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Only the Tender Meat

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The blue light of the police cars laps at Will’s face, strokes in waves across his bruised cheekbone, licks into the crevice of the cut in his lip. He’s curled in on himself, small beneath the blanket the paramedics wrapped around his shoulders against the chill of shock, but despite the marks on his skin and the tears in his clothes, his body is essentially undamaged.

Hannibal, sitting beside him on the doorstep of a house where a killer lies dead, finds this pleasing. It’s stopped surprising him, he notes with some interest, this satisfaction he feels at seeing Will whole when he could have arrived to discover him broken. He supposes there is a danger there to watch out for, in letting such emotional reactions become something other than rare exceptions, but it’s not an immediate danger, not yet one he can’t afford. And the danger itself is of course another point of fascination.

Besides, it is not Will’s physical state he’s here to deal with.

“Will,” he says, and Will’s eyelids twitch, the sound of his name snatching him back from the dark fields his mind was no doubt roaming, a dog’s head yanked up from a bloody trail by its master’s call. “You’ve had a traumatic experience. I don’t think it would be advisable for you to be alone tonight.” A pause, letting that settle. Then, more gently, as if he’s hesitant to offer: “I have a guest room, if you would consider sleeping there. I would certainly rest easier, knowing you were cared for.”

Will’s gaze flickers up to him, flickers away. There’s just enough time for Hannibal to catch the note of yearning there, the hope sharp as a hunger. Will may resist it, sometimes tooth and nail, but he does so long to be looked after, to be taken in and provided for. To be petted and fed.

“My dogs,” he says, shaking his head. “I need to…”

Jack Crawford has been standing above them on the steps for the last few minutes, but judging by the way Will starts at the sound of his voice, he hasn’t been aware of his presence.

“Give me your keys and I’ll go out and feed them,” he says. “Dr. Lecter is right; you shouldn’t be alone.”

“You’re trying to use your responsibility to care for others as an argument against receiving the care you need yourself,” Hannibal says. “It’s a line of reasoning you often fall back on. I would ask you to consider that it’s a flawed one, just for tonight.”

Will rubs his fingers over his eyes. The backs of his knuckles are scraped, the way a fist is scraped when it meets the bones and teeth of another human being’s face. In better light, if he took Will’s hand in his and brought it close enough, he is certain he would see skin beneath the fingernails, peeled-off remnants of blood and flesh. He is, he finds, very proud of Will. Beneath the outer layers of his vulnerabilities, his instinct for survival is a concealed blade, kept well-honed. The flash of it is a beautiful thing.

“Okay,” Will says. He gives a quick, quiet laugh; bitter amusement, more grimace than sound. “I probably shouldn’t drive, anyway.”

He wobbles slightly on his feet as he gets up. Hannibal, rising with him, reaches out to steady him with a grip on his elbow, and Will allows it, leans into it so that for a brief second, the weight of him is in Hannibal’s hand. A rare occurrence: the pressure of Will’s body on his bones, the tightening of his muscles to meet it, the minute shift in his stance to keep them both balanced. It’s over too quickly.

“Make sure he’s all right, Doctor,” Crawford says. Not a request as much as an order.

It’s amusing, how Jack thinks he can put the nurture of Will’s well-being out to tender and still be the one to claim his loyalty. He should know that the hand that feeds is always, in the end, the hand that holds the leash.

“I will do my best,” Hannibal says.

It is, in some ways, even true.


Back at the house, Will trails him into the kitchen, watching as Hannibal makes him tea, prepares him a sandwich. He eats it there, at the counter, while Hannibal wipes down the sink and puts clean dishes away in their cabinets. Will doesn’t say anything, and Hannibal doesn’t press him. Doesn’t study him beyond what he sees reflected in the window above the sink, contenting himself with the smeared-edged image of Will nursing his tea glass in the circle of his hands, body bent toward the heat Hannibal has given him. He tries to make his kitchen a place of comfort for all the people he chooses to keep close; it’s enough that Will is here, that he is smelling less of shock with every bite of Hannibal’s food, every quiet moment in Hannibal’s presence. They will talk eventually.

“I should make up your bed,” Hannibal says at last, turning to Will as he wipes his hands, folds the towel and sets it down. “You need to rest.”

Will’s face contorts in a scramble of emotions, twisting, smoothing out again.

“I’m not sure I can sleep,” he says.

“You might surprise yourself.”

Will sets his glass down on the counter, twists it around in a circle, twists it back.

“Oh, my mind has plenty of surprises for me these days,” he says. “They’re just never any good.”

The smile on his lips is pure bitterness.

Hannibal feels his mouth water at the promise of all the worlds of unexpected thought yet to be unveiled in Will’s mind, at the prospect of being there to share them, of having Will invite him in.

He lays his hand briefly on Will’s shoulder.

“That doesn’t mean you should give up hope,” he says. He pulls his touch away and steps toward the door, trusting Will to follow. “Let me show you the guest room.”


He gets Will settled in, but he finds he doesn’t want to sleep, himself. Instead, he retires to his study with the latest issue of American Journal of Psychiatry, and waits.

He has been reading for forty-two minutes by the watch on his wrist when the noises start.

Will isn’t screaming in his dreams. His sounds are softer than that, more vulnerable. The keening of a wounded animal, drawn-out and fearful, whimpers afraid to be heard, afraid to give themselves away, impossible to hold in. It’s transcendent: the sounds of a trembling mind hiding in the dark, terrified to draw the monsters, knowing that it will. Knowing it can’t help itself.

Hannibal lays his magazine down and goes to him.

The light from the guest room door when he pushes it open falls across the bed, across Will’s body laid out beneath the covers. He is thrashing, shaking. His right hand is clenched in the bottom sheet, clinging hard enough to expose the mattress. He smells of sweat and terror.

Hannibal’s shadow precedes him as he steps into the room, falls over Will’s chest when Hannibal himself perches on the edge of the bed, as if to weigh him down, a silent promise for the future. He bends toward Will, hands carefully in his own lap, not wanting to touch and disturb, and lets his eyes drop shut. Lets himself breathe.

The sweetness of Will’s illness is a spice sprinkled over the rich bouquet of what he is, an added note of fragrance that only enhances the scents that were always his own: the pain, the loneliness, the open mind like the clear smell of rainfall, the fear lying thick in every pore, a constant. Hannibal wants to bend deeper, wants to run his tongue over the sandpaper stubble of Will’s cheek to taste it.

Instead, he opens his eyes and lays his hand on Will’s arm.

“Will.”

Will jerks bolt upright, flailing in the moment of confusion. Hannibal tightens his fingers around his wrist.

“Will, it’s Hannibal,” he says. Calm, clear. Laying facts down as an anchor. “You’re at my house. You were having a nightmare.”

Will’s eyes snap to him, staring in a way he’s never seen when they’re fully awake. Will’s pulse beats quick under his fingertips, the heartfalls of a man running, of a man fighting for his life. Then Will turns his head away, and the fight drains out of him.

“Christ,” he says. He raises his hands to his head, and Hannibal loosens his grip to allow it. Will rubs at his temples, grinds into them. “Sometimes I wish I could just tear my brain out,” he says. “I think that would be an improvement.”

Hannibal’s tongue darts across his lips to wet them.

A butcher cleaves the animal’s skull down the center, pulls the halves apart to expose what lies inside. It takes strength, but it isn’t difficult. He wonders if Will would find that knowledge reassuring.

“Did you dream of what happened tonight?” he asks.

“That, and other things. I… There was a lot of blood on my hands.”

“The blood of Stephen Drayton’s victims? You put yourself in his place?” Such a messy killer. No sense of neatness there at all. The thought of being inside a mind that disorganized is unpleasant, to say the least.

Will scrubs his hands over his face, as if trying to scrub the images out of his eye sockets. As if he didn’t know all too well that they are already saved in the intricate maze of his mind. Safe from deletion, more or less.

“And then I saw our struggle from his perspective,” Will carries on. “Felt it. Felt my own hands push me - him - down the stairs and felt myself fall. I keep thinking, I shouldn’t have had to kill him. I should have followed my hunch and gone there earlier. Or I should have brought more backup. Or… I don’t know. Feels like there’s some choice I could have made that would have ended it all peacefully.”

“Or this was the closest to a peaceful resolution anyone could have achieved. He was a deeply disturbed man, you were fighting for your life. The choices you made led to the end of his killing spree. And whatever split-second decisions you made in that fight, they led to your survival. I for one am pleased with that outcome.”

He smiles, makes it mild and encouraging, laced with a suitable amount of worry.

Will sighs. Doesn’t quite try to return the smile, though he clearly makes an effort to pull himself together. His hands drop into his lap.

“You’re right,” he says, “I know you are. It’s just hard to feel glad I’m alive right now."

“You’re going through a difficult time. And the shock of tonight will wear off.” Hannibal reaches out again, gives Will’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “In the meantime, perhaps you could let your friends be glad for you.”

Will does smile at that, a tentative lift of the corner of his mouth, as if unsure how to approach the sentiment, or wary of acknowledging it.

“I should try to go back to sleep,” he says. “Hopefully I won’t disturb you again.” He doesn’t sound as though his hopes for that are especially high.

Hannibal would be remiss to leave him.

“You’ve sweated through the sheets,” he says. “You shouldn’t sleep like this.”

Will turns his face away. Hannibal can see the muscles jump in his jaw, strung too tight.

“I usually put a towel down,” he says. “It’s not a problem.” There is an anger in his voice that Hannibal diagnoses as embarrassment. The vulnerability of it is remarkably compelling.

“I think we can find a better solution for tonight, though,” he says. “Why don’t you sleep in my bed?”

Will turns back around to look at him. There is no eye contact, of course - Will’s scrutiny is rarely as obvious as that - but all the same Hannibal can feel himself being studied, measured.

There is still hostility in Will’s tone when he speaks.

“Is that a sexual invitation?”

So very direct. It’s been hanging in the air between them for some time now, and here it is, the bluntest of questions. He was wondering how long it would take Will to ask.

He tilts his head, studying Will in turn.

“Do you feel that your state of mind tonight is well suited to addressing sexual invitations?”

It’s not a no, not in any way an attempt at denying his own intentions. The ripple of lust and trepidation that travels through Will’s scent as that realization hits him is supremely gratifying.

His instinctive reactions regardless, though, Will actually thinks about it. Takes a moment to fully consider the question.

In the end, he shakes his head, sighing.

“No,” he admits.

“Then it isn’t one,” Hannibal says. His tone is easy, without regret. What he wants from Will is trust. Pushing Will into intimacies he might resent is not going to get him that, and any hunter will tell you that patience is what downs the prey. He squeezes Will’s arm again and gets up from the bed. “I’ll get you some dry clothes. And perhaps a shower will make you feel more like yourself.”

Will drags his fingers through the mess of his hair.

“All right,” he says. “I guess it can’t hurt.”

He pushes the covers back and gets to his feet.


When Will comes out of the bathroom his hair is damp with water, not sweat, and the clean, tired scent of him is layered over with the smell of Hannibal’s shampoo, with the faint residue of Hannibal’s own scent on the too-large t-shirt he’s loaned him, the too-long silk pajama pants. He looks small and wrecked and lovely, sitting down on the edge of Hannibal’s bed. Hannibal has never wanted more to keep him.

“I will sleep on the sofa in my study,” he tells Will, moving toward the door. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to wake me. I’m a light sleeper.”

Will rubs his palms over his thighs. He looks uncomfortable with the delicacy of the fabric he’s wearing, the frictionless slide of Hannibal’s pajamas over his skin.

“You could stay,” he says. “If you want to.” His lips quirk, searching for humor, his head tilting to indicate the mattress behind him. “Not like there isn’t room.”

There is, of course, ample room for more than one person on the heavy, oak-framed bed, although Hannibal has never shared it with anyone. There are certain levels of intimacy he finds it better not to encourage. However, he has always believed that the rarest specimens deserve the rarest exceptions.

“If you would find my presence reassuring, I can sit with you until you fall asleep.”

Will nods. The movement is jerky, too quick. His eyes are fixed on the shadows between his bare feet.

“Thanks,” he says.

Hannibal offers a small smile. Even if Will is unlikely to look up and see it, he will still hear it in his voice. Time has taught him how important these little details are in creating a complete impression.

“It truly is my pleasure, Will,” he says.

He moves to the other side of the bed from where Will is sitting, settles on the edge of it to take off his shoes. Behind his back, he hears the rustle of sheets as Will slips beneath the covers. The mattress dips with his weight, sighs with the turning of his body, then falls still.

Hannibal swings his legs up, on top of the covers, arranges the pillows so that he can sit comfortably against the headboard. He unfastens the buttons on his vest, then undoes the already loosened knot in his tie, pulls the length of it from around his neck, folding it neatly as he goes. When he looks down, Will is lying on his side, facing him. His eyes are open, following the motions of Hannibal’s fingers, tracking the green silk spooling in his hands. Hannibal lays his hands down in his lap, the folded tie still between them. Will’s eyes remain open.

He would offer to switch the bedside lamp off, but the light is soft, warm, mostly blocked by his own body from reaching the pillow where Will’s head is resting, and he finds he wants to see Will’s face, the way the light touches the curve of his cheekbone, the chiaroscuro effect as it drifts between the rough hairs scattered along the line of his jaw. It’s an image he will frame later, for the wall of the room in his memory palace dedicated to Will Graham, one more in a growing collection. There are so many angles of the man left to explore, the outside and inside of mind and body, he can’t imagine he will tire of uncovering them any time soon, a Hokusai capturing each new perspective, carving it out not in wood, but in the faultless medium of his memory, preserving it there, intact, for safe-keeping.

Will’s fingers pick at the edge of his pillowcase, restless, despite the exhaustion written in his features, seeping through his pores to permeate the air around him. Hannibal is just about to ask him what is on his mind, when he says:

“You cook brains for people, right? Alana said you served her brains last week?”

It sounds like a non-sequitur, but nothing with Will ever is. The thread of his thoughts is always clear; its other people’s perceptions that are too dim to follow it. Hannibal is willing to let it guide him, the monster tracing Ariadne’s path.

“An Indian stew, yes. Perhaps a bit heavy on the ginger. I believe I’ll experiment with the seasoning next time.”

“It should be too bitter to eat, though, shouldn’t it? All the memories and thoughts and dreams locked up inside, it ought to taste foul.”

Ah. So that’s the thread then, looping back on itself, the same thought that was there when he woke from his nightmare, turned over, examined closer. Explored.

Sometimes I wish I could tear my brain out.

“I doubt a calf’s thoughts are very bitter,” Hannibal says. “I would imagine they center primarily around milk and grass and other such bovine necessities. But, more seriously, the brains of most mammals actually have a smooth, creamy quality, both in consistency and flavor. I’m certain the human brain must be much the same. Regardless of what experiences it contains.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Will says, but he sounds unconvinced. Which is hardly surprising, given the state of his own brain at the moment. Smooth is probably not the word to best describe the experience of burning up from the inside out.

It isn’t a topic Hannibal should choose to dwell on, he knows this, not with Will Graham who might one day scratch down to the hidden brush strokes of all their conversations and reveal the true landscape of everything Hannibal is hiding from the world.

And yet he lets the words form on his lips, because they feel, as he shapes them, like what Will needs most to hear.

“On the other hand, before you cook the brain of a larger animal, you need to soak it. Once you’ve picked it clean of the outer membranes, it should be placed in a bath of cold water, ideally over night, to drain it of any unwanted residue that would ruin the taste.”

Will smiles. Like most of Will’s smiles, it has a sharpened edge turned inward, and yet it’s the first relaxed smile Hannibal has seen on him all night. He nestles deeper into his pillow, his head dipping closer to Hannibal’s hip.

“That sounds nice,” he says. “To be taken out of one’s head and rinsed clean. You’d keep the water cool, wouldn’t you?”

His voice is roughened, blurred, with fatigue and drowsiness, his mind walking the slack rope between waking and dreaming. He sounds wistful. Trusting.

Hannibal reaches his hand out, strokes a lock of hair away from Will’s temple. Lets his thumb brush skin, brush the fragile container of bone beneath. If it were open, he could sink his hands inside, cupped like the cupola of Will’s skull, and scoop the organ of his soul out, the labyrinthine flesh of Will’s mind resting in his palms like a wounded bird, like a ball of lightning, the last, fading electricity sparking through failing synapses as the light blinked out, blinked fainter like a dimming heartbeat, crackled softer into silence. He would be more than careful, but perhaps Will’s last thoughts would still singe his skin. He wouldn’t want to wear gloves.

“I think we know each other well enough now for you to understand the value I place in treating my ingredients with the utmost care,” he says.

His voice is as soft as he can make it, in harmony with the gentle sweep of his fingers through Will’s curls.

Will, whom he’s found the most wary of feral creatures, doesn’t pull away or turn to bite his hand. Only his fingers twitch at the touch, an almost imperceptible scratch against the mattress between them, and then he is still, quiescent, allowing himself to be petted. His hair is cool against Hannibal’s skin, soft and silken with moisture. It is an exquisite sensation.

“I like watching you cook,” Will says. And then, with the hint of a frown. “Alana always says you’re graceful in the kitchen.”

Hannibal cocks his head.

“But that’s not the word you’d use?”

Will appears to think about it, his teeth scraping at his injured lip as he considers.

“There’s a particular precision to what you do. An air of carefully applied strength. Grace is a part of it, but it strikes me as incidental.” Another pause. “I would use the word ‘powerful’.”

Hannibal draws in a breath. If his kitchen is a crime scene, then Will has just read it for him with the perception for which he is famous. It’s a profile accurate enough to be dangerous, in the moment when Will fully understands what he’s looking for, what pieces it is he is missing. For now, though, the way he’s chosen to frame his conclusions is the most interesting part.

“And that is something you find appealing?”

Will stirs under the sheets, a shrug, a rearrangement of limbs. Defensive, but his head bends further beneath Hannibal’s hand, exposing more of his neck. His words, when he speaks, are bitten off, reluctant, pushing themselves out raw and bleeding at the edges.

“I’m not very…steady. I have a fear of getting lost. Of mislaying myself. I am aware that makes me gravitate toward people with control, toward the idea of being held still, kept in a place that makes sense.”

Hannibal nods.

“Part of the mise en place.”

“Yeah,” Will says. It comes out breathless, barely audible. His eyelids fall shut. His nostrils widen. The change in his scent is unmistakable, as primal as fear.

“You are familiar with the term?” Hannibal asks. The answer is obvious, but he wants, very much, to hear Will’s definition.

“'Put in place’,” Will says. If he’s aiming for factual, his voice is too rough. “The order of the kitchen. Everything laid out where it needs to be. The ingredients waiting at the chef’s fingertips.”

“Ready to be used. Like that brain in its bowl of cool water.”

His hand is still now, a heavy weight against the back of Will’s head, the occipital lobe, the visual cortex. So many images gathered there, dark and radiant, real and imagined, the uniqueness of Will’s sight blooming deep within the ridges and furrows of that burning lump of flesh. If he cut it out, he would be able to hold it in his palm entire, his fingers closed around it.

“Resting,” Will says. “Calm. No decisions to make. Nothing to look at or figure out.”

Hannibal strokes his thumb over the delicate skin behind Will’s ear, lets it catch against his earlobe.

“Powerless,” he says.

Will’s hips stutter forward, angle down toward the mattress, seeking. The wave of scent from him is intoxicating.

It doesn’t stop when he catches himself, muscles stiffening as he shifts away.

“I’m sorry,” he says, running a hand over his face, rubbing at his eyes as he rolls over onto his back. “I’m being macabre.”

Hannibal shrugs.

“Perhaps. But sometimes thoughts that society considers inappropriate allow us to access states of mind we are deeply in need of reaching. You are more relaxed now, are you not?”

Will expels a puff of laughter.

“I’m not sure ‘relaxed’ is the right word for it.”

Hannibal lets his gaze stray down the length of Will’s body, lets Will see him looking. Will has drawn one knee up, making the sheet hide his physical response, as if they weren’t both acutely aware of it, regardless.

“I didn’t invite you to my bed for sex, Will…”

“I know, I…”

“…and I don’t think it would be conducive to the well-being of our relationship if I went back on that. But if you need to relieve yourself, I see no reason why you shouldn’t.”

Will’s body shivers. His right hand - dropped back onto the mattress at his side - curls, uncurls, already anticipating, reaching. But he is still hesitant.

“With you here?” he asks.

“I could leave, if you wish me to.”

Will shakes his head.

Hannibal waits for a verbal response, but it doesn’t come.

“Good,” he says. He strokes the hair back from Will’s forehead. “I’m glad.”

Will’s chest is rising and falling, deepened breaths at a quickened pace. He reaches for the corner of the top sheet, pauses as he starts to pull it back.

“Should I?”

“This is about what you need, Will,” Hannibal tells him. “If you want me to see you, that is your choice.”

“But you’d like to?” Will is almost looking at him now, turning his head to seek Hannibal’s gaze while carefully not meeting it. Begging for contact without, quite, knowing how.

“I think you know I would be lying if I said ‘no’.”

Will pulls the covers away, all the way back to bunch in the valley between their bodies. His t-shirt - Hannibal’s t-shirt - has ridden up to leave a strip of his stomach bare. There are bruises there, too, from the fight, shadows of it, dark along the edge of his ribcage. The blue silk of his pajama pants is raised by the shaft of his erection, the tip of it already peeking out above the loose waistband. Will reaches down, slides the pants down over the round contours of his testicles, only far enough for his genitals to be free. Then he takes himself in hand.

His breath turns into a gasp at the first touch to his cock, a hiss at the first downward pull. Then there are words.

“I’m too tired to make choices,” he says. “Not just… Not just tonight, I feel that all the time now. It would be so much easier, is the thing. Such a relief. To not have to think.”

“To be allowed to give up cognition,” Hannibal supplies. “To be nothing but flesh in someone else’s hands. I do understand, Will.”

Will moans, his hand squeezing down hard on his erection. Hannibal can smell the rush of pre-ejaculate before it leaves his body, a glimmer of smooth liquid spreading over skin stretched thin by gathering blood.

“What would you do with it?” Will says. “After the water?”

“With the brain?” Hannibal asks. And this, this is too sweet, Will laid out for him like this, inviting him, all but offering the most precious of gifts. He gives in to the urge to be closer, to lie down at Will’s side. Facing him, his hand still stroking Will’s hair, his skull, folding his limbs to curve around Will’s frame. His lips are almost to Will’s ear. He imagines Will can feel the warmth of his breath, though they do not touch. It might be a step too far, putting words to a longing Will hasn’t quite named, is afraid, perhaps, to make too real, but he wants it spoken now, wants to brand the mark of the words into Will’s mind, hear Will accept them, accept the fullness of his fantasy. “With your brain?”

“Yes,” Will says. His eyes are closed, his head thrown back. Hannibal can see the point where he would press down to drain his consciousness away - his breath, his heartbeat - willingly exposed. He can see Will’s Adam’s apple move when he swallows, his jaw clench down around the words before it opens to allow them. “My brain.”

Exquisite.

“I would keep it very simple,” Hannibal says. A small smile, a brushing caress to Will’s temple. Gentle. Fond. “I believe the finest ingredients should be allowed to speak for themselves.”

Will’s lips twist, a wry amusement. His legs are falling open, his nearest thigh touching against Hannibal’s hip, settling there. Another point of contact not shied away from, but sought out.

“I’m not generally very talkative,” he says.

Hannibal lays his hand on the inside of his knee. The silk beneath his fingers is warm with Will’s heat, shivering with it.

“It wouldn’t take much to make your flesh sing,” he says.

“Tell me.”

“When the last change of water remained absolutely clear, every trace of pollution washed away, I would sink my hands into the bath and lift you out. Gently, with care to keep each lobe, each sulcus intact, I would set you down on a rack and let the water drain away, wait for the warm air of the kitchen to dry you off.”

Will’s eyelashes flutter, shimmering at the edges of the lamplight, his tongue licking at parted lips. He’s making the sweetest noises - low hums of pleasure, sighs of need - almost more mesmerizing than the vocalizations of his nightmares. He is so vulnerable, fragile and exposed, meat and bones and human emotions, and Hannibal wants to consume him, wants, with a yearning that aches beneath his ribcage, to envelope him, devour and keep him and shield him from the world on every side. Wants to close his teeth around the deepest core of him and not let go.

It is quite fascinating, the unexpected strength of his desire.

He smooths his palm over Will’s knee, makes silk caress the inside of his thigh.

“I would need to cut you, then,” he says. “The very thinnest of slices. The knife would be sharpened for you, Will, the edge so keen it would sink through the soft meat of you as if it were butter. You’d give no resistance at all.”

“Hannibal,” Will breathes, and it isn’t frightened, he smells no fear on Will’s skin. But there is a helplessness in it, as if Will is lost in a sea of emotions he doesn’t understand, grasping for Hannibal’s guidance, for his hand in the dark.

“It’s all right,” he says. “I have you. It’s all right not to resist.”

Will whimpers, his larynx quivering around the air he pulls into his lungs, an inhale like a sob. He turns his head on the pillow, turns his face toward Hannibal. Not eye-to-eye, but his neck bent, his breath against Hannibal’s throat.

“Yes,” he tells Will, giving permission, squeezing the back of Will’s head to make it clear, and then Will’s cheek is pressed against his skin, the soft hair on his scalp tucked beneath his chin.

The nearness is warm, like blood in his mouth.

“Don’t stop,” Will says. “I don’t want you to stop.”

“I won’t,” Hannibal says, and the truth of the promise surges through him, an absolute knowledge, clarity like the heightened moment of a kill. He isn’t going to stop. With Will, he is never going to stop.

He buries his nose in Will’s hair, takes a moment to simply breathe him in before he continues speaking.

“It would be time for me to turn the stove on,” he says, “to melt butter in a pan. I would season the slices of your brain with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Then I would turn them in flour, give them a coating to protect against the heat. And I would sauté them.”

In his arms like this, Will is an animal thrashing with life, straining like wounded prey, begging to be held down, held in place through the throes of its struggle. Heart racing on the rim of stillness, almost there now, caught in its gravity well, kicking against it, bucking toward it, tethered to the inevitability of the fall. Will thrusts up into his own hand, his other fist closing around his balls, rubbing them. His cock is dripping onto his belly.

“It isn’t burning,” Hannibal says, “what happens in the pan - it’s coagulation. The substance of you pulling together, growing more solid. Golden brown on the surface, and beneath that forged by the heat into the purest version of yourself. All that isn’t needed melting away, leaving only what you truly are. No confusion, no nightmares or thoughts or other people’s longings. Only the tender meat.”

“I can’t,” Will says, a fever hot whisper into the hollow of Hannibal’s throat. He’s trembling, every sinew in his body taut, tightening. “I have to. Please.

The last word is almost inaudible. Grudging and desperate in equal measure, resented because uncontainable. It’s always overwhelming, to realize you need permission more than you need the thing itself, more so for a man like Will Graham, who clings so defensively to the independence of his mind. And yet here he is, unbidden, asking for what Hannibal could never give him unless allowed, could never withhold unless invited. Choosing for his choices not to be his own.

It is a more satisfying reward for his efforts than Hannibal would have imagined.

“Ssh,” he says, petting Will’s hair, holding him close. “You don’t have to hold on, Will. You can let go now. I want you to.”

Will does.

His hand speeds up on his cock, moving with a wet, sticky sound of flesh on flesh, base and beautiful, the honest song of existence, pure as the music of a knife through skin.

Then all breath leaves his body, torn from his lungs in a violent gasp, and he arcs upward, convulses, throws his head back, pushes it into Hannibal’s palm as his cock jerks in his hand, spilling heavy strands of semen onto his belly.

There is a moment when it eclipses everything, the world flooded by the smell of Will’s orgasm and Hannibal submerged within it, his senses swirling in the dark, bitter waters of ecstasy, no taste, no sound, no sensation existing beyond the rising fragrance of the man in his arms - a synesthesia of pleasure, of relief.

When the scent begins to fade, Will is stirring in his grip, and Hannibal lets him go, lets him stretch out, fall boneless back against the pillows. His breathing is slowing, the pulse beating visibly in the vein on his neck steadying, degree by degree. His right hand is still loosely curled around his softening erection, thumb stroking absently just beneath the head, as though not quite willing to give the stimulation up. There is sweat glistening in the thick curls between his legs. His stomach is stained with seminal fluid.

“God,” he says. His left forearm falls across his face, blocking the light out. Blocking his eyes from Hannibal. “That was… I needed that.”

Hannibal squeezes Will’s thigh, then takes his hand away.

“It would please me to see an improvement in your awareness of your own needs,” he says.

“Yeah,” Will says. “I know.” His tone is a peculiar mixture of defensive and fond. He arches his back, a smooth, relaxed movement, as if feeling the weight of his body, enjoying it. His hand drops away from his cock, his fingers flexing. “Right now I guess I need to clean up again.”

He moves as if to sit up, but Hannibal lays a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

“Allow me,” he says.

Will sinks back down, pliant.

There are tissues in a box in the bedside drawer. When he turns over to get them, he sees the green tie he wore tonight lying on the floor by the bed. He must have dropped it there earlier when he reached to touch Will, but he has no clear recollection of the action. He picks it up, folds it once more and sets it down on the nightstand. It’s rare, that he can’t seamlessly retrace his own steps, but he will think about that later. For now, he pulls a few tissues out of the drawer and turns back around.

Will’s face is still hidden by his arm, but if he is avoiding being seen, he doesn’t try to avoid being touched. Simply lies there, as Hannibal wipes him clean. His sternum, his belly, the jutting angles of his hipbones, not skin to skin - the tissue always between them - but gently, methodically, the spilled fluids of his body gathered, carefully collected. Will’s cock is almost completely soft when Hannibal lifts it up, wipes it down, but it still twitches in his hand, a sigh escaping from Will’s lips. Another night he might hold on to it to feel Will’s blood slowly rise again and fill it thick to bursting within the noose of his fingers, but this night is ending, is drawing already to a satisfying close; he doesn’t want to prolong it. He lays Will down, lays the tissues aside, pulls the waistband of his pajama pants up to shield him.

He is about to pull his hand away when Will’s fingers close around his wrist.

“Hannibal,” Will says. His voice is liquid with sleep, deepened by sex, very quiet. His grip is arresting. When Hannibal looks up at him, his head is raised from the pillow, his eyes as near to making contact as Will knows how to manage. “How would you serve it?”

He doesn’t need to ask what “it” is.

He tilts his head, as if considering.

“With something fresh and sharp,” he says, “something to complement the creamy smoothness of it on the tongue. Perhaps I would sauté some parsley, a little garlic, stir it with a twist of lemon. A clean, vibrant taste.”

Will shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “You know what I mean.”

He does, of course.

“An entire human brain would be quite a bit of food,” he says. “As a light starter, it would be sufficient for a dinner table of guests.” He knows whom he would invite - Jack, Alana, Abigail, that forensics girl Will likes to lean on, all the people who would truly care - but the list is purely academic, he knows that, too. “Although I have to confess I would find it difficult to share the taste of you.”

“You would eat all of it?”

“All of you, yes.” He makes his voice light, tugging at the edges of a joke, but he can feel the predator lurking in his smile, the hunter. He doesn’t want to hide it. “I’m afraid I can be quite gluttonous.”

Will shudders, a visible tremor underneath his skin. His fingers tighten on Hannibal’s wrist, pressing sinews into bone. His tongue darts across his lips.

“You would be full with me,” he says. It sounds wistful.

Hannibal raises his free hand, lays it against Will’s cheek. Turns his face fully toward him. Will’s eyes dash from side to side, a wild animal, cornered, looking for escape. Then, suddenly, they still.

They still, and Will is looking him in the eye.

Hannibal brushes his thumb along the curve of Will’s cheekbone.

“I would have room for nothing else,” he says.

He doesn’t realize how much it matters to him that Will understand the sentiment behind the words until he sees comprehension break in his eyes, sweet and warm like the flowering of blood on ruptured skin. It occurs to him that this must be something akin to what ordinary people feel when they make their banal declarations of affection, when they know, truly, that their desires will not be denied. It is curious, to find himself experiencing something so human.

Will leans into his hand, breathes in, as if inhaling the scent of the pulse beating in his wrist. The expression on his face isn’t quite a smile, but something calm, something restful, something balanced on the whetted edge of joy.

“Sleep with me?” he says.

The only answer Hannibal can find is: “Yes.”

Will pulls him down to lie beside him, behind him, their bodies fitted together like open parentheses, the beginnings of thoughts as yet unfinished, embedded, inextricably, one within the other. He tugs the covers up over Will’s torso, allows him to settle back against his chest.

Lower down, Will’s hips brush his, an accidental movement repeated as a question.

“I’m sorry,” Will says. “It’s been so long, I think I forgot how to do this like a person. Do you want to…?”

Hannibal is aware, then, of his own erection, of how it fits against the rounded muscle of Will’s backside, seeking the heat of his body through their clothes. It’s a reflexive physical reaction, inherent to the situation, and as such he hasn’t paid attention to it, any more than he does to his heart beating or to the rising of saliva in his mouth. But he can smell the awareness of it on Will’s skin, can taste the first promise of how he would accept it, of how his scent would expand around the presence of Hannibal inside him. If Will weren’t quite so near exhaustion, it would be the primal fragrance of a craving. It would be so very easy for Hannibal to come to crave it, too.

He touches his lips to the back of Will’s head.

“Not now,” he says. “I want you to rest now. We’ll both be here tomorrow.”

“Hmmm,” Will agrees. He already sounds more than half asleep, and his next words are a mumble, dangling on the cusp of dreams. “Mise en place.”

Hannibal has to close his eyes at that, at the promise Will is giving, the image Will has already painted for him to go with the phrase. In his minds eye, he can see it all laid out for him, the meat and spirit of Will Graham, each cut ready and waiting, separated for his pleasure from the whole. Freely given; his to handle, to transform.

He wraps his arm tighter around Will, gathers him closer.

“Just so,” he says. “At my fingertips.”

It is the place where Will, at long last, falls into a peaceful sleep. If either of them dreams any more that night, it is Hannibal himself, and all his dreams are waking.