"I'm beginning to wonder if 'empathy' is the right word for your gift after all," says Hannibal one evening as the rain pours outside.
Will leans forward against the railing. He's heard every variation of this conversation before and he's already a little disappointed to hear it from Hannibal. "I'm not sure 'gift' is the right word," he says.
Hannibal is seated behind his desk. This isn't the first time Will has preferred to spend their session above, and usually Hannibal stands facing him, attentive and patient. Tonight he's steeping tea while scrawling something on a notepad. He doesn't look up as he continues. "They say your ability involves experiencing the emotions of others. Their passions, their motivations, their fears. You resonate with them. You feel as they feel."
Will watches the rain against the window. It was raining when he came in, and his hair is still wet. Tiny droplets craw across his scalp. "Is that not the definition of empathy?" he asks.
"It is. But is it the definition of you?"
One of the droplets slips beneath Will's collar, and he shivers. "I thought this was therapy, not a dissection."
The quiet scratch of Hannibal's pen stops momentarily and then continues. "I realize that you are not fond of either," he says. "But given a choice, which would you prefer?"
Will stares at the back of Hannibal's head, knowing that Hannibal doesn't need to see his creased brow to know he's irritated. "Neither works on me."
"So you are fond of saying. Yet, here you are."
Will leans off the railing, rocking back on his heels so that he can feel all his weight against the tips of his fingers. He thinks about doing it from the other side. He fantasizes about falling backwards into a plush, warm bed of thick pillows, feathers in the air, like something out of a sleep aid commercial. God, he's tired. He hasn't slept more than six hours in the past three days.
"Here I am," he murmurs, and he doesn't know if it's true.
"Though I imagine, in your case, a professional might treat your therapy and your dissection as one in the same," says Hannibal thoughtfully. "Your disorder, if one can call it that, is highly unusual. One might not know how to go about offering treatment without first understanding."
Hannibal gets up from his chair and moves to one of the cabinets against the wall. "So, first comes dissection," he says as he reaches for something inside. "But that does them no good, and you, even less so. All those blunt scalpels poking about in your poor brain." He turns over his shoulder just enough that Will can see him smile. "How close am I?"
Will looks to the window. The rain is pounding now, fat drops slapping against the glass. He thinks of children crowded around a zoo enclosure, ignoring the warnings of their parents as they tap and shove and mutter. They all want to see the lion eat. "Pretty close," he says.
"And the therapy is much the same," continues Hannibal. "You know all the tricks, you once said. I'm certain you have planned out entire conversations of ours, based on your experience. You know what I might say to get you to speak. How I might prod you into the answer I want you to accept. The mold I might put you in."
Will paces toward the ladder, his fingertips brushing over the books on the shelves as he passes. "At first, maybe. I did." He shrugs beneath the weight of their last session. "But you sometimes manage to surprise me."
Hannibal looks pleased. He carries a pair of saucers and cups back to the desk. "May I ask, in what way?"
The answer stays in Will's mouth a long time. It rolls on his tongue, sweet and bitter at once. He wants to say it. He doesn't want to admit it. He wishes Hannibal would leave the room so he can whisper it, let it flow out from the mezzanine and get lost in the rain. "You don't judge," he says.
"And this is a novel experience for you?"
Hannibal tsks. "So few times in our lives are we able to speak in absolutes," he says. "When one such chance arises, it is our duty to take it."
Will sighs, swirling his finger around an ornament on the rail. "Yes. It's a new experience for me." And because he's being truthful already, he elaborates. "The therapists you were talking about--blunt scalpels. They always start out so curious, and by the end they're making that face." He realizes he's making it himself. "That smile when you're trying hard not to grimace."
"Therapy does not work on you because you do not allow it," Hannibal surmises. "You are afraid that if you are honest, they'll come to the truth of your nature, and be disgusted by it."
Hannibal pours the tea into the cups, and a gentle smell of earthy mint wafts into the air. Will knows it's his signal to descend, but he stays rooted at the top of the ladder, watching the cups steam like smoking gun barrels. "My nature," he repeats.
"What is your nature, Will?"
"You started this." Will grips the railing until his knuckles are white. "You tell me. How do you define me? And don't say rodent."
Hannibal's lip twitches as if suppressing the urge to correct him. "I raised the question as a matter of theory," he says. "I am even less interested in defining you than I am judging you. But I do sometimes wonder if your ability to reconstruct the thoughts of madmen in your own mind has anything to do with the men themselves."
Will frowns down at him. Thunder rumbles in the distance and there are children at all the windows, tapping. "Go on."
"When you first took the case of the missing girls, there was no Garrett Jacob Hobbs," Hannibal obliges. "There was only his absence. A blank canvas, one might say, that your imagination was willing to fill. It does it all the time, doesn't it? Fills the blank spaces. It's doing it now."
Will stares fixedly at the tea in the cups to keep from looking at the windows. "I'm not just making things up when I'm at a crime scene," he says crossly. "I can see it--feel it."
"Perhaps you see and feel it because you put it there," suggests Hannibal.
"But I was right." Will has to turn his back to Hannibal to climb down from the mezzanine. It's a convenient excuse. "I was right about almost everything. I knew Hobbs. Even now I--"
"Mr. Hobbs left for you a fine playground. He gave you all the necessary tools to craft for yourself a gruesome fantasy. And as we are fond of saying in psychiatry, the results inform on you a great deal more than on him."
Will reaches the floor and turns, and he is startled to find Hannibal directly in front of him, close enough that if he had taken a step they might have collided. "Perhaps you used him," says Hannibal, standing very still, his eyes bright and intense in the dull, warm light of the room. "Is Garrett Jacob Hobbs nothing more than a convenient excuse for an overactive imagination to play? In such a case we would not call that empathy. It might instead be more accurately defined as 'appropriation.'"
Will swallows hard, trying to lean out of Hannibal's space, but the ladder at his back prevents him. "You think I enjoy this," he accuses. "That I'm playing dress-up with psychopaths as some kind of...catharsis?"
"I imagine I'm not the first to suggest it," replies Hannibal gently.
"No." Will tenses beneath Hannibal's unblinking eyes. "Just the first to say so to my face."
"Is that why Garrett Jacob Hobbs affected you so much?" says Hannibal, and real fear, sharp and pinching, clings to every one of Will's nerve endings. "Because he broke your toys?"
"I'm beginning to feel very judged," says Will, and he tries to step around Hannibal, bitterly disappointed. He doesn't make it far, as Hannibal's hand leaps to his elbow. His fingers are sturdy, and though he does not grip hard, Will's body goes still and stiff as if by some supernatural force. Everything inside him cries for escape but he cannot move.
"Because," Hannibal continues, steering Will toward a chair, "in the end, it is a fairly harmless and very constructive game of make-believe. You get to hunt these men, try on their Halloween masks, and discard them once the congratulations roll in."
"Oh, yes, very harmless," Will snaps. "Hence the insomnia, my deteriorating mental state, my pronounced and entirely misplaced sense of guilt--the reasons I am here in therapy in the first place."
Hannibal pushes him, and he sits down in the chair--falls into it, more accurately. He blinks at Hannibal in surprise. He can't remember being often touched by Hannibal, let alone handled so roughly. His body tenses in anticipation of...what? Hannibal puts one hand on the armrest and crouches down, resting on the balls of his feet. It's surreal and strangely frightening to see Hannibal from this angle, his face upturned, his expression wise. Will's mind whirls in the empty space where Hannibal's motivations ought to be.
"That guilt is what makes the game harmless," Hannibal tells him. "It's the breath you feel on your face when you put the mask on. A true killer feels no guilt, no remorse, no sympathy. But you do." His hand slides along the armrest and finds Will's hand, taking hold. "As long as you feel that guilt, it means you cannot be one of them. And thus you have allowed it to consume you."
Will tries to shrink into the chair. He knows where Hannibal is taking him, and he feels the truth pacing about in his skull, its muzzle red and matted.
"Along comes Mr. Hobbs, a man who has no right to exist." Hannibal adds his other hand to the one already gripping Will's. "A killer as mad as all the others put together, but with one crucial difference: he feels that guilt, too. He honors his victims, even loves them in his own way. He laments a wasteful death. The wall between the two of you suddenly feels very thin, doesn't it?"
"You're talking about him in the present tense," says Will anxiously.
"And that is what truly frightens you, isn't it?" Hannibal lowers his voice. "If he is capable of feeling as you feel, does it not also follow that you are capable of doing what he does?"
Will stares back at him. He considers feeling horror and revulsion. He waits for Hannibal to smile that way they always do, even though he knows he won't. Hannibal isn't like the others. His hands are hot and rough, touching him where professional boundary ought to separate. Hannibal sees the pit in the heart of him and he doesn't withdraw. He doesn't judge. He's not judging now. It puts Will in a strange mode of weightless desperation, and he can't let go of Hannibal's hand. Why does a psychiatrist have such strong hands?
"When was the first time?" Hannibal asks. "How old were you when you first considered the possibility that you were capable?"
"I was..." Will's mouth is dry, and his tongue is no help. He makes helpless, breathy sounds like a beached fish. It occurs to him that Hannibal has taken a posture meant to soothe a child, and childish memories are drawn from it. "I was twelve, I think. At a public beach. A boy from school held my head under the water." Hannibal tilts his head to the side, and Will grimaces, wanting to start over. "It was just rough-housing. He didn't mean anything by it. His name was... I don't remember."
"It's all right," Hannibal prods.
"I knew he was going to do it," says Will. "I was frustrated more than anything. It's not that I was afraid. I've always been a strong swimmer--it's not like he would have drowned me." He shakes his head, feeling that old frustration twisting inside him. It wraps his sinews around his bones like clock gears. "I guess if I could say that I was afraid for my life, that would justify it. But I just wanted him to stop. I remember thinking...please, don't let me hurt him."
Hannibal leans back on his haunches. "And did you?"
"No." Will surrenders a breath of nervous laughter. "No, I barely fought back at all. He let me go and it was all a joke. But for just one moment..." He rubs his face with his free hand. "I don't know what I would have done, but I was afraid. I thought about him dying for a long time after that. I wouldn't go near him. God, I can't believe I don't remember his name..."
Hannibal pushes to his feet, and Will's hand clenches involuntarily. A moment ago he was in full retreat and now Hannibal is the sorely needed anchor. When Hannibal eases them apart, the sound of the rain fills his ears and Will feels embarrassed for missing him.
"You realize," says Hannibal as he turns away, "that what you're describing is very common. Any child in your position might say the same thing. Many would have fought back." He picks up the teacups. "I did."
Will frowns at Hannibal's broad shoulders beneath the tailored cut of his thousand dollar suit. His eyes are drawn to the steady, effortless grace of Hannibal's hands balancing the saucers as he crosses the room. He can't imagine Hannibal as a child.
"So what was it?" Hannibal offers Will one of the teacups, and he accepts. "Why let it trouble you so deeply?"
"Because..." Will leaves the saucer in his lap and cups his beverage in both hands, letting its warmth seep into him. "By then I already knew there was something different about me."
"Something wrong with you?" Hannibal supposes.
Will grimaces. "I didn't know what I was capable of," he says. "Maybe I was being melodramatic, but maybe I wasn't. I don't know." He shakes his head. "I was just a kid. I didn't know what was going on in my head."
Hannibal takes the seat across from him, elegantly folding his legs. He sips from his tea. "Is that why you went into psychology?" he asks, with enough irony in his tone to let Will in on the joke.
It works; Will can't help but smile. "That's the stereotype, isn't it? That we're all here because we're diagnosing ourselves?"
"Some stereotypes are rooted in truth," says Hannibal. He tilts his head. "Some young boys dream of becoming firemen when they grow up, because they see in themselves a hero. But there are some who become firemen because they see in themselves the flame."
Will continues to smile into his cup, and finally he takes a sip. The tea is strong and earthy, with a hint of mint and maybe lemon. It's familiar but he can't place it. As he drinks it down, the warmth spreads out through his chest. It radiates from his center in fingers of orange light, licking him from the inside. Maybe Hannibal's metaphors are getting too obvious, he thinks to himself. Maybe he feels it because he put it there.
"Which are you?" asks Will.
Hannibal smiles over the lip of his teacup. "The latter," he replies.
And maybe Hannibal doesn't realize the terrible thing he's just done. Maybe it was the plan all along. Will raises his eyes and sees in the man across from him a flicker of light, a flame on the inside. He wonders about Hannibal as a child, the "proverbial orphan" of Eastern Europe. He tries to imagine Hannibal as a young man in a French boarding school, as a promising young medical student, as a grown man building a kingdom for himself. For the first time he turns the lens of his mind on Hannibal Lecter and considers him as human, with a lifetime of experiences that have molded him into this man of refinement and taste and impartiality. He reconstructs in vivid imagination a bright-eyed boy holding his bully's head under the water.
He wants to know Hannibal Lecter. He wants to feel his breath steam back against his skin, trapped beneath the contours of Hannibal's sculpted face. He meets Hannibal's even stare and he sees himself as a child, pressed up against Hannibal's glass. And now that the curiosity is in him, he's sure it will never leave.
He wants to asks Hannibal how old he was when he knew he was capable.
Will forces himself to take another sip of the tea. It's good, and he focuses on each particular scent and taste to get his weary brain under control. "There's nothing I could say that would surprise you, is there?" he asks quietly. "Nothing I could do, no association I could make. It'll never be too much for you."
Hannibal sets his teacup down in the saucer. "I cannot promise that," he says. "But I can promise that you were right. I will never judge you." He pauses. "And if I made you feel that I was doing so, I apologize. I can sometimes get carried away."
"No, it's... I know." Will lowers his eyes. "It's not like I can say you're entirely wrong. Hobbs was...different. Is different. I didn't know it was possible to be what he is. You were right--it frightens me." He rubs his face, struggling against a sudden exhaustion. "I don't know about the rest."
"Then the rest can wait." Hannibal sips down his tea and then rises to pour himself a fresh cup. "Finish your tea, Will. Try to relax. Maybe even sleep, if you can."
Will starts to drink but then pauses. "What kind of tea is this anyway?"
"It's catnip," says Hannibal. "It contains nepetalactone, you know. It may help your insomnia."
Will eyes the bottom of his cup. "It's also a diuretic."
"The restroom is just next door if you need it."
Will frowns at the tea a moment longer and then finally gulps it down, with as much politeness as he can muster, for Hannibal's sake. When Hannibal lifts the teapot questioningly, Will nods, and holds the cup steady so Hannibal can refill it for him. "Thank you," he murmurs.
"You are very welcome," says Hannibal.
"Do you..." Will shifts in his seat. "You don't mind if I close my eyes for a minute?"
"Go right ahead." Hannibal returns the pot and then leans against his desk, giving Will privacy and space. "You are paying me by the session, after all, not the hour."
Will smiles slightly. He continues to drink the tea for a while, letting himself believe that it has the properties Hannibal claims. Until the drink is gone his mind is full and racing, peppered with images he can't explain or halt: Hannibal as a young man, falling in love with a French woman; blunt scalpels lying rusted in their trays; a weathered stag running from a predator; Hannibal's breath in the winter air. But once the cup is empty, a calm comes over him. One by one the lights begin to go out, until all that's left is the rain on the windows. He lets go of the children and their pawing, oily hands rapping on the glass.
Instead, he thinks about a gentle summer storm. He lets the rain become a swell of waves on the shoals. As Will drifts off to sleep he's in a little boat on the ocean, rocking back and forth on the soothing, dark water. He feels almost safe. The wooden planks creak with every pitch and sway, and the sails flutter in the wind.
But at the back of his mind he knows it's only Hannibal, his footsteps creaking on the mezzanine, his fingertips fluttering over a row of spines.