a hint of in his office. He watched Will with feigned indifference.

When Hannibal had extracted them from that uncomfortable social knot, he guided Will toward the door.

"Are we leaving?" Will asked.

"It’s getting late. And I still need to give you your present."

*

Hannibal let them into the house and switched on the lights. The little pools of blue-white served only to make the shadows in the hall seem deeper. Will followed on his heels to the kitchen.

"If you wouldn’t mind lighting a fire in the study?" Hannibal said. "I’ll be there in a moment."

Will settled logs onto the grate and kindling underneath. A box on the mantle held matches as long as his forearm from wrist to elbow. He struck one and watched the fire take as he sought for ways to gracefully refuse Hannibal’s gift. Impossible. He could be rude, or he could take whatever it was and say thank you.

Hannibal came in a moment later with a tray and a flat white box with a pale ribbon tied around it. He placed the box next to Will’s chair and set the tray on the table between them. "Orange and almond mousse with white chocolate sorbet and cardamom syrup. Not the most complex of offerings, but it had to wait for us."

"Looks complex enough to me." Will took a bite and closed his eyes briefly. "I don’t even like sweet stuff. I don’t know how you do this."

"I hope you’ll like this as well." He nudged the box closer to Will.

"I’m finishing this first."

Hannibal looked pleased, a quiet warmth in his eyes. "If you prefer. How did you enjoy the museum?"

"I liked the singing."

"As did I. And the company?"

"I almost bolted while you were gone."

"Mr. Wilson should mind his manners."

Will glanced at him. "It wasn’t his fault. Anyone but me – anyone normal would’ve been fine. He apologized a lot."

"I’m sorry it marred your evening."

"It didn’t. I’m okay."

"I’m glad you came with me."

Hannibal lowered his eyes to his mousse, perhaps purposefully giving Will the opportunity to examine him. He seemed to mean it.

"I am too," Will said.

When they were done and the dishes had been set aside, Will took the box into his lap and untied the ribbon. He lifted the lid to reveal layers of tissue paper and, under that, something made from brown linen, almost the same color as his napkins. He lifted it out.

The apron hung from his hands, a soft flow of heavy fabric. His mind snapped back immediately to the one in the antique store, and his grip tensed as he searched for embroidered flowers. There were none. No frills, no lace, nothing overt. Even so, it pretty clearly wasn’t made for a man. Something about the cut, the stitching along the bottom: solid black, but an unnecessarily decorative detail nonetheless.

"Every chef should have one," Hannibal said.

Will thought of his stained shirt, of Hannibal’s own apron, decidedly professional, sharp and masculine and nothing at all like this. He dropped it back into the box.

"Thank you," he managed, barely, and got the lid back on. He took a sip of coffee and scraped the last of the melted sorbet from the bottom of the dish. He forced himself to smile. "I guess that’s what I get for being a slob. I’ve never seen a spot on one of yours."

"Don’t think of it only as protective clothing. It can set the mood as well if you let it."

Will didn’t know what he meant by that and was afraid to ask. He thought back to their conversation in Hannibal’s office: Tending the home fires, waiting for your partner’s return from battle. He thought of his own half-panicked reaction. Was that all it had taken for Hannibal to see this in him? A lifetime of care shot to hell in five minutes?

"I should go," he said.

"If you wish."

"It’s late."

Hannibal walked him to the door and made no comment on his abrupt departure.

It was nearing two by the time he got home. He laid the apron out on the bed and sat down next to it. He touched the line of black stitching at the bottom and then covered his face with both hands, fingers pressing hard against his eyes until the world was nothing but a blurred kaleidoscope. If Hannibal knew and was encouraging this – whatever this was between them – Will had no idea what to do.

Chapter Text

Hannibal filled a syringe, capped it, and tucked it into his pocket. In about an hour, Andrew Caldwell would leave his latest appointment. It would be easy to follow him in the dark and the driving rain. Somewhere between exit 12 and exit 18, Caldwell’s engine would fail. Hannibal would pull over behind him. The rest would be simple.

Even so, he paused and sank into a chair near the door to think.

He had spoken to Mrs. Komeda of the feast, and this feast had, indeed, presented itself, in every way he could wish. He had been saving Andrew Caldwell, and this was the correct moment. Caldwell would receive what was due to him, and Hannibal had others in his mind as well, others who would delight his guests and fill his table, set among gleaming crystal and silver and the debauched bounty of nature.

It should be good. It should be fitting.

He thought of Will’s kitchen table, the yellow orchids bought on impulse from the same shop where he had purchased the azaleas. He thought of the violently suppressed pleasure on Will’s face when he had accepted them. The warmth of the light through the house’s windows when viewed from the outside.

When he contemplated tonight’s venture in that particular light, it seemed somehow vulgar.

Caldwell’s intended fate left Hannibal as divided as Caldwell himself would be in a few hours. Beside himself. Surely it was too crude, too obvious. But the planning was done, and Hannibal needed the meat. The invitations had already been mailed.

He stood and reached for the doorknob just as the doorbell rang.

*

Tobias Budge spent four hours at Will’s house. Will had meant to go out while he was working on the piano, but in the end he couldn’t make himself leave the dogs alone with him. He made some progress on his next presentation and on student papers. Since he’d started working for Jack, the teaching job ran ahead of him and he never quite caught up.

"Almost done," Budge said. No pretense of a pleasant smile, no attempt to socialize. Under normal circumstances, Will would’ve found that a relief, but every time he looked at Budge, he saw slick pink intestines spilling out of a gash in clean skin. Never any blood, which made it, if anything, even more disturbing.

When Budge had gone, the house breathed again and so did Will.

He ate a late lunch. He took the dogs out. Things moved in the corners of his eyes. Something howled and then whimpered outside. Will stepped out into the fading light and looked around. He saw nothing. He listened for a long minute and heard it again, further away.

The sun dropped below the horizon. Shadows crawled across the grass.

Tomorrow. He’d look for it tomorrow. For now, the thought of stepping fully out into the dark chilled him. Going back into the house that Budge had haunted all day seemed just as bad. He shut the front door behind him, got in the car, and pulled out onto the road. He needed gas and, if he got it now, he wouldn’t have to stop on the way to work.

The gas station glowed a blurry yellow in the rain as he approached. He passed it by and turned onto the highway instead. He knew where he’d end up, but he kept driving anyway.

*

Hannibal opened the door already wearing a coat and scarf. "Will. I wasn’t expecting you."

"I can go."

"I was only going to the butcher. It can wait. Please, come in."

But Will shook his head, spooked by the shadows that hovered around him, the invasion of his house, the unknown element he had invited in like a vampire across his threshold. "I’ll go," he said. But he didn’t go.

Hannibal watched him for a moment and then stepped out into the rain beside him. "Come with me," he said.

In the dark leather cradle of Hannibal’s Bentley, Will let out a long breath. His body molded to the seat. Hannibal turned on the seat heater, and he started to get warm for the first time all day.

"You saw Tobias Budge today," Hannibal said.

"It doesn’t mean he’s done anything."

"He has disturbed you."

"That’s not a crime. Thinking dark thoughts isn’t a crime. If it were, I’d be in as much trouble as him. More."

"Did he say or do anything to give you a solid suspicion?"

"Nothing. It was what he didn’t do."

"And what was that?"

Will stared into the rain that smashed against the windshield. The wipers cut back and forth through it on high speed and barely kept up with the deluge. "He was non-responsive. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing no reflection." He ran his hands over his face. "He’s reserved. He doesn’t bother to hit social cues. I’m aware I could be describing myself."

"You act out of fear. You don’t know what Mr. Budge’s motive is for his demeanor. It may be the same. Perhaps he hides it better than you do."

"Maybe."

Will leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. He wondered what it said about their relationship that he wasn’t bothering to deny his fear.

The night passed by. The Bentley rolled to a stop.

"We’re here," Hannibal said. He touched Will’s shoulder. "Will you come in with me or remain in the car?"

"I’ll come."

"Wait a moment." Hannibal drew an umbrella from the back seat. He unfurled it above him as he got out and then came around to Will’s side to open the door for him. They walked close together. Even so, the rain pounded against puddles on the sidewalk and sprang back up to soak the cuffs of their pants. They ducked into the butcher’s shop – Hoskin’s Meats, according to the sign’s bold red letters – and Hannibal shook the umbrella outside the door before he hung it over his arm.

At the counter, Hannibal ordered an entire tongue, and that was only the beginning. "I decided Mrs. Komeda was right," he said. "It’s been too long. One cannot always wait for inspiration to strike. There are other factors."

"Such as?"

"A dinner party isn’t solely about the food. I have met a few interesting people in the past two years. It will be an opportunity to introduce them to old acquaintances."

"I hope you’re not including me in that," Will said.

"I was. Will you not even consider it? You acquitted yourself well at the museum."

"I hid outside and drank to excess."

"Two glasses of champagne?"

"Okay, I wanted to drink to excess. I just didn’t get the opportunity."

Hannibal sent him an amused glance. "Mrs. Komeda was quite charmed. She’s not an easy woman to charm."

"She was primed to be charmed. I was there with you."

"She asked after you later in the week."

"Are you inviting me to a dinner party or setting me up on a date?"

"She’s a bit old for you, I think."

"I thought she looked about your age."

Hannibal regarded at him steadily until Will realized all the possible implications of what he’d said. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down at the worn tile floor. He thought of the apron, lying folded in a drawer at home. He still had no idea what to do about it and no clear idea of Hannibal’s intentions.

"I wouldn’t wish to encourage anything between you," Hannibal said.

"Still not going. Bad idea."

"Is there anyone I could invite who would make the experience more comfortable for you?"

Will shook his head.

"Your trombonist perhaps?"

"He’s not my trombonist. I talked to him for all of ten minutes and only because—"

"Because?"

"Because you left me," Will said, slow and deliberate and well aware of how it sounded. The words were hanging like bloody meat in the air between them anyway. Better to get them out.

"I won’t abandon you again," Hannibal said.

Will didn’t argue. He didn’t say he’d be fine. He didn’t say it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t say any of the things it would be appropriate to say. He just nodded and let it stand.

"You won’t reconsider?" Hannibal asked.

Trapped at a table with strangers, hours of weathering conversation about people he didn’t know or music he’d never heard, or, worse, the potential that the conversation would focus on him as the odd man out. Hannibal’s new – what did they think of him? Their relationship was inexplicable even to him.

"Maybe next time."

"I’ll hold you to that," Hannibal said, and Will knew that he would. "But I can understand your point of view."

"Can you?"

"My aunt holds a masquerade ball every winter. A grand affair, with costumes and dancing and live music. A house filled with people. I found it very trying, particularly for the first few years after I came to stay with them."

"You got used to it?"

"The costumes were a help. I learned how to be someone else."

Will looked over at him, at his habitual mask of calm. "Who did you learn to be?"

Hannibal smiled at him. "Someone predisposed to enjoy parties, of course."

The butcher handed over Hannibal’s order. Hannibal tucked it into a leather and canvas shopping bag and paid before gesturing Will toward the door.

"Is that enough for everyone?" Will asked.

"This is merely the first trip. I have quite a bit more shopping to do. Although I am thinking of a slightly different menu than I had originally planned."

*

Will woke from a dead and dreamless sleep to darkness and silence. He blinked slowly up at the ceiling and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. Ten seconds later, the phone started ringing. He looked at the caller ID, and he knew before he picked up the phone.

"Is it the Ripper?" he said.

Silence from Jack for the space of two heartbeats. "That’s what I want you to tell me."

Will got the address and got on the road. He stopped for coffee at an all night diner between Wolf Trap and Falls Cross, Virginia. At least the Ripper killed close to home. No cross country commute. He smiled to himself and wondered what Hannibal would say if he mentioned that. Maybe he’d find out.

Beverly was waiting for him at the edge of the scene, just inside the tape. "Jack isn’t happy," she said.

"Is anyone?"

"He’s especially not happy. The forecast is yelling with occasional showers of unwarranted verbal abuse. He really wants the Ripper."

"I know."

"You weren’t working with him last time the Ripper started ripping. Jack really wants him."

Will stopped walking. "How much?"

She wouldn’t meet his eyes, which was a first. "Too much, maybe. Come on."

Another tape barrier closed off the immediate scene as far as the blood spatter had flown. The entire kitchen was blocked off, along with half the living room. Arcs of rust red cut across the ceiling.

"He’s usually neater than this," Will said.

"The organs though."

"What’s missing?"

"Kidneys and liver."

Will nodded and stepped forward to the edge of the tape. Rough marble floor, copper sink, maple cabinets. Hardwood floors in the living room and a rug that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hannibal’s house. The victim’s entire face had been reduced to pulp with a copper saucepan.

"Was he beaten post-mortem?" Will asked.

"Yeah," Zeller called. "The face anyway. The rest of it, he was alive and probably conscious."

Jack stepped soundlessly into place at Will’s side. "Walter Norton, fifty-one, real estate agent. Married, two kids. Kids and mom staying at grandma’s for the week. Multiple complaints from the neighbors about possible domestic violence, but no charges filed."

"And you think the Ripper beat his face in?"

"I want to know what you think."

"I’ll let you know."

Jack cleared the area around the kitchen. Will stepped inside.

Norton had been tied face up to the island in the center of the room. The cuts on his legs and arms suggested joints of meat to Will, and he flashed briefly on the glass display case at Hoskin’s Meats. The Ripper’s punishments always fit the perceived crime. Will wondered if the carving was more than literal. A division of this man into component parts. It seemed like a natural continuation of what he did with the organs.

What he did with the organs.

Will closed his eyes and took two steps back from the scene. He put a hand over his mouth.

"Hey," Zeller said, with concern for the evidence if not for Will. "You gonna puke?"

Will shook his head. He took a few breaths. "The organs aren’t trophies," he said. "They’re ingredients."

Crashing silence.

"Another cannibal?" Price asked. "Two for one? Do we get a discount?"

"Shoot one, get one free," Zeller said.

Will had taken another step back from the body. Jack caught his shoulder. "Are you sure about this, Will?"

"Yes." He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. Maybe it was the setting. Or maybe it was his conversations with Hannibal, centering his mind around hearth and home. "There will be more."

"That’s his pattern," Jack agreed, but that wasn’t quite how Will meant it. The Ripper killed in sets, but the victims were separate pieces. This seemed like the start of a series.

Will kept his mouth shut. They’d know soon enough.

*

Jack pulled him out of class the next afternoon.

"Face bashed in," Jack said. "Trailer park. Lloyd Jeffries also has a history of domestic abuse. The wife left him two weeks ago. She’s at a shelter. We haven’t located her yet."

"Do we have a positive ID on him and Norton? For certain?"

"Not yet. You saw the hands, and dental isn’t much good, the way he went to town on the faces. Waiting for DNA and asking relatives about distinguishing marks. Why?"

"Was Jeffries found in the kitchen too?"

Jack nodded.

"Check and see if he switched them," Will said. "How often are the Ripper’s victims still dressed? He likes them stripped of everything they don’t deserve, and that usually includes clothes. But not Norton and I’m guessing not Jeffries. He wanted us to find their wallets on them. He wanted us to make assumptions."

"Why?"

Will shrugged. "The message seems pretty clear. A scumbag is a scumbag, no matter how much money he’s got."

Jack made Will drive and got on the phone to talk to Zeller about a more definite ID. Will rolled toward the Blue Sky Trailer Community.

The gate was peeling blue paint and rusted metal, permanently open, with a neon sign advertising vacancies lit up and flickering. Weeds grew up tall on either side of the road. Will pulled up next to an FBI van, and Zeller lifted a hand to wave them over.

"I’ll give you the guided tour," Zeller said. He opened the trailer door. "On your left, you’ll see Jeffries, or possibly Norton, with his torso in the kitchen, feet in the parlor, and head in the toilet."

"Not literally," Price said. "It’s still attached to his body. Mostly."

"What did that to his face?" Will asked. "Another pan?"

Beverly held up an evidence bag with something bloody and misshapen inside it. "Can of Spam," she said. "Which, no joke, took some determination. You can’t say the Ripper doesn’t suffer for his art."

"Can we not, with the weirdo woo-woo art thing?" Zeller said. "It’s not art. It’s murder."

"He thinks it’s art," Will said.

"He’s crazy," Zeller said flatly.

Will didn’t have to look at him to know his expression suggested that the Ripper wasn’t the only one. "Yeah," Will said. "He is."

Zeller paused. "Right. Good. So let’s get this done and get out of here. Trailer parks are depressing."

Will had lived in trailer parks for a good part of his childhood. They beat residential motels and the few shitty apartments he remembered to hell and back. You got your own space, rarely smelled what your neighbors were cooking, and outside was just a door away.

He squatted near the man’s feet. It seemed too straightforward for the Ripper. And they were still missing the final piece in the series, the one that would pull it together.

*

At noon on the day of Hannibal’s dinner party, Will stood outside a women’s shelter in Baltimore. Three more corpses had been impaled on the iron railing in front of it.

"Organs missing from left to right," Zeller said. "Brain, liver and kidneys, heart and lungs. Also they are all now pretty facially challenged as you can see, but he went for the feet instead of the hands this time, so at least we can get fingerprints."

"They ran out on their families," Will said.

Jack nodded like that made sense. Will wasn’t sure it did. His mind felt invaded by thoughts of family, his past, Hannibal’s past. It was usually only too easy to set himself aside and see the world through another pair of eyes, but this time he was looking through a fog of his own creation.

"Does anyone inside know these guys?" Zeller said. "Did the Ripper stick someone’s husband on a spike outside her window?"

"No," Will said. "That would be too personal. This is a general statement. Abandonment as abuse."

"Check anyway," Jack said.

*

Hannibal peeled away the pericardium from Jonas Webber’s heart. He sliced off fat and connective tissue until he was left with the pure muscle, dark and glowing. He’d meant to roast it, but he reconsidered now, turning it over and arranging it on the cutting board. His fingertips sank into it.

He washed his hands and went back to his recipe box. The familiar recipes and the memories behind them walked through his mind. Beef heart tartare. He took the card out.

The ink had smudged when still wet, and he’d never made a clean copy. The small flaw called to him, as did the nature of the dish. The raw heart, unprepared for its fate.

He took up his knife again and started to chop, thinking of presentation, of stretching the heart to feed a dozen guests. There should have been two, but he’d missed his chance with Andrew Caldwell.

Will had been to the crime scenes. Hannibal hadn’t yet spoken to him about them. He would call now if the party weren’t only hours away. Unease curdled in the back of his mind. He wondered how much Will would understand. He wondered how much he wanted Will to understand.

The strips of heart lay limp on his cutting board. He began to dice them. He tasted one cube without salt or any other seasoning. Cool and intense, it lingered on his tongue, but more as Proust’s madeleines than a thing in itself, a marker to remind him of previous hearts devoured.

*

Outside, well after dark, Will heard the cry he’d heard before: something voiceless in pain, a high, thin wail that might’ve been coyote, or dog, or human child. He shoved his feet back into his boots and tromped out into the fields. It surrounded him, everywhere and nowhere. He walked to the east. It stayed steady, moving with him. Pacing him. Or not coming from outside him at all.

He shook out two more aspirin and swallowed them down. Goosebumps pricked his skin. Heat ate at him from a molten center in his chest. He looked at his watch: just after eight.

He kept going, flashlight out and aimed down, looking for tracks. One moment he heard the noise so close that he jerked his head around to look behind him. The next, it was so distant it might have been his imagination. It led him into the trees. Branches pulled at him. He took one tentative step out onto the frozen stream.

His foot broke through with a sharp crack that returned him to his senses. He looked down at the gaping hole in the ice, pitch black and jagged. Far away and just over his shoulder, an animal howled. Whatever it was, he’d never find it in the dark. If there was anything to find.

He started back for home, but when he came to his house, he looked at the bright windows and felt incapable of stepping into that much light. He was afraid of what it might show him.

His feet took him to the car with no conscious decision. He sat behind the wheel in the dark. After a moment, he turned the key and pulled out onto the road. The drive to Hannibal’s house was rote now. When he arrived, the last of the dinner guests was pulling away from the curb in a pearl white Mercedes.

Will went around the side of the house and knocked on the French doors that led out into the garden. Hannibal appeared moments later with a dishtowel over one shoulder. He swung the door open wide.

"You’re late," he said, warmth and welcome in his eyes, face soft and just a little tired.

"Thought you might want some help cleaning up."

He had help, as it turned out: two hired caterers. He sent them away and gave Will a clean dish cloth. He washed, and Will dried.

"No dishwasher."

"Not for these. Everything I put out tonight is too delicate for such rough treatment."

The phrasing brought the apron abruptly back to Will’s mind, and he felt the back of his neck go hot. "You’ve seen the news," he said. "The Ripper."

"I saw, yes. The news is mainly speculation. Jack seems to have nothing to say to the press."

"We don’t know much. About as much as we ever do with the Ripper." Will wiped a wine glass dry and set it on the counter. "All the men he killed were hurting their families in some way."

"Abuse?"

"Or abandonment."

"You once told me that abandonment requires expectation."

Will rubbed a damp towel around and around the thin plate in his hand. "Did I tell you why I ended up in foster care?"

"No. Would you like to?"

"He didn’t hit me. He just forgot about me. Got a job or got drunk, forgot to come home. Or figured I’d be okay on my own. I was, most of the time."

"And when you weren’t?"

"Usually the neighbors helped me out. Sometimes they called Social Services."

"And you were taken away."

"Yeah."

"He got you back."

Will nodded. "Never worked out why, but yeah. He always got me back."

Far off, Will heard the growl of thunder, and then the growl of an animal. He turned his head, seeking the source of the sound, but, as in the fields at home, it surrounded him on every side.

Hannibal handed him the next glass. His mouth drooped at the corners, and his hands moved a touch more slowly than they had on other nights. Those were the only signs he’d prepared God knew how many courses and played the perfect host all night. No stains on his apron, every hair perfectly in place.

"I can do this," Will said. "Go sit down."

Hannibal paused, a fleck of foam from the dish soap stuck to his wrist. "It’s not necessary."

"I want to."

Hannibal took the dish cloth from him briefly to dry his hands. Their fingers brushed, Hannibal’s warm from the hot water, Will’s chilled and almost numb at the tips.

"Thank you," Hannibal said.

He crossed to the armchair in the corner of the room and moved a leather portfolio to sit down. Will could see the edges of the papers inside, black ink and pencil on thick paper.

"Are those yours?" he asked.

"Yes. Of Florence. One of my guests wanted to see them. You’ve seen their siblings already in my office. These aren’t much different."

"It’s a whole different city. Those are mostly Paris."

Hannibal smiled a little. "That’s true enough. If you want to look at them, of course you can."

Will shook his head and turned back to the dishes. "Not if you don’t want to show me. It’s okay."

"I don’t mind."

"Why don’t you like them?"

Hannibal paused. "I don’t dislike them."

"Most artists enjoy showing off their work."

"I don’t think of these as art. They are reproductions of my memories."

"They’re all real?

"Yes. Copies from life."

"Isn’t that what all art is? People recreating what they see through the lens of their perception and experience."

"What do you see through your lens?"

Will scrubbed at a stubborn spot on a plate. "I’m not supposed to see through my own lens at all."

"In your work, you mean. Are you viewing the Ripper through a lens?"

"It’s becoming a problem."

"You can’t be the only one at the FBI who has that problem."

"I’m probably the only one who’s been discussing domestic life with you for the past month."

"Our conversations have stayed with you then?"

"Yes."

"They have lingered in my mind as well. Perhaps that was part of the reason for dinner tonight."

"I have to get clear of it somehow."

Will washed the last of the glasses. He could hear the wind picking up outside and skittering around the eaves of the house. The night seemed more than usually alive.

"You don’t feel that it might prove advantageous? That with the issues he is addressing at the forefront of your mind, you might not gain some understanding of him outside of his crimes?" Hannibal asked.

"Why is he addressing them now? What’s he trying to say?"

"The message seems straightforward."

"It never is with him. There’s more to it."

Hannibal didn’t answer, only watched him, one elbow on the arm of the chair, chin propped on his fist. Will avoided his eyes and turned the glass in his hands over and over. The facets of the crystal caught the light and bent it into oil slick rainbows in the corners of his eyes. Outside, a dog howled, and the sound cut off with a scream.

Will dropped the glass. It shattered on the floor. He shut his eyes tight, but he could hear the crunch of broken crystal as the feathered stag stepped on its remains and ground them into powder.

Hannibal’s hand was on his shoulder. "Will? Can you hear me?"

"I’m sorry." He looked down at the crystal and heard the song of its breaking replay again and again. "Oh, God. I’m sorry."

"It’s of no consequence," Hannibal said softly. "Tell me where you were."

"I’ve – I’ve been hearing things." Will clenched his hands into fists. He could still hear something whimpering outside. "Can you hear it?"

"I hear nothing but the wind."

"I went out looking for it. At my house. I couldn’t find it."

"What is it?"

"An animal. It’s been hurt. I can’t help it."

Hannibal laid a hand against his forehead. Will leaned into it, cool and steady and such a relief.

"You’re warm," Hannibal said.

"I’ve been taking aspirin. It helps the headache sometimes, but I’m always too hot."

"Come. I’d like to take your temperature."

Will let Hannibal guide him from the room, down the hall to the study. Hannibal retrieved his doctor’s bag from a cabinet of the secretary and stuck a glass thermometer under his tongue. Will almost smiled, despite everything. Of course Hannibal would hold onto that, no beige plastic digital thermometer for him.

Hannibal knelt next to his chair and took his pulse. "A bit fast, but steady," he said, and paused. "Have you considered asking Jack to leave you out of this investigation?"

Will shook his head. Not an option.

"Perhaps you should. So soon after the incident with Garret Jacob Hobbs and this last case of family troubles, it’s not surprising that you are feeling the strain of your work more than usual." Hannibal removed the thermometer and glanced at it. "A mild fever. This could be stress or some oncoming illness."

Hannibal cupped his hands on either side of Will’s neck and felt, presumably, for swollen glands. Will stared past him at the wall of books. He could pick out the spine of the one he’d opened, the one inscribed to Count Lecter.

"It’s like he picked this specifically to get to me," Will said.

"Do you think that’s a possibility?"

"That would mean he’d have to care about someone other than himself, so I think it’s pretty unlikely."

"That seems an unusual definition of caring."

"He’d have to think about someone else. Consider the world from their point of view. I don’t think he spends a lot of time doing that."

"Is he incapable of empathy?"

"Not incapable. But why would he bother when it’s so much easier not to?" Will let his voice sink toward the end of the sentence. Exhaustion washed over him. He bent over to brace his forearms on his knees and let his head hang. "Given a choice, not many people would feel someone else’s pain."

"You do."

"Who said I have a choice?"

Hannibal’s hand brushed over Will’s hair, brief and light. "You expose yourself to the darkness of the world so that others may live in the light."

"It’s not as admirable as you make it sound." He wanted Hannibal’s touch back so badly, a tang of longing in the back of his throat. "It’s not like I could put it behind me and walk away. I told you where my nightmares come from. I don’t need to fuel up at crime scenes. They’re already there. Always have been."

"Even when you were a child?"

"Yeah. My whole life."

"What did your father think of your dreams?"

"I tried not to bother him with them."

Outside on the grass at the age seven, screaming into his pillow so no one would hear. He knew how it would sound if he said it out loud. So much more dramatic than the reality of dragging himself back inside afterward, getting a glass of water, climbing back onto the couch and rolling himself in blankets to wait for morning. The same mundane sequence he repeated often enough even now.

"Would you bother me?" Hannibal asked.

Will looked up at him. "What?"

"Would you call me after your nightmares?"

"It’s not – I’m fine."

Hannibal said nothing.

Will looked down at his hands. His stomach twisted with a sort of grateful shame that Hannibal would even make the suggestion. He shook his head. "I don’t think you realize what that would be like. How often."

"We shall see."

"No, we won’t. That’s crazy. I – I’m not seven years old, and you don’t want me waking you up every night. Or twice a night. I couldn’t."

"Suppose you try it. Once. Would you be willing to make the experiment?"

"I don’t know what you think it would do. How it could help."

"It always helps to know one is not alone."

"But I am," Will said, maybe with more vehemence than he’d intended.

"You’re not," Hannibal said.

As if it were that simple. As if that were a statement Will could trust. As if it were even a remote possibility that this wouldn’t end the way everything ended and he’d be stranded alone in the dark again.

"I’m gonna head home," he said, and rose clumsily to his feet, hand skidding on the chair arm, throat stupidly tight from wanting things he couldn’t have.

Hannibal walked him to the door and held his coat for him. "I would only ask you to consider it next time the occasion arises," he said.

Will escaped to his car and drove too fast on the way home. Once or twice, he saw the feathered stag pacing him, eyes liquid and luminous under the streetlights.

Chapter Text

Will woke with the tactile memory of blood congealed on his skin and nails rending his flesh. His feet were pierced by iron fence spikes. The shadow of the Ripper stood over him, made of squirming insects and darkness, and Will knew that it had come from him, that he had given birth to this thing.

He stumbled from the bed to the kitchen sink and shocked himself awake with frigid water. The sensations of the dream lingered, unshakably real. He forced himself to breathe normally, not to gasp after air that seemed too thin. In and out, lungs desperate for more. The silence of his house deafened him. Things moved in every corner, more solid every time he looked away.

He held his phone to his chest. How would it be to call Hannibal, to try it, to not be alone with this?

Hannibal would be annoyed with him eventually, would think less of him. He’d hide it well, but Will would hear it anyway, hear it every time they spoke. Let me help you turned into Why aren’t you any better? so quickly.

But maybe just once. Maybe that would be all right.

He was dialing Hannibal’s number before he could think of a better reason not to do it.

The phone rang and rang. Hannibal didn’t pick up. Seven times before it went to voice mail. Will dialed again and listened to seven more distant electronic chirps.

His mind calmed while he listened. The sticky threads of his nightmare fell away. He sat down on the edge of the bed. The phone could be muted. Hannibal could’ve left it somewhere other than his bedroom, somewhere too far away to hear it.

But he’d been sincere in his offer. He’d meant for Will to call him. He would have the phone on, have it close. Will dialed again. Nothing.

He didn’t waste time trying to talk himself out of it. He got dressed, got his gun, and got in the car for his third trip to Baltimore that week. He spent the drive fighting the urge to call Jack or the Baltimore PD. Too much chance he was wrong, that he couldn’t get out of his own head enough right now to be objective about anything. Instead, he broke 90 on the highway and prayed the traffic cops were all asleep.

*

Hannibal’s house looked at him with black eyes. The Bentley stood silent in the driveway. Peace had settled over the neighborhood like snow. Will walked slowly up to the door, half convinced that everything was fine after all, that he’d overreacted, that he should turn around and go home.

The front door was ajar. Will pushed it open and walked through. His jaw ached with tension. He drew his gun and pulled out his flashlight.

Nothing in the foyer. The painting at the bottom of the stairs lay on its side against the wall. A nude Narcissus reclining on the grass looked up at Will with reproach as the flashlight beam hit him. Will jogged up the stairs, but he didn’t need to see what was waiting for him. It unfolded behind his eyes before he made it into the bedroom.

Sheets torn from the bed, blood on the floor, glass shattered. Everything dark, everything silent except for the soundtrack in his head. He saw Hannibal’s snarls, the struggle, the cloth soaked in chloroform. It lay on the floor, half under the dresser.

He knelt and touched it. A small silver hairbrush lay beside it. He saw it hit the floor and spin around and around, amber inlay cracked by the impact.

The past held onto him for several interminable seconds and then let him go so fast he stumbled. He ran down the stairs for the car, already dialing Jack’s number.

"Crawford. What?" Jack’s sleepy mumble, holding a hand over the speaker, assuring his wife that all was well.

"Dr. Lecter’s been abducted from his home," Will said. He waited a beat for Jack to wake up.

"Details," Jack snapped.

"I’d guess between midnight and two. Chloroform. Dragged him down the stairs and out to a car. A man named Tobias Budge. He runs a music store, Chordophone, in Baltimore. I’m going there now."

"Are you sure he’s there? He could’ve taken him anywhere."

Will closed his eyes and saw Budge’s hands on the strings of his piano. He had spoken of their quality. The best available. He’d make the strings where he sold them, and he’d want to keep his materials close to hand.

"I’m sure, Jack. Send back up."

Jack didn’t waste time asking any more questions. He got the address and hung up. Will sped through silent streets and empty intersections, ignoring red lights. He wished he’d taken the Bentley. The engine was better.

*

Hannibal came to with his wrists bound. He was lying on his side. Concrete scraped his cheek and arm as he shifted. Cold dulled his senses.

"You’re awake," Budge said. "Don’t worry. It won’t be for long."

"You intend to kill me now? Why not earlier? A dead body is no more difficult to transport than an unconscious one."

Budge squatted down next to him. "You’re very calm. Most people beg at this point. Would you like to try?"

"I don’t believe so, no."

"You didn’t even ask if it worked for them."

"I’m certain it didn’t."

Budge smiled. "You’re right. You do have a little longer to live though. If you’re quiet, I might even let you stay awake for it."

Hannibal sat up and looked around. A basement room, pipes running across the ceiling like metal snakes, wavering in his hazy vision. White translucent lengths hung from a drying rack. Hannibal recognized them immediately. He used them for sausage casing. Budge would have another purpose for them.

"Strings made from human gut. Are they so superior to the usual?"

"Sometimes. It depends on the strength of the animal from which they were taken. Lean animals have the best gut."

"I’m surprised you took me and not Will."

Budge smiled. "Why not both? But I want him to find you first. I have the perfect arrangement for you. Being a musician yourself, I think you’ll approve."

"I’m curious. Why don’t you tell me about it?"

Budge spoke of opening his throat, of hardening his vocal chords, and Hannibal pulled steadily at the ropes that bound his wrists. They scraped his skin raw and then bloody. He concentrated on the right side and tried to take most of the pressure there. He’d need at least one functional hand to fight.

*

Will stopped short at the front door of Chordophone. If he kicked it in Budge would hear, and he had no reason to keep Hannibal alive. Will tried the door cautiously. It was locked, but only the handle and not the deadbolt. Hannibal was heavy, and Budge would’ve been in a hurry, not expecting pursuit at least until morning. He’d been careless.

Will slipped the lock with a credit card and silenced the bell on the inside. The three rooms of the shop stood quiet, pin-neat, except for one picture that hung crooked next to a partially open door. Beyond the door, steps led down to the basement.

Will heard a thud from below. He launched himself at the stairs, gun drawn. Halfway down, he heard the crunch of bone snapping, smelled stale blood and acid, rot and something worse. A bare lightbulb swung from the ceiling and threw dizzying shadows up and down the walls.

Budge had Hannibal backed up against a wall. Hannibal swayed and bled from the mouth. Bloody circles ringed his wrists. Rope still hung from one of them. Budge raised his arm, and something glinted in the swinging light: steel wires. The blow was directed at Hannibal’s face.

"Hannibal, get down!"

Hannibal glanced at him once and dropped to the floor.

Will took aim as well as he could in the shifting stripes of light and shadow. He tried for Budge’s shoulder, not to kill, but he didn’t stop until the magazine was empty. His finger curled around the trigger again and again, dry clicks barely audible after the gunfire.

Budge lay on the ground. His breath bubbled out of him, and he went still. Will checked his pulse. Nothing. Will’s own heart slowed. A fine spray of blood had covered his hands. He could feel its warmth.

Sirens in the distance jerked him back to the present. He shoved his gun back in the holster and went to Hannibal.

"The paramedics will be here soon," Will said. He hoped it was true. Surely Jack would’ve sent an ambulance. He helped Hannibal sit up and lean against the damp stone wall. "How bad are you hurt?"

Hannibal blinked slowly at him, eyes glassy, still under the influence of the chloroform or whatever else Budge might’ve given him.

"Will. How did you know?"

"I had a nightmare."

Hannibal smiled at him, sweet and soft. "You called me."

"Yeah, I called you. Good thing."

"I might have survived another day. He takes his victims for their gut. He said he wished to let mine empty before he killed me to make the cleaning easier." He shifted and winced, cupping a hand over his ribs.

"What did he do to you?"

"I was injured in our fight. A cracked rib, perhaps. Nothing worse. And you? Are you well?"

He laid a hand on Will’s cheek. His palm was cool. His thumb brushed the corner of Will’s mouth. Will licked his lips and looked down.

"I’m fine."

Hannibal had started to shiver. He wore pajama bottoms and nothing else. His bare feet and bloodied face seemed horribly vulnerable. Will shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it around him.

"Never been so happy about a nightmare in my life," Will said.

"With this result, I hope you won’t hesitate to call me next time."

"We’ll see. Just rest, okay?" The door banged open in the shop above. "Down here!" Will called.

Four Baltimore PD officers, guns drawn, followed Jack down the stairs. Jack carried his shotgun and was dressed in sweatpants and sneakers. "Thank God," he said when he saw Hannibal. "You okay, Dr. Lecter?"

"Thanks to Will, yes."

Jack had called the paramedics. Will directed them to Budge first, but there was nothing they could do. After that, they descended on Hannibal, and Will had to retreat to the far side of the room. He walked the perimeter of the basement with Jack. Intestines hung from racks, washed and sorted. They found a body with the neck cut open and vocal chords being treated with some kind of paste.

Jack just shook his head. "How long has he been doing this? Right under our noses."

"If he’s taking people no one would miss, he could’ve kept going indefinitely."

"So why did he take Dr. Lecter?"

Will wiped sweaty palms on his jeans and pushed his hair out of his face. He told Jack about Franklyn, about the night at the museum, about Budge silent and hostile as he’d fixed Will’s piano.

"It was his moment in the spotlight," Will said.

"You didn’t tell me about any of this."

"I wasn’t sure. My position at the BAU is precarious enough without turning into the boy who cried wolf."

Jack clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "I trust your instincts, Will. Come to me next time. I’m not going to dismiss your concerns. This is why you’re on my team."

Will almost believed it. Jack was very convincing when he wanted to be.

One of the paramedics approached. "Agent Graham? We’re taking Dr. Lecter to the hospital. He wanted us to ask if you’d ride along."

"Yeah, of course." Will turned to Jack. "The statements can wait till tomorrow, right?"

"That’s fine, go on. Give me your keys. I’ll have someone drop your car at the hospital for you."

"Thanks."

Hannibal walked up the stairs on his own, though he held tight to the railing and paused every few steps. Will followed close behind him, blocking the paramedics and their instructions and advice. When Hannibal reached the top, Will stood next to him. After a moment, Hannibal gripped his shoulder. They walked like that to the ambulance.

Inside, Hannibal lay down on the stretcher with a long sigh. He spread one hand out over his side. "Merely bruised, I think," he said.

"That’s why we’re getting you X-rays, sir. Let’s let the doctors decide that."

"He is a doctor," Will said sharply, worry and anger and adrenaline getting the better of him.

Hannibal laid a hand on his arm and closed his eyes. The blood stood out too clearly on his pale face. They rode to the hospital in silence.

Will spent an hour in the waiting room. He’d expected it to be much longer, but Hannibal knew more than half the ER staff, and they got his X-rays done in record time. Five stitches on his thigh where Budge had stabbed him in their struggle, bandages over a few more minor cuts and his wrists, taped ribs. He moved slowly. Someone had given him socks and sneakers and a shirt. He still wore Will’s coat.

Will brought the car around for him, and he sighed again as he eased himself into the passenger’s seat. "Prescriptions?" Will said.

"I’ll have them filled in the morning."

Will held out his hand. Hannibal handed them over with only a moment of hesitation. Will drove them to the nearest 24 hour drug store and got his painkillers and antibiotics. He dropped the bag into Hannibal’s lap.

"Come home with me," Will said, staring straight ahead at the empty parking lot.

"Yes," Hannibal said. "Thank you."

Chapter Text

When they got to Will’s house, the dogs poured out onto the porch, all excitement and frantically wagging tails and a few little woofs at the unusual nighttime activity. Will sent them back in so they wouldn’t jump up on Hannibal and walked beside him as he crossed the gravel and grass to Will’s front door.

Will got him a clean t-shirt and sweat pants and left him to change while he checked water and food bowls, checked the locks on the windows, checked the ammunition in his rifle. When he came back, Hannibal was sitting on the edge of the bed looking down. Snorkel licked intently at his big toe.

"Shoo," Will said, and sent her off to lie down with the others.

"It’s almost dawn."

"Yeah. You should sleep anyway if you can."

"I don’t believe it will be a problem."

He got under the covers. Will tried to remember when he’d last changed the sheets, but Hannibal only turned his face toward the pillow and breathed in deeply. He pulled the blankets up around his ears and closed his eyes.

Will took his shoes off, made coffee, and sat down in the dark in his chair by the window. He hadn’t intended to sleep, but, one too-long blink of his eyes later, he was gone.

He woke to find Hannibal watching him. White-gold morning sun poured in the windows. Most of the dogs were still asleep, though Snorkel had jumped up on the bed at some point and lay curled with her nose against her butt and her tail over one ear.

"I’m sorry," Will said.

"It’s not your fault. And you may have saved Franklyn’s life as well as mine. I cannot imagine he was long for this world."

"Budge didn’t seem too fond of him. Did I? Save your life? You looked like you were putting up a fight."

"The fight had reached a tipping point. It might have fallen either way. I was more glad to see you than I thought possible."

Will dragged his eyes away from Hannibal’s face and stood. "I was glad to see you, too."

He took eggs and bacon from the fridge and got out a cast iron frying pan. When he looked down into its slick surface, he saw himself reflected, a shadow on dark metal.

"The thought of my own death does not normally concern me," Hannibal said. "But I saw its approach last night, and I found that I have more unfinished business than I had believed."

He crossed the room and stood behind Will at the stove, not touching, not quite. Will closed his eyes for a second.

"Scrambled okay?" he said.

Hannibal paused. "Perfectly. I’ll be back in a moment."

He disappeared into the bathroom, and Will heard the water running. He started coffee, defrosted bread, dumped the bacon into the pan. When Hannibal emerged, the edges of his hair were damp. He set the table, napkins and all.

"You’re not wearing your gift," Hannibal said.

"I don’t want to get it dirty."

"It exists to be used. To be dirtied and keep the same fate from befalling its kindred."

"I think the metaphors are getting a little thick on the ground, Doctor."

Hannibal let out a soft breath of amusement. He leaned against the counter next to the stove and crossed his arms. Will watched him out of the corner of his eye, the flex of muscle in his bared upper arms, the long fingers cradling his elbow.

"Will you drive me back to Baltimore after breakfast?" Hannibal said. "I’d like to pack a bag."

Will’s hand jerked, and the iron pan screeched against the burner. "Yeah, of course," he said, stomping on his surprise, his nerves, on anything that might show in his voice and dissuade Hannibal from staying with him. "We’ll have to hit Quantico too. Jack will want our statements."

"And then perhaps the supermarket. If I’m invited for dinner."

"I think you just invited yourself."

"Did I? My goodness. How rude."

Will couldn’t help his smile, an answer to Hannibal’s teasing tone and the look in his eyes. "You’re always welcome here," he said.

"Thank you, Will. That means a great deal to me."

*

Hannibal drifted through Will’s house. His ribs and wrists ached. Despite repeated brushings, his mouth tasted abominable. Will’s clothes were too large in places and too small in others, and the sneakers he’d borrowed from a former colleague at the hospital had neon green laces that kept snagging his attention whenever he looked down.

Will was in the shower. Hannibal had declined. He’d wait until he had decent clothes to put on afterward. He used the time to consider Budge.

He’d expected an attack but, as time passed after the night at the museum, his expectation had waned. He’d even wondered if Budge might not go after Will instead – an interesting scenario to consider. On the whole, he’d thought Will would prevail.

In some ways, the night had been the greatest good luck. It would bind Will to him, secure his trust and loyalty, and establish in his mind the idea that it was better to call Hannibal with his troubles than to keep them to himself. A useful abduction, indeed.

On the other hand, his body seemed to have aged overnight. He wanted to wrap himself in Will’s sheets and sleep the day away.

He looked over to the chair by the window and saw Will as he had been last night, coffee in one hand, rifle propped within reach, guarding Hannibal’s rest. And this morning, Will standing at the stove. Both protector and provider.

His presence in Hannibal’s life had grown, unnoticed, and the whole of it sat uneasily in Hannibal’s mind, its limits nebulous and still expanding.

Will would drive him home, take him to Quantico, undoubtedly stay with him during the interview, though properly speaking their statements should be taken separately. They would buy food together. Will would cook for him this evening. They would sleep in the same room.

Hannibal thought briefly of his careful plans. They dissolved like honey on his tongue. Plans could be reformed. He could see nothing in them worth the loss of even this single day.

*

Will pulled into the parking lot at Giant Eagle and watched Hannibal carefully for signs of impending gourmet tantrum. "We can go to Whole Foods or something if you want," he said.

"If you left it up to me, I’m afraid I would drag you to three farmers’ markets in the area before I was satisfied." Hannibal gave him a brief smile. "But, as you are the chef, you should choose where to purchase your ingredients."

Meaning Will was still doing the cooking, still playing the host. Or playing something, anyway. Something both more and less honest than his usual role.

They walked through the produce section. Hannibal carried the basket. Will would’ve gotten a cart, but the mental image of Hannibal steering a cart up the chips aisle was so incongruous it made him almost dizzy.

"The chard," Hannibal said, as Will’s hand hovered over the spinach.

"I thought I was choosing my ingredients."

"I merely offer advice. You are, as always, free to ignore it."

Will snorted and put the chard in the basket. They bypassed the seafood counter, and Will caught Hannibal’s curious look.

"What we were eating all came from my freezer. This stuff is shit."

"You caught it all yourself?"

"Yeah. Enough to last all winter."

"You do this every year?"

"Better to be able to feed yourself."

"I agree completely," Hannibal said. "Especially when the world provides such a bounty of prey."

"Do you hunt?"

"You assume I don’t fish?"

"I assume you choose to actively pursue the things you want. Am I wrong?"

"No. I have hunted in the past."

Will nodded to himself. "Do you always catch what you go after?"

"Does any hunter? Failure is inevitable in any worthwhile pursuit."

"Not in fishing."

"Do you always catch what you cast your line for?"

"If the process is the goal, then there’s no chance of failure. The fish are just a bonus."

"The woman who cooked for my uncle’s family said much the same of preparing food. Perhaps you will find it easier to focus on the process there as well."

"Can’t hurt to try. I guess you can bail us out if it goes wrong tonight."

"Then you should get butter and shallots as well."

Will put them in the basket. He wondered how long Hannibal meant to stay with him. Forensics would’ve been done at his house last night. Crime scene clean up would be gone by this afternoon. No reason for him to stay and therefore no clear end point. Will didn’t ask and had no intention of asking in the future.

Hannibal left him for a few minutes and returned with a bag, top folded down to conceal its contents.

"For later," was Hannibal’s only comment when Will asked about it.

They drove home. Hannibal changed out of the suit he’d worn to Quantico and into gray pants and a soft cream sweater. He pulled surprisingly sensible shoes out of his bag and suggested a walk. Will called the dogs. They all set out together.

"Shall we walk to the treeline?" Hannibal said.

"You want to see where the nightmares are born?"

"Daylight is surely the best time to examine one’s nightmares. What do you dream of, Will?"

The wind whistled and swooped past them. It made Tilda’s ears flap. Snorkel stuck close to Hannibal’s side and looked up him adoringly whenever Hannibal glanced her way.

"I dreamed of the Ripper," Will said. "I dreamed he came out of me."

"Your mind as the birthing ground of nightmares."

"Yeah. He’d created himself from – from the bad parts of my head."

"What are the good parts?"

"I don’t know. Maybe there aren’t any."

"You must know that’s not true. Why would you choose this job, hardly an easy one, if the light did not outweigh the dark?"

"Overcompensation?" He tried to say it lightly, but the fear had been with him, unspoken, for too many years. His hands balled into fists inside his pockets.

"It is not our intrinsic nature that defines us, whatever that may be, but what we choose to do with it. I see such potential in you, Will. I hope someday you will come to see it, too."

They walked across the open field and into the trees. The dogs leaped over fallen branches and ran wild in the melting snow. Hannibal sat down on a stump and folded his hands in his lap.

"What will you make us for dinner?" he asked.

"Beets and greens. Grits. Catfish. I can do the catfish. The rest might not go so well."

"And yet you forge forward without fear." Hannibal gave him a small smile. "So we build our victories, one piece at a time."

"Well, like I said. I’ve got you to bail me out now," Will said, and he almost believed it.

Later, with dusk surrounding the house and the dogs asleep by the space heater, Will cooked while Hannibal looked through his sheet music. When Will called Hannibal for dinner, he saw that the table had already been set, and a vase full of roses sat in the center.

"How …?"

"The supermarket."

"That’s what was in the bag?"

"I wouldn’t want to break with tradition." Hannibal watched him closely. "Or deprive you of a deserved pleasure."

Will swallowed. "They – they’re nice. Thanks."

"You’re wearing your apron this time."

Will smoothed his hands over it once and then again. "You were right. Stupid not to use it. That’s what it’s for."

"Would that our purpose were so clear."

"Sometimes it is," Will said, and for once, he didn’t mean his job. He looked at the table in front of him and at Hannibal on the other side, the warmth in his eyes, the faint steam still rising from the beets.

They ate. On his own, Will would’ve called it a success. It tasted decent, nothing was undercooked or overcooked or too salty. Compared to Hannibal’s meals, it wasn’t much, but nothing compared to Hannibal’s cooking.

Hannibal fed Snorkel a piece of fish from his plate toward the end of the meal. He pinched it in his fingers and held it carefully for her, an expression of concentration on his face that rivaled hers as she stood up on her hind legs to take it from him. Will nearly strangled himself not laughing.

"Are you in the market for a dog?" he said, sometime later. He stood next to Hannibal at the sink and dried what Hannibal handed to him.

"I don’t understand her fascination with me."

"Did you ever have pets?"

"A barn cat. My father’s hunting dogs."

"Those aren’t pets. She likes you, that’s all."

A faint frown grew between Hannibal’s eyes. "Why?" he said, finally.

"Why does anyone like anyone? It doesn’t have much to do with logic."

"My reasons for liking you are eminently logical."

"Bet they’re not."

Hannibal turned toward him and caught his gaze. "Do you want me to enumerate them?"

Will looked down at the plate in his hands and shook his head quickly. "I didn’t mean … that. I wasn’t looking for—"

"Would it be so terrible if you were?" Hannibal let the sink drain and took the dishcloth from Will to dry his hands. "Whiskey, I think. Shall we sit outside?"

"Yeah, sure."

Will got them both glasses and filled them fuller than he might have if he’d been on his own. They sat surrounded by the dark and the cold and let the alcohol heat them from the inside out. Their breath steamed in the air.

"I should get my chimney cleaned," Will said.

"Fire tamed and brought inside. The first symbol of home in almost every culture. Hestia, virgin goddess of the hearth, both youngest and eldest of Zeus’s siblings. She tends the home fires of Olympus and every sacrifice rightly begins with a portion set aside for her. With soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house, come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise: draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song."

"You say it like she’s still around."

"The ideal of home lives in our hearts, and so she is always with us."

Will drained his glass in one gulp. The chill wrapped around him. "Why did you give me that apron?"

"It seemed a practical gift."

"Is that all?"

Hannibal paused. "I thought you would like it. And perhaps I savored the idea of giving you something you refused to give yourself."

Will closed his eyes for a second. "I’m getting another drink. You want one?"

"Please."

Will went in and refilled their glasses. He paused so long in hesitation and mortal dread that Hannibal followed him. He stood just behind Will and waited.

"You know," Will said.

"I am accustomed to searching for patterns in the sand of seemingly random speech."

"Beachcombing for the shells people would rather keep buried."

"It is the nature of my work."

"And your personal inclination."

"Yes," Hannibal said. "The transition from surgery to psychiatry was an easy one for me."

"What if I’d rather keep this buried?"

"Then we won’t speak of it again. Is that what you would prefer?"

Will took a sip from his newly refilled glass and then finished it in three swallows. The heat that spread out in his chest wasn’t only from the whiskey. "What if it wasn’t?" he said.

"Then I might suggest that we attempt to discover precisely what it is you want. Unless you already know."

"I don’t know anything. I never let myself think about it."

"Most people would not be able to help themselves."

"Most people don’t have as much experience as I do with shoving parts of their brain into boxes marked Do not open."

"But you know it’s more than the clothes."

Will nodded, still facing the wall for all the good it did him. He could feel the blush hot on the back of his neck.

Hannibal put a hand on his waist. "Even so, perhaps that is the safest place to start. If you would allow me to buy you a few things?"

"Why – this doesn’t sound like therapy."

"It could be. Is that what you would prefer?"

"I’ve had sex with guys. It wasn’t – it wasn’t what I wanted it to be."

"What did you want it to be?"

Will poured himself another whiskey and held it with both hands. He shook his head.

Hannibal turned him carefully until they faced each other. He took Will’s glass and set it down. One hand still rested at Will’s waist. With the other, he cupped Will’s cheek, and his fingers spread out over the side of his neck and under his jaw. "Did they treat you too roughly, my dear?" he asked.

Will squeezed his eyes shut. His face burned.

Hannibal’s lips brushed his temple, barely there. "I never would," he said.

Will closed the few inches between them and held onto Hannibal’s sweater. He ducked his head and pressed his face against Hannibal’s shoulder. His breath shook. It sounded very loud in the little room. Winston whined and nosed at his knee.

"You’re worrying him," Hannibal said, so soft, so gentle. He smoothed a hand down Will’s back and held him close.

"Sorry," Will choked out. "God, I’m sorry. This isn’t right." But he didn’t let go, and Hannibal only held him more tightly. He reached one hand down to Winston and scratched the top of his head.

"Does it feel wrong?"

Will couldn’t speak, but he shook his head.

"Then perhaps you only need to become more accustomed to it." Hannibal stroked a hand over his hair and cupped the back of his head. "To flowers and gifts and gentle treatment. I’d like to do that for you. Will you let me?"

"Please," Will said. "Please."

"Good."

Hannibal pulled him forward a few steps until they could both sit on the edge of the bed. He kept Will close to him, wrapped up in his arms, secure. Will leaned heavily against him. He breathed into the soft weave of Hannibal’s sweater and rubbed his face against it. His scruff caught against it, and Hannibal ran a finger along his jawline.

"I think you should get rid of this in the morning, my dear. Don’t you?"

He’d had it for so long, almost from his first day with the New Orleans PD. Anything so he wouldn’t look like the kid he’d been. Even now, it helped, added years to him that he needed to command a classroom. He thought of Hannibal’s touch on his naked skin, of how soft the sweater would feel on his face. It seemed worth the sacrifice. He nodded.

"Very good," Hannibal murmured. He kissed the top of Will’s head and took his chin in one hand to make him look up. "How are you?"

"I’m fine."

"Tired?"

"It’s not that late."

"That wasn’t my question."

"I’m always tired."

"Then you should get in bed. You’ve had a long day on very little sleep."

"You’re the guest. I’m not going to kick you out of bed."

"Then I will join you." Hannibal smiled very slightly. "I’ll be a perfect gentleman, you have my word. Go and change."

Will went to brush his teeth. He stripped down to boxers and a t-shirt and crawled under the covers. Hannibal switched off the lights before he went to change into his own pajamas, blood red cotton with gold piping. He slid into the far side of the bed and didn’t come any closer.

Will turned on his side to face him. "Are we really not going to …"

"Is that what you want?"

"No. Not really. Not yet."

"No. It would hardly be proper in any case. And so we will wait." Hannibal took his hand and kissed it. "And we will learn more of each other and of ourselves."

"The connection between us."

"Just so."

"Is this all it is?"

"This is one point of connection in a web that grows more tightly woven every day. Do you feel it?"

"I feel grateful," Will said.

"And so do I. Sleep, my dear. I think tomorrow will be an interesting day."

Chapter Text

Will woke before Hannibal the next morning. He looked at the slack mouth, the closed eyes, the momentary absence of Hannibal’s terrifying intellect, and wanted to kiss him. Instead, he slid out of bed and went to shower. And to shave.

He touched his face afterward, smooth and soft and alien. His reflection stared back at him nervously, glancing gaze, faintly sweaty palms as he washed the razor and put it back in the medicine cabinet.

He got dressed and went to start breakfast, apron tied tightly around his waist. Ham this time, and pancakes from a mix. He was stirring in the water when Hannibal came up soundlessly behind him and wrapped his arms around Will’s waist. He kissed Will’s shoulder, and Will stopped moving, stopped breathing and thinking.

Hannibal brushed his own stubbled cheek along Will’s jaw. "Very nice," he said. "Do you like it?"

"I – I don’t know yet. It’s strange."

"New things are always strange. Your feelings will become clear with time. Shall I start the coffee?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

They ate at the table with last night’s roses still fresh and vibrant between them. Will poked at his pancakes and managed only one, stomach lurching every time his thoughts veered toward the night before or the future. Hannibal ate his with only a faint wince at the first bite.

"You can taste the mix, can’t you?" Will said.

"There is a chemical undertone, yes."

"Sorry."

Hannibal set his fork down and regarded him over the roses. "I have no intention of complaining about your efforts in the kitchen or anywhere else, Will."

"I want to—" He cut himself off and stabbed at a piece of ham.

"What do you want?"

"I want to get it right. I want to – I want to do this for you."

"Why?"

"Don’t you want it?" It hurt to ask, a tightening in his throat and compression of his lungs.

"Very much."

"If I do this, then—" He stopped and put a hand over his mouth as if the words might escape without his permission.

"You take care of me, and I take care of you," Hannibal said softly. "Is that it?"

Will pushed his plate away and put a hand over his eyes. "Yeah. That."

"Is that what you were seeking with your father?"

"No. Maybe. Fuck."

"The desire for safety is universal."

"Not everyone looks for it like this. Why are you – why do you even want to be involved with this?"

"I’ve told you already. A thorough exploration of what lies between us. And the hope that I may help you come to some equilibrium of your inner world and its outward expression."

"Sounds dangerous."

Hannibal reached for his hand, and Will let him take it. "Perhaps it would feel safer if you were playing a role rather than baring parts of yourself you have not yet come to know."

"Role play? I feel like I should make a joke about French maid costumes."

Hannibal squeezed his hand. "We wear masks every day. To choose one consciously and try it on shouldn’t seem so strange to us."

"What role did you have in mind?"

"The one you are already filling. Perhaps with more intent, a more literal interpretation."

"Playing house."

"The most harmless of children’s games."

"We’re not children. You can’t possibly want this."

"Do you believe that, or do you mean that I can’t possibly want you?"

Will looked up at him finally and met his eyes. Some of the chaos in his head stilled. "I’m a lot of trouble," he said.

"How many people have told you that?"

"I don’t remember any more. If I’m being fair, most of them don’t say it out loud."

Hannibal kissed his hand. "You are more than worth it. You are so dear to me, Will."

Will swallowed hard. He wanted to pull his hand away, wanted to run. He examined the creases of skin in Hannibal’s knuckles, the red marks on his wrists from the rope just below the deep red of his pajamas. Light poured in from the windows and caught the steam of the coffee. For a moment, everything looked like a painting. The picture of domesticity.

"Okay," Will said. "We can try."

"Don’t put too much effort into it. I think it will unfold more naturally than you might believe if you set aside your fears and allow yourself to react the way you want to."

"You make that sound easy."

"It’s not easy. But it is possible, and we have some time ahead of us. I won’t go back to work until next week."

"You’ll stay here until then?"

"If that suits you, yes. I’ll need to get some more things from my house. If I might borrow the car?"

"It’s – yeah. You don’t have to ask."

"Don’t I?"

Will looked down at the table, at his free hand and its white knuckled grip on the wood. Just playing a role. That made what he was about to say all right instead of insane. He hoped. "What’s mine is yours."

Hannibal stood without letting go of his hand and pulled Will into his arms. Will held onto him. His hands balled into fists around the fabric of Hannibal’s pajamas.

"Yes," Hannibal said. "That’s right, my dear. That’s right."

*

Hannibal sat in his car outside his house. Rain poured down on the windshield and rendered the world in melting shades of blue and gray. The passenger’s seat was piled with Will’s gifts. He had wanted to buy more, wanted to fill the car with beautiful things, but he suspected that even this much would prove overwhelming.

He let the rain pelt him as he crossed the driveway. Inside, he checked the door to the basement once more and found it still locked. There had been no reason for the forensics team to venture away from the stairs and the bedroom, but he’d had some concern – for nothing, as it turned out. No one had asked him for the key or even said anything to suggest they’d tried the door and found it locked. The benefits of being the victim. No one wanted to intrude further into his life than Budge already had.

Rain tapped on the windows of his bedroom and cast wavering reflections on the floor. He packed another sweater, a pair of boots that might withstand the mud that surrounded Will’s house with more success than his leather shoes, and surveyed the rest of the room. The armor, the antique silver hair brush on his dresser, the small painting he’d done of his aunt when he was sixteen.

His house had grown around him. He had made careful additions, careful subtractions, everything finely tailored. Everything he desired within reach.

Now, he could see only absence: the place in his kitchen where Will had shattered his crystal wineglass, his empty bed, the smudge of Will’s fingers on the polished wood of his bookshelves.

He walked downstairs to the study and took out the book Will had been examining the night they went to see Lenora Park sing: Lifecycle of the Glass Butterfly, a book of creatures that had never existed, clothed in the style of a scientific treatise. Written by a German author in the 1800s, briefly popular with the naturalists of England and France, now lost to the world with the exception of a few surviving copies. The author, Werner Amsel, had given this one to Hannibal’s great grandfather.

It was the one book in his collection that had any sort of personal history beyond his own tastes and interests. Will had picked it out of a thousand others without even trying.

Hannibal flipped through it now and turned finally to the last page, where Mischa had drawn a bird in blotchy brown ink.

*

Hannibal was gone for longer than Will had expected. He was left to himself, sitting on the edge of the bed, trying not to stir up anything else inside his mind. He swept the floor. He got out clean sheets and then he set them aside. He wrestled first the mattress and then the bed frame into the room down the hall from the bathroom. It was probably supposed to be a home office or a TV room. It had stood empty for as long as Will had owned the house. He didn’t even need it for storage.

First the bed, shoved and kicked into place next to the window so that the light fell across it. Then his dresser and small nightstand. He got them all into the other room. The bedroom. The bedroom that he and Hannibal would be sharing, at least until next week. Everything in his head turned to static as he considered that. No wonder he’d started moving furniture. Anything rather than think.

He stared at the relative positions of the three things in the barren room. Some other arrangement would probably be better, but he’d never cared enough to learn about that kind of thing. In truth, he wasn’t sure he cared enough now. Except that Hannibal would care, and he wanted – God, he wanted.

Someone barked in the other room, and Will went to the window. No car. Just random doggy excitement. A squirrel skittered past the window, and he heard another bark. He found his phone and called someone to clean the chimney.

When Hannibal came home – back – when Hannibal got back late that afternoon, he was carrying two large shopping bags. Will’s heart crawled up his throat to lodge there in a sticky knot of anticipation and fear that impeded his breath.

He met Hannibal at the door to take the bags for him, but Hannibal only smiled and kept his grip on them and kissed Will’s cheek.

"Not quite yet, my dear. Why don’t you make us some coffee?"

Will ground beans and boiled water with mechanical movements that became gradually less jerky as the familiarity of it calmed his mind. He glanced over his shoulder. Hannibal sat in Will’s chair by the window. He’d taken off his suit jacket and held his tablet, frowning over something he saw there.

When Will brought coffee over, Hannibal looked up at him and smiled as he took it. "Thank you," he said.

"This is – it’s a little stereotypical, don’t you think?"

"Is it what you want?"

"Is it what you want? When you told me how many men had sat across from you and described this as their ideal, were you one of them?"

Hannibal set his tablet aside and sipped his coffee. "I have a number of overlapping desires about this situation. I have never regarded it as an ideal to strive for, no. In truth, I never expected or even wished for a partner in my life. But I would guess that this isn’t something you have looked for either."

Will shook his head. "I can’t imagine – no." Not with anyone but Hannibal. It would be impossible.

"And yet, here we both are. Internal desires often shape themselves to the resources we have available. Will you open your gifts now?"

Will looked at the pile of flat boxes on the ground. He picked up the top one and ran his thumb over the name of the store. "L.L. Bean? Really?"

"I didn’t want to shock you too much," Hannibal said. "Not the first time."

Will lifted off the lid and pushed away the tissue paper and almost laughed. "I can’t believe you walked into a store and bought plaid flannel anything. What is this?"

He held it up and stopped laughing. It was just a nightgown, not particularly feminine, more an oversized shirt than anything else, but still, like the apron, clearly not made for a man. No lace, no ruffles. Just pearl white buttons halfway down the front. Cut up on the sides high enough to show his thighs.

Hannibal touched his shoulder, and Will realized that his hands were balled into fists around the fabric, that his breath cut his throat with every inhale.

"Are you all right, my dear?" Hannibal asked. "If you don’t like it, I’ll take it back."

Will could feel actual tears lurking somewhere behind his eyes at the kindness, and he blinked hard. "I like it," he said. "Thank you."

Hannibal tugged him across the small space between them and into his arms, into his lap. He kissed Will’s smooth jaw. "I’m glad. I think you’ll look lovely in it."

"Do you? Really? Because I think I’m going to look ridiculous."

"I think you’ll be very pretty. Why don’t you open the rest?"

Pretty. The way he said it, so casually, turned Will’s brain inside out. He got the next box and perched on the edge of the chair across from Hannibal. The store was Nordstrom this time. He lifted the lid, peeled back the tissue paper, and this time had no trouble identifying the contents. Three pairs of cotton underwear lay neatly folded, one overlapping the next. Pale yellow, pale green, sky blue. The green ones had a narrow band of lace around the waistband. The blue pair was entirely plain.

He picked them up one at a time, felt the soft fabric, the stretch and give. Wondered if it would be enough, if he would even fit, but in the end they weren’t that different from briefs. The yellow ones had a goddamn daisy printed on the ass.

He held them up to Hannibal. "Are you serious?"

"You needn’t keep anything you don’t like."

"I don’t – it’s not that. I just thought you’d get – I don’t know. Fancier things."

"Things that would appeal to me."

"Yeah."

"I think that would be rather beside the point. Do you like them?"

Will stared down at them. Plain and simple. Almost sweet. Something close to innocence, and that made his face heat again. He nodded.

"Good. Perhaps in the future, we’ll find you something more sophisticated. But I think these will do nicely for now. You’d better get them in the wash if you want to wear them tonight."

Will looked up at that, full deer-in-headlights stare. Tonight. In that nightgown and women’s underwear and in bed with Hannibal. He opened his mouth once, decided that he’d regret anything that might come out of it, and shut it again. He stood and took everything with him to the laundry room.

It was a relief to have a moment alone. He held the yellow pair up across his hips and looked down at himself and swallowed. He could not imagine putting them on, and he could imagine it in sharp and vivid detail. He tossed them into the machine and started it up.

When he returned, Hannibal had one more box balanced on his knee. This one was blue with a white ribbon, Tiffany written in gold across the lid. Will stopped halfway across the room, and it took Hannibal’s gentle prompting to get him any closer.

"This is more my taste, I’m afraid," Hannibal said. He pressed it into Will’s hand. "But again, it can be returned."

"You really didn’t have to. I don’t even know if I should open this."

"Nonsense, my dear. You deserve it, and it would make me very happy to see you wear it."

Will hesitated, but he knew himself and he knew he lacked the ability to refuse this, to refuse anything Hannibal wanted to give him right now. He untied the ribbon and slipped off the lid.

The necklace inside was made from black stones that seemed to glow red from within. White pearls separated them in a few places like small moons.

"The black is spinel. Once upon a time they were often used to counterfeit rubies, or simply mistaken for them. The Black Prince Ruby is a red spinel. They are more rare now by far than the rubies they used to impersonate."

"I’ve never heard of them." He touched them and found them cool and smooth. They slid between his fingers easily. The necklace coiled in the palm of his hand.

"Most people haven’t. Like many very rare gems, they don’t have the opportunity to gain a wide following and are thus overlooked and undervalued."

Will looked down at the necklace cupped in his palms. "Would it be stupid to wear it with this?"

"Not at all. Shall I fasten it for you?"

"Yeah. Please."

Will handed it to him and sat on the arm of the chair. Hannibal’s fingers barely brushed his neck as he closed the clasp. Will settled the weight of it around his neck. He looked down and saw how it shone against his skin against the frayed collar of his t-shirt.

He twisted round and pressed his lips to Hannibal’s cheek and then ducked his head, still close, still breathing in the fading notes of Hannibal’s aftershave. "Thank you," he said. "It’s – it’s beautiful."

Hannibal stroked his cheek. Will could feel his smile. "And so are you, my dear. It suits you very well. Now. What are we having for dinner?"

"Oh. I didn’t think. I was, uh." He gestured at the space where the bed had been.

"I’m sure you’ll come up with something."

Right. Because this was his job now, though Hannibal was more used to it and far better qualified. It had always felt nearly illicit to be cooking for Hannibal, like he was getting away with something that no one else was allowed. The strength of the feeling was only increased by these roles they had stepped into. He wondered how it felt to Hannibal to turn over this responsibility to someone else. To allow himself to be provided for.

Will smiled at him. "Yeah. No problem, just give me a few minutes."

"As much time as you need. Run along then. There’s wine on the kitchen counter."

And he patted Will’s ass when he got up. Will stared at him over his shoulder and got only a very small smirk in return.

Will tied on his apron and stood in the kitchen. He touched the stones of the necklace, warming quickly with the faint flush of his skin. He wondered if he had stepped into another world, some sort of fairy tale that began with ordinary domestic life and ended in blood and teeth and running barefoot through the snow pursued by unseen monsters.

The kitchen light flickered overhead. Garlic and shallots sat out on the counter next to the wine. They’d gotten tomatoes at the store. Pasta and tomato sauce. That couldn’t be too hard. Garlic bread. Meatballs. Salad.

The internet produced recipes for sauce and meatballs, neither of which looked too far out of his league. Halfway through making dinner, he transferred his new clothes from the washer to the dryer and let himself lean there for a moment, lightheaded at the thought of actually wearing them. Not just lightheaded. His cock pushed at the front his pants, visible even under the apron. He imagined how it would distend the thin cotton panties and swallowed hard.

"Hannibal?" he called.

"What is it?"

"Can you watch the sauce for a few minutes? I want to take a shower before dinner."

"Of course."

In the shower, he bit his lip as his hand moved on his cock, and he came so hard and so fast that he had to bend over and catch his breath. Even afterward as he washed his hair and dried off, he could feel the remnants of pleasure sizzling under his skin.

The shirt he chose wasn’t much different from the one he’d worn all day: still white, still plain, but newer and tighter than the ones he usually slept in. The necklace fell over it more cleanly. He wiped away steam on the bathroom mirror and peered at himself. The age of the glass and the lingering moisture softened his face. He searched for something he recognized and failed to find it.

"Will? Are you almost done?" Hannibal’s voice, from the kitchen.

"Yeah, one second." Will ran his hands through his hair once and went back into the other room. "Sorry. I was … I didn’t mean to be so long."

He leaned over the sauce on the stove and stirred it, poking at the edges of the pan for anything sticking to the bottom. Hannibal came up behind him. Will could feel the long inhale as Hannibal bent close to the back of his neck. His skin prickled.

"There is nothing to apologize for. How could I be upset when this is the result?"

"I didn’t really – I didn’t do anything."

Hannibal squeezed his hip once and then looped the apron around his waist and tied it. He touched the necklace and ran his hand down Will’s chest to settle on his stomach. Will could feel him pressed close all the way down his back.

"You’re such a pretty thing," Hannibal said in his ear. He pressed a kiss to Will’s jaw.

Will kept the spoon moving in the sauce, but let his eyes close. Warmth grew in his chest, as painful as it was pleasant.

"I have to …" There were things he had to do, but none of them seemed worth moving for. Hannibal kissed his neck. A bubble burst in the sauce and spattered on his hand. He took a breath. "I really have to finish this, and you’re not helping."

"I could help," Hannibal said, and his tone did not suggest that he meant cooking tips.

"Great. You can start the pasta water."

Hannibal laughed softly, a breath of air against his skin. "All right, my dear. I won’t distract you anymore."

He stepped back and turned for the living room.

"You think I wasn’t serious? Start the pasta water."

Hannibal’s eyes creased with amusement, and he turned to the cupboard that held the pots and pans. When he had the water going on the stove, he retreated again to the other room, the easy chair, and his tablet.

"Are you working?" Will asked.

"Just catching up on some reading. I subscribe to a number of journals in my field. It’s often difficult to sort the gold from the dross."

"What are you reading right now? Gold?"

Hannibal paused. "It’s my own article, I’m afraid. I find it hard to resist looking them over once they’re printed."

"I don’t know how you can stand it. I never look at mine. Even if I didn’t leave in any typos, the editor’s changed something they shouldn’t have, or the formatting on the charts is screwed up, and they’re never gonna fix it."

"They might at least try in the electronic versions, but yes, you’re right, sadly. The best I ever get for my trouble is a correction printed the next month or the next quarter that no one will read."

"I read some of yours. After I started coming to see you."

"And what did you think?"

"I think you’re wrong about the social function of exclusion."

Hannibal looked up from his tablet and then set it aside. "Please continue."

"In a minute, I’m concentrating. Did you set the table? This is almost ready."

Hannibal rose and got out plates and silverware and napkins. Will finished the salad, and they sat down together.

"You were going to critique my article," Hannibal said.

"It’s about fifty percent bullshit, which is better than the other articles in that issue, which were about ninety percent. You don’t define most of your terms, because you can’t, there are no recognized definitions for the things you’re talking about."

"One must forge ahead into unknown territory."

"Yeah, I get that. I still think you could’ve been more rigorous there."

Hannibal’s mouth pulled up ever so slightly at the corners. "I am not usually held to such high standards. Perhaps I have grown careless."

"I don’t know. Maybe it’s not actually possible to define things like that outside of a specific context. But that’s not my major issue with the article. You said society ejects people who aren’t capable of functioning as part of the whole like our immune system attacks threats to our bodies."

"In essence, yes, though I would prefer not to simplify it so much."

"It’s more complex than that, granted, but I don’t think that’s what going on. People get squeezed out, but they don’t stop contributing. They see more because they see from the outside, and they’re the ones who push us forward."

"The antibodies of our immune system."

"If you want to stretch a metaphor to its breaking point, yeah. Society doesn’t exclude people to protect itself. It excludes people because stagnation is death, and change rarely comes from within."

"You haven’t defined your terms, either."

"I’m not a psychiatrist, and I’m not writing a paper for a peer reviewed journal."

"Perhaps you should. A rebuttal."

"What’s the point?"

"You publish in your own field. What’s the point of that?"

"That’s useful information. This is just—"

Hannibal raised his eyebrows in question.

"I was going to say no offense and then be offensive about psychiatry and you and everyone who reads that journal."

The light of amusement hadn’t left Hannibal’s eyes since they’d started talking, and now it grew with his smile. "You’ve had unfortunate experiences with other practitioners in my field."

Will took another bite and wound spaghetti around his fork. The tines scraped against the plate. Snorkel whuffed quietly by Hannibal’s chair.

"A lot of psychology reads like philosophy to me. And it’s not that I think people should stop looking for answers. I just don’t think there are any, so it’s hard for me to have any personal interest in the search."

"You believe in a truly random world, governed only by the forces of decay?"

"Decay and creation," Will said.

"Meaningless."

"No. Our lives have the meaning we give them."

Hannibal raised his wine glass in a toast, and Will tapped his against it. The clink of glass was not the ringing chord of crystal, but it was enough.

Chapter Text

After dinner, Hannibal went back to his tablet, pausing now and then to read Will either the gold or the worst of the dross. Will worked on the presentation for his next class, the newest Ripper murders.

They weighed more and more heavily on him until his eyes ached and the room grew dim around him. Only the images on the computer screen seemed real. The light of it burned into him. Against it, he saw the silhouette of the stag. The light became water, and the water rose until it bore him up and up and up.

"Will?"

The stag spoke to him with Abigail’s face and Garret Jacob Hobbs’s voice.

"Will, do you hear me?"

Will blinked hard and rubbed his face with cold hands. He looked around. The room’s light level was the same as always, dim but warm. Hannibal had a hand on his knee.

"Sorry," Will said. "I was somewhere else."

"It’s past eleven. Perhaps it’s time for bed."

"Yeah. Good plan." He set his laptop aside and stretched, arms up over his head. His shoulders popped and resettled.

"I’ll let you have the bathroom first."

"Thanks," Will said, and then he remembered what bedtime would mean. The nightgown, the underwear. It felt far away and long ago already, and he had to force himself to get up, to walk to the bedroom like he knew what he was doing, to take them from the dresser and into the bathroom.

He undressed and stood naked on the tile and wondered if this weren’t just another hallucination or waking dream.

Teeth brushed, face washed, he picked up the nightgown. It felt real enough. So had the water and the light. He slid it on over his head and looked in the mirror. It showed him only his face and chest. He undid two buttons and looked at the effect, the soft folds of the fabric, and then turned away from the mirror entirely.

He’d picked the blue panties. At random. No, not at random. Because they went with the nightgown, which was primarily blue and green, and because he wanted the yellow ones with the fucking daisy. He closed his eyes and held the blue ones tight, balled up in his fist. Struggling between want and fear.

He would look absurd. He knew that, whatever Hannibal said. And the things Hannibal had picked for him – he couldn’t imagine any of the women he knew wearing them. Wrong for his body and for his age, but now that he had them, now that Hannibal had given him these things that he’d refused to even consider taking for himself, he couldn’t go back. The itch burned under his skin, and his cock ached a little, and he had to know what it would feel like.

He stepped in and pulled them up. They fit close around his waist, but not too tight. He reached down into them and adjusted his balls. He moved his cock to the right where it lay in a thickening line.

One more shaky breath, and he let the shirttails of the nightgown fall back in place. It cut up at the sides to the top of his thighs. When he twisted around, he could see a sliver of blue cotton showing near the back. He refused to touch himself again. He’d jerked off less than three hours ago. He would go to bed. With Hannibal. And sleep.

He waited in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. His heart beat like something wild was snapping at his heels. Hannibal came into the room already in his pajamas, blue this time, a blue that matched Will’s plaid. Will smiled a little. Probably not a coincidence.

Will expected him to demand to see what he was wearing. He imagined peeling down the covers, pulling up the gown, and he grew harder. Hannibal only got in beside him, kissed his neck, and turned off the light.

"Good night, Will. Sleep well."

"Good night," Will said faintly. He was left alone with his erection, but not alone enough to do anything about it. He turned over and over and fell into a shallow sleep that ended with his hips grinding unconsciously into the mattress. He woke up and froze, but it was so hard. His body was never this demanding.

"Are you awake, my dear?" Hannibal murmured. He sounded sleepy. His hand on Will’s waist was heated from the warmth of their bodies under the covers.

"Yeah," Will whispered. "Can’t sleep."

"Would you like me to help you with that?"

"Oh, God. Yeah. Please."

Hannibal pulled him closer. He slid his hand up Will’s thigh, over his ass to his hip. He tugged until Will lay on his side and Hannibal faced him. His eyes seemed almost to glow in the dark.

"Do you like your new things?" Hannibal said softly. He stroked along Will’s inner thigh, up and up, to cup his cock through the thin cotton.

"Yes. Yes. Hannibal …"

"Will you show me in the morning? Will you wear them while you cook for me?"

Will nodded, fighting not to thrust against his hand and failing.

"I’m glad. I’d like to see you." Hannibal moved closer. He nosed along Will’s neck. His hand rubbed slowly over Will’s stiff cock. "Such a pretty girl."

"Oh, God. I’m not—"

"Hush," Hannibal said softly, and kissed him. "It’s all right. You’re so lovely like this."

He squeezed Will’s cock lightly. Will clung to his shoulders and dug one foot into the mattress. He gave up and thrust against Hannibal’s hand, but Hannibal withdrew it and pushed him onto his back.

"Spread your legs, my dear."

Will did, and Hannibal pushed the nightgown up around his waist and pulled down the sheets. Even in the near total dark, Will felt exposed. He tensed as Hannibal touched him again, teasing fingers running lightly over the outline of his balls and up along the shaft to rub gently at the head.

"Hannibal, come on …" There wasn’t even enough contact to push against. Will moved restlessly against the bed. He grabbed at the sheets and twisted his hands in them.

"Didn’t I promise to be gentle with you?" Hannibal bent over Will, another shadow in the dark, and kissed the underside of his jaw. "Let me take care of you."

Will closed his eyes. He could hear his own breath and the rustle of fabric. Heat spread out over his skin, and sweat started under his arms and at the back of his neck and knees. Hannibal rubbed his thumb in slow circles over the head of his cock until Will was biting his lip to stay quiet and still not managing it. Faint, high-pitched breaths escaped him.

"Please," he said.

"What was it like with the other men? Did they hurt you? Push you down and take you roughly?"

Will shook his head. "Nothing like that."

"Then what? I wouldn’t wish to repeat their mistakes."

"It just wasn’t – oh—" Hannibal had pushed down the waistband of the panties and exposed the head of Will’s cock to the air and to his touch. Without the barrier of the cotton, everything felt sharper, almost too intense. Hannibal stroked the shaft through the panties, and Will twisted on the bed.

"Will?" Hannibal prompted.

"It was fast. And – and crude."

"Mm. When one thinks of all the pleasures that can be drawn from the human body, to treat it so casually seems a crime worthy of punishment."

"You can’t punish people for – for—" Hannibal’s palm rubbed up the length of his cock and smeared pre-come down over the cotton until his skin was sticking to it, until he could imagine it going translucent, clinging, exposing everything.

He put a hand over his eyes. "Turn on the light," he said.

Hannibal paused. "Are you sure?"

"You want to see me, don’t you?"

"Very much."

"So turn on the light."

Hannibal’s touch left him for only a moment while he flicked on the bedside lamp. Will squeezed his eyes shut a few seconds longer and then looked down at himself. His stomach heaved with his breath. The head of his cock stood out wet and obscene from the panties.

"God," he said. "Oh, God. Hannibal." He looked up, afraid of what he might see on Hannibal’s face, but Hannibal was staring down at him with hunger in his eyes. His own erection was obvious through the pajama bottoms, and Will reached for it, stroked it, pulled Hannibal down on top of him.

Hannibal pushed his pajamas down and thrust between Will’s legs. It dragged the length of his cock across Will’s balls and along his shaft. He could feel the heat of it through the panties.

Hannibal bent over him, arms on either side of his head, breath against his neck. "I had meant to draw this out," he said. The faint hitch in his voice as he thrust between Will’s legs made Will grab at his shoulders and dig his nails in. "This may be fast and crude as well, I fear."

"Don’t stop, I want it, I want it so much, oh fuck—"

"I’ll be good to you afterward, my dear," Hannibal said. "Everything you need—"

He stopped talking, and his thrusts grew rougher. He yanked Will’s panties down around his thighs and thrust skin to skin. Slick fluid, their chests and stomachs pressed together, Hannibal above and around him. It was almost too much.

Hannibal came with a spurt of wet heat that Will could feel on his cock and thighs, and Will nearly came as well. He would have if Hannibal hadn’t gripped the base of his shaft and held tight as it twitched and Will shuddered.

"I want to watch you," Hannibal said, face still flushed, but voice perfectly steady again. "And I think you want to be watched."

"Oh, fuck. Yes, yes, yes—"

Hannibal stroked him loosely, lightly, thumb and forefinger circled around his wet and straining cock. Will spread his legs shamelessly until he was stopped by the stretch of the panties. He pulled at them, unable to do anything useful while Hannibal was still touching him like that.

"Do you want them off?" Hannibal asked.

Will shook his head hard.

Hannibal smiled slowly and tugged them back up all the way. He smoothed the fabric over Will’s cock and stroked him through it once, and then he reached inside. Will watched his hand move under pale blue cotton, remembered the frantic thrusts against his body, as if Hannibal couldn’t help himself, as if seeing Will like this had been too much for him. He came hard, hips off the bed, one hand fisted in the sheets and the other in Hannibal’s hair.

Hannibal pulled him close. Will pushed him onto his back and held him down with one hand on his shoulder while he kissed him. The force of it settled into gentle gratitude. Will lay half across him and licked into his mouth as Hannibal stroked his back under the nightgown.

The kiss trailed off into sleepy nuzzles. Will’s eyelids felt impossibly heavy, his nightmares far away. Hannibal shifted under him, and Will grabbed a handful of his pajamas.

"Shh," Hannibal said. "I’m only going to get us a towel. I’ll be back in a moment." He touched Will’s hip and ran a finger over the sticky front of the panties. "And I’ll put these to soak."

"But …"

"I’ll get you another pair. The yellow ones?"

Will nodded. He lifted his hips and let Hannibal peel off his underwear. The sound of bare feet on wood and of water running. Will stared up at his ceiling with the faint network of cracks where the house had settled over the decades and put the plaster under strain. He’d seen a thousand different terrors there, but right now he could only see the mundane reality of uneven paint and the glow of the lamp.

Hannibal returned and cleaned him up. Will let him, nightshirt still up around his waist, legs spread. He looked down at his hands half covered by the sleeves and down farther to the contrast of his cock as Hannibal slid the yellow panties up over his thighs.

"I really like them," he said softly.

Hannibal kissed his hip and pulled up the covers. "I’m glad."

Will turned toward him and let himself snuggle against Hannibal’s chest. He kissed his collarbone. "Thank you," he said.

"You’re very welcome."

*

Will stood at the stove, frying sausage. He still wore the nightshirt, the panties, and wool socks as a concession to the frigid floors. In his own estimation, he looked about as sexy as someone’s grandmother, but Hannibal wouldn’t stop touching him, and Will had been half hard since he started breakfast.

Hannibal drifted over to him again and stayed this time, arm wrapped firmly around his waist, dropping kisses all along his neck. He unfastened another button and tugged the nightshirt aside until he had bared Will’s shoulder.

"I really don’t want to screw this up," Will said.

"I’m sure you won’t."

"It’s your breakfast too. I’d expect you to be more worried."

Hannibal licked and sucked at his exposed collarbone. "I’m not worried."

"I don’t even know how to tell if these are done."

"They’re done," Hannibal said. He reached past Will to turn off the burner and move the pan off of the heat and then slid the same hand under Will’s nightshirt to cradle the weight of his cock.

Will drew in a deep breath and sagged back against him. "If they’re done, we should eat."

"Should we?" Hannibal murmured. "But I want you now. My pretty girl, cooking for me. How could I not?"

"Easily, I’d think," Will said, but it came out breathless as Hannibal stroked him, and he knew his face was flushed, and all he wanted was to hear more.

Hannibal nudged him over a few steps to the counter and bent him over it, chest flat on the formica, a broad hand on his back pinning him there. Hannibal pushed up his nightshirt and bared his ass and ran his other hand over and over it, grasping, squeezing.

Will spread his legs and arched his back and hoped he didn’t look too foolish. The hard length of Hannibal’s cock rubbing against his ass a second later suggested that he didn’t. He rested his head on his crossed arms and smiled, more than a little giddy.

The clink of glass – the olive oil bottle – and Hannibal was pulling down his panties in the back, sliding slick fingers between his cheeks, but not inside. "Legs together," Hannibal said, hand skidding on Will’s hip.

Will squeezed his thighs as tight as he could, and Hannibal slid his cock in between them. He groaned softly in Will’s ear. Will rubbed his own cock slowly through the cotton. He could feel the damp stain he’d already left on the front.

Hannibal took his hips and rutted against him. His cock slid between Will’s cheeks, against his balls, over his hole. Will pressed himself flatter and went up almost on his toes, wanting more, all he could get, wanting to make it better for Hannibal.

"Perfect," Hannibal told him, and Will felt almost dizzy with the praise.

"Please," he said, so hard he could barely think, and then Hannibal was coming all over his skin, the last few thrusts smearing it between his cheeks. It dripped down his thighs.

Hannibal spared himself a few harsh breaths and then turned Will and held him against the counter as he licked once up his cock and took him in his mouth. Will’s socked feet slipped on the floor, and he buried his hands in Hannibal’s hair. He would’ve shoved into his mouth, wouldn’t have been able to stop himself for anything, but Hannibal’s hands on his hips held him pinned down, and all he could take was what Hannibal gave him.

Heat gathered in his stomach and balls, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight. He cried out when he came. Hannibal kept sucking him until Will’s thighs started to tremble and then stood and caught him close and held him.

"Oh, my God," Will said faintly. He leaned his head on Hannibal’s shoulder and flexed his hands one at a time. His fingers still tingled a little with the force of his climax.

Hannibal breathed laughter into his ear. "Good morning," he said.

"Breakfast’s going to be cold."

"Do you care?"

"Not at all."

"Then let’s go back to bed."

They did, after more clean up and after Will’s panties and Hannibal’s oil spattered pajamas had been added to last night’s casualties. Will curled up under the covers against Hannibal’s side, head on his chest. The rhythm of Hannibal’s heart and breath filled him up.

"I fear we’ve ruined those," Hannibal said. "I’ll need to buy you more."

"They’re not ruined. I fix engines. I can get oil stains out of anything."

"Perhaps I’ll buy you more anyway. Later in the day."

Will smiled to himself. "You could. Can’t lie around in bed forever."

"I don’t see why not. You’re not going in to work, are you?"

"Tomorrow. I said I’d be fine to teach. Jack said no."

Hannibal wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "It’s not meant as a personal slight, my dear. Most people would need the time off."

Will stayed quiet for a few seconds. Hannibal traced patterns over the muscles of his upper arm with one finger. "I shouldn’t have killed him," Will said.

"No one is blaming you."

"I blame myself. If I’d stopped shooting—"

"You can’t know what would’ve happened. You may not have saved my life by killing him, but I imagine you saved at least one eye."

"Is your eye worth his life?"

"It is to me."

Will looked up at his face, cool and serene, like a saint, post-martyrdom. "I wanted to kill him. I was angry at him for taking you from me."

"Anger is a natural reaction."

"Were you angry when your family was killed?"

Hannibal paused before he spoke. He touched Will’s hair lightly and cupped the back of his head with one hand. "When my parents were killed, I was afraid. I had to protect my sister, to feed her and care for her, and the winter had just begun."

"You didn’t get help?"

"I feared they would separate us. We had no living relatives of whom I knew – my aunt and uncle found me only years later – and the orphanages were segregated by sex. I thought we would stay at the house on our own. I learned to cook, to chop firewood, to do the laundry, to build a fire. All the chores I had avoided when they were still alive."

Will watched his face. Nothing showed on it. "It wasn’t enough," he said.

"No." Hannibal pulled him closer, wrapped him up tight in his arms. "She became ill. Pneumonia, most likely. She complained of weariness, trouble breathing. Her fever grew worse. I did all I could. For many nights, I lay awake and listened to her breath as it grew wetter and slower. I imagined her lungs filling with blood. It was the same sound my father made when he died."

Will filed that away, could see the blood bubbling between a man’s parted lips, tried to see the cause. Violence. Not an accident.

"Eventually, I sought help, but it was too late. She spent her last days in an oxygen tent in a hospital. I was banned from the room, perhaps for fear of infection, and then sent off, as expected, to a boy’s orphanage in another city. She died alone."

"But she was your sister. That’s … How could they? Why?"

"It was not a time or a place where anyone’s emotional comfort was a concern. I heard one of the matrons at the orphanage express the sentiment that children don’t feel things as adults do."

"They feel things more. Much more."

"Yes," Hannibal said, but he was gone, staring at some part of the past that Will couldn’t see.

Will held onto him as tight as he could. The crush of Hannibal’s arms around him eased slowly over the course of minutes. Eventually, Will dozed. He dreamed of Hannibal, listening to his breath, watching over him in his sleep and pouring out his secrets.

*

Hannibal watched Will sleep. Listened to him breathe. The last time he had paid such close attention to another’s breath, he had been listening to Mischa’s lungs failing.

He inhaled deeply of Will’s fevered scent and stroked his hair. How long could he let it go this time?

Even a week ago, it had seemed a simple thing to spin out Will’s illness, unwinding his mind like Penelope at her loom, playing for time and for control. Now, he thought of the consequences of failure. For the first time in many years, doubt came to him on soft feet and pulled at his sleeve with a child’s hand.

*

Scent and sound curled through Will’s dreams. Hannibal stood in the kitchen carving slices off of a massive, bloodied animal that filled the entire room. Will stared from the doorway. The feathered stag lifted its head and let out a last, pained breath. It closed its dull eyes.

Will came awake with a start and nearly upset the tray Hannibal had set on the bed next to him. He shoved back the covers and sat on the side of the bed with his hands over his face.

Hannibal sat next to him and smoothed a hand down his back. "Are you all right, my dear?"

Will shook his head, not meaning no or yes or anything at all. He was still full of the stag’s pain and the vision of Hannibal butchering it alive.

Hannibal put an arm around him and pulled him close. Will pushed his face against Hannibal’s chest. He was wearing his sweater again, and Will wanted his face smooth against it, wanted to feel how soft it was against his skin. Couldn’t have that, just like he couldn’t have peace in his sleep. The world bore in on him like a pressure chamber. His head ached fiercely. His hands were clenched into fists so tight his fingers hurt.

He sat up, forced himself to pull away, and he had a few seconds of barren breath, remembering how to function in the world. And then Hannibal kissed his hair and his unshaven jaw and wrapped him up tight in his arms again.

"Do you want me to leave you alone with this?" he asked.

Will shook his head again, definitely no this time.

"Then I am here."

"You won’t always be here."

"No. I can’t promise always to be with you when you need me. But I can promise to try. You can call me, and I will come. Is that enough?"

Will’s breath came out of him in a shaky sigh. He let himself lean again, let Hannibal support him until the world started to reassemble around him in a way that seemed less threatening.

Hannibal stroked his hair, and Will drifted in his arms. The nightmare finally began to fade, if not from memory, then at least from a vivid brand on his brain into smoldering coals. Hannibal tugged at him and got them both back in bed, under the covers. He sat Will between his legs, back braced against Hannibal’s chest.

"Food’s getting cold. Again," Will said.

"Are you ready to eat?"

"Yeah, I guess."

The first bite erased his reluctance. Figs and prosciutto, poached eggs and ham with perfect hollandaise sauce, and biscuits that had definitely not come out of a can from the cooler section of the grocery store.

"Thanks," Will said.

"It’s nothing. You needed the rest."

"It’s a lot." He took a slow breath. "But it’s never going to be enough. You know that, right? It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m not going to get better. It’s a little worse right now, but this is – this is just my life."

"I think we may hope to integrate your inner and outer experience of the world somewhat and bring you a level of balance that you have been missing, but by no means am I seeking to cure you, Will. Your mind is unique, and I would not wish to change that."

Will twisted around to look at him, not at his eyes, but at the small muscles of face and neck and shoulders that were a much surer indicator of honesty. He saw nothing but steady sincerity there. He’d never seen anything else from Hannibal. "Okay. As long as you’re prepared for that," he said.

"I am very much looking forward to it."

"Interesting comment on someone else’s nightmares."

"Perhaps I find them a relief from my own."

"You know that’s an awful thing to say, right?"

"Certainly."

Will smiled and went back to his breakfast. "Just checking."

Chapter Text

The week wore on. Hannibal’s injuries started to heal. Will had washed the underwear and the nightgown three times before he’d owned them for three days, and Hannibal seemed as intent as ever on ruining them, particularly in the mornings.

Will stood at the stove frying eggs and bread, and he had Hannibal’s hands at his waist, on his ass, up under his nightshirt. Nothing too invasive, nothing that suggested sex immediately, but enough to make him squirm and try not to laugh.

"You’re being ridiculous. Do you even want breakfast?"

Hannibal sighed against his neck and made him shiver. "You make the choice between physical sustenance and spiritual very difficult, my dear, looking as you do."

"I think you’re confusing spirituality with something else."

"Beauty is always a joy to the spirit."

Will, God help him, blushed to the tips of his ears.

They ate in their pajamas. Hannibal had made the coffee, and the steam that rose from it smelled of rich dark things. Will associated it with the smell of the forest, the smell of autumn, roasted and distilled.

"Will you wear them to work?" Hannibal asked.

Will jerked his head up and stared at him. He hadn’t been thinking of work, for once, though they were up early, eating early because he would have to leave soon.

"You are still going?"

"Yeah," Will said.

"I’m only curious. Of course you shouldn’t if you feel uncomfortable with it."

"I don’t think – no."

"All right."

Not yet. Maybe not ever. He dragged fried bread through egg yolk and imagined his homecoming tonight, putting them on then, leaving Quantico and the rest of the world firmly behind him.

"If I were to buy you something else today, would you have any requests?" Hannibal asked.

"More of the same if you’re going to take every opportunity to get them dirty."

Hannibal smiled slowly. "I think I will, yes. Do you really want me to leave you to cook in peace?"

Will shook his head quickly. "It’s – I like it. Don’t stop."

Hannibal reached for his hand and kissed it. "It’s part of the game, yes?"

"Putting up with you because you can’t help yourself," Will said, and swallowed. Heat rising up his neck again. Hannibal never blushed. Maybe he never felt this foolish at all. "You can’t keep your hands off me."

"It’s an interesting part to play. I have honed my self control to an edge that seldom fails me. The release is more pleasurable than I’d anticipated."

"You really like it? This?"

"Touching you whenever I like? I doubt it will ever grow old. Your reactions only push me to do more. Is that your intent?"

"No." Will rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Maybe? Not consciously."

"You react without thought of consequence. How often do you do that in your ordinary life?"

"Never."

"Truly never?"

"Even when I know I’m doing something stupid, I can see the reprisal coming. I just don’t always care enough to stop."

"But not when we do this."

"It’s just a game. It doesn’t matter." Will looked at Hannibal’s hand, still closed around his, solid and warm and anchoring. "Right?"

"If that’s what you wish, certainly."

"What else could it be? I’m not – this isn’t who I am. This isn’t who you are."

"Our selves are endlessly malleable. You of all people must know that. We are not the fixed stars piercing the heavens. We move."

"We can move. Doesn’t mean we will. How much have you changed in your life? Really?"

"Hardly at all. And you?"

"Sometimes I think I’m still the same person I was when I was seven. Running outside to escape my nightmares."

"One cannot outrun one’s own mind. Hence, perhaps, the necessity for change."

Will looked at him. Hannibal had stopped eating, and his gaze weighed heavily on Will’s skin. "How much would you change?" Will asked him. "How far would you go?"

Hannibal didn’t answer. After a few seconds, Will pulled his hand back to finish his breakfast.

"I have disregarded the possibility of significant change for many years," Hannibal said, at last. "I believed there was no reason for it. Nothing more to attain."

"Stagnation."

"Perhaps that’s fair. But when the journey to one’s ideal has been so long, it is difficult to set it aside for anything else."

"No one’s asking you to."

"I wasn’t implying that you were, my dear. Only sharing my thoughts with you."

Will glanced up at him. "I’m not used to you sounding unsure about anything."

"Nor am I."

They washed the dishes together in silence. Will showered and dressed for work. Hannibal kissed him goodbye at the door.

*

Hannibal sat at the kitchen table for a long time after Will had gone. The light and the dogs moved around him. He did not see them. The past had seized his eyes and his mind, and he dwelt on the feeling of the pitchfork plunging into his father’s chest, the sudden and unexpected rush of blood, how thick it had been, how red, how very warm on his cold hands.

For days afterward, nothing else in the world seemed to have any color. He moved through gray spaces and watched the red fade under his fingernails from bright to rust to something indistinguishable from dirt. His father’s bones, once buried, had also become indistinguishable from dirt. And his mother’s. Such was the nature of the human form, so transient, hardly worth grieving over.

*

Ardelia Mapp came early to class again, though she wasn’t out of breath this time. Will nodded to her and went back to reshuffling the slides on his PowerPoint for the tenth time. He wasn’t aware she’d moved from the front row until he glanced down to rub his eyes and saw her shoes next to his desk.

"Is there a problem?" he asked.

"I just had a question about the lecture last week. You said they caught Draper because he skipped out on paying that diner bill. Why did he? I looked at the list of his personal effects. He had cash."

Will relaxed marginally. He didn’t want to get into the habit of chatting with anyone before class, but it was a good question, and he was here to teach. "What do you think?" he said.

"It’s obviously an aspect of his psychology, but the profile doesn’t really talk about that part of it. He had no history of stealing, even small things, so it doesn’t seem like he’d do it because he could, to feel powerful."

"Even though the murders were about power?"

"It’s not the same. The people he was killing knew what he was taking from them. He got to watch them know. He was already gone when the guy at the diner realized what he’d done."

"So what’s your theory?"

"I don’t have one. I thought of a few other things, but none of them are right. That’s why I’m asking."

"I’m not here to give you answers. I’m here to give you the tools to find them yourself."

"That’s not what you told Grant when he asked about Billy Hearn’s motivation last week."

"Grant’s not as smart as you are. Outline your theories. Two thousand words."

"But they’re wrong!"

"Right theories come out of wrong theories. They don’t often come out of thin air."

He could see her suppressed sigh, the stifled irritation in her neck and shoulders. "Yes, sir. How was your dinner?"

He looked at her over the top of his glasses. She knew he’d prefer to let it drop, so this polite inquiry was socially acceptable vengeance for the essay. It amused him more than it should’ve, and he let himself smile at her. "It went all right. Thanks for the tip."

"Anytime, sir. I’m a pretty good cook."

Something about the pride in her voice caught at him, snagged on the conversation he’d had with Hannibal over breakfast. "If you had to pick one," he said, "which would you choose?"

She frowned, because it was a goddamn stupid question, and provided the expected answer. "What, cooking or the FBI? I’m here, aren’t I?"

"Yeah, you are." And so was he. He’d never really considered doing anything else.

She frowned at him a second longer, but he was staring past her, and eventually she took the hint and went back to her seat. Will continued to look beyond the walls of his classroom and into the forest of his past. He could trace every decision that had led him to law enforcement, but there had never been a choice. He’d never seen any other option.

*

When Will pulled into his driveway, the porch door opened, and his dogs launched themselves toward the car. He got out and knelt on the grass with them, water wicking into the knees of his pants from the damp earth. Hannibal waited on the porch and lifted a hand in greeting when Will looked up.

The sight of him pulled sharply at something in Will’s chest, a small flare of pain that didn’t belong to this homecoming but to all the others. He’d never considered his house to be empty, never considered the possibility that someone other than him might fill it.

Hannibal met him on the steps and took Will’s face between warm hands and kissed him. He stood a step above Will, and Will smiled up at him. "Hi," he said.

"Hello, my dear. And how was your day?"

Will fought down a grin. "Shouldn’t that be my line?"

"The only rules are those we make ourselves."

"It was okay. Pretty good."

"No new bodies, then."

"No, just classes. And students trying to make personal conversation."

"Dreadful," Hannibal murmured. He took Will’s bag for him and led him inside. "You put a stop to that, I hope."

Will laughed. It felt good. Easy, for once. "More or less. She’s got a two thousand word essay due Thursday."

"A stiff penalty. I’m sure it will do her good."

"I hope so. She’s one of my best students. She doesn’t really deserve to suffer because her teacher’s an antisocial asshole."

"Will," Hannibal said, gently chiding. He tugged Will close and kissed his forehead, and Will felt his body soften and lean into Hannibal’s warmth. "You defend your mind as one defends a castle. No one could fault you for—"

"The arrows and boiling oil? They could, they do."

"They shouldn’t. No one acquires battlements like yours by accident. That they are necessary should be clear to anyone."

"Was it clear to you? Is that why it never seemed to bother you?"

"I recognized that your anger was seldom directed at me. Partly it was aimed at shadows in your past, but more often at yourself. And yes, I saw your unwillingness to allow anyone in for what it clearly was and is."

Will hesitated. He looked around the room, at the dogs, watching them and waiting for their dinner. Eventually, he asked. "When did you decide to do this? This … thing we’re doing."

"It was a series of smaller choices. Most things are."

"Why did you stop being a surgeon? Why did you pick psychiatry over that?"

"I killed someone. Or that’s how it felt."

"You can’t save everyone."

"I tried. And I failed too many times."

"Was it the loss of life that bothered you or the lack you saw in yourself?"

Hannibal tilted his head to one side, considering, surprised, and enthralled all at once. "How cold you must think me," he said.

"Not cold. But you separate emotion from action. You do it all the time. Your reaction to losing patients wouldn’t be to quit. You’d make yourself a better surgeon. So you did, but you still couldn’t save everyone."

"No. As you said. It’s not possible."

"You knew you’d reached the limits of your profession without achieving what you really wanted, so you moved on."

"What I really wanted?"

"Perfection."

Hannibal paused before he answered, bending to stroke Snorkel’s head as she butted against his ankle. "That’s a fair enough assessment. I considered a specialty, but it would only have prolonged the inevitable. The waters of psychiatry are far murkier and success and failure both less tangible." He smiled briefly. "But no one has died as a result of my therapy."

Yet. It was on the tip of Will’s tongue, and he didn’t understand how it had gotten there. He swallowed it back down. "Glad to hear it. What do you want for dinner?"

"Anything you like. I did buy a few things while I was out today. You’d do well to use the avocados. They’ll be at their best today."

"How do you feel about tacos?" Will said. Sooner or later he’d hit Hannibal’s tolerance for this game, and Hannibal would kick him out of the kitchen. Until then, he might as well have a little fun.

Hannibal paused and took a small breath, but said nothing.

"I’ve got taco shells," Will said. "And a seasoning pack."

Apparently, that was a step too far. "Will—"

"Okay, all right. God, your face." Will kissed him. "I’ll find something that uses avocados that won’t horrify you."

"If you really want to—"

Hannibal looked like he was steeling himself for torture. Will cut him off. "I’m doing this for you. For both of us. I don’t really want to make you eat stuff you’re going to hate."

"You merely want to observe my reactions to the idea of it."

"It’s only fair. You like watching me squirm too."

"Perhaps neither of us is particularly kind."

"Maybe not. Let me get changed and I’ll find something."

He turned to go and stopped when Hannibal caught his shoulder. "Will … I got you a few things. They’re on the bed. Already washed, if you care to wear them."

Will nodded once, trying to look calm as his heart stumbled. He walked quickly into the bedroom and shut the door behind him. For a moment, he only leaned against it, eyes closed, preparing himself, though he suspected that no amount of preparation would ease the spike of pleasure and guilt and fear that Hannibal’s gifts gave him.

He opened his eyes. No boxes this time. Everything lay spread out on the bed. More cotton panties: red with a white heart on the waistband, purple with white polka dots, black with tiny bands of lace at the seams. The jeans were dark blue, thin and tapering, too many zippers, a line of gold studs across the back pocket.

He stared at them, picked them up, put them down again. He backed away and watched them from a safe distance with one hand over his mouth, teeth worrying a rough spot on his thumbnail. Like the earlier gifts, he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to wear them. For one thing, he couldn’t imagine where his balls would go because they looked skin tight.

Only one way to find out. He shed his work clothes and chucked them into the hamper with force. The underwear – the first ones that came to hand, choice was impossible, would be, again, too much of an admission of his preference. The jeans slid on with surprisingly little difficulty. They were tight, but they stretched. Once he’d zipped them up, he smoothed his hands over his hips and decided they probably were actually men’s jeans. They didn’t curve at all, just straight down to the knees and then in to the ankles. He looked down at his bare feet for a second and pulled on wool socks. They hadn’t put Hannibal off so far.

And then there was nothing left to do but face the remaining items on the bed, each as bad or as good as the other. One shirt was forest green silk, and Will couldn’t even bring himself to touch it. Not yet. The other was Hannibal’s.

Will had seen him wear it, dark red with a darker tie. It lay on his bed with the sleeves rolled up in invitation. Half of Will’s mind balked at the cliche, but the other half had gone still and quiet with want. He pulled it on, pushed the sleeves up to his elbows, left the top two buttons undone.

It didn’t quite work. He and Hannibal were too close in size. But it was big in the shoulders, would be long in the sleeves if he let them hang down. Enough. He got the necklace from the dresser and put it on before he went to peer into the bathroom mirror.

No way to get the full effect, but he felt it anyway. Felt different in ways that he was unwilling to put into words, even in the privacy of his own head. Hannibal made him feel different, but the clothes – the clothes didn’t hurt.

"Will?" Hannibal tapped on the bathroom door. "Do you want me to cook tonight?"

"Don’t panic, I’ll be out in a second. You didn’t break me."

"The thought never occurred to me."

Will swallowed hard and opened the door. He watched Hannibal’s face and saw only admiration and pleasure.

"It suits you," Hannibal said.

"Your shirt suits me?"

"The image you’re creating."

"You’re creating it."

"I don’t think so. You have guided every choice I’ve made, though obliquely. In any case, I like this." He ran his hand down Will’s chest. "Seeing you in my things."

Will’s breath caught a little, and then a little more as Hannibal pulled him close with one arm around his waist. "Do you like it?" Hannibal asked.

Will nodded and looked down. "I like the other one too, but …"

"Too much?"

"God, it’s just a shirt. But I can’t – I can’t. Not yet." He leaned in and rested his chin on Hannibal’s shoulder. "Thanks for not going all pink and frilly."

Hannibal laughed softly and kissed his temple. "I don’t think either of us would enjoy that."

Will couldn’t quite find the courage to say that he might, someday. The odds of Hannibal still being around by then were so slim that it probably didn’t matter anyway. He just tucked himself close to Hannibal’s body, into his arms, and smiled against his shoulder as Hannibal’s hands drifted down to his ass and squeezed. The feeling was more immediate through the thin, tight denim and more vulnerable.

And then Hannibal’s touch slipped down between his legs to rub lightly. Will pressed his thighs together and bit his lip. "I think I might actually hurt myself if I get an erection in these," he said.

"A test for another time, perhaps," Hannibal said, though he didn’t move his hand. "You were going to cook for me."

"Mm. Yeah."

Will didn’t move either. They stood together in the bathroom doorway, wound close. Intertwined, it seemed to Will, beyond the possibility of separation.

*

Will made trout with blood oranges and avocados and salad greens and a dressing with shallots and blood orange juice. And bread. Because Hannibal had gotten some, and because if he looked up one more recipe online, he thought he might oven roast his phone.

"Sorry," he said. "Salad’s not much of a meal."

Hannibal took the first bite with less caution than he might have and smiled at him. "It’s good," he said. "Remarkably good. Thank you, my dear."

Will’s heart filled up with idiot joy, and he was hard pressed not to grin back. "Thanks."

"It will become easier with practice."

"Not sure I believe that."

"Perhaps I could take over on the weekends."

Weekends, plural. Not just the coming weekend, which would mark their last days together in Will’s house. Hannibal would go home, but apparently he had no intention of ending this arrangement between them. Will let himself smile this time, really couldn’t help it.

"Yeah, okay. Don’t show me up too badly."

"It is a learned skill. No one is perfect when they begin."

A long way from perfect. The avocado slices were misshapen, and he’d mangled the orange segments trying to get the membrane off. But it tasted good. Actually good, not just acceptably edible. It left a weird sort of pride swirling around in his chest, mingled with vague shame for actually caring about any of this.

"Are you perfect?" Will asked. "Have you done with the cooking what you couldn’t do with the surgery?"

Hannibal took another bite and considered. Will watched the press of his lips around the fork. "I believe I have taken some dishes as far as they can go, yes. But, like psychiatry, the culinary arts leave much to individual interpretation. One must always continue to experiment."

"On one’s patients and dinner guests?"

"I’ve had no complaints," Hannibal said, and raised his glass for a toast.

*

After dinner, Will looked over student essays and Hannibal read. Separate chairs. Will thought of buying a couch and then shoved the idea to the back of his head with the shadows and cobwebs where it belonged. Even though there was room for one now, with the bed in another room.

"I’m going to make some tea," Hannibal said. "Would you care for some?"

Will nodded, possibly grumbled some kind of assent. Hannibal bent over him as he passed on his way to the kitchen. He slid a hand down Will’s chest and inside his shirt. One finger hooked Will’s necklace and tugged. Will smiled and kept typing corrections.

"You’re far more difficult to distract when you’re working," Hannibal said.

"Forensic science is a lot easier than cooking."

"Should I try harder or should I go and make tea?"

"What kind of tea?"

"A chai blend."

"Go do that."

The noise Hannibal made was very close to a snort. He kissed Will’s neck and straightened up. "Anything you say, my dear."

A hint of honey and milk sweetened the tea, and it somehow made Will feel more relaxed than his whiskey usually did. After half a cup, he set the computer aside in favor of watching Hannibal. He tucked his legs up beside him on the chair and rested his cup on one knee.

"I got you one other thing," Hannibal said, without looking up. "If you’re ready for bed, you might wish to look at it now."

"There’s more?"

"In the top drawer of your dresser."

The second trip to the bedroom was far calmer than the first. Will didn’t know if it was the tea or the late hour or the complete transition from work to home, but his excitement was a lighter thing now, with none of the sick apprehension that had colored it earlier. Or maybe it was only that he knew what it had to be – another nightshirt.

This one was white with dark blue piping and buttons all down the front. The style was harder, boxier than anything else Hannibal had bought for him. He pulled it on and immediately understood why. It did what he’d wanted Hannibal’s shirt to do, hung down to his thighs and almost to the tips of his fingers. It slid to one side and bared his neck and collarbone and part of his chest, and for a second he had that churning apprehension back, the feeling that he couldn’t have this, shouldn’t be allowed to have it.

"Will?" Hannibal, with his usual silent tread, stood just behind him.

Will turned and held onto him and ducked his head down as far as he could. Hannibal’s arms came around him. He tucked Will’s head under his chin, though it was an awkward position for both of them, and stroked his hair.

"There, my dear, it’s all right."

"I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with me."

"Nothing at all. Do you like it?"

Will nodded and took a breath and tried to straighten up and stand back. Hannibal wouldn’t let him. Will gave up immediately and held onto him more tightly than before.

"May I suggest that the morning is a better time for self-analysis? It’s nearly midnight."

"Yeah, okay."

Will put it aside in his mind for another time when sleep wasn’t dragging so heavily at him. In bed a few minutes later, with the necklace on his nightstand and the lights off, he let Hannibal nudge him onto his side and press up behind him, chest to his back, arm over his waist to hold him close.

Chapter Text

Something dark moved in the corner of Will’s vision, dark and gaunt, limned in firelight. It had antlers like the stag, but it wasn’t the stag. It stood upright and feigned humanity, but it wasn’t human.

It came at him out of the woods, came for him, and its antlers were red with blood and fire.

Will woke with his chest heaving.

The creature stood at the end of his bed. Will tried to move and couldn’t, tried to scream, but his lips were sealed shut. It put one dark, clawed hand on the bedspread. He could smell it: the scent of rotten blood. It wasn’t on fire anymore. Instead, it dripped with a viscous black ooze.

"Will!"

Its hand landed on his shoulder. Will’s paralysis broke. He lashed out and struck human flesh instead of charred meat. One of his dogs whined. He could smell Hannibal’s aftershave, and the creature was gone.

He shook his head and shoved at the covers. Hannibal caught his arm before he could get up. For a moment, he couldn’t connect the hard grip with anything but the monster in his – nightmare? Hallucination? Real, something in him insisted. It was real.

His heart beat too fast. Sweat rolled down his neck. He stopped trying to get away and hunched over his knees. He felt insects crawling inside his skin.

Hannibal got up, and Will barely noticed him go or return. He only felt the strength of his hands as he pushed Will’s head down and told him to breathe. Hannibal breathed with him.

"Drink," Hannibal said, and pressed a glass of water into his hand. "Are they always this bad?"

"Sometimes worse." He took a gulp of water and pressed the cool glass against his neck. "I can sleep in the chair."

"Hush," Hannibal said absently. He wound an arm around Will’s waist and laid his cheek on Will’s shoulder. "What did you dream of?"

"The shape of my nightmares. And then I woke up, and it was still here."

"What was it like?"

Will shook his head. He didn’t feel he could describe the creature without comparing it to the stag, and he still couldn’t share that. Not even with Hannibal. "Inhuman," he said, finally. "It wants me to think it’s human, but it’s not."

"It was only a dream. Vivid and disturbing but not real. Not true."

"Things can be true without being real."

"Are your hallucinations of Garret Jacob Hobbs true?"

For the space of a second, Will could see him at the foot of the bed, pale-eyed and bloody and grinning with nightmare joy. "Would you tell me if I were going crazy?"

"You’re exhausted. The stress of your work depletes you."

"Is that all it is?"

Hannibal pulled him down and held him close. "Whatever it may be, you will not be alone with it."

Even with the creature waiting for him in his dreams, Will couldn’t keep his eyes open. He fell into darkness and didn’t wake again that night.

*

He was up first in the morning. He showered, shaved, put his new nightshirt back on. His reflection in the steamed-over square of the bathroom mirror looked back at him with hollow eyes. For a second, he considered calling in sick, but it wouldn’t help. More time to think never helped.

Instead, he started breakfast. Pancakes instead of nightmare creatures. Strawberries cut into neat slices instead of the Ripper’s victims. His mind eased in the morning sun, and last night’s bile retreated back down his throat. When it was nearly ready, he brought Hannibal a cup of coffee.

Hannibal blinked up at him, heavy-lidded and sleepy, hair falling in his eyes until Will brushed it back. "You look better," Hannibal said.

"I’m fine. You want breakfast? It’s pancakes with no chemical undertones."

Hannibal studied him for a moment and then nodded. "Thank you. I’ll be out in a moment."

Will went back to the kitchen and cooked pancakes until all he could see was bubbles rising through pale batter and his own faint reflection looking back at him from the bottom of the cast iron pan. He was scraping the bottom of the bowl when Hannibal stepped in behind him and turned off the stove.

"I think that’s enough, don’t you?"

Will looked at the leaning pile of pancakes. "I can freeze some. I didn’t know if the batter would be okay tomorrow."

He dribbled the last of it into the pan in the shape of branching antlers and watched as it turned gold with residual heat.

"I’m concerned about you," Hannibal said.

"I thought about quitting yesterday. Sort of."

"What did you think about it?"

"I’ve never imagined doing anything else. Not seriously. But you did. You changed your whole life."

"People do. More often than you might think."

"I know it’s bad for me. What I do for Jack. But I don’t know what I’d do instead."

Hannibal was quiet behind him for a long time. The antlers in the pan sizzled and faded into silence as the iron cooled. Sun crept through the window and fell across Will’s bare feet.

"This," Hannibal said. "You could do this."

"It’s not just a game, is it?"

"Come away with me. We could go anywhere."

"But it wouldn’t be real."

"Would it be true?"

Will turned and leaned against him, forehead on his shoulder. "I feel like I’m seeing the world through water. Underneath, looking up. I’m drowning all the time, so slowly I barely know it’s happening. I’ll wake up one day and find I can’t breathe at all. I don’t know what’s true anymore. Not right now."

More silence. Birds outside. Will’s dogs finally stirring. Hannibal took his hand and moved him around the kitchen in a shuffling waltz. Will didn’t know the steps and couldn’t hear the music, but it was simple enough to follow. With each turn, he became more aware that Hannibal was as mired in this fantasy as he was. They were both going down together.

*

Hannibal kept Will close as they danced. The scent of his illness surrounded them both and pervaded the small kitchen like perfume.

Mischa’s fever had smelled as sweet when she lay next to him in their parents’ bed. Her breaths had been wet as if she were dissolving from the inside out. He had imagined an ocean inside her, washing her clean with wave after wave of sounding surf.

He’d been so sure she was in the house. She should’ve been in the house.

What he remembered most vividly, apart from his father’s blood, was his sister’s silence as it dropped across her hair like rain. It almost covered up the bruise Father had left on on the right side of her face.

She had been silent when Father hit her and silent when Father fell to his knees with a pitchfork in his chest. Hannibal had taken her hand and led her out of the barn. He washed her face and took her up to her room before he went to find Mother.

*

After breakfast, they took the dogs out into the fields. Will threw sticks for them while Hannibal stood and watched and the sunlight turned from gold to white.

"Are you happy?" Hannibal asked.

"Sometimes. Are you?"

"Often. Yes."

Will looked over at him. "Are you happy here?"

Snorkel trotted up to him with a stick in her mouth. He took it and threw it for her, a wide arc away from the other dogs. She leapt after it.

"Yes," Hannibal said. "I believe I am."

"I’m glad."

Will moved closer. They leaned together.

"Perhaps I fit more easily into your life than you do into mine," Hannibal said.

"I haven’t tried that hard. I could’ve come to your party."

Hannibal lifted one shoulder and let it fall. "I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. But there are things I would like to share with you. Things I think we can both enjoy."

"Such as?"

"Will you come to the opera with me this weekend?"

"I still don’t have a tux."

"I’ll get you something to wear. I wasn’t thinking of a tux."

Will glanced at him.

"Something discreet. I promise," Hannibal said.

"Okay."

*

On Saturday, Hannibal disappeared for several hours. Will had been too efficient with his paperwork and grading. By late morning, he ran out of work he could usefully do. He resorted to cleaning. The dogs trailed after him, confused and whining soft little questions at him while he scrubbed the toilet and tackled the edges of the kitchen floor.

He made lunch for himself and for them and then took them out to play in the snow, which was reassuring to everyone, including him. Winston caught onto the disintegrating snowball trick within the first five throws, but Snorkel and Buster ran after every one with as much enthusiasm as they’d shown for the first.

When Hannibal arrived home, Will knew it by the perking of ears and lifting of tails and the sudden rush for the front yard. He ran after them and got there just in time to see Hannibal sternly telling a semi-circle of dogs to sit from the safety of his car.

Will grinned. "Need some help?"

"I have a number of bags to carry. If you could tell your animals that I don’t require assistance?"

Will sent them back to the porch, all but Snorkel, who whined and jumped up at Hannibal’s car door until Will picked her up. "You’re safe," he said.

Hannibal emerged and looked down at the wiggling dog in Will’s arms. He stroked her head. She quieted and licked his hand. "Why Snorkel?"

"Someone dumped her in a pond, tried to drown her. I only found her because I saw air bubbles."

"She’s an ugly little thing."

"Don’t say that."

"I’m reasonably sure she doesn’t understand English."

"They don’t have to know the words to know what you’re feeling."

Hannibal touched one of her ears. She panted at him. "Like children."

"Yeah. Here, you take her. I’ll get the bags." He pushed her against Hannibal’s chest. All the mud on her feet had already come off on Will’s jacket anyway.

"I really don’t think—"

"They’re for me, right?" Will said, and left Hannibal with an armful of squirming, happy dog. When he’d gotten the bags out and turned around, he found Hannibal frowning deeply and Snorkel doing her best to lick his face. She couldn’t quite reach, and mostly got his shirt collar instead. "You can put her down, you know," he said, amused.

Hannibal tucked her firmly under one arm where she couldn’t get her tongue on anything but his hand. "Shall we go inside?"

Will nodded, not trusting himself not to laugh if he opened his mouth. He set the bags inside the door and sat down on the porch to wipe clots of mud and slush from the other dogs’ feet and legs. "You could get her some water," he called. "She’s probably thirsty."

When he let them all in, he found Hannibal in the kitchen with Snorkel and her water dish on the counter. He lifted both down to the floor. "No dogs on the kitchen counter. You remember I make food here, right?"

Hannibal watched the pack jostling for position at the four bowls Will kept around the house. "Will she get enough? She’s smaller than the rest."

"She holds her own, don’t worry." Will leaned against the counter and studied Hannibal’s face. No real expression, distant eyes. "What was it like for you at the orphanage?" he asked.

"I also held my own."

"Were you smaller than the other boys?"

Hannibal blinked once and returned to the present. Animation filled his face like air filling a balloon, though there was still no real warmth there. "It’s an obvious association, I suppose," he said.

"A lot of people find it easier to identify with animals than with other people."

"You among them?"

"No. Dogs are dogs. But they’re a blank slate if you don’t know them. Other people are too different. They have their own beliefs and secrets. That makes it hard to pin yours on them."

"I don’t identify with other people."

"Is that normal, Doctor?"

"No, certainly not. Most people search for connection and find it, if only through self-delusion. I have always been unwilling to delude myself."

"You’d rather be alone."

"So would you."

"It wasn’t a choice I made. I’m just bad at lying to myself."

Snorkel butted in between Caspar’s legs and wolfed down dry kibble with her tail in the air.

"And to others," Hannibal suggested.

"No, I’m pretty good at that. I just hate doing it."

"You become lost in your own deception."

"Yeah. What about you?"

"Do I lie to others as a habit? For entertainment or for acceptance?"

"Do you get lost in it?"

The only sounds in the room came from the dogs, familiar and comforting. Teeth crunching kibble, nails on the wood floor, small arguments sorted out with sotto voce growls and yips. Will couldn’t explain the chill that passed through him while he waited for Hannibal’s answer, but he knew enough to take note, to remember the feeling.

"Perhaps I do," Hannibal said. "Perhaps I have. We create our selves so carefully. It’s easy to believe that the end product is the truth of us."

Will let that sit between them for a moment. "So what’s in the bags?" he asked. "Something that’ll give me a different end product?"

"For tonight, at least. Yes. Shall we?"

He gestured to the bedroom, fully present once again, and carried the bags as Will preceded him.

"You’ve chosen a good time for this," Hannibal said. "Thirty years ago, it would’ve been much more difficult."

"Thirty years ago, I was eight."

Hannibal looked briefly pained. "Yes. And I was at university. In any case, the line between feminine and fashionable is a thin one, at the moment."

He unzipped a garment bag and laid a suit out on the bed. Will hadn’t known what to expect. Hannibal knew he wasn’t about to wear a dress out in public, or even in private, given his reaction to the shirt last night. The suit wasn’t obvious, but it wasn’t that subtle either.

It would fit close to his skin, tapered legs, suit jacket curved in at the waist. It was pale gray, but on the warm side. When the light caught it, he could see other colors in the faint sheen of the fabric. Smokey brown and shell pink, a dawn haze over the ocean.

"Will you try it on?" Hannibal said gently, perhaps because Will hadn’t moved an inch since he’d opened the garment bag.

Will jerked his chin down once and flexed his fingers, just to make sure he hadn’t actually been frozen in place. He undressed down to his underwear and heard Hannibal’s pleased noise when he saw them – the red ones.

Will flushed a little. "Well, I wasn’t going out today," he said, and pulled the suit pants on quickly. They fit. Of course they fit. Hannibal seemed to have a sixth sense about these things. "Is there a shirt that goes with this?"

"There is." He took out a box and laid it on the bed.

Will opened it and lifted out something in white knit silk so fine that it caught against the rough spots on his palms. He swallowed hard and held it up. "Hannibal …"

"Try it on before you object."

Will pulled on the camisole. It hung loose from delicate straps over his shoulders and flowed across his chest, nearly translucent, but not quite. Hannibal held the suit jacket for him, and he slid his arms into it. Hannibal smoothed it into place. Will looked down at himself.

With the suit jacket on, it could’ve been just a white t-shirt, though not the kind he slept in. It was plain except for the border of shinier silk at the neck and hem, but it had a feeling of luxury like nothing he’d ever owned. He touched it, touched his skin through it, and got stuck like that, awkward and wanting and convinced all over again that this was impossible.

"Where do you find this stuff?" he said quietly.

"Various places. I suppose it won’t shock you to learn that I’m reasonably familiar with what passes for cutting edge fashion in Baltimore. It’s not New York and it’s certainly not Paris, but there are worse places."

"I’d stand out. If I wore this. A lot."

"You would stand out in any case, my dear. Once you shed your everyday disguise, I’m afraid you are almost shockingly attractive. Someone must have pointed it out to you before now."

"Not in those words."

"And you’ll be with me."

That pulled a smile from Will. "Right. I forgot about that part. The king holding court."

"I know it must feel somewhat risqué, but most people’s judgement will be only that you should have worn something more formal."

Will nodded absently and straightened the jacket. He walked into the bathroom. His reflection looked flushed and young and – soft. He slid the jacket down to hang from his arms and looked at the straps across his shoulders.

Hannibal moved in behind him. He slid one strap down and kissed Will’s skin. "There’s more," he said. "The rest of it won’t show."

"Oh, God. Okay. Show me."

Into the bedroom again. Another flat box, more tissue paper. Will set it aside. It’d be good to tuck under the kindling to get the fire going once he got the chimney cleaned.

The underwear matched the camisole, white silk, gleaming bands at the waist and around the legs, but that wasn’t all. Broad sweeps of lace stretched across the side panels and came together at the back in a small bow. The stockings and garter belt were the same dawn gray as the suit.

Will’s knees felt unsteady. He sat down heavily on the bed. Hannibal sat next to him and put an arm around him. Will turned his face to Hannibal’s chest and breathed there and listened to the thump of his heart.

"Do you like them?" Hannibal asked.

"I want them so much." Will said it without moving, without opening his eyes.

"They’re yours, my dear." Hannibal kissed his hair and held him close.

"This is crazy."

"It’s different. It’s a change. For both of us."

*

Hannibal rose in the night. He crossed to the window and twitched aside the curtains to let in the moonlight. Will’s sleeping form was painted in silver and sable, ghost pale skin receding into murky shadow. Hannibal watched the soft curve of his ribs as his lungs filled with air.

He considered the concept of change.

Chapter Text

They ate before they left for the opera. Hannibal cooked while Will hovered near the kitchen and watched. Some part of him wanted to retreat to canned soup and whiskey in his chair by the window, but not all of him. He wanted to go out like this, wanted to be seen with Hannibal.

Eventually, he went into the bedroom to dress. He slid one stocking over his foot and up his leg and wished abruptly that he’d shaved them. Next time. Tomorrow. He paused and pulled the stocking off again. Tonight.

He did it quickly, standing in the shower. It didn’t take that long, and he washed the evidence down the drain. Later, when Hannibal took all this off of him – Will thought he’d like it. They’d both like it.

Back in the bedroom, Will sat on the bed to try the stockings again and thought he might have miscalculated. The bared skin of his legs felt every touch like a caress. He was hard by the time he’d pulled them up to his thighs. He stroked a hand over the silk and closed his eyes and imagined it was Hannibal.

He lay back and drew one leg up so he could feel the lace at the top of the stockings and wrapped a hand around his cock. If he didn’t do it now, he’d never get through the opera. Short, tight strokes. He pictured Hannibal walking in on him, the way his eyes fixed on Will to the exclusion of everything else, the way he handled Will’s body, rough but always careful, urgent, desperate for him.

He imagined pulling on the panties, the stretch of lace across his hips. Hannibal’s hands on him, turning him and pushing him down over the bed. He clenched his teeth and came so hard it almost hurt.

A soft knock sounded on the door as he lay back on the mattress with one arm thrown over his eyes.

"Are you all right?" Hannibal asked.

He stared at the closed door. "I’m fine. Don’t come in."

"I won’t. Half an hour, my dear."

His footsteps moved away. Will picked himself up and cleaned himself off and reached for the panties.

When he was done, he found Hannibal in the living room. Hannibal stood and went to him and kissed his hand. Will smiled at him, beyond pleased and incapable of hiding it.

"You’re not wearing your necklace," Hannibal said.

"I can’t. That’s—" He shook his head. Impossible. Obvious. The opposite of subtle.

"Perhaps," Hannibal admitted. He held up another Tiffany-blue box. "Try this instead."

For a second, Will wanted to protest, or at least wanted to want to protest. The desire died in the face of Hannibal’s expression, faintly amused, clearly waiting for exactly that. Will took off the lid instead.

It was a cuff bracelet in thick rose gold, contoured so that when he slipped it on, the bulge of his wrist bone aligned precisely with the corresponding bulge in the bracelet. It was split up at the end and curled in, like peeling flesh.

"The collection is called Bone," Hannibal said. "I thought it might appeal to you."

"It’s beautiful," Will said. He heard awe in his voice, and he touched the gold, still cool under his fingers. Its curves flowed like the metal was still molten, like it ought to scorch him. "I can really wear this? I mean, it’s not going to look strange?"

"Unusual, but not so much as to shock. Baltimore is a conservative city. There are places I could take you where you could get away with far more. As it is, you will get looks, but no more than that. And you would get those anyway."

"Because I’m with you."

"Of course," Hannibal said, perfectly solemn, and then smiled at him when Will chuckled. "You’re wearing the rest of it as well?"

"Yeah. The works. Going to take it off me when we get home?"

"Perhaps. Or perhaps I’ll leave it on."

Will closed his eyes briefly while Hannibal retrieved their coats from the closet. He was not going to get hard again. At least not this soon.

Hannibal held his coat for him, and this was new too, cream cashmere that wrapped around him like a blanket. He rubbed his smooth cheek against the collar and smiled.

Hannibal breathed in against his neck. "Did you touch yourself while you were dressing, my dear?"

"How—"

"I can smell it on you."

"Jesus. I washed up after."

"Not well enough. I’m glad you didn’t shower again. I much prefer this to your soap."

"Can you – how sensitive—" Will stopped, unsure even how to phrase the question.

"You said dogs take your meaning without understanding the words. Much of that is smell. Like them, I can smell your fear, your arousal, your anger. The body is eloquent if one has the facilities to appreciate it."

"That’s disturbing as hell," Will said.

"But not only disturbing."

Will shifted and declined to adjust himself, though he wanted to. "The idea of not being able to lie to you is – it’s something."

"I am not at all surprised that you find honesty erotic." Hannibal kissed the side of his neck and then offered him his arm. "Shall we go?"

*

The opera was worse than the museum. More people, higher ceilings, more echoes, less room to move. It was an enormous space in which to feel claustrophobic, but Will managed it anyway. Hannibal kept his promise and didn’t leave Will’s side.

They progressed through the crowd, stopped every few feet by someone who knew Hannibal or wanted to know him. Will did get looks, some disapproving, some envious, none with the mockery he’d feared. Little by little, he began to relax.

When Franklyn appeared at Hannibal’s elbow, Will looked at his round, worried face and remembered their last meeting in a rush, Budge, the basement, the soaked intestines, the bullet holes.

"How are you, Franklyn?" Hannibal asked politely.

"Fine, Dr. Lecter. I won’t bother you much. Agent Graham, I just wanted to say thanks for – for taking me seriously. Not many people do. Are you okay? You didn’t get hurt that night?"

"I’m all right."

"And you, Dr. Lecter?"

"I’m quite well, thanks to Will."

"And to you," Will said.

Franklyn gave them a quick twitch of a smile. "I’ll find another psychiatrist. You don’t have to worry about that. Anyway. Good night."

"Hey," Will said.

Franklyn turned. He looked like he expected a parting kick.

"It wasn’t you," Will told him. "He wasn’t your friend because there was something wrong with you."

"Then why?" Franklyn’s face creased with misery, and for a second Will was worried he might cry.

"Maybe there was something right with him."

"You really think that?"

"Most people don’t do what Budge did because they’re evil. They do it because they’re driven by things in their mind that they don’t understand."

"So he was just sick?"

Will pressed his lips together. In light of the hope on Franklyn’s face, he almost wanted to say yes, but he couldn’t. "He made choices, and they were bad choices. That doesn’t mean he was bad all the way through."

Franklyn considered for a second and then nodded. When he was gone, Hannibal leaned close to speak over the noise of the room. "Do you truly believe that?"

"Demonizing people doesn’t help anyone."

"You said most people. Have you chased killers whom you believe were purely evil?"

Will shifted and crossed his arms. Uncrossed them. Stuck his hands in his pockets. "Sometimes I think that way about the Ripper. But it’s not right. Just because that’s all I can see of him doesn’t mean that’s all he is."

"He tortures and kills and takes human remains as trophies. That would be enough for most people to condemn him."

"It’s not my job to condemn him. It’s my job to understand him. And I can’t. Not yet."

"Perhaps you will have more luck this time around."

Will sighed and leaned into Hannibal’s warmth. "Maybe."

The lights dimmed, and they made their way to their seats. At intermission, Hannibal got Will a glass of whiskey instead of the champagne flutes that surrounded them on all sides. It wasn’t the best he’d ever had, but it was decent. He sipped it as the conversation flowed around him.

Will thought he remembered the woman Hannibal was speaking to from the art museum, and she confirmed it when she turned to him with a pointed look and asked why he hadn’t been at Hannibal’s dinner party.

"I was looking forward to interrogating you thoroughly," she said, with humor in her voice but still clearly in dead earnest.

"I turned him down. I’m not that great at parties."

"In Edwardian times, children practiced before they were allowed to join the adults at table, and conversation was considered an art form."

"It’s not an art I want to learn," Will said, and winced internally. Be polite to Hannibal’s friends. "Sorry," he said, and the lie tasted unpleasant in his mouth.

She looked at him with her head to one side, eerily like Hannibal for a moment, the same sharp inquiry. It made Will wonder if they’d both practiced it in a mirror for effect. "I’m not sure how much bald honesty I’d be prepared to put up with from my acquaintances, but on you it’s rather charming. Perhaps I should invite you to one of my parties."

"I’d decline."

"And if I insisted?"

"Do you think you’re more persuasive than Hannibal is?"

She laughed. "No, I’m not that foolish. I think – oh!"

A man had backed into her with some force and knocked her glass against her chest. She’d spilled champagne down her front. Hannibal offered her his handkerchief. Will reached out to steady the man, who was apologizing as he turned.

"I’m so sorry, I—" He stopped when he saw Will. It was Douglas Wilson, the trombonist from the art museum. Wilson jerked his gaze back to Mrs. Komeda. "Really, so sorry. I didn’t mean to. Uh." He trailed off in the face of her frostbite-inducing stare.

"I suppose you couldn’t help it," she said. She turned away and ignored him completely.

"I just shouldn’t come to things like this," Wilson said.

"Why do you?"

"I like the music. And people keep telling me I should mingle. That it’ll be good for my career."

"Has it been?"

Wilson shrugged. "I guess? I mean, I’m here, in Baltimore. This is a good gig. My space could’ve gone to someone … well. Better than me."

"You must be pretty good if you’re making a living at it."

"Have you heard us play yet?"

"No. I probably wouldn’t know if you were any good or not even if I did, to be honest."

"What about Dr. Lecter? Has he said anything?"

"He doesn’t think you’re that good. Sorry."

Wilson’s shoulders slumped a little. "I should just stay home and practice."

"You’d have a better time, wouldn’t you?"

"Probably. Well." Wilson shrugged and smiled at him. "I’m here now. How have you been?"

They talked until Hannibal had finished placating Mrs. Komeda and returned to retrieve Will. Or, Wilson talked mostly. Will didn’t mind listening. It was mostly gossip about the music world, including some enlightening views on Hannibal as seen through other people’s eyes.

"If you’re ready," Hannibal said, and curled an arm around Will’s waist in a gesture more frankly possessive than anything he’d tried in public so far.

"Yeah, sure," Will said. He let himself be led away, bemused, nodding to Wilson as they went.

"I would apologize for leaving again, but you seemed to have found someone to entertain you."

Will glanced at him and raised his eyebrows. "Are we doing this? The jealousy thing?"

"You assume it’s not genuine?"

"If it’s genuine, I’m going to worry Budge knocked you on the head harder than I thought. I’ve met that guy twice."

Hannibal’s mouth twitched toward a smile. "Emotions are often irrational. But no, I suppose it’s not genuine. Not entirely. If it were, I wouldn’t mention it at all." He paused. "Do you like it?"

Will waited until they were settled in their seats. He turned it over in his head, Hannibal’s almost accusatory tone, his own immediate emotional reaction: to appease, to reassure. To assert his loyalty and devotion. He swallowed. "Maybe. Yeah."

"I shall keep that in mind."

The house lights went down, and the stage lights came up.

*

After the opera, Hannibal drove them back to Will’s house. They had settled into quiet contemplation of the road by the time they pulled off the highway and into the dark and silent country outside of Wolf Trap.

Hannibal reached across the gap between them and gripped Will’s arm. "I don’t want you speaking to that man again," he said.

Will took a sharp breath. Their earlier conversation returned to him with a wash of heat through his stomach. "I barely said two words to him."

"I believe I heard quite a bit more than that."

"You left me alone with him."

"I won’t make that mistake again."

Hannibal glanced at him, silent question in his eyes, asking for permission to continue. Will gave it to him.

"That’s what you said last time," Will told him. "You promised."

"Was this revenge then? Were you trying to make me jealous?"

"I don’t know, did it work?"

Hannibal held his wrist tighter and swerved over to stop by the side of the road. "Yes, it worked," Hannibal said, voice so low Will could almost feel the vibration of it in the air around him. Hannibal unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned across the space between them to kiss him hard.

Will fumbled with his own seatbelt. As soon as he got it off, he was halfway across the armrest, lips pressed to Hannibal’s, one hand in his hair. He remembered the way Hannibal had said that it wasn’t entirely genuine and groaned into his mouth. "Tell me," he said.

Hannibal hauled him the rest of the distance into his lap and reclined the seat abruptly. Will fell on top of him, legs spread over his, hands braced on his chest.

"Tell you what?" Hannibal said. "How angry I was? Did you know he touched you? You let him touch you."

Will shook his head. He didn’t remember.

"Here," Hannibal said, and grasped his shoulder tight. "You didn’t step away. You didn’t shake him off."

"Too many people. I didn’t notice. I only want you. Just you, Hannibal. I swear. I don’t care about anyone else." He swallowed. "I really don’t."

Hannibal took his jaw in one hand and held him tight. "I don’t know if I believe you," he said.

Will stared at him, stared right into his eyes and licked his lips. "I don’t even see anyone else when you’re in the room. I was only trying to be nice to your friends."

"That man is not my friend."

Will pressed forward to kiss him, and Hannibal let him. Will kissed his chin, his jaw, the corner of his mouth. "Don’t be mad," he said. "Come on. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you."

Hannibal pulled him close with a low, helpless noise. Will reached down between Hannibal’s legs and found him rock hard. He pushed up as Will touched him and yanked at Will’s suit jacket.

"Get this off. And the pants."

"Yeah. God." Will slid out of the jacket and then struggled out of the pants without moving from Hannibal’s lap. He was hard, too, and his cock distended the lace panties, stretched them out and still didn’t manage to fit entirely inside. The head and part of the shaft stuck out over the waistband, already shiny with fluid.

Hannibal arranged Will astride him and pushed him back against the steering wheel to look at him. Will was breathing too fast, hands sliding over his thighs, half out of nerves and half the desire to touch himself. Hannibal nudged them away and ran his own hands up to the top of Will’s stockings with their thick band of lace. He dipped two fingers down inside, and Will had to close his eyes.

"You shaved," he said.

Will nodded, eyes still shut.

"Do you enjoy the thought of other men finding you attractive?" Hannibal asked softly.

Will put a hand over his mouth to stifle the noise he made, wholly involuntary. He couldn’t deny it.

"This is how I prefer you," Hannibal said. "Undressed and ready for me."

"Then you shouldn’t have taken me out," Will said. "I would’ve waited for you like this. You could’ve had me the second you walked in the door. I only went because you wanted me there."

"I wanted to show you off. Perhaps it worked too well. You were lovely tonight."

"Then maybe you shouldn’t blame him."

"Perhaps I should blame you." He spread Will’s legs wider, ran his nails lightly up the insides of Will’s thighs. "Flaunting yourself."

Will took a shuddering breath and felt his cock jerk. "I wasn’t. Didn’t mean to. I swear."

Hannibal grabbed his hips and pulled him close. Will could feel Hannibal’s cock against his ass, their hips pressed tight together. Hannibal slid his thumbs over Will’s nipples through the silky fabric of the camisole.

"I’ll have to keep a closer watch on you, won’t I?" Hannibal murmured. "Such a pretty little thing. You might get yourself into trouble without someone to look after you."

"Oh, God. Please touch me." He cupped his cock through the panties, but his own hand wasn’t what he wanted.

"Lift up," Hannibal said, and Will balanced on his knees while Hannibal unzipped and shoved down his underwear. When Will came back down it was to the slide of Hannibal’s bare cock against the panties and his own skin where they didn’t quite cover him. Will ground down against him, wanting more.

Hannibal stroked over lace and silk and pulled at the little bow in the back. "Pull these to the side," he said. "Let me feel you."

Will reached back and tugged them to the right, exposing himself, letting Hannibal’s cock slide between his cheeks. He bit his lip at the feel of it, the heat and intimacy. He pressed down, and his hips rocked without his permission.

"Hannibal …"

"You can be louder than that, my dear. There’s no one to hear you." He took Will’s cock in his hand and stroked him hard as he thrust between his cheeks. "Perhaps I shouldn’t blame you after all. I don’t know who could resist you."

Will could feel his face heat. He kept his eyes closed and pushed into Hannibal’s grip. He let himself groan at the slick hot pleasure of it. Hannibal shoved up again. The noise Will made was surprised, higher in pitch, and he felt Hannibal’s low answering moan. He let himself go after that, lost and crying out in short, breathy pants, pleas and Hannibal’s name, all of it soft and high, and Hannibal finished with a growl, wet and hot between his legs.

He pushed Will back as far as he could and bent to take Will’s cock in his mouth. Will clutched at his hair and came in seconds.

They stared at each other afterward. Hannibal seemed as far gone as Will was, face flushed, breath coming hard, hair in disarray from Will’s hands. Will smoothed it back for him, and Hannibal pulled him in close against his chest. Will rubbed his cheek against the smooth white of Hannibal’s shirt.

Hannibal pressed a tender kiss to his temple. "Are you well?" he asked.

"Amazing. You?"

"Yes. The same." He stroked Will’s back and slid his hand up under the camisole to rest on bare skin.

Will looked up at him. "You sure?"

"That went farther than I had intended."

"You said before that it felt good to let yourself lose control."

"Yes. Perhaps too good. One could become addicted to such a loss."

*

Hannibal had left Will in his bed, asleep, a mild sedative in his tea.

Now, he sat in his car with the engine idling. His heart marked a quicker time than it ever had when he killed, but he’d never killed like this. This was new, and it felt like the first time. Like rebirth. Like change.

He stepped out of the car and climbed the steps to Douglas Wilson’s door.

Chapter Text

Just before five on Monday morning, Will got a call from Jack. A body had been found on a Virginia hiking trail. The heart was missing. Will rolled out of bed and shuffled around in the dark looking for his shoes until Hannibal switched on the light.

"I’ll make coffee," Hannibal said.

"Thank God."

He pulled on jeans from the hamper and by the time he found a shirt and socks, he could smell coffee from the kitchen.

Hannibal pulled him against his side, and Will leaned there while the coffee brewed. Hannibal nudged him upright when it was done, poured him a travel mug, and started buttering bread.

"It’s at least two hours too early for food," Will said.

"By the time you’re done, it will be two hours too late. Take it with you and eat when you can."

Will watched him add marmalade and chopped walnuts and wrap the whole thing up in wax paper. He yawned. "Should be my job," he said.

"Next time you see me off in the middle of night, you can reciprocate."

"Jack thinks it’s the Ripper."

"What do you think?"

"I hope it’s not." Hannibal pulled him in for a hug, and Will leaned into him. "I don’t want to do this," he said, careful to muffle the words in Hannibal’s shoulder.

"You don’t have to."

"It’s my job."

"It doesn’t have to be."

Will glanced at the clock. Two more minutes, he told himself. Then he’d leave. Just two more minutes of warmth and touch. "You offered to take me away," he said. "Where would we go?"

"Anywhere you like."

"How long would we stay?"

Hannibal held him tighter. "Forever, my dear. Forever."

Will sighed and pulled himself away from the fantasy. "Will you be here when I get back?"

"It depends on how late you are. I have a few things to do today."

"But you’ll be home tonight?"

"If I can." Hannibal kissed him and stepped back. "Get your coat."

*

Will sipped at his coffee as he drove. He turned on the radio. It was still on the classical music station from Hannibal’s drive to Baltimore. He left it there. The stars burned in a pure black sky. Snow lit the grass on either side of him. He remembered night drives like this as a child, moving from town to town, the world delineated by the reach of the headlights.

Something moved ahead of him. He slammed on the brakes. The car fishtailed wildly and came to a stop at a 45 degree angle across the road. The feathered stag looked in through the windshield. Will could see the steam of its breath against the glass. It pawed at the road with a sharp clunk of its hoof and tossed its head. Firelight gleamed on the tips of its antlers.

Will reached out toward it. He touched the glass that separated them. It was warm where the stag had breathed on it.

It moved across the road, slow and sedate, and vanished into the shadows.

Headlights appeared in the distance, and Will hurried to get the car straightened out and moving again. The visitation stayed with him for the rest of the journey, but he didn’t feel afraid. He felt blessed.

The trailhead parking lot was full of police vehicles and FBI sedans. Will showed his ID and ducked under the first tape barrier. As he did, a voice called out behind him.

"Mr. Graham, wait up!"

He turned. Ardelia Mapp ran toward him in baggy jeans and an FBI Academy sweatshirt. "You’re supposed to be at Quantico," he said, when she was close enough.

"They don’t lock us in, you know. My aunt lives out here. She needed help with her garden. And then I heard a million sirens go by and when I got here everyone was saying it was the Ripper again, and then I saw you." She took a deep breath. "Can I tag along?"

"Did you write your essay?"

"Check your email."

He did. She had. It had been sent one minute before midnight, just under the wire. He suppressed a smile and lifted the tape for her. "Come on. Where am I going?" he called to one of the many local guys standing around looking miserable in the cold.

"Fifty yards up the trail, turn right. Can’t miss it."

"Is it really the Ripper?" Ardelia asked.

"That’s what Jack wants to know."

"Jack – Agent Crawford? The head of BAU?"

Will nodded, peering ahead of them through branches dripping with ice and snowmelt. He could see a light. By the time they reached it, someone must’ve radioed ahead. They were waved through, and Jack lifted a hand in greeting as he made his way over to them.

"Who’s this?"

"One of my students found me in the parking lot. Ardelia Mapp, Jack Crawford."

They shook hands. Ardelia looked only slightly awed.

"Good to meet you," Jack said. "You must be something if Will actually remembers your name."

"I know my students’ names, Jack."

"Because they write them on their papers. How often do you connect names to faces?"

"When they’re worth connecting. Where’s the body?"

"This way. I cleared the scene for you. We don’t have an ID. Eyes and tongue missing along with the heart."

"Entirely missing?"

"We haven’t found them yet."

"He usually sticks to internal organs."

Jack shrugged. "Zeller thinks it’s him. I called you for a second opinion."

Will nodded and turned to Ardelia. "Is this your first murder scene?"

"Yes, sir."

"If you need to puke, do it well away from the body and tell forensics so they can mark it. And try to stay out of the way."

"Yes, sir."

He left her with Jack and walked toward the body. Even in his current state, the victim was easily recognizable. Will closed his eyes for a second in the hope that the face would change, the illusion would break, and the body would become that of a stranger. It didn’t.

Douglas Wilson lay on the ground as if he had been flung there, legs spread, one arm up over his head. His eyes and tongue had been taken as well as the heart. His mouth was crusted with dried blood.

Will took a slow breath and let it out. He turned back to Jack. "His name is Douglas Wilson."

"You know him?"

"I’ve met him. He played the trombone in the Baltimore Metropolitan Orchestra."

"Got it. Thanks."

He watched Jack send Ardelia off on some errand and turned back to Wilson. A few slow breaths. He closed his eyes. The present fell away, and the woods descended into a close, stifling silence.

One of Douglas Wilson’s hands had been extended. The palm was stained with blood. Will watched the killer place Wilson’s severed tongue there and then snatch it up again. Wilson didn’t deserve even that much.

Jack’s voice called him back to reality, already impatient. "Well?"

"It’s the Ripper."

"You’re sure?"

"Yes. It’s unusual for him, but I’m sure. It feels the same. "

"No kidding it’s unusual," Zeller said, striding up with Price just behind him. "Where’s the display? And why did I just find an eyeball stuck to the tree over there?"

"Stuck to the tree?" Will said.

"Yeah, come on."

They trooped across the small clearing. Will nodded for Ardelia to follow. She still looked excited to be there, which was a relief. The Chesapeake Ripper wasn’t an ideal choice for anyone’s first murder scene.

"Eyeball, tree," Zeller said, gesturing like Vanna White. One clouded eye looked back at them from its spot, lodged in a crack of the tree trunk.

"He threw them," Will said. "The other one has to be close by. Probably the tongue, too."

"Who throws away a perfectly good eye?" Price said.

"What would you do with it?" Ardelia said.

Price looked delighted. Zeller was studiously ignoring him. "I am so glad you asked. Who are you?"

More introductions, followed by a lecture from Price on the properties of vitreous humor. Will left them to it and moved past the tree, further into the woods.

Beverly popped out of a shadow and nearly gave him a heart attack. "Wow, calm down, jumpy," she said. "I hear you’ve got students to impress."

"Thought you were someone else," he said, thinking of the creature from his nightmares, of its eyes that looked too human.

"I found the tongue," she said. "Want to see?"

"Yeah."

They walked a few more yards into the dark. She scanned the forest floor with her flashlight until it caught on the yellow tag she’d set next to the tongue. Will squatted down next to it. The eyeballs had been thrown standing next to the body, but this was farther out, ground into the dirt.

"Did you step on it?" he asked.

"Excuse you, I am a pro. If anyone stepped on it, it was the Ripper. Which is weird, right? He’s a pro, too."

"Everyone makes mistakes when they’re emotionally involved."

"Was he emotionally involved with the victim?"

"No. Not with the victim."

"Then who?"

The tongue, the eyes. Don’t look, don’t speak. The heart. The killing reeked of jealousy and loss of control.

Will looked up and into the face of his nightmares. The thing knelt across from him on the other side of the body. Shreds of flesh hung from its antlers. It raised a clawed finger to its lips to shush him, and then it was gone. Sunk back into shadow as suddenly as the stag.

Will steadied himself with a light touch on the grass. Unavoidable certainty rose up like black oil around him. It dripped from the trees and slid down his face. His own body started to dissolve.

"Will?"

Beverly’s hand on his shoulder pulled him back, and he clutched it hard for a second. She knelt beside him. "You okay?" she asked.

"I don’t know," he said. Doubt crept like a small animal around the edge of his mind. He didn’t want to tell Jack. He wanted to crawl back into bed with Hannibal and forget. He wanted this to be one more bad dream.

Beverly helped him up, and he followed her back out of the trees. His hands ached. He made himself unclench his fists and flex his fingers. The branches overhead dripped with liquid darkness. He could feel it on his face, soft and warm, like blood.

Jack look at him expectantly.

Will wanted to go home. He’d never wanted anything more.

Instead, he forced his voice toward calm detachment and told them about an incident the previous night at the opera, no names mentioned, not yet. Jack had said he trusted Will’s instincts. They’d see how far that trust went tonight.

"So he was talking to a guy and the guy’s boyfriend got jealous," Zeller said. "This is the Chesapeake Ripper. He doesn’t do crimes of passion."

"He ripped out the guy’s eyes and cut off his tongue," Beverly said. "And his heart? That does seem a little like jealousy."

“So maybe it’s not the Ripper after all.”

"The boyfriend used to be a surgeon," Will said. "A gifted one. He’s about six feet tall, strong, physically able to do this kind of work. Right age range."

Jack turned his head slowly from Zeller to Will. “How do you know he used to be a surgeon?”

"You can’t tell what he is by looking at him," Will said quietly. "He’s socially adept. Invisible. He’s the last person you’d consider."

Will could hear the spatter of oil dripping from the trees.

Jack passed a hand over his eyes. “Are you talking about Hannibal Lecter?”

"Yes."

"Wilson was talking to you," Jack said. "You and Hannibal …"

"Yes."

An aching gulf of silence.

"Wow," Zeller said finally. "Hell of a coming out party."

Will looked at Jack. "Do you still trust my instincts?"

Jack nodded slowly. "That’s why you’re here."

Will only half listened to the ensuing discussion. Jack said they should proceed with caution. Investigate with discretion. Will was to be careful. Not to scare Hannibal off. Soon, he could barely hear their voices over the roar of the rising tide inside him.

When they stopped talking, he walked back to his car and pulled out onto the road. He drove through the dark until he saw a rest area glowing ahead of him. He pulled off and sat with the car running and his face in his hands.

He wanted to call Hannibal, but that wasn’t an option anymore.

A vending machine provided terrible coffee. The stuff in his travel mug was long gone. He drank it slowly and ate the sandwich Hannibal had made for him.

The stars above remained cruelly clear. For once, his mind felt the same. Will thought of their last dance in the kitchen, of Hannibal asking Will to come away with him. Anywhere.

The Chesapeake Ripper’s control was flawless. He did not throw jealous fits. Neither did Hannibal. He’d said as much himself, except when he let his control slide, for the sake of this game they were playing. For Will.

He leaned on the side of his car under the green-hued buzz of the floodlights. People didn’t change. Except when they did.

*

In the quiet of his classroom, Will sat and watched a thorny grove rise up all around him. Each thorn was tipped with oil, and the flowers grew black and melted and dripped from the leaves. The stag and the creature masquerading as human watched him from between the branches.

Someone coughed loudly. Ardelia, in the front row. The seats were filled. He glanced at the clock. Class had started five minutes ago. He stood and began his lecture. The thicket around him vanished like mist in the sun, but two otherworldly pairs of eyes watched him without blinking.

Later, he observed Wilson’s autopsy from the corner of the room. Price had invited Ardelia, and Zeller gave her the brain to hold, which he might have meant as an attempt to make her sick or as a treat. Impossible to tell. It didn’t seem to bother her.

"And now, the eyeball!" Price said, as a magician might announce the beginning of his best trick.

"You won’t find anything," Beverly said. "The Ripper never leaves prints."

"He never throws eyeballs, either. Maybe he was so mad he forgot to put his gloves on. Anyway," he continued to Ardelia, "if we don’t find anything, I’ve got an extra eye lying around. You can stick your finger on it and I’ll lift your print, how’s that?"

"That would be great, sir," Ardelia said, with every appearance of sincerity.

"I will keep this one," Price announced. "The rest of you can go. Brian, you’ve been replaced."

"You say that now, but next time you need somebody to dig chunks of liver out of a dumpster, I know who you’re going to call."

"I helped," Price said.

"You supervised."

Their words echoed and acquired strange distortions. Soon, Will barely registered them as human speech. He drifted toward the doorway. He could see antlers growing up from the floor. Stress, he told himself. Shock. Sweat gathered and cooled at the back of his neck.

Beverly caught up with him in the hall. "Are you okay? The answer you want is no, by the way. No one’s okay when their boyfriend might be a serial killer."

"No," he said obediently.

"Do you want to talk? I realize the answer is no, but – you look really bad, Will. And you didn’t say a word in there."

"Nothing to say."

"You can’t be sure it’s him. It could just be a coincidence."

Will shrugged. It could be, but it wasn’t.

"He must’ve known you’d be suspicious at least," Beverly said. "Why would he do it? He’s been so careful."

"He wanted me to know."

She frowned at him. "Go home, okay? Get some sleep. You probably shouldn’t be on this one anyway. I mean, Jack shouldn’t either, but we’re not gonna pry him off it with a crowbar."

"Sleep sounds good."

It did, but when he got in the car, he knew he wasn’t going home. His destination felt inevitable, his future already written.

*

Hannibal climbed the stairs to his bedroom for the last time.

One bag would suffice. Other clothes could be bought, other books acquired, another life assembled from nothing. He packed a leather satchel and put it away in the hall closet. He went into the kitchen. His refrigerator held onions and broth and cheese, and he spent his time wisely in the creation of French onion soup. It might be some time before he could cook properly again.

He ate at the head of his table. Down its shadowed length, he saw faces he knew, faces who had almost known him. At the far end, he could make out the small jewelry box, black velvet, convex on the top.

Once he had cleared and cleaned his bowl, he went to stand beside it. Will had already refused to run away with the man he had imagined Hannibal to be. Now, knowing the truth, his rejection could only be more comprehensive. Hannibal imagined the struggle, the blows, Will’s blood bubbling between his lips. The sound of the ocean inside him.

But hope remained, stubborn to the last. He would stay and see it through. He could not imagine doing anything else.

*

Will knocked on Hannibal’s door. Hannibal opened it almost immediately, as if he had been waiting for him, just on the other side.

"Please, come in," he said.

He took Will’s coat for him. They watched each other, sidelong and indirect. For once, Hannibal wouldn’t meet Will’s eyes. The ceiling fixture threw downcast shadows across Hannibal’s face, lengthened the lines of his lashes and his nose. Will looked away, afraid to see him, too, dissolve into liquid darkness. He rubbed his eyes hard.

"Why have you come?" Hannibal asked softly.

"You’re supposed to be at work."

"But you knew I would be here."

"You’re leaving." You’re leaving me. He had managed not to say it, but he might as well have. They’d both heard it.

Hannibal led him into the dining room. He gestured Will toward his own seat at the head of the table and sat down beside him.

"Did you eat his heart?" Will asked.

"No. Some things even I cannot stomach."

Will felt like the confirmation should be a shock, but it wasn’t. He’d known from the moment he saw his nightmare in the woods. Looking at Hannibal now, he saw it again: the black antlers reaching from Hannibal’s head up toward the ceiling, Hannibal’s sharp-boned face drained of color and life.

Will turned away, but he saw it no matter where he looked now, even when he closed his eyes and covered them with his hands. Fever rose up inside him. His hands were made of ice, starting to melt.

"I’m being washed away," he said.

"Washed clean."

"I don’t think I’ll ever be clean again." Will stared at him, and Hannibal’s face flickered between the one Will knew and the one from his nightmares. "Did you drug me?"

"No. Anything you are experiencing in this moment comes from within you, my dear. I have done nothing."

Will shook his head. He saw shadows behind Hannibal’s chair and smelled old blood: a gathering of the Ripper’s victims. "No," he said. "No, don’t. Stay away from me."

"I can help you," Hannibal said. "Come with me. We can go now. This moment. Leave all of this behind. Do you truly care for any of it, Will? This life you have made for yourself? It does not care for you."

"I can’t."

"Then I fear you will slip farther and farther away from reality. What will you do when you see only the horrors of your own mind? When you live inside the birthing ground of nightmares? Come with me."

"This isn’t me. There’s something wrong."

Hannibal cupped his cheek and stroked his hair back. "Who else would you trust with your mind?" he said. "Do you think anyone else can help you?"

Will shook his head. "Please don’t. Don’t do this."

"Don’t leave you? I don’t want to, my dear. It’s the last thing I want."

Will looked past him at the snow falling outside his dining room. It turned black and settled on the ground like ashes. He could taste it at the back of his throat.

Hannibal pressed a box into his hand and then opened it for him. Will’s fingers had welded around it, claw-like and immoveable. The gold band caught warm light from the chandelier, and the diamond shone like a star. For a moment, the world shifted sideways, back into reality.

"May I put it on you?" Hannibal said.

Will blinked at it. The light grew until it seemed to glow. Did Hannibal even have a chandelier? Will looked up and saw a spider’s nest of tangled antlers growing on the ceiling.

"I can’t," he whispered. He touched the ring. "Try harder. Convince me."

Hannibal slid off his chair to one knee. He took Will’s hand. "We could go anywhere. Everywhere. You would want for nothing. A new life, for both of us. I care for you, Will. What you do is killing you."

"What about what you do?"

"I enjoy it," Hannibal said simply.

His face was gone again. The antlers dripped with some viscous liquid that was neither oil nor blood. Even his eyes were no longer human. Will could see the knife he had in his pocket as clearly as if Hannibal had laid it alongside the ring.

"I asked you how much you’ve changed in your life," Will said. "Maybe I should’ve asked how much you’re willing to change. But I guess I don’t have to ask."

"Your mind is clouded. It is not your own."

"It doesn’t matter what I’m seeing. I know who I am, and I know who you are. I won’t go with you, Hannibal."

"I don’t wish to leave you behind."

"You don’t have a choice."

"This isn’t what I intended." His hand slid toward his pocket, toward the knife.

"Part of you will die with me," Will said.

Hannibal touched his cheek. "Good. I don’t want you to go alone."

The doorbell rang.

Hannibal raised his head, and his face smoothed out. "Wait here."

Will waited. He didn’t know what else to do. Running seemed impossible. He took out the ring and held it cupped in the palm of his hand. Gold band, diamond set flush into it, tiny dots of black on either side. Spinels, like the necklace. They grew into little pools of shadow as he watched.

"I know he’s here, his car’s right outside." Ardelia’s voice, slightly raised. "Look, I just need to talk to him for one second, it’s really important."

Will swore silently and hauled himself upright. He stumbled through a forest of thorns toward the front door. When he saw them, Ardelia had pushed her way inside and stood opposite Hannibal in the foyer. Hannibal had one hand in his pocket. Ardelia’s hand was twitching toward her waist, where her jacket might conceal a shoulder holster.

"I’m afraid you need to leave now," Hannibal said, calm as ever, one step closer to her than Will wanted him to be.

"It’s okay," Will said to her. "Go. I’ll call you in an hour or so."

She looked at him, clearly relieved, and that was when Hannibal moved. He pulled the knife. Ardelia pulled her gun. Will lunged between them, unsure who he wanted to protect more. The crack of gunshots, a punch to his chest that sent him back into Hannibal’s arms, and then, for a moment, nothing.

"Will. Will, open your eyes." Hannibal’s voice, insistent, urgent.

Will blinked up at him. His head lay in Hannibal’s lap. The rest of the world was cold and remote. "Would you," he said, but he couldn’t get enough breath.

"An ambulance," Hannibal said to Ardelia. "Now. And then towels. The kitchen. Go."

"Would you have done it?" Will said. He had to gulp for air afterward, but he got it out.

Hannibal had pressure on his chest, both hands. The position bent him over Will like shelter from the sun. Tears spilled down Hannibal’s face and left dark tracks across his cheeks until his eyes were human again. He didn’t answer, but the shadow of antlers had left him, and Will no longer heard the buzzing of insects.

Will grasped weakly at Hannibal’s wrist. "It was good. I’m not sorry."

A sharp pain cut through his chest. The world faded around him, dark spots, and then flickers of the feathered stag bending over him, and then nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Will woke to more pain than he had ever known. It blocked out all other senses. He could neither see nor hear beyond flashes of light and wisps of sound: full sunlight in his face, people in masks, a jumble of voices all raised and all urgent.

"BP’s dropping—"

"He’s conscious—"

"Mr. Graham, Will, can you—"

They were going to ask him about Hannibal. He didn’t want to answer. He closed his eyes.

*

When he woke again, he could see and hear, but he could not move. Something was blocking his throat, choking him. He tried to cough it up, but it was stuck, immovable, and every time his chest tightened, the pain came back. He couldn’t breathe, and he could feel his heart skipping, freezing numbness in his hands, the whine of an alarm—

*

Will and Hannibal stood together in the Hobbs family kitchen. Abigail’s blood covered the floor, and Hannibal was down on his hands and knees, drawing lines through it with his fingers. For a long time he covered the drawing with his body, and Will couldn’t see it. When he sat back, it was the image from Will’s nightmares, the form of darkness with jagged antlers and black eyes.

Hannibal’s eyes were clear, and no blood stained his hands.

"Is this another reproduction of your memories?" Will asked.

"No," Hannibal said. "This is art."

"Is it perfect? Is it what you wanted it to be?"

Hannibal looked down at the image for a few seconds and then wiped it away with one clean hand.

*

Pain was a remote haze on the horizon. Nothing was choking him. A damp cloth wiped over his eyes, and he managed to blink the remaining stickiness away and open them.

A stranger bent over him, and for a moment Will was terrified that his memory was gone, that he should know her. He groped for his recent past and found nothing.

The woman smiled at him, pleased but not personal. White uniform. Hospital smells.

"Who?" he said, and the one word left him breathless.

"My name’s Penny," she said. "I’m a nurse’s assistant. You’re at Johns Hopkins. I’m going to get your doctor, okay? We’re glad you’re back with us."

"Wa – Wait."

He wanted to ask about Hannibal, about Ardelia, but he couldn’t find the breath for it, and the room tilted sickeningly when he tried to lift his head. Gone again.

*

The next time, he stayed awake long enough to drink some water and get an explanation from Penny about the PCA morphine pump that would let him adjust his pain medication.

Will nodded in the appropriate places. Breathing hurt, and talking required more breath that he remembered.

"Use it when you need to," she said, as if he might be unwilling.

He was anything but unwilling. His pride only went so far.

"Do you feel up to a brief visit? There’s a young woman who’s been asking to see you."

"Who?" Will said. He wasn’t sure he was prepared to see Abigail right now, and the only other young woman who might conceivably want to see him was Freddie Lounds.

"She says she’s your student."

Will frowned but nodded. Ardelia should have better things to do than – but she’d shot him. He had blamed Hannibal so entirely for all of this that he’d forgotten who actually fired the gun.

She slipped through the door and perched on the edge of the chair, looking down.

"Wasn’t your fault," Will said.

"I almost killed you."

He shook his head. "Hannibal. Why were you …" He stopped for a breath. "There?"

"No one could find you. Agent Crawford said you weren’t answering your phone. I was leaving anyway, and I just – drove by his house. I wasn’t going to do anything, but then I saw your car." She paused. "He saved your life," she said.

Will frowned at her, hoping she’d explain without him having to ask. Every breath was an effort, and talking took too much air.

"He stayed with you," she said. "I called the paramedics, and he stayed with you. He was trying to keep you alive. Even in the ambulance. I didn’t call the police. He said you’d die without him, and I thought I could call them before we got to the hospital, but—"

"But?"

"He had me helping him. And my hands were slippery. With the blood. And he was too fast." Her hands twisted together in her lap. "The paramedics are dead."

"You didn’t kill them."

"He could’ve killed me too, but he didn’t. He wanted me to deliver a message."

Will’s battered heart thudded in his chest. "What?"

"You have encephalitis. I don’t know how long he knew. Agent Crawford said no one was allowed to tell you. He thinks you know where Lecter went, and I guess he wanted to spring it on you, to make you mad enough to talk. I don’t know how he got the doctors to agree, but it’s wrong. I’m pretty sure it’s also illegal, but it’s definitely wrong. That’s why I came. To tell you."

Will didn’t have enough breath or mental energy to explain Jack's obsession with the Chesapeake Ripper. "Thanks," he said. "But … more trouble for you."

"I don’t care. They’re probably going to kick me out after the disciplinary hearing. So it doesn’t matter."

Her voice was tight, and her hands were pale at the knuckles from holding onto her knees. Trying to look like it didn’t matter, when it was the one thing that mattered most. Will was too familiar with that kind of deception not to recognize it.

"Call Jack," he said. "Tell him I …" Pause for breath. "Want to see him. Now."

*

The interview with Jack didn’t go well, but Will hadn’t really thought it would.

He asked for paper and pen beforehand and wrote down the points he wanted to make and the counters to Jack’s obvious arguments. They went through them more or less in the sequence Will had written them down, and as he ripped off page after page and handed them over, he watched Jack grow more and more irritated.

"Just give me the damn notebook," Jack said finally.

Will handed it over. Jack sat down hard in the chair and read it through to the end. When he was done, he sighed, a long, drawn-out exhalation that came from the bottom of his chest.

Will envied him having that much air as he tried to get enough for his next sentence. "I don’t know where he is." Breathe. "I will find him."

"I can’t involve you officially in the investigation."

Will shrugged. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as talking.

"What do you want?" Jack asked.

Will handed him the last piece of paper, which he had held in reserve in the case they got this far.

1. Cancel my teaching contract
2. A room to work in
3. Ardelia Mapp graduates with her class

"One and two, yes," Jack said. "No problem. Number three isn’t happening."

Will just looked at him.

Jack got up to pace, first to the window, then to the door. He stood so long with his hand on the doorframe that Will thought he might just walk out.

"It’s not happening," he said again. "Yes, I bent the rules for you. Maybe more than I should have. It has not escaped my notice that if I hadn’t gone outside the system to get you in the field, you would never have met Hannibal Lecter."

Will said nothing. He didn’t regret meeting Hannibal, and he didn’t think Jack would want to hear that.

"But this is beyond me now," Jack said. "The disciplinary hearing is scheduled for after the graduation ceremony. She can’t graduate until that’s over with, and I can’t get it moved up. I tried."

"When?"

"Next Monday."

Will frowned. That was too soon. Graduation wasn’t for another two weeks. "How long was—" Something caught in his throat, and he coughed and coughed. The wound in his chest ached like someone had shot him again, and he couldn’t find the morphine pump through the tears in his eyes.

Jack found it for him. He got Will a cup of water and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. Will touched his arm. He could almost see Bella sitting next to them and, with her, Jack’s fear that this was how they would end. Hospital beds and morphine and pain. Will had been told he would recover. Bella wouldn’t.

"I’m sorry," Will said.

"None of this is your fault." Jack sat up straighter and shouldered his burden again. "Ten days. They weren’t sure you were coming back. Or how much of you would be left if you did. Alana’s spent more time here than at home, I think."

"Mourning a death."

"You’re not dead, Will."

"Not me. Him."

Jack sighed. "It was never real. The person he showed us was a fiction. We need to forget, get past it. Move on."

"I’ll go to the hearing," Will said, and he was gasping for air by the time he got the words out. He could feel his heart thudding inside him, labored, but still going. Still working.

"See what your doctors say. Don’t set back your recovery for this."

"Not her fault." And that was about it for his strength. Arguing with Jack always took it out of him, and right now he didn’t have anything left. His eyes were closing. But he had to make one more point: "Not yours either."

He wanted all the blame. He wanted to have brought this on himself. He wanted Hannibal and his memory of Hannibal untouched by anyone else.

Jack said something in answer, but Will didn’t hear it. He was falling into the dark, water swirling around his ankles. The sun rose over the treeline and lit up his nightmares. The feathered stag watched him where he stood in the stream. Its breath rose up in coils of white toward the cloudless sky.

*

He went to the hearing in a wheelchair, against medical advice, swaddled in blankets like an invalid. Which he supposed he was. He still felt cold, even when they got inside.

Alana pushed the chair, and Jack walked next to her. Beverly and Price and even Zeller followed behind like an honor guard. That had surprised him a little, but he’d seen something of the same reaction in New Orleans. He’d never been more popular on the force than the day after he got stabbed.

Will still couldn’t get out more than a sentence at a time. He’d typed out his statement. Someone else would have to read it. His silence set him one step further removed from the world than usual. People spoke to him more than ever, but he seldom replied. He felt as if they were dropping stones into a lake. Somewhere, under the water, he caught the stones one by one and piled them up, but he sent nothing in return.

The hearing carried on around him. He heard little of it, registered mainly the stoic expression on Ardelia’s face. He recognized that, too, from his own younger self: someone who expected the worst and knew she could endure it.

Jack was nudging him. Someone else was speaking. Speaking to him? Yes.

"Mr. Graham, is there anything you’d like to add to your statement?"

Alana and Jack had both tried to coach him for this eventuality, tried to impress upon him the importance of a politic statement that didn’t insult and alienate the committee. Of course, Will had thought. Because they couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing because it was right. They had to be coddled and complimented and lied to.

"If you blame her for this, you’re as bad as he is," Will said. Somehow, he got it all out in one breath.

He heard Jack’s tiny grunt of frustration beside him, but he also saw the slight lightening in Ardelia’s eyes. Good enough.

One of the men looked at Will over his glasses and made a note on the paper in front of him. "Mr. Graham, are you suggesting that this committee, in performing its duty, may commit a crime equal to Hannibal Lecter’s nine – nine known – counts of murder, mutilation, and cannibalism?"

Will saw a lattice of thorns, or maybe they were antlers, growing over the windows. But they’d treated him for the encephalitis. He was better. But he wasn’t.

"Mr. Graham?"

"He should still be in the hospital," Alana said. "This is too much exertion."

"He considered his murders just," Will said. He stopped to breathe, and all around him silence pressed in, stifling against his ear drums. "If you ruin her, you will also—" Breath. "Consider it just."

The silence continued, but Will could see people’s lips moving. The silence was now, and perhaps had always been, only in his head.

Alana was pushing him out of the room, and her silence was real. They sat outside the conference room, her in a chair and him in his rolling prison.

"What did we tell you," she said. "Accusing them before they’ve even rendered a verdict is not going to help her case."

"The truth is always helpful," he said, though he knew perfectly well it was a lie. It was something Hannibal would’ve said. For him, maybe it would’ve been true.

Alana took his hand. "You shouldn’t be here. We came so close to losing you. And there’s still a risk of infection and—"

"Won’t happen."

"You don’t know that."

"I’m going to find him."

"Don’t. Don’t dive into this obsession, Will. You’ve already lost so much because of him. Don’t give him this, too."

Will smiled at her, and he could only imagine what it looked like. Her expression suggested he was already gone, already in the ground. He didn’t answer, and she didn’t say anything else. Maybe she understood that Hannibal already had this, had all of him.

*

That night, he woke up in his hospital bed and started laughing. It hurt, and he coughed, and that hurt worse. The morphine wasn’t enough, but he couldn’t stop, because Hannibal had literally broken his heart.

*

Zeller came to give him the news two days later. Ardelia would be recycled, given the opportunity to go through training again, with an official reprimand on her file.

"It’s better than I thought she’d get," Zeller said. He dumped a bag down on the end of Will’s bed, a black nylon duffle that Will recognized as his own.

"What’s this?"

"Clothes. And … mostly clothes." Zeller rubbed at his chin and then turned to face the window. "We had to search your place. He spent so much time there. We did it all ourselves, me and Jack and Beverly and Jimmy. I got the bedroom."

Oh. Oh. The underwear, the stockings, all of it folded alongside his own things, all of it in his size.

"I didn’t want to leave the stuff there," Zeller said. "There’s a good chance someone will go through the house again. They’re still building the case against him. I didn’t know what to do with – there’s other stuff, too. Stuff you can wear home when you get out of here."

Will couldn’t say a word, not even thank you. He would’ve said his heart had stopped, but now he knew what that felt like. This was worse.

"My sister’s trans," Zeller said. "I don’t know what your deal is, but – look, I won’t tell anyone. And we can talk if you want, even though I literally can’t imagine anything more awkward, but she’d kill me if I didn’t at least offer. So."

Will’s figurative heart starting beating again. Some of the tension eased out of him. "Rather not talk about it," he said.

"Hallelujah."

Will smiled at Zeller’s reflection in the window, and Zeller smiled back, just a twitch of his mouth.

"So I’m gonna go now," Zeller said.

"Wait."

Zeller waited while Will gathered breath and courage, one finger tapping against the wall.

"There was a ring," Will said. "I had it in my hand when – when it happened."

When he shot me. Inaccurate, but that was always how that sentence ended in Will’s head. He could almost see Hannibal pointing the gun at him.

"We didn’t find a ring," Zeller said. "He must’ve taken it with him. We’ve been all over that house. No way we could’ve missed it."

"Okay. Thanks."

Zeller nodded and made his escape. He left his half empty coffee cup on the windowsill. Will stared at it for a long time, but in the end, he didn’t have the energy to get across the room. No matter how badly he wanted the caffeine and the resulting clarity of mind. On doctor’s orders, he’d been allowed none of any kind, not even tea, since he woke up.

The memory of making coffee for Hannibal returned to him, soft at the edges, like a dream. Maybe it had all been a dream.

With effort, he sat up enough to pull the bag to him and get it open. His normal clothes were piled on top. Underneath lay everything else: the underwear, the jeans, the silk camisole. The necklace and the bracelet. All of it.

Seeing them in the unflattering light of the hospital room cast his memories in an unflattering light as well. Will had avoided these memories for exactly this reason, but now they piled in on him and the doubts came with them. Hannibal hadn’t cared. Will had been an experiment, or worse, a joke. A temporary amusement.

Sick dread washed around his stomach. Shame. He wanted to burn everything in the bag, everything in him that Hannibal had touched.

His pain was briefly more than physical, but his doubts didn’t stand up to the facts. Hannibal had thrown away his life with one deliberate loss of control, and he had done it for Will. Whatever Hannibal felt for him, he felt it sincerely.

*

"You can stay with me," Beverly said. "Seriously. I’ve even got railings and stuff in the bathroom from when my grandma was living with me."

Will shook his head and concentrated on getting his other arm into his coat. "I want to go home," he said.

"You can barely get dressed on your own. Can you even pick up a bag of dog food?"

"I’ll manage."

She sat down beside him. "At what point are you going to get it through your thick skull that you don’t have to manage on your own?"

He smiled a little. "Never. Probably never."

"Can I get you groceries or something at least?"

"I think Alana dropped off some stuff."

Beverly sighed. "Right, well, okay. You ready? You want a wheelchair?"

"No. Just walk slow."

Beverly drove him home and made him something to eat and then stayed to make sure he ate it. He appreciated it in a distant sort of way, but he also wanted her to leave, wanted to be on his own so that his exterior state would finally match the state of his mind.

When she left, he wished she hadn’t.

He walked the rooms of his house, though it couldn’t really be called walking. He shuffled, dragged his feet, held onto furniture. Everything hurt, and he no longer had morphine at the touch of a button.

He looked through his mail. The medical bills were rolling in. He was briefly grateful for government insurance, although the co-pay was nothing to sneeze at. He touched the top of the table where the mail lay and ran his fingers through the dust.

His dogs were still with Alana. She would bring them by tomorrow, she’d said, with doubt in her voice. She was probably right to be doubtful. One enthusiastic greeting, and he’d be on his ass on the floor, but he needed them here. Without them, the house was too quiet. He could hear his own thoughts too clearly.

He kept waiting for Hannibal to call.

The black duffle with all of Hannibal’s gifts sat in the center of his bed. Will took them into the living room and lit a fire in the fireplace. He fed the clothes into it one piece at a time. The stockings shriveled as they burned, pulling into themselves as if they were in pain.

That left only the bracelet and the necklace. He weighed the bracelet in his hand. Heavy, thick gold. On his wrist, it had felt like a manacle, a mark of possession. He’d liked that. He took it to the back door and pitched it out into the dark as hard as he could. It might turn up in the spring when the snow melted, but he didn’t think he’d be around to find it.

He held the necklace coiled like a snake in his palm and lifted his hand, ready to give it the same treatment. He felt Hannibal’s touch at the back of his neck, fastening the catch for him. Cold air streamed over his bare feet. He shut the door.

His phone buzzed. Beverly: it is dinner time. you are a human being and require sustenance to survive

He wrote back: thanks for the reminder

Someone had left chicken soup in the fridge. He was lucky, he told himself with something close to violence, lucky to have friends like these. No excuse to miss what he no longer had. He heated it up and ate at the kitchen table with its dust and its sad pile of mail.

When he was done, he washed the bowl. That was enough to exhaust him. Time for bed. He set the necklace down on his bedside table and then snatched it up again, wound it twice around his wrist, and fastened the catch.

Chapter Text

Will flicked on the light in his new office. Until yesterday, it had been a janitor’s supply closet. It still held the tang of ammonia and stale water, but it had been cleared out. A desk and a computer had been added and a banner had been strung up on the wall: WELCOME HOME.

"Wasn’t my idea. I just got sent to the store. They were out of Welcome Back ones," Zeller said, just behind him.

Will didn’t jump. Not much outside of his own body startled him these days. It had been three months since he went home for the first time, and he had since weathered two infections, a recurrence of the encephalitis, and one more long, semi-conscious stay at the hospital. He hoped his body was now out of surprises, but he didn’t trust it anymore than he trusted his mind.

The feathered stag stood in the hallway just behind Zeller’s shoulder.

"Seems appropriate," Will said.

"Yeah. For all of us. Home’s just a place you sleep, right?"

"If you’re lucky."

"Beverly’s in court. She wanted me to remind you to eat something."

Will couldn’t help smiling. "It’s ten o’clock in the morning."

"I’m just delivering the message."

"Yeah. I saw the Twix on the desk."

"You don’t know that was me."

"You’re the only one around here who thinks candy bars are a meal."

"Hey, Twix has all three major food groups, okay? Chocolate, caramel, and cookie stuff. Some of them even have peanut butter. Tell me that’s not healthy."

"You here for a reason? Other than to fatten me up for the kill?" Zeller winced. Will looked down. "Sorry," he said.

Silence. Hannibal filled all the silences in Will’s life now, and he was sick to the bone of it, sick of trying to pretend nothing had happened, sick of trying to be who he had been. Even his formerly strained version of normal felt so far beyond him now that it might never have existed.

"He wasn’t going to eat me," he said.

Zeller was quiet for a second. "He asked you to go with him, didn’t he?"

"Yes."

"You left that out of your statement."

"Even Jack wouldn’t let me look for him if he knew that."

"You shouldn’t be looking for him." Zeller crossed his arms over his chest. "You think you’re the only one who can find him?"

Will was sure of it, but his time in the hospital had taught him to choose his words carefully. An important skill when he could only get out three or four without stopping for breath.

"What else am I going to do?" he said.

"Get on with your life?"

"What life?"

Zeller’s mouth twisted, and he looked down. "That’s from him." He nodded to the necklace Will still wore looped around his wrist.

"Yes."

"What are you going to do when you find him?"

"I don’t know."

"Arrest him. That’s the right answer. You used to know what the right answers were."

"I still know. I just don’t care anymore."

Zeller stuck his hands in his pockets. "You know, I really liked the FBI when I started out here. I loved all the rules. If you follow the rules, you know you’re doing the right thing. The rules are there for a reason."

"You could report me. And Jack. I’m aware that I wouldn’t pass a psych eval right now. I don’t think he would either."

"Dammit," Zeller muttered.

They both stood in silence for a moment. The feathered stag nuzzled Zeller’s hair. Will had thought the hallucinations would stop when he recovered from the encephalitis. At least he wasn’t seeing the the shape of his nightmares anymore.

"Just find him," Zeller said. "Jack’s sending you Ardelia Mapp for an assistant. I thought you’d want to know."

"I don’t need an assistant."

"Well, you’ve got one. Argue with Jack about it. I’ve got dead people to cut up."

Zeller stomped off down the hall. Will went into his closet and sat at the desk and opened the Twix. It was a peanut butter one.

Ardelia came in a minute later carrying her own chair and wearing a grim expression. "I’m staying," she said.

"So I hear."

"I know you’re going to try to get rid of me. You’re going to say it’ll damage my career."

"It will damage your career," Will said.

"Not if we catch him."

"And if we don’t, you’ll be the agent who lost Hannibal the Cannibal twice."

"I wish they wouldn’t call him that. It makes him sound like a comic book super villain."

"Yeah. He’d hate it," Will said.

She stared at him. "I meant it makes him sound less dangerous than he is."

"Almost anything would."

She unfolded her chair and sat down opposite him. "So are you going to throw me out?"

"Stay if you want. Just make sure you’re doing it for your own reasons. Make sure you’re getting what you want out of this, because no one else is going to give a shit."

"You clearly do. Way to invalidate your own argument."

"I’m told my statement at your hearing did more harm than good."

She shrugged. "They made the decision before I even got there. I don’t know why they bothered to have the hearing at all."

"You don’t sound bitter about that."

"I shot my teacher and I let a serial killer get away. I mean, when you think about it, my career’s probably over anyway."

"The surgeon told me I’d be dead if you hadn’t let Hannibal work on me."

"I know. Cardiac tamponade. She was at the hearing. You don’t remember?"

"I don’t remember much from that day."

"I just have to do this," she said. "I thought about it a lot. I have to."

"Okay." He offered her half of his Twix and pushed the laptop toward her. "He’ll go to Europe. France and Italy are the best bets. Call Interpol and tell them to talk to local law enforcement, particularly in …" He closed his eyes for a second, searching his memory. "Paris, Florence, Geneva, and Rome. Get his description circulated."

"Are we assuming he’s out of the country?"

"He was out of the country the day he left, probably through Mexico or South America."

"You don’t want to try to trace him through the airports?"

"We’ll get him on camera through Dulles security, get him at the other end in Sao Paulo or something, and then he’ll hit some airfield with no cameras and barely any security, and he’ll be gone. And we’ll have wasted days."

"How do you know? People make mistakes."

"Hannibal Lecter doesn’t make mistakes."

"He made one."

Will folded his fingers up to touch the necklace, just hidden by his sleeve. "That wasn’t a mistake," he said.

*

The next week put the BAU’s collective language skills to the test. In theory, European law enforcement communicated with the FBI through Interpol. Bridging the communication gap, both of different languages and different customs and procedures, was one of their jobs. Unfortunately, Will’s name had been in the papers, not just in the United States, and people often wanted to talk to him directly. He spent a lot of time putting people on hold and trying to find someone nearby who spoke French, Italian, German, or, once, Russian.

Jack fielded the Italian calls when he was around, but he did so with less and less patience as time passed and no leads materialized. Zeller spoke French, to everyone’s shock.

"Why is this so surprising?" he said. "I am a man of many talents. And culture. I have culture."

"Bacterial culture," Price muttered.

"You’re just jealous because you took Latin. We’ll let you know if we get any calls from ancient Rome."

We, Will thought, and wondered when this had become a group project instead of his private obsession.

The second week, Beverly brought him a hair brush encased in a plastic evidence bag. It was silver, slightly tarnished, about five inches long, with a cracked amber flower set into the back.

"I wanted to see if you knew anything about this," she said.

"I’ve seen it in his house. In his bedroom. The night Budge abducted him. He kept it on his dresser."

"Did he use it?"

"I don’t know."

She raised her eyebrows at him.

"I wasn’t at his house that much," Will said.

"Okay. Well, here’s the thing. I didn’t find any of his hair in it. Which makes sense, because it looks a little girly for him."

Will stared at it. Had Hannibal meant it as another gift? But it seemed off, too ornate for Will’s taste and too unsophisticated for Hannibal’s. And, in fact, too small. "Whose hair did you find in it?" Will asked.

"How did you know?"

"It’s meant for a child. He had a sister. She died young."

"We found three hairs. Blonde. I’ll run the DNA against his."

"What else do you know about the brush? How old is it?"

"Old. Antique. But it couldn’t have been hers. We found a receipt in his records. He bought it about ten years ago."

"Where’s the receipt?"

"Storage probably? I went through the files at his house, but I don’t know what happened to it all when they carted it over here."

"Can you leave the brush with me?"

"Yeah, we’re done. You can take it out of the bag if you want. We won’t get anything else off of it."

He signed the evidence transfer forms, and she left him. He took it out of the bag and turned it over and over in his hands. Hannibal had bought it for her. He had her hair. He wanted somewhere to keep it that would not seem odd to anyone who happened to see it. But it still had to be beautiful, because she deserved beauty.

Just as you do, said Hannibal’s voice in his head. Will closed his eyes. He could hear the feathered stag breathing behind him. These days, the sound was a comfort.

Most of what had been taken from Hannibal’s house had been scanned and put into a database, much of it by Will and Ardelia, but he didn’t remember seeing the receipt. A search of the database revealed nothing, and he spent his lunch break digging through boxes in the storage room next to his office closet.

Beverly came in with pizza about an hour into it. They sat on the floor and ate together.

"What do you want it for?" she said.

"I need a way in. This might be it."

She opened her mouth, closed it again, and took a large bite of pizza.

"What?" he said.

"I was going to make a joke about you already finding a way in, but I didn’t know if you’d appreciate it."

He snorted. "Congratulations. That’s the first anal sex joke anyone’s made to my face so far."

"Some of the stuff on the late night talk shows was pretty funny. I mean, not when it first happened, but like a month after. A lot of it was awful, too, obviously."

"Everything turns into a joke with enough distance."

"Do you have distance?"

"I’ll never have distance."

"You shouldn’t be working on this, Will."

"Yeah. I’ve been told. No one’s stopped me yet."

"Jack’s the only one who can stop you, and he won’t. He shouldn’t be on this either."

"You could report him."

"I’m not a snitch."

Will shrugged. "So we all keep going."

"Where do we stop?"

"The end of the line."

After lunch, they found the receipt misfiled with some of Hannibal’s recipes. Will touched the cards, the aging ink, Hannibal’s flowing script describing the appropriate preparation of beef heart.

"A pig’s heart is pretty much the same size as ours," he said. "I saw him make this recipe. He said he substituted pig’s heart because his butcher had them in fresh."

"It wasn’t pig."

"No. It wasn’t pig. I wouldn’t have thought twice if he’d told me it was beef. I never thought about the size of a cow’s heart, but I looked it up online the other day. They’re big. I just never thought about it."

She was quiet for a second. "He told a lot of lies. Not just to you."

"I know." He made himself smile. "I know that. But not everything was a lie."

She looked at the receipt. "Amsel Antiques. Ring any bells?"

It did, a very faint one, but he couldn’t place it. "Where is it?"

"Not far. Near Baltimore."

"I’m going to drive out there and have a look."

"Call first. This was ten years ago. It might not even be there."

He did call, and it was there. A weary voice with a German accent answered the phone and informed him that the shop was open from 10 to 4 on weekdays and 9 to 5 on Saturdays, closed Sundays, and was there anything in particular he was looking for?

He inquired about the owner of the shop and was told he was speaking to him. "How long have you owned the place?" Will asked.

"Almost twenty years. If you called looking for me, you’re just in time. I’m selling out."

"To who?"

"To a soulless, money grubbing, unworthy, artless hack. Who else does one sell out to?"

"I have something I’d like you to look at. A silver hairbrush. Is it okay if I bring it by?"

"Anytime before four," Amsel said. He paused, and then, as if he couldn’t help himself, "What’s it like?"

"I’d rather show you than tell you," Will said.

*

Amsel Antiques sat in a narrow building crushed between two other antique shops. Every surface in the shop gleamed. Each piece had its own place on one of many shelves. Amsel sat on a stool behind a glass counter, hunched over a book. His white hair floated in a thin corona around his head and seemed to move with the air.

"Mr. Amsel?" Will said.

Amsel looked at him over his glasses. "Ah. Mr. Hairbrush, I presume."

"Will Graham." He laid the brush on the counter. "You sold this to someone, about ten years ago. He would’ve been in his late thirties then, about my height, brown eyes, slicked back hair, very expensive suits."

"You sound like a policeman, Mr. Graham."

"I was."

"Not anymore?"

"I work for the FBI now."

"And you are looking for one of my customers. What do you think the odds are that I remember this man, to whom I sold one not terribly remarkable hairbrush a decade ago?"

Amsel turned the brush over. His forefinger traced the cracked amber flower on the back.

"I was actually hoping to learn more about the brush," Will said.

Amsel glanced up at him sharply. "Silver plated, circa World War I, Baltic amber inlay, likely made in Eastern Europe."

"Can you be more specific?"

"Can you be more specific as to the nature of your inquiry, Agent Graham?"

"I’m not an agent. Will is fine."

"For whom are you searching, Mr. Graham?"

"You know, don’t you? You recognized the brush. You remember the man you sold it to. You’ve seen his picture in the papers recently."

Amsel weighed the brush in his palm. "And yours as well. Yes. Why did you come here, Mr. Graham? What import does this trinket hold?"

"I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. What else can you tell me?"

"He came in on a rainy afternoon in November. He looked at everything. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back. I hate it when people paw at my things. Do they have eyeballs in their fingertips? He touched nothing."

"Did he show any interest in anything apart from the brush?"

"He showed no interest in the brush. The browsing was an excuse, I think. He wanted to ask me about my name."

"Your name?"

"Werner Amsel." Amsel gestured to a glass case behind the counter with a brass lock.

A clothbound book was propped up and spotlit inside it. The title was in German, and it had a gold cocoon on the cover. Will jerked with recognition. It was the same book he’d pulled from Hannibal’s shelf to flip through the night of the opera. The author’s name was Werner Amsel.

"Not me, of course," Amsel said. "Not even a relative, as far as I know. Merely a coincidence, but being in the trade, of course I came to hear of the book. It was difficult to acquire a copy, though not particularly costly. True rarity can occasionally lower value. To covet a thing, one must first know it exists."

"What does it mean? The title?"

"Lifecycle of the Glass Butterfly, a work of fiction in the style of the popular natural philosophy works of the time. It tells of the author’s journey to a land across the Indian Ocean and the butterflies he found there. Entirely transparent in their cocoons, they emerge with stained glass wings, like tiny, soaring cathedral windows."

"Can I see it?"

Amsel laid a pair of white cotton gloves on the counter. He didn’t move to unlock the case until Will had put them on. When he set the book out, Will turned immediately to the inside cover and title page.

"You’re looking for the inscription," Amsel said. "You’ve seen his copy then."

"He told you about it?"

"He was searching for it. He said it was lost after a family tragedy."

"He thought the copy you had might be his?"

"I don’t know what he thought, Mr. Graham. He asked to see it, and he did just as you did. He looked for an inscription that wasn’t there."

"How did he seem to you? Was he disappointed not to find it?" Will asked.

"That’s the odd thing. I think he was relieved."

Amsel was old enough and in the right business to have benefited from the sale of Hannibal’s family home and its contents, but Hannibal would have liked him, would have liked the order of his shop and the care with which he treated his collection. The relief came from the discovery that he was not the thief, that Hannibal would not have to kill him.

"Where did you have the brush displayed?" Will asked.

"Just here. In the counter."

In Will’s mind, Hannibal closed the book and handed it back to Amsel. He took off the gloves. When he set them down, he looked past them and saw the brush.

"You said Eastern Europe. Could it have been made in Lithuania?"

"It’s not unlikely. I can’t say for certain, but the region is known for its amber."

Hannibal had been looking for some way to keep Mischa’s hair, and he stumbled onto this confluence of the past. Of course he bought it. Both a gift and a souvenir.

"You wouldn’t sell the book," Will said.

"No. It’s not for sale. Finding one copy was difficult enough." Amsel paused. "He did find the one he was looking for?"

"Yeah. He found it."

And now Will needed to find it too.

Chapter Text

Will checked Hannibal’s house for the book first, but everything was gone except the furniture. He walked into the lab at the BAU and came to stand beside Beverly. She and Zeller were contemplating a man without a head.

"No dental," Zeller said. "Obviously."

"No fingerprints," Beverly said.

"Probably worn off by extensive contact with pineapples," Price called from across the room. He sounded gleeful. Ardelia stood next to him, both of them jostling to get a view through the microscope.

"Hannibal’s books. What happened to them?"

"Storeroom," Price said. "One level down from here, room 86a."

"Has anyone been through them?"

"I started to when you were still in the hospital," Ardelia said. "The second time. But I never got through them all."

"You can meet me down there when you’re done," Will said, but she left Price and followed him out of the room.

"What are we looking for?"

"A German book called Lifecycle of the Glass Butterfly by Werner Amsel. It’s got a cocoon on the cover."

Will swiped his keycard through the lock on room 86a. It beeped, showed a green light, and let them inside.

"Shit," Ardelia said.

The room was stacked nearly floor to ceiling with boxes.

"One at a time," Will said. "At least they won’t be dusty. Get us some lunch, okay? I’ll get started."

She looked like she was going to argue, but apparently Beverly’s lectures about feeding Will had gotten to her as well. She nodded and left.

Will surveyed the room. Most of the boxes were stacked toward the right side. After a second, he started shifting the few on the left over to the right. They’d put the ones they’d been through on the left, and at least they’d have some kind of order. After the third box, he had to sit down. Spots swam in front of his eyes. He put his head down between his legs until they went away.

"Welcome back to the glamorous world of investigation," Zeller said from the doorway.

Will just looked at him. He’d take sorting boxes over sorting through the minds of killers any day.

Zeller stuck his hands in his pockets. "You want help?"

"What about the pineapple guy?"

"He’s got a tattoo on his ass. We’re running a search."

Beverly followed a few minutes later, and then Price and Ardelia with soggy cafeteria sandwiches and chips for everyone. They ate on the floor, lunch spread out on the top of a box. Will imagined Hannibal’s outrage at both the food and the treatment of his books and found it hard to swallow.

"You okay?" Beverly asked.

"He would hate this."

Silence for a moment, the usual awkward sort that followed when Will reminded them that Hannibal was a real person and not just a collection of violent nightmares.

And then Price said, "Who wouldn’t? People going through his things. I’d hate it. Anyone would."

The gratitude Will felt was almost too much to bear.

The first day got them halfway through. They switched off the lights around six and went home. "He could’ve opened a library instead of killing people," Beverly said.

"He would’ve had to let other people touch his stuff," Zeller said.

And Will, walking just behind them, was shaken by the familiarity in their words. They didn’t know Hannibal. They’d never met him. But they knew him now, through Will, and not only the darkness and horror in him.

He went home that night to his quiet house and his dogs, and he set the table for two. The stag stood across from him and watched him while he ate.

*

The next morning, Will came in before anyone else. The janitor was still running a floor buffer along the sub-basement corridor when he reached room 86a. They nodded to each other, and Will went inside.

More boxes, more books. More hours spent stooping until his back ached. More strain on his weakened body. His heart beat too fast. He kept going, lured by victory just out of reach.

He found the book just before eight. His lungs seized at the sight of it. He touched the gold cocoon on the cover and opened it quickly to see the inscription.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor. He shoved the book into his jacket pocket and dropped the jacket in a corner.

The lock beeped, and Jack leaned in the door. "How’s it going, Will?" he asked. He had a way of making his questions sound like threats.

"It’d go faster if you wanted to help."

Jack looked at him for a second and then he came in, took off his suit jacket, and got to work. Will resisted the urge to ask him if he didn’t have anything better to do. He was the head of BAU. He definitely had better things to do.

"How is she?" Will asked.

Jack paused and then thumped the next box of books down on the floor hard. "Worse," he said.

"I’m sorry."

They worked in silence.

"I want to take her away somewhere," Jack said, so quietly he might’ve been talking to himself. "If we can just get this wrapped up."

"I’m doing my best, Jack."

"I know you are. I know." More books, piled one on top of the next. "We met in Italy. I’d like to take her there."

"Don’t wait for this to be over."

"I have to. I’ve been looking for him for ten years. I was eating at his table. I have to finish this."

"I’ll find him," Will said. "I’ll finish it."

"I know you’ll find him. I just wonder what you’ll do when you find him."

They kept sorting books until the last box was empty.

*

At home that night, in his empty house, Will took the book from his jacket pocket. He didn’t have white cotton gloves, but he did have latex. He wore them, less because of any concern for evidence than for fear of damaging something precious.

He ran a gloved finger over the inscription and then he went to get his computer. An online German to English translator came up with the following: To my dear friend, Count Lecter, and the depth of his roots in the soil of reality. It seemed an odd sentiment for what was essentially an early fantasy novel, but Will’s mind caught on the word roots and stuck there.

Hannibal’s family had been uprooted from their country, and Hannibal had pulled himself up again to come to America. They’d never spoken of it. Will had never asked why. He’d thought there would be time.

He turned the pages one by one. He couldn’t read the text, but the pictures were scientific illustrations of strange, transparent creatures. Not only the butterflies were made of glass. Sun shone straight through colorless leaves. The stream bed was visible through the sleek bodies of the trout that filled it.

With care, Will ruffled the pages, searching for any inclusions. A slip of paper fell out and settled on his kitchen table. A thin, elegant, feminine script covered it, and it held the faint scent of pine and old paper.

Hannibal,

I hope you are doing as well in your new life as the reports I receive suggest. You know you are welcome to return home at any time, despite our minor quarrels. Robert loves you. Of course we both do, but you are his blood, and he feels your absence keenly, especially with all hope of children of his own now long past.

Please do write again. I would so like to hear of your adventures. I’m glad the trip to Canada was satisfactory, but you must keep the book, my dear. I don’t know what good it would do either of us now, and you went to so much trouble to acquire it.

—M

The tone was cordial, but that was a hell of a brush off if Hannibal had offered her the book, a piece of his past recovered at great cost, as a gift. He scanned over it again. My dear.

He looked down at the paper, aware of the tension in his hand and afraid he had creased it. He hadn’t, but it was creased all the same. Hannibal had not been calm when he read it either.

The author of the letter had written the date and the city at the top: Paris, 25 October 2007. Will thought he might need to log onto the FBI database, but a simple web search told him that Count Robert Lecter and his wife, Murasaki, still lived in Paris. It even provided an address and a phone number.

Will tapped a finger on the letter. The paper rustled. Some digging in Hannibal’s credit card records would probably yield information on the trip to Canada and, he was afraid, the messy death of someone no longer in possession of Werner Amsel’s Lifecycle of the Glass Butterfly. He’d thought that might be the trail he was looking for, but this was better.

You went to so much trouble to acquire it.

Will wondered if she knew exactly how much trouble. He wondered about the nature of their quarrel. He picked up the phone and called Jack.

"I want to go to Paris and talk to Hannibal’s family," he said.

"What do you know, Will?"

"Nothing for certain."

"I don’t like the idea of you on your own over there."

"I can get back up from the local police."

"You can. Will you?"

"If I need to."

Jack said nothing for a long time. Will listened to the whisper of his breath and imagined he could hear the click of his eyelids. "Go," Jack said. "At least it’ll give me something else to worry about."

"Can I help?" Will said. "With anything?"

Another long silence. "Just find him, Will. I need you to find him."

"I will."

After he’d hung up, Will sat at the table with the book and the letter and the brush laid out in front of him like relics. He needed to go through the rest of the book, needed to return the brush to evidence, needed to behave like an FBI agent. Even if he wasn’t one.

At the very least, he needed to ask Alana to look after his dogs. Cowardice won out there, and he wrote her an email. She knew him too well. He’d give too much away if he spoke to her.

After that, he sat and let his mind wander and felt the soft breath of the stag on his neck.

*

Ardelia crossed her arms and stared at him over their shared desk. "Paris all of a sudden," she said.

"It’s not that sudden."

"You found that book, didn’t you?"

"When would I have found it? You were all in there with me."

"You found it and you found something in it. Or about it. Or something. Did you show it to that antique guy?"

"It’s against the rules to remove evidence without signing for it."

Her mouth twisted in suppressed frustration. "I love how all of you seem to think I don’t know what a massive clusterfuck of rule breaking this whole investigation is."

"It’s better if you don’t know."

"I didn’t ask for protection. I’d rather have the truth."

Will looked past her and then got up to close the door. "Do you want to have to testify against me someday? Because that’s a real possibility."

"I want to know. I need to know. "

He leaned against the edge of the desk. "I found the book. I’m going to Paris. I’m taking it with me."

"Why Paris?"

"To see his family. There was a letter from his aunt in the book. I need to talk to her."

"What did it say?"

"Nothing incriminating."

"But it was suggestive. It suggested something to you, anyway."

He pulled it from his pocket and laid it on the desk. She read it over without touching it. He folded it and tucked it back inside the book.

"Do you think she knows?" Ardelia asked.

"I think she knows him. He tried to give her something that was dear to him, and she rejected it. She had a reason."

"You’re going to say no if I ask to come along, aren’t you?"

"I wouldn’t risk your life or anyone else’s."

"You should. Maybe not anyone else’s, but you should risk mine. It’s only fair." Her face was drawn, hands clutching her elbows, the shadow of guilt on her again.

"That knife was meant for me," he said. "I was going down either way."

"If he wanted you dead, all he had to do was wait. Or leave."

"The difference between killing me and letting me die from a wound someone else gave me is … vast."

In a way, he thought, she’d done him a favor. Hannibal knew what it felt like to lose him. It would make him reluctant to try it again.

"You really believe that?"

Her eyes were still fixed hard on his face. He met her gaze for a second. "I don’t blame you. I’ve never blamed you. And yeah, I think I’d probably be in the ground right now if you hadn’t shown up."

"Why are you telling me now?"

"I should’ve said it before."

"You don’t think you’re coming back, do you?"

He looked down at his hands and tried to remember how to lie. "You’re going to be fine," he said.

"I know I’m going to be fine."

That pulled a reluctant smile from him. "If I can come back, I will."

"That’s totally reassuring."

"Keep in touch with Interpol. Keep going through his stuff."

"You’re not even going to say goodbye, are you?"

"Would it help?"

She sighed. "When do you want to leave? I’ll book the flight."

*

Will landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport at ten in the morning. He took the train and emerged from under the arch of the Gare du Nord into a cold, slushy rain and a cutting wind. He hoisted his one bag onto his shoulder and walked.

Rain dripped down the back of his neck and soaked the hems and thighs of his pants. It stuck his hair to his forehead and stung his cheeks with cold. By the time he managed to hail a cab, he was already soaked through, and the driver gave him a dirty look as he climbed in. Either the cab had no heat, or the driver preferred to make his customers suffer. He drove with one window partially open.

They pulled up at last on the correct street. The pale stone houses presented flat, chilly facades, each much like the next. Slush wallowed in the gutter, and the taxi was too far away from the curb to avoid stepping in it. He climbed slippery stairs and rang the bell.

The woman who opened the door was tall and slim, silver hair swept up at the back of her neck, skin still mostly smooth except for a few fine lines around her eyes. She couldn’t be more than ten or fifteen years older than Hannibal.

Her eyes widened at the sight of him. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Will had expected indifference at best and a slammed door in his face at the worst. He wasn’t prepared for genuine concern. He’d had things to say, an order to say them in. They stumbled from his mind.

"My name’s Will Graham," he said. "I’m a friend of Hannibal’s."

She took him in, led him by the hand, and he needed the help. He was colder even than he’d realized, and he still routinely pushed his body further than it could go. The doctors told him he was still healing, but he thought he’d stopped and entered some sort of stasis, functional, but irrevocably broken.

Murasaki spread a blanket on the sofa so he wouldn’t soak the fabric. "Sit," she said. "Please. I’ll make some tea."

She drifted out, and he watched her go.

He recognized the room, though he’d never seen it before. He saw in it the evolution of Hannibal’s taste and style. But where Hannibal lived in shadows and jewel tones, Murasaki’s walls soared in pearl gray and pale blue, tall arched windows and translucent curtains that invited the light inside.

She came back with towels and a tea set on a tray. Tiny blue figures rode horses around the cups, or chopped wood, or stared up at windmills. One cup had been broken and repaired. He lifted it and held it carefully in his cold hands.

"Did Hannibal do this?"

"We repaired it together. He was so upset when he broke it, but what is broken can usually be mended and often ends up the stronger for it. You’ve come a very long way to see me, Mr. Graham."

He rubbed at his hair with a towel. "Just Will, ma’am."

"If we are to be informal, then you must call me by my name." She smiled, and her eyes shone, and for a moment she looked very young. She poured tea for him into Hannibal’s broken cup. "Or Aunt, I suppose."

He took a sip and let the steam warm his face. "Hannibal said something about me."

"He does still write to me occasionally. He said he’d met someone. He never told me your name, but who else would come so far for him?"

"I have a gift he tried to give you once." And her letter, folded and tucked into his pocket, but probably better not to mention that.

Will had wrapped the book in plastic for safe keeping. He unwrapped it now and set it on the table next to the tea set. Murasaki let her hand hover over it for a moment, but she didn’t touch it.

"I refused his gift. He did not write to me again for many years."

"But he did write you again?"

"I think he forgave me, in his own way. Or perhaps he merely chose to forget."

"He never forgets anything."

"No. I suppose he doesn’t." They both heard the clang of a bell from upstairs. Murasaki turned toward it, made as if to rise, and then remembered herself. Will had the feeling he had vanished from her mind entirely for a moment. "My husband isn’t well," she said. "If you’ll excuse me for a moment?"

“Of course.”

She rose and left the room.

Will drank his tea and tried to imagine Hannibal in this place, tried to imagine him as a child at all. He pictured him hiding in corners, like something used to being hunted. Like Will had done himself when he first visited Hannibal’s office.

Murasaki reappeared, but paused in the doorway. "Robert would like to see you. And the book. Will you come?"

He followed her up a wide, bright staircase. The window at the first landing showed a back garden pounded by the winter rain, painted in gray and brown, but with its bones intact. Hedges and trees shaped it and gave it form, and a metal sculpture stood under a small willow. Will paused, his fingertips on the cold glass.

"Yes," Murasaki said. "It’s his. He made it when he was sixteen. He was an extraordinary child."

It was the feathered stag, carved from blackened metal and looking up at Will as if it had been waiting for him. Its eyes were some dark, glowing material that Will couldn’t place, and its steel feathers seemed to move with the lashing rain.

Murasaki laid a hand on his elbow. "Come and sit down, my dear," she said gently. "You don’t look well."

Will swallowed and finally tore his eyes away from the sculpture. "I’m sorry, I – there was an accident, surgery. I’m not – I’ll be fine."

She urged him up the stairs. "Do you think I don’t read the papers, Will? I know what Hannibal has done, and I know what was done to you."

Of course she knew. He’d known it had been in the news in most of the world, though nowhere as heavily covered as in the Chesapeake Ripper’s stomping ground. He’d known and planned what to say to her, and then he’d stepped inside and so thoroughly into a world of the past – Hannibal’s and his own – that the present had slipped away from him.

"I’m sorry," he said.

She said nothing and led him to Robert Lecter’s room. It was the darkest of the rooms Will had seen so far, despite the lamps that crowded small tables and the dripping candles lit at his bedside. Robert was older than Murasaki, and it showed in the thin skin of his face and the comparative prominence of his bones.

Will stopped in the doorway with the book held tight to his stomach. His chest ached. Robert’s eyes, the sharp angles of his face, the curve of his mouth, were all too familiar.

"I suppose I do look like him then," Robert said. "Or he looks like me." He paused for breath with impatience that was also painfully familiar to Will. "The resemblance was not so striking when he was a boy, and I haven’t seen him since then."

"You could be his father," Will said.

"I couldn’t though." Robert nodded to a portrait that hung on the far wall. "That’s my brother."

The man was a stranger. Will could see nothing of Hannibal, or of Robert, in him. Broad and blond with a flat nose, he stared out at the world from a background of smeared paint and looming shadows.

"Did Hannibal paint this?"

"No, this is one of mine," Robert said. "Hannibal’s work was always more technical. Mechanical, though I hate to say it. He had great ability and little soul."

Will thought of the feathered stag in the garden, but said nothing. He sat in the chair Murasaki indicated and laid the book on Robert’s bed.

"Where did you get this? Or I should say, where did he get this, for I suppose it is his?"

"Yes. Somewhere in Canada. Beyond that we don’t know."

"Are you looking for a lover or for a fugitive, Mr. Graham?" Robert said. He didn’t have Hannibal’s uncanny way of pinning Will’s soul to a board with one look, but the expression’s familiarity had a similar pull. It made Will want to confess things he knew he should keep quiet.

"I don’t know," he said. "Both. I can’t find one without the other."

"And you come to us. Why?"

"Because there are some things a person can’t leave behind, even when he’s running for his life."

Robert kept his eyes on Will a moment longer and then looked down at the book. He opened it to the middle. "Do you read German, Mr. Graham?"

"No, sir."

Robert began to read, translating as he went, voice thin, pausing every few words for breath. "Its wings unfold and bear for a time the network of tiny cracks with which they formed. Every pattern is different, and, though they fade from view, if the wings are to shatter, they always break along those invisible fault lines. I wonder that he did not send this back to us. It ought to be in the library."

Will didn’t look at Murasaki. She’d never told Robert about the book. There were probably a number of things she hadn’t told him about Hannibal. "It’s yours," Will said. "Keep it."

"It’s not evidence?"

"It’s not listed on the evidence inventory from his house, no." He’d made sure of that before he left, but there’d been no problem. Only about half the book titles had been recorded before they got stuck in a sub-basement to wait for him.

Robert shifted under the bedclothes. "I understand we share a similar betrayal."

"I’m sorry?"

Robert thumped his chest and then coughed. "The heart. Mine went bad without any outside assistance, but you had help." He coughed again and laid his head back on the pillow. "I’m sorry for what Hannibal has done, Mr. Graham. If we can help—" He coughed again, and this time he couldn’t stop until Murasaki held a cup to his lips and helped him drink.

"Anything you need," she said to Will. "Oh, and you must come to the party, of course."

*

He called Beverly that night.

"Where the hell are you?" she said. "I called the hotel and they said you never checked in."

"I went to see the Lecters first. They invited me to stay."

"Ooh la la. Voulez vous coucher dans le bed?"

"Did you just ask me if I’m sleeping in a bed?"

"Maybe? Not sure. I’m guessing you are though. They don’t seem like fold-out couch people."

"It’s got a canopy."

"Wow. How will you tear yourself away, Princess William?"

He flinched a little at that, though he knew she meant nothing by it. "It gets weirder. We’re leaving tomorrow for their country house."

"Because they have a country house."

"They also have a masquerade ball at the country house every winter. I’m just in time."

He remembered Hannibal mentioning it. Wearing a costume and learning to be someone else, someone predisposed to enjoy parties. He didn’t think he’d be able to manage the same trick.

She let out a low whistle. "Now I regret the Princess William joke. I should’ve waited and gone with Cinderella."

"You couldn’t have known." He paused. "How’s Jack?"

"He’s Jack. Why?"

"Just keep an eye on him, okay?"

"Well that’s not ominous or worrying at all."

"I just don’t want him to do anything he’ll regret."

"Like what?"

"Anything."

She sighed. "Any news for him? He’ll ask."

"You can tell him the Lecters weren’t surprised. Maybe they didn’t know exactly what Hannibal was doing, but they knew something. They’ve known for a long time."

"Okay. Are you doing all right? You sound better."

"Exhausted. But better, yeah."

He looked out the window. Murasaki had given him a room that overlooked the garden. Somewhere in the dark, the metal sculpture of the stag stared back at him. He hadn’t seen the living, breathing one since he left home.

"Will … if you find him, you have to call us. Or the French police. Interpol. Someone. You can’t go after him on your own. You know that, right?"

"I know it wouldn’t end well."

Suspicious silence. "Okay, good," she said, finally. "You don’t seem like a guy with a death wish, so I’m going to assume that means you won’t do anything stupid."

"I’ll try not to," he promised.

"Ardelia’s worried about you."

"So are you."

"Well, yeah, but you hate it when I say I’m worried about you. So."

"I’m going to be okay. You—" He closed his eyes. "You are too, right?"

"Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Worry about yourself."

It was the closest he could get to saying goodbye. He still didn’t know what he’d do when he found Hannibal, but Ardelia had been right. He wasn’t going back.

Chapter Text

The country house sat an hour or so outside the city. Squat turrets rose above a moat frozen into a black mirror of ice, and a yellow flag with a family crest flew from the crenellated battlements.

"It’s a replica of Lecter Castle," Murasaki said.

She sat next to him in the driver’s seat of her pale blue Mercedes. Robert would follow later, against her wishes. He’d said he’d sooner miss his own funeral than the ball, despite his health. Her tight, worried expression had reminded Will of Jack’s when he spoke of Bella, but she hadn’t raised any more objections.

"Is the original still there?"

"Oh, yes. In ruins, but still there. It was bombed during the war and partially rebuilt by the Soviets. They used it as storage facility. And later as an orphanage."

Will glanced at her. "But not …"

"I’m afraid so. Hannibal saw his ancestral home for the first time after having lost everyone he loved."

"What did he think of this place?"

"He was afraid the first time we came here. He’d been with us only for a few weeks, and he fell asleep in the car. When we arrived, he ran from us." She pointed to the distant trees. "It took us hours to find him."

"Was it – how bad was it there?"

"He has never spoken of it to me. But I have never seen him run from anything else."

Will carried her bags from the car to the front door, where a man in a plain dark suit took them from him. A maid showed him to his room. Will thought of the sad French maid joke he’d made to Hannibal, so long ago that it felt like a scene from a movie. This young woman’s uniform had a skirt well below the knee and heavy black stockings. She left him with his bag in a stone-walled room hung with tapestries. The bed had no canopy, but it did have four carved wooden posts that soared to the ceiling.

Between bedroom and bathroom sat a dressing room with a monstrous wardrobe, its door carved with scenes from a medieval hunt. A vanity with a gilt framed mirror and a velvet cushion on its stool stood opposite. He averted his eyes from the vanity, hung up his clothes, and didn’t think of the necklace he still wore wrapped around his wrist.

He stared at his few shirts and one decent suit and wondered what to wear to the ball. His laughter took him by surprise, rough and rusty, but real enough. It was an effort to school his expression when someone knocked on the door.

Murasaki called to him, and he let her in.

"Not too barbaric for you?" she asked. "Some of the tapestries are authentic, but most were lost, looted or burned during the war."

"It’s amazing."

She gave him a faint smile. "Yes, I was quite amazed the first time I saw it as well. Now, about your costume."

"I have a suit," he said. "I didn’t really come prepared for a costume party."

"Many of our guests come from abroad. We like to save them the trouble of traveling with a costume, and it’s a bit of fun as well. We hire a number every year. As you’re the first to arrive, you’ll have your pick. Come, I’ll show you the room and leave you to choose."

She took him down a hall and up a narrow spiral staircase into one of the towers. The room at the top had a bare wood floor, a massive mirror, and racks of clothing. The styles stretched from the middle ages to the Victorian era, frock coats and breeches, gold lace and ruffs, pearl beading, sparkling brooches. The men’s side of the room was more sedate than the the women’s, but even there, color bloomed among the black and gray and navy blue.

"There are garment bags in the closet there. Oh, and masks in that chest. Everyone goes masked, at least to start with. Do you have any questions?"

"What did Hannibal wear?"

She paused with her hand on the door and gave him a small smile. "I don’t know. He would never tell me, and he never unmasked himself. The first year I believe I spotted him, but he is an exceptional mimic, and with that one experience behind him, he became invisible even to me."

"What was he that first year?"

"He wore all black. A black suit and shirt and gloves, and a plague doctor’s mask. You know those?"

"Yes."

"He stood out in it if only because none of the other children would wear such a thing. They found it frightening."

"But he wasn’t frightened."

"No," she said, eyes downcast. "Hannibal was seldom frightened of anything." She turned and left the room.

On his own, Will stared blindly through the clothes and into the past. Hannibal covering his solemn child’s face with the distancing horror of the plague doctor’s mask.

A sound from below jerked him back to the present. He looked down from the tower window and saw a car pull up. More guests arriving. He needed to pick something to wear and get out.

He flipped through the rack on the right, the suits, and found something in his size. Plain and unrelieved gray from head to foot. It would suit his mood and the fog in his mind. He turned and marched toward the door with every intention of leaving, of being sensible, of not betraying himself.

The other side of the room glowed with color. He stood with his hand on the doorknob and his eyes closed against temptation. Hannibal had told him that everyone wore masks, that to assume one deliberately shouldn’t seem so strange.

It was too much. Temptation began to seem like opportunity, and he turned toward the long rack of dresses, longer than the other because these took up so much more room. Some were slips of silk that would’ve folded up into the palm of his hand, but some spread out to either side, massive bustled skirts crusted with beads and shining in the light.

He could hardly bear to touch them. Once he’d started, he could hardly bear to stop. His choice was limited by what he thought he could put on successfully by himself, but there were still too many. He went through them like pages in a disjointed book, skipping from one era to the next, from sultry to innocent to severe.

At last, he paused and slid his hand down over cream silk. Black beading covered the sleeves and bodice and cascaded down to fade out just below the waist. It glistened like someone had poured liquid darkness over it.

Voices from below pulled him out of his thoughts again and set his heart pounding. He took it from the hanger, checked the size, and tucked it quickly into the garment bag alongside the suit. His hands had looked jarringly rough against the silk, and he found gloves to cover them. Silk slippers followed and, finally, a plague doctor’s mask, the only one in the chest. He didn’t know if he meant to wear it or if it was only that he didn’t want to see it on anyone else.

*

That night, he laid it all out on the bed and locked his door. The gray suit, the black and white dress. The plague doctor’s beak.

His world had taken on undertones of fantasy when Hannibal moved into it. The impossible seemed probable. Things he’d never let himself consider became imperative.

The bathroom had a heated floor and a massive copper tub. He filled it and sank into it up to his chin. The spinel necklace hung around his neck, warm and heavy in the hot water. When he emerged, he shaved carefully, twice, and slicked his hair back from his face with both hands.

He sat down at the vanity. His reflection in the mirror looked startled and painfully young. It was like looking into his own past, or maybe into a past he’d never had. An easier life.

He drifted into the bedroom in a cloud of steam and pulled the dress over his head. He had nothing appropriate to wear underneath and so he wore only skin. The silk touched him intimately, the memory of careful hands on his thighs and stomach and back.

He studied himself in the mirror. High necked and long sleeved, the dress concealed a lot, but it had still been built for someone with breasts. There was a space that needed filling. He filled it experimentally with socks and pulled them out again. The silk robe from the closet, balled up carefully smooth and twisted in the center, was more successful.

The second look in the mirror was better than the first. With the gloves on, from the neck down, he might’ve been a different person. Hannibal’s voice in his head: Who would you prefer to be?

He didn’t have an answer.

When he put on the plague doctor’s mask, he disappeared entirely. It covered his face, and the straps fastened at the back of his head like a muzzle. He could see out through the screen eyeholes, but no one could see in.

He turned and turned before the mirror, moved his limbs to see them move in concert, unrecognizable even to himself.

A gong sounded, low and brassy: the start of the festivities. To Will it felt like the beginning of a religious rite. Something that would end in sacrifice. He held his skirts in one hand so he wouldn’t trip and stepped out into the hall.

People filed out from their rooms, laughing and talking. Voices exclaimed over costumes. A woman, or someone wearing a dress, asked after her husband: "Have you seen him? He said I wouldn’t know him tonight."

Will followed the general flow down the stairs and into the public rooms below. The ballroom had been cleared for dancing with a string quartet, also masked, in one corner. The salon had tables set up with food and wine and champagne, salmon roe and yellow melon, stuffed mushrooms and tiny chocolates and bowls full of sugared flowers.

With a jolt, Will recognized the labels on the wine: the same as the bottle Hannibal had brought to his house the first time. A taste of home.

In the ballroom, he watched from a corner as the dancers swirled over the parquet floor. He saw autumn leaves caught in a wind storm, flowers shaken from the branches of spring.

A hand slid down his arm and jolted him awake. A man stood next to him, too short to be Hannibal. He said something in French. Will shook his head. He knew more than he had three months ago, but not enough.

"English?" the man said. "May I have this dance, my lady?"

Will looked at his offered hand, at the dancers, at the pantomime of freedom being acted out around him. He nodded once and let the man lead him onto the dance floor.

"My name is Armand, at least for tonight," he said with a smile. "What may I call you?"

Will shook his head slowly, swinging the beak of the plague doctor’s mask from side to side.

"You won’t speak? Well, you don’t need to."

Armand pulled him closer, and Will let him. The hand on his waist felt hot and heavy and larger than it possibly could be. He watched Armand’s body carefully and found the cues that would let him follow the dance, the shift and lean as the music guided him, something like riding on the back of a motorcycle, but with far more chance of falling.

The dance ended, and someone else took Will’s hand. He let it happen, went onto the dance floor with whoever wanted him, closed his eyes and moved in silence, barricaded behind the mask.

Soon enough, his feet ached, and he felt hot under his layers of silk and leather. Parched, he made his way to the edge of the floor. Armand was there waiting to press a glass of champagne into his hand with a smile.

"Come outside," he said. "Let me show you the stars."

Will went with him. Outside, on the dark terrace, he pushed up the mask enough to drink. Oil heaters burned at each corner, and lanterns hung from the trellised roof along with climbing roses. A few blossoms still held on, wrinkled and bleached by the winter.

Armand put a hand on his back and pointed up. "Do you know Orion?" he said.

Will smiled a little. "I know the stars," he said. He spoke softly, voice toward the upper end of his register. Still not terribly convincing in his opinion, but apparently it was good enough.

"You still came out with me," Armand said.

"Don’t read too much into it. It was getting stuffy in there."

"Well, if you will cover up so very thoroughly, you have only yourself to blame. That mask cannot be comfortable. Won’t you take it off?"

"You wouldn’t want me to."

"I think you’re wrong."

"Aren’t you afraid of what you might see?"

"How could I be afraid of such obvious beauty?"

"Beauty doesn’t wear a mask."

"I disagree. These affairs of the Count’s, you know, they’re quite revealing. It’s strange to see what people will do when given complete freedom. So often they choose to be something they’re not."

"Sorry. In real life, there’s no prize for picking the ugly duckling."

"I wasn’t looking for one. I thought only that you sought distance, and I wondered why."

Will looked out into the shadows and saw nothing, no stag, no liquid darkness, nothing but a cold night that would fade into a cold, gray morning. The charade lost its shine all at once, and he wished he’d worn the suit. Or stayed in his room.

He pulled off the mask and turned toward the light so that Armand couldn’t miss what he was showing him. "Sometimes distance is there for a reason," he said.

Armand’s eyebrows rose, but he didn’t look offended and he didn’t turn to leave. "I knew you’d be something," he said. "Can I get you another glass of champagne?"

Will frowned at him. "I’m not interested," he said.

"You seemed interested enough when we were dancing." Armand took his hand and stepped closer. "Perhaps I can convince you to be interested again."

"I don’t think so."

"But you must at least give me the chance to try. That’s only sporting."

"I don’t care about sporting," Will said.

Armand grasped his arm, and Will looked down at his hand in irritation. Sweaty palm marks on his dress.

"You owe me something," Armand said. "Come now. Be reasonable. Has anyone else gone to this much trouble for you?"

Will laughed, which was clearly not the expected response. Armand drew himself up, chest stuck out, drawing breath to reply.

The shadows behind Armand moved and gave birth to a dark, familiar form. "I would choose your next words with care if I were you," Hannibal said.

He was dressed all in scarlet, with a mask in the shape of a skull and a dark and glittering crown on his head. The crown elongated in front of Will’s eyes, and jeweled antlers rose to block out the stars.

Armand started visibly and whirled around, stumbling. "Who—" A shaky laugh. "My god, monsieur. What are you wearing? Are you the Devil?"

Hannibal stepped closer, and Armand stepped back. "Yes," he said. "I am."

Will held his breath. His fist tightened around the beak of his mask until he felt it start to give.

Armand muttered something, gave Will a short bow, and retreated toward the doors in a hurry.

Hannibal turned toward Will. His hand rose an inch and then sank again. After a moment, he stepped close enough to touch Will’s necklace.

"You kept this," he said.

"I got rid of everything else."

"But you kept this."

"How did you know I’d be here?"

"Tattlecrime reported your trip to France. I knew who you must be coming to see." Music poured out onto the patio. Armand had left the doors open in his flight. Hannibal held out his hand. "Shall we?"

Will stepped into Hannibal’s arms, not to dance, simply to hold on. Hannibal held him tight, and his breath shook against Will’s cheek.

"I have missed you, my dear," he said.

"You left me."

"I’m sorry."

Will let the mask fall to the ground and held onto the back of Hannibal’s red cape with both hands. Hannibal moved them in time with the music, slow steps, lips brushing Will’s neck and ear.

"You look lovely."

"I should call the police."

"Will you?"

He knew he wouldn’t, and Hannibal knew he wouldn’t. "When did you know it was me? Were you watching?"

"I knew as soon as I saw the mask."

"I didn’t see you."

"You weren’t looking for me. You didn’t truly believe I would come."

"It’s stupid for you to be here. You’re not stupid."

"Not usually."

Hannibal took his hand and put an inch of space between them. The music swelled into a waltz. They moved through the notes, but Will barely heard them. He heard Hannibal’s breath and their footfalls and the unspoken things between them.

"You shouldn’t have killed him," Will said.

Hannibal stroked his cheek. "I couldn’t help myself."

Will closed his eyes after that. They moved through the flickering light of the lanterns. The shadows in between seemed impossibly cold. Will shivered, and Hannibal drew him still closer. At last, Will had to stop. Their dance stuttered to a halt, and the music went on without them.

"Sorry," he said. "I still get tired."

"Let me walk you to your room."

Hannibal took his hand and led him around the side of the house. They went in through a side door near the kitchens and up a narrow, steep staircase unadorned with tapestries, carvings, or anything but dust.

"The house is shut up most of the year now," Hannibal said. "Even the servants have forgotten this path I think." He looked down at their footprints in the grime on the stairs with disapproval.

When they reached the second floor, he paused. "Which one is yours?"

"You don’t know?"

"I only reached France tonight. I came close to missing you entirely."

"You wouldn’t have missed me forever. I was looking for you."

"And now that you have found me?"

Will laced their fingers together and pulled him down the hall to his room. Hannibal stopped just inside while Will shut and locked the door, either to keep the world out or to keep Hannibal in. He couldn’t have said which carried more weight at the moment.

"This was my room," Hannibal said. "The first year we came to this place. After that I slept in the attic."

"Why?"

"Have you seen the bath?"

Will frowned. "Yeah? I thought it was pretty nice."

Hannibal touched his cheek. "It is," he said. "I wish I had seen you in it. It would be a pleasant memory to carry with me."

"What other memory do you want to paint over?"

Hannibal looked past him into the shadows that had gathered in the corners of the room. He turned on a lamp.

Will caught his hand before he could turn away. "Hannibal." He swallowed. The question welled up like a spring from the bottom of his mind. "What happened to your parents?"

"They died. As I told you."

"Who killed them?"

Hannibal took Will’s hand in both of his and raised it to his lips. "You know that, I think, or you would not ask."

"Why did you do it?"

"Because my father was a monster, and my mother made herself complicit in his crimes."

"He hurt your sister?"

"When a grown man strikes a child that small, the bruise will cover half the face. Easily." Hannibal spread his fingers out over Will’s cheek. "A piebald child. Half one thing and half the other. Half to play in the sun and draw with my pencils, half always crying in the dark."

"But you didn’t cry."

"I think you learned at least as early as I did that there is no comfort in tears."

"No use either."

"It’s better to act."

"Usually."

Hannibal’s eyes narrowed. "Now you judge me?"

"I wish I’d been there."

"You could have done nothing. You would have changed nothing."

"But you wouldn’t have been alone."

"I wasn’t alone," Hannibal said. "Not until she was taken from me."

"Did you punish the people who took her?"

"Yes. Years later. I came back for them."

"Did you find satisfaction?" Will asked.

"Is there any satisfaction to be had in this world?"

"Not that I’ve found."

They watched each other. Hannibal’s hands on either side of Will’s face barely brushed the skin, and the care Hannibal put into the first press of lips made Will’s chest ache. He held onto Hannibal’s shoulders. One kiss slid into another. The heat of Hannibal’s mouth stole his breath.

Hannibal rested for a moment with his forehead against Will’s, noses brushing, and then he slid down to kneel at Will’s feet. He held up one hand. The ring lay shining in the center of his palm.

"Take it," he said. "Even if you don’t wish to see me again. It’s meant for you."

Will’s hand hovered over it. He touched Hannibal’s fingertips with his own. "Where did it come from?"

"My family’s house. I got it back at the same time I retrieved the book."

"You didn’t send this to Murasaki."

Hannibal looked up at him. "No. I didn’t."

Police sirens started to whine in the distance. For a moment Hannibal’s eyes stayed on Will, but the sirens grew louder, and then louder still.

Will shook his head quickly. "I didn’t call them."

Hannibal stood and strode to the window. "But here they are."

"Maybe they’re not here for you."

"And maybe my family has betrayed me once again." He turned to Will. "I must go."

"I know."

Hannibal’s eyes glowed red as the lights of the police cars splashed once across his face and shut off. In the darkness, he looked abruptly weary.

"Goodbye, Will." He said it like he meant it, and he turned for the door without looking back.

Will grabbed his wrist. "Give it to me. The ring. I want it."

They both moved too quickly, wanting too much. The ring fell and skittered across the floor. Will dropped to his knees to catch it and stayed there, transfixed, while Hannibal slid it onto his finger. They stared at each other, Will’s hand caught in both of Hannibal’s.

"Go," Will said.

They could both hear footsteps.

Hannibal leaned in and kissed him, a tender brush of lips over Will’s mouth and cheek and under his eye. "I don’t want to leave you again."

"You have to," Will said. "Please go."

"My dear," Hannibal murmured, kissed him once more, and slipped out the door.

Chapter Text

When the police pounded on his door, Will ignored it. When they broke it in, he shouted his outrage. They ignored him, of course, and searched the room, the bathroom, the wardrobe. Hannibal was long gone, down the secret staircase and away. Will had yanked off the ring and stuck it down the front of his dress. He could feel it there, a warm circle against his skin, as they moved around him.

Will stood still in his dress and watched them and wondered that he didn’t feel more self conscious. Seeing Hannibal again had driven every other fear from his mind.

An inspector arrived. Armand was led into the room to identify Will, more than half drunk, complaining of his bad luck.

"Yes, yes," Armand said. "He threw me over for the Devil himself, but what can you do? It’s not a crime."

"Did you speak long to the Devil, Mr. Graham?" the inspector asked, eyebrow raised.

"Not long. I got tired. I came back to my room."

"Alone?"

"Alone."

"The Devil did not accompany you?"

"Only in a figurative sense. We’re all beset by devils, aren’t we?"

The inspector glowered and sat on the end of Will’s bed. "This isn’t a joke, Mr. Graham. This is not funny to me at all, I assure you."

"I don’t even know what you’re accusing me of, Inspector."

He squinted at Will through small round glasses. "Did you see Hannibal Lecter tonight?"

"I came to France to find Hannibal Lecter and bring him to justice. Not to dance with him."

"Yes. The Lady Murasaki said you were with the FBI. She also said Hannibal Lecter was your lover. And you are the one the FBI chose to send after him?"

Murasaki had called them. He hoped Hannibal never found out. And part of him hoped that he would. "No one knows him better," he said.

A policeman opened the door and brandished a phone respectfully in the inspector’s direction. He left the room to take the call and returned less than a minute later with a dark expression and the phone extended toward Will.

"For you," he said.

Will took it. "Hello?"

"It’s Jack. What the hell happened?"

"A misunderstanding," Will said.

"I’m gonna need more than that."

"Hannibal’s aunt thought she saw him and called the police."

"Thought she saw him with you."

"If you know what happened, why are you asking me?"

"I wasn’t sure this was a good idea, Will, and I’m less sure now. Are you telling me the truth? I need you to be truthful with me. I haven’t asked what you’ll do when you find him. If I asked you that, would you have an answer?"

Will’s silence hung on the line, beads of water on spider silk stretching across the ocean. The most tenuous of connections.

"I should tell you to come home," Jack said.

"Probably."

"Would you?"

"No. I have to find him."

"Whatever it costs you."

"Yes."

Another long pause. "Did you see him tonight, Will?"

Will turned away from the inspector and looked out the window at the driveway, now lit up and scattered with policemen and departing guests. "Yes," he said.

"Are you armed?"

"I don’t think I’m allowed to carry a weapon in the US anymore, let alone here."

Another silence. "I’m taking Bella to Italy," Jack said.

"Good."

"I want you to meet me there."

"Jack …"

"If you find him, I want you to be prepared. We can work something out. I still know people in Rome." A long pause. "I understand if you don’t want to bring him home."

Will said nothing. The words emptied his head entirely for a moment and then filled it too full. "I should go now," he heard himself say.

"I’ll see you soon."

Will ignored the inspector’s reaching hand and pressed the disconnect button. Jack shouldn’t be talking to anyone else right now. He passed the phone back, and it rang again immediately. The inspector shouted into it for a minute or two and then went abruptly quiet.

Will sank down onto the end of the bed. Jack wanted him to have a gun. Jack would understand if he didn’t bring Hannibal home for trial.

"Mr. Graham."

Will looked up, blinking. "What?"

"Against my better judgment, you are free to go."

"Am I free to go to sleep? You’re in my room. I wasn’t planning to leave."

"We will keep a watch on the house."

"Of course."

The inspector sniffed and marched out of the room.

Alone, Will lay back on the bed. The world turned around him, and his mind seemed to turn in the opposite direction. He reached down inside the dress, found the ring again, and slid it back onto his finger.

*

He ate breakfast with Robert Lecter: croissants and raspberry jam the color of rubies, strong coffee, and green grapes. They sat next to a wall of windows that seemed out of place in the replica castle. Robert had a blanket tucked over his legs and dark circles under his eyes.

"Did you go to the party?" Will asked him.

"Oh, yes. I sat in a corner for an hour or two. I was too old for dancing even before my heart decided to betray me, but I wouldn’t miss it. Did you enjoy yourself?"

"I’m not sure how to answer that."

"Honestly."

Will looked down at his hands for a second. "Yes. Very much."

"My wife had such hopes for him."

"You didn’t?"

Robert shrugged, a stiff, uneasy movement. "I suppose I was foolish enough to want an heir, and it was clear from the first that he would never be that, not the sort to stay home and take over the family business, so speak. He’ll inherit, of course – well, not now." Robert took a sip of coffee and winced at the heat. "He’ll still get the title. I’ll have to make arrangements for the estate. I suppose he has no bastards?"

"None that I know of. I don’t think it’s likely."

"No. He’d be careful. He was always a careful child. No one takes such care with their actions unless they have something to conceal."

"Was he concealing something even then?"

"He concealed everything. He lived with us for five years, and neither of us ever really knew him, though she was closer to him than I was."

"Did something happen when Hannibal lived with you?"

Robert looked out the window. The sun seemed too bright for him, and he turned away. "There was a death in the village," he said. "I was ill at the time. I couldn’t tell you what happened. Perhaps it began there."

"You never asked Murasaki about it?"

"I didn’t wish to cause her more pain. She feels responsible."

"You don’t?"

"I paint. And I love my wife. And, as the shadows of my life lengthen, I try not to nurse my regrets."

*

After breakfast, Will walked with Murasaki in the garden.

"I imagine you are angry with me," she said.

"For calling the police? Anyone would’ve done it."

"He’s my family."

"You care for him."

"Of course I do. Very much."

The early frost clung to the grass and turned it silver. Sun touched Murasaki’s hair and made it shine like gold.

"He loved you," Will said quietly.

She shook her head sharply. "An idea of me, perhaps, long ago. I don’t believe he’s ever known another human being well enough to truly love them. He never steps outside the confines of his own mind. He lives there and builds palaces in the past."

"You did the right thing," Will said.

She pressed a hand to her mouth. The tips of her fingers went pale with pressure, but her face was as expressionless as Hannibal’s. "How can you say that? You of all people."

"He’s a predator. He isn’t safe around people. Putting him in prison would save lives."

"A predator," she murmured. "Not a murderer?"

"Murderers kill for money or love or power. For motive."

"Predators kill for food. And because they cannot stop. It is in their nature."

"Yes."

She took his arm, hand tight at the crook of his elbow. He could feel her trembling. "You mean to keep looking for him."

"Yes."

"What will you do when you find him?"

"I don’t know."

"Please don’t kill him," she said softly. "I have no right to ask for anything, but if he has never loved me, I have always loved him."

"You’d rather see him in prison?"

"He would live inside his mind. He already does. It wouldn’t touch him. Nothing touches him."

They walked on, a full circuit of the castle. Murasaki had begun to shiver. Will draped his coat over her shoulders. He knew she wasn’t ready to go back inside. She had more to say.

"Do you love him?" she asked.

"Yes."

They passed a small pond and stopped at its far edge. The footprints of a deer ran from the frozen mud out onto the ice.

"Did he ever speak to you of the house where he grew up?"

"He spoke of a house in the woods."

"Yes. Robert and I went there after Lithuania’s independence. The government was selling off property that they considered abandoned, and we didn’t want Hannibal’s childhood taken from him. Robert spoke to someone about the castle as well, though I fear that’s a lost cause."

"You couldn’t get it back?"

"It’s still under consideration. I imagine it will still be under consideration by the time Robert and I are dead. Hannibal’s claim is stronger, but he doesn’t seem to want it."

"Understandable."

"Yes, I suppose. But I hate to see his past in the hands of strangers."

"Can you tell me where the house is? I’d like to see it."

She was quiet, looking back at the castle.

"I won’t hurt him," Will said.

She shook herself and tugged him back toward the house. "I can draw you a map from Kaunas. The trains are good. You’ll have no trouble getting there."

"Thank you."

Inside, she drew him a map and wrote down directions. She folded them into Lifecycle of the Glass Butterfly and slid it across the table to him.

"This is yours," Will said.

"Take it. Have you looked in the back?" she asked.

He shook his head. He’d fixated on the letter and never gotten that far. He looked now and saw a blobby brown bird, drawing by a child’s inexpert hand. "Did he draw this?"

"You should ask him."

*

Will stayed a few days longer at the castle, until the police had decided Hannibal wouldn’t be back. They left for Paris, and the Lecters prepared to do the same.

He deleted Jack’s email with its Italian address and left his phone in a trash can outside the train station. He got on the next train out of France and started picking his way across Europe.

*

The house sat an hour out of Kaunas, surrounded by the forest of Hannibal’s childhood. The structure was still sound. Murasaki had provided a key, and the lock opened with little protest.

The weather had grown gradually colder, and now the snow lay six inches deep all around him. The chill bit at his fingers. He’d bought supplies in Kaunas, including firewood, but he was happy to find more in a barn out back.

He lit the stove and hoped nothing had nested in the chimney. The fire crackled cheerfully. The small house began to warm. Frost melted on the inside of the walls and windows. After half an hour, Will could take off his coat.

He found no refrigerator, and the electricity was off anyway. No cellar, but there was a sort of pantry that stayed more than cold enough with the door closed. He put the vegetables and cheese and meat he’d bought in there.

He had water, a broom, a mop. Vinegar and cleaning rags. He didn’t know how long he might be here. Better to have the place comfortable, for him if for no one else. He wiped away the dust of years and scrubbed until the sun had set and the only light he had came from kerosene lamps.

He ate bread and cheese for dinner and made a bed on the floor. Sleep came with shocking ease, but he woke in the middle of the night, almost paralyzed with cold. The stove had gone out.

He fed it with shaking hands and crouched close to it while it flared to life again. The temptation to lay his fingers on hot metal was strong. His hands were so cold that they ached. He pulled the blankets around him and sat cross legged, as close as he could get without burning himself.

The door creaked open behind him.

"It needs to be banked for the night with ash," Hannibal said. "You mustn’t let it die."

"Are you hungry?" Will asked.

Hannibal bent over him and kissed the top of his head. "I’ve eaten, but make me some coffee."

Will left him with the blankets and got the coffee, the coffee pot, another bottle of water. He set the pot on the stove to boil and settled back on the floor. Hannibal put an arm around him. He tucked the blankets over Will’s lap and pulled him close.

"In the morning, I’ll look at the pump," he said.

"Do you know anything about plumbing?" Will tried not to sound skeptical.

"It’s likely the same one we used when I was a child."

"Will it work in the winter?"

"We didn’t usually stay here so late in the year. But I expect it will."

Will put his head on Hannibal’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

"How did you know I would come?" Hannibal said.

"Where else would you go?"

The kettle began to whistle. Will took it off the stove and added the coffee grounds. A brief search of the cupboards yielded pink mugs with a brown leaf pattern on them. Will held one up to Hannibal with a questioning look.

Hannibal shook his head. "Not ours. Someone else has lived here. Within the past few years, I would say. There is little of the decay I feared, and I believe there have been some improvements."

Will hoped one of the improvements was insulation in the pump housing, or he’d be heading back to town for more water in a day or two, whatever Hannibal thought.

He poured coffee. Hannibal fed the fire.

"We could use some more wood," Will said.

Hannibal glanced toward the door. Wind banged against the storm shutters. "I’m sure it can wait until morning."

"You think? We’re running pretty low."

Hannibal looked at the remaining wood and then at the door again. "If we run out, I’ll go then."

Will hid a smile and handed him his coffee. "Whatever you say."

Hannibal pulled him back down into the nest of blankets, close against his side. Will settled into his warmth with a sigh. He cupped his hands around the mug. Hannibal shifted until he had Will between his legs, leaning back against his chest.

He took Will’s hand and ran his thumb over the ring. "You’re wearing it."

"Why would I ask for it if I wasn’t going to wear it?"

"To take it suggests desire. To wear it suggests commitment. Those two things are often very different, particularly in a mind so divided as yours."

Will watched the warm light from the kerosene lamp glint off the diamond in flashes of Morse code as Hannibal’s thumb moved over it. He tried to imagine going home without Hannibal, living without Hannibal, living without this quiet understanding of everything he was.

He tried to imagine bringing Hannibal home with him. Hannibal rotting in prison or the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Chilton wetting himself over the opportunity to fumble around in Hannibal’s brain. Hannibal eating instant mashed potatoes and growing gray from lack of sunlight. Growing old in a ten by ten cell.

"Your mind isn’t divided," Will said.

"It is. When I think of you."

"Tell me how."

Hannibal’s hand moved over Will’s stomach and up his chest. He bent to mouth at the stubble that had grown in on Will’s neck since the ball.

"I want you," Hannibal said. "And the urge to destroy you for not wanting me is a constant pull. As is the urge to care for you. To protect you."

"You knew I had encephalitis. You knew why I was seeing things. You didn’t say a word."

"You burned so beautifully. I wanted to see what would happen."

"But you told Ardelia about it. You told her to tell the doctors. They might easily have missed it. Why did you do that, Hannibal?"

Hannibal was silent. He sipped his scalding coffee. His touch wandered over Will’s skin and finally to the hem of his shirt and underneath.

Will pushed his hand away. "Don’t."

Hannibal leaned his head against Will’s. "I did it because I did not want to watch you burn any longer. It had become painful to me. Do you believe me?"

"Why shouldn’t I? Are you lying?"

"I’m not lying. I am speaking the truth as far as I know it. But I must ask myself how far I know it. How well do we know ourselves? I never wanted to hurt you."

"I believe you."

"But I have hurt you, haven’t I?"

Will swallowed, throat tight. He nodded.

"I’ve hurt you very much," Hannibal said softly.

"Yes. Very much."

"I thought of Mischa, often, when I looked at you. I saw you drowning as she did."

"And you did nothing."

"Not nothing. I held you in the night. I said you would never be alone."

"Everybody dies alone."

"I wouldn’t have let it go so far," Hannibal said sharply.

"You didn’t mean to let it go that far with her."

Hannibal’s grip on him tightened painfully and then eased. "No. I didn’t. And perhaps I learned from that with you or perhaps I didn’t, but I can say now that I don’t wish to see you suffer."

"I don’t want to see you suffer either."

"Where does that leave us?"

"With compromise. And change."

"For both of us?"

Will nodded. He didn’t know what change would suffice or what compromise he could stand, but he thought he’d sell at least half his soul to keep this. Hannibal’s arms around him, the warmth of the stove, the woodsmoke smell, the wind howling like a lonely ghost outside.

"I have something for you," he said. He reached for his bag and pulled out the book and the brush. "I don’t have her hair. I’m sorry. It’s still at the lab."

Hannibal took them both in his hands. He stroked his palm over the bristles of the brush.

"I have the letter too," Will said quietly.

"Give it to the fire. I don’t need it. And the brush, too, I think. It has served its purpose."

Will opened the stove and pushed the letter and the brush deep into the coals. The fire smoked as the bristles burned. Hannibal drew him back to sit between his legs. Hannibal’s heat warmed him from behind, the heat of the stove from the front. He let his eyes close.

Chapter Text

Will woke to the sound of metal on metal and Hannibal cursing in French. He blinked slowly at the ceiling, not at all sure that he was really awake. "What the hell are you doing?" he called.

"The pump," Hannibal said shortly.

Will rubbed his face and stumbled into the cold pantry where he’d stuck the cheese and vegetables last night. He found Hannibal in a hole in the floor, sleeves rolled up, struggling with a rusted crank. Will watched for a couple of minutes.

"You want some help?"

"No."

"I’ll go make breakfast."

"Please do."

Will cooked eggs and rye toast in a heavy iron pan. He didn’t laugh, even when Hannibal reappeared, hair in disarray, thumbnail torn and ragged, rust and dirt smeared on his white shirt.

"Wash your hands," Will said.

Hannibal sent him a look that should’ve sliced him open from throat to abdomen, but he did wash his hands – with bottled water – before he sat down at the kitchen table. Will set out the plates and coffee.

"Hope it’s okay," he said. "I never cooked on a wood stove before."

Hannibal ate in silence for the first minute or two and then reached for Will’s hand. "It’s good," he said. "Thank you, my dear."

"WD-40," Will said. "Or the local equivalent. And I think the piston’s locked. There’s probably a catch somewhere. Maybe a shut off valve too."

"Perhaps you could show me after we eat."

"I can do it."

"I will learn."

Will chewed that over with his toast. "I like doing this stuff, you know."

"You also like it when I take care of you."

Will flushed a little. "Yeah. But."

"I want to. Change and compromise, yes?"

"But—"

"Do you really want to chop firewood and deal with recalcitrant plumbing in the dead of winter?"

Will took a bite of eggs and thought of staying warm by the stove while Hannibal went out into the cold for him. Hannibal’s hands roughened by swinging an axe. Physically changed for him. "Maybe not all the time."

"Nor will I be satisfied to let you cook all the time."

"No rules except the ones we make."

"Just so."

"Okay. Might need to go into town for some stuff, unless there’s a toolbox around here. We’ll look for the piston lock first."

They got the pump working. Will cleaned up and drove back into Kaunas for supplies – more food, an air mattress, gloves for Hannibal that weren’t made from butter soft gray leather, an axe for the wood in the barn, a first aid kit for Hannibal’s inevitable blisters.

He also managed, mostly with sign language, to buy a pre-paid cell phone. In the back corner of a small cafe, he called Jack.

"You’re not in Italy," Jack said.

"No."

"You’re not coming, are you?"

"No."

"Did you find him?"

"How’s Bella?"

"Don’t bring her into this."

"Stay with her. Let this go."

"I’m worried about you."

"You don’t need to be. I can take care of myself."

"What are you going to do, Will?"

"I’m going to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else."

He hung up shortly after that, over Jack’s continued protests. Guilt nagged at him. Guilt about not calling the local police. Guilt about wanting to have Hannibal to himself. Even if he did keep Hannibal from killing again, it wouldn’t make up for what he’d done already. Nothing could.

The ring on his finger pulled at Will’s mind all the way back. He found himself tapping the thick band against the vinyl of the steering wheel over and over. He didn’t know what to make of his own actions any more than Jack did. He didn’t know how long they could live like this.

He arrived home to find Hannibal on his hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. The image was so far out of the realm of what he had imagined possible that all he could do was stare.

Hannibal gave him a cross look. "Shut the door. You’re letting in the winter."

Will shut the door. He set his bags down on the kitchen table. "I cleaned that," he said.

"You made an attempt."

"Okay. Have fun. I’ll inflate the mattress."

He had a hand pump. It took longer than he would’ve thought possible, but by the end, they almost had a real bed. He set it in the wooden bed frame and put on the sheets and blankets. When he was done, he risked a look at the kitchen.

Every surface had been scrubbed and polished to an unnatural shine. He could see his face in the cupboard doors. He made no comment.

He took the rag from Hannibal’s hand and kissed him. "Sit down. Time for lunch."

He made sandwiches with cheese and onion and some kind of preserved beet thing on the side. He assumed it was beets. Anyway, it was red.

"What does compromise mean to you?" he said.

"An agreement acceptable to both parties, with concessions on both sides."

"Thanks, Samuel Johnson. I was looking for a more personal definition."

Hannibal set his sandwich down. "I don’t know," he said. "I don’t know what you would find acceptable. And I am no longer certain of what I would find acceptable."

That sounded more promising than Will had hoped for. He decided not to push it. "I got you some gloves," he said. "And an axe. Left them out in the barn. Are there any lakes around here?"

"None without three feet of ice between you and the fish."

"You’ve never been ice fishing?"

Hannibal looked appalled. Will smiled and ate his probably-beets.

*

By the next day, the disused space had become something habitable. Even something like a home.

Hannibal disappeared into town for an hour or two and came back with shopping bags and a hesitant expression. "For you," he said, and set them on the table. "I’m afraid I didn’t do as well as I did in Baltimore. Vilnius would be better. Perhaps next time."

Will knew the general outline of what he would find before he unpacked the bags, but the specifics still made him smile. "This is a lot of pink, Hannibal."

"Many of the larger stores have security cameras. My choices were limited."

It wasn’t quite the forbidden thrill it had been at first, but maybe this was better. Will slid his fingers over lace and satin panties. He could almost feel them on, tight over his ass, pressing against his cock.

Hannibal nudged the other bag toward him.

The apron was a heavy cream colored fabric with red flowers embroidered along the hem. The dress – the dress. Pale blue, with buttons up the front and a collar like a man’s shirt. Will held it up. The light from the window cast a halo around it. It was so clearly meant for everyday rather than for dress up that it made his knees feel shaky.

"You don’t have to wear it," Hannibal said gently.

"I will. Just. Not yet."

But he wanted to. He wanted this masquerade of domesticity, wanted to dive into it and be submerged and never come up. He wondered if Hannibal felt the same. The scrubbed kitchen floors and his attack on the pump suggested that he did.

Stockings in the bag, too, and, fuck, blue heels with tiny white bows. "Are these … will these fit me?"

"Try them."

Will unlaced his sagging leather boots far enough to kick them off. Hannibal went down on one knee and held the shoe for him. It slipped easily onto his foot. Will stared at it.

"Bet that wasn’t easy to find." He could hear a tremor in his voice.

"Worth the search." Hannibal stayed where he was, hand curled around Will’s ankle. "I bought these in Paris. I will take you there someday."

"When?"

Hannibal slipped on the other shoe and rolled up the hems of Will’s jeans to bare his ankles. He kissed the top of Will’s foot. "When you’re ready," he said.

"If I ever am. If we’re still together."

"Do you think we won’t be?"

Will didn’t answer. He stood instead and took an uncertain step. The heels weren’t that tall, maybe two inches, but it felt like a lot more. His feet slid forward in the shoes, and it was hard to balance without putting all his weight on the balls of his feet. Not comfortable. Also, not really wide enough. They pinched his toes. He looked down at them and took another step.

Hannibal rose to walk beside him, a slow circuit of the room. "How are they?" he asked.

"Kind of horrible." But he didn’t want to take them off.

"They’ll look very nice with your dress," Hannibal said softly. "There is one other thing in the bag."

Will returned to the table. It was easier when he managed to put a normal amount of weight on his heels, even if it did feel precarious. He removed a bunch of white tissue paper from the bottom of the bag and stopped.

The bra matched the panties, pale pink, lace at the edge of the cups, a little cluster of pearls sewn into the shape of a flower at the center. Will didn’t dare touch it.

"I don’t – I don’t know about this," he said, but the feeling in his stomach was heat and desire and instant arousal.

Hannibal stood behind him, one hand at his waist. "I saw your intention at the ball. It worked well enough, but this will be easier."

"That was just – it looked weird otherwise."

"It will make your dress fall more naturally."

There was a box of gel inserts next to the bra. The room felt unbearably hot and close. Will stepped quickly out of the shoes.

"Going out," he said. He shoved his feet back into the boots and grabbed his coat on the way out the door.

There was only one destination that didn’t involve a long drive or frostbite. He went into the barn and shut the door behind him. He’d been meaning to look through it more thoroughly anyway, maybe see if there was something larger than a kettle to boil water in. He hadn’t showered since France, and Hannibal couldn’t be much better off.

Hannibal had made some progress adding to the wood pile. The split logs were stacked against the right side, the whole ones along the back wall. They were using it up at an alarming rate. He wondered if it would last till spring. If they would last till spring.

In the shadows under the loft, he found a few bales of hay with spindly, pallid mushrooms growing up from them in rings, a discarded saddle with the leather cracked, a bridle hung from the wall. In the back corner, a ladder led up to the loft, and he climbed it carefully, testing for weak wood in the ladder itself and on the upper floor once he stepped out onto it.

A pitchfork lay askew across the boards. A mouse scuttled away. In the far corner, he spotted a metal tub, maybe some kind of feed trough, just about the right size to fit on the wood stove.

He picked his way toward it. One board gave way under his foot, and he hung momentarily with his leg in a hole up to his knee and the other boards groaning dangerously. He extracted his leg and lay on his stomach, wriggling forward the remaining few feet to the tub.

Verdigris covered it. A few glints showed what it had once been: bright polished copper. He stared at it and remembered the copper tub in his room at the Lecter estate in France and Hannibal’s poor reaction to it. I slept in the attic after that.

Rather than try to work it down the ladder, Will tipped the tub over the side and let it fall onto the hay below with a muffled crash. He descended, picked it up, looked back toward the house. He suspected he should have some hesitation about bringing it to Hannibal, but he didn’t. He wanted to see what would happen.

"I found this," he said, as he pushed through the door. "It’s not really big enough for a bath, but it’s better than cold water and a washcloth."

He took it to the pump and started to fill it.

"I don’t think you want to bathe in that," Hannibal said.

Will didn’t look at him. "Why not?"

"I think you can guess. But perhaps you don’t want to. Perhaps you would prefer ignorance in this."

"I don’t want ignorance. I don’t want to guess. I want you to tell me."

"To confess?"

"It’s not a confession if you don’t feel guilty."

"I don’t."

"Then why did you sleep in the attic?"

Hannibal paused. "That was a long time ago. My mind was disordered in the wake of trauma." He spoke of his younger self the way he might speak of one of his patients: calm, detached.

"The trauma of the death of your parents? The trauma of killing them?"

"Of the death of my sister. My loss. Mischa."

Will took the filled tub and set it on the stove. He turned to look at Hannibal. "Did she draw the bird in the back of that book?"

"Yes. Our father struck her for it. Not for the first time, but for the first time our mother was there to see it. She looked away."

"And sealed her fate. How did you kill them?"

"My father with the pitchfork in the barn. My mother with a kitchen knife. Looking back on it, I’m surprised it was so easy. I suppose they weren’t expecting it."

"And then you had Mischa to look after. You had to eat."

"Yes. I needed a cooking vessel," he said. No expression. No visible distress.

"Would you have have wanted to tell her that? What if she’d asked? How did you feed us all that time, Hannibal? You didn’t leave me to hunt. Where did you get the meat?"

Hannibal looked past him. One hand flexed wide and then closed tight, as if to hold on to something he didn’t wish to lose.

"Would you want to tell her about Douglas Wilson? Would you want to tell Mischa how it felt to pull out his eyes? Would you want to tell her how slippery his tongue was, what a hard time you had holding onto it while you cut it out?"

"Crude emotional manipulation," Hannibal said, but his voice was tight. "I expected better from you."

"Whatever works." Will circled around behind him and spoke into his ear. "You’re glad she’s dead. Just a little. Is that why you had a knife when I came to say goodbye?"

Hannibal stood rigid. "Take it back out to the barn," he said. "We won’t speak of it again."

"I want a goddamn bath. I’ll scrub it out."

Hannibal turned at that, startled eyes and silently parted lips.

"I’m not her," Will said. "I’m not a child. Do you think this is shocking to me, after what I already know about you? It’s not."

"Does anything shock you?"

"Nothing about you. Do we have a compromise?"

"What do you want?"

"Stop doing things that would scare her. They scare me too. I don’t want to be scared of you."

Hannibal was silent for a long time. "And what is your concession?" he said finally.

"What do you want?"

"Stay with me. Always."

Will smiled a little. "That’s not a concession, Hannibal. I’ll stay no matter what."

Hannibal took his hand and held it so tightly his bones ground together. A second later, he dropped it and turned away. "I’m going out," he said. "Just a walk. I’ll be back soon."

"Okay. Take your time."

He watched Hannibal step out into the snow and then he watched the tub heating slowly on the stove.

*

Hannibal dragged himself through the snow, each step more difficult than the last as it clung to his shoes, his pants, and climbed in a breaking wave up his legs. He walked blindly into the woods with some idea of heading toward the road, but mostly only the desire to get away.

His thoughts would not settle into their proper order, but jostled together, piling up like the snow. He saw Will sitting in his dining room, looking at him with vacant eyes. He saw Mischa with the same expression and the bubbling painful breath that he had heard from their mother as she lay dying.

He had cooked their mother first. Their father kept well enough in the barn for a time after Hannibal had gutted him.

His jacket was not sufficient to the weather. The cold crept in under his clothes and touched him intimately, froze his spine stiff, pulled at his limbs. He stopped in a clearing near the road to breathe and to try to convince himself to go back. Nothing fearsome waited for him. Only Will. Planning to plunge himself into the vessel Hannibal had used to transform his parents’ banal cruelty into sustenance.

He looked back toward the house, now invisible, screened by thick pines. He could see the smoke from the chimney, a beacon that had always called him home.

The cold metal barrel of a gun pushed against the back of his skull. "Don’t move," Jack said.

Hannibal watched the smoke rise in the distance. "Are you going to kill me?"

"Not if you cooperate."

Hannibal dropped down low and reached for Jack’s wrist at the same time. He yanked Jack forward and tumbled him over his shoulder, but he couldn’t flip him. Jack was too strong and too heavy. He resisted, rolling to the side rather than trying to pull back, and the move overbalanced Hannibal. He dropped into the snow, rose to a crouch, and they looked at each other. Jack had lost the gun.

They launched themselves forward at the same moment and met in a crash of bone and muscle. Hannibal felt Jack’s ribs give under the weight of his fist. Jack smashed his palm into Hannibal’s nose, and it streamed blood into the snow.

Jack bore him down and crushed him under his weight. Hannibal struck Jack’s throat and threw him off. They scrabbled for a grip against the ground and charged each other, struck, drew blood again. Jack’s fist slammed into Hannibal’s mouth. Hannibal bit at Jack’s jaw and came away with flesh between his teeth.

Jack bellowed in pain and clapped a hand to the wound. It was too shallow, wrong location. Next time he’d have to go for the neck. If he didn’t, Jack would win. He was strong and dressed for the weather, while Hannibal could feel his fingers going numb and his legs threatening mutiny.

They breathed hard, steam and blood running from their mouths, circling each other.

Two shots split the air, and they both looked up. Will stood at the edge of the clearing with Jack’s gun in his hand. "Inside," he said. "Both of you."

"Give me the gun," Jack panted.

"Did he bite you?"

"Give me the gun, Will. I need to finish this."

Will looked from him to Hannibal and back. He shook his head. "Inside," he said. "Get moving."

Jack approached him, hands outstretched. Will leveled the gun at his chest. Jack stopped, took a heaving breath and let it out. "You’re serious," he said.

"I’m serious."

"Are you on his side now? You don’t want to make an enemy of me, Will."

"We’re not enemies, Jack. You trust my instincts, right? That’s why I’m here. Trust me one more time."

They stared at each other. Hannibal could almost hear the thin saw blade song of tension between them. Will lowered the gun slowly. Jack stood still for a moment and then shoved his hands into his pockets and stomped past him toward the house.

"You too," Will said to Hannibal.

"We need to leave," Hannibal said.

"Inside."

"Will—"

"We’re going inside, and we’re going to talk."

Hannibal looked toward the road, but he’d need a car, warmer clothes, money. As he was, he’d be lucky to make it to the nearest bus stop. He turned and followed in Jack’s footsteps.

Jack was waiting for them, backed up by the stove, expression wary. He had one hand pressed over the wound on his jaw.

"Hannibal can take a look at that for you," Will said.

"I think he’s had a close enough look already."

"He’s not going to hurt you. I’ve got some bandages."

"Will, are you in there? Did he do something to you? This is the Chesapeake Ripper."

"And I’m telling you, he’s not going to hurt you." Will looked at Hannibal. "Right?"

Will’s expression left no room for disagreement. "Not unless he hurts me first."

"Good."

Will gave him the bandages. Hannibal approached Jack with caution. He cleaned the wound with warm water from the heating tub, added antibiotic cream, and taped the bandage in place.

"The bleeding should stop soon. Stitches won’t help, given the breadth of the wound, but it wasn’t deep." He wiped his own mouth, conscious suddenly of Jack’s blood on his lips.

Will sat on the edge of a chair and let the gun hang down between his legs. "Will you do something for me, Jack? Regardless of how this turns out. Do something for me when you get home."

"If I get home. What?"

"Take Winston for me. He likes you. I don’t want him going to a stranger."

A flare of agony passed over Jack’s face. "I don’t want to lose you, Will."

"Can you do that for me? Will you take him?"

"I’ll take him."

"Thanks."

Hannibal packed the remaining bandages back into their box. "And Snorkel," he said.

Jack and Will turned to look at him. Will was smiling a little. "What?" Jack said.

"The little one. The ugly one."

"I know which one Snorkel is," Jack said, but he kept staring.

"You didn’t bring the cops," Will said. "How were you planning to get him back to the city? Or were you?"

"I assumed you’d help me."

"No, you didn’t. Did you plan to bury him in the woods? The ground’s frozen. You didn’t think this through."

"I’m not a killer."

"You could be. All it takes is one bullet." Will walked over and set the gun on the table beside Jack.

Hannibal stood frozen in the middle of the room. He had no cover. He might avoid the first shot, but the odds were on Jack’s side.

Jack picked up the gun. He checked the magazine and chambered a bullet, but he didn’t take aim.

"What are you going to tell your team when you get home?" Will asked.

"I’ll tell them Italy was great."

"They’re not stupid, Jack. You hired smart people."

"You’ve seen his crime scenes. You’ve seen what he does. You of all people. You know he deserves it."

"You know what Zeller told me? He said he likes the FBI because when you follow the rules you know you’re doing the right thing."

Jack bowed his head. "You can’t always follow the rules."

"You remember what I told the disciplinary committee?"

"That Lecter considered his killings just."

"Would you consider this killing just?"

"I need this to be over," Jack said. He passed a hand over his eyes. "It has to be over."

"It’s over. The Chesapeake Ripper is dead."

"Did you see his body?"

"I saw him lying dead in the snow with a pitchfork through his heart."

"A pitchfork, huh?"

"Awful way to go."

"You’d think local law enforcement would find the body."

"There was a house fire. Maybe they’ll find what’s left of him in the spring."

Jack closed his eyes briefly and then he looked toward the door. "What happened to Will Graham?"

Will smiled down at his hands, a painful expression. "They always said he’d snap sooner or later. At least he took the Ripper with him."

Jack was quiet for a long time. "People will miss you," he said.

"Let’s be honest, they won’t miss me that much. Take care of the dogs. And make sure Ardelia doesn’t get shipped off to spend the next twenty years in some backwater field office in Missouri. She’s better than that."

"So are you."

"I’m tired," Will said quietly. "I’m tired of other people’s nightmares. I have enough of my own."

Jack sat silent, head bowed, for a few more seconds, and then he jerked to his feet. "You’ve got until I get to the police in Kaunas."

"You can’t let him leave," Hannibal said.

"I don’t want any more blood," Will said. He looked at Hannibal. "Compromise. Right?"

"This isn’t compromise. This is insanity."

"Always wondered what it felt like," Jack muttered. He turned and marched out into the snow. They heard the car engine start a second later.

"We’d better get out of here," Will said.

"They will close the borders."

"Who says we need to cross the border? All we need is somewhere warm for the winter."

"You want to stay?"

"Why not? I like it here. You speak the language. If I keep my mouth shut, we won’t stick out too much."

"You shouldn’t smile like that."

Will grinned wider. "Can’t help it. Sorry."

"You don’t appreciate the gravity of our situation."

"I’m not worried. You’ll take care of me, right?"

Hannibal pressed his lips together. "Pack your things and wait for me in the car."

Will did. There wasn’t much to pack, just the one bag he’d arrived with and the new clothes Hannibal had bought for him. "What about the food?" he asked.

"Leave it."

Will went out to the car. Hannibal got out the can of kerosene.

He walked away from his childhood home, got into the driver’s seat, and pulled away. By the time they reached the main road, they could see smoke rising behind them.

Chapter Text

The house Hannibal had rented for them sat on the shore of a frozen lake, two rooms and a bathroom and a lumpy mattress, but at least it had running water. He left Will there the first day and came back with supplies and enough food that they wouldn’t have to show their faces in town for at least a week.

Will cooked for them that first night with a thousand thoughts streaming through his mind. He made roasted potatoes and cabbage and pork chops and found himself so restless at the table that he could barely eat any of it.

After dinner, Hannibal gave him a long, level look. "Why don’t you go and change, my dear?" he said.

There was no question what he meant and no question, really, that Will wanted to do it. He retreated to the bedroom where all his things had been put away in the small dresser, normal clothes on the right, new things on the left.

He stripped naked and laid everything out on the bed, dress and stockings and underwear. His cock started to stiffen as soon as he pulled on the panties. He stood like that, hand between his legs, head tipped back. It took a long minute to make himself keep going and not just get off right there. It had been a long time.

The bra came next. He fastened it around his chest and tucked the inserts in place and breathed. And breathed. He felt the constriction every time his chest expanded. His hands hovered over the lace cups, but he couldn’t – couldn’t touch or even look in the mirror. He moved quickly on to the dress.

It was a simple thing, like a long shirt. He pulled it over his head and fastened the last few buttons. And then undid one. Two. He took the necklace from his wrist and closed it around his neck. It fell into the space left by the open collar. He looked at it in the mirror, at his own hand touching it. He wondered what he might look like with his nails painted.

The garter belt went on next and the stockings, whisper gray with maybe a hint of blue. A line up the back. He smiled as he smoothed them into place. He stepped into the shoes and stood in front of the full length mirror on the closet door. He turned and saw himself from behind, from the sides.

They’d both showered before they did anything else, and Will had shaved. Now he wet his fingers and pushed them back through his hair. It had grown out in the hospital, and he’d never bothered to get it cut. In the back, it curled over the nape of his neck, and in the front it hung long enough to fall in his eyes.

He took a shaky breath and walked out into the other room. Hannibal looked up immediately from his book and held out a hand to him. Will went to him, stood in front of him, waiting.

"You look beautiful," Hannibal said.

Part of Will wanted to deny it, but the truth was that he felt beautiful when Hannibal looked at him like this, devotion in his eyes and the most careful touches and his lips pressed to the back of Will’s hand.

Will cleared his throat. "I think I’m getting the hang of the shoes."

"Show me."

Will walked to the far side of the room and back. It was easier. Not easy, but easier. He still felt a little wobbly, but there was something about that he liked. He imagined clinging to Hannibal’s arm so he wouldn’t fall and felt the back of his neck grow warm.

When he returned to the chair, Hannibal pulled him down to sit in his lap, and Will’s blush spread upward. Hannibal kissed his neck.

"Lovely," he said, and his hand was on Will’s knee, moving upward, pushing the dress up to bare Will’s thigh.

Will caught his wrist.

"What is it, my dear?"

Will paused, uncertain, half of his mind set on playing out this role, this mask. And then there was the half of him that hadn’t had sex for almost four months and had been suspended on the edge of arousal since he’d danced with Hannibal in France. His finger traced the pattern of veins in the back of Hannibal’s hand.

"We should wait," he said, voice as soft as he could make it.

"What are we waiting for?"

Will swallowed hard. "The wedding."

Hannibal was still behind him for a moment, and then his arm came around Will’s waist and he pressed his face to Will’s neck. "My love," he said, and the words came out rough against Will’s skin.

But his hand didn’t quite stop moving. His fingers teased downward to the inside of Will’s thigh, and Will felt his cock start to stiffen again.

"Of course we’ll wait if that’s what you want," Hannibal murmured. "But there are other things we can do."

"O-other things?" Will stuttered as Hannibal’s fingers found the top of his stocking.

"I can kiss you, can’t I?" Hannibal said, and he did, and Will almost moaned into it, Hannibal’s mouth against his, tongue pushing in, pressure just short of bruising.

"Yes. God. As much as you want."

"And I can touch you?"

He had the dress pushed up high, stockings bared all the way to the top. The lace bands were dark against Will’s skin. Hannibal dipped his fingers inside them.

Will held onto his arm. "Please."

"And perhaps I can touch you here as well."

Hannibal’s free hand slid up over Will’s stomach to his chest and cupped over one of the fake breasts. He squeezed lightly. Will bit his lower lip hard and stared. He couldn’t feel it, but that didn’t seem to matter. It was the sight of Hannibal’s large hand spread out and caressing what might almost be his flesh. Hannibal squeezed, fingers digging in. It might have hurt if it were real, but as it was, Will’s cock jerked hard in the tight confines of the panties, and he turned his face away.

"You shouldn’t," he said, somehow.

"But you enjoy it, don’t you?" So soft, coaxing.

"Yes, but …"

Hannibal unfastened another button on his dress. He touched the lace edge of the bra where it met Will’s skin, and Will bit his lip. Hannibal’s other hand slid along his inner thigh, large and warm. He squeezed there, too, and Will pressed his legs together. He could feel Hannibal’s cock pushing up against his ass.

"Don’t you want me to make you feel good?" Hannibal spoke in his ear. His lips brushed Will’s neck, barely there.

"I don’t know if – what do you want to do?"

"Can I unbutton your dress a little more? I want to see how pretty you look in your new things."

Will closed his eyes, flush spreading down his chest. He nodded.

Hannibal worked the buttons with one hand, the other still between Will’s legs, fingers pressing into his flesh. One button, two, three, and Will was bared almost to the waist. Hannibal eased the dress off one shoulder. Will clutched at it and pulled it back.

"Shh. You said I could see you. Be a good girl and let me."

"Oh, God," Will said, much too loud.

He let Hannibal do it this time, until the dress hung down around his arms, fabric stretched tight every time he moved. Hannibal kissed his neck and his shoulders and leaned around him to lay kisses across the top of the bra where the lace met his skin. He ran a finger under one strap and pulled it down to hang loose.

Will shifted in his lap, cock achingly hard. Hannibal rocked up against him. Will wanted desperately to be naked with him, skin to skin, and at the same time he never wanted this to end.

Hannibal pushed his fingers down past the lace. He rolled Will’s nipple between thumb and forefinger and murmured in his ear. "How does that feel, my dear?"

"Oh, don’t—" Will pulled at his wrist, not hard at all, relieved when Hannibal only pinched a little harder. "God. You have to stop. We shouldn’t—"

"But you want to very much, don’t you? Your nipples are so hard already. Are they very sensitive?"

Will’s head tipped back onto Hannibal’s shoulder as he rubbed and pinched. The hand between Will’s legs worked upward an inch or two, and Hannibal’s fingers skirted the edge of the panties.

"Will?"

"Yes. Yes, very. Please don’t be too rough."

He could feel Hannibal’s long exhale, just a little unsteady. "Never, my dear. I’ll be so gentle with you. Will you spread your legs for me? Just a little?"

Will did, and Hannibal laid his hand over the front of his panties, palm pressing against his cock. Will pushed a hand over his own mouth, nearly bit at his palm to keep quiet as Hannibal rubbed him slowly.

"How does that feel?"

"Good. So good."

"Spread your legs wider. Let me look."

Hannibal pressed his thighs apart with both hands and held him open. Will could feel his gaze moving up and down his body. Hannibal rubbed briefly at the head of his cock through the satin.

"You’re making such a mess of your pretty things, my dear."

"Jesus fucking Christ, Hannibal—"

"Let me take you to bed."

"No, we can’t."

"Would it be so much more debauched than this? With your dress up around your waist and gaping open in front so I can play with your breasts? So I can touch you as I like? Do you want me to stop?"

Will could barely hear him above the rush of blood in his ears. He squirmed in Hannibal’s lap, ass pressing down, rocking his hips almost against his will. "No. No, don’t stop, but—"

"But you want to be a virgin on your wedding night? Is that it, my dear?"

Hannibal’s palm ghosted over his cock again, and Will nearly came. "Please, please—"

"My sweet girl," Hannibal softly, and his hand pressed down, rubbed harder, and then dipped inside to take him in his fist. Hannibal stroked him hard and fast.

Will could hear high, breathy moans that had to be his, and then he couldn’t hear anything. He tipped over the edge and came in thick spurts over Hannibal’s hand.

"Lift up, just a little."

Will obeyed as well as he could, limbs shaky and treacherous heart pounding. Hannibal unzipped his pants and pulled Will’s dress up. When he settled back down, he could feel Hannibal’s bare cock rubbing hard against the panties, pressing between his cheeks. He held onto the arms of the chair and pushed himself down on it, but there was no need. Hannibal had both arms around his waist and held him tight, rocking up with hard, tight thrusts.

His breath was hot against Will’s neck. He was almost panting as he rutted against Will’s ass. It seemed so crude for Hannibal, and it made Will dizzy with heat and desire all over again. Hannibal finished with his face pushed into the curve of Will’s neck, body tight, come soaking into satin.

Will twisted awkwardly to the side, enough to get an arm around Hannibal’s neck and hide his face in Hannibal’s shoulder. Cooling air swirled around them as the fire died. Sweat stuck the dress to his back, and he shivered.

Hannibal moved him enough to get his own pants buttoned up again and then pulled Will’s dress together at the front. He slipped an arm under Will’s knees.

"Hannibal—"

"What is it, my dear?"

God, so gentle. So much everything Will had ever wanted to hear. He closed his eyes. "Nothing," he said, though vague worry lurked at the back of his mind. They probably weighed about the same and Hannibal was ten years older and – and still lifted him like he was no burden at all.

Will wrapped both arms around his neck. Hannibal carried him into the bathroom, helped him undress, got under the shower with him. They didn’t speak. Water rolled down their faces as they kissed, and Will could taste the mineral quality of it.

He thought of the things he’d said, of Hannibal’s responses, and felt foolish and comforted in equal measure.

In the bedroom, Hannibal handed him another pair of panties, pale pink cotton. They sat low around his hips.

"I have something else for you." Hannibal shook out a long, red flannel nightgown and held it up.

Will’s mouth twitched. "Is this a joke?"

Hannibal met his eyes over the top of it, face warm with humor. And something more. "Possibly."

"Too bad. I’m wearing it. Looks warm."

"I’m sure it will be."

They climbed into bed together. Hannibal had matching red flannel pajama pants. He turned onto his side and pulled Will back against his chest and kissed his hair.

Will felt for his hand and held it. "About what I said."

"You said nothing untoward. Nothing that was not entirely welcome."

"Even the wedding?"

"I would like nothing more."

"It’s not … practical."

"Leave that to me."

"And the waiting?" As much as he didn’t want to be serious about that, he found that he was.

"I am happy to wait. Symbolism and ceremony are staples of human existence. We create meaning from the dust and ashes that spawned us."

"Yeah, but there’s no – there’s no real point. I mean. It’s not as if. I told you I’d done it with guys before."

"I think you’ve already sacrificed your purity to me in several senses, but not in this one. You’ve never let anyone have you as you are now."

*

Will woke early in the morning. He pulled on socks and built up the fire. Hannibal had banked it the night before. The house had electricity, but the wood stove was still the only source of heat. He watched the coals glow and the wood catch light, and then he went into the kitchen to start ham and potatoes for breakfast.

They ate at the kitchen table, which Hannibal had scrubbed so clean that some of the ancient varnish had peeled away. They drank cup after cup of coffee. The rosy morning sunlight shone through a frost-touched window.

"Did you mean what you said?" Hannibal asked. "You would stay with me even if I continued my other activities?"

"I’d stay. I’d get angry. We’d fight. It would change me. Eventually you’d get so far into my head that I wouldn’t care much anymore. About anything."

"They deserve what I give them."

"So what? What about all the people who die and deserve to live? I don’t see you helping them out."

"What would you have me do? Start a free clinic somewhere? Surgery with basic tools and minimal sanitation by the side of a dusty road?"

"I’ve heard worse ideas."

"So have I, but rarely."

Will took a sip of coffee and looked at Hannibal through the steam. "I saw the stag you made for your aunt."

"A childish effort."

"It’s beautiful. Tell me about it?"

"I meant it to suggest the quality of flight for things earthbound."

"It does. Did you ever—" Will stopped and pushed his potatoes around the plate.

"Did I ever?"

"See it?"

"What do you mean, Will?"

"I mean see it. Living and breathing. The size of a horse. Warm. Looking at you."

Hannibal shook his head slowly. "Have you seen it?"

"When I was hallucinating." He paused. "And after. After I was out of the hospital. After I was supposed to be better."

"I have never mentioned nor even alluded to it. Not to you to or to anyone else in over thirty years. I barely spoke of it to my aunt and uncle."

Will nodded. "Didn’t really think you had."

"It must’ve been a shock, seeing it."

"It was. I thought it was something I’d created out of that scene. Cassie Boyle."

"The stag’s head, yes, but—"

"The crows. You didn’t see the crows. You were gone by then. But they were all over her." Will put his fork down.

"Messengers of the dead."

"Or from the place where nightmares are born."

"But the stag did not appear to you in nightmares?"

"I was never frightened of it."

"Perhaps you should’ve been. The things the dead have to tell the living are often not the things we wish to hear."

"You’re not dead, Hannibal."

"Some part of me is. There can be no return from the lands beyond the veil."

"Persephone comes back every spring."

Hannibal smiled a little. "And leaves Hades behind. Should I leave you always in darkness?"

"Bad example maybe. I’m not a god." He paused. "Neither are you. In case you were wondering."

"Orpheus and Eurydice."

"Better."

"Doomed."

"Only because he looked back."

Hannibal took his hand. "And there is the concession I desire from you. Jack will keep your place in the world open for you, I think, if he can. He values you too much to shut you out. You believe they won’t care about your absence, but you’re wrong. All of them would welcome you if you returned."

"I’m staying with you. I feel like this is the only real choice I’ve ever made."

"I hope you don’t come to regret it."

"I won’t look back."

Chapter Text

In the spring, they left for Tuscany. Hannibal found them a small house with a tile roof, leaky plumbing, and a dribbling fountain in the courtyard. Will walked to the village most days to buy their food.

One day in April, just before noon, he unpacked asparagus and spinach and fish into the refrigerator. No sign of Hannibal. He went to their room to wash dust from his face and stopped short in the doorway.

Will had meant to wear a suit for the wedding. He’d bought a suit, for fear of what Hannibal might pick out, left to his own devices. Apparently, he shouldn’t have worried.

Hannibal had left Will’s wedding dress laid out on the bed. He sat next to it and touched one sleeve with as much fear as longing.

He didn’t wear any of it out of the house. At least not into town. Sometimes he walked in the garden with Hannibal, unsteady on the gravel paths, holding tight to his arm.

He didn’t even wear it inside that much. The underwear … well, most of the time. The nightshirts, always. But the rest of it often felt like something that should be reserved for a special occasion.

His wedding was a special occasion.

It wasn’t just the dress. Lingerie lay on the bed next to it, all white lace and bows and pearls. The shoes matched the dress, cream satin and higher than anything Will had worn up to now.

"What do you think?" Hannibal said from the doorway.

"I bought a suit."

"I know. You’re welcome to wear it if that’s what you want. I thought I might provide another option."

"Is this what you want?"

"I want you to be happy. I want you to have what you desire. Whatever that may be. You don’t need to decide now. There is plenty of time."

"Where are we … where’s the ceremony going to be?"

"There is a small church in the hills above the village. The priest is amenable."

"It won’t be legal."

"No. Do you need it to be?"

Will shook his head. "Amenable? What did you do?"

"Nothing you or Mischa would disapprove of, I promise you."

"Is he going to stay amenable if I wear this?"

"Yes." He hesitated. "Shall I leave you alone to think?"

"No. Don’t leave me alone."

Hannibal sat behind him on the bed and combed through his hair. Will liked wearing it longer. He liked the feel of it touching his cheeks and the way Hannibal wrapped it around his fingers when they lay in bed together at night.

"Don’t you ever think this is weird?" Will said, meaning don’t you ever think I’m weird?

"In comparison to the rest of my life?"

"Okay. Fair point."

Hannibal lifted his hair and kissed the back of his neck. Will bent his head.

"It’s a terrible suit," Hannibal said.

"I knew you’d have something to say about that."

"If you truly don’t want the dress—"

"I’ll wear it. It’s just us, right? Just us and the priest?"

"Yes. No one else."

Will touched the sleeve again. The tiny seed pearls slid under his fingers, smooth and cool. "I don’t want anyone to laugh."

"No one will laugh," Hannibal said, and his tone promised vengeance.

"And I don’t want you to cut anyone’s tongue out if they do. Just so we’re clear."

Hannibal pulled him close and sighed against his neck. "No one will laugh, my love. You don’t realize how you look."

*

Two weeks later, Will stared at himself in the mirror. Dress to the floor, white silk gloves, veil shadowing his face. He felt, at times, like someone in a fairy tale. He preferred it to the feeling he’d had the past few years of being a ghost in his own life.

They rode to the church in silence. It was a tiny building made of stone that seemed on the verge of toppling inward. The windows had no glass, and all the pews were stacked against the walls.

"How long has it been since anyone used this place?" Will asked.

"It is still holy ground."

The altar had been cleaned, and the priest waited for them with a smile that suggested actual good will in addition to whatever bribe Hannibal had certainly paid him. He was a small man with iron gray hair and dark framed glasses, and he clasped first Hannibal’s hand and then Will’s.

"Very happy for you both," he said, which turned out to be the only phrase he knew in English.

Will had a fair amount of French now and slightly less Lithuanian, but almost no Italian beyond the names of every vegetable in the market. The specifics of the ceremony were a mystery to him, but the symbology was universal. They received the blessing of a God neither of them believed in. They promised to be faithful. Hannibal took a gold band from his pocket.

Will took off his glove to let him slid it on. He’d painted his nails pale pink the night before. He’d expected it to be jarring, with the size and breadth of his hand, but it wasn’t. Hannibal lifted his veil and cupped his face with both hands as he kissed him.

The priest kissed him too, afterward, on the cheek, and shook Hannibal’s hand. Either he was blind, or the bribe had been truly spectacular. Or he was just a very kind man. Will supposed that he had to allow for that too, given the improbability of every aspect of his current life.

Hannibal took him home. Again, the ride passed in silence. Will clung to Hannibal’s sleeve. A tight feeling had been growing in his chest since Hannibal put the ring on his finger. He didn’t know what to do with it or how to speak through it.

"I cooked earlier," Hannibal said. "Dinner is waiting for us in the refrigerator. All cold, I’m afraid, but we’ll have other things to think of tonight."

"I’m scared," Will said. He was. Not of the physical act. He’d done that before, and sometimes it had hurt, and sometimes it had been okay. Never spectacular, but he knew why that was now. He knew what he was looking for from it, and he knew Hannibal would give it to him.

"I’ll be very careful, my love."

"I know. That’s why I’m scared."

The wedding had been in the golden afternoon, and they arrived back at the house for sunset. Hannibal carried him over the threshold.

"I don’t think I can eat," Will said.

"You’ll be hungry afterward."

The angle of the sun turned their room to gold and then pink and then dusky purple. Will had half expected it to be bathed in blood red light like a prophecy. The tension in his chest eased for a moment and then wound right back up again when he saw how Hannibal was watching him: intent, hungry.

Will laid his gloves on the dresser. He glanced at himself in the mirror, at his pink nails and glossed lips. The lip gloss tasted like sugar. Hannibal had bought it for him. He took off the veil and set it next to the gloves.

"May I help you with the dress?" Hannibal said.

Will nodded. Hannibal moved to his back and unzipped him. The dress slid off like water and left him in panties, bra, garter belt, and stockings. And the shoes with their perilous four inch heels. He’d been taller than Hannibal when they stood together at the altar.

Hannibal offered him a hand for balance, and Will stepped out of the dress. Hannibal picked it up, but his eyes were on Will. Will swallowed.

"Just one minute, okay? I’ll be right back." He fled to the bathroom and locked himself in, leaned against the door, put his hands over his face. He hadn’t been anything like this nervous the first time he’d gotten fucked. Ridiculous.

He took a couple of breaths. His nerves didn’t change his purpose in here. Not that minor panic didn’t play a part. It certainly accounted for the locked door. But he also had lube in the medicine cabinet and a strong desire not to make Hannibal wait.

He took the panties off to do it. He didn’t want to get them dirty. One foot up on the counter, two fingers inside himself faster than he could comfortably take. He closed his eyes and listened to himself breathe and tried to stay quiet. Hannibal liked him loud, and it had become habit now. Hard to break.

Despite the discomfort, he was hard by the time he was done. When he pulled the panties back on, the length of his erection was obvious through the pale lace. His cheeks were flushed, lips bitten a deeper shade than the gloss. He reapplied it anyway and then stepped back out into the other room.

Hannibal was waiting for him, stripped down to just his suit pants, bare feet and bare chest, sitting on the edge of the bed. He rose and took Will’s hands and kissed them.

"You’re finally mine," he said.

"Yes," Will sighed. He leaned closer, and their lips met. "All yours."

"I mean to have all of you tonight."

"You said you’d be gentle."

"I will, my love. I’ll always be careful with you."

Will melted against him, and for a moment, Hannibal just held him. They swayed together, Hannibal kissing his neck, Will unsteady now more because of the way his knees no longer wanted to support him than because of the shoes.

Hannibal backed him up until he hit the bed and sat down abruptly. He could see the hard line of Hannibal’s cock through his pants, and at such a convenient height. He leaned forward and pressed his face against it. Hannibal breathed out slowly and sunk his hands into Will’s hair.

Will mouthed at it, rubbed his face against it, and Hannibal’s grip grew tighter and tighter. They’d waited for this, Will refusing Hannibal again and again, both of them steadily more frustrated and aroused. Will had almost brought himself to it more than once, but as much as he wanted to, he’d been stuck with this skittish, almost paralyzed desire to hold off, until he was sure, until the game had played out to its inevitable conclusion and become more than a game.

And here they were now, Hannibal’s pants growing darker from Will’s mouth, Will’s cock so hard it was standing up with the head pushing outside the panties. He was still ready to vibrate out of his skin.

Hannibal held his head still and leaned down and kissed him. He reached behind Will to undo his bra and set it aside. His thumbs smoothed over Will’s nipples, and Will arched helplessly into it.

"Lie back on the bed, my dear. Spread your legs for me. I want to see you."

Will did as he was told, heels still on and forcing his feet to an unnatural arch, knees bent, cock thick and leaking on his stomach. Hannibal watched him with a dark, greedy expression as he removed his pants and underwear. He knelt naked between Will’s legs and spread them even further, stroked his inner thighs, kissed his stomach just above the wet patch left by his cock.

"I can smell how aroused you are," he murmured. "I could smell your desire all the way home. I’m glad you want this as much as I want to give it to you."

"I do," Will said, for the second time that day.

Hannibal kissed his stomach again, and his thighs, and laid a hand over his cock. He pulled Will’s panties to one side and ran a finger down between his cheeks. Will saw the moment he felt the slick there, and they both gasped together.

"Will," Hannibal said, breathless.

"You said you could smell it," Will said. He could feel his face heat, but he made himself meet Hannibal’s eyes. "Please, don’t wait. I want it. I’m ready."

Two fingers slid in easily, and Will’s back arched involuntarily. It was completely different from his own rough preparation. Hannibal stroked him inside with a reverent look on his face. His touch was so gentle. He seemed determined to find every sensitive spot Will had. His fingers curved and found the right angle, and Will twisted on the bed, unable to keep still.

"Please, come on, no more waiting—" The breath behind his words faltered as Hannibal’s fingers pushed into him again and again, so fast that they could both hear the slap of knuckles against skin, but his lips shaped them anyway, shameless, silent begging.

Hannibal bent over him to speak in his ear. "You’ve been such a good girl, waiting this long. I know it was as hard for you as it was for me."

That ripped a low noise from him, and Will groped for Hannibal’s shoulder. Anything to hold onto. He felt Hannibal shift and kneel closer, hands on his hips, pulling him. Arranging a pillow underneath him.

"Are you ready?"

Will stared up at him and nodded, torn between dizzying arousal and irrational terror. "I want it so much."

"I know you do, my love."

Hannibal held the panties to one side and pushed in. Will’s head fell back on the pillow, and his mouth formed a silent gasp. "Oh, God. Oh. Hannibal."

Another little thrust, and he was all the way inside, looking down at Will and stroking his thighs in slow, soothing movements. "All right?" he asked.

"It’s so good," Will murmured. "You’re so good. I knew you’d make it feel good for me."

Hannibal closed his eyes for a second, voice rough when he spoke. "I always will. Nothing but the best for you. My perfect girl."

Another wave of heat climbed up Will’s neck, but Hannibal didn’t give him much time to savor it. He was moving, thrusting in, not hard, but insistent. He raised one of Will’s legs to hang over his shoulder and bent forward, sliding deeper.

When Will pointed his foot, he found he could dig the heel of his shoe into Hannibal’s back. It made Hannibal clutch at him and shove in hard.

"Do it," Will said. "Come on, please, it’s okay, it doesn’t hurt at all, feels amazing—"

Hannibal took a harsh breath through his nose and gripped Will’s hips and started to ride him. Their eyes met and held. Will felt his body jarred by the thrusts, Hannibal’s dick shoving into him just right every time. His own cock ached, but he wanted Hannibal’s loss of control more than he wanted to come himself. He wanted to watch Hannibal fall apart.

Will squeezed his body tight around him and heard Hannibal’s faint choking noise, heard the slap of skin on skin. His rhythm stuttered, picked up pace again, and then Hannibal was almost motionless inside him, shoulders straining as he came. His face was so open. Will reached up and touched his lips. Hannibal licked at his fingers, and his hips jerked a few more times.

"Was I good?" Will asked, voice soft and light as he could make it.

Hannibal caught his wrist, and his hips stuttered again before he pulled out, panting. He nipped Will’s fingertips and kissed his palm and bent immediately to seal his mouth over Will’s cock through the panties and suck hard.

Will made a high, helpless noise and clutched hard at his hair with both hands. "Oh God, please, pull them down, I want your mouth on me right now, fuck, Hannibal—"

Hannibal made a soft sound against him and did as he asked. His mouth closed around Will’s cock and sunk down and down. There was no tease or build up, just perfect hard suction.

Will swore and held him there and dug his heels into his back as he came. His mouth was still shaping the word fuck as he slid down from the peak and let every muscle go loose and limp.

Hannibal stayed where he was. He nuzzled Will’s hip, and Will reached a shaky hand down to pet his hair and try to smooth the mess he’d made of it.

"Sorry," he murmured.

"Don’t be."

Will closed his eyes.

He must’ve slept and slept hard, because when he opened them again, he was clean, the panties and shoes were gone, and Hannibal was setting a tray of food down on the bed.

"Do you think you can eat now?"

"I think I could eat everything on that tray. What are you having?"

Hannibal smiled. "I can always get more."

He turned away to uncork the champagne, and Will stared at the long red marks on his back, with the occasional small purple bruise where the heel of the shoe had dug in. He got up on his knees to touch one.

"Shit, did I do that?"

"You did," Hannibal said, and he sounded smug about it.

"Sorry?"

"I liked it." He handed Will his champagne and got back into bed with him.

He pulled the sheets up to their knees, but they didn’t really need it. Even with the window open and the sun gone, the breeze carried no chill. He tucked Will into the curve of his arm and fed him strawberries until Will got too impatient and pulled the tray closer.

They ate sliced fruit and champagne, blini with caviar and sour cream, smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches cut into strips, and tiny honey cakes with orange syrup. They kissed between bites. The knot in Will’s chest had unraveled entirely, and he felt loose and happy.

"I’d like to take you to Florence," Hannibal said. "And Rome. Paris. London."

"London has cameras every ten feet."

"Morocco then. Perhaps Marrakech. Have you seen it?"

"I haven’t been anywhere."

"I’ll take you everywhere."

"And I’ll be happy to go, but not yet. I want to stay here for a while."

"In this house?"

"Yeah. I got you something. It’s kind of portable, but you won’t use it much if you’re distracted."

"A wedding present?"

"Yes. You want it now?"

Hannibal nodded, and Will slid off the bed to pull out the box. Hannibal peeled away the paper to reveal the wooden box inside with its lacquered shine and brass clasp. He opened it and laid a hand lightly over the rows and rows of pencils and oil pastels.

His face was expressionless. Will chewed the inside of his lip and stopped himself from saying anything.

"My uncle told me I had technical proficiency but no heart to my work," Hannibal said.

"Yeah. He told me that too. It didn’t stop you drawing. Your office was always full of—"

"He was right. You’ve seen them. The reproduction of reality is not art. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time, but that’s all."

"I saw that stag. I think Robert was full of it. Or just full of himself."

"What do you expect me to draw?"

"Whatever you want. Or nothing if you don’t want to."

Hannibal picked up a stick of charcoal and set it down again. "Suppose I wanted to draw you?"

"I wouldn’t stop you."

Hannibal looked over his naked body. "Like this?"

"Any way you want me."

Hannibal eyed him for a moment and then shifted to the end of the bed with a drawing pad and the box beside him. Will kept eating while he drew and then let his head tip back on the pillows to watch shadows move across the ceiling.

When he was done, Hannibal looked down at the paper with the sort of expression he used to direct at Franklyn.

"It can’t be that bad," Will said.

"You have no grounds for that assumption."

"You’re just used to doing everything perfectly. Or at least to thinking you do everything perfectly. Which is not the same thing, by the way."

"You haven’t complained."

"I didn’t say you didn’t do me perfectly."

"Shocking language from you, my dear," Hannibal murmured, with a small smile. He looked at his drawing a second longer and then balled it up and tossed it to the floor. He stretched out next to Will and laid his head on Will’s chest.

Will stroked his hair. "Try again in the morning. I hear sex is exhausting for men your age."

Hannibal made a disgruntled noise, but only pulled him closer. If Will had a premonition that Hannibal’s art might eventually tend more toward gutted bodies than his own live one, he kept it to himself.