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Bright Hair About The Bone

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Huge thanks to CrazyInLov3, Patties92, marlahanni, Lowrie and Lyceiad for the beautiful cover art.

 

 

"When my grave is broke up again, Some second guest to entertain...And he that digs it, spies a bracelet of bright hair about the bone…"

The Relic by John Donne

 

The interrogation room itself is surprisingly quiet. Just hushed held breath that’s sharp in the intake and whistles softly on the exhale, the staccato tick of the clock and the occasional rustle of papers as they’re turned over then held still again; all punctuated by the mournful whine of a tape recorder that’s recording nothing. Together the sounds swell and surge in a softly subdued whisper like feet swirling through dry leaves, but no one is actually speaking. It’s as if all the vigour and animation within their four little walls has been gently bled to death and left nothing behind but muteness as its life ebbs away and a state of suspended animation steals over the room in the same way gangrene creeps along a once healthy limb.

The real noise – noise as opposed to sounds – is coming from the corridor outside, and if the interrogation room has watched helplessly as its own soundtrack withers and dies then here there is volume in an abundance that borders on extravagant. There’s a choir of clamorous voices, the unmistakable clicking sound of several cameras, the pounding of footsteps as yet another person runs past the door and in the midst of it all, louder than the rest, a gratingly high-pitched jabbing noise as someone (almost certainly Freddie Lounds) shrilly demands their Press Rights before adding something needlessly self-righteous about the First Amendment. But the interrogation room itself is like a cocoon of silence: a little oasis of calm amid a sea of noisy chaos…if calm can reasonably be comprised of a metal ceiling and wipe-clean tiles with a two-way mirror and a panic button. Of course the opposite should rightfully be the case in that the corridor is the place that’s respectfully quiet while the interrogation room rings out with the noble noise of justice being done, but it’s not like the switch really matters. Besides, when did anything ever work out as it should?

Will supposes that the detectives are waiting for him to speak first but he doesn’t particularly have anything else to say so just stretches his legs out beneath the table and stares fixedly at his hands instead. They look rather pale and vulnerable against the dark wood of the table top, almost as if they don’t belong to him, and there’s a circlet of purple bruises blooming on his left wrist that he doesn’t remember getting. They seem so frail though; surely his hands ought to be more robust and capable than these slim useless-looking things? The handcuffs don’t help of course, even though they’re actually fairly discreet as handcuffs go: when he glances at them the flash of metal could almost be a bangle, a silver one to match the amethyst of the bruises. He supposes it would be easy enough to slip them if he really wanted to, although there hardly seems any point.

“The public has a right to know,” the voice is now insisting (it’s definitely Freddie Lounds). “The FBI always tries and covers these things up. How many times have I said he’s crazy…?”

The elder of the two detectives clears his throat awkwardly then exchanges a pointed look with his partner who gives a small nod in response and disappears through the door just as Will finally stops staring at the table and raises his head instead. His reflection in the mirror is also far too pale, just like his hands: he looks like a ghost of himself. Then there’s a renewed flurry of activity outside before everything goes quiet there too and the younger detective reappears a few seconds later and closes the door behind him, vigorously dusting his palms together as if he’s just engaged in something to make them unclean.

“Can I get you anything son?” the elder detective now says; and Will and the younger one glance at him with something like surprise as if he’s done something incredibly daring by finally breaking the silence. “Coffee? Cigarettes?”

Will shifts slightly in his chair and wonders if Jack’s watching through the two-way mirror. “No thank you,” he replies evenly. “I’m fine.” Breaking the silence…yet another thing that’s brittle and breakable, then. Just another thing to add to the all the bones and promises and pledges and hearts that are there in the world right now, poised to shatter and crumble and likewise refusing to endure. Not that it really matters; not really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

“You know you’d be better off just telling us what happened. You know that right?” The detective’s voice is pitched deliberately low, soft and inviting, and Will doesn’t need to look at him to know that his features will be arranged into an expression of carefully cultivated concern (eyes softly supplicating, mouth quirked into a hopeful smile…no doubt he practices it in the two-way mirror during his lunch breaks). “We can’t help you if you don’t tell us the truth.” 

Will tries not to sigh too audibly. It’s the classic routine, text-book in fact: a display of consideration and understanding that gently invites the suspect to unburden themselves until confessions start fluttering from their mouths like confetti. Despite the gravity of the situation Will can’t help feeling faintly insulted that they think he’d fall for something so obvious. Then he realises he’s started staring at his hands again, and that it’s getting boring, so shifts his gaze to the table top instead and begins to track along the eddying ink stains that billow and swirl across the surface amidst a clutter of pockmarks, scars and scratches that act as wordless testimony to years of other people’s frustration. There’s a particularly large mark to the left that looks like the outline of California…

“Why not just tell us how you did it?” the detective is now saying. “Start at the beginning. How’d that be?”

Why not let me punch that fake-concern right off your face? thinks Will irritably. How’d that be? “I didn’t,” is all he replies, and can’t help feeling proud of how steady he manages to make his voice sound.

“There were extenuating circumstances,” insists the detective as if Will hasn’t spoken. “You weren’t yourself at the time. People would understand; they wouldn’t judge you. They wouldn’t blame you for it.” Will quirks an eyebrow and the detective clears his throat again. “Well, yes, obviously there’d be consequences, but…you know what I mean. Let us help you Mr Graham. People here have got your back; they care about your wellbeing.”

“It’s probably a bit late for that,” replies Will in the same level tone as before. “I think that particular ship has sailed.” Yeah…sailed and sunk in the fucking harbour. “I told you – I didn’t do it. I know what it looks like but you need to believe me.” Then he pauses in spite of himself because of course they don’t need to believe him; and to be honest he wouldn’t believe it either if it was him on the other side of the desk and the detective with the fake smile was sat here with the handcuffs and the bracelet of bruises. Nevertheless he can’t stop himself adding: “You’ve got the wrong person.” Through some miraculous force of effort, he manages to stop the desperation leaking into his voice.

This time they don’t even bother dignifying the denial with a response and Will sees the blatant scepticism on their faces and feels like giving up. “You asked me if I wanted anything,” he says instead. “I do. I want my phone call.”

The older detective gives a heavy sigh at this then holds up his hands in a distinctly over-the-top imitation of someone who’s reached the end of their patience, rather as if Will’s being an impossible diva and demanding Cristal champagne and a basket of kittens as opposed to simply requesting his legal rights. “Okay then,” he says wearily. “Okay Mr Graham. You want me to call your attorney?”

It’s a simple enough question – of course it is – but the response is complex, and so Will doesn’t answer immediately because now the time has come it’s difficult to commit to the decision. He isn’t even entirely sure what the source of the delay is. Shame, probably. Or maybe it’s more like pride: a reluctance to acknowledge a need for help or assistance, or to even acknowledge a need exists; as if naming it is going to confirm the nightmare is real and he’s not merely dreaming while he’s awake. But where else can he possibly go after all? And where else would he even want to…? Nevertheless for a few more seconds he still says nothing: just stares at the ink and the bruises and his too-pale hands and says nothing.

“Mr Graham?”

The abruptness of the tone makes Will jump and it’s then that he realises he’s not quite sure how long he’s been silent for: how long he’s been staring at the pock-marked desk and the swirling ink stains that look like California. But he has to do something now; it’s now or never. The time is now. Now, now. So he takes a deep breath before finally raising his head.

“No,” he says, calm yet firm. “Not my attorney.”

“Who then?”

For the first time Will looks the detective straight in the eye: pale, strained yet still oddly defiant. “No,” he repeats, slow and clear so there can be no mistake. “Not my attorney. I want to speak with Dr Hannibal Lecter.”

*****

SIX MONTHS EARLIER

FBI Training Academy; Quantico, VA.

 

The winter sun is starting to set, streaking the sky the same purple-vermillion as bruises and blood while the shadows lengthen and one by one the lights flicker on around the Academy building in an attempt to chase the darkness away. Outside the main auditorium a crowd swells and multiplies as assorted trainees begin to gather together: some casually nonchalant, others in a haze of intrigue and anticipation and a few more with barely concealed impatience. In fact the lecture was due to start ten minutes ago, but as of yet the doors haven’t even been unlocked and no one has appeared to explain the delay.

“Have you ever met him in person?” one of the trainees is asking her neighbour.

“No. I mean I’ve seen him around, but I wasn’t in his class last semester.”

“Me neither. I’m curious though, I’ll admit. They say he’s supposed to be some kind of genius.”

“Who says that?” demands the other trainee, who prides himself on being duly sceptical of other people’s good opinions.

The girl shrugs then shifts her gum to the other side of her cheek. “I don’t know…everyone.”

“Yeah but who exactly says it?”

“You talking about Will Graham?” asks a third, unashamedly eavesdropping on the conversation.

“Yeah,” confirms the male trainee. “Nina here seems to be getting a bit of a crush. Him being such a genius and all.”

“Oh shut up Alex, seriously. I do not.”

“Everyone has crushes on him,” replies the third student, leaning over to steal a piece of Nina’s gum. “And then they all get cured the same way.”

“What’s that?”

“They meet him.”

“That’s rather unkind,” says Alex, laughing heartily.

“Well it’s true. Let’s just say he lends himself a bit more to long-distance devotion.”

Nina gives a wry smile then turns and inspects Will’s photograph which, despite his relatively recent appointment, has already been added to the collection of prestigious staff members displayed along the foyer wall. Jack Crawford, two places to the right, glares back disapprovingly: his gaze, not unlike the Mona Lisa, seems to possess an uncanny ability to track the observers round the room. “Mr Graham’s certainly very easy on the eye,” she says in a thoughtful voice.

“And absolute hell on the ears,” replies the third trainee firmly. “You haven’t experienced true public humiliation until Will Graham has caught you passing notes in his class and chewed you out in front of 30 other students. Not that he even needs to say anything; that little bastard has a glare that could quell a lump of granite.”

“Passing notes? How old are you – 12?”

“I was trying to organise a ride,” says the third trainee, miming wounded dignity.

“To a seminar?”

“To a bar, as it happens. How many 12 years olds go to bars? Oh I forgot you’re from Detroit aren’t you? They probably all do.” Nina rolls her eyes and he grins before adding, much more seriously: “God knows we need the occasional bit of downtime. Especially at the moment.”

There’s an ominous pause as the three of them exchange glances. “This evening,” says Nina finally, deliberately lowering her voice. “Do you think Mr Graham’s going to talk about…him?”

“Assuming he turns up to talk about anything? No – no way. Jack Crawford is maintaining a blackout for as long as he can. No one’s talking about it.”

“Why? That makes no sense.”

“Because no one’s ever seen anything like this,” replies Alex bleakly. “They’ll be trying to prevent a public panic.”

“But that’s my point; if people are aware they can protect themselves.”

“But how? All they know is that he targets omegas. That’s it; there’s no other pattern at all. They don’t know how he picks them up, how he chooses them – even the location keeps changing. They won’t go public until they have a proper profile.”

“And how do you know so much about it?”

Alex clears his throat and suddenly looks awkward. “I was reading the roster near Mr Graham’s office,” he says after a pause. “The, um, the walls are pretty thin.”

“Oh my God, you’ve been listening at his door!” crows the third trainee triumphantly. “Now who’s crushing on Will Graham?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Been waiting to leap to his assistance have you? Hovering hopefully in the corridor for a chance to carry his briefcase?”

“It wasn’t like that at all…”

“Oh Mr Graham,” says the third trainee in an exaggeratedly falsetto voice. “Your angelically grumpy face undoes me Mr Graham. I’d swap my badge for the chance to polish your spectacles. The sight of your little beard…”

“All right, that’s enough,” snaps Alex in a pompous voice. “You’re being completely inappropriate. A serial killer is hardly a laughing matter.”

“Agreed; you’re the laughing matter. You and your Will Graham fetish.”

“For the last time, I have not…”

But the rest of sentence is lost amid the sudden swirl of activity at the back of the foyer as the doors swing open and Will and Jack Crawford walk in. Jack’s presence at a trainee lecture is unusual enough in itself to immediately provoke a buzz of intrigue, although it’s the sight of Will that creates the greatest stir: incredibly bleak and pale with a grim set around his eyes and mouth. “Something’s happened,” says Nina, abruptly sobering up. “Look at his face.”

As if it’s something contagious, the ominous severity radiating from Will and Jack has a powerfully sedative effect on the assembled students who quickly grow silent and subdued until finally one, more daring than the rest, calls out: “Mr Graham!”

“There’ll be time for questions later,” replies Will tersely, neither slowing his pace or even turning round to look at the speaker. “Hurry up please. Take your seats.” Then for a few seconds he pauses, exchanging glances with Jack as beyond the window comes the unmistakable whine of sirens: high-pitched and wailing like something in pain. Simultaneously a new sound begins to break out in the foyer itself and which, unlike the sirens, is low and muffled with the same rhythmic quality of a metronome: the result of a group of human voices repeating the same thing over and over again in an undertone. Initially it seems as meaningless as the sirens themselves, yet listen carefully and the throb of syllables gradually clarifies and disconnects in order to form actual words: There’s been another one; there’s been another one. Will and Jack exchange another loaded glance then disappear into the cavernous black of the auditorium as one-by-one the trainees follow behind at a respectful distance, eyes all cast to the floor like pallbearers at a funeral.

*****

Will clears his throat for what feels like the twentieth time then stares out into the sea of faces, all of which are bleached eerily pale from the light of the projector while gazing up at him with glittering eyes and eager hopefulness as a possessor of knowledge that he might deign to share with them. He wishes he could tell them not to bother – not least because it’s the type of knowledge that no one in their right mind should want. And perhaps it’s an illusion created by the eerie light and the eagerness but somehow they all look so young, even though of course they’re not; not really. Maybe it’s just that he himself is starting to feel so old. ‘Careworn’ – that’s the word for it: like his assorted anxieties and apprehensions have begun to literally chip away at him and grind off slivers and fragments as they go. Although in this precise moment he doesn’t even feel old or worn as opposed to bizarrely absent, as if he’s watching a bad replication of himself that’s been unleashed into the world without any clear instructions about how to behave. A miswired robot perhaps…a malfunctioning android from one of those ridiculous sci-fi films that are always being advertised on late night television when only the insomniacs are awake to watch them.

Will blinks a few times, trying to focus as the sharp spike of a headache begins to pincer at the side of his skull. This evening’s scene was a particularly bad one – although aren’t they always? – and the afterimages of it keep flickering at the edge of his vision. Many more like this and Jack Crawford’s attempts to limit the press exposure will be blown to smithereens; though admittedly the idea of keeping it quiet is already a bit of joke because nearly everyone knows by now that a new serial killer is at large. The only thing that isn’t common knowledge is the extent of it, but his existence itself can no longer be plausibly denied. Even the nicknames have begun to circulate: all flashily alliterative and theatrical sounding as these things generally tend to be, rather as if it’s a thrash metal singer that’s seeking a nom-de-plume as opposed to a deranged and vicious thief of human life. The Baltimore Butcher. The Monster of Maryland. The Reaper. Freddie Lounds is clearly hoping that the Sculptor is going to gain traction and has been going to a great deal of trouble to adorn the home page of The TattleCrime to successfully advance the cause.

“I don’t get it,” Will had said to Jack regarding the last one.

“Well…I suppose it’s because he carves them up.”

“He doesn’t carve them,” Will had snapped irritably. “He hacks them.”

The image of the most recent victim now promptly veers into Will’s peripheral vision and he determinedly blinks again to try and banish her. “And so,” he says firmly, “you can clearly see that this is another critical distinction between organized and disorganized offenders. The former is more likely to be geographically and occupationally mobile, whereas the latter…” Oh Christ, someone’s trying to ask a question: he can see the arm waving determinedly in the air from side to side as if the stupid fucker thinks they’re brandishing a lighter at a rock concert. “Yes,” says Will with barely concealed impatience.

“Mr Graham, do you consider the Sculptor to be an example of the organized or disorganized type?”

The sound of the forbidden words prompt a sharp intake of breath amongst the audience, although whether it’s from admiration that someone has dared to speak the unspeakable or condemnation for the same is impossible to say. From the corner of his eye, Will can see Jack stiffen in his seat. “I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to discuss that,” he replies now, in the sort of voice that clearly indicates he’s not remotely sorry. “This isn’t a lecture concerning an individual case study.”

“But sir…”

This time Will doesn’t answer at all but merely glares at the offending questioner over the top of his glasses. “Lump of granite,” mutters the third trainee in an undertone to Nina.

Will irritably shuffles his notes then gives the PowerPoint slide a determined click. “The organized offender generally kills at one site and then disposes of the body at another,” he says tersely. “He’s likely to be in careful control of every aspect of the scene, and this includes leaving very minimal physical evidence behind.” He pauses then stares intensely into the sea of faces as if daring anyone else to interrupt him and in the resulting silence there’s a soft creaking sound as the door to the auditorium swings open. The shaft of light briefly illuminates Will’s face and shoulders as if he’s been granted his own personal spotlight, and those who are expecting him to explode at the interruption are surprised to see him glance up then give a small but undeniably sincere smile. A few of the more curious students swivel round in their seats to try and identify who the usually inscrutable Will Graham could have been gazing at so warmly, but by that time the tall dark figure has already discreetly vanished into the shadows and there’s nothing to see but blackness.

“Of course this all has major implications for how these individuals respond to police interview,” adds Will as the next slide appears on the screen. He pauses again then frowns, his eyes suddenly piercing and forceful within his pale face. “If the disorganized offender requires a more counselling-type approach the opposite is true of the organized type. Direct questions are preferable because he wants to affirm his personal sense of superiority.” For a few seconds he shifts position on the stage and the scenes of carnage from the projector are fleetingly imposed straight over him: stripes of scarlet and seared skin that give him the look of a sacrificial offering – a young martyr, preparing to be beatified. “This includes attempting to subvert investigators,” adds Will. He waits a few more moments, slowly tracking his gaze across the audience. “I hope I hardly need to remind you that your job is not to let him.”

*****

Once the lecture is over Will practically dives off the stage in order to do what he always does at this point in proceedings, which is to escape into one of the disused classrooms at the back of the auditorium and conceal himself there (and which is not hiding or, God forbid, lurking – definitely not) until the crowd has dispersed and he can emerge again and make his way to the carpark without getting swamped by overeager trainees. Will is extremely fond of this strategy as a general rule, because unless one or two trainees are particularly overeager and insist on breaking into his dark hiding place (not that it is hiding) it has an excellent track record for effectiveness. Nevertheless he knows it’s destined to be thwarted this evening, seeing that this evening also happens to be the date of a social event arranged by Jack in order for the newly assembled task force assigned to the Sculptor case to get to know each other. Will isn’t even sure how appropriate it is to stand around drinking warm wine and eating canapes given the circumstances, but Jack was determined. “It’s like team bonding,” he’d said, before remembering the double meaning of the word ‘bonding’ and looking faintly awkward. “It’s good for morale.”

“You got that from a government seminar,” Will had said accusingly. “Didn’t you Jack?”

“What difference does that make?” Jack had replied, visibly casting his mind back to whatever management training he’d been forced to attend in order to regurgitate this crap. “Occupational wellbeing is paramount. Mental and physical comfort is the key to a happy, successful workplace.”

Will had given up then, partly because Jack was coming treacherously close to sounding like a rambling old hippy that was going to stand over them all and make them sing Kum Ba Yah, but mostly because his own mental and physical comfort is such a rare intangible thing that it’s impossible to quantify in any meaningful way – beyond the fact that whatever there is that’s left of it is certainly destined to be crushed to death by being forced to wade through an evening of stilted small talk and social niceties. “Dr Lecter will be there,” Jack had added, obviously thinking this would be a point of reassurance. “You can talk to him if you start feeling uncomfortable.”

In fact this hadn’t been quite the consolation Jack was anticipating it to be. Admittedly Will is pleased that Hannibal’s going to be present, yet he’d simultaneously felt dismayed by it because he likes Hannibal to see him in environments where Will is reasonably competent and in control as opposed to ones in which he’ll be gauche and awkward and entirely out of his element: in other words, situations which serve to highlight the differences between them in a way that puts Will at an enormous disadvantage. Because Hannibal – of course – has impeccable social presence and indelible poise, all doubtlessly acquired from a privileged aristocratic upbringing, from medical school, and possibly from a courteously patrician father or resolutely well-bred mother…although somehow it’s hard to imagine Hannibal having something as commonplace as a mother and father, the same as anybody else. Not that any of this can change the fact that Will’s starting to feel his own social capacities should be renamed Schrödinger’s Social Skills on the grounds that there’s only a 50% chance of whether they’ll exist or not depending on whether Hannibal happens to be nearby.

Through the thin walls of the classroom Will can already hear a low hum of voices from where the guests have begun assembling, most of whom he knows will have also attended his lecture beforehand as a courtesy. Realms and realms of them no doubt, glassy-eyed and judgemental – and all waiting for him to appear. Will sighs unhappily into the dim silence then briefly pictures his own house, serene and solitary except for the pack of dogs, and has a sudden yearning to be there that’s so strong it’s almost physically painful. Only that it’s not the real source of the pain, which is in fact coming from his abdomen – and has been for several days now – and which he’s desperately trying to ignore out of a half-formed hope that if he doesn’t give it any attention it’ll give up and slink away in the manner of a schoolyard bully who loses interest when the hoped-for reaction fails to materialise. In an effort to dismiss it he tries to reorient his attention by focusing on the thrum of voices through the wall: and oh God, now he can definitely hear Jack booming something unfathomable about budgetary constraints, then shortly after the unmistakably smoky vowels of Hannibal’s voice which forms a rather rhythmic counterpoint to Jack’s in the manner of a double bass and a cello. They both sound so confident and assured, and Will feels a sudden surge of contempt for himself at his reluctance to leave the safeness of his own solitude and join them. Anyway, it’s surely better to get it over with because he has to go at some point – he can hardly stay here all evening (if only).

Will gives a final gloomy sigh for good measure then pushes the door open and emerges into the bright light, blinking like a cave dweller before realising that Hannibal will almost certainly have seen him doing it and that this is something which can be considered as Not Good. Then for a few awkward seconds he realises he has no idea where he’s supposed to go and is uncomfortably aware of several people staring at him before Jack materialises and begins to steer him towards the buffet table; kindly yet mindlessly officious in a way that reminds Will of those large alpine dogs that rescue hapless assholes that get lost on mountains. “Excellent lecture,” says Jack warmly. “Although they always are, aren’t they?” Will, unsure of whether a response is actually expected to this, just grunts non-committedly. “You’re very good at it,” Jack persists.

“Thanks,” replies Will, who really doesn’t care much one way or the other. Jack nods approvingly then glances over before hesitating in his task of pouring out a glass of wine. “What?” says Will with a hint of irritation.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? You look like a bag of nerves.”

Will grimaces slightly. A bag of nerves…it’s such a gruesome expression. If he thinks too hard he can almost imagine it: the nerves squirming wetly in their burlap wrapping like as many worms. “Honestly,” he says, more firmly this time. “I’m fine.” And then, because it’s actually quite nice to have someone show concern over him, even if it’s only Jack who’s pretty much paid to do so: “Thank you.”

“Well at least have some something to eat,” urges Jack. “You’re very pale.”

Will promptly feels the flare of irritation rekindling, not least because of the way Jack seems incapable of acknowledging his assurances and is sliding into protective alpha mode at a rather appalling rate (for God’s sake). Nevertheless it’s hardly worth arguing over so he just nods vaguely then picks up a nearby slice of quiche; not because he particularly wants it but in the hope that it might shut Jack up. The quiche is unpleasantly slippery and requires Will to hold it in both hands in order to nibble on it half-heartedly before becoming anxious that the gesture makes him look like a large rodent (and that Hannibal will have seen this too, which can likewise be considered as Not Good) so puts it down again. Jack’s now launched into some new anecdote about the budget for Behavioral Sciences – occasionally referring to the latter as BS and seemingly oblivious that this is also an acronym for bullshit – so Will pretends to listen whilst working equally hard not to eavesdrop too obviously on Hannibal’s conversation with one of the federal representatives, despite the fact it appears to be about wine and is not remotely interesting. “The decline of the malbecs,” Hannibal is saying in sonorous tones, rather as if The Malbecs are some doomed aristocrats or a branch of ruined royalty who’ve fallen on hard times. The woman he’s speaking with lowers her head in solemn agreement, and Will sighs to himself all over again and can’t help wondering how it’s possible that he can be so hopelessly drawn to a person who says ‘The decline of the malbecs’ in the course of a normal conversation as if it means something (quite easily, it would seem).

Jack’s speech about Behavioral Science, or budgets, or BS – or whatever – has now reached its agonised conclusion and there’s a brief pause before he suddenly announces “Will!” then falls silent again. From the tone it’s impossible to deduce whether he means ‘Will! We’re done here – fuck off!’ or ‘Will! Give me your opinion on BS budgetary’; or possibly both, or maybe neither, or most likely something else entirely – and the fact that Will wasn’t listening in the run-up does nothing at all to help rescue the situation. Fleetingly he catches Hannibal’s eye and for a few seconds finds it impossible to look away before Jack says “Will!” (recurring) and he forces himself to re-focus and reply “Yes, Jack?” in a carefully neutral way that can hopefully cater for whichever of the both/neither/none of the above scenarios is about to transpire.

“There’s some people I’d like you to meet,” Jack is now saying. “Or, more to the point, they want to meet you.”

So, option 3: something else entirely. “Yeah?” replies Will, trying not to sound too depressed about it.

“Yeah. They were at the lecture and they’ve read about you beforehand.” And then, when Will doesn’t reply: “You’re getting famous Will, whether you like it or not.”

Will frowns and then for want of anything better to do begins inspecting the tray of petit-fours spread out in front of him: the walnuts in the salad look like tiny, bisected brains. “It’s only a brief introduction,” urges Jack. “Anyway they’re attachés from DC so it’s in your interests to keep them happy.” The tone of the last part is unmistakably insinuating and Will sighs again for what feels like the fortieth time. “The tall one on the left is Denton Skinner and the little one next to him is Adam Siemens.”

“Skinner and Siemens?” repeats Will incredulously. “What sort of names are those?” Well apart from fucking stupid ones, obviously. Although while the former might get something of a pass on the grounds of being German (as well as on charitable grounds, given that its unfortunate bearer no doubt has to endure eternal sniggering every time he introduces himself) the former just sounds vaguely creepy. He takes a covert glance at where the two men are stood; Siemens actually waves at him. Christ. Will turns back to Jack and gives him a beseeching look that he intends to be translated as: Please don’t make me do this. Jack’s answering frown implies: Are you kidding me? Get over there right now – and be nice about it.

Will opens his eyes a bit wider: But look at them. They’re so lame.

To which Jack’s eyebrows respond with: Will Graham, I’ll count to three and then I’ll kick your ass.

Will defiantly knits his own eyebrows: Come on Jack. Don’t be a dick.

Jack takes a step forward: One…two…

“Okay, fine,” says Will. His tone comes out more petulant than intended; sometimes he thinks he’d make a good adolescent.

“That’s my boy,” replies Jack sardonically as if reading Will’s mind, before adding in an undertone: “And be nice.”

Will briefly fantasizes about sticking his arms and legs out like one of his dogs when it doesn’t want to go to the vet before ultimately conceding the inevitable and allowing Jack to shepherd him across the room to where the two men are waiting. Even Will, who doesn’t normally notice or care about people’s appearances, can’t help thinking that they look particularly unpromising. Skinner is as thin and gaunt as a tapeworm with the same raw bones, flaring nostrils and prominent teeth of a rocking horse whereas Siemens has a pouting pink mouth like a disappointed baby and, for all his small stature, manages to give the impression of possessing acres of shiny white skin that rolls around in waxy folds and seem to extend in hillocks and tufts for as far as the eye can see. Will, remembering Jack’s remarks about ‘bonding’, feels a strong rush of certainty that he’d rather gnaw off his own feet than approach anything resembling a bonded state with either of these two. He wouldn’t want to go within ten feet of them given the choice…in fact there’s an expression about that isn’t there? Price sometimes says it when confronted with an especially objectionable lab assistant: ‘I wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole.’ Will wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot shitty stick, unless it was to hit them over the…

“Mr Graham!” shrieks Siemens, charging towards Will like a small bull elephant.

Will knows that it’s probably rather rude to step aside so obviously, but the thought of being in close vicinity with all that oily skin (possibly even hugged) is too appalling to contemplate so he does it anyway; at which point Siemens misses the target and obligingly goes bouncing off one of the wall slats instead. Jack clears his throat irritably.

“So – Mr Graham,” says Skinner after a decidedly awkward pause. His skin is so thin that the veins in his temples are clearly visible, blue and livid as a biology diagram in a textbook, and contrary to Jack’s assurances he doesn’t look remotely pleased to meet Will; more as if he wants to punch him (although why not? Virtually everyone else does). After another pause he extends a hand, the fingers as gnarled and bony as some kind of prehistoric being and gives Will’s a fastidious shake. “You look rather different from your photographs.”

“A pleasure Mr Graham,” adds Siemens, who’s now rebounded from the wall like a true champion and is vigorously shaking Will’s other hand. His fingers are incredibly soft and limp, like balloons filled with tepid water. “A real pleasure.”

Will wants to reply that it’s a pleasure to meet them likewise but is concerned there’s no possible way of doing it that’ll sound sincere, so instead asks them how long they’re intending to stay in Virginia and then not look too dismayed by the response (several months apparently – fuck) while simultaneously trying not to bristle with irritation at the fussy way Skinner is smoothing down the lapels of his jacket and twitching his tie into place. In this respect he’s clearly the type of person who leads an incredibly methodical and well-ordered life, evident in everything from the impeccably starched shirt to the row of pens arranged in descending order of size in his breast pocket like some kind of bureaucratic medal (Christ). No doubt he packs his briefcase and lays his clothes out on a chair the night before for added efficiency. Will’s idea of efficiency is to sleep in his clothes.

“…very excited to meet you,” concludes Siemens. “Of course we read all about your work in Minnesota. Very impressive Mr Graham; very impressive indeed. No wonder they were so keen to get you here.”

Will repeats the same vague smile as before but doesn’t actually reply; not least because he suspects that saying ‘Mr Siemens’ out loud without being overcome with an urge to laugh requires a level of moral courage that he doesn’t actually possess. Jack, on the other hand, nods appreciatively then gives Will a hearty clap on the back that nearly sends him flying. “Will is certainly an asset,” he says cheerfully.

Will is now so delirious with boredom – and guiltily preoccupied with watching Hannibal from the corner of his eye and reassuring himself that he’s too busy lamenting The End of the Malbecs to be aware of Will being publically bound in comradeship with these two stupid bastards – that he briefly mishears ‘asset’ as ‘ass’ and opens his mouth to protest before Skinner interrupts to ask Jack what contingencies he has in place for when the extent of the Sculptor case goes public. Will, who’s already heard this at length, promptly tunes out again and forces himself to stop gazing at Hannibal and pretend to listen instead; only to get distracted once more by the sight of Skinner’s prominent Adam’s apple, which seems to crawl up and down his throat like a large flesh coloured beetle every time he speaks.

“Are you all right Mr Graham?” says Skinner abruptly in his nasal voice. “You seem a little preoccupied.”

Seeing that he can’t admit ‘Yeah actually, I’m just transfixed by your repellent neck – sorry about that,’ Will apologises and explains that he has a slight headache. In fact the pain continues to be in his stomach rather than his head, but it’s still the wrong thing to say because Jack immediately reverts to the enormously irritating protective mode of before and which he’s recently been showing an alarming tendency to indulge in. It drives Will half insane with irritation: he hates being treated as if he’s delicate or fragile, even if in some ways it’s actually true. And of course Jack’s still looking dissatisfied with Will’s reply…oh Christ, any minute now he’s going to suggest fetching Hannibal over.

“You do look pale,” Jack says now, right on cue. “Dr Lecter’s just over there, maybe I could…”

Will makes an irritated noise that’s intended to sound assertively resolute, but out of alarm comes out more as a sort of screech (like an angry pterodactyl thinks Will with gloomy relish). “I’m fine,” he says, rather more sharply than intended. “Thank you. I’ll just take some aspirin when I get home and crash out.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” replies Jack uncertainly.

“I’m sure.” He has a fleeting image of Hannibal being summoned over to dispense medical advice as if Will is some sort of sickly feeble-minded creature that can’t be reliably trusted to act in its own interests. God, the idea. “So what are the autopsy arrangements going to be?” he says now in a desperate attempt to change the subject.

“Tuesday most likely. You’re going to attend yourself?”

“Of course.”

“And the profile? Any progress?”

This time Will hesitates before responding. “I’m not sure yet. There’re still some features that seem a bit…off. I don’t know. It’s the staging aspects; they’re almost too staged.”

“Then surely that’s an attribute for the profile?” says Skinner in an officious voice; Jack and Will turn round and look at him in vague surprise. “I know a little about this kind of stuff,” adds Skinner smugly. “Just because we focus on the legal side doesn’t mean we’re completely ignorant about forensics.”

With considerable effort Will subdues the contemptuous snorting sound he’s desperate to make and says “Thank you, I’ll bear it in mind.” Then Skinner gives another self-important smile and it’s so grating he can’t stop himself adding: “But if the perpetrator is deliberately trying to make the scene look a certain way to mislead investigators then it has significant implications for his motive.”

“Isn’t there a possibility you’re overthinking it? The motive seems fairly clear – he hates omegas.”

“Well it’s hardly as simple as just that,” says Jack irritably before Will has a chance to respond. “The nature of the victims is only one aspect of his pathology.”

 “How much more complicated does it really need to be?”

Considerably more,” says Will. “Since you asked.”

Skinner’s cheeks begin to inflate like an outraged bullfrog. “So you’re saying that the staging aspects are too simplistic yet the perpetrator himself is too complicated – and in the meantime we all just sit here instead of going public with a profile?  If you’ll excuse me saying so Mr Graham, you sound like someone who wants to have their cake and eat it.”

Will can feel his fragile patience about to snap entirely and is about to open his mouth to reply that he certainly does want to have his cake and eat it – and then have a portrait of the cake made, and then eat that as well – when Siemens reaches out with one of his little doughy hands and actually pats Will’s shoulder and announces “I’m sure Mr Graham has good reasons for thinking what he does,” before appearing to forget to remove the hand in the process and just standing there like Will’s a bench that he’s decided to lean on. Will doesn’t quite dare tell Siemens to fuck off with Jack standing right there so discreetly twists out the way instead; at which point a tall shadow suddenly falls over them and on turning round he sees that Hannibal has approached with the usual silent tread and is now standing directly opposite. He doesn’t actually say or do anything beyond regard the four of them with a typically inscrutable Sphinx-like smile; yet such is the force of his presence that everyone falls silent anyway.

“Ah, right on schedule,” says Jack, who recovers himself first. Only he doesn’t immediately clarify exactly what Hannibal’s supposed to be on schedule for, and Will promptly has a surge of terror that it’s going to relate to himself in some way. Possibly as in ‘Ah, Dr Lecter, Will is being more than unusually pale and feeble – take him away and sort him out’ or even some variant of ‘Gentlemen, you’re right on schedule to meet Mr Graham’s babysitter. It’s a shit job, God knows, but someone’s got to do it.

Will catches Hannibal’s eye (again…in fact the number of eye meets are actually getting a bit ridiculous; what if someone notices?) and Jack proceeds to introduce Hannibal to Siemens and Skinner in excessively fulsome terms in which Will counts two uses of ‘expertise’ one of ‘renowned’ and an unspecified number of alternatives of grateful/happy/delighted to reflect the rapture of Behavioral Sciences (BS) to be in receipt of his medical and psychiatric input. Hannibal’s faint smile grows slightly broader in a way that Will suspects, but can’t confirm, might be rather derisive; but he still lets Jack run on, subtly flicking his eyes across both men’s faces the entire time, before holding out a hand and allowing them to take turns in shaking it. In this respect Will is secretly and rather childishly gratified to note that Skinner is shorter than Hannibal and therefore has to tilt his head back to make eye contact – and, even better, is obviously extremely annoyed about it. Hannibal, in turn, has somehow managed to position himself directly in between Will and Siemens, which means the latter is now bobbing about on the periphery with his pale little hands dangling forlornly at his sides.

“Dr Lecter,” says Skinner after a short pause. “Happy to meet you.” He emphasises the last syllable with an odd clicking noise – Lec-ter – and just as before with Will he doesn’t sound remotely sincere about his professed happiness; although whether it stems from some personal animosity or is simply the result of a temperament that’s indiscriminately hostile with everyone is difficult to tell. Not that it matters of course: in fact Will half wants to advise Skinner to save his time and not to bother, seeing that as a general rule it’s actually pretty impossible to measure the amount of fucks Hannibal couldn’t give on the grounds that science has yet to invent a device capable of detecting such a miniscule amount.

“Your reputation precedes you, of course,” adds Skinner in the same flat voice, upon which Jack makes an approving noise and Will allows himself to begin gently tuning out again because he generally finds recitals of how incredibly impressive Hannibal is to be faintly demoralising and it’s not the sort of thing he’s currently got the energy for. Instead he stares at the vase of lilies on the table, which are of the white waxy variety that could be presented to either a bride in a chapel or a cadaver in a casket, and is only jolted back into the conversation when he hears Hannibal say his name and realises that he’s in the process of explaining how many new insights he feels he’s gained from working alongside Will. Will, in turn, can’t quite let himself believe that Hannibal genuinely means this, but thinks it’s nice of him to say it anyway so musters a smile in response that’s intended to be suitably modest yet appreciative.

“The art of the investigator,” Siemens is now announcing to no one in particular. “Or, indeed, the investigative art.”

“Although they do say that the purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing,” says Hannibal smoothly, looking straight at Will. “Not to be the truth itself.”

Will darts Hannibal a quick glance in response, uncertain whether or not he’s being made fun of. Probably he is…in fact almost certainly he is. It’s scarcely feasible, after all, that Hannibal could be genuinely proposing there to be anything artistic about him; although admittedly there’s no obvious trace of mockery in his expression. Skinner, in turn, is staring at Hannibal and now Hannibal is staring back – and Will strongly suspects that there’s something going on but is too tired to work out what it might be. In fact he suddenly feels exhausted. This often happens around Hannibal; they haven’t even exchanged a direct word with one another and yet it’s somehow as if they’ve been communicating in furtive silence the entire evening: a speechless language of no words that nobody beyond themselves could ever detect or decipher.

“I’ll leave you to it,” says Will abruptly. “I’m heading off.” Jack looks a little disapproving so Will adds “I hope you all have a nice evening,” even though he doesn’t really care if they do. Anyway, he’s done his duty here: he’s allowed Jack to patronise him with minimal complaint, he’s smiled and nodded at assorted dignitaries, answered questions and overall done a fairly convincing impression of being polite to Siemens and Skinner (S&S…shit and shite?); what more can anyone reasonably expect of him? Hannibal moves round at the same time as Will does then stares at him consideringly for a few seconds before raising a hand and very quickly – so quickly Will is barely even sure he’s done it – brushes his thumb against the edge of Will’s cheekbone. Will can feel his eyes widening with something like shock before taking an automatic step backwards and Hannibal’s inscrutable smile briefly reappears.

“You had something on your face,” he says in calm explanation as he holds up his hand for Will to inspect. “Pollen, I suppose. Those lilies are already dying.”

“Oh,” replies Will, aware of a bizarre combination of both relief and disappointment. “Right, yeah. Thanks.”

“I'm sorry I arrived so late to the lecture; I hope it wasn't distracting.”

“It's fine,” says Will. “I’m glad you could make it.” Then he has a sudden insane urge to enquire after the wellbeing of the Malbecs but manages to stop himself on the grounds that it’s the type of thing he’d be destined to wake up in the middle of the night cringing over. So in the end he just waits in silence because he’s expecting Hannibal to say something else anyway; only he doesn’t, merely continues to regard Will with a serenity that manages to be both alarmingly intense yet invitingly casual. Will, in turn, finds himself unhappily dwelling on the ever-sharper pain in his abdomen and the emergency doctor’s appointment it’s almost certainly going to require and so eventually blurts out: “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make my session tomorrow. I might have to rearrange. I’ll let you know though…I’ll let you know if I can’t make it.”

“Of course.”

“I’m sorry,” adds Will, even though he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong.

“It’s your time Will, you should use it however you need to.” Hannibal pauses then smiles very faintly again as if reflecting on some private joke. “The so-called ‘therapeutic hour.’ It’s been so sanctified yet I’d be the first to admit  there’s more to wellbeing then merely sat in a room trading confidences with a psychiatrist.”

“Careful with that,” says Will lightly. “You’re going to end up talking yourself out of a job.”

“And yet my entire job is premised on talking.”

“Well, I look forward to talking my way towards wellbeing,” replies Will, completely deadpan.

“Very good,” says Hannibal with another small smile. “Although you really mean talking your way into it. Don’t you Will? I know you’re sceptical about the benefits; or at least the probability of benefit for someone as….singular as yourself.” Will shrugs irritably, suddenly defensive, and Hannibal smiles once more then takes a slow step closer. “A sleight of hand of the mind,” he adds, and there’s an undertone of gentleness to his voice that’s sufficiently unusual to make Will glance up. “The mind gives up so easily doesn’t it? It’s so persuadable and inconsistent – so susceptible to each passing influence.”

“Of course,” says Will, briefly looking pale and hollow-eyed all over again. “It’s like that expression: The mind’s its own place...”

“…and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” replies Hannibal, neatly completing the quotation. “I know. Every transgression, both literal and imagined, takes place in the mind. And yours gives you no respite at all, does it?” His dark eyes are now boring directly into Will’s: implacable, somewhat soulless, and in the shadow of the lamplight almost appearing to gleam as if his skull is lit up from within. “It is – merciless.”

“Yes,” replies Will in an odd mechanical voice that doesn’t sound entirely like his. He wants to turn away now but can’t, and decides that it’s because there’s something vaguely hypnotic about Hannibal’s gaze. Or maybe it’s his eyes themselves, so deep and fathomless as they are: bright-edged flints, the colour of dark amber…

“Because it understands that great cruelty requires great empathy,” says Hannibal caressingly without breaking the stare. But Will just darts his tongue over his lips and refuses to answer so Hannibal merely smiles again, abruptly casual once more as if the last few seconds didn’t happen. “At any rate I hope to see you tomorrow,” he says and for a few seconds Will thinks and even, perhaps, hopes that he’s about to touch him again. But in the end Hannibal just flicks his gaze up and down Will’s face as if committing his features to memory before turning round and leaving just as silently as he arrived.

Will watches him as he’s walking away until his entire body gives another stabbing scream of pain and he can feel himself go pale with the effort of trying not to wince too obviously. Oh God, don’t let it be that, he thinks rather wildly. Please, please. Please God.  Then he wonders, not for the first time, why he seems to spend so much time making increasingly desperate pleas with God when he doesn’t even believe in him.

*****

Will drives home afterwards in a state of unhappy preoccupation, barely noticing as the city lights grow sparser and finally give way to the tangled thickets and raw stretching solitude of the countryside where everything’s illuminated by a flinty slice of moon that bleaches the landscape varying shades of spectral silver and icy blue. As he pulls into the driveway he makes sure to check (as usual) that no one’s following him before quickly reassuring himself (also as usual) that it’s fine, and that if Andrew were going to turn up he would have done so by now. In this respect Will knows that living on your own in the middle of nowhere can’t be considered the smartest move if you’re concerned about being hunted down; but really, it would almost be a relief if Andrew followed him here. Here the situation is simplified: distillable into its simplest rawest edges and therefore resolvable the old-fashioned way in terms of a shotgun and a shovel, with no witnesses and therefore no problem. Not that I’d really kill him, Will hastily amends. Or at least…only in self-defence. And that’s hardly a likely scenario either because Andrew, whilst undeniably cruel and vindictive, has never shown either a potential or appetite for lethal violence. Quite the opposite in fact: he wants to possess Will, not destroy him (even though, ironically, the two factors pretty much amount to the same) and which is why what’s scaring Will most of all is the idea of Andrew coming after him in the city. And it’s so very easy to imagine: ostensibly urbane and civilised, and somehow all the more primitive for acting in such modern surroundings, then pointing a long pale finger in Will’s direction (the tips yellowed with nicotine and the nails always a little too long) and shrieking for his property to be returned to him. Andrew…flanked by lawyers, shrouded in righteous indignation and with nothing that anyone can do to stop him as he shrilly evokes his rights. And what singular rights they are: not only in being utterly wrong but also fatally acid-like in their ability to completely neutralise Will’s. Not that Will really has any rights to speak of. The right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to own property (to an extent), the right to freedom of speech (also to an extent) – and which are all very well – but somehow become a whole lot less meaningful when you have virtually no rights over your own body and what happens to it.

Despite the internal reassurances Will still walks quicker than necessary from the car to the house, where he triple-locks the door before greeting the dogs and beginning the comforting routine of feeding them and letting them outside for a moonlit run. Only after they’ve been attended to does he finally remember to arrange some kind of meal for himself, and which he eats distracted and one-handed while propped up by the window. There’s nothing much to do now except go to bed, but Will’s well aware that as soon as his head touches the pillow his tiredness will evaporate and he’ll be wide awake again, so he eventually wanders over to his desk and roots around for a while until he finally finds what he’s looking for: a photograph clipped from the local paper that it’s somehow become his custom to gaze at occasionally when he wants to try and calm down. Will can’t even remember now how this odd tradition started, only that there’s never been any way of performing it which doesn’t make him feel impossibly guilty and self-conscious (and that therein, probably, lies the benefit because there’s something about the relief of giving into temptation that seems to exert a sort of sedative effect).

It’s not even a particularly good picture. Hannibal is surrounded by a group of other doctors and his face is too small to make out the features clearly; although it’s also true that even when rendered in grainy newsprint the dark eyes and sculptured cheekbones remain fully apparent. The other doctors look faintly feeble in comparison: pastel-clad and paunchy whereas Hannibal is dressed in dark clothes and is as lithe and statuesque as they are insipidly bland. It’s obvious that the photographer didn’t arrange them in a way to indicate greater status to any particular member, yet Hannibal still draws the eye and commands a share of attention that should rightfully have been more evenly distributed across the entire group. Hannibal who is glamorous and charismatic and clearly lives a full life: in stark contrast to Will, who merely endures his. He half wants to touch the black and white face but this seems like going a step too far and in the end he just does what he always does: which is to replace the paper in his desk (folded over into a small square and carelessly tossed amongst everything else) and which means he’ll struggle to locate it again when the times comes for another yearningly covert glance but – far more importantly – means it’s less likely that someone else will ever find it and guess. In this respect Will’s well aware how mournful and morbid it is to organise your living space with the idea of dying unexpectedly and someone sifting through all your belongings afterwards; but, like so many other things, it’s become a habit and not one he feels any particular motivation to break.

On this occasion the scrap of newspaper ends up hidden beneath a copy of the latest bestselling thriller which everyone at work has been reading and that Jack had finished then obligingly passed onto Will. “See if you can guess who the murderer is,” he’d said. “It drove me crazy. Thank God they’re not as clever as that in real life.” The novel received hysterically glowing reviews and is apparently being optioned for movie rights, yet it’s still unopened and destined to remain so because Will doesn’t particularly care for crime stories. Mostly because they imply that murders are like jigsaw puzzles, with each piece neatly marked out and just waiting for an enterprising detective (who’s inevitably lantern jawed and charismatic as opposed to sad and lonely and socially awkward) to saunter in and slot it into place. Bullshit, in other words, because in real life it’s more like a puzzle where most of the pieces are missing and the remaining ones have lost some of their edges or are printed on both sides – and even when you’ve assembled it there’s always a few left over that can't be made to fit. But mostly Will just doesn’t like novels, period, because they lie to their readers by presenting a deceptive version of life in which things finally finish and come to an end whereas the truth is that there are no endings, ever. Things like pain and fear and dread and doubt…they never end in a neat finale and they never go away. Just wear on incessantly with no release in sight.

As if on cue Will feels a twinge in his abdomen even shaper than the last one and gasps at the intensity of it before staggering to the kitchen and dry-swallowing some painkillers with hands that have begun to shake slightly. You’re fine, he mutters under his breath, you’re going to be fine. And he likes the way it sounds so says it again, reciting it over and over like it’s a mantra, an article of faith: as if by repeating it enough times he can conjure it into reality. Magical thinking. I’m fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine. Perhaps Hannibal would tell him that too if he were here and Will spends a few guilty seconds trying to imagine it: the dark eyes softening with sympathy and the angular face breaking into a faint smile. Not that he can really imagine anything more than a display of consideration and kindness. He can't imagine any substantial intimacy…certainly he can’t imagine them as lovers (which is a stupid word anyway: vaguely courtly sounding and antiquated, like something people from the 18th century ought to have). Will’s sole experience is that people either want to fuck you or fuck you over with nothing in between; impossible to envisage something as quaintly sentimental as a lover, even if he wanted one – which he doesn’t. But a friend would be nice. An ally, or a comrade, or whatever else you want to call it: those kinds of hearty terms with overtones of combat and camaraderie that men are supposed to show towards one another – even aloof, introverted, unlovable men like Will. For Hannibal to come wandering in now with his shirtsleeves rolled up, casual and fully at home amongst Will’s clutter, pouring out a glass of wine for them both before standing behind Will at the window and putting a hand on his shoulder and saying “It’s all right Will, everything’s going to be fine.”  Even though nothing is fine and it would be a huge, spectacular lie…but it would be so reassuring to hear it all the same.

But then how can it possibly be fine, either for Will himself or anyone else? Fleetingly he thinks about the Sculptor, dripping and gore-stained and lying in wait in some tenement or basement room with his collection of knives and cleavers gleaming wet with someone else’s blood. How can that ever be fine? The fear is so palpable now, although there’s still no guarantee it’ll spiral into a Major Incident. Most of these bastards never get the chance to grow truly notorious because they lose their nerve first, or they can’t access victims, or they get caught by people like Will. He’s hoping now, he knows he is, but it’s because he wants to hope – he wants it so badly, for so many things – even though he feels like he’s tempting fate in doing so. Even though hope is avoidant and escapist and complacent. Even though it lies to you. Because while none of these kinds of cases could ever be reasonably described as ‘good’, there’s something different about this one that promises it’s going to turn out to be more than unusually bad.

It’s so quiet now: serene and still in the moonlight with nothing to break the silence except the whining of one of the dogs as it rolls over in its sleep. Will turns back to the window again and gazes out wordlessly into the blackness. The stars are vaporous and indistinct courtesy of a ragged string of clouds although he can still see Orion, trudging through the night sky with his pack of dogs. Their presence has always made it Will’s favourite constellation so he fixes his eyes on it, fantasising that someone else – an ally, a comrade – is also staring at it now and that the mutual star gazing forms a point of symmetry between them as in those few moments their stars become the same. Jack, perhaps, or even Hannibal (unlikely). And then, oh God, there’s that pain again. Will takes a deep shuddering breath then presses his burning forehead against the cooling glass of the windowpane and tries to focus on the stars. Tomorrow…he knows he can’t put it off any longer. Tomorrow he’ll go and see the doctor.

*****

Unknown to Will Hannibal is, in fact, staring at the exact same stars at the exact same moment, and likewise from the window of his bedroom – although there the similarity ends, because Hannibal is not remotely fraught or anxious as opposed to coolly poised and contemplative. Neither is he concerned with brooding over the recent spate of murders (much as Jack Crawford is currently doing from his own bedroom window several miles away) for the simple fact that they aren’t particularly interesting in themselves. If he were to think about them at all it would be to dismiss them as graceless – or artless, or pointless; just as less – because they lack even the most elementary hint of flair or purpose as opposed to being mindlessly brutal and therefore boring. Hannibal’s mouth quirks very slightly: to be boring is a sin of almost unforgivably severe proportions. Almost as much as to be rude.

In this respect his mind is far more pleasantly engaged, and with a subject that’s recently begun to take up an increasing amount of time: the problem of What To Do About Will Graham. Or maybe not so much to do about Will as opposed to what should be done with him. Hannibal actually finds his preoccupation with this topic to be rather interesting, not least because of the way it seems to have prowled up on him and then, having established itself, refused to go away again until attention and nurturing have made it blossom into tenfold its original size. His initial reaction to this fascination was to deem it somewhat singular – amusing, even, like someone with an eccentric hobby – although lately it’s begun to take on far more sincere, serious overtones. Yet at no point has he experienced anything approaching guilt or self-consciousness about it; and likewise the awareness that Will would probably be uncomfortable if he knew the extent of Hannibal’s preoccupation with him has never been a source of concern either. Because the simple truth is that Will is captivating; almost perfect, in fact, in his extreme and excessive imperfection. A volatile, questing collection of foibles and uncertainties and consequence and principles, with a boldness that’s tempered by timidity and a recklessness restrained by caution. A hint of luminously lethal beauty with a dark slender soul…and which taken together is both wild and wary and precious and audacious, and seemingly designed purely for Hannibal’s express enjoyment in terms of its breathless capacity to fascinate, intrigue and inspire. In a world that’s rankly rife and teeming with dull, blind, mechanical people, Will is a peerless specimen that’s imbued with a sublime kind of energy, sense and unconscious sensuality: a voltage that thrums and pulses, and which deserves (indeed – demands) to be wrestled and deconstructed before breathed in and savoured.

In turn, it’s now become Hannibal’s habit to spend these reflective sessions considering various aspects of Will – and there are so many to choose from – in which each fragment is inspected then turned over in his mind as if Will is a human puzzle box; a Pythagorean enigma comprised of warm breath and fragile bone and pale skin. There’s the moral, the intellectual, the emotional, the corporeal…all representing a different aspect of Will and all of whom speak and behave within Hannibal’s mind slightly differently from the others. A great composite of identities, none of them ever entirely capturing the whole (and this in itself is an interesting conundrum in terms of whether they would have any degree of understanding if they sat down together – all these versions of Will. Whether they would like each other; whether they’d even recognize each other if they met in the street?). So Hannibal tenderly curates them all and corrals them around within his Memory Palace, attempting to excise different slivers of information from each one whenever he can persuade it to allow itself to be held still long enough for him to stroke his palms across it – so skittish and spirited as all these versions are.

Tonight, after some consideration, he decides he’s going to opt for the aesthetic and so coils himself into the large chair by the window and spends some time re-envisaging the way Will appeared this evening, both during the lecture and after it. In this respect the fact that Will is physically beautiful undoubtedly adds to his appeal and Hannibal, who is an admirer and connoisseur of beauty in all its forms, has no difficulty in acknowledging to himself that if Will were less wide-eyed and  willowy then he could hardly be fascinating in quite the same way. Meticulously he now catalogues the various aspects which are especially deserving of appreciation and notice. Will’s face and Will’s figure: the way he moves and holds himself, the curve of his mouth with its full upper lip, the slim neck (distressingly easy to snap – mentally Hannibal runs a protective hand across the back of it) and his hair, which is very lustrous and soft-looking and has a silken quality to it that would probably feel extremely pleasing against one’s lips or forehead. Will’s eyes, in particular, are extremely striking and it’s rather a shame they’re so firmly and selfishly secured in his skull and therefore can’t be removed and cherished – folded neatly within the palm of the hand like pieces of opal or caressed in the manner of Rosary beads. If one were painting them it would require a blend of Delft blue and Payne’s grey to capture the precise tint, although their real appeal is less in the shape or shade, or even the excessively charming way his hair tumbles into them and tangles in his eyelashes, but rather in their expression. Will’s eyes are…what? Hannibal frowns slightly. English is such an ugly language; none of the dash or delicate nuance of the Roman tongues. Will’s eyes would be triste in French or luttuoso in Italian, whereas English would deem them something cumbersome and inelegant like ‘dismal’ or ‘gloomy’ – and yet there is such dark beauty in Will’s sadness. Which is exactly as it should be, of course, because beauty in distress is always more picturesque than any other kind.

At the memory of the lecture Hannibal’s face arranges itself into the faintest flicker of a smile because he’s been looking forward to reimagining Will’s response to being touched: something delectable was expected, and of course Will did not disappoint. How he’d quivered very slightly then gone still; how his breath had hitched, the faint dilation of his pupils; the way the long slender column of throat had swayed. It’s endlessly interesting how physical signs of desire and fear can be so similar: two entirely contrary states, yet eliciting such comparable responses. Likewise it’s irritating that Hannibal can’t identify the precise causes with any degree of reliability. Normally his talents for intuiting a reaction are flawless, yet Will is clearly incredibly skilled at dissembling and is therefore difficult to read in the same way. His responses are so rarely what one would anticipate as typical and virtually never conform to what would be expected for someone of his age, education, status or, for that matter, gender. Omegas – because of course he is one, for all that he tries to hide it – are supposed to be tactile and passive. Hannibal now frowns very slightly as he tries to imagine Will in this unlikely role, because while there are aspects of it that are pleasing it hardly seems plausible: Will walking into the bedroom now, wearing the same expression of forlorn weariness from earlier in the evening, then curling his long slender limbs into the chair so he can nestle onto Hannibal’s lap and tuck his head against his chest. No, not really plausible at all – although it hardly matters because while Will would be undeniably charming when wan and needy, he’s infinitely more interesting when fiery and agile. Hannibal sighs with satisfaction at the thought of it. Will has so much restless energy, like a finely coiled spring. Beneath his clothes his body is no doubt covered in bruises from colliding with the planes and edges of various objects in a constant rush to be doing something other than what he’s currently engaged in. Bruises and scrapes and a lot of very pale skin – which would be soft to the touch, yet also firm and wiry from the muscles underneath – and delicate bones rather too near the surface from where Will forgets to feed himself…all currently hidden away beneath layers of plaid and denim and  dog hairs. Hannibal now frowns again for a third time because he’s actually in the middle of conducting something of a love-hate relationship with Will’s clothes – which on one hand he despises for their disfiguring cheapness and ugliness whilst also (given that it’s Will’s beautiful body they happen to be covering) acknowledging there to be something about their simplicity and lack of pretentiousness that’s faintly endearing. Most likely the offensively dowdy garments are part of Will’s veneer of pretending to be a beta, much like that appalling pheromone spray he insists on smothering himself with. Presented with even half the chance Hannibal would like to lift Will into his arms (impervious to the inevitable wild struggling) then force him under a showerhead until it’s all been washed away before adorning him in suitably splendid articles specifically curated to Hannibal’s far superior taste.

Not that you would ever tolerate that, amends Hannibal ruefully as his mental version of Will begins to hiss with outrage at the idea. Smiling slightly to himself he reaches out to smooth away the frown line on its face with his thumb. So protective of yourself, he thinks with admiration; even though you have no idea of your true value. Although perhaps – one day – you might be persuaded. The imaginary Will looks unconvinced and Hannibal muses over how he would rather like to press his lips against the back of Will’s hand just to see how he would react. Needless to say most alphas would be horrified at the idea of this gesture on the grounds that it would be shameful and unbecoming to indicate such submission to an omega, irrespective of how captivating the omega in question might be. But of course to Hannibal that doesn’t signify in the slightest – what other alphas might do.

The chiming of the grandfather clock in the hall now sounds out as a reminder to Hannibal that the hour is extremely late – and that he has to begin next morning inconveniently early – so rather regretfully he prepares to stow away his mental versions of Will, gently yet firmly entrapping them within various rooms of his Memory Palace until such times as they’re required again in the future. There’s a certain frisson in the way he can hold them all captive while the true version roams around the world – wild and wary, yet ultimately free – and his feelings about this are somewhat mixed because it creates it an undeniable sense of ownership but also of obligation: that Will has somehow become his possession to influence, control and manoeuvre, yet also his responsibility to cultivate, protect and take care of. Just – his. In turn the awareness of this makes Hannibal realise how reluctant he is to relinquish Will quite yet, so finally decides to indulge himself by recalling the version that represent the most sensuous aspects – and which in real life is one of the hardest to detect, although it’s definitely there on occasion – so he can pull it close to him and spend some time caressing its face and hair until it’s grown pliant and responsive enough to be embraced and softly kissed along the jaw and cheekbone. Although even this version is rebellious and requires endless patience to win it over, so Hannibal concentrates on smoothing his palms across its back and shoulders, only very gradually allowing the touch to become a little more suggestive and a little less innocent and migrating lower and lower with each stroke until this ghost Will begins to quiver and rock its hips against Hannibal’s. My beautiful boy, thinks Hannibal with calm deliberation. How you overpower me. For now we must be patient, but I promise you that very soon I shall have you laid out underneath me: passionate and desperate and calling out my name. And that you are going to love every single moment of it.

The image of Will stares back – aloof and stunning and giving nothing away – and Hannibal smiles affectionately at its reserve before starting to reflect, by no means for the first time, on the different imperatives that merge together in this train of thought; and which appear to be a recurring motif where Will is concerned. Because on one hand there’s the wish to see what depths of dark artistry and depravity Will might be encouraged to descend to, yet on the other there’s simply a desire to take care of him. Possession one moment and protection the next. Not, of course, that such aims couldn’t be occasionally combined. If Will were here now for example then Hannibal would wish to gather him into his arms and hold him close whilst simultaneously murmuring words of dark, hypnotic suggestion into his ear. It’s so easy to imagine it too: Will with crimson splashes of blood on his face, fiercely resilient and always resolute. Ecstasy and agony. Triumphant. ‘William,’ from the Old German Wilhelma war deity and warrior. And the name of artists and wordsmiths and kings – of Blake and Shakespeare and William the Conquerer – but most of all Hannibal’s own Will, who manages to be infinitely more fascinating on a day to day basis than any of the others.

Yet there’s also no denying that the fervent desire to discover another human being in this way – from a spirit of pleasure and appreciation rather than raw desecration or destruction – is deeply unfamiliar; and this in and of itself is…interesting. What’s even more interesting is that while Will has unknowingly subverted Hannibal’s expectations about himself, he finds that he can’t quite bring himself to resent Will for it, or even to begrudge him the success. This should be concerning. It is concerning. In fact it’s the type of speculation that he would normally avoid on the grounds that such entanglements are a hazardous waste of time; and squandering time is something to which Hannibal, on principle, is usually strongly opposed. Yet the situation exists as it is. It is irrefutable; elemental, even – to claim anything else would likewise be a waste of time. So despite being acutely aware that allowing himself to be so preoccupied with Will could have a whole range of unanticipated consequences, his deliberations still end as they always do: which is that it no longer feels feasible to simply relinquish Will and allow him to walk away into the life of someone else.

And in this respect the next few months are undoubtedly going to be very revealing, given that Will has grown increasingly wary and preoccupied in a way that indicates substantial inner turmoil and a corresponding desire to make himself untouchable – and completely unaware that it simply compels Hannibal to want to touch him even more. There’s even a certain pleasure in it, and if anything Will’s unobtainability enhances his value in the same way that jewellery preserved in glass cases is more desirable than the cheaper pieces that can be groped and fumbled over in trays on the counter. Even more interesting is that Will’s rather exquisite unhappiness has coincided with the appearance of a new and unusually vicious killer…whose sole target is omegas. Briefly Hannibal thinks of the festering panic that underlay every interaction at Jack Crawford’s otherwise tedious gathering. Undoubtedly there’s a genuine fear and apprehension over how extreme this particular reign of terror is going to become. A killer’s sovereignty: slicing and hacking his way to infamy as the world watches on in a simmering brew of terror and ignorance.  And then there’s Will, caught in the middle of it all with his sad eyes and anxious hands and stunningly dark mind; a reluctant actor in a story being slashed and carved by someone else.

Hannibal now leans back in the chair and steeples his fingers beneath his face, trying to imagine what sort of narrative Will tells about himself in the recesses of his own mind and what raw materials he might draw upon in doing so. Fiction so often makes a more convincing display of truth, but Hannibal doubts Will has fully discovered his own truth yet. He’s more like a fresh page begging to be written on: a beautiful blank slate. Will knows how he begun – the wifeless father with the motherless son, the boatyards in the simmering summers and stifling winters of the south and a mind too sharp and a soul too uncompromising  to be contained within them –  but what Will doesn’t know yet is how he’s going to end. But a life is itself a narrative and therefore an exercise in reconstruction wherein the beginning exists and the conclusion is waiting, and in between are all the fragments of all the stories.

So many possible stories, thinks Hannibal tenderly as he reflects on his ambitions for the two of them. And this, Agent Will Graham, is going to be one of ours.

Centre stage. Curtain up. Go.

Chapter Text

SCULPTOR CARVES UP FOURTH

By Freddie Lounds

Late last night a badly mutilated body was discovered in the Baltimore area that bears all the hallmarks of the killer known only as the Sculptor. At this point details are scarce, although it’s been confirmed the victim was an omega women in her late 30s and that the extent of her injuries were so extreme as to delay attempts at identification. Combined with the recent deaths of one other woman and two men in the Maryland region, this new killing means the Sculptor’s toll now stands at four victims in as many months.

A statement issued on behalf of Agent Jack Crawford has insisted there’s no need for panic and that the Bureau is currently pursuing several active lines of enquiry. It was further implied that experts in behavioral profiling remain unconvinced that the four deaths link together as a series. However, on reviewing the evidence, The TattleCrime suggests the exact opposite is true and that the FBI – not for the first time – is not only unwilling to admit that it’s out of its depth but almost certainly has a new and terrifying serial killer on its hands…

*****

Will wakes up next morning in the usual wild confusion of bedclothes and spends a few seconds disentangling himself before gazing numbly into space as he attempts to inventory the various tasks that need to be accomplished that day and arrange them into some kind of order of importance. In this respect ‘importance’ effectively means ‘awfulness,’ and the immediate flare of pain serves as a reminder that his body isn’t prepared to be ignored any longer – which means arranging medical attention is going to have to take priority on the list of Awful Yet Important Things To See To. Will groans out loud then reluctantly fights his way out of the remaining clinging, clammy sheets and wraps a blanket round his shoulders before stumbling into the living room so he can rummage around and locate the necessary phone number. He hasn’t used it for so long it takes a while to retrieve it, although it eventually turns up on a scribbled scrap of paper in his desk drawer where it’s been stowed away along with other assorted ephemera he never has any use for but can’t quite bring himself to dispose of – all the travel brochures for trips he never has time to take and the adverts for dating websites he never has the energy or confidence to pursue. Then he sits down and turns it over in his hands a few times, twitching and folding the edges like an approximation of origami while trying to work up the impulse to put it to use.

On the shelf directly opposite is a photograph of his mother – the only one he has – and Will briefly gazes at it now, partly as another way of prevaricating and partly with the usual sense of confused melancholy. His mother stares back at him from behind the glass, serene and unknowable with the large eyes and delicately moulded features that Will always admires as beautiful without having ever once recognised how the same qualities are beautiful in himself. In this respect he doesn’t actually remember the living version and often feels guilty at not being able to summon more sentimental feelings towards the picture, which is why he makes a point of displaying it prominently as a form of penance (occasionally with a few flowers next to it as if it’s a shrine). Performing this duty makes him feel self-conscious at some times and hypocritical at others; but someone has to do it because he knows his father never will, and a lack of any real feeling doesn’t change the fact that he hates the idea of his mother being so un-mourned and disregarded that there’s no one to even keep a pointless vigil by her picture – despite the fact she’s dead and long past caring, and even though he feels a similar fate of being no one’s dearly departed is almost certainly in store for himself. Perhaps that’s partly why he does it at all, as if he thinks he’ll be rewarded for his diligence by being commemorated by someone else after he’s dead – as if such tributes are a baton that gets passed from one conscientious mourner to another. Will frowns again, mulling this over. It reminds him of a poem he had to study at school: Remember me when I am gone away; gone far away into the silent land, although he’s forgotten now how the rest of it goes. It’s the sort of thing Hannibal would probably know.

Will makes himself a coffee then spends several seconds aimlessly stirring it despite the fact he takes it without sugar or milk and there’s nothing much to stir. Then he dutifully locates his phone to ring the clinic and make the obligatory yes-no-yes responses to the receptionist at the other end until the deed is done and the appointment is made and he can cut off the call as quick as possible before there’s any chance he might change his mind and take it back again. Afterwards he replaces the phone on the table, carefully and cautiously as if it’s made of glass and harsh treatment might cause it shatter, when from the corner of his eye he catches sight of The TattleCrime headline flickering on his open laptop. Once noticed it’s impossible to tear his eyes away and despite his best efforts he can’t help giving a wince of distaste: SCULPTOR CARVES UP FOURTH.  Because yes, here it is now – it’s definitely starting. Only a matter of time before the national then international press gets holds of it, after which a whole new level of hell will get let loose. The story will run and run, breathlessly announcing each new atrocity as the Sculptor carves up the fifth and sixth and God knows how many others, and the fear and hysteria will make a complicated job even worse for the FBI. But it’ll happen anyway and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it, because it’s not just the nature of the murders themselves, gruesomely extreme as they are, but the nature of the actual victims which will ensure the story ignites. For this is a killer who’s opted to target omegas; and even a child murderer wouldn’t attract a greater level of shock and condemnation.

Will’s frown now reappears as he silently reviews the reasons for this. Not that they’re especially complicated: he’s fully aware that the agenda of outrage, just as with so much else, has been driven and dictated by alphas; and not only – perhaps not even mainly – for moral reasons, but from resentment. Who dares to interfere with what belongs to us? For while omegas aren’t as rare today as they were a few generations ago they’re still by no means common, and it’s not unheard of for less elite alphas to go their entire lives without ever getting within touching distance of one, let alone acquiring one with which to bond. It’s why they’re accorded such special protected status, why alphas compete so fiercely over them, and why betas are so pleased to have one in their family – betas just like Will’s own father – because of the astronomical sums for which they can be traded. The days of alphas fighting to the death over omegas may now be nothing more than an historical curiosity but the nature of the rivalry remains equally ferocious in modern times, albeit in a more refined form: the power of money. An attractive female omega can change hands for five figure sums, and if she’s from a well-established and reputable family then her price can as much as double. Even a less winsome one – be she barrel-chested or thick-waisted enough to fall below the preposterous alpha standards of beauty – can easily go for not much less. Male omegas, being even rarer still, are more variable in their prestige, with some alphas liking them to the point of fetish while others view them as inferior to females due to their less reliable fertility. But even a supposedly unattractive male omega faced with an indifferent alpha can still fetch more money than most people would ever see in a lifetime.

Nevertheless, and despite his first-hand experience of it, Will still finds it difficult to connect such a concept to himself in any meaningful way: that in biological terms he’s considered something scarce and precious and desirable. Maybe it’s because the realities of it have brought him nothing but stress and hardship; although his own aversions aside, it remains undeniably true that omegas are not typical in the way that betas are and that their mere existence causes utter internal chaos for alphas. In this respect the recent crime scenes were a particularly powerful example in that most of the alphas on the team literally couldn’t handle being in the vicinity of a dead omega. Even ones like Jack and Hannibal – clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest – had been visibly uncomfortable at first and required a few seconds to ground themselves before forcibly moving back into professional mode.

“It’s hard to explain why,” Jack had said to Will afterwards. “It’s like it’s something instinctive – it just hits you right in your gut. And logic’s got nothing to do with it so it doesn’t matter that you never knew them personally, you still can’t stop it happening.”

“But what happens?”

“I told you, it’s hard to explain. It’s like…I don’t know. Grief? Guilt? It’s as if it hurts you that something bad happened to them.” Will had looked sceptical and Jack had waved his hands around in frustration at his inability to make it clearer. “You should ask Dr Lecter,” he’d eventually added. “He’s better at describing things than I am. He probably knows the biochemistry behind it as well.” Only Will hadn’t wanted to ask Hannibal, and in the end the subject was dropped when one of the younger pathologists had begun questioning Jack over whether he’d ever met a live omega, and if so what was it like? At this point Will had unconsciously put his hand in his pocket to grip onto the bottle of beta pheromone spray that he carries around as religiously as any asthmatic with an inhaler, and Jack had launched into a series of anecdotes about Omegas I Have Known while another CSI agent had added in a lascivious undertone to his neighbour “have you ever smelt one when it was in heat?”

“Never,” the man had replied. “I should be so lucky. What can I tell you? I’m not wealthy enough to get that close.”

“It’s supposed to be like nothing else. Like, it’ll blow your head off. Seriously, I saw a porno this one time: they’d got an alpha, this big sonofabitch, and then there was this cute little omega who…”

Will had turned away then and gone to talk to Price instead, but the memory of the whole exchange still rankles like something stuck in his teeth and he as remembers it now he screws his eyes closed in an attempt to drive it away again. Then he takes a few cautious sips of his coffee and, on discovering it’s still too scalding hot to drink, ferries it over to the window instead so he can prop himself against the glass and stand there nursing the mug while gazing out across the bleak blackened fields that are already rimey with an early winter frost. The day looks set to be a spectacularly grey and dismal one and on the horizon he can see a group of crows beginning to circle: little black flecks that covetously weave and dive over what’s certainly the mangled remains of some animal or other. The collective noun for crows is a murder, although he’s not sure how he knows this. Perhaps he’s seen it on TV sometime? It’s the kind of pointless information beloved of crossword puzzles and general knowledge quizzes; murders of crows competing for space alongside the other quaintly named avian gatherings. All those exhalations of larks and parliaments of owls. Not that there are any parliaments round here, and certainly no exhalation.

The crows, oblivious to Will’s scrutiny, continue to swirl and plunge and there’s something about the sight of so many swarming pitch black bodies with their ragged feathers and scavenging manner that he finds unsettling and sinister. It’s why there’re called a murder after all. When there’s been death – that’s when the crows come. With a small shudder he forces himself to ignore them then walks back into the bedroom instead and begins to get dressed: slow and methodical, one button after another, pretending the entire time that it’s just a regular day and there’s nothing to worry about because it’s fine. All of it, everything: it’s fine. It sounds fairly persuasive too as these things go; and standing there in the empty lonely silence and the pale winter sun, he can almost convince himself that he genuinely believes it to be true.

*****

The waiting room of the doctor’s office has clearly been done up according to some designer’s idea of what calmness would look like. ‘Calmness,’ this asshole had clearly said to themselves, ‘is pallid blue paint, Claude Monet prints and pot plants. And plush, goddammit. Lots of plush. All the plush – as far as the eye can see.’ As it happens the plush – blue and pallid, naturally – that upholsters the chairs has an unfortunate precedent because it’s the exact same shade as the lividity of a corpse that’s been pulled out the water; only clearly no one thought to point that out. In fact Will’s quite tempted to do the honours himself after being patronised by the receptionist for a full five minutes about why he hasn’t made an appointment for so long, and has he been completing online health checks, and “did you know, sir, there’s a support group for male omegas that’s taking new referrals?” ‘And did you know that your vile chairs are the colour of rigor mortis?’ Will wants to reply – although of course doesn’t – so just nods vapidly instead until the stupid bastard realises he’s not going to get anywhere and eventually tells Will to go and take a seat on one of the corpse chairs in the manner of someone who’s being banished; despite the fact that’s all he actually wanted to do in the first place.

With the exception of the receptionist and two alphas who are clearly accompanying their omegas, Will is the only man in the waiting room. The latter both stare at him with unashamed curiosity, so Will stubbornly stares back even though he knows there’s no way there’ll ever drop their eyes first. Besides a staring contest is as a good a way as any to pass the time, considering that the only reading material on offer are the type of glossily vacuous magazines that the designer of the rotting carcass chairs obviously thought omegas would be interested in: fashion and beauty advice, a surfeit of simpering celebrities with teeth as flat and shiny as slabs of tombstone, tips on creating ‘a beautiful home’ and – Will’s eyes widen slightly in disbelief – ‘Crafts for the holidays! Make a beautiful table centrepiece with glitter and pinecones!’ Will shifts around irritably then digs into his briefcase and pulls out a stack of CSI reports and proceeds to sit there reading them, to the obvious disapproval of the receptionist who keeps darting critical glances over the top of his computer screen. Will catches his eye on the third glance so gives the reports a defiant rustle – then makes a few appreciative noises over them for good measure – as across from him one of the omega women stands up to go to her appointment and obligingly takes her alpha with her (one down, one to go) while the other omega leans over and murmurs something in an undertone to her own alpha; at which point he pats her hand and finally stops staring at Will (two down: victory attained. Like a boss).

After a few more minutes have passed this second couple also vanish through the swing doors leaving Will on his own amidst all the pale blue and the pot plants (and who, because he’s starting to feel vaguely theatrical, decides to consider it somewhat sinister that while everyone goes in through the doors no one ever comes out again). A few more minutes limp by: a new female omega arrives and glances nervously at Will’s reports; the receptionist clears his throat disapprovingly and Will gives them another rebellious rustle in response. He wants to open a window now because the room’s starting to feel so stifling but they’re of the wide plate-glass variety that don’t have a catch. It really is unbearable though: as if every possible aspect of ‘patronising’ has been distilled into a sweltering pale blue box of plush and condescension. The crate of plastic toys in the corner, for example – while obviously meant for any children the patients might bring with them – still manages to coyly imply that the designer intended them for the adult omegas. Even the pictures on the opposite wall feature an assortment of simpering furry beasts of the type you might choose to decorate a child’s bedroom and he stares at them now with numb incomprehension: those Australian ones with the pouches and the improbable-sounding names. Wombats? Wallabies? Oh God. I want to go home, thinks Will with a brief flare of anguish. Then he stretches his legs out in front of him and tries not to sigh too loudly and obviously before glancing up and seeing that the receptionist is bearing down on him with a grimly determined expression on his face. Will initially suspects that he’s going to try and confiscate the reports by force (and is revving up for a skirmish to retain ownership, possibly culminating in a Charlton Heston-esque ‘I’ll give you my reports when you prise them from my cold dead hands’) but it turns out that he’s only there to inform Will that Dr Reynolds is ready to see him now. “I’ll show you through,” adds the receptionist, then darts another fastidious glare at the reports before chasing it up with an expression that can clearly be interpreted as: Good riddance too, you little antisocial shit.

“Hold these for me for a minute would you?” says Will as punishment, then stands up and pretends to rifle around in his briefcase in the most laborious and time-consuming way possible. The receptionist looks appalled at the thought but clearly can’t say no, so stands there instead dangling them between two fingers with a configuration of resigned suffering on his face more suited to a martyr lashed to a stake. “Thank you so much,” says Will sweetly.

“You’re welcome, sir,” replies the receptionist. Fed through a translator, the remark would almost certainly come out as: you’re a bastard, sir.

Will smiles again, even more beatifically than before, then reclaims the reports and allows himself to be herded through the swinging doors into a long stretching corridor that’s as coldly gleaming with white and chrome as the waiting room is dull and insipid with ugly corpse-coloured plush. Dr Reynolds’ room is the third on the left and she stands up to greet him when he comes in: a brisk, cheerful woman in her late fifties with a kind face and a slightly hectoring, motherly tone (Will absorbs all this in an instant then mentally sets up a countdown for how long it’ll be before she calls him ‘young man’.) “Sorry to keep you waiting Mr Graham,” she says as he sits down. “I’m afraid we’re running a bit behind schedule today.” She sighs then waves her hands around rather aimlessly. “You know how it is.”

“It’s fine,” replies Will. “I’m not in any hurry.” Even though it’s not, and he is; and it’s only when Dr Reynolds begins nodding appreciatively at such forbearance  that he realises he’s entered a surreal state of wishful thinking which seems to believe that if he’s nice to her she’ll somehow be more likely to give him the news he wants to hear.

“So…” says Dr Reynolds, who obviously feels that these little social delicacies have gone on long enough and it’s time to get straight to the point. “Abdominal pain?” She begins flicking through the notes in front of her, quick and deft as a croupier with a deck of cards before pausing and frowning. “And you’ve been taking heat suppressants for how long?” Will folds his arms and refuses to answer; it’s there right in front of her after all – why does she need to hear him say it? “That’s too long Mr Graham. You know that right? Much longer than would be medically advisable.”

Will carefully pushes his glasses up with a forefinger as the image of the croupier fleetingly comes back to mind: The house always wins. “I guess,” is all he says.

“You’ve been touristing?” adds Dr Reynolds gently; which Will knows full well is a euphemism for ‘you’ve been seeing a series of different doctors to get the prescription and lying to all of them for why you want it.’ Technically this is not allowed but everyone does it; everyone has to do it, because no doctor would risk their license by consistently prescribing heat suppressants to the same patient. The official line is that chronic use of the tablets is dangerous, but Will is convinced that this isn’t the true reason as opposed to a wider alpha conspiracy to erode their reproductive rights. It’s the alphas that make the laws after all; and it’s hardly in their interests if all the omegas have an unrestricted power to stop having heats. He can’t help sighing fretfully at the thought of this long-standing injustice and Dr Reynolds darts him a sympathetic look and says: “Might I ask why you made a decision like that?”

“No,” replies Will politely. “Not really.”

Dr Reynolds gives a brisk nod then tucks her pen behind her ear and returns to the folder of notes. “All right then. Any headaches? Disorientation?”

“No.”

“Any other symptoms?”

“No.”

Beneath the desk, Dr Reynolds’ feet are beginning to tap. “No mood swings? Hallucinations?”

No.”

“Okay. Just the stomach pain?”

“Just that.”

Dr Reynolds pauses then peers owlishly over the top of her glasses; Will recognises it as a gesture he often performs himself and immediately resolves to stop doing it. “And how bad is the pain? On a scale of one to ten?”

“I’m not sure. It varies.”

“How bad is it at its worst?”

Will bites his lip and then glances at the floor. “Probably an eight. Maybe a nine.”

Dr Reynolds nods again then retrieves the pen and makes a few brief notes before pushing her chair back from the desk and gesturing towards a gown that’s hanging limply from a hook by the door. “All right then young man,” she says (Christ). “Let’s take a look at you. If you could just get undressed…” Will’s face promptly falls with dismay and she gives a little sigh of impatience. “An examination really is unavoidable Mr Graham. There’s no male doctor in the clinic today, but if you prefer…”

“No, I’m sorry, it’s fine,” says Will quickly. And there’s that fucking word again: fine. Fine-fine-fine…it’s as if he thinks that saying it often enough can conjure it into reality. For some reason he finds himself briefly thinking of Hannibal – probably because it’s the sort of term that permanently hovers over him, even though in his case the meaning is different and it’s not about desperation at all but rather luxury and sufficiency. Fine wine. A fine meal. ‘The first violin with the Baltimore Philharmonic is very fine.’ Will blinks a few times then forces himself to stand up and face Dr Reynolds. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “What do I need to do?”

“Everything off, please, and put this on. Then hop on the table and lie on your side.” She begins to draw back the curtain round the examination cubicle then pauses halfway through and gives him a sympathetic look. “Please try not to be so nervous Mr Graham,” she says kindly. “I’ll be as gentle with you as I possibly can. Most of the time these symptoms don’t mean anything serious. And if there does turn out to be something wrong…” She pauses again then gives another smile: briskly bright and clinical. “Well, you’re in the right place aren’t you? We can do our best to fix it.”

Will nods in numb acquiescence then waits until she’s gone before tugging on the gown and carefully folding himself onto the table and drawing his knees up to his chest. It’s not exactly what her instructions were, but it’s a position he remembers lying in before: a default pose when vulnerable or frightened. Protect the vital organs, then make yourself as small as possible in the hope they won’t see you…even though they usually do.

“Yes,” he replies mechanically when Dr Reynolds reappears. “Yes, I know. It’s fine.”

*****

Reflecting on it afterwards Will is convinced that she felt sorry for him. Or maybe that’s just how doctors behave towards omegas as standard? It’s been so long since he visited one he can’t actually remember if they were always that way, although it’s admittedly impossible to imagine any of the doctors he knows acting in such a protective patronising manner that surely couldn’t be entirely professional. No way Hannibal or Price would ever pat anyone’s hand or murmur soothing nonsense at intervals – at one point Will had gasped with discomfort and she’d actually placed her palm on his hair like she was giving him a benediction. Or, more accurately, like he was a child that required coddling and comfort. “It’s all right Mr Graham,” she’d said. “Not long now.”

This time Will didn’t reply that it was fine because it was too far beyond the point of pain and humiliation to do anything except stare numbly at the tiles on the wall and imagine striding through the fields with the dogs; free, uninhibited and most importantly miles and miles away from here. “Does that hurt?” said Dr Reynolds, forcing him back into the room again and Will had given a second gasp in response at which point she’d made another soothing noise through her teeth. “All right we’re done,” she said a few seconds later. Pause. Sigh. Another pat on Will’s hand. “Come through whenever you’re ready.”

For a few seconds Will had just laid there overcome with a horrific urge to cry before forcibly pulling himself together and replacing his clothes one-by-one with the same mindlessly mechanical efficiency of the morning. On the other side of the curtain Dr Reynold’s briskly clinical manner now appears fully restored and she gestures at Will to sit down without showing any further desire to pat his hand or hair. “All right Mr Graham. Well, the good news is that there are no signs of swellings, contusions or lesions. Your bloods are mostly normal. You could do with gaining a bit of weight but otherwise you’re actually very healthy.” Then she pauses and Will’s heart, tentatively on the rise, promptly sinks again because he immediately knows there’s a ‘but’ charging towards the conversation with all the shambling, destructive determination of a maddened bull. “But,” adds Dr Reynolds, “there’s no question you need to stop taking your suppressants.” She raises her eyebrows then pauses for a second time, at which point Will realises he’s begun frantically shaking his head. “Mr Graham…”

“No,” says Will, suddenly desperate. “No, I can’t.”

“Mr Graham, I’m sorry, but there’s really no other option. You must understand that the abdominal pain is just the beginning. Carry on like this and you’re going to cause yourself some very serious problems: fever, loss of coordination and eventually neurological effects. It’s why I asked you earlier about mood swings and hallucinations.”

“Maybe if I tried a different type?” says Will, his voice disturbingly low and intense. “I mean, people do don’t they? I know they do. I’ve read about them – I looked at the journals.”

“I know Mr Graham,” says Dr Reynolds gently, “but it’s more difficult for male omegas than female ones. And it’s particularly difficult for you because from the look of your blood chart you’re missing three of the fibrose chromosomes that regulate these kinds of hormonal effects. It’s not unusual in male omegas, and normally wouldn’t cause any problems for someone of your age.” She pauses again and gives him a significant glance. “At least it wouldn’t if you were letting your body go through its natural cycle.”

Will has a sudden surreal image of the three missing chromosomes with suitcases and matching grins calling out to one another: ‘come on boys – fuck this guy. Let’s go!’ “There must be something else,” he says in the same urgent tone. “Please; anything. Even if it’s experimental – I don’t care.”

“I can’t possibly prescribe you experimental drugs,” says Dr Reynolds sharply. “And even if I could, your insurance wouldn’t begin to cover the cost.”

“I could find a way to get the money.”

Dr Reynolds frowns again then begins to tap her pen against the desktop in a restless, fidgety gesture that makes Will want to scream with irritation. “Mr Graham, forgive me, but I don’t quite understand your reaction. It’s as if I’ve told you that you’re seriously ill. All you need to do is stop taking the tablets and you’ll be fine.”

“I can’t.”

Dr Reynolds takes a slow breath like someone struggling not to let their exasperation show. “Why not?” she says with deliberate patience; and then, when Will doesn’t reply, “If you don’t tell me I can’t help you.”

At this Will seems to visibly shrink. “You wouldn’t be able to help me anyway,” he says quietly. “It’s not a medical issue.”

Dr Reynolds sighs herself at this then leans forward across her desk, the penny having clearly started to drop. “Are you bonded?”

Will opens his mouth then closes it again and she raises her eyebrows expectantly. “It’s complicated,” he finally says. Christ, is it ever. “No, I’m not. But I was supposed to be. I was…” Then he hesitates because he wants to say ‘sold’ but it sounds so melodramatic, even if it’s essentially true. “I was meant to be bonded with someone; my father signed ownership over to him. But I left nearly straight away. He was…” An array of inappropriate adjectives veer into mind and he shakes his head again to dismiss them. “He wasn’t very kind to me. I can’t go back. It’d be like going to prison.” Not that this is even a good comparison, because at least a prison term would come to an end whereas a life with Andrew would be eternal enslavement with no possible prospect of parole: forever and ever ‘til death do us part. “He’d force me to start a family,” adds Will with mounting desperation. “I wouldn’t be allowed to work, to even go out on my own…to have any independence; I wouldn’t be allowed to do anything. And so far he hasn’t managed to get me back, but if I started having heats again…Oh God, it would change everything. Do you understand Dr Reynolds? Please tell me that you understand.”

Will abruptly falls silent, suddenly overcome with the miserable inevitability of it all, and Dr Reynolds gives a long sympathetic sigh in response. “I understand,” she says quietly. “You’re thinking of Randell vs. Wilson aren’t you? I’m sorry Mr Graham, I really am. The laws in that respect are barbaric.” Then she pauses and lowers her voice even further in a way that Will can’t help but find slightly sinister – as if she believes that even in the privacy of a medical clinic, the alphas are somehow going to find out she’s been criticising them and punish her accordingly. “Those ownership rules have been overturned now in much of Europe,” adds Dr Reynolds in the same low tone. “In Canada too, I believe.” Then she clears her throat and looks awkward, having obviously realised that extolling the better circumstances of foreign omegas is hardly very helpful. “Honestly though Mr Graham, we meet a number of people in situations like yours and I’ve only ever seen Randell applied in a couple of cases. It’s extremely rare that it gets that far and in nearly every instance the parties were able to come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement without getting the law involved.”

Until this point Will has been staring numbly at the floor but he now raises his head rather sharply. “What about the others?”

“Excuse me?”

“You said in a couple of case it didn’t work out. So – what happened to them?”

“Oh. Um, well, the omega was made to return to the alpha by force.”

“They lost the rights to their property?”

“I’m not sure. I suppose they must have done.”

“House arrest on behalf of their alphas?”

“No…no I’m fairly certain it didn’t go as far as that.”

“But it might have? In theory?”

“Well, it’s possible in theory…”

“Because the alpha retains guardianship and legal rights over any omega with an active heat cycle.”

“Yes…yes they do have those rights, but I’m sure they didn’t apply them in such an extreme way. The omegas’ families would have intervened.”

“I don’t have any family,” says Will abruptly.

Dr Reynolds gives another low sigh of sympathy; at one point she actually seems to be wringing her hands. “If he did try and reclaim you…perhaps it might be possible to negotiate with him?” Will shakes his head and she adds, rather hopefully: “But if you got a third party involved as a mediator? I’d be happy to do it myself if necessary. I mean, if you’re so strongly opposed he might decide he’d prefer a mate who’s more compatible.”

Will gives a short laugh: bitter and humourless. “No. He won’t.”

“You’re certain?”

“If I was willing he’d probably lose interest,” replies Will in a flat, toneless voice. “What he likes is the resistance.”

“Oh Mr Graham,” says Dr Reynolds, and it’s clear from the expression on her face that she’s thinking: ‘one of those alphas.’ “I’m so sorry.” He’s lost count of how many times she’s said it now – how sorry she is – although it’s not like he can really blame her. What else does she have to offer him except sympathy, after all?  “Maybe he won’t come for you?” adds Dr Reynolds. “Your medical status might give him a legal case to force you to come back, but if he hasn’t attempted it so far perhaps he won’t bother? They often don’t you know. There’s such a stigma attached to omegas escaping…” She pauses, seeming to regret the dramatic choice of word. “I mean, leaving their alphas.”

“I know,” says Will in the same mechanical voice.

“They see you as their most prized possessions; it’s a matter of pride. In fact I believe it’s not uncommon for them to simply tell people that the missing omega died, then just quietly buy a new one a few months later to save face. Yours may have done the same.”

“I can’t take that chance.”

“But even so,” persists Dr Reynolds. “It may be that this makes no difference?” She’s clearly at the point where the reassurances are more to alleviate her rescuing urge than they are about honestly representing the situation and while it’s kindly meant it still feels invalidating – like she’s minimising the extent of his problems because to acknowledge them would make her feel too uncomfortably powerless in her inability to fix them. In other words, Will needs to feel better so that she can feel better. But it’s hardly worth arguing over so in the end he just nods, numb and defeated looking, while she reaches across the desk again and gives him a light pat on the hand. “We have good counsellors here,” she says gently. “If you need someone to talk to?”

“It’s fine,” repeats Will automatically. And it doesn’t sound remotely convincing but he says it anyway – then says it again – because he’s still got his pride and is determined to cling onto the shreds of it, even if the world has just taken one step closer to caving in. So he forces himself to dole out a faint smile as a shield against any more of her evident pity and then says it again for a third time; says it loud and clear, despite the fact it’s clearly not – that it’s anything but. Despite the fact the light from the sun will take several years to reach it, because that’s how very far from being fine it is.

*****

Will doesn’t entirely remember how he got home – how he walked down that gleaming corridor and got into his car and drove across the yawning miles of empty road – although of course he must have done because here he is performing the usual routine of triple-checking the locks, shrugging off his coat and then feeding and stroking the dogs; taking care, as ever, to distribute the affection equally across the entire pack so that no one feels left out. Afterwards, also as usual, he forgets to arrange a proper meal for himself and instead goes and sits at his desk again where he catches his mother’s eye in the photo and feels a sudden pang of guilt that he’s been neglecting her seeing how he’s forgotten, for the fifth day in a row, to acquire any flowers to keep her company in her lonely black-and-white vigil from behind the glass of the frame. On his wrist he writes F for flowers, then pulls open the bottom drawer to locate what he wanted in the first place: which is a small leather-bound book that’s stashed away along with all the holiday brochures and dating websites as another relic whose good intentions have never come to fruition.  

In this respect Will had originally acquired the book with the aim of turning it into a journal after once hearing diary-keeping being recommended as somewhat therapeutic. He can’t actually remember now who’s idea it was; possibly Hannibal’s, although maybe someone else – or maybe he’d read it somewhere – but it had been presented as a simple yet effective way of expressing and processing distressing feelings. Cathartic, that was the word which was used; writing about how you felt was meant to be cathartic. In spite of himself Will had been rather taken with the idea, not least because there seemed something vaguely romantic, if not outright heroic, about sitting down in an age of laptops and tablets and scratching away with pen and ink until your innermost thoughts are coaxed out your mind and come tumbling onto the page in glistening hand-written strokes of wisdom, insight and creative possibility. In this respect Will had deliberately chosen a book that was up to the task of bearing such weighty expectations (thick creamy paper, slightly yellowed with age on the fore-edge, and bound in glossy leather the same deep vermillion as blood) because it looked like something from the desk of a Renaissance Old Master and surely only profound and compelling information would ever find a home in a book like this? But in the end he’d found himself barely using it and in the last year there’s only been a handful of entries. Mostly this had been because there was something so lonely and dismal about confiding his own pain to himself, and it’s for that reason he’s abruptly decided that from now on he’s going to address each entry to Hannibal instead. Not, of course, that Hannibal will ever have the opportunity to read it; but even though the words are destined to remain private, Will still feels that there might be a sense of solidarity in having a correspondent, albeit an absent one. Even so, he can’t quite bring himself to use Hannibal’s name; and in the end just writes the date at the top of the page and then follows it up with: Dear You.

It’s not much of a beginning, but at least it is one; and faintly encouraged, Will resumes writing again – awkwardly aware of the way he’s sticking the tip of his tongue through his teeth like a child struggling to master such an unfamiliar tool as a pen – until a sudden crippling spasm of pain makes him draw in his breath before letting it out in a raspingly agonised gasp. He screws his eyes closed, trying to ride out the worst of it, then makes an involuntary whining noise until he’s finally able to ease them open again. Oh God, it’s almost unbearable; why didn’t she prescribe him any pain relief. Why didn’t he ask for some? He should have done that…he should have asked. Then for want of anything better to do he glances down at what he’s written, even though it doesn’t take very long because there are only eight words which scramble across the page in jerky cramped handwriting that doesn’t really look like his yet somehow still manage to be faintly impressive in their capacity to summarise a sprawling, complex nightmare with such extreme brevity: I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Will stares at them for a while longer then carefully replaces the pen on the table and pushes back the chair before retrieving his coat and slipping outside, quiet and cautious the whole time so as not to disturb the dogs. The air is crisp on his face, slightly smoky and damp-smelling, and he turns up his collar against the cold then thrusts his hands into his pockets and strides out across the dying cornfields looking neither left nor right. The shadows are lengthening the whole time, rather as if the world is melting into pools of purple and grey, and in this respect it somehow feels fitting that the sky is bleeding scarlet as the sun sinks away – as the wind sighs and the trees sway with straggling naked limbs; and as Will goes to the far corner of the meadow where there’s no one to hear him except the murder of crows and then screams and screams and screams.

*****

The next day begins just as the previous one did, with Will fighting his way out of bed and aimlessly stirring the coffee while gazing out the window before getting into his car to begin the lonely pilgrimage to work (and where, unbeknown to him, he’s once again destined to forget about the flowers). There’s a swarm of reporters out front demanding updates on the Sculptor case, so Will parks in the rear lot to avoid them – only to find Skinner and Siemens loitering in the foyer which means he has to duck round the back to avoid them too, and as result nearly bowls straight into Jack who’s striding down the corridor in his usual determined way.

“Easy now,” says Jack good-naturedly. “Where are you off in such a hurry?”

Away, thinks Will; although of course he can’t possibly say this, even if he really understood himself what he meant by it. He just shrugs instead and Jack pauses then peers closer. “Are you all right Will? You look a bit…”

“A bit what?”

Jack frowns, clearly undecided of the best way to describe it, before eventually settling for: “A bit pale.”

“Oh,” says Will vaguely. “Do I?”

“You do, yeah. Even more than usual.”  Will shrugs again and Jack leans back on his heels and regards him with one of his intense stares that he always intends to be confiding without realising that it has exactly the opposite effect. “Will? Seriously – you know you can tell me. Is anything wrong?”

Everything’s wrong, thinks Will desperately. And nothing is right; and it’s only just the beginning before it all gets worse. Jack gazes back, his kindly face creasing slightly with concern, and Will feels submerged with a fresh wave of hopelessness that the scale of the problems is so profound that it’s not even something a top official in the FBI can help him with. Because what can Jack do? If he could change the laws, if he could change Will’s biology; beyond that there’s nothing. It’s like one of those impossible tasks in fairy tales: count out grains of sand, carry water in a sieve…solve the insoluble. Then he hears Jack repeating his name and for a fraction of a second is overcome by an insane urge to cry before gritting his teeth and forcing himself to look up with a brave approximation of a smile.

“No,” he says. “It’s nothing Jack; nothing at all. I’m fine.”

Chapter Text

Dear You,

I’ve been thinking about this.

There are so many things I want to tell you. Yet wanting isn’t enough – it’s never enough – so when it comes down to it I find that I can't actually tell you any of them because I don't have the words for it. You wouldn't understand that I don't think: you always have as many words as you need. There’s that expression isn’t there, ‘a man of few words’, and in many ways it’s perfect for you because there’s a sense that everything you say is to the point and for a purpose. You don’t use words just for the sake of it. In fact that’s another expression isn’t it:  ‘never a wasted word.’ Although there’s also no doubt that the ones you do have are completely at your command and are always going to behave however you want them to. You’re lucky in that respect; my own words have never obeyed me in the same way.

So I want to tell you that I’m frightened and feeling too full yet far too empty and that I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I want to tell you about all of it; all the things I don’t know. Like what I’ll do when the tablets run out and how I can get any more, or how I can stop Andrew tracking me down and what to do if he does.  I want to tell you that the way I feel about myself and the thoughts I’m having horrify me. And I want to tell you that the reason for this is because I keep thinking ‘I could kill him’ and that it’s there all the time. It’s like a dripping tap in the middle of the night, like a pulse in the background: I-could-kill-him-I-could-kill-him. And it’s not just rhetoric because I know that I could, even though there’s no question that I can’t.

There are no right words to tell you something like that.

I actually find it easier to imagine telling Jack. Does that sound odd to you? Perhaps it does, but the reason is really quite simple: it’s because he wouldn’t believe me. He wouldn’t think I was serious, he’d think it was just the frustration talking: a figure of speech. Like when people say something theatrical and exaggerated that they don’t really mean; when Price throws his pen on the table and says ‘I could kill that judge.’ But you wouldn’t think that, would you? You’d only have to look at me and you’d know that I meant it.

So – no. I can’t imagine telling you. Although to be honest it’s not easy to imagine all that much where you’re concerned, even with an imagination like mine’s supposed to be. My mental version of you likes to remain in control – unrelentingly so – and it makes you a human hall of mirrors even in my head. I actually find it much simpler to imagine myself.  I suppose that makes you curious; you want to hear an example don’t you? Okay: I keep imagining what it would be like to touch you. Just something casual, something that could be disguised as an accident; just a hand on your forearm or shoulder – something like that. You see, that part of it is fairly easy to imagine but what I can’t envisage is what your reaction would be. Whether you’d be pleased, or surprised, or irritated, or whether you’d even notice at all…it’s so difficult to tell. I’ve never been able to read you in the same way I can other people. In the way that you seem to be able to read me.

It’s kind of frustrating to be honest.

So what, then? I could just stop I suppose. But then I’d miss the idea of not touching you, even though it’s just in my head. I’d miss it, I know I would; I’d miss you. I don’t know any more how not to be around you. I no longer know what my life is like without you in it.

God knows what you’d say if you knew – it’s just one more thing I can’t imagine. Although maybe you wouldn’t say anything at all? That’s also an option I suppose. Maybe you’d just sit there with that faint smile on your face, watching and thinking and withholding: master of all the silence in the gaps between your words.

*****

A few days later Jack gathers everyone together and announces the first official meeting of The Sculptor Taskforce in the same solemnly portentous manner of someone announcing election results. And even though – not unlike election results – everyone knew it was coming and that the outcome might not be to their liking but remains unavoidable, there’s still an audible groaning sound that ripples around the room in a little gloomy chorus of reluctance. “Any questions?” says Jack, glaring round the office in order to quell the groans one by one.

“Yes,” says Price. “I have, as it happens.”

“Which is?”

“The name.”

Jack’s eyes begin to narrow. “What about the name?”

“Why are we calling ourselves that?” replies Price in disgust. “Taskforce makes us sound like army commandos. And the acronym: TST? It sounds ridiculous. Like the Tuberculin Skin Test.”

“If you say it fast it sounds like ‘testy’,” adds Zeller to no one in particular.

“Well you think of something better then,” snaps Jack. Only no one appears willing or able to think of anything better, and in the end TST seems to stick.

“Teesté, Teesté,” chants Price into his microscope on the day of the meeting itself. “It could be a budget line of Italian sport cars; those incredibly vile ones that middle-aged men buy when they’re having a mid-life crisis.” Zeller gives a discreet cough into his own microscope. “Not that I‘d know about such things of course,” adds Price with dignity. “What time are we due to start again?”

“Four o’clock,” replies Siemens, who’s arrived extremely early and proceeded to loiter around the lab getting in everyone’s way. “I’m fairly sure Agent Crawford said four.”

“That’s not for a while yet,” says Price pointedly. “Why not wait in the cafeteria? The coffee’s fairly passable and it’s certainly more comfortable than here.”

“Thanks, I’m fine,” replies Siemens, oblivious to the hint and now preoccupied with peering intensely at a series of print-out charts pinned to the wall by Price’s desk: each one neatly labelled according to assorted legal infringements along with the number that have occurred in the Baltimore area in the past month. “Why have you got these in here?”

“It was Ms Purnells’s idea. It’s for…what it’s for again Zeller?”

“It’s for holism,” replies Zeller, pronouncing the word with relish. “It’s to remind us that we’re part of a wider organisational effort and a larger prerogative for preserving law and order.”

“Yes, whatever. What he said,” says Price vaguely.

Siemens nods appreciatively then peers closer at the nearest chart. “1038 traffic violations in the past month,” he adds in a tone that seems to be approaching something like wonder. “Who’d have thought?”

Price exchanges an agonised grimace with Zeller then returns to his microscope just as Siemens makes a subdued cooing noise at the number of breaking and entering offences (312: ‘boo hoo’ written underneath in an unidentified hand) before the door swings open with an unpleasant scraping sound and Skinner come loping though. He hovers on the threshold for a few seconds, seemingly unsure of what to do or where to go, before spotting Siemens and heading over to converse with him in a low voice without bothering to greet anyone else. “If either of you gentlemen would care for a coffee,” says Price rather desperately, “I can recommend the cafeteria very wholeheartedly.”

“I’m good,” replies Skinner, seemingly unaware of the irony that he has shadows smudged under both eyes and a generally lean, hungry look that can’t reasonably be described as anything remotely approaching a state of goodness. Price rolls his eyes again, even more extravagantly than before. “Which is not what Kade Purnell’s going to be when she finds out what some asshole has done to her Merc,” adds Skinner with morbid satisfaction. “I saw it just now when I arrived – big scrape all down the side.”

“Oh dear,” says Price insincerely. “What a terrible shame.”

Reckless,” confirms Skinner who appears unaware of the sarcasm. “Although on a more positive note I must remember to congratulate her on these charts; very proactive.”

“Well I suppose that’s one word for them,” replies Price from the depths of his microscope. “Do you happen to know if she’s TST-ing with us today?”

“I’m pretty sure she isn’t,” says Skinner who’s now joined Siemens in tutting over the number of financial frauds (32: ‘who cares?’ added underneath in further Handwriting Unknown). “It’s a disappointment to be honest; I’d like an opportunity to work together more closely. I admire her hugely.”

“How very nice for you,” replies Price in the same undertone. “Zeller, get those samples ready can you? I want to show them to Will before the meeting.”

Zeller gives a grunt of acquiescence and begins to assemble the relevant items when Will appears a few moments later, clutching a cup of take-out coffee in one hand and his briefcase in the other with his pale cheeks whipped pink by the cold. He nods in greeting to everyone then heads over to the charts and fishes around in his briefcase to locate a marker pen before proceeding to draw a large line through ‘1038 traffic violations’ and scribbling 1039 over the top.

Price gives a snort of laughter. “Been tarnishing the FBI’s good name again have you?”

“It was entirely their fault,” says Will in an exaggeratedly virtuous tone. “They were straddling two whole bays and it was impossible to get in. I’m going to be charitable and assume that either their guide dog or their ego did the parking for them.”

Price gives a second, even louder snort just as Zeller adds: “It wasn’t a Merc was it?”

“Yeah, it was. How did you know?”

“That’s Ms Prunell’s car,” announces Price gleefully.

“Oh God,” says Will.

Siemens emits an abrupt giggling noise which is oddly high-pitched and seems to go on and on and on. “You’re wild Mr Graham,” he says admiringly.

Will darts him a glance but in the end doesn’t reply, instead subtly removing himself around the desk so they’re no longer in touching distance. “Well I for one don’t think it’s a laughing matter,” says Skinner waspishly. “That’s criminal damage. I hope you’re going to offer to reimburse her?”

“Of course,” replies Will in a bored voice.

“Money won’t be enough,” says Price. “I bet she’ll make him fix it himself as a form of penance. In public. She’ll probably hire a load of trainees to stand round the car and chant ‘Shame!’”

“Probably,” agrees Will, beginning to leaf through a nearby stack of reports. “Have you seen Jack this morning?”

“No, he’s not been in yet. I imagine he’ll be setting the room up for the meeting.”

“Agent Crawford is an alpha isn’t he,” says Skinner apropos of nothing. “I’m rather surprised he has so many omegas about the place. It’s hardly typical, after all.” He pauses then makes a play of inspecting his fingernails before shooting a distinctly malevolent glance at Will from underneath his eyelashes. Will, in turn, has an unpleasant suspicion that he’s just been subtly accused of sleeping his way to the top (and which as insults go is actually rather novel, considering that the way he’s going he’s far more likely to sleep his way to the bottom). Then he unconsciously grips the pheromone spray in his pocket and reminds himself that Skinner is just being an asshole and that there’s no way he can actually know. It’s probably because Will’s features aren’t quite coarse enough to look like a typical beta; in fact no doubt pretending to mistake people for omegas is Skinner’s idea of an insult.

“This field office is unusual in that respect,” adds Skinner, determined to labour the point.

“Seen a lot of different ones, have you?” asks Siemens politely.

“Quite a lot yes. I can’t say I’m very impressed with the standards of hospitality here either – the hotel is shocking. Absolutely shocking. In fact I’m going to write a complaint to the manager. You’ll never guess what I found in the swimming pool this morning.”

“Cthulu?” asks Price without looking up from his microscope.

“Legionnaire’s Disease?” adds Will. “Oh hell, look – the lid’s come off the sample.”

“Was it Atlantis?” suggests Zeller. “Or was it Aquaman?”

“It was confetti,” replies Skinner stiffly. “Everywhere. It had broken the filter; the goddamn pool was choked with it.”

“I was so sure it was going to be Cthulu,” replies Price mildly before turning back to Will. “Well stop tugging it then. Have you got hands or paws?”

“Oh no, it’s fine, I’ve got it now.” Will pauses then holds the container up to the light, squinting from one side to the other. “Is it the same as last time?”

“Exactly the same.”

“Is that not good for your theory then Mr Graham?” asks Siemens, who’s noticed Will beginning to frown.

Will yearns to snap back that he doesn’t have theories (which tend to be vague, speculative, unsubstantiated things) as opposed to evidence that needs interpreting in view of the facts (which tend to be on the side of all that’s suitably robust and scientific); but then he catches sight of Siemens’s expression – which has the same pitiful expectancy of a dog hoping for a kind word – so in the end just gives a small shrug as a kind of diplomatic compromise and says that there are still numerous aspects of the case which don’t make total sense. Siemens begins nodding eagerly before he’s even finished speaking (metaphorical tail wagging away) and Will sighs to himself and wonders why he feels so compelled to stand here being nice to Siemens when all he really wants him to do is fuck off.  The problem, fundamentally, seems to be that Will is a shit person trapped in a nice person’s body. In fact it’s probably something else to add to the scrolling list of psychological hang-ups. ‘Social masochist’ perhaps, or ‘bastard in non-bastard body’…

“What exactly is it that you do Mr Graham?” demands Skinner, abruptly cutting into this interesting bit of self-diagnosis. “If you don’t mind me asking? I mean you have this reputation but I’m still not entirely clear what it’s for. You’re not a medical professional are you?”

“No,” replies Will who’s trying, with some effort, not to let his irritation show. “You know I’m not. I interpret forensic evidence.”

“But from where?” persists Skinner. “You don’t have formal pathology training.”

From myself, Will wants to say, although of course he doesn’t. “From a behavioural perspective.”

“But you’re not a doctor? Or a psychologist?”

“N-o-o-o,” says Will, who’s begun to speak very slowly and clearly as if dictating to some half-witted secretary.

“So your expertise isn’t in people – per se?”

 “No,” repeats Will. “Not per se. More like the crime scenes themselves.”

“And yet you used the term ‘behaviour?’”

Will shrugs again, suddenly tiring of this game. He knows to an outsider it probably seems odd – a behaviourist with no tangible behaviour to examine – but it’s hard to explain it in a way that someone like Skinner could possibly understand: how Will sets to work before a perpetrator is apprehended rather than afterwards, examining all the fragments and traces they’ve left behind them in order to construe a narrative as to their procedure and purpose. Their design. Fleetingly he imagines Skinner’s reaction if he just blurted it out: I intuit depravity from the point of view of the depraved. It would take someone infinitely more sophisticated to truly be able to fathom it. Someone like Hannibal. Then he realises Skinner’s still staring, so merely shrugs again. “Surely you’re familiar with the concept of profiling?”

“I am,” replies Skinner, with an obvious dash of disdain. “But not from someone without an obvious professional skill set.”

“Will is extremely skilled,” says Price sharply.

Skinner barks out a laugh then holds up both hands, palms upward, in a pantomime of someone conceding defeat. “So it would seem,” he says. “Good for you Mr Graham – good for you man. Extremely skilled: good for you.”

This time Will doesn’t bother replying at all, merely leans back against the side of the desk with his arms folded and coolly regards Skinner from over the top of his glasses. A strained silence then ensues that seems to go on and on like something stretched out on the rack until Siemens clears his throat with a nervous scraping sound and jerks his head towards the door. “Well, perhaps we should leave them to it,” he says to Skinner. “You think that coffee’s good then, Dr Price?”

“Extremely,” replies Price, whose eyes are still slightly narrowed. “The cafeteria is just up the hall.”

“Well, okay then,” says Siemens feebly. “Anything for you guys?”

Price and Zeller shake their heads in silent unison. Siemens shuffles his feet in a heartfelt display of anguished awkwardness and Will, who’s grateful for his unexpected display of tact, takes pity on him and gives him a small smile. Siemens’s mournful round face breaks into a smile of its own, just as Will adds: “No thanks. I’m good.”

“You certainly are, aren’t you?” says Skinner thoughtfully. Retrieving his jacket from the back of the chair he slings it over his shoulder and begins to follow Siemens out into the corridor. “I’ll see you all at the TST meeting,” he adds, and his lips twist into a ghoulish contortion that seems intended to act as a smile. “Have fun in the meantime, won’t you?”

Price lets out a long sigh when they’re gone that’s so low it’s almost a hiss. “What on earth,” he says contemptuously, “is that guy’s problem?”

Will can see both Price and Zeller beginning to stare at him, so just shrugs lightly as if he doesn’t really care. Nevertheless he can feel his heart starting to sink, because he knows intuitively that Skinner doesn’t merely dislike him, he seems to hate him; and that while a trivial thing like professional envy might be the kindling, the accelerant comes from somewhere much murkier and rawer. Will supposes he should be used to it by now: to being hated. Yet no matter how many times it happens, and despite his best efforts to the contrary, it’s never enough to fully quash the frail hopeful part of him that just wants to be liked and accepted and believes that one day it might finally happen. Other people manage it, the part forlornly says to itself, surely it’s not that much to ask? Briefly he thinks back to the chronic, ambivalent nihilism he experienced after his first few meetings with Hannibal: the wretched sense that he would inevitability catch on to the wary mistrust that everyone else seemed to feel around Will and not want anything more to do with him coupled with a faintly hopeful optimism that maybe – just maybe, just this once – it might not be the case.

Price and Zeller are still looking at him, now with something that seems perilously close to sympathy, so Will forces himself to shrug again before beginning to shuffle a stack of papers together like someone without a care in the world. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s probably nothing.” Although even as he’s speaking he has no doubt at all that’s it’s going to turn out to be something; and that he’s destined to discover exactly what that something is, whether he wants to or not.

*****

The TST meeting starts badly and ends worse with Jack insisting on giving an interminable PowerPoint presentation (for which, as far as Will can tell, there appears to be pretty much No Point at all) before forcing everyone to go round the room and introduce themselves to one another.

“Rather as if,” says Price in an undertone to Will, “he thinks it’s a Tupperware party.”

“At least he didn’t make us do one of those grizzly corporate ice breaker exercises,” replies Will in the same low voice.

“Or a grizzly elementary school one,” agrees Price. “Like throwing bean bags at each other and yelling our names when we catch it.”

“Oh I don’t know. We could have put a brick in the bean bag.”

“Very true,” agrees Price, joining Will in staring over to where Skinner is vigorously reciting his entire resume to one of the CSI photographers, completely oblivious to the way her eyes are starting to glaze over. “Or a landmine. Or a pipe bomb – I know how to make those, did I ever tell you? – or a…oh hello, it’s Agent Mayhew isn’t it? Pleasure to meet you ma’am. How are you enjoying Baltimore?”

Will smiles vaguely in Agent Mayhew’s direction then leaves her and Price to it and shuffles his feet slightly into a position that allows his gaze to slide irresistibly across the room to where Hannibal is talking to one of the new field agents. Her mouth is opening and closing at an alarmingly rapid rate and Hannibal doesn’t appear to be saying anything in return, merely nodding at appropriately spaced intervals intercut with the occasional inscrutable smile. Will wonders if he’s bored? Surely he must be, although if so he’s doing a flawless job at hiding it: listening intently with an expression of polite interest that’s enough to be compelling without seeming insincere. In fact his whole stance is deeply familiar, and the awareness of this fills Will with a sense of gloomy foreboding of whether Hannibal assumes an expression of equally polite interest during their own conversations despite secretly withering with tedium inside. Do I bore you? he thinks bleakly. Would you tell me if I did? The woman is smiling as well now, obviously gravitating towards the magnetic pull of Hannibal’s charm, and Will struggles with an impulse to glare at her before sighing slightly and forcing himself to look away before anyone catches him staring.

“…and so participating very enthusiastically,” concludes Agent Mayhew with a little flourish.

“Right,” says Will, who hasn’t heard a single word. “Yeah, that’s great.”

“And of course it’s an honour to be working with you Mr Graham. I guess you hear that all the time?”

Will, who certainly doesn’t hear it all the time, gives another vague smile and struggles to substitute the wave of wary scepticism that he’s being made fun of with a reply that’s the right combination of modest yet appreciative. Only he can’t quite think of anything beyond a cautious “Thank you”…at which point it feels like the hours pass and the seasons change, and Agent Mayhew is still just stood there beaming at him like a gameshow host. Fortunately an unlikely rescue arrives in the form of Jack (or, more specifically, the sound of Jack’s throat being noisily cleared in advance of revving up to reconvene the meeting) which means that Agent Mayhew is obliged to move off towards the row of desks and take her admiration-of-undermined-sincerity with her. Will follows behind, idly wondering if there’s any possible way to arrange sitting beside Hannibal that won’t look too obvious before feeling rather contemptuous towards himself for even caring (as if he’s some high school freshman pining over the football captain…for God’s sake) and deliberately pulls out a random chair instead without paying any attention to who’s nearby. He’s therefore slightly taken aback when Hannibal walks over – not that walking is entirely the right term for it; he’s so agile and loose-limbed he almost seems to glide – and sits next to Will without evincing even the slightest hint of deliberation or self-consciousness. Will darts him a quick smile then tries and fails to think of anything to say before the moment is lost and Jack has commanded everyone’s attention again to begin playing some video footage of an analyst from Washington who seems determined to explain (in torturously longwinded detail) why the Sculptor is on a self-destructive trajectory and most likely on the verge of turning himself in. His beard is so big it practically fills the screen. Will sighs irritably and struggles against the temptation to scribble ‘bullshit’ on the back of his PowerPoint handout.

“Extraordinary beard,” whispers Price to Zeller. “It almost looks like it might be self-aware.”

On the screen the analyst is trying, and failing, to bring up a series of graphs on his laptop. “Ask the beard to help you out,” advises Zeller, before adding in a louder voice: “Can I ask why we’re having to watch this?”

“Professor Barnes is a colleague of Kade Purnell,” replies Jack. He sighs heavily then lets his eyes trawl round the room in an obvious invitation for everyone to draw their own conclusions. “She was very explicit about having his input included. She rates his, um, expertise extremely highly.”

“I rate his beard extremely highly,” mutters Price. “Not to mention its input. Look at the lustre. You could use it to stuff many pillows.”

On the screen the bearded figure has abandoned the graphs and instead begun to earnestly describe why the Sculptor fits his recently published theory about ‘Cry for Help Killers.’

“Just wait,” whispers Zeller. “Any minute now he’ll name drop the journal.”

“…recently accepted by the European Review of Forensic Psychology,” says Professor Barnes. A few seconds silence follow this announcement, presumably for the expected gasps of admiration.

“Bravo, Barnes,” says Price. “And beard. Bravo indeed.”

“…a cardinal feature of which,” ploughs on Professor Barnes, “is that such individuals subconsciously want to be caught.”

At the back of the room, Hannibal and Will have given a simultaneous eye roll and begun discussing why this can’t possibly be the case in extremely loud voices. “Can’t you two behave yourselves?” hisses Skinner. “You’re supposed to be paying attention. And stop making all that noise.”

Hannibal’s eyes, which have been fixed on Will, now abruptly swivel in Skinner’s direction and linger there; at which point the latter begins to look uncomfortable before self-consciously clearing his throat. “Yeah, well, just give him a chance,” Skinner finally says, gesturing towards the screen. “I know this guy, he’s good.” Hannibal quirks an eyebrow. “Yeah, well…” repeats Skinner before clearing his throat again. “Nevertheless, I apologise for my tone.” Hannibal nods graciously. “By the way Dr Lecter, that’s a nice jacket. I was meaning to say earlier.”

“Thank you,” says Hannibal very gravely before catching Will’s eye with the ghost of a smile; and who in turn is overcome with a slightly absurd conspiratorial urge to start giggling, rather as if he’s one of his own students. “I’m fond of blended wool myself,” lumbers on Skinner. “It’s hard to find a good fit.”

Hannibal begins to levitate the second eyebrow then asks: “Is it?” in a completely deadpan tone.

“Yeah, well…” says Skinner (recurring).

On the screen Professor Barnes is drawing his monologue to a close with all the dramatic relish of someone declaiming monologues from Hamlet. “I of course intend to make myself fully available to my colleagues at the Bureau,” he says solemnly. “I’m here for you guys. Just reach out for any help or advice you might need.”

“Thank you,” says Price loudly. “Both of you. Is the beard pro bono as well?”

Jack gives another irritated sigh then flicks a button at the screen so that Professor Barnes freezes mid-sentence, eyes popping like a pouting baby and mouth formed in a perfect o-shape of self-important righteousness. “Well now we’ve got that out the way,” says Jack firmly.

“In all seriousness, I find his involvement somewhat alarming,” interjects Price. “Ms Purnell must think we’re completely desperate to even suggest bringing him in.”

Will shifts irritably in his chair and adds “Right,” even though as far as he’s concerned the gesture represents something far more punitive than concern for their lack of progress: functioning less as a form of assistance than it does a display of punishment and humiliation.

Completely desperate,” repeats Price.

“Well aren’t we?” snaps Jack with clear frustration. “No suspects, no new leads, no witnesses.” He pauses and darts a loaded glance at Will. “No profile.”

Everyone now obligingly rotates their heads to gape at Will, who suspects he should probably be feeling guilty or self-conscious about it but refuses to do either and instead leans back in his chair and folds his arms decisively. “I can’t give you a profile I don’t stand behind to appease Kade Purnell or anyone else,” he adds in a tone which is just as sharp as Jack’s. “There’s still too much that’s inconclusive.”

“Like what? Specifically?”

Specifically, like the way he stages the bodies. I’ve said it before Jack. There’s a deliberation in it that’s unusual – suspicious, almost. It complicates the motive and it’s too high risk to release speculative information before we’re ready. At this stage we just need to stick to the facts.”

“We hardly have any facts.”

“Which is even more reason not to obscure them with theories that could turn out to be misleading or flat out wrong. There isn’t even any consistency in the victim profile at this stage.”

“They’re all omegas,” replies Jack mulishly.

“So that’s the information we release. But when people ask us why and how, we say we’re not prepared to comment at this stage.”

“What are you talking about?” interrupts Skinner. “Of course we know how.”

“We know he stabs them and mutilates the bodies. Big deal – that much is already common knowledge. But we don’t know exactly what type of weapon he’s using, we don’t know how he’s choosing them, we don’t know how he abducts them, or how long he keeps them alive before killing them, or how he gets them to the dump site afterwards. Those scenes are some of the cleanest I’ve ever seen; he leaves nothing behind him. So no, Agent Skinner. I’d say we don’t know how.”

Jack, who’s aware that Will’s right but is feeling too impatient to admit it, drums his fingers irritably on the table instead. “That’s as may be, but we have got to get more proactive. The attempts to control the media exposure are already poised to blow sky high. The TattleCrime’s just run another article, which means the nationals will soon follow. It’ll happen any day now. By the end of the week every breakfast table in the country is going to be talking about it.”

A soft murmur of dismay runs round the room in response to this and Jack straightens up then crosses his arms and stares accusingly at each person after another. “As of today all leave is cancelled,” he says grimly. “We’ve had four victims now which means this is officially a state of emergency and I want every single one of you eating, sleeping and breathing this case for as long as is necessary. And yes, I know that doesn’t sound especially appealing but remember that the reason you’re here is because you’re the best. And the best is what’s needed if we’re going to have a hope in hell of catching this guy.”

“Or girl,” adds Skinner to no one in particular.

“The best,” repeats Jack, ignoring Skinner. He stares intensely at the assembled faces in ominous silence, seemingly inviting them to meditate in private contemplation from the force of his words; and Will, who finds this type of hyperbole both annoying and pointless, stifles the sigh of impatience he wants to make and stares down mutinously at the desk top instead. Nevertheless – and despite attempting not to – it’s impossible to stop himself wondering how Hannibal feels about being described as the best in this context. The best what, after all? The best babysitter? Next to him on the desktop Hannibal has rolled back his sleeves and Will can’t help stealing a covert glance at his wrists, which are very long and fine-boned and a warm honey brown shade that’s no doubt a leftover from some expensive holiday or other. Unless his skin is just like that anyway, which with the dark eyes and hair is actually entirely possible. Does he have manicures? It’s hard to imagine a man having nails that smooth and well-shaped without any help although if any man were capable then surely it would be Hannibal, so perhaps it’s natural after all. There’s a slim white line along the edge of the ulna bone – an elderly scar – and Will stares at it and imagines what it would be like to touch it. Taken together the contrast makes him feel unhappily self-conscious about the state of his own hands, which are scuffed and chafed with the nails bitten down to the quick; although the awareness of noticing or caring about such a trivial thing likewise strikes him as ridiculous and he defiantly moves them from their hiding place on his knee and places them on the table in full view as a silent demonstration that he doesn’t care if Hannibal or anyone else sees how awful they are.

At the front of the room Jack has now resumed lecturing again so Will stifles a second, louder sigh and begins to stare out the window instead. It’s started to rain and the droplets streak down the glass like a giant’s tears in a monotonous thrumming noise that resembles the resonant rhythm of far-off drums. It’s a rather eerie noise if you think about it too much. In fact it reminds him of a documentary, watched years ago and long since forgotten, of the legendary Zulu warriors and the way they beat drums to disorientate and intimidate the enemy. The drums were made of animal hides stretched over bones and the Zulus struck them mercilessly. The British colonists were terrified of it: the way it pounded and pulsed – the type of noise that gets in your head and lingers there. Why has no one else in the room seemed to notice it? The war cry of the rain against the window…why does no one else seem to care? His head’s really hurting now, indistinguishable from the sharply shrieking ache in his abdomen, and he silently removes one hand from the desktop so he can grip onto the side of his chair to try and ride it out, clinging on until his knuckles turn white.

“We may be trying to play it down in the press,” Jack is now saying as he gestures contemptuously at the still-frozen figure of Professor Barnes, “but don’t for one second let that blind you to the gravity of the situation. There’s no disputing it anymore, so understand this: we have a new serial killer on our hands and he is absolutely not going to stop until we catch him.”

*****

At some point Will begins to despair that the meeting will ever be over and that they’re going to be forced to sit there reviewing the same grim conclusions for all eternity like the characters in Greek mythology made to push boulders up never-ending hills. Jack seems pent-up and irritable, veering from encouragement to annoyance to overly morbid sermonising in the manner of the more berserk TV evangelists, and it’s increasingly obvious that he must be coming under some serious pressure from his superiors to turn in some results. Rather as if, thinks Will contemptuously, serial killers are just another capitalist commodity and can be expected to conform to the same laws of supply and demand as any other business enterprise to ensure the spreadsheets all balance up with manpower in directly proportionate to results out. It’s easy enough for all them, sat behind their desks with their gourmet coffee and designer shoes…he bets Kade Purnell has never cleaned up after a murder scene in her entire life. Then another wave of pain makes him grit his teeth and when the meeting eventually draws to a close (fucking finally) Will gathers up his coat and scarf then practically runs to the car park before anyone can notice how pale and perspiring he’s become and start asking awkward questions about what exactly it is that’s wrong with him. The heat suppressants feel like they’re virtually burning a hole in his pocket and at several points the rattling sound they make as they roll around in their little plastic bottle seems as loud and ominous as the rain pounding against the window. In fact no meth head or heroin addict could possibly be as guilty and self-conscious about having their stash exposed despite the fact the tablets are entirely legal. Even so, he still doesn’t know what he’s going to do when they run out. No doctor would risk their license by prescribing him more – and no sane, sensible person would risk their health by wanting to be prescribed more – but Will feels his circumstances don’t favour the sane and sensible as opposed to the devious and desperate. You’ll think of something, he mutters to himself, even though he’s said it so often the words have become fairly meaningless. You always do. You’ll think of something.

It’s only six o’clock but it’s already dim and dusky and Will can see the flicker of bats as they swoop down from the eaves of the building and begin to dart around in the thin cold air like tiny kamikaze pilots. His hands have started to shake slightly and his coordination is so poor that it takes him a few extra minutes of increasingly desperate rummaging in his briefcase and every pocket he possesses to realise that no amount of searching can change the fact that his car keys are definitely not in any of these places and must therefore be lying uselessly on the desk in his office. The inconvenience of this when he’s so desperate to leave now strikes him as almost cosmically unfair and for a few seconds he can’t decide whether he most wants to cry, or kick the car, or possibly an elaborate combination of the two, because – why the hell not?

“Oh shit,” says Will out loud as a compromise. And then, for good measure: “Fuck. Balls.”

“Problem?” asks a familiar voice.

Will spins round sharply, unpleasantly aware of how his face has started to burn with embarrassment while trying to take consolation in the fact that at least it’s too dark for Hannibal to be able to see. “No,” he manages to reply. “No, I’ve just mislaid my keys. It’s fine. They’ll be…” he gestures a bit aimlessly in the direction of the building. “I’ll just go and pick them up.” Hannibal makes a regretful noise but doesn’t actually say anything, and Will immediately feels self-conscious again and consumed with a need to save face by justifying what was so clearly a drastic overreaction by adding: “It’s just really inconvenient, you know?” Hannibal nods obligingly, although Will can’t help feeling that he clearly doesn’t know. Impossible, after all, to imagine Hannibal ever doing something so mundanely absent-minded as leaving his car keys in his office. Probably Hannibal’s car keys have been trained to return to him on command (possibly by whistling for them like a dog). “I don’t feel too great,” Will adds, rather defiantly. “I would’ve liked to have headed straight off.”

Hannibal takes a step closer at this, then flicks his gaze over Will’s face and frowns slightly before saying “Excuse me,” and reaching out to place a cool palm on his forehead beneath his hair.

“Please don’t,” says Will irritably, automatically twisting out the way of someone trying to touch him.

“You’re extremely feverish,” replies Hannibal in a brisk doctorly tone. Will nods in unhappy agreement and Hannibal nods back then takes yet another step closer. “Are you sure you’re able to drive?”

“Yes,” says Will, hoping he sounds convincing. “Yes, I think so.”

“You could always get a cab,” replies Hannibal, who’s now watching Will very intently. “I think that would be more advisable.”

“No – no, I can’t do that. I can’t leave my car here.”

“I can drive you if you like?”

“You would do that?” says Will in a doubtful voice.

“Of course.” Hannibal’s face arranges itself into a very faint smile and Will has a sudden mad impulse that if he walked away now the smile would remain after he’d gone, hovering in the air like the Cheshire Cat’s. “At least I can once we have located your keys.”

“But what will you do?” says Will rather stupidly. “You’ll be stranded at my place.”

“A cab, naturally. I can collect my own car tomorrow.”

Will goes quiet for a few seconds, mindlessly tracing one foot against a ridge in the asphalt and torn between wanting to agree while battling against an ingrained reluctance to be beholden to anyone. “It’s really no trouble Will,” adds Hannibal in the same calm tone. “In fact I’d prefer it; I’m not convinced it’s safe for you to drive.”

“Well…yeah. Okay then,” says Will. Hannibal’s smile briefly reappears and Will bites his bottom lip before frantically trying to inventory all the rooms in the house Hannibal might realistically see while waiting for the cab and trying to remember if there’s anything embarrassing in any of them. “Thanks. Thank you. It’s kind of you to offer.”

“Not at all,” replies Hannibal, whose smile now seems to have turned inwards on itself as if it’s enjoying some private joke. “Would you like me to get the keys from your office?”

“No,” says Will hurriedly, “it’s fine, I’ll get them myself.” Then he attempts a smile of his own (managing, through sheer force of effort, to make it appear as casual and unconcerned as possible) before retreating into the building with a surreal combination of enthusiasm at the idea of having Hannibal in his personal space and agonised anxiety for the same reason. He finds the keys lying in a smug little heap next to his computer – “You complete bastards,” says Will – then gathers them up and runs back down the corridor and into the elevator, irritably smashing down the buttons from concern at keeping Hannibal waiting any longer than necessary. Oh God, it’s no use now: the anxiety is undeniably winning out over the enthusiasm, because as appealing as having Hannibal in his house might be in theory, the reality of it is starting to feel unsettling and unpredictable. Not least because Will’s mental version of him is vaguely controllable – or at least, when uncontrollable, is easily dismissible – whereas there’s no doubt that the living breathing version is not going to remotely behave according to any pre-set script that Will’s written in his head beforehand. That’s the safety of fantasies after all. The chances of fulfilment might remain impossible as long as it’s all in your imagination, but the level of risk likewise remains at zero and nothing can happen of which you’re not in ultimate control. After all, what if such close confinement makes Hannibal decide that he doesn’t like him?

Turning round, Will critically inspects his reflection in the shiny panel of the elevator. His face is extremely pale and his eyes are glittering in an odd unhealthy way, but somehow it’s more than just that. And then: What if he can tell? whispers a furtive, guilty part of Will’s brain. What if he can tell you want to kill someone? What if he can see it in you? The reflection stares back with its haunted face and gleaming eyes and Will blinks a few times then resolutely turns away from it and takes a few deep breaths and runs his hands through his hair. Then for a few panicked seconds he thinks he can actually hear the words being spoken aloud and has a surreal urge to scream before realising it’s just the grinding of the brakes as the elevator draws to a halt. Stepping out he presses the button again to send it away to the top floor, fantasising that the eerily staring reflection is trapped inside and is therefore being carried away too, then leans against the wall and draws another soothing lungful of air.

“It’s fine,” mutters Will under his breath. “Everything’s fine. You’re fine.” So he forces himself to straighten up and stroll across the foyer with his hands in his pockets: deliberately calm and casual as he says goodnight to the janitor before pushing open the door and heading towards the parking lot. The wind feels refreshingly cool against his flushed skin and he’s just contemplating calming down again when he spots Hannibal, who’s still keeping patient vigil next to Will’s car only now with company in the form of Siemens and Skinner. Both of them are propped against the trunk while holding forth about the Sculptor case in obnoxiously loud voices and Will curses internally at the inevitable delay this is going to cause. Then he briefly considers a strategic retreat into the building until he hears Siemens calling his name and is reluctantly forced to walk over.

“Hey Will, are you okay?” asks Siemens as an opening greeting. “You’ve gone very pale.”

Will, who’s trying to work out at what point they moved onto first name terms, says he’s fine; it’s just a slight headache.

“Yeah?” says Siemens, who doesn’t sound particularly convinced.

“Yeah,” replies Will firmly. He gives a chipper little nod to prove it – how eminently fine he is – then makes an abrupt executive decision that Siemens and Skinner can both respectively fuck themselves so passes the keys to Hannibal and says “Shall we get going?”

Skinner raises both eyebrows then adds, in a voice virtually dripping with contempt, “Are you taking him home?”

“Yes,” replies Hannibal calmly. Skinner’s eyebrows elevate even further and Will, waiting for Hannibal’s inevitable excuses and justification that he’s only doing so on medical grounds, can’t help feeling pathetically grateful when they don’t happen: that even if Hannibal is embarrassed to be linked with him in such a public way (and surely he must be?) then at least he’s not going to show it.

Skinner revolves his eyes from one of them to the other but doesn’t say anything else, leaving it to Siemens to muster one of his limp smiles and say: “It’s very kind of you to drive that far Dr Lecter.” Not surprisingly, thinks Will, there’s no indication of using his Christian name.

“Yeah,” adds Skinner slightly accusingly. “You’re going quite out of your way.”

“Thank you for the praise,” replies Hannibal, slowly flicking his eyes from one to the other, “although it’s not particularly deserved – it’s nothing more than a favour between friends.” Siemens smiles again in perfect coordination with Skinner’s frown and Hannibal nods in response before turning his back on the pair of them in what’s clearly a polite yet firm dismissal. And Will, not for the first time, can’t help being struck by the incongruity of it: how in anyone else that kind of aloof authoritativeness would be repellent, and yet in Hannibal manages to be decisive yet undeniably charismatic.

“After you, Will,” says Hannibal after a slight pause.

Will mutters an affirmative noise then darts round to the passenger side and virtually dives into the car. Hannibal glides in himself at a far more leisurely rate and Will fastens his seatbelt then stares fixedly in front of him; so consumed with the pain, as well as relief at the prospect of getting away – and anxious anticipation of what’s going to happen next – that it never occurs to him to notice how Siemens’ and Skinner’s remarks both implied an unaccountable familiarity between the two of them with exactly where Will lives.

Chapter Text

It doesn’t take Will long to decide that Hannibal drives in the same way as he does so much else: coolly controlled, smoothly efficient, and with a certain dash of fearlessness that in anyone else might come across as reckless but in his case seems more like confidence owing to the imperishable sense of control. As a result the journey passes quickly (which Will partly expected) but also in a companionable silence (which he didn’t) and as the minutes stretch past in a peaceful undemanding haze there’s ultimately nothing to stop him resting his forehead against the window and watching as the city slowly dissolves away to be replaced by barren stretches of field and rows of trees whose naked limbs straggle upwards like they’re trying to claw the sky. So much desolation often feels oppressive when he makes the journey alone but there’s undoubtedly a soothing aspect to having company that’s enough to lay a more benign filter over the landscape and recast what’s normally sinister and menacing into a scene that merely appears shadowy and mysterious, rather like the illustrations of enchanted forests in some of the more old-fashioned children’s books. Orion and his dogs are just about visible through a veil of ragged grey clouds and Will stares up at them in silent solidarity before Hannibal finally asks him for directions and he’s forced to straighten up and focus on the road again.

“Were you asleep?” says Hannibal. “If so, I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

“No, it’s fine. Anyway I’m the one who should be apologising; I didn’t give you very clear instructions. In fact I hardly gave you any instructions at all.”

“If you want to rest,” adds Hannibal tactfully, “then feel free to give them to me now. I won’t have any trouble remembering them. My memory is…rather good.”

“It’s fine,” repeats Will, gloomily considering that he’s starting to say this so often he should just save time and have a recording made. Possibly he could print it on a shirt….possibly have an entire uniform made, including buttons and a baseball cap, just to emphasise how extremely fucking fine everything is. “Anyway it’s not all that far now,” he adds, trying to sound a bit more upbeat. “Just take the next left, then the second right, and after that it’s pretty much straight on.”

“Rather a substantial commute for you – doing this every day.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I should have warned you.”

“It’s not a problem Will,” says Hannibal with the typical serene sincerity that Will can never quite convince himself is entirely sincere. “I’m happy to do it.”

“I’ll reimburse you for the cab.”

“That really isn’t necessary.”

“I’m paying you back,” says Will mutinously, preparing to rev up for a fight; although in the end Hannibal just gives one of his more benign smiles – radiating sincerity the entire time – then thanks him for the consideration and politely lets the subject drop. So that’s that. “I appreciate you taking the trouble,” Will finally adds in a friendlier voice. “You were right, I was probably better off not driving.”

“Do you think some time off work might be advisable?”

“No,” says Will firmly. “Definitely not. I prefer to be in work.” Then he feels like kicking himself for giving a reply that’s so enigmatic and loaded it’s virtually an open invitation for Hannibal to begin asking exactly why that would be the case. Although as it turns out Will’s destined to have his expectations subverted for a second time, because rather than interrogating him Hannibal merely nods in acknowledgement then renews his concentration on the stretching black road in front of them and the rest of the journey passes in the same comfortable silence as before. In fact the silence is so comfortable that Will, a veteran of taciturnity and countless speechlessly strained encounters, feels like he could bask in the ease and contentment of it as if it were a feather quilt. Possibly he’s overreacting – but really, it’s hard not to be won over by such a pleasantly novel sensation of simply sharing a space and breathing one another’s air without being compelled to cram and shovel endless forkfuls of sentences into the other person’s mouth. There’s just the quiet lull of the engine and the occasional rustle of fabric as someone moves their arm, punctuated by the sound of them breathing in tandem within their mutual metal cocoon as it slices through the darkness under the watchful eye of the trees. A liminal space between words, thinks Will hazily. He’s never felt there’s anything particularly intimate about sharing a car with someone, and yet there’s undeniably a sense of quiet intimacy in this. It’s…nice. Then he realises that Hannibal has found the house and is pulling into the driveway; and it’s therefore not only time to exit the car and go inside like a normal person without performing any of his usual anxious rituals but also somehow find a way to maintain the fiction that everything is ‘fine’ and there’s nothing for Hannibal to be alert or concerned over. Yeah right, thinks Will gloomily. Nevertheless he manages to stroll up to the porch and unlock the door in a suitably unhurried and casual way then politely stands aside to allow Hannibal to walk in first before following behind, flicking on the lights and calling the dogs to heel before Hannibal gets smothered by them. Then he just hovers for a few seconds in the hallway and fights a growing temptation to simply shut down and stare aimlessly into space – because having finally achieved his ambition of getting Hannibal in the house, he’s realised that he has absolutely no idea what to do with him. What the hell am I supposed to do with you now? he imagines saying. Help me out here. Do you come with instructions or what?

“Will?”

“Yeah?”

“I said can I get you anything?”

It’s at this point that Will decides Hannibal must really enjoy hosting things seeing as he’s just effectively relegated Will to the role of visitor in his own house. “No, thanks, I’m good,” he says firmly. “Can I get you anything? A drink? Or – or would you rather I just got you a cab? Do you want to leave straight away; I can get you a cab if you like?”

“Oh yes – a drink,” replies Hannibal. “Thank you.”

“Okay,” says Will cautiously, trying to mine his last reserves of social ability and perform a rapid stocktake of every liquid substance in the house that might just about pass as fit for consumption. Then he makes a mental note to congratulate himself for generally avoiding socialising at all costs because it’s actually really fucking exhausting. What would Martha Stewart do? Oh Christ no, not Martha Stewart. You are not to model your social intercourse on Martha Stewart, thinks Will sternly to himself. I fucking forbid you. “Coffee?” he says now in a deliberately brighter tone. “Or there’s beer. Or whiskey…or I think I’ve got some wine somewhere.”

Hannibal, as expected, opts for the wine so Will vanishes into the kitchen to retrieve it and to take an opportunity to feed the dogs. The bottle is slightly dusty from having lain fallow for so long although he feels reasonably confident in offering it – the sole bottle in his possession – because it was a gift from a local attorney in return for Will’s help in making sense of a particularly complex set of autopsy results and therefore, while almost certainly not up to Hannibal’s usual standards, is unlikely to be completely contemptible either. Then he has to go back again to get a corkscrew (which is embarrassingly not a proper one as opposed to part of a pen knife), then leaves the glasses on the counter so has to return a second time to fetch them (although no doubt Hannibal thinks he spends all evening downing wine straight from the bottle so wouldn’t be all that surprised anyway) before finally heading back into the living room clutching the entire lot to his chest like a new born baby and feeling absurdly self-conscious the whole time.

Hannibal is still stood where Will left him by the window and doesn’t turn round when he comes in. While he’s removed his coat he’s made no attempt to sit down and the awareness of this immediately makes Will berate himself all over again, because isn’t that what you’re supposed to say to guests? Please take a seat, that’s what you’re supposed to say. Make yourself at home won’t you. Although surely it’s not too much to ask to expect guests to show a bit of goddamn initiative and work such things out for themselves? Where are you supposed to draw the line anyway: please do continue to respirate won’t you. Do feel free to maintain your vital bodily functions as long as you’re under my roof. Then he realises that Hannibal isn’t merely standing there aimlessly but is calmly inspecting the photo on the desktop, head slightly on one side to avoid the obscuring bunch of flowers that Will has finally remembered to buy.

“Is this your mother?” he says now.

“It is, yes.”

“I can see the resemblance.” Hannibal picks up the frame and examines the picture rather thoughtfully before placing it down again in the exact same position as before. “She’s a very beautiful woman.”

“Yes she was, wasn't she?” replies Will, happy to have had this acknowledged despite completely missing the implied compliment. “I’ve got the wine here by the way; do you want to open it? I always break the corks.”

Hannibal holds out a hand and Will wordlessly passes over the bottle just as the pack of dogs, frustrated at being denied entry for so long, finally succeed in nosing open the door and tumbling into the room in a joyful flurry of fur and pink lolling tongues. “Sorry,” says Will. “They like to…” he’s about to add ‘hang out with me’ but decides not to at the last minute in case it sounds like it’s his custom to spend all evening socialising with a hoard of dogs (which it actually is, although there’s no need to advertise the fact). ‘Hanging out,’ though…it sounds like they all sit down and smoke pot together before sticking on Grand Theft Auto. “They like being in here,” he says instead. ”You don’t mind do you?”

“Not at all.”

Will smiles appreciatively in response then gently shoos the dogs away from the sofa so they can both sit down. Oh God…Hannibal’s expensive suit is going to be covered in dog hairs. Will barely even notices it anymore himself but right now it’s hard not to view the ancient upholstery and liberal coating of fur through a stranger’s eyes and give a small wince of distaste. “It’s a very nice house,” adds Hannibal, as if reading his thoughts. “I imagine the solitude suits you?”

Will makes a vague noise of agreement which he has to change into “Thanks” halfway through when Hannibal passes him one of the glasses. “I hope this is okay,” he adds, gesturing towards the bottle. “To be honest I never really drink wine.”

“No? Do feel free to get something else if you prefer.”

Will is about to say that it’s fine but can’t quite bring himself to utter that fucking word one more time today so just demonstrates it instead by taking a cavalier swig that manages to empty half the glass in one go. “It’s very good,” adds Hannibal, as if in solidarity.

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t go in for all that stuff.”

“What stuff? Wine appreciation?”

Wine bores, thinks Will rather contemptuously. Of course it’s far too rude to say such a thing out loud but it’s true nonetheless: the whole pretension of it is completely ludicrous as far as he’s concerned. Jack’s been known to veer perilously close to it on occasion and even someone like Price doesn’t appear completely immune – although neither of them are ever completely successful owing to their preference for white wine: and while amateurs might attempt it with white, red wine is where the professional grape geeks truly excel. Not that any of this is remotely worth expressing so in the end he just nods instead and takes a second, more retrained sip.

“While I don’t entirely agree I can certainly sympathise,” says Hannibal. He briefly holds the glass up to the light, appearing to admire the deep hues of purple-tinged vermillion that glisten with the same richness as blood. “Wine enthusiasts can be uniquely tedious. As with any fanatic they become preoccupied with trivia of no possible interest to anyone beyond themselves.”

“You mean like the decline of the Malbecs?” says Will mischievously.

Hannibal catches his eye and begins to smile. “Yes,” he replies after a pause. “Exactly like that.”

“Well here’s to them,” adds Will, inclining his glass. “To the last.”

“To the very last,” says Hannibal with another rather feline smile. “Their decline and fall.” He tips his own glass enough to make the wine ripple against the side then leans back against the sofa and regards Will meditatively. “Although I can hardly pretend it’s the most optimistic choice of toast. What else should we drink to, do you think?”

“Honestly?” says Will. “I have no idea.”

“No latent cause for celebration?”

“None at all.”

“You have the look of someone who wants to add a disclaimer to that sentence. Something to the contrary.” Will raises an eyebrow. “I believe you’re thinking: ‘quite the opposite.’”

“Maybe.”

“Or maybe not. Feel free to ignore all this probing – you’re not under any obligation to tell me anything.” Hannibal pauses delicately and beams a pointed look at Will from over the top of his wine glass. “But if there is something troubling you…you know I’m happy to listen.”

“Yeah, I know. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” says Hannibal, then deliberately falls quiet in favour of subtly running his eyes over Will’s face: partly because strained silences don’t bother him but mostly because he finds Will’s obvious distress somewhat addictive.

“I just…I just haven’t been feeling too great recently,” Will finally replies. Hannibal leans forward and he hurriedly adds: “physically, that is.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Not really. Just, y’know…run down. Under the weather. That kind of thing.” Hannibal hums in sympathy and Will glances up sharply. “What do you mean? Why are you making that noise?”

“What noise?”

“That mmm-ing noise.”

“Why would you think it means anything?”

“Because I know you,” says Will before he can stop himself. Then he clears his throat awkwardly, embarrassed by the presumptions of intimacy that the statement implies – although it’s obviously too late now and he can hardly take it back. “You think you’ve already worked it out,” he eventually adds. “Don’t you? You’re waiting for me to confirm what you think you already know.”

Despite having carefully engineered the entire conversation to this particular purpose, Hannibal convincingly feigns remorse and gives a small, regretful sigh. “I’m being rather transparent aren’t I? Very well then. Forgive me, but I think you’re currently having an adverse reaction to heat suppressants.” Will’s mouth drops open in dismay and Hannibal holds up a hand. “Please don’t look so concerned. It might be obvious to me – medically speaking – but it’s highly unlikely anyone else would have noticed. In fact I’m certain most of your colleagues don’t even know you’re an omega.” Will bites his lip and stares at the floor and Hannibal adds in a gentler voice. “Why do you go to such trouble to hide it?

“Why do you think?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think. You’re the one who’s relevant.”

Will goes silent for a few seconds, suddenly overcome with a longing to unburden what’s troubling him. But it’s not as if Hannibal could offer any practical input – as a non-specialist he wouldn’t even be able to prescribe more tablets – and in this respect the same reluctance that led him to avoid confiding in Jack now settles onto the previous layer of evasion and seals the problem up even more. Because Will hates the idea of being pitied: and given that there’s nothing anyone can do to help beyond changing the law or fixing his fucked-up biology, then he’d rather suffer in self-respect and stoicism than wilt into a defeated heap while everyone stands round and feels sorry for him. Then he sighs fretfully and, as anticipated, neatly deflects the question and snaps: “Anyway, it’s not even true. What you said before: people do know. That Skinner guy – he said as much this morning.” Not that this is exactly what happened, but he resents Hannibal uncovering his secret so casually and it’s making him feel deliberately stubborn and contradictory.

Did he?” says Hannibal lightly.

“Yeah. Yeah, he did.”

“Then someone must have told him. With all that pheromone spray you smother yourself with you could easily pass for a beta.”

“I don’t smother myself with it,” retorts Will with dignity before he catches Hannibal’s eye again and can’t help starting to smile. “More like ‘lightly smear’.”

“Oh yes,” replies Hannibal, completely deadpan. “A small sprinkling only.”

“A trickle.”

“It could be worse I suppose. At least it drowns out that abysmal aftershave.”

“Oh shut up,” says Will, who’s still trying not to laugh. “Anyway, you can hardly blame me.”

“Of course I don’t blame you. You see it as protecting yourself; I’ve no doubt you have good reasons for doing so.”

“Show me an omega that doesn’t have good reasons,” says Will abruptly. “Considering what alphas are like.” He clears his throat again then glances surreptitiously at Hannibal. “No offence.”

“None taken.”

Will runs his hand absent-mindedly through his hair then seems glad of the distraction when one of the youngest dogs, barely more than a puppy and far less disciplined than the rest, struggles free from the slumbering pile of furry bodies by the fireside and takes a running leap for his knee. “Hey,” says Will softly, reaching down to help it clamber the rest of the way. “Come on then.”

“True companions aren’t they?” observes Hannibal, looking at it with barely-concealed dislike.

“Yeah they are,” says Will with obvious fondness. He begins to stroke the fur on the dog’s tiny stomach – right now comically rounded from its recent meal – then starts to smile as it whimpers with pleasure while wriggling further into the touch. “They’re good to have around. No stress.”

“It’s easy to see why,” says Hannibal, idly wondering if Will would react quite so ecstatically to being caressed in the same way. Probably not; at least not at first. “Affectionate, exuberant, unquestionably loyal: unconditional love. Certainly less trouble than humans, although perhaps less rewarding on occasion.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you owned one,” replies Will stubbornly.

“Perhaps.”

“Not that most alphas own dogs,” adds Will, who’s finding that pain and tiredness are making him increasingly unguarded. “They own omegas instead.”

Hannibal doesn’t answer immediately and Will has a sudden sinking feeling that – as usual – he’s gone too far in the service of protecting himself and has caused genuine offence. Then he glances up and is relieved to realise that rather than displaying the expected resentment or indignation, Hannibal is merely gazing straight at him with the familiar Sphinx-like smile. On meeting Will’s eye the smile, once again, grows fractionally wider. “Undoubtedly there are some alphas who feel that way,” says Hannibal thoughtfully. “But the ideal should not be to try and objectify or subjugate one’s mate but to cherish them. Revere them, even.”

“Well what if they don’t want to be revered?” snaps back Will. “What if they just want to be treated as equals?”

“Why does one preclude the other?”

“You’re talking in theory. I’m talking in practice.”

“Your own?”

“No,” says Will after hesitating a fraction too long. “Just generally.” During the conversation he’s gone completely motionless and the dog, still resting on his knee and wanting further attention, begins to nudge Will’s hand to encourage him to resume stroking it again. Hannibal, on noticing this and realising that he’s just been forced into the position of empathising with a dog, sighs irritably to himself and pours out some more wine. “Maybe I’ve just been unlucky in the type of alphas I’ve met,” Will adds, obviously trying to be charitable.

“And what type was that?”

“Oh I don’t know,” says Will, suddenly tiring of the whole subject. “Just the general stereotype I suppose. Controlling. Authoritative. Domineering.” Hannibal raises an eyebrow and Will opens his mouth to say ‘pissing on fences and all that bullshit’ but falters at the last moment, not least because he doesn’t think he can bear to have it repeated back to him in polite incomprehension (‘I beg your pardon Will? Pissing on fences?’) so lamely substitutes it for “Marking their territory” instead. Hannibal inclines his head in silent acquiescence and Will adds, rather defensively: “I suppose you’re going to say ‘not all alphas.’”

“I suppose I could, but I don’t intend to. It would be deflecting your criticisms rather than engaging with them. Besides, alphas are more than adequately represented and advocated; they hardly require additional defence from me. I’m more interested in your perspective.” Hannibal pauses slightly. “As an omega.”

Will is starting to shrug so hard he’s wondering if he might dislocate his shoulder. “I’ve told you what my perspective is.”

“You have, but very concisely. Why don’t you elaborate?”

Why don’t you go and piss on a fence? Will wants to reply (and of course doesn’t). Honestly though, why would he even want to elaborate? Regardless of what they might think to the contrary, it’s not like alphas are particularly interesting when all’s said and done. All that strutting and posturing (and pissing on fences) not to mention the endless bragging about potency and knotting. Bulbus glandis…it's actually pretty revolting if you think about it. In fact the only mammals that do it at all beside human alphas are dogs and wolves, but from the way they carry on you'd think it was some sort of immensely special borderline-magical trait shared solely with elves and unicorns and brought to life through pixie dust. As if their ludicrously inflated genitalia can heal the sick and raise the dead, and no doubt assemble flat-pack furniture and negotiate world peace before changing a spare tyre. As if every omega in a ten mile radius is supposed to expire with longing at the very thought of it. Andrew had alluded to as much on their first unchaperoned meeting: the language might have been a bit more restrained and metaphorical, but the clear meaning had basically been along the lines of ‘Well then, you unbelievably lucky bastard, it looks like you’re destined for the good fortune of having the living daylights fucked out of you then being left skewered on my cock for a n-i-c-e long time afterwards.’

No thanks, Will had replied; and unsurprisingly it had all gone downhill from there.

“Will?” says Hannibal.

“Yeah? Sorry, I was miles away.”

“I asked you how you’d been finding the teaching this semester.”

“Right. Yeah,” says Will, who despite the awkwardness of being caught out in such embarrassingly blatant daydreaming is still feeling grateful for the tactful change of subject. “Teaching. Yep. Sure.”

“Going well?”

“Pretty well,” says Will cautiously. A fear of being boring about it initially makes him uncommunicative, but when Hannibal listens attentively and with obvious interest he gradually feels encouraged and proceeds to describe his ambitions for the new psychocriminology modules with an unusual level of enthusiasm and animation – alternately quick and precise interspersed with dreamy and thoughtful, and completely oblivious to how charming either combination makes him appear – before a blend of tiredness, alcohol and industrial doses of painkillers finally get the better of him and during a comfortable lull in the conversation he ends up falling asleep with both feet planted on the floor and his head tipped back against the sofa. Hannibal makes no attempt to wake him but just continues to watch with a sense of fascination – not least at his own reaction, because he would generally find it distasteful to see someone slack and insensate with sleep and therefore isn’t entirely prepared for the jolt of tenderness Will manages to arouse in him when in the same state.

Hannibal frowns to himself, trying to work it out, and ultimately decides that it comes from a display of vulnerability that should rightfully be tedious and begging to be crushed and yet in Will’s case succeeds in being poignant and yearning and therefore worthy of scrutiny. Not that the view is as good as it could be, given that half of Will’s face is obscured by shadows. Hannibal watches a while longer, eyes slightly narrowed as he calculates the precise angle and level of force required, then leans forward and gives Will a neat little push that sends him slumping to the side until his head is barely an inch from Hannibal’s knee.

One of the dogs, resentful of Will being touched in this way, emits an ominous growl and Hannibal calmly swivels round and stares it into submission until the dog begins to cower and duck its head. “Never show your fear,” Hannibal tells it in a low voice that’s tinged with just enough foreboding to keep the dog wary and subdued. “Ever. You will always find someone prepared to exploit it to their advantage.”

Over on the sofa Will is now moaning quietly from the depths of sleep, his expression creased with distress like someone battling unseen demons. Hannibal gives the dog a final glare then quickly turns back again to look at him, his expression promptly softening as he has to resist the temptation to touch Will’s face for fear of waking him up. A loose curl of hair has fallen over his eyebrow and it’s that combined with the pale skin and lingering air of sadness that sparks a recollection in Hannibal of someone else – someone many years ago – who likewise looked so susceptible and sorrowful and had lain there calling out for him until he finally found her and she could reach up to twine her small arms around her older brother’s neck. The setting is long since gone and crumbled away and the person is long since dead, yet somehow the scene now seems as fresh and vivid as an image from only yesterday; all breathed back to life from nothing more substantial than the angle of Will’s eyebrow and the way his skin looks flushed and glowing when it’s painted in the soft light of the lamp.

“So vulnerable,” says Hannibal quietly. “And yet…so much violence in you. You try so hard to hide it yet you wear it like a brand. And you wear it well.” He pauses and runs his eyes over Will’s face once again, admiring the determined set of the mouth that’s visible even in sleep. Such dark vitality: someone who not only refuses to shy away from the deliverers of horror and violence but actively identifies with them. Will looks upon violence as a sculptor looks upon slabs of marble or piles of clay; and yet an artist whose specialism is not creation, but rather desecration and destruction. In this respect the new killer’s nom-de-plume seems curiously apt. A sculptor. Only Will is not suited to be shaped as marble is – meticulously and forensically with hammer and chisel – but rather moulded in the same way as clay: slowly and sensuously with one’s hands. Hannibal frowns again, remembering the famous words of Michelangelo whilst crafting his David: I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.

What would it take to set you free? muses Hannibal, resuming his close inspection of Will’s face. And then if you had your freedom, what would you do with it? Would you use it wisely? Will stirs once more, his fingers beginning to twitch as if he’s limbering up for a fight, and Hannibal looks at him and tries to imagine what Will is like when he’s angry. Frustration and irritation he’s already observed and savoured, but not actual rage…something white hot and ruthless. Or would Will veer more toward anger that’s icily restrained and lethal, rather like Hannibal does himself? In this respect Will’s emotions are such engaging things: compelling in their chaos and beautiful in their volatility – shards of glass, chips of bone, clicking together like pearls – and all the more so from how tirelessly Will tries to keep them concealed. It not only makes the occasional stolen glimpses of them infinitely more gratifying, but stokes Hannibal’s desire to take every possible opportunity to trick them into emerging from their dark hiding places and revealing themselves.

Nevertheless Hannibal not only believes in the value of the long game but has turned delayed gratification – at least in the service of self-interest – into a positive art form. He’s therefore content to bide his time and makes no further attempts to touch Will beyond extending a fingertip to brush against a strand of hair from where it’s spilling across the cushion. It’s impossible that Will could have felt it but he flinches restlessly nonetheless; and Hannibal makes a soothing noise before his mouth quirks into a very faint smile as he gently stokes the edge of one single curl. It’s easy to see why hair has acquired the significance it has: lovers putting strands in lockets, snippets used for spells in voodoo, or even sheared off entirely and coiled into braids that are stashed around the wrist or neck. Will’s hair makes him look younger and softens the angles of his face; no doubt the feel of it would be equally soft, although of course such an experiment is currently impossible. To look, however, is considerable consolation for being unable to touch; and Hannibal therefore sees no good reason to resist the temptation of moving leisurely forward in order to achieve an even better vantage point. It means his shadow gets cast across Will’s face as he leans over it – at which point the dog, no longer able to contain itself, begins to growl again sufficiently loudly to disturb Will before Hannibal has a chance to quell it into submission. Hannibal sighs with irritation then swiftly resumes his previous position on the sofa just as Will jolts awake with a speed that’s almost violent: eyes flying open with something like panic before springing upright and gazing at Hannibal with a look of epic discomfort and a face that’s extremely pale beyond a high dot of colour across both cheekbones.

“Oh God,” says Will. “I’m really sorry.”

“Why? You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Will sighs in response and Hannibal decides in that moment that he’s never fully acknowledged to himself just how much he likes Will’s voice. While admittedly far softer than his own it’s still unusually deep for an omega with a pleasingly dry edge that dilutes its gentler aspects and prevents it becoming too sweet in the same way good wine balances bitterness with piquancy. He especially enjoys the little raspy edge to some of the vowel sounds when Will becomes animated – rather like he’s catching his breath – as well as the abrasiveness that pummels round a word like sandpaper as if Will’s scouring his opinions prior to sharing them. Will, in turn, now seems determined to withhold the gift of his voice and merely blinks a few times in favour of saying anything else, briefly appearing as strained and haunted-looking as an El Greco saint. Really, such aesthetic misery is addictive: Hannibal wishes there was a way to bottle it up and breathe it in. It would be something to savour, doled out in small exquisite sips until the time comes when Will is so thoroughly under Hannibal’s care and influence that he’ll never have cause to be melancholy again and the bottle’s content will be the only lingering memory of it.

“Look, let me get you a cab,” says Will abruptly, scrubbing a hand over his face as if trying to chase the sadness away. “You must be desperate to get home.”

Hannibal waits a few seconds, calculating assorted probabilities with lightning speed in the manner of a chess master. To stay a little longer is extremely tempting, although he’s reluctantly forced to concede that leaving Will alone whilst so unhappy and discomforted is likely to serve his own long-term interests much better than remaining and run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance that’s begun to be established between them. “Thank you,” he says now as he gets to his feet and begins to gather up his coat. “Although please consider calling in sick tomorrow. You need some proper rest. And take some aspirin for the fever.”

“Mmmm,” says Will vaguely.

“Doctor’s orders,” adds Hannibal in a sardonic voice. Then he briefly pauses in fastening his coat and runs his eyes over Will’s face. “Would you like me to stop by after work and see how you’re doing?”

Will opens his mouth to agree then quickly closes it again, because although he would like it – a lot – it’s not the same as a social call and the idea of becoming an object of pity and inconvenience is actually pretty unbearable. “Thanks,” he says firmly, “but I’ll be fine.” Hannibal nods serenely and for want of anything better to do Will gestures towards the dogs. “They didn’t give you any hassle did they?”

“Not at all.”

“Oh okay. That’s good.”

“Why should they have done?”

“No reason really. It’s just that they can be a bit protective of me if there’re people they don’t know.”

“They were fine,” replies Hannibal smoothly. “I suppose they could sense that I’m not a threat.”

“Okay – great,” says Will while secretly wondering if he’s just made himself sound like the equivalent of a crazy cat lady or socially awkward Dog Overlord who relies on a group of furry enforcers to safeguard his interests in preference to any kind of human interaction. Oh well, it’s too late to change it now (and it’s partly true anyway). “I’ve just texted in for a cab,” he adds. “It should be here pretty soon. Let me get you some cash.”

Hannibal smiles appreciatively then spends a few more luxurious seconds admiring Will from a distance before prowling up behind him as he’s rooting round in his coat pocket to locate his wallet. “What you said this afternoon,” says Hannibal abruptly. “In the meeting. What did you mean?”

Will, who’s been startled by the unexpected noise, flinches slightly before clearing his throat and slowly turning round with an expression that’s somewhat wary and defensive. “Which bit?”

“When you told Jack that the Sculptor shows an unusual degree of deliberation.”

“What it sounded like. The scenes are too staged.”

“Performative?”

“Yes. Exactly. I wouldn’t go so far as to say theatrical, but…”

“But he’s working too hard to achieve a particular effect.”

Will frowns to himself then briefly closes his eyes before snapping them sharply back open again. “Yes. It’s like he doesn’t have his own voice. A style that’s not his own.”

“A copycat?”

“I’m not sure. Possibly.”

“He derives satisfaction in imitating the crimes of other people?”

“But that’s just it; I don’t know where the satisfaction comes from. I don’t have the ‘why’. And that’s what’s making him hard to pin down.”

Hannibal nods again then lets his gaze slide suggestively across Will’s face; in the half-light his eyes are gleaming like a cat’s. “That lecture you gave the other week: the one about organized and disorganized offenders.”

“Hmm.”

“When that student questioned you, you said it wasn’t a presentation concerning an individual case study. But I don’t believe that was entirely true. I think you were using it to work the case out to yourself as you went along – you were profiling him the entire time.”

Will just shrugs, typically modest, and Hannibal takes a small step closer. “It was there in the subject matter wasn’t it Will? The paradox of the Sculptor. Organised yet…

“…disorganised.”

“Both things…”

“…yet neither.”

“Precisely,” replies Hannibal. At the exact same time Will says “Yeah,” then gives a small smile at their synchronised responses; completely unaware of how intensely Hannibal has begun to stare at him again. “There’s something rather irresistible about a paradox,” adds Hannibal after a short pause. “No wonder people grow so preoccupied with them: how can one thing comprise such opposition in its component parts? Chaotic yet methodical, as in the case of this unknown killer of ours. Or else something different entirely: light yet dark, moral yet corrupted…vulnerable while still immensely powerful.”

“I guess,” says Will, who feels like he’s starting to lose control of this conversation.

“So,” adds Hannibal, abruptly reverting to his previous, more pragmatic mood. “If the Sculptor is a copycat – then who is the inspiration?”

“It’s just an idea,” says Will. “I don’t know for certain that he is.” Remembering the earlier Taskforce meeting he can’t stop himself beginning to frown before adding, rather bitterly: “No doubt if Skinner were here he’d insist on adding ‘or she’.”

“That is highly unlikely in this case. There are no known incidents of this type of killer being female.”

“Agreed. God knows why he even bothered mentioning it.”

Hannibal raises an eyebrow. “He mentioned it because he likes to disagree with you.”

“Mmm. Yeah, I know.”

“And do you know why?”

“Because he dislikes me,” replies Will rather aimlessly. He closes his eyes again then stretches his arms behind his head. “It sounds like your cab’s arrived, you better get going.”

Hannibal nods and moves towards the door before turning round again with his fingers still curled round the handle. “Are you aware of a reason for it?”

“What, the reason he dislikes me? Not especially. Not beyond general terms.”

“Which are…?”

Will gives a rather crooked smile then bends down to stroke one of the dogs who’s winding round his legs while alternately lifting its head to glare at Hannibal. “Because doesn’t everyone?”

Hannibal waits until Will has straightened up again then looks him directly in the eye. “No,” he says softly. “Not everyone.” Will darts his tongue over his lips and doesn’t reply and Hannibal stares at him for a few more seconds before wordlessly pushing open the door and vanishing into the night. It closes behind him with a restrained little click and Will leans against the wall and takes a deep, slightly shaky breath before running back into the living room to try and catch a last glimpse of him through the window before the cab takes him away. The delay is less than a minute but he’s already too late and by the time he gets there there’s nothing to see except a gleam of headlights that flicker faintly in the distance like will-o-the-wisps until even they’ve disappeared and there’s nothing at all but streaks of shadow bleached cold and pale by the moon. Suddenly bereft, Will presses his palm against the glass then rests his forehead against it: fleetingly aware of being more alone and wretched than he has in recent memory and consumed with a hopeless, helpless force of feeling that’s all the more painful because he’s knows it’s never going to be possible to say it aloud. In fact it’s barely even possible to say it to himself although he still attempts it anyway: reciting the words internally in a weary hymn of longing and resignation that’s almost unfeasibly hard to admit to and call by its name. But it’s there regardless; it’s there all the same. It’s there, and it’s real, and its inherent impossibility does nothing to diminish it. Come back, it says. Come back. Please. Don’t leave me here alone. Come back, come back; come back to me. I need you now, I need you so badly…I need you more than I have words to say.

Chapter Text

Dear You,

I don’t really have anything new to tell you since my last letter. Only that I think about you often (as usual) and that things continue to feel difficult (also as usual) and that since you were here these two things have become unexpectedly combined. ‘You’ on one hand and ‘difficult’ on the other…I guess that probably sounds rude? I promise it’s not meant to. It’s only that while I liked having you here – and I really did – I still half wish you hadn’t come because of how it highlighted the gap between the way I want things to be and the way they actually are. Do you understand what I mean when I say that? Can you see how the fact you only came because I was ill and you felt sorry for me could be worse than not having you here at all? It’s not that I don’t appreciate your sympathy, because I do; I just don’t particularly want it. Or at least I don’t only want that. I don’t just want compassion and charity and small acts of kindness and your therapist’s smile. I want you to see me as an equal.

Not that it really matters that much – all these things that I want – because it’s never enough to stop me trying to believe that you and I aren’t impossible, even though I know that we are. I know this: I know all of it. All these things. So why do I sometimes still feel like my need to be close to you has no limits? It doesn’t even make any sense.

I’m not angry with you by the way. It’s not your fault. I suppose it’s not really mine either. It just is; it’s how things are supposed to be. You’re designed for elegance and privilege and classical music in the background with a group of admirers in evening dress to hang onto your every word. Not desperation and dog fur and a lonely house in the middle of nowhere. Not like me. I’m designed for these things, and you’re not, and it’s as simple as that. We’re like polar opposites really, aren’t we? Like two elements that can’t properly mix together. Like oil and water…that sort of thing. It’s why I was so surprised you were able to make a pretence of fitting in as well as you did. Did you notice that by the way; how surprised I was? I’ll admit I wasn’t totally expecting it. It was as if you were genuinely…what’s the right word? Comfortable, I guess. Yeah, you seemed to be comfortable being here – emphasis on the ‘seemed’ because I can’t believe you actually were. In fact why on earth am I still talking to you about this? I don’t even know, it’s not like it really matters. I’m making out like I want it to mean something when all it shows is that you’ve mastered that chameleon-like ability to blend into your surroundings, the same way a lot of charming people are able to do.

Now that we’re talking about it, did you know that I can blend as well? You must have picked up on it by now. In fact I think I can blend almost as well as you can when I have to, although in my case the motivation is different because I do it so survive and minimise harm the same way a real chameleon does. It’s not about being charming it’s about trying to stay safe. I’m still not entirely sure why you do it. Obviously it’s not for survival – I don’t think you know what real desperation feels like. Although maybe the reason isn’t all that important? Maybe you do it just because you can.

All these complaints…am I starting to bore you now? Are you rolling your eyes with irritation and drumming your fingers on your desk? I wonder if you do that when you’re alone. I’ve never seen you express boredom or annoyance in the same way that other people do, although I can’t believe you don’t feel it. Anyway, I promise I’ll stop soon – it’s not as if it’s making me feel any better. I suppose I just want you to know that I’d like us to be proper friends and to be real with one another. And that while I enjoyed having you here I’d have enjoyed it even more if you’d come willingly, not because I needed help and you felt it was the ‘right thing to do.’

Would you like to know the reason for that? Well I hope you’re listening, because I’m only going to say it once and then I don’t think I’ll ever find the courage to tell you again. You see, the thing is that I feel like I’ve spent my entire life playing chess on my own – playing chess against myself – and growing increasingly lonely and maddened the entire time until one day you walked in and took a place on the other side of the board. And I want you to stay there and renew the game and review the strategy over and over again: and I’d like you to do it because you want to, not because you feel you should. I sound like a child now don’t I: ‘I want someone to play with me.’ But it’s true, because I do. And I want that person to be you.

Okay, I said I’d stop now and I will. See? I’ve stopped. What else should I say to you? The usual stuff I suppose. Like that I hope you’re having a good day and aren’t being surrounded by people who bore you, and that you find some time later to do whatever it is that makes you happy. Music, dining – that kind of thing. I don’t even know, although I think I’d like to: what it is that makes you happy.

Ah, I can see you rolling your eyes at me again. I’m not telling you what you want to hear about am I? You were hinting about it enough the other night so I know that you’re interested. And now I’m avoiding it just like I did then – just like I always do. You want me to tell you why I insist on taking the heat suppressants even though they’re half-killing me and why it matters so much to me that people don’t know I’m an omega. You want to know about that don’t you? You want to know why I can’t bear the idea of bonding with anyone. And one day I’ll tell you – I promise I will. But in the meantime I’d rather tell you something else, which is that I’m in trouble. Real trouble. Because no matter how hard I try, I can’t get hold of any more pills.

I’ve seen about eight different doctors now and it’s always the same. The appointments start off with the routine Q&A, just going through the motions, and I tell the same lies I’ve told on each previous appointment and that I get better and better at each time. How my alpha is going away on a long business trip, or is sick, or is on military service (the details vary a bit – I’d get bored otherwise) and that’s why I need the pills; and then I tell a lot of new lies about my physical health and previous use of suppressants (blah, blah blah) and it always goes so well right up until the physical exam and then – not so much. That’s been eight doctors now, practically ripping up their prescription pads in front of me. Eight doctors looking horrified and telling me that my alpha must be out of their mind (it’s always the alpha that’s out of their mind, as if I don’t have enough of a mind to be held accountable for it) and what were they even thinking to put their poor omega at a risk of damaging their body in such a way? Alphas are supposed to be able to sense these types of things apparently; in fact I’m almost starting to feel bad for this alpha of mine, even though they don’t exist. Eight doctors lecturing and preaching and trying to refer me for hormone therapy. Eight doctors telling me no.

I haven’t really got enough energy left to make it a ninth.

So the conclusion to all this is that medical science has effectively told me I’m a hopeless case: and in purely pragmatic terms I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them. ‘But there’s an easy answer to this Mr Graham,’ they always say. ‘Just stop taking the tablets – problem solved.’ Only it wouldn’t be problem solved, it would be game over. It would be giving up. And right now giving up doesn’t feel like a viable option; I don’t have the luxury to just give up. To be honest I haven’t even considered what it might mean to stay on the tablets against so much medical advice. I suppose if I thought about it at all it’s to tell myself that the doctors could have got it wrong (because doctors do get it wrong sometimes; I bet even you’ve got it wrong once or twice). Or I tell myself that if they’re right and staying on the pills will completely wreck my health, then at least no alpha would ever want me at the end of it and how that in itself is a version of a happy ending. Because it actually would be; it’d mean no one can ever try and take me over. It would mean complete freedom.

I suspect I’m probably boring you again with all these details, so suffice to say that this is a convoluted way of telling you that if I can’t get the tablets legally then I need to find an illegal way of getting them instead. And no, I’m not particularly proud of that: but the simple fact is that I’m too frightened not to. Because I’m frightened of what it would mean to be in heat and how it would feel, and I’m frightened of the idea of Andrew forcing me to go back because of it; but most of all I’m frightened of the ultimate solution to all these things and the way I’m irresistibly drawn to it. I’m frightened of that little voice that says ‘you could kill him, you could kill him’ and how it knows full well that I could. And not just because I feel like I’d have to…but because I know that I want to.

That little voice – it’s the most frightening thing of all. I don’t want to listen to it, I don’t even want to acknowledge it exists, but what can I do? Because it’s still there; it hasn’t gone away. And it’s getting louder all the time.

*****

The body has been lying there for several days. It was a hiker who found him: happily roaming across the countryside with a backpack and a little hand-knitted cap and completely unaware that in a few seconds time she was about to stumble across something tattered and torn amongst the withered stalks of pampas grass that once was alive but now is dead – and the mere glimpse of which is destined to haunt her for the rest of her life. Will can see her now in the corner of his eye: slumped on the ground with her head drooping forward and the bobble on the hat swaying crazily in the wind like a pendulum. A paramedic is bending over her with a hand on her shoulder as his mouth opens and closes like a goldfish while he murmurs soothing words of sympathy; even though no right words exist, because what on earth can you possibly say? Will supposes she’s in shock and not for the first time can’t help mourning for the part of himself that would once have likewise been shocked by such things rather than coolly acquiescing and hardened to horror. He misses that innocence: the part of himself that still had the power to care.

“What do you think,” Jack is now saying. “Is it him?”

Will forces himself to stop staring at the hiker and her sad little knitted hat and turns round to face Jack instead. Does Jack care? Probably; at least more than Will does. “Yeah,” he says heavily. “Yeah it’s definitely him.”

“You sure? Don’t tell me you’re sure if you’re not.”

“Pretty much. I guess the autopsy will officially confirm it, but as far as I’m concerned this is the Sculptor.” Then he frowns slightly at the sound of the words because it always bothers him that the victims are immediately identified only as they relate to their killer. After all, this isn’t the Sculptor – of course it isn’t. This is John, or Joe, or James, or whatever the poor bastard’s name is (or was) and he’s probably someone’s husband or brother, and is definitely someone’s son. At any rate far more than The Sculptor’s Fifth, even though that’s how he’s fated to be known to posterity from this moment on. Christ, it’s so unfair: the way that victims are condemned to be linked to their killers for all time in which even death offers no genuine means of escape. From now on every book and article and internet blog that discusses the Sculptor case is going to be mentioning John or Joe or James, probably accompanied with a photo of him from some happier time when he was just a regular person and not a criminology statistic or a footnote in the annals of Serial and Violent Crime. “Do we know who he was?” Will abruptly asks Jack. “Any ID?”

“The CSI team is looking into it,” replies Jack, waving a hand towards the small troupe of field agents who are creeping around the frozen ground like spectres in their white overalls. “No wallet on the body though, so it may take some time. Either he didn’t have one with him when he was killed or the Sculptor took it.”

“It might have fallen from his pocket while his body was being moved? Get them to check the field.”

“They’ve already done that Will.”

“Well get them to do it again. It’s highly unlikely the murderer kept it. Let’s face it Jack, it’s not like he goes in for those kinds of souvenirs.”

“Yeah,” replies Jack grimly. “I know he doesn’t.”

“So…” says Will. Then he takes a deep breath, struggling against a renewed surge of pain. It’s even worse today if possible: like being scraped from the inside with a rusty, blunt scalpel. “What’s been taken?”

“Price says the left cavity is missing a kidney. Portions of the left lung also removed.”

Will nods wordlessly then turns back again to glance at where the hiker is swaddled in a shock blanket while taking tiny sips from a white Styrofoam cup. She’s clearly devastated yet he still envies her for a distress that’s so pure and uncomplicated – so completely unblemished by the same pitch black degeneracies of his own reaction. It is, after all, the sort of distress that can be talked about without any kind of shame or reservation; a response you can describe without people drawing back in revulsion and saying “What? You thought what when you saw it? You felt like what?” before turning their backs to get away from you. But I don’t know what, thinks Will bleakly. I only know why. I only know the designation and the purpose; this is my design.

“Are we expecting Hannibal?” he says suddenly. He’s still finding it hard to overcome the urge to use more formal terms when discussing Hannibal with other people and the Christian name generally comes far less naturally than it should. In contrast ‘Is Dr Lecter joining us?’ virtually trips off the tongue…it’s actually rather weird. Although he knows exactly why he does it – an attempt to distance himself and appear more emotionally detached than he really is – so maybe it’s not that weird after all.

“The office called him but he didn’t pick up,” replies Jack, who’s clearly dissatisfied about this. “They left a message; maybe he’ll join us later.”

“Right,” says Will tersely, aware of a sad refrain that’s now started up almost on instinct: Join us now. Please, I need you. Then he frowns again – deeply irritated with a weakness that has neither place nor purpose when there’s a job to be done – and gestures towards the spectral outlines of the CSI team instead. “What’s taking them so long? We need to get it…him…back to the mortuary as soon as possible. We’re losing evidence. He’s already been outside for days.”

“I know Will, they’re going as fast as they can.”

“And I want to know as soon as they find out who he is. It doesn’t make sense that he was dumped all the way out here – the others were all found within a few hours.”

Jack nods in response then tips his hat a little further over his forehead as protection against the increasingly vicious gusts of wind. “You think there’s something special about this one?”

“There’s something different. He’s changed his pattern – why not just leave the body close to the abduction site like he’s always done before?”

“Maybe this one was killed close by?”

“Then why was he hunting for victims in the middle of the countryside?”

“He might have been passing through?”

“On his way to where? There’s nothing here.”

Jack nods again then pulls the hat a little further down until his eyes have disappeared in the shadow of the brim. “Well you’d know I suppose. Isn’t this your neck of the woods?”

“Yeah,” says Will reluctantly. “It’s a few miles out, but kind of.” Then another spasm of pain hits and he takes a deep breath and bites his lip, struggling against a need to scream at the wretched intensity of it. In an attempt to ride it out he gazes determinedly into the horizon: tracking his eyes over the vista of straggled trees and the ragged little outline of the crows as they dip and weave between the branches. The sight of them creates an unpleasantly visceral twinge in his mind and it takes a few seconds of confusion to realise that it’s because they remind him of the morning he first made his long-postponed call to the doctor.

“Will? You okay?”

“Did you know that a group of crows is called a murder?” replies Will, half to himself.

Jack gives him a look. “What’s going on Will? You’re as white as a sheet.”

“Headache,” replies Will tersely. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look it,” says Jack, whose voice has started to acquire its familiar tone of concern spiced by impatience. “In fact I’d say you look ready to pass out.”

“I’m fine.” Will clears his throat then turns his head in the opposite direction, stiffening slightly as he spots a lone and unexpected figure that’s loitering behind the police cordons. “And who the hell is that?”

“Who?” says Jack, squinting in the same direction as Will. “Oh yeah, that kid. He’s another hiker. We spoke to him before you got here: told us he spotted ‘the fed cars’ and headed over to see what was going down. Morbid curiosity apparently; at least he’s honest.” Jack glances at the grim expression on Will’s face and sighs in solidarity. “I know it’s a bit disrespectful but he’s behind the barrier – there’s nothing we can do.”

Will nods in wordless agreement then discreetly turns his head to get a better look at the figure: a young man in his mid-twenties with a thin slightly feral-looking face and what Will imagines would be pale hawkish eyes, even though he’s too far away to properly see them. “Someone should speak to him again,” he says after a short pause. “I’m not happy with his story.”

“Oh?” says Jack with interest. “Why not?”

“He’s wearing sneakers. What kind of hiker comes all the way out here in this weather without boots? No backpack either.” He jerks his head in the direction of the ambulance. “That’s a hiker. This guy came here by car.”

“Could’ve got out and then walked,” says Jack reasonably. “I know what you’re thinking Will, but they don’t advertise themselves at their crime scenes that obviously. The level of risk is insane – there’s no way he wouldn’t be spotted immediately.”

“I know. And maybe he is just a morbid onlooker – or maybe he isn’t. Either way we should get some proof of ID and a follow-up address. Tell him it’s because he’ll need to give a witness statement.”

“Consider it done,” says Jack before turning round to face one of the CSI officers who’s been hovering by his elbow for the past few minutes and discreetly clearing his throat in an attempt to get their attention. The officer clears his throat for a final time and Will can’t help noting that now his objective is achieved he’s beginning to visibly wilt, rather like he’s quailing inwardly at the thought of addressing the mighty Jack Crawford. “Yes?” says Jack in a kindly voice. “It’s Johnson isn’t it? No – Johns. Agent Johns. What have you got for me?”

“Mr Crawford. Mr Graham.” He turns to Will and dips his head in a nervous little bob that makes Will muster the first genuine smile of the day at the artless sincerity of it. “There’s something we thought you should see.” His voice is soft and feathery with the faintest trace of a Southern accent that’s obviously managed to survive years of living and working in DC; and Will looks at his shiny young face and can’t help finding something rather touching about its earnestness. Oh Christ, this is ridiculous: why is everything making him so mawkish at the moment? It must be another effect of the pills…

“Yes,” says Jack in a tone that’s marginally less kind than before. “We don’t have all day.”

“No sir. Well, you know the body had nothing on it beyond the usual stuff? Keys and loose change and whatnot: nothing of actual relevance and nothing to tell us who he was. But we did find this.” He holds up a zip-locked evidence bag, waving it slowly back and forward for maximum effect, and Jack leans in to inspect it then sucks in his breath through his teeth. “Possibly a coincidence,” adds the agent with a nervous glance at Will. “But, you know…” He trails off awkwardly then falls completely silent as Will also moves forward to examine the bag’s contents: a single square of white cardboard that’s blood-smeared and crumpled yet initially seems innocuous and pointless until he sees what’s written in the centre. Because there it is and there’s no mistaking it, painstakingly etched as it is in careful black letters: WG.

*****

An hour later everyone has assembled back at the lab, where the energy of devising some kind of strategy plan is only slightly subdued by the increasingly urgent howls from the pack of journalists that are gathering in front of the building. They seem to have more than doubled in the past half hour, spawning and multiplying the way bacteria does, and at one point there’s even the sound of a news helicopter industriously chopping away for an aerial view of the scene. Will fantasises about leaning out the window and yelling at them all to fuck off.

“A calling card,” Skinner is now saying ominously. “A calling card: with Graham’s initials.”

 “I think that’s a rather inflammatory way of putting it,” snaps Jack. “We have a piece of card with two letters that just happen to be Will’s initials. They could also, and almost certainly do, refer to a wide variety of other things.”

“Like what Mr Crawford?”

“WG is a logging abbreviation for ‘wrong,’” offers Price. “Or there’s a local attorney’s office called Wardle and Green Associates. They do those terrible advertisements, you must have seen them – the ones with the singing judges. Or there’s that place on the high street, White and Garett. It sells organic produce and hand-knitted lentils and that sort of thing. Or maybe it’s Waite and Garett? But they definitely peddle over-bred vegetables.”

“WG could stand for weapons grade?” adds Zeller. “Or wage grade? Watergate?

“Working girl?” suggests Skinner with a spiteful look at Will.

Will returns the look very calmly from over the top of his glasses then resumes leafing through a stack of autopsy reports without saying a word

“Aw, it was just a joke man,” says Skinner. “Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

“Seriously though,” chips in Siemens, “WG is a common police abbreviation. Do you think he really might be trying to send a message about prostitutes?”

“No,” says Will.

“And what makes you so sure?” snaps Skinner, despite having clearly only suggested it in the first place out of malice. “How do you know he doesn’t have a hatred of prostitutes? Loads of these guys do.”

“Because the guys that do have a tendency to – y’know – actually kill prostitutes,” says Will serenely. “As opposed to middle-aged men in fields.”

“It might be worth checking though,” persists Siemens, who’s actually bouncing up and down on his heels with eagerness. “Just in case. You never know Mr Crawford: perhaps the dead guy was a john?”

Will stares back in disbelief and is struggling to think of a nice way of telling him to stop being so fucking stupid when Siemens directs one of his patented watery smiles in his direction and it suddenly occurs to him that Siemens is attempting to find an alternative explanation for the letters in order to deflect attention away from Will. Then Siemens smiles again, rather more boldly than before, and Will can’t help feeling slightly touched by the show of solidarity, despite the fact it’s badly misguided. “We’ll certainly be checking the victim’s background,” he says now, trying to be charitable. “Better to be safe than sorry, Mr…” then he hesitates because it suddenly occurs to him that saying ‘Mr Siemens’ out loud without laughing requires a degree of stamina he isn’t entirely sure he possesses.

“Oh call me Adam,” says Siemens, unintentionally coming to the rescue.

“Yes, Adam,” replies Will carefully. “It’s definitely worth pursuing every possible lead.” Even though it clearly isn’t; yet  Adam-formerly-known-as-Siemens still begins to beam as if he’s just won the lottery and Will gives a small awkward smile of his own then hurriedly turns his back on him. “Hey. You okay?” murmurs Jack in an undertone.

“I guess. It seems unlikely it’s a reference to me, but…”

“But you’re not entirely happy about it. I don’t blame you – I wouldn’t be either.”

“Well, my involvement in the case has been publicised,” says Will vaguely. In fact he’s secretly struggling with his reaction because while he didn’t seriously think Jack would adopt the same hectoring, accusatory tone as Skinner he can’t help feeling relieved to have it confirmed that, as far as Jack’s concerned, any allusion to Will is more likely as a potential victim than a perpetrator. Although of course that shouldn’t be a surprise, Will firmly amends to himself: there’s no reason anyone should assume he’d be capable of something like this. Even Skinner almost certainly doesn’t think that. Then he realises he’s grown so preoccupied with people accusing him of being the Sculptor that he seems to have forgotten that being flagged as a potential target of the latter is hardly reassuring either…talk about being caught between shit and shite. Although why was his initial concern the idea of being seen as a killer rather than the fact some epic maniac might be sending him coded messages?  What the hell is wrong with me, thinks Will miserably. Then he glances back at Jack and from the grim set of his mouth and eyebrows it’s almost as if he’s thinking the same thing as Will is himself: this guy likes to target omegas.

Jack meets Will’s eye and emits a small sigh. “I honestly don’t think it’s likely; just a weird coincidence. If he wanted to contact you directly there’re so many other ways he could have done it. Ways that are far more effective than scribbling your initials on a bit of cardboard.”

“Where exactly did they find it? In the victim’s pocket or…”

“It was underneath the body.”

“So it could have been there already?” says Will hopefully. “It could have been there for days beforehand.”

“It could have been, yeah. It probably was. Chances are it’s nothing more than a red herring.”

At the sound of this Will’s mouth can’t help quirking into a faint, mournful smile. Red herring. It’s such a quaint expression: the sort of term beloved by old-fashioned detective novels where an elegant lady of a certain age discovers who murdered the butler and stole the church roof restoration fund before pootling off again in an elegant Edwardian motor car just as the local constable arrives to haul the miscreant off to the magistrates. Staring round at the scenes of carnage and chaos in the lab he sighs audibly. How can there be room for the romance and intrigue of red herrings in a setting like this? Because there isn’t, is there – no room at all. They don’t have red herrings in Behavioral Sciences they have misleading facts and SUs, and where detective novels have inklings and suspicions they have swabs and evidence bags and bits of human bodies on slabs. This isn’t Clue; it’s never going to be Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick as opposed to the Sculptor in a filthy back alley with a meat cleaver.

“Even so,” Jack is now saying, “even though it’s most likely nothing…”

“You don’t want to take any chances? It’s okay Jack, neither do I.”

“We’ll monitor it,” says Jack firmly. “I can’t make a case for a formal security detail without a more obvious threat, but I can…” He hesitates for a few seconds, seemingly rummaging round his mental stash of solutions like a conjurer trying to tug a reluctant rabbit from a hat. “I could have someone escort you to your car after hours?” Jack finally says, clearly apologetic at having nothing better to offer. “You know – if you’re leaving when it’s dark.”

“Thanks,” says Will, “but that won’t be necessary. I always park close to the building.” Jack nods approvingly, obviously liking the way Will’s remaining so stoical (when he doesn’t like it then it stops being ‘stoical’ and morphs, less charitably, into ‘stubbornness’; or, if Will’s particularly annoyed him: “Will, you reckless asshole, sort yourself out”). And Will, in turn, thrusts his hands into his pockets while neglecting to add that’s he’s actually spent the better part of a year developing measures to minimise the chance of being followed so it doesn’t matter all that much anyway.

Jack gives Will a look of guarded sympathy then falls quiet again for a few moments, obviously trying to think of something else to suggest as a form of comfort now the idea of being nannied in and out of the parking lot has been politely refused. “Hannibal should be here soon,” he says eventually. “We got through to his secretary. He’s been in with patients all morning but she said he’ll be free very soon and she’ll pass the message on.”

“Oh, okay, says Will. This is done in a deliberately casual, offhanded tone as if he couldn’t really care less either way; although it still doesn’t stop him waiting until Jack has moved off to speak with Price before whipping his phone out his pocket and firing off a text: Can you talk? He doesn’t particularly want to get his hopes up only to be disappointed – and knowing Hannibal’s schedule ‘calling when free’ might mean anything from several hours to several days – so when his phone begins to buzz a few minutes later he’s so relieved to have made contact that it never occurs to him to ask whether there might be something significant in Hannibal ignoring Jack all morning and then responding almost immediately as soon as Will is the one to get in touch with him. Even so, he can’t stop himself from smiling very slightly before pressing the button to accept the call then moving away towards the window where he won’t be overheard. “Hi,” he says now. “Your secretary told us you were busy, so…yeah. Thanks for calling me back.”

“You’re welcome.”

Hannibal’s voice always sounds lower over the phone with a slightly smouldering edge to the vowels, rather like someone switching up the bass dial on a stereo. There’s no obvious background noise so he’s most likely still in his office and Will briefly tries to imagine it: how he’ll be leaning across the desk or possibly propped by the window, endlessly poised and watchful as the dark eyes skim round the room in that slightly hypnotic way.

“Is that Dr Lecter you’re talking to?” pipes up Siemens, who’s managed to materialise directly behind Will without warning. “Tell him I said hi!”

“Adam Siemens says hi,” says Will through gritted teeth. There’s no response. “He says hello,” he adds to Siemens after a few seconds pause.

“Tell him Mr Crawford’s been trying to contact him all morning.”

“He knows,” snaps Will. “He’s coming when he’s free.”

“But he is not free,” adds Hannibal, who’s starting to sound amused.

“Tell him Mr Crawford wants his opinion.”

“I’ll tell him.”

“Consider him told,” says Hannibal serenely. “Although it doesn’t change the fact that Jack Crawford shall have to wait.”

“What’s he saying?” persists Siemens.

“He’s saying he knows,” snaps Will, who’s starting to fantasize about clouting the phone straight into his stupid face.

“Ask him…”

“Look,” says Will firmly, “can you just…” He hesitates very briefly, struggling against the urge to add can you just kindly fuck off. “Can you just give me a minute please? You’re making it a little hard to concentrate.”

Siemens promptly looks so mortified that Will feels vaguely guilty despite not having done anything wrong. Honestly though; there’s just something about the extreme pitifulness of his mortification, not unlike a puppy that’s left a puddle on the floor. “I’ll catch up with you later,” adds Will in a kinder voice in what feels like a human equivalent of administering a reassuring pat on the head.

“Sure Will,” says Siemens, obediently cheering up again. “Sure: anytime you’re free.”

“That was very charitable of you,” adds Hannibal from the depths of the phone. “Although be prepared for him to make you honour the promise.”

“What do you mean?”

“You appear to have an admirer there. Or at least someone very eager for your attention.”

“What, him?” exclaims Will, checking over his shoulder to ensure Siemens has moved out of earshot. “No, no way. At least not like that – not how you mean. He just looks up to me professionally.” Hannibal makes a non-committal noise and Will can’t resist adding: “If anything you’re the one he admires. I can’t imagine him so desperate to have a three-way conversation with me.”

“Oh indeed? Are we rivals then?”

“Looks that way: I’ll suppose I’ll have to fight you for him.”

“In that case I concede,” says Hannibal. “You can have him all to yourself. Although rest assured I shall be secretly resenting you the entire time.” Will huffs out a laugh then turns further away from the others towards the window, absent-mindedly tracking a streak of rain with his fingertip. “Well now you’ve successfully placed me in a state of pining for Agent Siemens,” adds Hannibal. Unlike Will, who always want to cackle when saying the name, Hannibal seems to be made of sterner stuff and pronounces it in the usual deadpan tone.  “Although I don’t imagine it was the only reason you got in touch.”

“I suppose you’ve heard by now?” says Will, dropping his voice even further. “There’s been another one.”

 “You’ve visited the scene?”

“I did, yeah.”

“And?” Will doesn’t reply immediately and Hannibal adds in a slightly softer tone, “What did you see that’s troubling you?”

Will’s small smile grows a fraction wider at this: partly because he appreciates Hannibal’s ability to slice through useless preamble and get straight to the point, but also because the way he always seems to know what Will needs without being told is rather reassuring. At first Will had resented it – had hated it, in fact – as if Hannibal was casually rifling through his emotions without permission before holding out whatever he found at arm’s length to inspect it. It used to drive him wild with irritation; but not anymore.

Why are you asking? Will had once said after Hannibal, apropos of nothing, had enquired what was wrong. How do you know anything’s the matter?

How do I know? Because you’ve told me of course.

No I haven’t. I haven’t told you anything.

Hannibal’s mouth had flickered then: that eternal way he can communicate amusement without taking the trouble to smile. No, and you never tell me if you’ve cut your hair, or acquired a new shirt; but I observe it nonetheless. And in the end Will had just smiled on behalf of the both of them: because it’s true, he can just see it can’t he? He can see Will. And Will, in turn, had never really understood how badly he needed that until it was on offer. To be really seen, despite there being so much he can never possibly show. In some of his bleakest loneliest moments, Will can even believe that there’s no greater way to demonstrate regard than those three small words, surpassing even love itself. I see you. As if love is just a pale and unconvincing counterfeit of perception: of the acceptance and awareness that comes from being seen.

“Will?” Hannibal is now saying. “Are you still there?”

“I’m still here,” replies Will cautiously. Then he promptly goes quiet again, because now it’s come down to it the thought of just blurting out his sense of unease is making him feel self-conscious. In fact if he’s totally honest he’s starting to regret that whole knee-jerk impetuous text. Obviously it would be good to talk about it, but not necessarily to do so now…far better to come across as stoic and reflective by waiting out a bit longer rather than wailing over the phone to Hannibal straight away and risk appearing hysterical and undignified. “There were a few things that were different about this one,” he finally says. “I’d like your opinion. Do you have time to talk later?”

“I could talk now, though for a few minutes only. Or for longer this evening.” Hannibal pauses very briefly and there’s a soft rustle of breath as he inhales. “I could call by your house on my way home?”

“Oh great, could you?” says Will before he can stop himself. Then he winces with frustration at what seems like a foolishly masochistic impulse to have Hannibal in the house when he knows how unhappy it’ll leave him feeling afterwards. Nevertheless it’s too late now and he can hardly take it back. “Um, okay then, yeah,” he adds, rather awkwardly. “Thanks. That would be helpful  – I mean, if it’s no trouble?”

“It’s no trouble. Is seven o’clock convenient?”

Will pauses now himself as he calculates how much time is realistically required to accomplish the Task Of The Day; which just so happens to be (illegally) obtaining more heat suppressants. It’ll be a rush but manageable; it’ll have to be manageable. “Yeah,” he says at last. “That should be fine.”

“Then I shall see you at seven,” replies Hannibal. He doesn’t add anything else and after a few seconds silence Will presses the button to terminate the call before carefully replacing the phone in his pocket. He then takes a deep breath and forces himself to turn round to face the others, who he’s relieved to see are still mercifully deep in conversation and evidently unaware of him. The sole exception to this is Siemens who catches his eye and begins to smile; and Will makes an effort to smile back before starting to surreptitiously edge towards the door and desperately hoping that Jack won’t see him and start asking awkward questions.

In this respect, and despite his best efforts, Will is now aware of feeling deeply guilty and nervous. Admittedly it’s hardly in the same league as trying to score some meth or heroin, but he’s still uncomfortable with what he’s about to do and can’t help being briefly overcome by yet another wave of bitterness at how unfair it is to be driven to such desperate measures in the first place. The trade of heat suppressants is strictly regulated – by alphas, naturally – although in this instance Will suspects it isn’t solely driven by a desire to oppress omegas as opposed to raking in massive profits for the pharmaceutical industry. Not that this motivation makes it any better – except for the alphas, obviously, because if they can rake in massive profits while subduing omegas at the same time then the happier they’ll no doubt be. In fact it’s like a big alpha bonanza for them when you think about it…the stupid bastards.

“Will!” says Jack. His voice comes booming across the lab like the proverbial foghorn and Will curses internally and elaborately before reluctantly turning round again with one hand still on the door handle. “Leaving already?” asks Jack in a rather accusing way.

Will gestures aimlessly at the half-open door, which is as about close as he dares get in non-verbal terms to announcing well obviously I am, you massive dumbass. Jack’s forehead begins to crease with annoyance and Will gives a small shrug in response. “Sorry,” he replies, calm but firm. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment. I’ll be in as usual tomorrow.”

“Can’t you reschedule? We need you here.”

Jack, reflects Will with irritation, seems to have a positive genius for dispensing high-handed lectures on wellbeing until the exact moment that Will’s wellbeing becomes personally inconvenient: at which point it can pretty much go and fuck itself. Although admittedly if was a regular medical appointment then he would offer to rearrange it…only that drug dealers aren’t generally known for their scheduling flexibility and secretarial support. Examining the row of disapproving faces, he idly imagines turning round while loudly and sarcastically announcing the real reason he has to leave: Hey there, you uptight law-abiding bastards! Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stay but I’m just off to an alleyway to score some illicit shit, yo. Laters.

“Will?” repeats Jack in what’s obviously supposed to be a commanding tone (rather as if, thinks Will with annoyance, he’s calling a dog). “You sure you can’t stay?”

“No,” says Will, a bit firmer than before. “I’m sorry Jack, but I’ve been trying to get them to fit me in for ages now. Anyway, I’ve told you what I think.” Yeah…for all that anyone’s listened to it. “It’s not like I’ll even have anything new to add until the lab results come back.”

“Something might come up before then,” persists Jack, whose eyebrows are starting to furrow.

“To be honest I don’t think that’s very likely.”

“Yes, but if it does…”

“Then you can call me on my cell,” replies Will, surreptitiously reaching into his pocket to turn it off.

Jack’s eyebrows slowly arrange and re-arrange themselves into increasingly acrobatic displays of disapproval and Will watches their progress with something like fascination before deciding that while Jack’s clearly not happy he’s going to surrender with good grace rather than risk making a scene. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” says Will brightly, determined to seal the deal before Jack can change his mind. Then he spins round and practically dives through the door in his eagerness to escape, glancing at his watch and grimacing before picking up his pace to get to the car a little faster. Nearly 20 minutes have already been wasted although if he drives quickly and is lucky with the traffic…anyway, surely the guy will wait? There’s no doubt he wants the money and – thanks to Will’s skilful pretence at nonchalance when arranging the sale – has no idea how completely desperate the situation really is. In fact as far as the dealer is concerned, he’s the one at the disadvantage: competing to gain the business of a customer who could just as easily find a competitor to buy the tablets from. He’ll wait. Won’t he? Yeah, he definitely will – he’ll wait. He has to.

Overhead it’s beginning to rain and Will fumbles to switch on the windscreen wipers with one hand while rummaging in his pockets for some painkillers with the other. Across the street a pack of alphas are sheltering beneath the shop hoardings, hands thrust in their pockets and typically loose-limbed and aloof as they arrogantly survey their surroundings: and there’s something about the sight of so many of them together that causes a new source of anxiety to abruptly veer into his mind and makes him go slightly pale before renewing the rummaging with a fresh sense of urgency. But what he’s searching for is definitely not in his coat or jacket and he knows it’s not in his briefcase: which means he’s forced to acknowledge, with a powerfully plummeting sense of unease, that in his haste to leave the office he’s forgotten to bring his gun. In fact he’s constantly forgetting things at the moment, just as Dr Reynolds predicted, and for a few fraught seconds he wrestles with the idea of turning the car round to retrieve it. Only if he does that he won’t need it anyway because then he’d definitely be too late.

A flurry of bad-tempered horns behind him makes him realise that the lights are already on green again so he forces himself to pull off while biting unhappily on his thumbnail and attempting to review his options with a level of calmness and logic. Not that there are any real options to speak of beyond ‘go’ or ‘not go’, so he reappraises his response to both of them and convinces himself that he’s almost certainly overreacting: needlessly projecting his paranoid, distrustful view of the world into an interaction where it’s not really needed. After all it’s the dealers who carry the weapons, not their customers. What about all the suburban omegas, sneaking out from behind their rose bushes and white picket fences to source themselves some desperately-needed heat suppressants? What about those palely insipid omegas in Dr Reynolds office or the ones he sees pushing prams in the park, or what about the ones who go on TV and do those insufferable ‘lifestyle shows’ about fashion and diet and the best way of making alphas notice you? Omegas like that will sometimes be driven to go outside the law to get the tablets – just as much as omegas like him – and while it’s hardly plausible that they all go to do it packing firearms nothing ever happens to them. Does it? No – no, it can’t do; he’d have heard about it if it did. He’d have read about it in the papers. The alphas would have used it as an excuse to put some increasingly stifling legislation in place…

“It’s fine,” says Will out loud. And this time the often-repeated much-loathed phrase fails to ignite its usual level of irritation, simply because right now he has to believe that it’s true. Because he understands that this is what happens when you’re desperate and your options are limited and all you have to choose from is an increasingly wretched range of diminishing returns. You have to tell yourself that it’s fine. And you have to force yourself to believe it because it’s the only thing you have left. You can’t let them take it away from you – your faith in yourself to save the situation and force it to be fine. Because if you allow that to happen then all that’s left is the knowledge that there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make the misery stop; and that in itself is a level of hopelessness Will genuinely doesn’t think he can bear.

Chapter Text

The site of the urgent and much longed-for transaction – Will is now to refusing to call it ‘a drug deal’ on the basis of sounding needlessly melodramatic as opposed to what it actually is: an exchange of goods between seller and customer – is a narrow alleyway that cuts between two decomposing archways like a slash in the bricks with a sordid-looking massage parlour on one side and a derelict pawn shop on the other. In other words it’s a thoroughly squalid, depressing spot and he doesn’t even need to get out the car to know that everything inside it is going to be wrecked and reeking, coated in the type of straggling vegetation that spontaneously appears on debris and damp, and drenched with the same eerily decayed abandonment that could double for a churchyard or crypt. It’s not like he was expecting shiny table tops and a buyer’s lounge with all the mod-cons…but even so there’s no denying that the site for the transaction is not particularly promising. Nevertheless it’s far too late to back out now, even if he wanted to (which he doesn’t) so he parks his car as close as possible then gets out and takes a rather forlorn look at the hubcaps, unable to shake the suspicion that this may well be the last time he ever sees them again.

Across the street a lone alpha is staring at him from the murky depths of a shop doorway and Will accidentally catches his eye then is briefly unable to look away again, simply because it’s so incredibly unusual to see one that’s quite that wretched-looking. It goes without saying that the city is teeming with the deprived and the destitute, but they’re almost always betas; that, or the occasional omega who’s angered the system in some way and been cast out to fend for themselves as a result (and in this respect is a fate that, in his gloomier moments, Will is fairly inclined to imagine for himself). Alphas, on the other hand, are so inherently privileged and high-status that it’s actively difficult for them to end up in anything like the condition of this man. Not all that long ago – not within Will’s memory admittedly, but certainly with his father’s – alphas like this would have been put in institutions and most likely forcibly sterilized for tainting the purity of the alpha gene line. In fact this is one of the few real disadvantages that alphas are forced to contend with, in that any difficulty or distress is automatically attributed to personal weakness as opposed to society letting them down – and it means that when they fall, they fall hard. Whereas betas or omegas in the same circumstances might be ignored or sneered at, the fate of an alpha is to be actively punished.

Up until now the alpha has been leaning against the doorframe but now he abruptly straightens up, spindly and skittering as an insect in his long black coat, and begins loping across the street in Will’s direction. Will glares at him in return then strides off at a slightly faster pace than normal, unpleasantly aware of the alpha’s voice as he trails behind after him: “Hey. Hey! Where you going little omega? Where you going?” It doesn’t vary much in either pitch or register, just drones on and on in an unsettling sort of crooning noise – Where you going? Where you going? – and Will wonders whether he’s on drugs of some kind. Nevertheless this is an extremely bad start so he reaches into his coat pocket for a woollen hat, tugging it down over his forehead to cover his hair before removing his glasses and stowing them in the other pocket and finally flicking up his collar to hide his throat. Then he ducks his head slightly and quickens his step, even though the chant is still there – Where you going? Where you going? – winding through the air and trailing after him the entire time like a living thing before it reaches a pitch of mournfulness and abruptly cuts off halfway through like someone flicking a switch. Somehow this sudden silence manages to be even more unsettling than the chanting and in spite of himself Will can’t resist glancing over his shoulder to see what’s happened: and where he’s genuinely disturbed to see the way the alpha has just ground to a halt in the middle of the road, his tattered coat streaming out behind him like the wings on the murder of crows. He sways slightly then seems to finally register Will looking at him and immediately cranks back to life and raises an arm straight in his direction. His fingers are long and almost unnaturally elongated in the manner of claws, and he brandishes them in agonised silence as his mouth works helplessly up and down before the silence is suddenly shattered and he screams out: “You shouldn’t be here.”

Oh fuck off, thinks Will with genuine anger. Although there’s something so eerie and unsettling about the spectacle of the swaying, screaming alpha – so terrible yet somehow so tragic – that he can’t quite bring himself to yell it aloud as intended and in the end just turns round again and speeds up even more until he’s turned the corner and the site for the rendezvous is straight ahead. It looks even less inviting close up than it did through the car window, but he doesn’t slow down – doesn’t pause or waver – because the fact an alpha can now identify him as an omega merely by smelling him reiterates the urgency for a fresh supply of tablets and has raised the pressure to acquire them to a pitch that’s vaguely feverish in its intensity. In this respect he can still hear the alpha screaming, although by this time it’s no longer words anymore as opposed to just a wailing stream of incoherent syllables that seem to be gushing from his mouth like vomit. The sound is both unnerving and distressing by turns, yet despite the volume and incessant desperation of it no one else looks round or even seems to care. And notwithstanding the importance of the errand and the frantic need for the tablets, it’s then that it really begins to dawn on Will that he might well just have made a terrible mistake in coming here. But it’s too late to back out now – everything’s always been too late; most of his life has been too late – and so he carries on down the street with a kind of helpless, mechanical resolution until a voice hisses out: “Hey pal. You got the time?”

Seeing as this is the pre-agreed code there’s no doubt that this is the dealer appeared in person; and which means Will has to give the pre-agreed countersign about a broken watch, despite feeling like a colossal idiot the entire time for engaging in something so embarrassingly melodramatic. Seriously though, surely such subterfuge isn’t really necessary…no doubt the dealer has watched a few too many spy movies and got carried away. In fact his appearance certainly indicates that he might have done: a paunchy middle-aged man in a tracksuit that the designer clearly intended for someone several decades younger (and several pounds lighter) with the kind of damp-looking parchment pale skin that rarely sees the sun. Easy to imagine him in a basement somewhere with a plate of day-old pizza and the James Bond marathon on TMC, his pale face illuminated by the glow of the screen as his mouth opens and closes reciting the dialogue he’s already heard a dozen times before…

“Nice,” says the man, abruptly cutting into this rather pointless train of thought: although whether he’s referring to Will’s acquiesce to the spy-script, or the fact he turned up at all, or even Will himself (oh God, though…surely not?) is impossible to say. “You got the cash?”

Will averts his eyes from where he’s trying not to stare too obviously at the assorted crusty stains on the dealer’s tracksuit (and trying even harder not to speculate about their possible provenance) and raises his head. “Of course,” he says irritably, struggling to stop his impatience showing. “You got the…” Then he falters slightly, because while it seems like it might be a bit risky to blurt out ‘tablets’ in the middle of the street he’s struggling to find a satisfactory alternative (‘merchandise’ being straight out of a bad gangster film and ‘stuff’ sounding impossibly juvenile).

“Of course I got them,” snaps the dealer before Will can get any further; and that on the face of it seems rather rude, but which Wil’s actually pretty grateful for in this case because it saves him the trouble of having to come up with the right euphemism (pills…goods…gear?). Oh Christ, this is tedious – why do people even bother doing illegal drugs if you have to go to this sort of trouble to get them? Not least hanging out with grunting assholes who look like they live under a rock and expect you to talk to them in code like they’re cosplaying GI Joe. “Not here,” adds the man as Will reaches into his coat pocket. “Jeez pal, are you crazy? You want to get us both arrested?”

Seeing as Will is in no real risk of getting arrested he doesn’t actually bother to reply to this. It’s virtually unheard of for omegas to be charged for these sorts of misdemeanours after all – in fact he’d just have to start bleating about not knowing any better (possibly pretend to cry) and then they’d definitely let him off. Worse-case scenario is that they’d send for the Named Alpha, which in this case would be Jack…although admittedly that would still be pretty bad, not least because the level of effort involved in getting Jack to fall for the fake wailing and bleating might well prove fatal. Nevertheless possession is one thing and intent to supply is quite another; and for a beta like the dealer clearly is, a prison sentence would be almost inevitable (alphas, after all, not tending to look kindly on anyone helping omegas to suppress their heats). He therefore follows into the alleyway without complaint, despite the fact that every nerve has begun twitching and straining with reluctance and he’s briefly overcome with an urge to call the whole thing off and say he’s changed his mind.

“What are you waiting for kid?” barks the dealer from over his shoulder. “Move it why don’t you?” The words make Will realise how far he’s inadvertently lagged behind, so forces himself to speed up while trying to ignore the way the walls of the alleyway seem to soar up skyward all around him, lurching in crazy disarray from where subsidence and general neglect has made them swell and sag. In turn they’re so blackened – so sullied and corroded from years of factory fumes and diesel – that they give the illusion of blending into the darkening sky and no matter where he looks all he can see are curdling shadows with the occasional misty sliver of streetlamp. There’s a fierce smell of despair and decay: relics of other people’s wretched lives and deaths and overhead the sky groans and whimpers with the threat of thunder. Will glances up at it, hoping to catch a glimpse of Orion and his dogs, then squares his shoulders and forces himself to strengthen his resolve. You can’t go home empty-handed, he thinks desperately. You need them, you NEED them.

Contrary to both hope and expectation the alleyway isn’t empty but is instead littered with a motley collection of betas, most of whom are in their late forties and all of which appear to be in the same advanced state of desiccation as the dealer. The way they veer through the shadows and swarm around makes there seem to be more than there actually are – one moment five betas, the next moment ten – and when they’re not doing that then they’re propped up against the wall with packets of cigarettes and cans of beer where their eyes catch the streetlamps and look as if they’re glinting. “What’s the problem honey?” shouts one of them as Will walks past. “Your alpha won’t leave you alone?”

Will grits his teeth and fights against the urge to snap something aggressive in response before reluctantly admitting that any kind of argument will achieve nothing beyond prolonging the ordeal even more than necessary. “Can’t say I blame ‘em,” adds the beta, who’s mistaken Will’s angry silence for embarrassment. “If you belonged to me I wouldn’t keep my hands off you either.”

The surrounding betas collapse with laughter at this remark as if it’s some kind of cosmic witticism, and Will ignores them with the same blank indifference as before and gestures at the dealer instead. “Come on then,” he says sharply. “Where are they?”

“Aww, look at him,” observes one of the betas. “Ain’t he cute? I don’t normally get to see one so close up. It’s not fair, is it darling? The alphas keep you all for themselves.”

Will takes a deep breath in an effort not to lose his temper then deliberately turns his back on them and raises his voice. “I asked you a question. Where. Are. They?”

“Chill out kid,” replies the dealer insolently. “I told you I got ‘em. You show me the cash.”

“You show him yours and he’ll show you his,” shriek the betas before dissolving into laughter again. “S’only fair.”

Will grits his teeth even harder then wordlessly retrieves the wad of bills from his pocket and waves it rather scornfully in front of the dealer’s face without actually handing it over. “Eighty, like you said,” he adds. “Now stop wasting my time.”

“One fifty,” replies the dealer without missing a beat. “Price has just gone up.”

“Ain’t you never heard of inflation?” yells one of the betas.

“Course he hasn’t,” chimes in another. “They can’t read.”

In the resultant shrieks of laughter Will can feel his stomach turn over with a lunge of unhappiness but with an enormous force of effort refuses to let it show and tips his head back instead in order to regard the dealer with barely-concealed contempt. “We agreed 80,” he says, calm but firm. “That’s all I’ve got.”

The dealer begins to smile: a slow sickly contortion of the mouth that spreads across his face like grease across a skillet. “No baby,” he replies after a pause. “No, that ain’t all. You got more than that.”

Will’s breath catches and in spite of himself he automatically takes a step backwards as the dealer’s oily smile spreads even further. “Now don’t be that way,” he says coaxingly. “No reason we can’t work something out. How about you come a bit closer and be nice to me, and in return I let you have it at a discount?”

Once again Will fails to reply: merely stands there in the silence as the seconds stretch out and the betas jeer and laugh while the dealer leers, and all the time consumed by an awareness of how the reason for his muteness has altered so dramatically from before. Because this time it’s not from fear, or even revulsion, but more from a sense of shock as within himself he can feel something rupture and shift. It happens so easily too. In fact that’s the shocking part: how smooth and effortless it is, like the turning of well-oiled gears. Something ineffable that’s icy cold and flinty sharp, comprised of bone and blood and writhing with the same pitch-black grace as the crows. Something that murmurs, almost tenderly, in a voice that doesn’t sound like his and in words that shouldn’t belong to him: How about you give me what we agreed and in return I let you live?

“See it as a form of social work,” the dealer’s now saying in a mocking voice. “You go back afterwards to your nice big house and your nice rich alpha and you get the satisfaction of knowing you did something charitable for the less fortunate. I mean how else is someone like me ever gonna get within spitting distance of an omega? Besides,” he adds, abruptly becoming more serious at the thought of the money. “It’s not like you’re gonna get them anywhere else. Why’d you come to me in the first place? You know as well as I do there’s been a big lock-down on these things.”

Will frowns slightly but once again refuses to answer. In fact he doesn’t entirely believe the last part – there’s always a way if you’re desperate enough – but what he does know is that there’s no realistic prospect of finding an alternative supply within the next 48 hours; and by then it’ll almost certainly be too late. He can hear his heart beginning to pound in his ears in a weird, unnerving way and as he stares at the dealer’s sneering face it takes him only seconds to decide what he’s going to do. Then he flicks his eyes around the scene, calculating the various requirements with rapid speed before leaning back on his heels and dipping his head again in a convincing performance of defeat. “All right,” he says, and his voice in his own ears sounds very far away. “What do you want me to do?”

The dealer, sensing victory, takes a step forward in a gesture of casual possessiveness that makes Will want to scream. “It’s not complicated baby,” he says earnestly, rather as if he thinks they’re sitting down at a board table to thrash out business terms as opposed to negotiating sex-for-drugs in a godforsaken back alley. “Just simple math really: either you buy them for 150, or you get down on your knees for me – and you make it good – and I give you them for 80 like we agreed.” He takes another step closer and this time actually darts his tongue over his lips. “And if you let me fuck you then I give you them for 80 and throw in an extra packet for free.”

“What a bargain!” chorus the betas. “What a deal!”

“You should go for that honey,” adds a second one. “Have a drink to celebrate.” She mockingly tosses her bottle at Will (who neatly catches it and slings it back again) then waves her hands flamboyantly in the dealer’s direction like someone announcing royalty. “Ain’t no one else gonna risk pissing off the alphas by selling you those things. Not in this shitty town.”

“And not at that price,” adds another. “Anyway you lot like nothing better than having something to bend over for. You should be paying him.”

Will darts them a look of loathing from beneath his eyelashes, but as tempting as it might be to try and take them out, six against one are not good odds by anyone’s standards and without a weapon his chances of success are extremely limited. “Fine,” he says instead, then dips his head down even further and allows his shoulders to sag – not too much, not enough to be obvious – but enough to make his frame shrink down slightly, as if he’s beginning to wilt, before adding: “But not while they’re here.” The betas start to clamour with noisy disappointment and Will growls internally before working a slight tremor into his voice, coughing as if he’s embarrassed and wants to hide it, then makes himself droop a bit more and follows it all up with a mournful sighing noise for good measure.

The dealer, as predicted, falls for it immediately. “Fuck off you guys,” he says, rounding on the betas. “It ain’t no peep-show.” Their protests grow even louder in response and the dealer holds up a hand to indicate they be quiet while running his eyes leisurely over Will’s face – obviously noting how pale he’s gone while completely mistaking the reason for it. “I’m serious,” he adds sharply. “Beat it.” Then he reaches out even further, his features arranging themselves into a repulsive leering expression as he begins to stroke his palm across Will’s shoulders. “This one’s shy.”

“Shy!” shriek the betas. “Are you crazy? None of them are shy. They all drop on the floor and spread their legs for the first alpha that looks at them.”

“Not all the time they don’t,” says the dealer, shifting his hand downwards so he can take hold of Will’s wrist. “Only when they get into one of those states they have. Anyway, this one’s got class haven’t you baby? You don’t want these assholes staring at you.”

“No,” replies Will in the same flat, mechanical voice.

“You heard him,” adds the dealer fondly, beginning to massage the side of Will’s wrist with his thumb. The betas renew their complaints even louder than before and Will, in turn, goes completely rigid with the effort of not seizing hold of the man’s arm in order to wrench it down and to the side, rupturing the annular ligament in the process as the ulna bone snaps in half. It’s so easy to imagine it too: the sound it would make as it splintered apart…

“Relax baby,” says the dealer, seeing Will’s set, frozen expression and once again drastically mistaking the cause. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“No,” says Will quietly. “I know you’re not.”

Something about the ominous tone of voice makes the dealer glance warily at him, and Will bites his lip at being stupid enough to let his true feelings show before ducking his head even further until the tip of his chin is touching his chest. At the sight of what appears to be submission the dealer makes a satisfied noise then reaches up and casually tugs off the hat, completely oblivious to Will’s hiss of anger as he feels grubby fingers beginning to tangle against his scalp. “Nice,” says the dealer approvingly. “They always say omegas have pretty hair. It’s your genes or something isn’t it? It’s ‘cos the alphas like it.” Without waiting for a reply he spins round and jerks his thumb in the direction of the street. “You guys. Fuck. Off. I’m not gonna ask you so politely the next time.”

Grumbling mutinously the betas begin to assemble their assorted belongings of bags and beer cans then take their time in ambling towards the top of the alleyway, yelling the occasional mocking comment to Will as they go. “I guess I should be apologising for them,” says the dealer, renewing his stroking motion on Will’s wrist. “No manners at all. So we’re on our own now sweet thing and you’re gonna have to help me out here. You have to tell me how omegas work.” Will stares back silently and the dealer takes another step closer. “What, ain’t you got nothing to say? Jesus you really are shy aren’t you. Okay, for starters: is it only the alphas that get you excited or can anyone do it? Yeah, you with me now? You like the sound of that, huh baby? You don’t need to do that bashful thing with me.”

Will bites down so hard on his lip he can taste blood then forces himself to wait a few more seconds until the betas’ voices have faded away before violently jerking his arm free and spinning round. “All right,” he says sharply. “First off – the pills. I want you to prove you’ve got them.”

Possibly the dealer’s surprised by Will’s abrupt change in manner now the others have left, although if it’s the case he gives no indication. “I’ve got ‘em,” he says soothingly, attempting to tug Will backwards by the hand. “I told you I did. Now come here...come here baby, nice and close. I want you up against the wall.”

“No,” snaps Will. “I want to see them.” No point, after all, in wasting time rifling through the man’s pockets – or, even worse, potentially making off with the wrong package.

“Suspicious aren’t you?” says the dealer irritably. “I thought you lot were supposed to be better at doing what you’re told?” Will just raises an eyebrow in lieu of a response, and the dealer sighs in annoyance but nevertheless leans down to root around in a mildewed-looking leather satchel that Will hadn’t even noticed was there to retrieve a pill bottle that’s chipped and smeared and somewhat scuffed round the edges and yet – Will breathes a sigh of relief – still has the familiar pharmacy stamp across the front.

“And the second one,” he adds firmly; and when he speaks again it’s impossible to keep the contempt out of his voice. “You told me I could earn two.”

“I did, yeah,” replies the dealer with obvious satisfaction. “There you go: two bottles as promised. Now that’s it, baby. Done. Time to get yourself ready.” He sets them down on the lid of a nearby dumpster where the yellow glass glints in the soft glow of the streetlamps and Will can’t help staring at them with longing before flinching as he feels thick fingers clamping round his wrist again. “You’ve got little bones,” adds the dealer thoughtfully. “Delicate. Omegas are meant to be delicate. Are you delicate everywhere else?”

“No,” snaps Will, unable to contain himself any more. “Although you wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake.”

“Oh yeah? Like it rough do you? Is that why you want those pills – your alpha not giving you what you need?” And then, when Will doesn’t reply. “You’re seriously uptight baby. You know you’re not as pretty when you’re frowning; you know that right? Why don’t you relax? Just smile and make yourself look nice for me and I’ll make sure you enjoy it.”

“I somehow doubt,” says Will coldly, “that you’re going to be able to do anything for me that I’ll enjoy.”

“Oh fuck you,” snaps the dealer, his previous good mood abruptly dissolving. “You spoilt little bitch, don’t you dare give me any of your stuck-up omega crap. Jesus. You think you’re all so goddamn special just because the alphas lose their shit over you. Well I don’t see any alphas here now.” Reaching out he seizes a fistful of Will’s hair, twisting his head back so he can press his face against the base of his throat before giving a deep sigh of satisfaction. “You smell so good baby. Too bad for you that I’ve got you trapped in here after you pissed me off; I don’t feel so inclined to be sweet to you now. You’re gonna have to work real hard to make it up to me.”

Will takes a deep breath and for a moment it’s as if the world goes still as he stares up at the sky: stares up at the faint trace of Orion and his dogs, at the ragged streaks of cloud and the way the sky is dappled with streaks of purple and grey as the sun sets and everything goes dark. Then he lets out the breath and snaps back to life: startlingly aware, just in those few seconds, of how his usual sense of himself has faded away as someone else arrives instead.

“Hey, hold still!” snarls the dealer. “Hold still. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Jerking fully upright Will knocks the man’s hand away then grabs hold of his collar and tugs him roughly forward until their faces are only inches apart: breathing one another’s air and eyes locked together in a danse macabre of mutual mistrust. Caught badly by surprise, the dealer doesn’t react immediately and Will makes the most of the brief disorientation to lean even closer in. “You got it wrong,” he says, his voice frighteningly low and intense. “I’m not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with me.”

The dealer makes a strangled yelling noise that’s meant to sound intimidating but which Will can easily tell is layered with an undertone of fear. Then some primitive, primeval siren seems to sound inside the dealer’s mind and he begins to struggle in earnest: flailing and thrashing in an increasingly desperate attempt to pull away as Will neatly rears his head back then brings it smashing forward into his face. It connects to his nose with a sickening crack as the fragile bone shatters and collapses in on itself, and the dealer howls with genuine pain and terror as Will pivots round again – supple and fearless with the lean, leonine grace of a panther or leopard – and delivers a vicious kick to the kneecap to make him lose his balance before punching him square in the jaw and sending him plummeting down to the ground. The dealer screams again, a hideous clotted-sounding noise from his damaged nose, and Will draws back his foot to deliver a series of brutal kicks to the ribs as the dealer begs for mercy before abandoning words entirely and simply howling in fear instead. Then for a few seconds Will just stands there, motionless and victorious and consumed with something like awe over the savage grace of it. Because there is: he’s always thought so. How swiftly, simply and beautifully a human body can be breached and broken apart. The sense of life and soul even in the midst of dying. Here the exhilaration; there the sense of reckoning. The knowledge that justice can be meted out anywhere – in books or plays, the hallowed lofty spires of the Supreme Court, or the filth and abandonment of a back alley. And the rush and the righteousness, and the power and purpose…and the way that the blood looks black in the moonlight.

A few more beats of silence follow in which there’s nothing to hear except the subdued whimpering of the dealer and the softer sound of Will’s breathing. Then he abruptly snaps back to life for a second time and pockets the tablets before stooping down and twisting the dealer’s face round by the chin so they’re staring at one another. “Listen,” says Will softly. “And understand this. If you ever try to do that to someone else, then I will come back for you. And I will kill you.”

The man begins to nod in something like a frenzy before quivering and cowering as he tries to pull away. “Say it,” snaps Will in the same low voice.

“Sir, I understand. I won’t sir…I won’t ever…”

It’s beginning to rain now. Endless droplets as if the heavens themselves are crying…streams of tears dyed silver by the moonlight and which set up a relentless pounding rhythm that ricochet off the crumbling bricks and course against Will’s face in rivulets. Not that the analogy is any use though – not really. Because of course the sky isn’t mourning. Nature doesn’t care: it lacks either pity or mercy, just like so much else. Just like God, to whom elegance is more important than suffering because that is his design. Straightening up Will contemptuously drops the wad of dollar bills onto the ground in front of the dealer’s huddled body then steps over him and walks out the alleyway without looking back.

*****

It’s not until Will’s cleared the city and is over halfway home that the reality of what he’s done fully hits him. In fact it’s less like being hit as opposed to being sucker punched and the intensity of it is such that he needs to swerve over to the side of the road in order to take some deep steadying breaths before reassuring himself that, yes, of course he was in control the entire time; and of course he could have stopped – and did stop – before things got out of hand; and that everything, in conclusion, is absolutely fine.

“He deserved it,” says Will out loud; and this much at least seems undeniably true so he says it again, then adds “Thanks to you he’s less likely to do that to anyone else” for good measure, followed by a determined little nod. Only it seems a stretch too far to actively give himself credit for what he’s done – considering the way he felt while he was doing it – so in the end he just falls silent again and closes his eyes, tipping his head back against the seat as fractured images from the last hour veer through his head in crazily kaleidoscopic array. Behind his eyelids is the face of the dealer, blood-stained and tear-streaked (or was it only the rain?) as he lay groaning and grovelling on the paving stones. But then that’s not right either because the groans weren’t really groans at all but actual words: clotted and indistinct but speech nonetheless. Please. Please…Don’t kill me…I don’t want to die like this. Will’s eyes abruptly snap open and he takes another, deeper breath. No – he never actually said that; he knew Will wasn’t going to kill him. He never said that.

As he stares ahead Will catches sight of his reflection in the rear view mirror and for a few seconds finds it impossible to look away because there’s something deeply unsettling about it that reminds him of that night in the elevator when he was sick and Hannibal had to drive him home: how he’d glanced into the door panel and been so unnerved by the haunted face and gleaming eyes that stared back at him as a furtive, guilty part of his brain whispered What if he can tell you want to kill someone? What if he can see it in you? And now…here it is again. As if it never went away at all in fact, but has been there the whole time: baited-breathed and hollow-eyed, watchful and wary and patiently lying in wait.

A sudden scream of tyres from beyond the window makes Will jump violently, and it’s at that point he can feel himself starting to panic as he desperately tries to tell himself that the reflection is just an illusion – a trick of the light caused by the shadows and the ghostly glow of the headlamps. Only when he glances back it’s still there, and for a few feverish seconds it feels as if the mirror isn’t a mirror at all but rather a window with a stranger peering through from the other side: a stranger that looks a bit like him, yet is nothing like him at all, and which gazes back with a sense of quiet exhalation that could easily beat a man to death in an alleyway with the same casual thoughtlessness as someone snuffing out a candle. Then he blinks a few times and the image is gone and it’s just him again, sad and strained and pale with a rapidly blooming bruise on his forehead that’s trickling blood from the force of the earlier impact. It’s fine, thinks Will firmly. That’s not me. It’s NOT. Then he realises he’s saying it out loud and that the thing in the mirror – whatever it is – doesn’t even believe him anyway and has reappeared to gaze at him defiantly with its weirdly glittering eyes and gore-streaked face. Notice me, it says, this stranger in the mirror. Know me and notice me and accept that I’m there. There’s an eerie duality to it: these twin versions of himself that shouldn’t feasibly be able to coexist and share the same body and yet in that single moment appear to not only be achieving it, but excelling at doing so and even deriving a level of satisfaction in the opposition. So eloquent and plausible in their competing principles to the extent there’s almost a kind of artistry in it: laureates of a double life.

And suddenly…it’s all too much. The ache in his head feels like it’s screaming now, blending and merging with the near-constant abdominal pain to create a symphony of suffering which howls and pulses in a discordant crash of desperation that’s almost unbearable. Staggering out the car, he collapses onto his hands and knees at the side of the road and throws up.

*****

It takes Will a long, long time to pull himself together. Far longer than would normally be the case, even though ‘pulling yourself together’ hardly seems the right term for it when it’s more like being pulled apart at the joints and the task is how to wash the component pieces clean and reassemble them into soothingly sterile normalcy. Carving nature at the joints; isn’t that an expression? He’s sure he’s read it somewhere. Carving, sculpting, a Sculptor…oh Christ.

“I’m dying,” says Will out loud. “These tablets are killing me.” Fortunately the extreme melodrama of the statement is enough to finally make him get a grip on himself – the verbal equivalent of a slap to the face – and he calms down sufficiently to restart the car and drive the rest of the way home in careful silence and without any of the previous messy hysteria. After all, nothing’s really happened. The guy wasn’t even badly injured enough to lose consciousness and it’s not as if a drug dealer being foiled in sexually coercing vulnerable customers is a bad thing. Even his reflection has returned to normal now, although somehow the memory of it still lingers and he finds himself darting the occasional anxious glance in the rear view mirror as if he’s afraid of catching another glimpse of it. So pale and watchful as it was, and so incredibly knowing. My dark mirror image, thinks Will vaguely; then frowns at himself for being so far-fetched and imaginative. All that’s needed is to adjust the dosage on the tablets and possibly look into getting some sedatives prescribed. Stronger painkillers too. More sleep, better diet: it’ll be fine.

As he pulls up into the yard Will spots a sleek dark car parked close by and is immediately aware of a subliminal sense of comfort that’s confusing for being so dramatically at odds with his initial alarm at who the hell it might be. Andrew, he thinks with horror. Oh God, how is it even possible? Then it’s not until he sees the license plate and logic and emotion catch up with one another – because he’s realised that, of course, it’s Hannibal’s car – that he remembers the earlier appointment and feels a further surge of relief flow through him like blood after a transfusion. Because surely, somehow, Hannibal will make it okay? Without being fully aware he’s doing it he twists the rear view mirror until it’s facing completely away from him, then gets out the car and runs off towards the house.

Chapter Text

Despite the sleekly looming presence of the Bentley there’s no immediate sign of Hannibal himself, and Will has a few moments of confusion trying to work out where he could possibly have gone – which involves a lot of frowning and sighing while swivelling his head from side to side in an unintentionally exaggerated way like a meerkat – before realising that he’s actually been sat on the porch bench the entire time: so finely blended into the shadows in his dark coat that all Will’s initially aware of is the faint gleam of his eyes as they shimmer in the darkness like a cat’s. In fact the impression they make is somewhat striking, and serves to remind Will that while he’d rather be flogged half to death before admitting it he actually quite admires Hannibal’s eyes. If he’s honest he pretty much always has, although perhaps this is hardly surprising considering how much time he’s been forced to spend staring into them. Hours and hours in fact, whether in the office or from across a room or raising up from the gruesome remains of some crime scene or other: Hannibal’s eyes as a constant presence the entire time with their fathomless stare and vivid intensity, rather as if there’s flecks of fire distilled behind the lens, all framed by enviably thick lashes, and which are not only capable of seeing flawlessly without a need for glasses but, also unlike Will’s, are of an exotic shade that’s not at all easy to describe. A prosaic term for them might be ‘chestnut,’ although they’re actually a very rich deep brown with a faint flush of crimson when the light catches them a certain way. In this respect it’s not uncommon for alphas to develop a maroon tint to the irises when in rut but Hannibal seems to have it all the time.

“I’m sorry I’m a bit late,” Will finally announces into the darkness. “I, um, got held up.”

Hannibal’s eyes remain gleaming from their position on the bench for a few more seconds before abruptly elevating as he draws himself up to his full height then slides out of the shadows and into the light of the doorway. The movement is extremely rapid and causes Will to inadvertently take a step back before reproaching himself for being so stupid and returning to his previous position; and then moving even closer than he was before, just for good measure. Then he frowns slightly, unsure why he felt compelled to pull away. Why did he do it? It’s hard to say for certain. Perhaps it’s just that there’s occasionally something intimidating about the way Hannibal moves: silently graceful yet eerily fast and shot through with a carefully controlled hint of menace, rather like something dark and unknown that darts around beneath the surface of water which otherwise remains smooth. Will blinks a few times, somewhat taken aback at this sudden realisation – although in that moment, it doesn’t occur to him to ask why the instinct to move closer again was even stronger than the one to retreat. From far beyond the fields is the sound of screaming: possibly foxes engaged in battle, or even some fearsome nocturnal bird spearing its prey. But whatever it is the rawness of the noise is horrible and gnaws at his frayed nerves on-and-on-and-on in a way that’s almost unbearable as in his mind the culprit slowly morphs into a vicious amalgam of both fox and bird: claws and feathers and bright black eyes, with a dripping mouth and grasping claws – a composite creature of breath and bone and skin and shadows. Oh God, those fucking tablets. He feels like he’s going a bit mad.

Hannibal, on the other hand, seems undisturbed by the screaming and merely moves a little closer himself before smiling slightly as an indication that Will’s lateness is not a problem. Then he slowly regards the blood on his face and for a few seconds his eyes appear to flash with a spark of…what? What would you even call it? Fascination? Possibly that’s too strong…call it curiosity. Then it’s gone so quickly that Will starts to suspect he just imagined it after all and Hannibal has promptly reverted to Doctor Mode instead and is calmly asking Will what’s happened.

“I got into a fight,” replies Will, who’s feeling much too tired and careworn to come up with a less dramatic excuse. Hannibal makes a sympathetic noise before his eyes flick briefly towards the pill bottles and Will flushes and hurriedly stuffs them into his coat pocket. “Someone, um, they tried to steal my wallet.”

“I’m sorry.” Hannibal’s eyes slowly swivel away from the bottles and back to Will’s face.

“It’s fine,” says Will firmly. Then he adds “No harm done” in an even firmer voice, because it’s true (of course it is). Nevertheless, and despite the awkwardness of the moment, he can’t help feeling grateful for the calmly pragmatic tone of the question – especially when compared to the lavish hysterics that someone like Jack would almost certainly be having by now. Oh God, it’s so easy to imagine it: Jack’s patented blend of concern that’s invariably well-meant but too easily crosses the line from kindly to condescending and from alarmed into lecturing. ‘You’ve been doing what?’ Jack would be saying now, possibly accessorised with an accusing finger wagging straight in Will’s face as if he’s an errant five year old. ‘You got into a fight with who? Well did you hurt yourself?’ Hannibal, on the other hand, clearly has no interest in either patronising Will or admonishing him for being in a risky situation and his expression of concern is limited to the more practical variety that involves simply gesturing at Will’s forehead and announcing: “It’s still bleeding. Would you like me to take a look?”

“No,” says Will. He’s realised now, far too late, that he’s still wearing that fucking hat and can’t quite decide whether it’s worse to stand there brandishing it in full view or rip it off and stuff it into his pocket (the latter option having the advantage of stopping Hannibal from seeing any more of it, but the disadvantage of suggesting a degree of self-awareness on Will’s part that he shouldn’t have been wearing it in the first place on the grounds that no sensible adult leaves the house in the type of thing a blind grandmother might have knitted for you. Not to mention the numerous sagging folds and the hollow at the very top…Jesus. It looks like a woolly foreskin). Hannibal’s eyes slowly track across Will’s face with a faintly quizzical expression, either at the sight of the cut or possibly the foreskin hat (God knows anymore) and Will defiantly adds: “It’s fine. It’s nothing. Just a scratch.”

“It’s a little more than that,” replies Hannibal in the same leisurely tone. “Although you should let me examine it for my own sake rather than yours, because if you can bear to humour me for a short while then I will be able to pretend that I’m still a proper doctor.”

Will huffs out a laugh then shuffles his feet against the splintery wood of the porch while trying to avoid catching Hannibal’s eye. In fact he fully intends to refuse again – and he really does intend to – yet somehow still finds himself following Hannibal into the kitchen without further complaint; even perching obediently on one of the chairs so his head can be tipped back while the cut gets inspected from various angles. Hannibal’s hands are surprising gentle – deft and cautious in the manner of an artist or surgeon – and Will stifles the sigh he wants to make without even knowing why he wants to make it until Hannibal finally releases him and announces that the wound doesn’t require stitches.

“I told you so,” says Will, who’s now beyond exhausted and is trying to resist the temptation to sink forward so he can lean against Hannibal’s chest.

“You did, although it’s always better to check. Do you have a first aid kit to hand? It still requires cleaning.”

“Yeah, there’s one somewhere. Try under the sink. And thank you; I appreciate it.”

“It’s really no trouble,” says Hannibal casually. He retrieves the kit from its dark hiding place and brings it back to the table (upon which they discover it’s lain fallow for so long that it requires an extensive combination of coaxing, cunning and outright force to persuade it to open, and which elicits an assortment of irritated snorts from Will accompanied by a series of feline smiles from Hannibal) then carefully dabs some iodine onto the broken skin with one hand while stroking a palm against Will’s shoulder with the other at the resulting hiss of pain. “Make sure you keep an eye out for any signs of infection,” adds Hannibal, “but otherwise it should heal up fairly quickly.” He pauses for a few seconds and once again Will feels the faintest hint of pressure against his shoulder blade. “I don’t suppose the same can be said for your assailant?”

“Actually he’s fine,” snaps Will. “I hardly hurt him at all.” Hannibal’s Sphinx-like smile briefly reappears and Will promptly realises, far too late, that such defensiveness means he’s just walked straight into the verbal trap set up for him and confirmed Hannibal’s obvious suspicion that the confrontation was far more serious than Will is letting on. But Hannibal, contrary to expectation, makes no attempt to pursue it beyond giving a brisk confirmatory nod (although the faint half-smile takes a little longer to fully disappear) then just finishes cleaning up the cut in calm silence before stepping back and letting Will get out of the chair.

“The dogs,” says Will rather awkwardly. “I should feed them.”

“Of course,” replies Hannibal. “Although at some point you should consider feeding yourself as well.” He leans back against the edge of the table as he’s speaking, all long limbs and casual elegance, and Will can’t help thinking how anyone else would look as slovenly as hell in the same position whereas Hannibal manages to drape himself about like an artist’s model. Then he wonders how consciously done it is; whether Hannibal deliberately arranges himself to look as striking as possible or if it’s just natural grace? Everything he does is so considered that it’s hard to imagine even something as simple as his posture to be entirely accidental; but then it’s likewise difficult to credit him with being genuinely preoccupied with whether people find him attractive or not. Most likely it doesn’t mean anything and Will is just over-thinking things as usual. “Are you going to get anything to eat?” prompts Hannibal, who has now shifted from Casually Elegant mode to Dashing Glamour mode simply by pressing his palms on the table top and leaning back slightly on his forearms. Honestly; how does he manage it? It’s like…witchcraft. “At the very least you should have some fluids. You’ve lost a quantity of blood after all.”

“Yeah, I guess” says Will vaguely. Lost some blood: it sounds so odd if you think about it too much; as if the blood has slipped away when he wasn’t looking and is now sat somewhere on its own, patiently waiting to be reclaimed. And Hannibal’s really staring at him now, a single eyebrow beginning to slowly elevate…oh God. “I should do, yeah,” adds Will, trying to rally a bit. “What about you. Are you hungry?” Then he mentally inventories the contents of the kitchen and gloomily decides that trying to do anything constructive with them extends the frontier of his culinary capability by several miles. “I could order something in?” he suggests after a pause. “It’ll take a while to arrive, but if you wanted…”

“Order something in?” repeats Hannibal, announced with a look of horror that Will feels would’ve more appropriate for him proposing they go out and forage by the highway together for a bit of roadkill. “You mean a take-out?”

“Well…yeah,” says Will. Hannibal’s other eyebrows begins to ascend to join the first and Will watches its progress while silently trying to work out at what point ordering takeaway meals became a sign of unspeakable depravity.

“Let me arrange something,” adds Hannibal firmly; and which seems like a sensible solution, although Will can’t help feeling he ought to object to it on principle given that Hannibal’s the guest and Will is the one whose responsibility it is to feed him. But then again it’s not like he’s the one expiring with horror at the idea of a perfectly respectable pizza (honestly, you really would have thought he’d suggested harvesting roadkill. Week old roadkill…radioactive zombie roadkill that needed to be taken out with a head shot prior to consumption). So in the end just waves his hands around rather haplessly without saying anything, and which Hannibal naturally takes for agreement before proceeding to root around Will’s kitchen with the kind of casual familiarity that Will suspects he ought to find invasive but which actually feels rather comfortable – the sort of thing a friend would do. Hannibal, in turn, politely refuses all offers of help so Will just props himself up by the kitchen table and mentally wishes Hannibal good luck in trying to persuade the assembled items of ancient eggs, a wedge of cheese sweltering sadly in its cling-film wrap, and a wilting bag of shop-bought salad to transform themselves into anything resembling an actual meal.

“Do you want a drink?” he says after a few minutes silence. Because surely a drink is the least of what Hannibal will need if he’s going to take those eggs on; including, but not limited to, wrestling with their uncertain provenance and undeniable antiquity. Will takes a surreptitious glance at them while Hannibal’s searching through the cupboard and promptly feels rather appalled on their behalf. They look like fucking dinosaur eggs.

Having located a grater Hannibal has begun to deftly slice the cheese into a little bowl; and while it really shouldn’t be possible to perform such a mundane task as grating cheese in an elegant way, needless to say he somehow manages it. Rather as if, thinks Will incredulously, grating cheese is an act of the upmost solemnity deserving of hallowed lamplight and a soundtrack of choristers (Exhibit B: witchcraft). “Are you having one yourself?” asks Hannibal without turning round.

“I was going to get a beer, yeah,” replies Will, although even as he’s saying it he can’t help silently acknowledging that this probably wasn’t what Hannibal had in mind when he suggested fluids. Oh God, does that mean a lecture is in the offing over the incompatibility of alcohol and head injuries? It probably is. In fact it almost certainty is. And it’s exactly the type of thing Jack would say, as if Will is so hapless he can’t be reliably trusted to act in his own interests.

“Then one for me also,” says Hannibal. “Thank you.”

Will blinks a few times, partly because the expected lecture clearly isn’t forthcoming and partly because he can’t really imagine Hannibal knocking back Budweiser and is now half-wishing he hadn’t suggested it. “What, you wouldn’t prefer to have wine?

“In light of our previous discussion I’ve resolved to stop drinking wine in your presence,” says Hannibal in an exaggeratedly serious tone. “See what lengths I will go to keep you happy?”

Will can’t help laughing at this, then finds himself relaxing slightly and goes to retrieve two bottles from the cupboard before neatly using the side of the counter to knock the caps off. “You’ll thank me in the end,” he adds as he hands one over. “All those boring wine conversations.”

“Y-e-s,” replies Hannibal with a slow smile. “I dare say. By the way, I don’t suppose you have any limes?”

Limes?” says Will, wondering if close confinement to such plebeian beer has made Hannibal go a bit mad. “What?”

“I want to dress the salad.”

“Oh. Right, yeah.” Seriously though…limes? Hannibal raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Sorry, I don’t. No.”

“Never mind,” says Hannibal, casting his eyes around. “You have some vinegar here, that’ll do instead. So how are you anyway, beyond this evening’s…altercation? I believe you wanted to discuss the case.”

Will makes an affirmative noise, although the reality is that the stress of the past few hours has diluted the impact of that enigmatic scrap of card to such an extent that he can scarcely find the energy to mention it. “Perhaps some food first?” adds Hannibal, noting how pale and tired Will suddenly looks. “If you want to go into the living room I’ll bring it through.”

Will smiles appreciatively at this suggestion and then, as an attempt to contribute something proactive to the evening’s entertainment beyond bottles of cheap beer and an absence of limes, not only goes to the trouble of building up a fire and turning on all the side lamps to give the room a soothing, ambient glow but patiently fiddles with the radio until he’s finally able to locate a classical music channel. The table’s piled too high with stacks of books and papers to do anything useful with, but hopefully Hannibal won’t mind sitting on the sofa and eating off their knees instead like students (although no doubt even when Hannibal was a student it was all five course meals and evening dress). In this respect he appears a few minutes later balancing two trays against his forearm in a waiter-like gesture that Will finds rather endearing in comparison to the usual brand of aloof elegance – and where it becomes apparent that he’s somehow managed to renovate the paltry contents of Will’s fridge into cheese omelettes and a cunningly flavoured salad, as well as resuscitating an ancient loaf by transforming it into garlic bread.

“This is delicious,” says Will, trying not to sound too surprised. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” replies Hannibal, “although it’s nothing especially worth commending.” He pauses, critically examining the plate from several angles. “This is extremely basic.”

“You sound rather distressed about that,” says Will, forking up the omelette.

“Rest assured I am crying inside.”

“Yeah, I thought you might be.”

Hannibal smirks slightly then takes a delicate mouthful himself before leaning back against the sofa so he’s at a better angle to watch Will: currently hunched over his plate and devouring the contents like someone half-starved. The bruising looks more subtle in this light; rather as if an artist has taken a very fine brush and blended shades of amethyst and crimson around all the exquisite bone structure to throw it into sharper relief. Although it would take an artist of considerable gifts to adequately capture the fierce glint of vitality that makes Will so luscious and luminous despite his obvious exhaustion. It energised you didn’t it, thinks Hannibal with interest as he flicks his eyes across the injuries. Kindled an impulse and aroused an instinct, even if you can’t admit it – or even acknowledge that it’s there. Then he carefully files this information away for future use and returns his gaze to Will’s eyes and lips instead, idly trying to imagine how that yearning for destruction might manifest itself in more intimate ways. In this respect he decides that Will is almost certainly one of those rare omegas that become aggressive during their heats and attack the alpha. The phenomenon often appears as a discussion point in medical journals: the extreme viciousness with which such omegas bite and scratch and how difficult it is to settle them down to the extent they’re willing to take a knot. Clinically it’s presented as a pathology for which medication is required, but in this instance Hannibal finds the idea appealing because of how incredibly pleasurable it would feel to be attacked by Will; and, even more so, finally persuading Will to allow himself to be overpowered.

“What?” asks Will abruptly. “You’re staring at me.”

“Yes, I suppose I am,” replies Hannibal in a leisurely voice.

“Well it’s rude,” says Will with a hint of triumph.

“You are quite right; I apologise. You caught me deep in thought.”

“About what?”

“The case,” lies Hannibal with smooth plausibility. “I’m wondering what was different about this one to make Jack Crawford so keen for a consultation.”

“Don’t you mean me as well?”

“Not at all. You sent a single message only.”

“Yeah, well, sorry about it regardless. I shouldn’t have bothered you at work.”

“You didn’t; although my curiosity has been piqued so you might as well tell me now. I suppose the body was discovered in an unusual location? Somewhere far out?”

“How did you know?” says Will before he pauses and smiles. “Oh yes of course: the timing of the calls.”

“Correct,” says Hannibal. “They clustered together and the interval between them implied you were probably all travelling in the interim. So this one was found – where? The countryside?”

“Yep. Not that far from here actually.”

“And was there anything else that was different?”

“Yes, there was…” Will pauses again then carefully replaces his fork onto the plate. “There was a piece of card on the body.”

“And?”

“And it had my initials written on it.”

“Did it?” says Hannibal crisply. He leans forward, obviously intrigued. “And you believe it’s a reference to yourself?”

“I don’t know. It could be a coincidence. Jack thinks it is.”

“That is, of course, a possibility.”

“If he wanted to contact me there’s far more effective ways of doing it.”

“Again; that is undeniably true.”

“And yet…”

“And yet you are not entirely satisfied. Which is fine, because neither am I.” Almost imperceptibly, Hannibal moves a fraction closer. “So, if it is a reference…why do you think that might be?” Another pause. “Why would The Sculptor be drawn to you?”

“I guess because I’ve been publically linked to the case.”

“But then so have many others. Why not JC on the card? Or, for that matter, HL. Why you?”

“I don’t know.” Hannibal waits a few more seconds, eyebrows very slightly raised. “I don’t,” says Will.

“Then perhaps it really is nothing more than a coincidence,” replies Hannibal lightly. “It might be that we are scrabbling for patterns where none exist.” Will doesn’t reply immediately and instead just runs his hand across his face suddenly looking extremely wan and drawn. “It’s unsettled you hasn’t it?” adds Hannibal in a gentler voice.

“Not just that,” says Will pensively. “To be honest it’s been a weird sort of day.”

“I can tell.”

“Hmm.”

“You look less well than usual,” adds Hannibal with careful tact. “And while I’m aware you won’t want to hear it, you really should consider reducing your use of those suppressants. The side effects are even more pronounced then when I last saw you.”

“You’re right,” snaps Will. “I don’t want to hear it.” Then he hesitates himself and briefly looks uncomfortable. “Sorry. It’s just that I…it’s…” He falters again then sighs and shrugs, abandoning any attempt at explanation. “It’s complicated.”

“I’m sure it is. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No,” says Will, looking even more forlorn as he briefly considers the scale and scope of his various problems. “Not really.”

Hannibal waits a few more seconds, privately rather fascinated at the way his previous sense of protectiveness is becoming blended with a surge of possessiveness at the idea of anyone trying to impose on Will (except for himself, obviously) that’s almost breathtaking in its intensity. “It’s fine,” adds Will in a flat, mechanical voice that doesn’t sound remotely convincing. “I’m fine.”

“I hope you won’t be overly offended by this suggestion,” says Hannibal after another delicate little pause, “but do you require gentling?”

“Why?” snaps Will with a degree of bitterness. “Because I’m an omega?”

“Naturally because you are an omega,” replies Hannibal serenely. “I’m hardly offering because you are A Will.”

Will tries to summon the energy to be affronted by this until he catches Hannibal’s eye and can’t help starting to laugh. “I’ve performed similar services for a number of patients,” adds Hannibal. “It can be rather useful in times of stress.”

“Well…I guess…okay then,” Will hears himself saying; even though this isn’t entirely what he meant to say. He then does nothing to save the situation by following it up with: “Only if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” replies Hannibal, ultra-casual.

“Thank you,” says Will, who now seems faintly bashful and is struggling to hide it. “I guess I’ll probably find it helpful.” Then he smiles a little more and runs his hands absent-mindedly through his hair. “Honestly though. ‘A Will.’ It sounds like some kind of weird rare breed.”

“Indeed. Although I suppose it really ought to be The Will – considering there is only one.”

“I suppose one is more than enough.”

“Undoubtedly,” says Hannibal, who’s beginning to smile as well. “Now: what would you like me to do?”

“I don’t know. Just…whatever. What do you normally do for patients in these situations?”

“In these situations, I am guided by their personal preference.”

“Well just do whatever you usually do.”

“But I want to know what you would like,” replies Hannibal, whose smoky voice is now so low and resonant he virtually sounds like he’s purring. “In fact I can’t help feeling you need a little more practice in learning what it is you enjoy.”

“I enjoy plenty of things,” says Will defensively.

“Yes? Then you should have no trouble identifying this.”

Touché,” says Will, starting to smile again. “You’re so annoying sometimes. Have I ever told you that?”

“I believe you’ve mentioned it once or twice, yes.”

“Well just so long as you know,” replies Will amicably. “Okay then…let me think.” He goes quiet for a few seconds, obviously mulling the question over, and Hannibal waits in silent, patient anticipation with the same faint smile on his face. “I quite like having my shoulders rubbed,” says Will eventually, while neglecting to add that no one’s ever actually done this for him so it’s only based on guessing what he might like. “And my back as well.”

“What about your scalp?”

“Sometimes,” says Will, pretending to think about it. “But not too hard.”

“That sounds like it should be manageable. How would you prefer to sit?” Will looks bemused and Hannibal’s mouth quirks into another slow smile. “I mean to say – where. Here as you are? Or on the floor?”

“Oh right, yeah. Here is fine.”

“Then turn round a little so you’re facing away from me.” Will falters for a few seconds then obliges before drawing up his legs so he can prop his chin on his knees, appearing to shrink a little in the process. “A bit closer please,” adds Hannibal in an invitingly low-pitched tone. “Closer. There, that’s perfect. How very tense you are Will: why is that? Does this make you feel self-conscious?”

“I suppose so,” says Will vaguely, quivering slightly as he feels two warm, firm hands slide slowly across the thin material of his shirt. “I guess it feels a bit weird.”

“Not especially. Or at least only as much as you wish to make it.”

Will makes a non-committal humming noise in response then settles his face more comfortably against his knees; completely unaware as he does so that Hannibal is busy inspecting his neck for any bites or scratches that would indicate the attempts of an unknown rival alpha to make a prior claim. As it turns out the skin is pale and unblemished and beautiful, although it’s still not enough to stop Hannibal internally snarling at even the thought of someone else being in touching distance of this most precious of possessions. Reflecting on this, Hannibal decides that when he bites Will himself it’ll be necessary to open and re-open the wound several times to ensure the scar is as deep and vivid as possible. Undoubtedly it will hurt – Hannibal gives a soft caress of apology across Will’s neck in anticipation of future suffering – but it’s unavoidable nonetheless, because it has to be made as clear as possible that Will belongs entirely to him. At this point Will, possibly unsettled by the associations of an alpha touching his neck, shifts warily and looks as if he might be on the verge of pulling away; so Hannibal gives his neck a final stroke as a farewell gesture then moves upwards to Will’s head instead – and where he briefly closes his eyes with satisfaction at having finally achieved what he’s been anticipating with the greatest amount of pleasure for some time now, which is running his fingers through Will’s hair. Will leans up into the touch and Hannibal carefully suppresses the sigh of admiration he wants to make and concentrates instead on memorising all the different shades concealed within in: rich bands of chestnut, the occasional coppery strand of auburn and even one or two faint traces of blond entwined with the more prominent sable and chocolate tones. There’s so much of it too, and while not quite as soft as anticipated has a very pleasing thickness and lustre that more than makes up for this.

“Mmm. S’nice,” says Will sleepily.

“Ah, The Will approves.”

“Yeah, good work – you’ve pleased The Will.”

“I shall bear that in mind,” says Hannibal. “With considerable satisfaction, I might add, because I believe it’s probably easier to please The Almighty on occasions than it is to please The Will.”

Will makes an amused noise then tips his head back far enough to be able to see Hannibal’s face. “That’s a very defeatist attitude you’ve got there Dr Lecter. They do say ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’”

“They do say that,” agrees Hannibal, gently smoothing Will’s hair out his eyes. “However, they have also under-estimated that a will is hardly the same as The Will. So for that reason I’m not inclined to take them very seriously.”

Defeatist,” repeats Will, with a hint of smugness. “You are one of The Defeated.”

“Very true – although at least you must admit that I am gracious in defeat. As it happens Jack Crawford asked if he could come to my office tomorrow. He was attempting to be humorous: ‘I don’t want therapy’ he said, ‘I just want somewhere to sit for an hour with my head in my hands.’ I shall now have to tell him that it won’t be possible on the grounds that I intend to sit there with my head in my own hands as a result of prolonged exposure to The Will.”

Will laughs again then resettles himself so he’s leaning forward once more and Hannibal can run his palms up and down his spine. “I might join you,” he says. “In fact you’ll probably have a queue of taskforce members wanting to do the same.”

“Yes, I suppose this new murder is going to escalate the tension,” replies Hannibal. Slowly he allows his fingers to trail down Will’s ribs – then does it a second time because he like the way it makes him quiver – before returning to his spine again. “And how is the profile progressing?”

“It’s not.”

“No? No further thoughts about your copycat hypothesis?”

“Not really,” says Will fretfully. “To be honest when I saw the card I did wonder whether there might be a link to one of my past cases – the mutilations would be consistent with a couple of them – but it doesn’t make all that much sense. I mean why copycat any of those guys? They were hardly what you’d call renowned. Not like…oh I don’t know.” He falls quiet for a few seconds, clearly considering the best example. “Do you remember the Chesapeake Ripper case?”

Hannibal pauses almost fractionally before resuming the slow motion of his hands; although not even a flicker in his voice betrays any trace of interest as he replies: “They never caught him did they?”

“They didn’t, no. But someone like him…In his case, I could understand the inspiration of a copycat.”

“Oh?” says Hannibal. Slowly he trails a finger down the side of Will’s throat. “And why is that?”

“Because he was unique,” replies Will without hesitation. “The violence was so extraordinarily controlled. I’ve never seen anything like it; none of us had. I still haven’t seen anything like it.” Briefly he closes his eyes as he attempts to re-envisage the police reports and the crime scene photos, swathed in tattered tape that fluttered in empty air. The initial impressions, the instincts, the narrative that had emerged from each imprinting…so vivid and vital when torn from behind the dry typescript and photocopied pages, like a gothic Grand Guignol tragedy performed just for him – the only one who could see it. Then he makes a subdued groaning sound because the pressure from Hannibal’s hands seems to be all over his skin at intervals, almost – but not quite – painful. “There was an artistry to what he did,” Will finally adds and his voice sounds faint and faraway; as if he’s reciting something hewn from within himself that’s been endlessly rehearsed internally and is only now being uttered aloud. “An elegance. They were tableaux: the way something was presented mattered as much to him as what it was he displayed.”

Hannibal slides a palm lower down Will’s spine with one hand then takes hold of his shoulder with the other until Will is forced to lean back and allow Hannibal to take most of his weight. The sudden urge to have Will close to him makes him far rougher than intended, although if Will notices this he doesn’t appear to mind. Instead he instinctively shuts his eyes as his head tips backwards, completely unaware of how near he is to Hannibal’s face until he speaks again and Will feels warm breath ghosting against his cheekbone “What else?” asks Hannibal softly.

At some vague level it occurs to Will that this sort of earnest rhapsody about such a gruesome subject is bordering on inappropriate, but the words are spilling out now and he can’t seem to stop them. “The Ripper murders configured death as art,” he replies in the same intense voice. “Yet also as arbitrary; they were his grand arrangement and everyone was equally deserving. Sadistic yet virtuosic; theatrical yet meticulous….it was like he wanted to transmute the vulgar and banal and make it beautiful. Something that warranted exhibition.” Then he finally processes what he’s just said and flushes before abruptly falling silent as Hannibal’s breath, faint as gossamer, continues to brush the side of his face. “Oh God, look, just ignore me,” says Will unhappily. “I’m really sorry. I lose myself in this stuff sometimes. I must sound so morbid.”     

“Not especially,” replies Hannibal. Sighing rapturously to himself, he gently skims his palms across Will’s shoulders and down his arms as a reward for being so utterly…perfect. “You speak as you find: the impressions may be disturbing, but then so is the object of scrutiny. Besides, it often happens that true tragedy acquires the artistic elements of beauty. You understand that don’t you? You don’t see the world the same way he does – yet you can assume his point of view.”

“Yeah, well, welcome to my world,” says Will drily. “I’m sorry to drag you into it.”

“On the contrary,” replies Hannibal. “I got here on my own; but I appreciate the company.” Will gives a small nod but otherwise doesn’t respond and Hannibal continues rubbing his shoulders in comfortable silence in which there’s nothing to hear except the low crackle of the fire before a sudden impulse makes him want to try and touch Will’s neck again. Recalling the assorted lectures on omega biology he’s been obliged to sit through over the years he begins to carefully curl his fingers round the back of it: alternating the pressure at intervals and then smoothing his palm across the small ridge of bone at the top of Will’s spine. And unlike the last time, Will not only allows it but reacts even more beautifully than hoped for by growing completely soft and pliable beneath Hannibal’s hands – even making the tiniest hint of a moaning sound in a way that seriously tests Hannibal’s self-control. Without releasing Will’s neck he lets his other hand slowly stray downwards towards his shoulders; and where he’s rewarded all over again by the way Will trembles slightly then leans trustingly back into the touch.

“That’s it,” says Hannibal softly, almost unbearably charmed. “Good boy. You’re doing so well. Just try and relax.”

“Mmm. I like this,” replies Will, rather unnecessarily.

“I know you do, The Will – I can tell.”

“Don’t call me The Will. It makes me sound like a comic book character. The Flash, The Hulk…The Will.”

“Noted.”

Will smiles again then closes his eyes and settles further backwards until Hannibal’s bearing nearly his entire weight. “I bet you don’t even know what a comic book is.”

“I am aware. Although I suppose it won’t tax your sense of surprise to know that I’ve never actually read one.”

“To be honest I don’t think I have either. Or at least I might have done when I was younger…I don’t really remember.”

This concept in itself is something of a gift and briefly causes Hannibal to close his own eyes in fascinated introspection at the image of a teenaged Will, all long limbs and uncertain passions – the forlorn foal that wistfully grazes away from the rest of the herd – who yearned for connection while fiercely and defiantly eluding it. Not so much different from now in that respect, yet much more unrestrained in it: like a beautiful wild wave dashing itself against a tidal wall.

“I wasn’t much into that stuff,” adds Will vaguely.

“I would be interested in hearing more about your childhood sometime.”

“No you wouldn’t. It’s honestly not that interesting”

“I find that rather hard to believe.”

“Why should you?”

“Why do you think?”

“No reason at all,” replies Will firmly. “In fact it’s like you said earlier: you’re looking for patterns where none exist.”

Hannibal smiles to himself then moves his hands upwards to gently cradle Will’s head between his palms before deftly trailing his fingers across it like he’s attempting to chart each cleft and ridge of the skull: occipital bone, parietal bone, up along the jaw then straight across the forehead. “So you say,” murmurs Hannibal caressingly.

“I do say.”

“And yet this mind of yours didn’t just spring to life in adulthood fully formed. Did it Will?” Will shifts irritably beneath his hands, obviously resenting the contradiction, and Hannibal delicately increases the pressure while resisting a strong temptation to lean down and brush his lips against Will’s forehead just to see how he’d react. “You referred before to the Chesapeake series,” adds Hannibal softly. “The elements of alchemy in it…purifying and reifying the base elements into the noble ones. You can’t bring yourself to admire an impulse like that; yet see how you do it yourself every day? The way you walk into the shadows. Collude with them. Converse with them. Engage and empathise with them – don’t you Will? Then emerge again with your spirit unbroken and your reason preserved. You have the capacity to wrench ugliness out of the world and leave something beautiful in its place: transforming what is unworthy and useless into something artistic.”

“I guess.”

“You guess, do you?” murmurs Hannibal, beginning to skim his palms along Will’s back and dipping a little further down each time. “What, nothing else to say? Although perhaps you’re right to be so circumspect; perhaps we should end the conversation here and leave the themes to their own devices. Remember, after all, what Nietzsche had cause to observe about it: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he does not himself become a monster.” He runs his fingers along Will’s throat again then smiles very faintly. “And when you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.

“Not really,” says Will firmly. “No.”

“Naturally no,” replies Hannibal with another smile. “Besides, I suppose the idea of the fallen hero is much too clichéd for your tastes. We can keep you in the role of the warrior seeking justice instead; or would you prefer to be a rebel? It doesn’t really matter, does it Will? You can still keep your perceptions of your monsters to yourself and appreciate their design without becoming them.”

“Of course,” replies Will irritably. “Besides this thought experiment of yours is missing the point, because I don’t meet them on their own terms.”

“Indeed not. You meet them on Jack Crawford’s don’t you?” Hannibal pauses then deliberately lets his thumb brush against the edge of the cut on Will’s forehead. “At least…most of the time.”

“That’s completely different. It’s not the same at all.”

“None of it is really the same,” says Hannibal softly. “After all, the original quote is from a collection entitled Beyond Good and Evil; and they are not independent forces in the way the Jack Crawfords of the world would like to claim. Creating a sense of self, for example; one’s construction of one’s humanity and what it is to be human. That would be seen as an absolute locus of good and evil – as their battleground – yet identity is not merely a process of curating various moralities: it is a representation of art. A monster, therefore, lacks artistry. Just like The Sculptor, in fact: so artless and graceless and pointless. And yet there’s no moral outrage which, in the right hands, can’t acquire the aesthetic properties of beauty.”

“Retain your artistry and resist the abyss,” says Will sardonically.

“Perhaps. After all, you know as well as I do that the particular monsters you pursue always end up destroyed by what they are.”

“Isn’t that why you’re here?” replies Will shifting slightly beneath Hannibal’s hands. “It’s why Jack hired you after all.”

“Of course,” says Hannibal in the same low voice. “My intention has always been that you don’t end up destroyed in the same way. Rather I wish to see you…elevated.”

“Yeah,” says Will tonelessly.

“You don’t agree?”

“I’m not overly optimistic, no. Not that it really matters. I can live without elevation after all; in fact I’m pretty happy to just keep rambling along where I am.”

“What very modest ambitions you have Will,” says Hannibal, beginning to gently run his fingers through Will’s hair. “I suspect we can do better than that.”

Will shuffles uneasily and makes a vague noise of dissent, although it’s equally striking that he makes no effort to pull away. In fact if anything he’s doing the opposite – leaning further in until he’s just a hairsbreadth from resting against Hannibal’s chest – and the obvious unconsciousness of it finally distracts Hannibal from his previous train of thought and reminds him instead of the numerous monographs he’s read about the impulse omegas supposedly have for being concealed and sheltered. In fact there’s a whole industry devoted to it: nesting supplies and canopied beds, not to mention the realms of specially-lined curtains and coated bulbs intended to dim the room and keep it snug and secure. Not that Will ever shows much concern about such seclusion – the way he strides through fields and runs through forests or stands alone on podiums in cavernous auditoriums – yet perhaps the instinct for it lingers regardless. You could have all of those things if you needed them, thinks Hannibal with a rare surge of tenderness as he imagines the time that Will is finally removed from here and safely installed in Hannibal’s own house instead. And anything else besides; you only have to ask. I would always give you whatever you wanted.

“I’m sorry,” murmurs Will, drooping further backwards before unknowingly disappointing Hannibal by jerking straight up again. “I’m starting to fall asleep.”

“Indeed you are,” says Hannibal fondly. “Although at least you’re more relaxed now.” Will makes a quiet noise of agreement then disappoints Hannibal even further by pulling away entirely so he can curl himself into a ball at the other end of the sofa. “I should go,” adds Hannibal, taking care not to sound too regretful about it.

“Sorry,” repeats Will, somewhat muffled and indistinct as sleep begins to overtake him. “It’s been a long day.” Although aren’t they always? It’s a stupid expression anyway; even the longest day can’t exceed the same 24 hours of the previous one after all.

“I understand,” says Hannibal. There’s an undertone of gentleness in his voice that’s not usually there, although on this occasion Will’s far too tired and preoccupied to notice it. His head is still almost within touching distance, and Hannibal is surprised – and not entirely pleased – by how tempting it is to try and reach out in order to stroke his face; possibly even begin twine a strand of hair round his finger. Look what you have done to me Will Graham, he thinks, slightly amused. You have managed to subvert every expectation I have about myself – and yet I can’t bring myself to begrudge you your success. Then he sighs and internally rolls his eyes at himself before gesturing discreetly towards one of the pill bottles which at some point has fallen from Will’s pocket and rolled across the floor. “If you do fall asleep, be sure not to leave those out,” he adds pointedly. “The dogs might get hold of them otherwise.”

Even by the dim lamplight the resulting flush on Will’s face is clearly apparent: a rather charming tinge of pink on both cheekbones. “Yeah I know,” he says after a pause. “I won’t.”

“And don’t store them in direct sunlight.”

“Oh. That I didn’t know. Thanks.”

“I was about to ask if I could use your bathroom,” says Hannibal airily. “If you like I’ll put them in the cabinet for you; or wherever else you usually keep them.”

Now that’s he’s more alert again Will can’t help but notice the tone in which this is said – ostensibly tactful with a lingering trace of sympathy – and it leads to the strong conclusion that Hannibal has already intuited the link between the pill bottles and his damaged face. Needless to say he isn’t entirely comfortable about this, although it’s some consolation that Hannibal’s obviously recognised it isn’t any of his business and doesn’t intend to ask about it. Then he’s tempted to tell Hannibal to just leave the bottles where they are, only it seems a bit churlish to refuse the help when it’s been offered. Not to mention the fact he’s so tired and the opportunity to just remain where he is and doze in front of the fire is incredibly tempting. Besides, perhaps allowing Hannibal to take them might be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity – of friendship – and is a simple way for Will to demonstrate trust and familiarity in his presence? So in the end he just gives a small smile and says “Thanks, that would be helpful: the bathroom is up the stairs and the first on the right. If you could just leave them in the cabinet over the sink?”

“Of course,” replies Hannibal. “And stay where you are and get some rest, I’ll show myself out.” Picking up a throw from one of the chairs he hands it to Will so he can wrap himself up in it; a gesture he would rather have liked to perform himself if he wasn’t aware that Will would never allow it. “I shall see you soon, no doubt.”

“Hmm. Soon,” replies Will whose eyes are already closed.

Hannibal lingers on for a few seconds more (supposedly so he can fasten his coat, but really so he can stare at Will) then silently vanishes from the room and prowls up the stairs. It’s extremely tempting to use the opportunity to inspect the content of some of the rooms, only the chance of detection is too high to risk it; and after quick deliberation he decides to limit himself to a glance into what he assumes is Will’s bedroom. One of the dogs, slumbering across the rug, raises its head to growl resentfully at the intrusion and Hannibal narrows his eyes at it with dislike before swivelling his gaze back to the room again. As expected it’s mostly austere and functional with few attempts made by Will to imprint traces of his personality on it – no keepsakes arranged in cheerful disarray across the shelf, no books on the bedside table, and the few pictures on the wall possessing the same attractive yet impersonal aesthetic of those found in hotel rooms. Nevertheless he’s interested to see a large wingback chair by the window; unremarkable in itself except for the positioning of the slats, which curve round to an extent that whoever’s sitting in it would be partially obscured. Given his earlier reflections about omegas’ needs to conceal themselves it’s hard not to interpret this as Will’s means of doing the same and he finds the image of it unexpectedly touching: Will’s slim body curled up in the chair, possibly with his legs pulled up to his chest, attempting to find a sense of shelter in a world that’s confusing and arbitrary with its casual cruelties. To Hannibal’s refined eye the chair is extremely ugly and evokes a fastidious shudder at the idea of having it in his own house – although he knows he would still allow Will to bring it with him if he wanted it. And hopefully such artefacts should become completely unnecessary in the long-term, given that he fully intends Will to be able to get all the sense of security and protection he needs from Hannibal himself. Not that you require all that much, amends Hannibal with interest. In fact considering the obstacles he faces, Will’s self-sufficiency is rather remarkable.

This reminds him of what he’s actually come upstairs to do, so he regretfully turns round and silently retreats down the hallway where he locates the bathroom without further delay. Once inside he flicks on the light and places the bottles on the window ledge, regarding them meditatively for a few seconds like someone eyeing up an opponent before a fight, then reaches out to deftly twist the safety locks off both lids. It’s unfortunate that Will has obviously gone to such extreme lengths to obtain them, although of course it can’t be helped. You should have come to me first, thinks Hannibal as he examines the tiny print on the labels. I would have taken much better care of you. At least – better than you can provide for yourself. Not that this is especially surprising. Will, as is typical with many omegas, has clearly been conditioned to feel tremendous amounts of shame and guilt around his sexuality and encouraged to only view it in terms of the effect it has on alphas rather than something for him to enjoy on his own terms. It will do him good to get reacquainted with the more carnal aspects of himself: everything that’s raw, primitive, instinctual, and – most importantly – uninhibited by society’s pointlessly confining rules about conscience and propriety. At the thought of this Hannibal permits himself a faint smile, because in the long-term sexual desire is only one amongst a number of other far more interesting impulses and having Will in a position to enjoy his own body is going to be nothing compared to watching him enjoy his own mind.

Admittedly though all this is still in the future, and a far a more immediate concern is to avert the inevitable collision course that’s lurking in these toxic tablets. So without wasting any more time Hannibal tips the bottles’ contents onto the ledge and spends a few seconds rapidly calculating the dosage: a task considerably complicated by the fact that – common with illegally traded supplies – they both contain different strengths, with 50mg of synthetic progeratone in one and 40mg in the other. But if things are to proceed as planned it’s vital that no errors are made, so Hannibal vetoes his usual custom of never bothering to double-check his mental computations (because of course they’re invariably flawless) and goes through it twice to ensure that the numbers come out correctly relative to the timespan he has in mind. In this respect such caution is for Will’s sake as much as his own, because it’s imperative that things don’t move so fast that Will is left vulnerable and unprotected and catches the eye of an alpha at the wrong moment. Or, more specifically, any other alphas.

It’s for your own good my dearest, thinks Hannibal serenely and without a trace of guilt as he removes a third bottle from his coat pocket and begins to carefully substitute the desired number of tablets from Will’s supply with a quantity of identical-looking ones he’s been carrying around for some time now in anticipation of an opportunity exactly like this one. Will is going to destroy his beautiful body if allowed to carry on in this way and that would be the most appalling waste; even if he had the right to ruin something that’s ultimately destined to belong to Hannibal – which, poor boy, he absolutely doesn’t. Hannibal narrows his eyes into little slits of displeasure at the thought then resumes counting out the pills.

Not that physical wellbeing is the only consideration of course, given that Will’s mind is the most valuable commodity in the equation. And this in itself is extremely interesting, because countless doctors must have warned him about the danger of psychological side effects from abusing the suppressants and it’s done nothing to deter him at all. Why does he care so little? Admittedly this current prescription also risks several side effects, but at least they’d be of a more refined and infinitely more fascinating kind. It’s impossible to say for sure what might happen, but the main thing is that Will is going to be feeling much better very soon. And Hannibal, in turn, will have the opportunity to oversee any results in the meantime – what emerges from the chrysalis, as it were – and which is undoubtedly destined to be something impressive. Something that burns brightly with a lethal luminosity all of its own; something fearless, ruthless and fiercely agile…all it needs is the proper encouragement.

With another smile Hannibal neatly replaces the safety catch on both bottles and stows them away in the cabinet next to the empty ones currently there, then turns off the light and glides silently down the stairs again to cast a final look at Will and admire the sight of the battle scars from this evening’s altercation. He’s still curled up on the sofa, now in a deep yet restless sleep, and Hannibal’s expression softens very slightly at the sight of him. Soon, he thinks; and it’s both a threat and a promise. Not that the two things are necessarily so very different: both an expression of constancy and commitment as they are, and both seasoned with devotion to a favoured cause…the murderer and the martyr of the same dedication. No doubt things are going to be difficult for Will to begin with – self-discovery, after all, being a painful enterprise for anyone with even a fraction of his intelligence and sensitivity – and yet there’s really no remaining option. Because to constantly renounce and disavow one’s true self is one of the greatest acts of self-violence which it is possible to inflict; and while it requires a degree of audacity and fortitude to tolerate whatever pain might result from the knowledge, it’s far more preferable and profitable than the agony of constant, mindless denial.

Will stirs fretfully as if unsettled by the force of the scrutiny and Hannibal takes a single step closer to glimpse a clearer view of his face. That striking face curved around the delicate skull which houses the beautiful mind. And such a beautiful mind; even though Will can only see it as distorted and dysfunctional – as monstrous – and defensible merely in terms of its effectiveness. He doesn’t yet understand the possibility of inspiration; how to thrive rather than merely survive. But I can show you, thinks Hannibal with calm determination. Turning round he casts one final lingering glance then closes the door behind him to keep Will safely locked inside and silently leaves the house.

Chapter Text

BIZZARE NEW TWIST IN GRISLY OMEGA MURDERS: IS FBI AGENT IN CONTACT WITH THE SCULPTOR?

By Freddie Lounds

In a spectacular new development the TattleCrime can officially confirm that the deranged omega killer known as The Sculptor has raised the stakes by communicating directly with the FBI. Or, more specifically, with one particular agent: TattleCrime favorite and maverick criminal profiler Will Graham, whose initials were written on a business card found on the body of the most recent victim.

An exclusive FBI source has confirmed that the enigmatic message is directed at Graham while also acknowledging that this remains a sensitive topic: “We all know it refers to him, but it’s not being proactively addressed because no one knows what to do about it. You could basically call it an elephant in the room – the fact that this maniac has chosen a colleague as the one he wants to reach out to. It’s not a very comfortable thought.”

While Graham has an impressive track record for his involvement in cracking several high profile cases, it’s long been the TattleCrime’s opinion that his psychological stability is in doubt. The fact that The Sculptor has chosen him as someone he wants to make contact with confirms that this is maybe a question the FBI should be asking itself as well…

*****

Jack slams his palm down onto the desktop with a dramatic cracking noise that echoes round the silent room with the same resonance of a gunshot. “So what I want to know,” he says quietly, “is how she found out about it?” The tone of his voice has an exaggeratedly soft quality to it that promises a spectacular explosion to come, and as he runs his eyes over the row of assembled faces there’s an uncomfortable shuffling noise as everyone collectively stares at their feet. “I sincerely hope,” adds Jack in the same menacing way, “that whoever leaked this enjoys their payoff from the TattleCrime. I advise them to enjoy it while they can and that they feel it was worth it. Because when I find out who it was – and rest assured I am going to make it my business to find out – I will personally see to it that they never work in law enforcement again.”

“With respect sir,” says Skinner, “it might not necessarily have come from within the taskforce.” His voice is marinated with all of its usual self-righteous smugness and it seems so misplaced in the current context that several people turn and stare at him with vague surprise. “An outsider could have told her and she invented an FBI source to add credibility to the story,” adds Skinner. “Or she might have just found it out on her own?”

“Oh I’m sure you’re right Mr Skinner,” replies Jack with impressive levels of sarcasm. “I’m sure Ms Lounds was able to infiltrate a highly protected and classified federal investigation all by her clever little self with no assistance whatsoever. No doubt she knows who The Sculptor is as well. In fact why isn’t she on the investigation? With those detecting skills she should be heading up the TST.”

“I’m just saying sir,” protests Skinner, abruptly shifting from self-righteous smugness to self-righteous woundedness in a matter of syllables. “Journalists invent things all the time; anything for a clickbait headline.” He waves his hands at the others in an obvious amirite guys? gesture. “They’re always doing it. It’s how they earn their livings.”

“But she didn’t invent it did she?” snaps Jack. “And unless she was able to convincingly imitate one of you lot and prance round the crime scene without us noticing, then the only way she could have found out about it is because someone in this room told her.”

“I agree,” says Price. “We have a leak from inside the FBI.” Jack nods at him approvingly and Price drums his fingers on the table as his face begins to crease into a frown. “And it’s come from someone who not only has zero judgement about compromising a major investigation, but zero respect and loyalty towards a colleague as well.”

“It’s fine,” says Will. It’s the first time he’s spoken since the meeting started and everyone now stops staring at Skinner and turns round and stares at him instead. “I don’t care. Or at least – not for myself. But Price is right about the impact on the investigation.”

“The Price is always right,” says Price and Will’s face briefly arranges itself into a mournful smile.

“The whole thing is an outrage,” adds Jack with considerable venom. “And whoever you are…” He pauses and trawls his eyes across the room, inviting them to absorb the implications of his words. “Whoever you are, you are going to be exposed and forced to answer for what you’ve done.”

*****

“Gee Will,” says Siemens afterwards as everyone is gathering up their belongings and preparing to return to their own offices. “This sucks. I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks,” replies Will, trying not to catch his eye.

“If you ever want to talk about it? Y’know? They always say a problem shared is a problem halved. Or I guess that’s maybe not the best expression in this case, because even if was halved it would still be pretty big. Not that…well. Y’know. But if you ever did want to talk…?”

“Thanks,” repeats Will, struggling to sound a bit more sincere than before. “I’ll bear it in mind.”

“Okay then great,” says Siemens happily, who’s clearly taken this rather grudging acknowledgement as complete carte blanche. “You want to go get a coffee? We could go get a coffee?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have time at the moment,” replies Will, beginning to shuffle papers in a kind of frenzy.

“No?”

“No.”

“There’s always time to take care of yourself,” replies Siemens in an earnest voice and sounding so much like an infomercial that it’s almost comical. “There’s always time for that.”

“Yes…I know,” says Will. It would be an infomercial for something faintly pitiful that has to work far too hard to convince the viewer that they want to buy it. Toenail clippers or anti-dandruff shampoo: because there’s always time to take care of yourself. “But you see it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened,” he adds, trying to sound appreciative. “So I’m pretty good by now at not letting it get to me.”

“You’re a real hero Will,” replies Siemens in the same earnest voice and completely unaware that only the first half of Will’s statement is actually true. “I do admire you.”

Will gives an awkward smile then picks up his briefcase and waves his hand towards the door in a pantomime of someone in a hurry. “Another lecture this afternoon is it?” asks Siemens coyly. “They’re always so informative.”

“You…watch them?” asks Will in barely-concealed horror.

“Oh yes,” replies Siemens with simple pride. “I always watch everything you do.”

“R-i-g-h-t,” says Will, while praying that this doesn’t literally mean everything (…especially if it’s via binoculars and/or night-vision goggles). “Right. Okay then.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” adds Siemens hurriedly. “I mean, of course I won’t go if you’d prefer I didn’t? I’d never want to make you uncomfortable Will. It’s just that your work is so impressive, and while I’ve got a lot of expertise on the legal side I’d be keen to improve my awareness of the forensic stuff. I know I don’t have to; like, it’s not in my job description or anything, but…” He pauses hopefully, perhaps anticipating an offer for a private meeting which Will narrows his eyes and resolutely refuses to offer. “I figure if you have the chance to learn from the best,” adds Siemens sincerely.

“I’m sorry,” replies Will, trying to sound as if he actually is. “But I only have time for that kind of thing with the actual trainees.”

“Oh well, never mind” says Siemens. He emits a little regretful sigh: a soft and airy thing that flutters from his lips like air seeping from a withered balloon. “Never mind Will. But if you ever do have a bit of time…”

“Sure.”

“And if you ever want to talk about the TattleCrime article, you give me a call.”

“I’ll do that,” says Will, edging up towards the door.

“Bye Will,” adds Siemens. He actually waggles his fingers in a coy approximation of a wave and Will finds himself struggling between a conflicting desire to either laugh hysterically or drop kick his briefcase at the hand while yelling ‘oh my God, are you kidding me?’ In the end he finds a compromise which involves smiling with levels of awkwardness that are now approaching operatic before turning round and bolting out the meeting room and into the lab; and which is possibly going to be a source of further depression, but where at least no one’s going to wave their hands at him coquettishly like a Southern belle with an ostrich fan. In this respect Price and Zeller have already arrived and glance up in silent commiseration when he walks in.

“Don’t look at me like that,” says Will, beginning to sort stacks of coroner’s reports into a neat pile. “No one’s died.”

“Well actually,” begins Price, “I think you’ll find…”

“Yeah, okay – fine. But regarding the article, I honestly don’t care about it.” This manages to sound fairly convincing and Will privately congratulates himself. Besides, surely if he says it enough times it’ll eventually become true?

“Good,” says Price. “I’m glad you don’t care. I’m still sorry you’re having to deal with it though. It’s the last thing you need.”

“It’s not so bad,” replies Will vaguely. “I’ve had worse.” Although the implications of this are so gloomy that he starts to wish he’d never mentioned it, despite the fact it’s undeniably true. In fact he should probably just standardise it as a form of introduction when meeting people for the first time: ‘Hi! My name is Will Graham and you ought to know that I am constantly dealing with something worse.’

“Jack’ll find out who leaked it,” adds Zeller comfortingly. “Then he’ll slice them into little pieces and feed them to Kade Purnell.”

“He will,” agrees Price. “And you know it wasn’t true, right – that bit about the ‘elephant in the room’? Most people just thought the initials were a coincidence, and I’ve certainly never heard anyone suggest the killer had some sort of sinister personal motive for wanting to contact you.”

“Sure,” says Will. Once again he’s impressed by how convincing he manages to sound, even though every internal impulse is insisting that Price is wrong and that’s exactly what people did think; not least Will himself.

“Whoever leaked it was talking out of their rectum,” adds Price firmly. “They were speaking directly from the sphincter. In fact such is their fluency I suspect they possess more than one; enough to supply an entire anatomical museum. Or a showroom, even, if there was a demand for such things.” He pauses, realising that Will and Zeller are now staring at him with their mouths slightly open. “An emporium of sphincters,” says Price triumphantly.

“An emporium of sphincters,” repeats Zeller with something like wonder.

“Quite,” says Price. “And seeing as Nature has been kind enough to supply Will with more than his average share of brain cells, I’m sure he’s not going to pay too much attention to the ramblings of anyone with more than his average share of sphincters.”

Him,” adds Will. “Not ‘her’? You’re narrowing down your suspect list then.”

“I am. As, I suppose, are you.”

“You might say that.”

“Professional envy is a terrible thing,” muses Price pointedly as Skinner’s distinctive bony shadow goes loping past the door. “Although as we said – Jack will get to the bottom of it.”

“Yeah, forget about it Will,” advises Zeller. “No one takes the TattleCrime seriously.” Outside in the corridor the outline of Skinner can be seen beginning to retreat backwards towards the lab and Zeller abruptly cuts off as it grows larger and clearer until it eventually pushes open the door and turns into Skinner himself.

“Pass me that set of callipers would you Will,” says Price airily. “The hinges have gone on these ones.”

“Gentlemen,” announces Skinner, who always seems incapable of greeting any of them in a more casual way. “I hope I’m not interrupting?” Given that the tone of his voice makes it clear he wouldn’t be concerned if he was interrupting no one actually bothers to respond to this, and Skinner smooths down the lapels of his jacket in a pointlessly self-important way before waving a gaunt finger in Price’s direction and proceeding to deliver a pompous speech about the necessity of obtaining new copies of the toxicology reports by the following morning. “The paper trail has already gone completely off the rails,” adds Skinner accusingly. “You know as well as I do how complex this case is going to be when it gets to court.”

“The operative word in that sentence is when,” replies Price in a waspish voice. “Let’s concentrate on catching him first, shall we?” Skinner’s complexion, always slightly mottled, begin to swell and engorge in a way that bears an unpleasant resemblance to corned beef and Price smiles benignly and resumes doing mysterious things involving the new callipers and a stainless steel tray before adding: “We should worry about the court case when we actually have an occasion for one.”

“I think you’re being rather ingenuous Dr Price.”

“Agreed,” replies Price politely. “I probably am.”

Skinner flounders for a few seconds and glares accusingly at Zeller and Will in their capacity as bystanders before beginning to repeat his request for the reports – seemingly for no better reason than not knowing what else to say. “You can have them when they’re finished,” replies Price. “For heaven’s sake hold your horses. Or calm your farm. Or whatever other agricultural metaphor you might prefer. But these reports are highly complex and Mr Zeller and I can’t simply magic them into existence to suit your schedule; which, I might add, is needlessly over-zealous.”

“I’m not disputing that it’s complex,” snaps Skinner. “But that shouldn’t be a barrier to efficiency. You’re forgetting yourself Dr Price; I’m not asking for your permission as opposed to your cooperation.” Price delivers a look that clearly translates as and you may have my cooperation – in my own sweet, sweet time. “Remember who first said ‘I’m less concerned with who’s going to permit me as who’d dare to try and prevent me’,” ploughs on Skinner.

This is so needlessly bombastic and over the top that Price’s lips begin to visibly twitch. “Dr Doom?” suggests Will politely.

“Ming the Merciless?” adds Zeller.

“J Edgar Hoover,” announces Skinner. “I suppose I don’t need to remind you that he founded the FBI.”

A long pause follows this statement. “Well carry on,” says Price. “Are you waiting for us to curtsey or something?”

“I want those reports,” snaps Skinner curtly. “Don’t force me to take the matter to Agent Crawford.”

“And you may have them when I’ve finished them,” replies Price, equally curtly. “It would appear this conversation has gone full circle.”

Skinner purses his lips then swivels round to stare at Will with a look of contempt that Will, in spite of his best efforts, can’t help but find vaguely unsettling. “And I hope you’re going to try and keep a lower profile after this morning,” snaps Skinner, who clearly feels undermined by Price’s insubordination and is looking for someone to take it out on. “The TattleCrime’s breed of publicity could be absolutely catastrophic for the investigation.”

Considering that he seems the most likely source of the leak the sincerity with which he says this feels even more unsettling: implying, as it does, that he’s either a disturbingly fluent liar or so unbalanced that he’d purposely allow his dislike of Will to demolish his professional judgement. “Actually, Will’s whole job is doing profiles,” says Price sharply.

“And you can’t really blame me for it,” adds Will, refusing to drop eye contact despite an instinctive sense of aversion that’s urging him to pull away. “I’d suggest you save your outrage for whoever leaked it in the first place.”

“Your odd little reputation hardly helped though,” replies Skinner venomously. “Did it Will? Talk about fuel to the fire.” Will, to his infinite irritation, finds that he doesn’t have a ready answer to this and Skinner clears his throat and resumes smoothing his lapels in the resulting silence, seemingly oblivious to the looks of dislike currently beaming at him from three separate directions. “Those reports, Dr Price,” he adds in a parting shot as he’s turning to leave. “On my desk as quick as you can; I don’t expect to have to ask you a second time.”

“Well honestly,” hisses Price once Skinner has finally slunk out the lab again. “I’d like to punch that man right in his face.”

“Why the face,” asks Will, attempting for levity to disguise how uneasy he feels. “What’s wrong with in the balls?”

“A good point,” says Price, nodding furiously. “A very good point and well made. And while I’d normally be advocating for the pen as mightier than the sword, that display in his jacket pocket suggests Mr Skinner is rather partial to pens so the sword it’ll have to be.”

“Unless it was to shove the pen in his cranium,” suggests Zeller helpfully. “Hey, you okay Will?”

“Fine,” replies Will in the usual automatic way.

“Don’t let him get to you.”

“I won’t.”

“He’s a loser. He’s just jealous.”

“Yeah.”

“Well no more toxicology screens in this lab today,” adds Price, dropping the papers Skinner is after into the filing cabinet and defiantly slamming it closed. Will gives a small smile then resumes aimlessly leafing through his own stack of reports until he hears Zeller repeating his name and glances up again.

“I meant to tell you earlier,” Zeller is saying, “but there was a guy here yesterday asking about you.”

Will goes completely still for a few seconds before starting to turn the pages over slightly faster than before. “Oh yeah?” he asks casually. “Who was it?”

“He didn’t give his name. Just said he was an old friend of yours.”

To his disgust Will realises that his hands have started to shake so puts them flat on the table to try and hide it. “What did he look like?”

“I don’t know really. Just…a guy.”

“Well was he tall? Short?”

“Pretty tall I guess. Taller than you.”

Will swallows audibly then nervously darts his tongue over his lower lip. “Did he have a Australian accent?”

“No, he was American.”

“Oh okay,” says Will, visibly relaxing. “So what did he want?”

“Like I told you; he just said he was an old friend trying to look you up. I wondered if he might be a journalist to be honest, so I told him we couldn’t give out any information about Behavioral Science staff. What, not even whether they work here? he said, the sarcastic shit. Don’t get me wrong,” adds Zeller hastily, finally noticing the tense hunch around Will’s shoulders and misinterpreting the meaning of it. “There didn’t seem anything threatening about him; it wasn’t anything like that. I’d have called security if I thought he was dangerous in any way.”

“Sure,” says Will. “Thanks. And you’re right – it definitely sounds like a journalist. They’ve tried the ‘I’m an old friend’ routine on me before.”

“At your last place?”

“Yeah.”

“Did it work?”

As it happens these former colleagues had likewise seen through the ploy, but Will detects the faintly hopeful expression on Zeller’s face so opts for kindness over honesty and instead replies: “Yeah they did actually, so I’m really grateful you had more sense.”

Zeller immediately looks pleased – which in turn makes Will pleased that at least he’s capable of keeping someone happy – while Price practically skips around the lab the entire time, gathering up every available toxicology report in a sort of frenzy so they can join their relatives in mutual banishment at the back of the filing cabinet. “You know, I think I’ll head off,” says Will, who suddenly feels exhausted. “If that guy comes back…tell him I don’t want to speak with him.”

“You got it,” replies Zeller. He scoops up the final report and dangles it wordlessly in front of Price.

There you are, you little minx,” shrieks Price, descending on it gleefully. “Away to the drawer with you.”

Will smiles at them both then slowly knots his scarf round his neck and prepares to leave, unpleasantly aware as he does so of a new sense of prickling dread at the back of his mind that’s abruptly arrived to join the existing ones. Then he reproaches himself for being overly paranoid and fatalistic in conjuring up problems for himself before there’s any clear reason to do so. Because there isn’t any need, not really; that man almost certainly was just a journalist. And the main thing is – it definitely wasn’t Andrew.

*****

Although it’s still afternoon it’s already nearly dark and the air is cold and raw with a faint metallic tang that catches at the back of the throat. Across the street Will can see a few streetlights beginning to flicker to life accompanied by what he initially thinks are an unusually large number of car headlamps; and it’s only when he opens the door and hears the swell of voices that he realises, with a stab of horror, that it’s in fact the equipment of several news crews. The second he sets foot out of the building they descend on him, baying and howling like a pack of jackals and brandishing their cameras and microphones in the manner of medieval knights parading their weaponry before the joust begins. There he is! someone shrieks, There he is! There he is! And with those three simple words: it starts.

“Hey Will! Will! Is it true you have a direct line to The Sculptor?”

“Why do you think he sent a message for you Will?”

“Can you comment on reports that he’s been sending you letters for the past few months?”

“He seems to think you might have something in common,” says a voice that’s a little more insistent than the rest; and Will sees the flash of bright red hair and knows that – of course – it would naturally be Freddie who suggested something like this. “Why else do you think he singled you out?”

“Yeah, why is he contacting you Will?” yells someone else. “Why you rather than someone more senior?”

“I’ve got nothing to say to you,” snaps Will, “except that he isn’t writing me letters and there’s no evidence it was him who left the card behind.”

“That’s not what your buddies in the FBI are saying. They’re all freaked out by it, aren’t they Will?”

“On the contrary,” says Will, heroically struggling not to lose his temper. “It’s not at all uncommon for these individuals to contact investigators or the media – only there’s no clear indication that’s what’s happening here.” Then he realises this mini-lecture is hardly consistent with his stated policy of not saying anything, so in the end just renews his efforts to fight his way through the throng and dive into his car in order to make as quick an escape as possible. As he’s driving away he can still hear them clamouring after him – Will, Will, Will – so flicks on the stereo in an attempt to drown out the sound of his name in their mouths. Not that it makes that much difference, because ten minutes later it still feels as if he can hear it echoing in his head despite having left them miles behind him. Then the news station begins to discuss the recent Sculptor murder so he turns it to a different channel only to find it’s doing the same, and in the end just turns the radio off entirely and drives the remaining way in silence. WillWillWill…when it runs together like that it sounds like an eerie murmur, the same way as holding a shell to your ear means you’re supposed to hear the sea. Then it occurs to him how he’s avoiding looking in the rear view mirror, rather as if he’s expecting to find the dark reflection staring back at him, and immediately wants to scream at himself for being so hysterical and stupid.

Once back at the house Will performs the usual rituals of triple-locking the doors and feeding the dogs before slumping onto the sofa in the living room feeling almost unbearably restless and lonely. His phone is pressing into his hip from where he’s sitting on it so he takes it out his pocket and places it on the table – only to find that the sight of it as an emblem for sociability is a painful reminder of how the absence of any companionship is actually making things worse. In fact he’s finding it impossible not to torment himself with the idea of how most people would be confiding in a loved one right now. Honey, they’d be saying, you won’t believe the day I’ve had…although it’s admittedly hard to think of many alphas who’d take an omega’s problems particularly seriously, even problems like Will’s. Andrew, for example, while never going as far as advising ‘not to worry your pretty little head about it’ had never been particularly inclined towards supportiveness either, the extent of his input being generally limited to: “But why bother about it sweetheart? You’ll be living with me soon and then you won’t even have to work anymore.” Later on, when it became apparent that Will had no intention of stopping work (and even less intention of living together), then the tone had shifted from patronising to outright hostile because omegas, in Andrew’s view, should have no more pressing concerns than looking nice for their alphas, behaving submissively, and lying around in an expensive house all day with their legs permanently open on demand. Will makes a small growling noise at the memory of it then realises he’s chewed the thumbnail on his right hand all the way down so switches over to make a start on the left one before tipping his head back against the sofa. One of the cushions is still at an angle from where Hannibal moved it out the way and he’s overcome by a sudden urge to pick it up and cling onto it that’s rather humiliating in its intensity. Oh God, this fucking day. It’s still limping on and on: barely evening yet, let alone night, and he still has absolutely no idea how to fill out the remaining hours before finally escaping into the oblivion of sleep. Then he looks at his phone, feeling almost like a bystander as he watches his hand begin to slowly reach out for it before putting it straight down – then picking it up again – then spending a few seconds twirling it aimlessly between his fingers like a baton until he finally takes a deep breath and hits the call button before he can change his mind.

Hannibal answers on the second ring. “Hey, it’s me,” says Will rather unnecessarily. “Sorry to bother you at home.” Not that he probably is at home – in fact knowing Hannibal he could be anywhere.

“You’re not bothering me. What is the matter?”

“Why do you think anything’s the matter?”

“Because you only make contact when you need something,” replies Hannibal calmly. “Which is not a reproach, by the way – I’m always pleased to hear from you. In fact see it as more of a prompt to remind you that you’re welcome to get in touch for less earnest reasons than work.”

“Less earnest?” repeats Will, aware that he’s starting to smile and not entirely sure why.

“Yes indeed. Less earnest and more – whimsical.”

“You want me to be whimsical?”

“Ah, that displeases you doesn’t it?” says Hannibal, who sounds as if he might be smiling as well. “You don’t want to be whimsical. All right then, give it a more vigorous name. Call it impulsive.”

“How about impulsively whimsical. You can have both.”

“That’s very generous of you; in that case how about whimsically impulsive.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes. Tell me something you’ve done today that I wouldn’t expect to hear.”

Will’s smile broadens fractionally and he leans further back again the sofa and stretches his legs out in front of him. “That’s actually rather difficult.”

“Why so?”

“Because I get the feeling nothing ever really surprises you.”

“Then invent something and see if I can tell the difference.”

Will laughs outright at this then stretches his legs out even further and flexes his toes as he feels himself starting to relax. “Okay then. I nearly punched a journalist this afternoon.”

“Did you?”

“I did.”

“And I suppose you’re expecting me to be surprised by the context?”

Will shifts the phone to the other ear. “Yes – or at least partly. I’m not sure. Perhaps what really surprises you…”

“…is the fact you did not punch them. Yes indeed; if you had told me you had spent all afternoon thrashing journalist I should not have been surprised at all.”

Will can’t help laughing at this. “No, actually.”

“No?” repeats Hannibal serenely.

“No. I wasn’t going to say that.”

“What does that matter? It’s my surprise, after all – I can use it however I like.”

“Oh, well, in that case,” says Will. “If you’re going to use it however you like…Anyway, this is probably going to sound weird, but I appreciate it.”

“I expected as much.”

“You don’t know what I was going to say.”

“I do; you are going to say that you appreciate me not perceiving you as vulnerable and fragile in the same manner as your Uncle Jack.”

“I was, yeah.”

“But why should I? You’re clearly not after all.” There’s a leisurely little pause and Will has a sudden vivid image of the way Hannibal would be gazing intently into his face if he were here. “Although that’s not to say that you don’t benefit from companionship and protection at times,” adds Hannibal after a few more seconds have passed. “Just the same as anyone else.”

“Hmm.”

“So – what is the matter?”

Will sighs several times, but with a little more persuasion finally relents and tells Hannibal about the TattleCrime article and the lingering air of suspicion from Skinner – although neglects to mention the mysterious visitor at the lab on the grounds that it would mean telling him about Andrew as well, which as confessing goes is far too much to cope with in a single sitting. “Jack thinks I shouldn’t take it too personally,” he adds when he’s finished.

“Then Jack is wrong. I think you should take it extremely personally.”

“Why?” asks Will, despite already knowing the answer.

“Because neglecting to take it personally implies a level of passivity and acceptance which I believe is inadvisable.”

“Hmm.”

“Of course I’m not suggesting you become fearful over it either. On the contrary; you should try and cultivate a state of…anticipation. To learn to tolerate uncertainty and cultivate an open state of mind that can allow for enigmas and inconsistencies.”

“That actually sounds pretty appealing,” says Will, even though such a state of mind – while no doubt easy for Hannibal – feels rather unobtainable when applied to himself.

“It has its uses,” replies Hannibal with a little modest flourish that confirms Will’s suspicions that he is, indeed, drawing from his own experience. “The opposite of certainty isn’t doubt, after all, but imagination; a blend of curiosity, enquiry and mental tractability.”

“You’re not just talking about the news coverage any more, are you?” says Will after a short pause.

“I am not.”

“You’re referring to whether The Sculptor really is trying to contact me.”

“Naturally,” replies Hannibal without a flicker of hesitation. “You should use it as the opportunity it is.”

Even though it’s scarcely feasible that Hannibal is referring to using it as anything other than a chance to identify and apprehend the perpetrator, there’s still something softly insinuating about the tone of the statement which makes Will feel as if there just might be more to it than that. ‘Communicating with The Sculptor could be an opportunity for all kinds of interesting things,’ the tone seems to imply, although Will can’t quite bring himself to pursue it – despite being equally aware of a part of himself that wants to. Perhaps the part that lives in the mirror, pale and patient and watchful...Then he blinks a few times and forces himself to refocus on the conversation while silently reproaching himself for being so stupid.

“For all your regular insistence that you’re fine,” Hannibal is now saying, “you still don’t entirely sound as if you are.”

“I am. I’m fine. In fact I’m feeling a bit better,” says Will, perking up slightly at the realisation that this is actually true. “The pain’s been a bit less today.”

“That’s good. You’re satisfied with your new – how shall we put it? Your new supply of tablets?”

“Yes,” says Will, deciding that he can’t be bothered to keep denying it anymore.

“It’s very enterprising of you. High risk of course, considering the illegality; but enterprising nonetheless.”

“It’s not like I had much choice.”

“Yes, you’re so forthright aren’t you Will?” says Hannibal thoughtfully. “And you’re very good at seeking practical assistance. Meeting your more emotional needs, on the other hand...” There’s another suggestive pause. “Not quite so much.”

“That’s not true.”

“Of course it is. Take now for example; you think you’re being very open with me and yet it’s clear you’re concealing far more than you’re willing to confide.” At the undeniable truth of this Will bites his lip then falls silent, listening instead to the soft sound of breathing at the other end of the line. ”I suppose it might be different if I were there with you in person,” adds Hannibal in the same considering tone as before. “I might have persuaded you to entrust yourself a little more than you are doing now.” Another pause. “Would you have let me touch you again? You liked it so much before. You’re very responsive Will. It’s the tactile instinct in you, I suppose. That, and the fact you’re more primed for the type of touch that’s intending to harm and don’t quite know how to process anything else. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps people often touch you in kindness?”

Once again Will doesn’t answer immediately because kindness seems like an entirely inadequate description of that evening on the sofa. Then he realises that at some point he’s closed his eyes and let his head tip so far back that his throat’s completely exposed, and the awareness of it makes him sufficiently embarrassed and self-conscious to force himself to struggle upright again. “Are you still there?” says Hannibal.

“Yeah. I’m right here.”

Would you like to meet?” adds Hannibal in a gentler voice. “I was planning to attend a concert this evening and you’d be very welcome to join me. We don’t have to discuss anything if you don’t want to; in fact you can take full advantage of the setting as an opportunity to say as little as possible to one another.”

Will huffs out a laugh and then forces himself to sit even further upright until he more resembles someone waiting for a job interview as opposed to some swooning character in sentimental novel (for God’s sake). In fact his initial instinct is actually to refuse, but it seems a bit ungracious to reject an invitation that’s obviously so kindly meant; and besides, surely anything is better than waiting here for the next few hours feeling increasingly feeling fraught and anxious until it’s time to go to bed and be wracked by nightmares…assuming he can even sleep at all. “Okay then, thank you,” he eventually replies. “That would be great.”

“Can you be at the Festival Hall by seven?”

“I can make that,” says Will slowly. “No problem.”

“Then I shall see you then,” replies Hannibal. He doesn’t add anything else and after a slight pause Will hangs up then runs his hands through his hair while berating himself for feeling so needlessly and neurotically edgy about…nothing. Then he also realises it never occurred to him to ask what the concert was – let alone what sort of dress code is required – and mentally yells at himself all over again for being so unbelievably inept and gauche. Catching sight of his reflection in the screen of his phone, it’s actually hard not to feel rather depressed at how pale and half-witted he’s convinced he looks.

“You’re an asshole,” Will informs his reflection firmly, which merely continues to gaze back at him with a bleakly wan defiance as if telling him to fuck off. Will stares critically at the reflection for a few more seconds and the reflection stares critically back – at which point Will decides that there has to be more to life than gazing at yourself in a cell phone screen while telling yourself to fuck off, so drops it on the sofa and dashes upstairs to get changed instead then trying not to laugh when all the dogs get the wrong idea and come charging up after him. A normal suit will have to do; besides, it’s not as if omegas are even really expected to be sophisticated so with any luck even if he does turn out to be drastically underdressed then he’ll just look endearingly naïve as opposed to oafish. Not that this is particularly comforting in itself, especially considering that Hannibal possesses the type of patrician good looks that go extremely well with evening dress whereas Will, in comparison, suspects he’s going to look like some form of advanced primate that’s been coaxed into a formal jacket before being systematically and selectively shaved. But there’s not much he can do about it, so just flings on the same black suit he always uses for vaguely formal occasions (and which has now sat through so many graduations, presentations and assorted ceremonies that given a pair of glasses and a briefcase it could probably just turn up on its own and do the job without him) then drags a comb through his hair and tells himself that it’ll have to do. Which of course it will, because it’s not as if this is a date. It’s just an evening with a friend, the majority of which will be spent in a dark auditorium where no one will be able to see him anyway. And it’s not as if Hannibal is really going to care about things like that; for all his personal fastidiousness he’s never give the impression of being a snob in that particular way.

The dogs leap up and joyfully pursue Will when he goes downstairs again, so he says goodbye to them all before giving them assorted instructions for behaving themselves in a way that he sometimes feels vaguely self-conscious over but can still never stop doing because he loves the dogs and talking to them as if they can understand him is just one of several ways of expressing it. Then he tugs on his coat and scarf and locks the door, humming under his breath and unable to stop the small smile that’s working onto his face at the idea of finally having something pleasant to look forward to…and it’s only when he’s heading to the car that the tentative cocoon of happiness he’s been constructing around himself since the phone call abruptly evaporates when in the corner of his eye he sees what he’s convinced is a shadowy figure. Specifically: a shadowy human figure.

Will draws in a deep startled breath as one by one every single hair on the back of his neck stands on end before swinging round sharply: eyes widening in shock and horribly aware of the way his heart’s pounding in his ears like a piston that’s worked loose from its socket and is hurtling out of control. Then he automatically reaches into his pocket for his gun before remembering that – of course – it’s still in his jacket and therefore locked on one side of the house while Will’s stranded alone on the other with…what? The realisation is a truly wretched one, and a few seconds of paralysing fear then follow where all he’s really aware of is a sense of anguish that if anything happens to him there’ll be no one to take care of the dogs.

Conversely it’s actually this pre-emptive grief that finally compels Will into action and makes him snarl “If you move I’ll shoot you,” into the shadows. Then he mimes removing the gun from his coat and arranges his hands so they’re sufficiently in the shadows to prevent the bluff being discovered. “Come out here with your hands up,” he adds, even louder than before. God knows what he’s going to do when they actually do come out, but an imaginary upper hand is far better than none and if they believe he has a gun there’s far less chance of them trying to overpower him. But no one steps out of the shadows and there’s no answering voice to his own; in fact there’s no signs of life at all beyond the sound of Will’s heartbeat in his ears and the eerie scream from the fields courtesy of the same night creature that disturbed him so badly the evening Hannibal was here. But the yard itself is silent except for the sighing of the wind and when Will’s eyes have adjusted to the darkness a few seconds later it slowly becomes clear that nothing is actually there. How is it even possible? In fact the initial impression of seeing someone is so powerful that it can’t dismiss it in favour of what his own eyes are no telling him and he wavers for a few seconds before taking a couple of steps forward. Nothing. Then he takes a few more steps and strains his eyes in to the depths of the shadows that pool and curdle in the corners like spilled ink. Still nothing. No flicker of movement, no tell-tale sound of breathing, no hint of footsteps – just…nothing.

Will takes another breath, so deep this time that the icy air stings his throat, then exhales it all out again in a long vaporous stream. He can’t allow himself to believe he might actually have been hallucinating so tries to convince himself instead that the figure was just a trick of the light that could have deceived anyone: an illusion constructed from assorted raw materials like anxiety, lack of sleep, and the spectral gloom of the yard that would be enough to inflame even the dullest imagination into seeing phantom figures in the middle of the night. Then he tells himself it’s hardly credible that someone would be standing around in the dead of winter on the off-chance he’d come outside – that the whole idea is ridiculous – because if someone was watching him they’d be doing it from a car, or even simply cut to the chase and attempt to break into the house. And then he wants to say out loud that it’s fine; wants to proclaim it into the air for himself and all the night creatures to hear…only when it comes down to it, he finds that he can’t. Because deep down, in a part of himself he doesn’t want to fully acknowledge, he just knows that someone was there.

But regardless of this silent conviction there’s still no clear action to be taken, no proof of any kind, and nothing at all to challenge except the sighing wind and the spilling silhouettes of an empty yard. So in the end Will does the only thing he reasonably feels that he can do; which is to turn his back on the shadows then get into the car and drive away as if nothing’s happened. Nevertheless the fledging sense of contentment at the idea of an evening with Hannibal has crumbled away and as he stares into the endlessly sinister stretch of road it’s impossible to supress his renewed sense of churning dread. Please God I just want this to stop, thinks Will with a surge of helplessness: even though he doesn’t believe in God (having never had much evidence that God, in turn, believes in him) and even though he’s not entirely sure what he’s referring to because while it feels like anything at all might happen, nothing tangible actually has. Someone and no one and everything yet nothing…the same contradictory precepts as a Zen kōan. Only this isn’t the kind of wisdom that gets printed on fridge magnets and mass-produced on pastel-hued posters, but the kind that’s been stitched together from shreds of bone and pieces of skin and which, no matter how hard he tries to ignore it, seems to scream at him that somewhere an hour glass has been turned over and the grains of sand are trickling down. Tick tock tick tock, on and on: until the time runs out and the hour glass shatters and everything finally comes together and ignites.

“Oh fuck this,” snaps Will abruptly, suddenly tiring of the whole thing. Outside the window is the scream of tires and blaring glare of other people’s headlights and after taking a few deep breaths he swerves the car to the side of the road and spends a few seconds trying to ease back into something approaching calmness. Briefly Hannibal’s words from the previous phone call come to mind and he turns them over in his head a few times before concluding that there’s an inherent wisdom in them that deserves to be listened to. “You wouldn’t be afraid, would you?” he adds, imagining Hannibal’s dark eyes and calmly inscrutable expression. Then he spends a few more seconds experimenting with the possibility of taking all the things that are troubling him and trying to substitute anger as a response to them instead of fear. Omegas, after all, are always encouraged to feel responsible for their problems and to drive the negativity inside themselves like a jagged splinter rather than unleashing outwards at whatever’s trying to hurt them – Hannibal was right to advise him to do the opposite. Then he goes a bit further and tries to imagine the part of himself that’s afraid as a way of emphasising that it is only a part: a frightened self, but not his entire self. Not the whole thing.

At the idea of this Will automatically glances at his reflection and the sensation is rather an odd one: the awareness of this fearful, furtive aspect that inhabits its own separate space and requires safety and soothing at the hands of a more competent and self-assured part. It’s not like he’s even sure which one of these personas he identifies with the most; which one is closest to his ‘true’ self. If anything they seem to exist in an uneasy state of conflict, manipulating and discouraging one another and taking it in turns to be the one in the mirror on the basis of who happens to be feeling the most exultant that day; and who, in turn, is the most bewildered and demoralized. They skim around in his subconscious like shadows, weightless and incorporeal and so very hard to pin down…whoever it is that looks askance into the mirror and tempts fate and doesn’t care and the one who stares back with the forlorn face and the sad, troubled eyes – until suddenly they switch places again and the dark reflection is the one in control and the frightened self slips away. Nevertheless none of this changes the fact that Hannibal was right and that the opposite of certainty doesn’t have to be doubt at all, but rather imagination; and imagination is something that’s Will’s always had in ready supply. Because as much as his sense of self feels fractured and ravaged, possibly beyond repair, it’s all he has and he's not just going to abandon it. The self that has empathy, autonomy, imagination and inspiration and which has fought its way through numerous trials with resolution and fortitude – which has steered its own course, made its own rules, and conceded to no one – and emerged at the end of it all from sundry miseries and horrors fundamentally unbowed and unbroken. And even though he knows it’ll be difficult to sustain indefinitely, for those few minutes he finally manages to stop feeling afraid of all the people who are trying to attack and diminish him and experiences a thrilling sense of outrage towards them instead.

“I’ve got you,” says Will out loud to the frightened self in an attempt to reassure it. Then he briefly imagines Hannibal again and can’t help adding ‘and you’ve got me’ inside his mind. It still doesn’t answer the question as to who has the dark reflection and the awareness of its wild freedom troubles him…although surely even this solution will become clear in time? The opposite of certainty isn’t doubt, after all – it’s imagination. Starting the engine Will casts another glance in the rear view mirror and then finally pulls away: preparing to resume the next stage of a journey which, like so many others, will have Hannibal waiting for him at the end of it.

Chapter Text

Will spends the rest of the journey in a state of grim determination to put the events of the past hour behind him. Yet despite his best efforts the assorted insights linger round the edge of his consciousness with the same nagging urgency as a rotten tooth and he ultimately grows so broodily preoccupied with examining them (then pushing them away, then guiltily allowing them to creep back in again for another inspection) that he ends up taking the wrong exit off the freeway and carries on for several miles before realising his mistake. This means he has to backtrack again and fight his way through the evening traffic with all the gloomy exhaustion of a lone swimmer battling the tide before taking a second wrong turn on the inner beltline – which at that time of evening bares a closer resemblance to the Inner Circle of Hell – the net result being that he gets so spectacularly and irrevocably lost he arrives nearly 20 minutes late to the Hall; and where, unsurprisingly, there’s no sign of Hannibal in the foyer.

Although Will was anticipating something like this his sense of disappointment is still acute, and for a few seconds he struggles with a genuine surge of unhappiness over it. Everyone else in the vicinity appears to be in pairs or groups with only him stood there alone, and there’s something particularly wretched about being in such luxurious surroundings while being forced to witness the excited hum of eagerness and expectancy over an evening that’s lying ahead for everybody but you. In this respect what makes it even worse is comparing his previous light-hearted anticipation with the current sense of isolation, and it’s impossible not to sympathise with the version of himself from only an hour ago and the way it was unknowingly destined to nothing but a sense of failure and anti-climax. And what’s making that even worse is how it proves he can’t even succeed at something so simple as arranging to be in the right place at the right time, which means he forced to spend a few more seconds tormenting himself with the image of Hannibal’s growing irritation and impatience whilst waiting for Will to arrive before ultimately shrugging and giving up. He’d most likely have been standing in pretty much the same spot as Will is now, checking his watch and tapping his foot…only he wouldn’t really have done that, because he doesn’t show annoyance in the clichéd way that other people do. He’d just have stood there with an equivalent poise and presence to the Grecian statues at the entrance – and, like the statues, impervious to the passing looks of admiration and interest – before turning round and vanishing into the depths of the auditorium when it was clear that Will couldn’t even manage to meet him on schedule despite several hours’ notice. But I wanted to, thinks Will forlornly. I honestly did. Not that he’ll ever have an opportunity to prove it, because he knows exactly how highly Hannibal values boundaries and etiquette; and that, having been let down once, he almost certainly won’t be making a similar invitation in the future.

Balls,” mutters Will under his breath. It’s sincerely meant to be inaudible but out of exhaustion and frustration comes out louder than intended and consequently earns him a black look from an elderly man who’s stood nearby in an impeccably well-cut suit and whose moustache has practically started to bristle with disapproval. Will returns the look with gusto and has to stifle an hysterical urge to sidle over and hiss ‘Oh excuse me – I meant testicles’ right in the old bastard’s face; and probably would as well, except that making a scene for the sake of it is not only completely pointless but the type of thing he knows he’d bitterly regret later on. Nevertheless now the engine of unhappiness has been revved up it’s impossible to prevent it hurtling indiscriminately across a whole highway of distresses and disappointments; and in those few seconds he doesn’t just feel crushed over the failure of the evening, but over numerous recent times he’s felt vulnerable or inadequate: every time he’s suspected one of the students has been laughing at him, or someone like Skinner has openly sneered, or Jack’s expressed displeasure with his work…all those endless slings and arrows of rejection and disapproval.

At the thought of the latter Will can feel his shoulders beginning to crumble in a distinctly ominous way and has a moment of real panic that he’s about to lose control completely. Even worse is that a couple of nearby alphas are starting to openly stare at him, and which is not only unsettling but acts as a silent rebuke that it’s entirely his own fault for applying much less pheromone spray than usual. At the memory of this Will can feel himself blushing slightly – although perhaps it’s not entirely his fault, because the stuff is ridiculously expensive and there’s no point in wasting it when Hannibal knows anyway. It’s not like he cares if Hannibal might prefer his natural scent. Is it? No, definitely not. Not at all. And besides, Hannibal’s isn’t here so it’s not even relevant. Oh for God’s sake, thinks Will briskly, get a grip on yourself you stupid shit. Then he repeats it again and at one point even considers muttering it out loud: partly because someone needs to offer this sterling advice, but also because he’s genuinely frightened that if he doesn’t he’s going to allow the strain of the past few days to get the better of him and end up doing something truly mortifying like crying in the middle of a foyer surrounded by wealthy alphas in penguin suits. Alphas can’t handle seeing distressed omegas…they’d probably all tackle him into a pile-up in their eagerness to pat his head and offer comfort. Even that stupid old bastard with the moustache and the ball aversion would be doing it. Christ. He’d rather go back home and take his chances with imaginary stalkers; and besides, at least the dogs will be pleased to see him. Consumed with a sudden urgency to leave, Will hastily roots around in his pocket for his car keys: and maybe it’s the pre-emptive horror of being swamped by alphas, or maybe it’s the lingering fear of the scene outside the house – repeatedly pushed away but still determinedly lurking at the back of his mind – but it means that when someone puts their hand on his shoulder it makes him jump so violently his feet virtually leave the floor.

“God,” says Will when he lands again. “You really startled me.” Hannibal’s features arrange themselves into their favourite ‘well, yes – obviously’ smirk. “How the hell do you manage to move so quietly? I should put a bell on you.”

“Isn’t that what one does with cats? I’d have thought you’d prefer a more canine-orientated solution. At any rate, you are very welcome to try.” Another faint smirk follows this statement, which this time Will is tempted to translate as: ‘and if you do, little man, I will end you.’

“I’ll bear it in mind,” replies Will, who’s now struggling not to smirk himself at the idea of Hannibal in a neat little collar with a bell on the end. “Although you can have this one on me – you deserve your revenge. I’m really sorry I’m so late.”

“It’s fine. You are not so late as all that.”

“No – I am. Thanks for waiting, I’d assumed you’d gone in.”

“Of course: I was happy to wait. I was trying to get your attention when you arrived but you seemed rather preoccupied.”

Will makes a non-committal noise in response to this, not least because he suspects his preoccupation was less to blame than the fact Hannibal’s idea of trying to get someone’s attention was most likely standing around in a corner looking imposing while quirking a single eyebrow. Impossible, after all, to imagine him grinning and waving like a normal person. “Well, I’m still sorry,” he adds as Hannibal begins to smile again. “I got lost.”

“Did you? That’s not like you.”

Will just shrugs, hating how witless the explanation makes him sound but likewise reluctant to describe the figure in the yard out of fear he’ll make himself look hysterical. Not that a choice between witless and hysterical is all that appealing…talk about being caught between shit and shite. He sighs to himself then gazes unhappily at Hannibal over the top of his glasses, completely unaware of how appealing the gesture makes him look. “I guess not,” he eventually adds. “I got…distracted.”

“Might I ask why?”

“Oh you know,” says Will vaguely. “Stuff.”

“The same ‘stuff’ we discussed previously?” asks Hannibal. The fastidious way he’s putting quote marks round such a slang term is audible and obvious, and as Will inadvertently rolls his eyes at the sound of it Hannibal’s smile briefly grows broader. “As you know I have an enduring and enthusiastic fascination with stuff – and if you wish to unburden some of yours I’m happy to listen.”

“Don’t we have to go in?” says Will, who’s had a sudden strong impression that Hannibal appears to be smelling him and is struggling not to feel too self-conscious about it.

“There’s still another twenty minutes or so. How much time do you require?”

“I guess a quick drink wouldn’t hurt,” says Will, beginning to perk up slightly. “Only one though – I’m driving.”

“A single drink consumed at speed,” sighs Hannibal. “What a thoroughly wretched concept. Although I suppose we must take our consolations where we can.” He briefly places his hand on Will’s shoulder to steer him in the direction of the bar, and while he removes it almost immediately Will still finds himself in the disorientating state of resenting the unsolicited contact whilst at the same time wishing the hand had lingered a little longer. “Problem?” says Hannibal, catching the small frown that’s just appeared on Will’s face. “Although I hardly know why I’m asking, considering I already know you’re going to insist on everything being fine.”

Will can’t help laughing at the undeniable truth of this and then moves a few paces ahead so he can hold the door open for Hannibal, allowing their shoulders to brush together as he walks past. “I am, as it happens,” he replies. And for those few seconds, it feels like for once it might actually be true.

*****

In the end they never do go into the auditorium, opting instead to stay in the bar and continue talking until Will finally realises that the concert will be about to start. “It’s all right by me,” says Hannibal when this is pointed out. “Unless you’re particularly eager to go? Personally, I’m content to stay where we are.”

“Sure,” says Will, draining his glass. “I’m happy to stay here as well.”

“Admittedly it’s not the greatest compliment to the Baltimore Philharmonic,” adds Hannibal. “In fact there does seem something slightly degenerate about choosing to loll about in a bar in favour of Mozart’s Requiem.” He briefly looks rather surprised after saying this, as if realising that he doesn’t entirely know how to loll.

Degenerate,” repeats Will with relish.

“Naturally it’s my fault for suggesting it. I entirely blame myself.”

“That’s okay,” says Will kindly. “I blame you too.”

“At least we’re in agreement I suppose.”

“Yes. Haven’t we done well?”

“We have done admirably.

“Well let me get you another drink in the meantime,” says Will with another grin. “We can celebrate our mutual degeneracy.”

“You may be celebrating; I shall be drowning my sorrows. But yes – thank you. A glass of the Barolo.”

“Wine? Oh dear. It looks like someone’s relapsed.”

“I have fallen off the proverbial wagon,” says Hannibal with a slow smile. “Although I promise to keep all my tedious wine observations to myself in the interim.”

“You know I can’t really imagine you falling off anything,” replies Will thoughtfully. “I can’t even imagine you falling over. You’re too…poised.”

“Too poised to obey the laws of gravity? I’m flattered that you think so.”

“Yeah, well. I might just have to push you and see what happens.”

“Then I would fall,” replies Hannibal, completely deadpan. “Although I shall try to do so in as poised a manner as possible if it will keep you happy.”

“Oh yeah? That means technically you’ve just given me permission.”

“Technically, I suppose I have. How very misguided of me.”

This makes Will smile again so Hannibal administers another slow smile of his own then leans a little further back against his seat to acquire a better view whilst wondering how anyone can possibly contrive to be so bright-eyed and lively and so very, very charming. The offensive pheromone spray is also far less apparent than usual, meaning the occasional faint trace of Will’s natural scent is coming through in all its radiance. Has he left it off deliberately or did it simply wear off during the course of the day and he’s forgotten to replenish it? The conscientiousness with which it’s usually applied would suggest the former, although of course it’s impossible to say for certain. Hannibal’s smile then widens very slightly as he permits himself a brief but extremely pleasing image of what it would be like to have Will in a position where it would be sweated off before neatly refocusing his attention into the room again. The bar is still fairly busy with theatre goers, socialites and assorted dignitaries – the usual crowd at an evening like this – and the fact that most of them are alphas makes him aware of a sharp desire to coil himself round Will to keep him away from them. Not that such protection would be either wanted or required…in fact the idea of the outrage it would provoke if attempted is rather amusing, and he can’t help smiling affectionately to himself at the thought of it. Besides, allowing Will to roam around means he gets to savour the sight of him striding determinedly through the throng: looking neither left nor right and refusing to concede even the smallest piece of ground by moving aside for anyone, like a particularly bright comet slicing through a panorama of far dimmer and less impressive stars.

Will, in turn, pays absolutely no attention to the alphas and remains oblivious not only to how several of them glance at him approvingly but the way that Hannibal (who is certainly not oblivious) narrows his eyes into little slits of displeasure at the sight of it. Then he stands patiently at the bar while waiting to be served, mulling over the unexpectedly positive turn that the evening’s taken and trying not to smile to himself too obviously at the thought of it. Everything just feels so natural and easy – even the headaches and abdominal pain are nowhere near as bad as usual – and the resulting flare of optimism has kindled a strong temptation to finally confide in Hannibal about Andrew. Admittedly it’s not like he could do that much to help, but it’s hard to shift the sense that simply telling him will somehow make it seem less crushing. Will frowns slightly, trying to make sense of this, and finally decides that it’s because there’s something so containing about Hannibal; something which speaks of safety, calmness and protection. Then his frown deepens because looking to an alpha for protection isn’t a particularly comfortable thought either, and in the end he has to go back to the beginning again and re-calculate all the reasons for speaking out vs. keeping quiet into neat little columns labelled ‘for’ and ‘against’ and ultimately grows so preoccupied that when it’s time to order the drinks he’s completely forgotten what it was that Hannibal had asked for. He can’t actually face going back to check so ends up enduring an excruciating few minutes gesticulating at the bartender – who’s as sleek and well-groomed as a store-front mannequin and who Will can’t help suspecting is examining his cheap clothes and slightly manic expression and wondering how the hell such a hobo managed to bullshit his way past the doorman – and repeating “it starts with a ‘B’!” in an increasingly fraught way as the bartender polishes the same glass over and over with a crisp white cloth while chanting: “Bordeaux? Bardolino? Beaujolais?” like some kind of malevolent wine android. Will’s spirit breaks long before his does and in the end he just gets a glass of Malbec instead, partly for the comedy value but mostly because – who fucking cares anyway? It’s just deceased grape juice when all’s said and done. “Oh, perhaps sir meant Barolo?” says the barman triumphantly as he’s handing Will his change, who in turn makes a big performance out of dropping a single cent into the tip jar in revenge.

The bartender watches the coin’s progress then gives the glass a particularly vigorous rub. “Why thank you sir,” he says with a level of venom that’s actually rather magnificent.

“You’re welcome,” replies Will. Then he picks up the wine and is turning to leave before promptly being distracted again by the sound of a male voice repeating “Excuse me! Sir! Excuse me!” in an irritatingly insistent way. Its shrill persistence and the fact it’s clearly directed at him implies some kind of response is required but Will still doesn’t react straight away: partly because no one ever calls out ‘excuse me sir’ when he’s around (they’re more likely to say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’) but mostly because he doesn’t know the person at all and has no particular desire to rectify this.

Excuse me,” repeats the man, more determinedly than before.

“Yes?” says Will, finally admitting defeat. “Can I help you?” Despite his best efforts the tone of this comes out far more grudgingly than intended, sounding less like a genuine offer of assistance and more like ‘because even if I can, I’m not actually going to. Bite me’. The questioner obviously feels the same because he flounders a bit then falls silent, which immediately makes Will feel guilty and try to summon a slightly more genuine smile in response.

“I hope you don’t mind me interrupting you?” adds the man, rather insincerely. “Only I couldn’t help notice you were speaking with Dr Lecter.”

“Y-e-s,” says Will, promptly reverting to Grudge Mode.

“I know him you see.”

“Right,” replies Will, now struggling mightily with the temptation to add something deeply sarcastic, possibly along the lines of ‘congratulations’ or ‘good for you’ or even ‘I have precisely zero fucks to give about this. If you wish you may try and count them – my complete and utter absence of fucks.’

“In fact I know him pretty well,” comes the next response, to which Will gives the smallest hint of an eye-roll as if to imply there are so few fucks he gives about this that they’re literally falling from the ceiling.

“You know him too then,” persists the man; and which as a statement is so blindingly obvious that Will can’t actually be bothered to reply to it all. Even so it’s impossible to miss that beneath his ostensibly friendly manner there’s a distinct edge of animosity to the tone in which this is said. In fact there’s something about his whole demeanour – from the beady little burnt-current eyes, to the pampered glossy beard and fussily arranged necktie, to the way his feet are tip-tapping back and forward across the parquet floor like someone doing a clumsy tap dance (click-click-click) – that strikes Will as almost unbearably irritating. “Well I’m just going over to say hello,” adds the man. Then he throws Will a rather defiant look as if challenging him to do anything about this: completely unaware that Will had already been trying to work out a way of getting Hannibal to take him off his hands and that heading over is entirely consistent with this goal, so – bring it on.

Although Hannibal gives no visible signs of annoyance when he sees the bearded man bearing down on him there’s still something about the way he narrows his eyes that Will suspects is a way of conveying his silent conviction that he’d be hugely obliged if the latter could kindly go and fuck himself. “Franklyn,” he says crisply as they approach the table. “This is unexpected.”

“I hope you don’t mind me cutting in?” says the man – Franklyn – as he begins to shuffle his feet again. “Only I saw your…” Then he pauses and gestures at Will, who immediately interprets this for exactly what it is: a clumsy attempt to encourage Hannibal to clarify the nature of the relationship between them. Hannibal, in turn, gifts Franklyn with one of his most serenely inscrutable smiles (followed up with a long, leisurely stare for good measure) and neglects to answer. “I was at the bar,” persists Franklyn. “And I bumped into your…”

“Yes?” says Hannibal. This time it’s followed with a stare of such excessively chilly smoothness that it would probably be enough to propel someone to slide uphill (before freezing them to death on arrival) and Will finally takes pity on Franklyn at being on the receiving end of it and asks him if he’s had a good evening just to try and keep the conversation going. Franklyn merely thrusts his hands into his pockets in a rather petulant way that’s unintentionally hilarious and pretends not to hear, at which Hannibal – who’s clearly lost all interest – takes a delicate sip from his wineglass before starting to smile. “You are never going to forgive me for that are you?” he says to Will.

Franklyn, who clearly resents a private joke from which he’s excluded, begins to prickle with envious disapproval. “Did you get the wrong type?” he blurts out, rounding on Will as if he’s a particularly dim five-year old. “What a shame. I know oenology can be rather confusing but it’s better to pay attention because Dr Lecter cares a lot about these things.” Hannibal’s blank stare promptly swivels in Franklyn’s direction, who wriggles awkwardly and clears his throat before adding in a notably more polite tone: “He’s a real connoisseur.”

“Actually he’s just fallen off the wagon,” says Will, at which Hannibal’s mouth twitches very slightly just as Franklyn’s falls open. “And oenology is the science of making wine, not drinking it.”

Franklyn now glances at Will in vague surprise, rather as if the chair had spoken.

“Although it probably should have a scientific name and an honours roll,” adds Will. “Seeing as people take it so unbelievably seriously.”

Franklyn’s expression is now a caricature of the betas in the alleyway and strongly implies that he’d not only been hoping for Will to turn out to be a charmingly decorative halfwit, but doesn’t quite know how to react when confronted with the fact that he appears to have more than two brain cells to rub together. “Yes, well, that’s as may be,” he replies peevishly. “But you still confused the brands of wine.”

“I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually,” says Will in a bored voice.

“Well there’s no need to be so flippant…” begins Franklyn, at which point Hannibal – who up until now has been observing the exchange in amused silence – abruptly uncurls from his chair and draws himself up to his full height. The motion is extremely calm and controlled without a hint of aggression, but even so there’s something sufficiently imposing about the way he manages to loom over them both that makes Franklyn fall silent before renewing the shuffling motion of his feet across the floor, followed up by an awkward little wriggle for good measure.

“Thank you so much for coming to say good evening,” says Hannibal in a leisurely way. “Although I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse us now.” Franklyn’s face promptly falls at this polite yet obvious dismissal with a kind of puppyish disappointment that can’t help but remind Will of Siemens and his own desperate need for approval. “I shall look forward to seeing you next week as usual,” adds Hannibal with charming civility, upon which Franklyn cheers up again and gives a contented sigh like a lovesick swain; even, at one point, appearing to get perilously close to batting his eyelashes.

“Bye then,” says Will loudly.

Franklyn nods besottedly in Hannibal’s direction then obediently begins to retreat, though not before finding time to shoot Will a look of blatant dislike from over the top of his beard – and which is so incredibly childish that Will suspects he should probably be sticking his tongue out in response. “Who on earth was that?” he says when Franklyn has finally waddled out of view.

“An acquaintance of mine,” replies Hannibal, neatly folding himself back into his chair. “I feel like I ought to apologise on his behalf for being so rude to you.”

“It’s fine. I mean, I appreciate it and all but you don’t have to defend me.”

“I wasn’t aware I was doing that,” says Hannibal, taking another sip of the wine. “I was, however, defending myself – because there is only so much of his conversation that I can tolerate in one sitting and he exceeded the threshold extremely quickly.”

Will tries to smile in response, although even as he’s doing it is aware of how half-hearted and false it must seem so gives it another try with only negligibly improved results. Only it’s hard to appear relaxed and cheerful anymore, because he’s just combined Franklyn’s use of Hannibal’s medical title with the lingering air of deference and realised that, of course, he was actually a patient and not an ‘acquaintance’ at all. Obviously this shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; but somehow it does matter – a lot – because while he’s struck by Hannibal’s professionalism and forbearance in allowing Will to think he’d voluntarily be friends with such a ridiculous person in the service of protecting Franklyn’s privacy, it highlights the inescapable fact that this is essentially what Will is too. In fact the implications of this are downright depressing: no doubt if one of Hannibal’s actual friends appeared right now then Will would likewise be discreetly referred to as an acquaintance, possibly as a colleague…but it would still just be a code for someone Hannibal’s obliged to be kind to as opposed to someone he’s independently sought out. Then he hears Hannibal asking him if anything’s the matter and realises that his unhappiness must have briefly shown on his face.

“I’m fine,” says Will automatically then gives a more convincing imitation of a smile to prove it. Nevertheless he can feel the fledging desire to confide about Andrew immediately withering again before slinking back to its dark hiding place in Will’s internal storage vault for anxiety and sadness. After all, Hannibal’s official role is to support his professional performance not the intimacies of his personal life, and forcing him into disclosures about the latter now feels as if it might be inappropriate. It’s the sort of thing that gets referred to as ‘over-sharing’ and ‘too much information’…the sort of thing a person like Franklyn would do if their roles were reversed. Besides, it’s not like Hannibal could offer any practical input even if Will did tell him. In this respect the same reluctance that led him to avoid confiding in Jack now settles onto the previous layer of evasion and seals the problem up even more, because Will hates the idea of being an object of pity: and given that there’s nothing anyone can do to help beyond changing the law or fixing his fucked-up biology then he’d rather suffer in dignity and stoicism than wilt into a defeated heap while everyone stands round and feels sorry for him.

“I’m glad you’re fine,” replies Hannibal in a measured way.

“Are you being sarcastic by any chance?”

“Not at all. Just because you’ve turned the answer into something of a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I was only interested in what you said before.” Will raises his eyebrows and Hannibal leans a little further forward in his chair so they’re directly facing each other. “It bothers you, doesn’t it? The idea of being defended.”

“Not especially,” says Will, who’s struggling not to let his fretfulness show. “Not in itself.”

“Ah, I see – more the assumption that you require it?”

“Yeah, exactly: I get it all the time. And as you’ve probably guessed it makes me a bit defensive, so…yeah. Sorry I guess.”

“It’s fine, if I may borrow your favourite phrase. I wasn’t offended. Merely…intrigued.”

“That’s nice for you,” snaps Will irritably. Then he promptly feels guilty because he knows the frustration is coming from the idea of Hannibal only being kind to him as a doctor rather than as the friend and equal that Will wants him to be – and that while this is disappointing, it’s hardly fair to punish him for being unable to meet expectations that Will’s set up in advance and which were always destined to remain unfulfilled. With an effort he softens his tone and forces himself to relax his posture until he looks more confiding and casual again. “Only it’s annoying, you know?” he adds after a small pause. “If omegas are forceful or confident or try to defend themselves then they get dismissed as pushy and obnoxious.”

“In other words: if they display any of the traits that would be praised in alphas?”

“Yes,” says Will, surprised in spite of himself that Hannibal would concede this so readily.

“I know. And I agree that it’s unfair.”

“It’s more than that. It’s wrong.”

“Of course it is, both in theory and practice; yet see how it persists regardless. All these assumptions we have. They keep omegas badly confined – alphas too, though to a much lesser degree – and insist that because our biology has evolved a certain way then we are obliged to live our lives in the service of it.”

“It’s bullshit,” says Will with genuine anger. “Omegas are less physically strong, true, and we have reproductive capacities that alphas don’t – also true. But that’s it; that’s all it is. And from a few biological realities an entire system’s been built up that’s based on oppression and coercion and denying opportunities, and ‘omegas can bear children so therefore they shouldn’t do anything else.’ I mean honestly. It’s like the alphas think that describing how the world is, and describing how the world should be, is exactly the same thing.”

“The naturalistic fallacy.”

“Exactly. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.”

“Or wrong,” adds Hannibal thoughtfully. “The proposition that alphas being in relationships with one another, for example, is often considered morally wrong because it is not ‘natural’. And yet by the same logic one could claim that if death is natural – and really, what could be considered more natural than death? – then to intervene in any way to save a life and interfere with nature’s design is likewise morally flawed. See what happens when we appeal to Mother Nature to set our standards for morality? All our hospitals would close.” Will smiles slightly and Hannibal watches him for a few seconds before leaning in a little closer. “And all our murderers would be celebrated. The Sculptor, for instance: he is merely indulging an ingrained capacity to destroy. It is a capacity that exists in all of us. It is natural.”

“There’s nothing natural about what he does,” replies Will sharply.

“Of course there is,” says Hannibal in the same calm voice. “He is following the urges that most people suppress – cultivating them as the inspirations they are. His error is that he does it in such an artless, graceless, pointless way.” He pauses very slightly and runs his eyes over Will’s face. “And yet you know that the converse exists don’t you? You described it yourself that evening in your house in regards the Chesapeake series. Described it so eloquently, Will; so ardently. And why shouldn’t you? You were appealing to your own perception.” There’s another pause and he leans in a little further still. “Your own insights into what might be considered – natural.”

In the resulting silence Will stiffens slightly before ducking his head so they’re no longer making eye contact. “It’s not the same,” he says in a low voice. “What you’re suggesting…it’s nowhere near the same.”

“I’m not suggesting anything,” replies Hannibal. “Merely playing with ideas.” He darts another quick look at Will, who’s still staring rigidly at his hands. “Only the proposition disturbs you, doesn’t it? Perhaps you don’t want to play anymore.”

Will shrugs and then knots his fingers a little tighter together. “I’m not disturbed.”

“But you are,” replies Hannibal in a tone that’s almost eerily soothing and rhythmic. “Are you concerned we’re getting too close to the truth Will? Becoming too intimate with it?”

“No.”

“I can’t say I blame you,” continues Hannibal, as if Will hasn’t even spoken. Reaching out he gently unknots Will’s fingers and then casually takes hold of his hand in one of his own and slowly traces his forefinger along Will’s palm and across the wrist, tilting his head very slightly while he does it as if the sight is something foreign and infinitely fascinating. “Any kind of intimacy changes one’s perception and threatens our self-control,” adds Hannibal with something almost like tenderness. “Yet here is another paradox, because while we want to remain in control of ourselves and be the arbiter of every thought and sensation we also yearn to give ourselves up to the rapture of losing control. The ecstasy of it: indulging all our dark desires. Just another impulse which is entirely natural; as The Sculptor would no doubt attest if he were here.”

“Only he’s not here, is he?” says Will in a tone that’s now equally intense. “It’s just you and me – playing with ideas.”

Hannibal’s faint smile begins to broaden as he finally lets go of Will’s hand and leans back against the chair. “How I’d like to know more about your ideas Will,” he says softly. “Those private hungers and cravings you have. So natural as they are and so secretly stashed away within your skull. I can almost imagine them: merging in ways that are corrupted and yet so beautifully and artfully displayed.”

Will now leans back himself and regards Hannibal meditatively. “Artful,” he says after another pause. “Don’t you remember what you quoted at me before? That the ‘the purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.”

“Naturally. Artworks are orphan things; their parents create them then abandon their offspring for an audience to describe and interpret.”

“You think you can interpret me?”

“I think I should like to try.”

“Interpret my ‘ideas,’” says Will quietly. “My ‘inspirations’? Define how innocent or guilty they are?”

“Guilt and innocence are such fixed concepts. Yet see how morality itself is always relative?”

“Of course.”

“And therefore separates matters of fact from matters of value.” Hannibal's Sphinx-like smile briefly flickers across his face. “No single perspective is ever the whole truth after all.”

“I don’t want to sit here talking about the nature of truth,” snaps Will. His voice comes out sharper and more fraught than intended, yet while he hates the way it sounds it’s difficult to prevent it because despite his best efforts the relentless nature of the conversation is beginning to unsettle him.

“No?” says Hannibal. “Then what do you want to talk about?” He gives Will a long stare from over the top of his wineglass and there’s something about his tone which immediately makes Will sense that the dynamic has shifted, just as it’s done so many times before, and that the tension is about to dissipate before something more innocuous takes its place. And he can’t decide whether it’s him that’s instigated this, or if was Hannibal, or whether they’ve both altered it together in a silent mutual confederacy of pretending that everything’s conventional and well-adjusted rather than a Siren’s song of darkly suggestive thrills. Nevertheless the spell has undoubtedly been broken and now Hannibal is just being a normal therapist again, while Will’s just a colleague relegated to the role of patient (also normal); and in that moment he doesn’t know which versions of themselves are the real ones, or – even more confusingly – if this is even a sensible question to ask.

“So what shall we discuss?” repeats Hannibal, who seems to be watching him very closely. “Your work? Your health? Something more tangential: rules and rubrics and the disorder of things? Or perhaps you’d like to tell me why you keep glancing towards the door every few minutes and haven’t been able to fully relax since you arrived?”

“I haven’t,” protests Will. Hannibal raises a single eyebrow. “Well…maybe a bit. But honestly, it’s not because of you.”

“I didn’t imagine it was. If that were the case, I think you would have told me.”

“If that were the case I don’t think I would have needed to tell you.”

“You mean I would’ve known? Yes, I agree – I probably would.”

“Look, it’s nothing,” replies Will defiantly. “I’m…”

“Fine. Yes, I’m aware. You have already said so.”

Will glares back, suddenly tired of the exquisitely delicate tortures that constitute Hannibal’s interrogations. They’re like being presented with a length of silk or velveteen: so temptingly refined and elegant in their flowing graceful folds and it’s only when you’re halfway submerged in it that you realise there are razor blades stitched into the seams. Then he opens his mouth to object, only to be saved the effort of arguing any further when his phone abruptly goes off in his pocket. The noise is shrill and insistent, not unlike a third person trying to noisily claim their share of the conversation, and it’s at this point that the focus of Will’s anxiety promptly halts and switches because there’s no way anyone could be calling at this time about anything good. Will doesn’t have the sort of life where friends ring him drunk and garrulous in the middle of the night or a lover gets in touch to see how he’s doing. A late night call means some calamity is brewing and his face creases into anxious furrows as he turns to Hannibal and says: “I’m sorry, I need to take this.”

“Of course,” replies Hannibal, leaning back again in his chair.

As might have been predicted the call is from Jack. “Will?” he barks out; and the tone of his voice is so weighty with significance that Will’s heart promptly sinks even further because of course it’s going to be bad. “There’s been another one,” says Jack, getting straight to the point. “Sculptor. I need you down here as soon as possible.”

Another one? So soon?” From the corner of his eye he can see Hannibal begin to slowly uncoil in his chair.

“Yeah. It’s a male victim again.”

“An omega?”

“What else.” A prolonged silence follows this statement, during which Will can feel his shoulders start to tense at the awareness that something else is coming. “We’ve identified him,” Jack finally adds, “and it seems like…”

“What?” There’s no response to this except silence and Will can feel himself starting to tense all over again. “What Jack?” But there’s still no reply and Will can easily imagine the expression on Jack’s face right now: how he’ll be frowning into the phone while drumming his fingers on his desk. In the background the sound of shouts and sirens are clearly audible and it’s depressingly easy to imagine that particular brand of chaos as well. All the dashing and darting and snapping and arguing, and Jack in the middle of it all with his frown and his tapping fingers.

“Look, it’ll be much easier to explain in person,” Jack eventually says. “Just get here as soon as you can.”

He doesn’t add anything else so Will hangs up and gives an inadvertently mournful sigh before attempting to make a few stammered apologies for ending the evening prematurely. “Naturally you must go,” says Hannibal, cutting them off in full flow. “It sounds like an emergency.”

Will sighs again then drags his hand through his hair, exhausted and demoralised at the mere idea of it. “You could say that.”

“Do get in touch if you need anything,” adds Hannibal, briefly looking even more Sphinxy and pokerfaced than usual. “Although please bear my earlier instructions in mind if you decide to contact me for any other reason than work. If you wish to be whimsical, for example. Or…impulsive.”

But Will just nods distractedly and the next few minutes proceed in virtual silence beyond Hannibal offering to pay the tab for them both – and Will politely ignoring him by dropping some bills on the table – then heading towards the exit as Will strides ahead with his head slightly bowed. Once outside he turns up his collar as a defence against the cold then stamps his feet a few times on the frosty pavement while trying to work out what to say next. Hannibal’s face, illuminated in the glow of the streetlamps, looks rather unworldly – all planes and sharp angles – and Will gazes wordlessly at it while consumed with the awareness he should just go despite finding it inexplicably difficult to pull away. Why is it so hard? He doesn’t even know. There’s only the sense that once he does then the moment will pass as reality reasserts itself, and the two of them will no longer be dwelling in that wildly outlawed wonderland that seems to soar up between them and blaze away on the horizon far beyond what passes for the real world. If that’s even what it is…Will isn’t sure; he doesn’t have the words for it. And yet a guilty sense of wishing to recapture it has a fervour and urgency that’s overpowering.

“Well, thanks then,” he finally manages to say. “I guess I’ll be seeing you.” Hannibal makes no response so Will gives an absent half-nod and reluctantly turns to leave, only to move rather too fast and stumble slightly as he catches his foot against an icy stretch of kerbstone. He’s at no real risk of falling over but Hannibal still darts out anyway and takes hold of him with both hands. Then instead of letting go again he just keeps his palms curled round Will’s shoulders before smiling very faintly and slowly sliding them down his arms.

“Careful Will,” says Hannibal in a tone that’s somewhat unsettling in its quiet intensity. “You’re getting close to losing your balance. Becoming unmoored. I know,” he adds just as Will’s opening his mouth to try and respond. “It’s so much to bear sometimes isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” snaps Will. His voice in his own ears seems oddly far away, rather as if he’s speaking from outside of himself, and he’s aware of wanting to struggle without actually being able to.

“But you do,” replies Hannibal, now so soft and resonant he almost sounds like he’s purring. “All the darkness, the dread and the doubt. This work you do so well and the way in which you do it…so very artful and lethal. Sometimes you feel like your mind is breaking.”

Will’s breath catches slightly, aware of how his entire focus is starting to constrict and shrink towards the black soulless eyes staring into his, the low hypnotic voice, and the sensation of warm breath that’s now so close it’s skimming against his eyelashes. The situation is becoming surreal now: delirious and overwhelming. Surely it shouldn’t be possible to feel so vulnerable yet so empowered, so right and so wrong, and such a cold sense of dread yet such a molten sense of yearning all clamouring together at the same time? Then for a few feverish seconds it’s completely impossible not to imagine what it would be like if Hannibal leaned just a little closer – a few inches would be enough – and tried to kiss him. How it would feel to have their lips touch together, the noises they might both make, the way he’d reach up to run his hands through Hannibal’s hair and possibly pull it. To have his face cupped in a warm, firm palm as Hannibal’s tongue slid into his mouth…

Angelo Della Morte,” adds Hannibal caressingly. He finally releases Will’s arm and reaches up a hand instead so he can trail his forefinger across the tip of Will’s cheekbone and along his jaw before using his thumb to gently brush against his lower lip. “The Angel of Death. In some cultures the angel is a form of righteousness and mercy; a beautiful tragedy with innovation, inspiration, and a dark slender soul. And so much inspiration in you Will, you can’t even comprehend it. The nature of who and what you are: something small, solitary and striving yet with such potential for greatness. A little wild thing. Yet you can never perceive it yourself can you? I have to see it for you; I have to be your eyes, Will, then hold up the looking glass for you to watch the transformation.” Will shakes his head again, even more numbly than before, and Hannibal smiles again then finally releases him and takes a step back. “Off you go now Agent Graham,” he says in the same soft voice. “Jack Crawford is calling.”

Will flexes his shoulders as if attempting to shrug off the force of Hannibal’s touch then takes a step back himself. Only he still makes no attempt to walk away and Hannibal’s faint smile reappears as he begins to stare intensely into Will’s face simply to see how long he’ll be able to tolerate it. The gaze begins with Will’s eyes then moves down to his mouth as he charts the curve of the top lip then skims along the lower one before tenderly gliding upwards again; and Will swallows and briefly looks uncomfortable but doesn’t actually move. That’s right my love, thinks Hannibal with a sharp stab of yearning. My beautiful boy. You’re doing so well. So fierce. So fearless; just allow yourself to feel it. Then he inadvertently forgets about everything else himself in favour of stroking his eyes over Will’s face without speaking or moving until the abrupt sound of a cell phone shatters the silent intensity of the moment and makes Will jump. The phone rings on and on, abrasively forcing its way between them like a noisy chaperone and Hannibal, who can curse internally fearsomely and fluently in several different languages, proceeds to do so at length in response to Jack Crawford’s extraordinarily inconsiderate timing.

“I should go,” says Will, his tone oddly mechanical like someone in a trance. Although once again he makes no clear attempt to and a few more seconds pass before he finally drags his eyes away from Hannibal’s face and retrieves the phone from his coat pocket. “Yes Jack,” he tells it when he answers and Hannibal is captivated to notice the faint breathy hitch in his voice when he speaks. “I’m in the city now. Yes. I’m on my way. I’ll be with you in around 20 minutes. Why not? Why can’t you just tell me over the phone…?” Faltering slightly, he casts a final glance at Hannibal then eventually turns round and begins to head in the direction of his car. This time, he does it without looking back.

Hannibal, unfazed by the apparent dismissal, remains where he is so he can admire the sight of Will’s slim young silhouette striding determinedly down the road until it’s swallowed up in the swirls of darkness. From this distance Will looks vulnerable – deceptively so – as if the frozen streaks of shadow are competing to devour him. ‘Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured’ quotes Hannibal softly to himself, powerfully aware of how frustrating it is to be forced to let Will go. In fact the simplicity of the situation even has a certain elegance to it, in that after a lifetime of tempting fate, scorning retribution and evading pain or penance of any kind, it seems that all it’s ultimately taken to overpower him is this diminutive boy with his fine-boned fragile face and beautiful dark mind who’s come along and unknowingly inflicted the most acute punishment possible. So guileless, artless yet so ruthlessly effective – which is to simply take himself away and deny Hannibal access to him. How is it even possible that a single look from Will has the power to instil a sense of restless longing in Hannibal which he has only limited capacity to control? And yet it does. Another sign of your uniqueness, thinks Hannibal tenderly. But, in this moment at least, there’s absolutely nothing else to be done but to continue watching: poised, silent, endlessly patient, and only reluctantly turning to vanish into his own stretch of shadows when Will has finally disappeared from view.

Chapter Text

Will drives back to the office in a sort of stupefied haze: clogged with incomprehension on one hand, yet also sharply aware of a need to re-examine what just happened and feeling unable to do so because the implications are too heady and overwhelming. More than that: threatening. Dangerous, even. In fact it’s the surge of emotion that’s unsettling him as much as anything else: so dizzying and unfamiliar as it is, and the way it manages to feel wildly enticing yet deeply ominous all at the same time. If it was a colour it would be a vivid splash of scarlet – the colour of sirens and flames and the sacred bleeding hearts in medieval icons – and when he glances down he half expects to see a crimson coated mist of it swirling round the car. In fact even acknowledging it at all feels like a blaze of risk and raw speculation; yet while common sense and self-preservation are urging him to resist it, the urge is nevertheless impossible to obey. It’s like tempting fate, like someone idling along the edge of a cliff: someone with their eyes closed, whistling to themselves with their hands in their pockets and believing that they’re untouchable – invincible – that they can’t ever fall. That other people might miss their footing and plummet into to the depths but not Will, because he’s not like other people and can’t be contained by the same rules. He knows he’s falling back into this belief with blind faith, a type of mindless, unquestioning constancy that's both reckless and irresponsible. And yet, and yet...

It’s at that moment that Will realises he’s once again deliberately not looking in the overhead mirror as if he’s afraid that the dark reflection is going to be lying there waiting to stare back, and the awareness of it makes him wince with frustration before slamming his palm against the steering wheel in an attempt to focus. For God’s sake, he mutters to under his breath, get a grip on yourself. Torrents of rain are streaming down the windscreen now and drowning the car in an eerie, watery glow that sends slivers of shadows across Will’s face and hands like phantom shoals as outside the streetlights blaze and other cars shriek and blare – and for a few seconds the intensity of it all briefly makes him want to scream. Then he thinks he actually can hear screaming and starts to panic before realising that it’s only the shrill wail of his cell phone. Jack’s name is flashing up on the screen and the sight of it finally reminds him that he’s about to walk into an office full of alphas whilst wearing hardly any pheromone spray, so promptly snatches at this dilemma as a chance of something practical to think about instead – anything rather than that thing in the mirror and the ghostly rivers of rain. In fact it’s such a welcome distraction that it transforms what would normally be an inconvenience into something of a relief, and he’s almost grateful to be able to turn the car round and take a detour through the city in order to find an all-night pharmacy that’s likely to stock it.

This turns out to be easier said than done, and Will grows unpleasantly aware of the minutes ticking past – and the corresponding image of Jack growing increasingly pissed off – before finally locating a shop that’s still open. As might be expected at this time of night it’s tenanted almost entirely by the shifty and seedy-looking, and Will feels uncomfortably conspicuous in his suit to the extent he fastens his coat up to try and conceal it. Then he joins the back of the queue, twitching with nervous impatience the entire time, and where it’s impossible not to overhear the conversation of a pair of customers in front of him who are excitedly examining The TattleCrime on their cell phones. “Another one!” exclaims the older of the two men to his companion. “That’s six now. Six.” He pauses and gives a low whistle. “The guy’s on some kind of rampage.”

“Pretty cool,” replies the other laconically.

“If I was an omega I’d be shitting myself. Jesus. Imagine knowing something like that could come after you?”

“It’d blow my mind,” says the younger man, despite having no real appearance of possessing a mind to blow.

“I heard they’re talking of putting a curfew on them until The Sculptor’s caught.”

Will, who hasn’t heard this but finds it extremely easy to imagine, now begins to shuffle irritably at the thought of it. Because of course it would be omegas that get warned to stay off the streets, or are possibly even forced to do so. No one will try and put a curfew on alphas, despite the fact The Sculptor almost certainly is one.

“Serves the spoilt bitches right,” adds the younger man contemptuously. “If it was betas being targeted nobody would care.”

The tone of this is very decided, as if some sort of stunningly insightful point has just been made, and Will finds it impossible to stifle the sigh of frustration that’s been threatening to work its way out for the past few minutes. And while it’s fairly subdued, it’s still enough to make the older man glance over his shoulder then pause and perform a double-take as he catches sight of Will. “Hey!” he says eagerly. “Hey, I know you! You’re…”

“No I’m not,” snaps Will.

The man’s formless rubbery face begins to contort into a bizarre combination of offence and disappointment which in other circumstances might be amusing but at the moment just strikes Will as creepy and unsettling. “Oh yeah?” he demands accusingly. “Chill out pal. You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“I’m not anyone you would have heard of,” replies Will with equal sharpness. “Pal.” Then he retrieves his own phone from his pocket and makes a play of examining it in what’s an obvious gesture of dismissal. The men shuffle round again muttering ominously, although even after they’ve been served refuse to leave the shop and instead stand a few feet away conversing in low voices and darting unpleasantly beady looks in Will’s direction. Will curses internally when he sees them, although admittedly saves the most extreme cursing for himself at having been so stupid as to get into this situation in the first place. But it was only because you were there, adds Will to himself, half annoyed and half mournful as he briefly imagines Hannibal. In this respect having to buy the spray in front of these assholes feels like some kind of ritual in epic awkwardness, if not outright humiliation, but it’s impossible to go to the office empty-handed and he knows he doesn’t have any choice. As a last resort he asks for it using the generic chemical term rather than the brand name in the vague hope that they won’t recognise what he’s talking about. “Would you prefer Pherazene or Pherex?” asks the pharmacist, promptly ruining this ploy. “The Pherazene is cheaper but the Pherex is more long-lasting.”

As expected the men’s heads jerk upright like marionettes on strings and the sight of it induces the familiar queasy sense of panic that always hits Will at the idea of being exposed as an omega in public. Then for a few seconds he feels a rush of anger towards Hannibal despite knowing it’s completely unfair: although whether it’s because Hannibal isn’t here to offer protection, or because Will wouldn’t be here at all except for the lure of Hannibal’s company is impossible to say. Nevertheless, it’s still nothing compared to the anger and reproach he feels towards himself. “Hang on a moment would you?” he says instead, deliberately keeping his voice as casual and level as possible. “I’m not sure to be honest, I just need to check.” He then has to root around for his cell in order to go through a performance of pretending to make a call to determine the preference of the phantom omega on the other end who’s the true recipient of the spray; and which as a ploy feels faintly ridiculous but ultimately necessary, and he can’t bring himself to fully regret it – not even when he pretends to hang up and the pharmacist smiles sympathetically and says: “Yes omegas often get confused over the medical terms. It can be a bit complex for them, poor things. Next time you should probably just get them to write it down for you beforehand.”

Will yearns to tell him to go and fuck himself but forces out a grudgingly polite smile instead then pockets the spray and attempts to make as quick an escape as possible – not least because he knows the delay will have given the two men sufficient time to do what he was afraid of all along: which is to refer to the numerous available photos on The TattleCrime and confirm that they are, in fact, stood right next to Will Graham. Sure enough he hasn’t even reached the exit before one of them yells out “Hey! I knew it was you. Hey! Come back here man. Come back! When did you last hear from The Sculptor?”

“My God, is he that FBI guy?” says someone else; and Will abandons restraint and darts out the door then actually runs back to his car before it can occur to any of them to try and chase after him. His heart has started pounding in his ears in a fraught, panicky way and he’s forced to spend a few seconds attempting to calm down and reassure himself that courtesy of the fake phone call no one is any wiser about the fact he’s an omega. And it’s not like they knew for certain it was him. Nevertheless the whole experience has left him feeling unsettled and anxious and it still requires a few more seconds of self-soothing before he’s able to restart the engine and make the rest of the way to the office. Oh God, he’s going to be really late now – which means Jack is going to be pissed off in exact proportion to the lateness. Not that there’s much he can do about it. In fact, all things considered, Jack should be fucking grateful Will’s managed to get here at all. Pulling up the car he liberally douses himself with the spray and for the first time since leaving Hannibal feels slightly more secure and safe again.

“You took your time,” says Jack accusingly when Will finally sidles in. “I thought you said you were in the city?”

“I was. Traffic was bad.”

“Traffic! At this hour? Which route did you take?”

“The usual,” snaps Will.

Jack makes a huffing noise then seems to notice Will properly for the first time and begins to narrow his eyes. “Were you on a date?”

No,” says Will.

“So why the suit?”

As questions go it’s not entirely unreasonable, although Will still resents the tone in which it’s being asked – not to mention the fact it’s being asked at all. “I always change into this when I get home,” he says irritably. “The dogs refuse to be seen in public with me otherwise.”

Jack makes another huffing noise, although this time of a rather more subdued variety in acknowledgment of the fact he’s being nosy and essentially had that one coming. “Well thanks for joining us,” he adds in a kinder tone. “I know it’s inconvenient.”

“It’s fine,” says Will, trying not to sound too martyred about it. “So what have we got? And what was so important you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”

“Important isn’t exactly the right word,” replies Jack. “More like…complicated. Or maybe it’s not even that; maybe it’s nothing.” Will sighs impatiently and Jack holds up his hands. “Okay, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so cryptic. All right, for starters: does the name James Leyland mean anything to you?”

This time it’s Will’s turn to frown. “No. Should it?”

“He’s the most recent victim. Omega, of course, and found several hours ago in an alleyway on the south side. He had his wallet on him so we were able to ID him immediately. It turns out he was an ex-cop.”

“Oh yeah?” says Will, mildly interested on the grounds that omegas in law enforcement, while not unheard of, are by no means common.

“Yeah. You see, the thing is Will – he used to work at the same place you did.”

“What, in New Orleans?” says Will incredulously. “What was he doing up here.”

“Same as you, I guess: he moved. Actually, why did you move? I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned it.”

Seeing as he can hardly reply ‘because I would have been forced to bond with a complete and utter bastard if I didn’t’ Will just shrugs then goes extremely quiet as he begins to gnaw at his thumbnail. His ideal response to the link with Leyland is some kind of breezy, casual gesture – preferably accompanied by ‘what a weird coincidence!’ – only he can’t quite bring himself to do it owing to the sinking sensation that it’s not a coincidence at all. “The name isn’t familiar,” he finally replies. “Have you got a picture?”

Jack scoops up a manila folder from his desk and rifles through it to retrieve a photocopied driving license which he silently passes over. “Yeah, I recognise him now,” says Will tonelessly a few seconds later. “He always called himself Jim though, not James. He was a homicide detective.”

“Working homicide? Unusual for an omega.”

“Yeah,” replies Will in the same flat voice. “I guess.”

“What was he like?”

“I don’t know. Good, I suppose. He got the job done. People liked him.” In fact Leyland had not been good as opposed to merely competent and Will, for one, had certainly not liked him – but an ingrained reluctance to start trawling up minor grudges and criticism about a recent victim of violent murder makes him hold himself back. “What difference does it make?” he says instead. “We know this wasn’t personal. He wasn’t killed because of what he was like; he was killed because he was an omega.”

Jack goes quiet for a few seconds and Will sighs heavily because he can predict exactly what’s coming. “You know I have to ask…” Jack eventually says.

“Because of the card?”

“Because of the card.”

“Did we have any contact when we were working together? Yes. We did. One case – Richard Black.”

“Who?”

“The Nemesis Killer,” says Will. “At least that was what he called himself. The papers called him the Creole Co-Ed Killer, which he objected to because he thought it made him sound like a sex murderer – despite the fact that’s what he actually was.”

“Nemesis? It sounds like a video game character.”

“A nemesis is a source of defeat or downfall that’s inescapable,” says Will. “In Greek mythology she was the goddess of retribution and vengeance.” He pauses then catches Jack’s eye. “Black claimed the murders were a form of punishment against alphas. By killing omegas he thought he was delivering the ultimate vengeance against a group that had ridiculed and objectified him. Only he got it wrong and most of the victims weren’t even omegas. It’s why the case never got widespread publicity. Probably no one outside the state would even have heard of it”

“He was a beta?”

“Yeah. He was also full of shit. After he was convicted he changed his story completely and insisted he was innocent. A tribunal actually took him seriously; or at least seriously enough to give him an appeal.”

“On what grounds?”

“An insanity plea: false confession due to temporary mental incompetence.”

“It does happen,” says Jack reasonably. “We had one in Baltimore a few years ago. Mark Evans his name was: we used to call him Edward The Confessor because he’d turn up at the station after every high-profile case and insist it was him. They do it for the attention.”

“I know it happens,” snaps Will. “But it’s not what happened there. I have absolutely no doubt that Richard Black killed those students then dreamt up a bullshit story about alphas to try and glorify himself. Then after a few weeks in prison he decided he didn’t like it all that much and tried to lie his way out again.”

“So what role did you and Leyland have?”

“Leyland was the arresting officer. I did the profile and a suspect list but I never even met Richard Black. The only time I saw him was at the trial.” He pauses for a few seconds, giving a small shudder as he remembers the way the cold, dead eyes had flickered over him the entire time he was on the stand. “My role was actually pretty limited.”

“Hardly limited; it sounds like they wouldn’t have found him without you.”

Will just shrugs, typically modest, and Jack pointedly clears his throat. “Even so Will, it’s an odd coincidence. Very odd: a purported omega killer with a link to you and the current victim.”

“I know,” says Will unhappily. “Too much of a coincidence to overlook. We need to run checks on the other five and see if there’s any kind of connection to Richard Black.”

“Agreed.” Jack leans over and begins to speed-type into his laptop, pausing every few seconds to glance up at Will. “So, what happened to him?”

“To Black? He died in prison.”

“And did he maintain his innocence?”

“He did – swore blind to the very end that we got the wrong guy.” He hesitates then catches Jack’s eye. “Which we didn’t. There’s no possibility that the real Richard Black is here right now in Baltimore.”

“Mistakes happen Will. You said yourself you never even met him; what if the other officers got it wrong?”

“No way,” says Will firmly. “Everything matched up. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense: even if Richard Black was wrongfully convicted, why would the real killer care? Why would he go after Leyland? Or leave my initials at one of his scenes?”

“Why do these guys do anything?” replies Jack. “Although I agree – it doesn’t seem very likely.”

“It’s not remotely likely. A copycat on the other hand…”

“Oh yes, you mentioned that before. You still think that’s what we’re dealing with?”

“I think it’s possible. I also think Richard Black is an extremely unlikely candidate for inspiring an imitator – although it’s still more plausible than the original killer being at large. It could also be that this has got nothing to do with him and The Sculptor’s motive is something entirely different. On the balance of probability I’d still go for the latter; but we need to do the checks regardless.”

“I’ll get someone on it right now,” says Jack. “Nice work Will. This is the best lead we’ve had so far.”

“Well, we’ll see.”

“Here’s another coincidence for you,” adds Jack, beginning to shuffle papers together. “That guy who was hovering around the field the day we found number five. Do you remember? You said he couldn’t possibly be a hiker.”

“Oh yeah. What about him?”

“His name,” says Jack. “Brown: Matthew Brown. Brown, Black. Weird similarity, huh?”

“Yeah, weird,” agrees Will, even though he’s only half-listening. Beyond the window he can hear the inevitable shrieking commotion as packs of journalists begin to assemble in front of the building. They sound so wild and unrestrained: violent, almost, in their angry indignation. For some reason the expression baying for blood comes to mind, despite the fact it’s far too late for that and the blood has long since been spilt. The blood of number six – of Jim Leyland – destined to be followed, no doubt, by that of seven and eight and onwards and up. An endless quantity of blood to bay for.

In spite of himself, he shudders.

*****

Will arrives home so late it’s technically early and as he pulls into the driveway dawn is starting to break overhead. The way it streaks the sky with shades of crimson and purple make it resemble something truly broken – bruised and bleeding – and while the air is growing less vaporous as the fog slinks away to wait for nightfall, there’s still something about the scene that’s sufficiently oppressive to make Will hurry into the house even faster than usual. The yard is completely empty with no signs of disturbance, but once he’s greeted and fed the dogs he can’t resist making a point of letting them out to see if they show any interest in the corner where he thought he saw the figure. Sure enough a couple of them make a beeline there and begin to sniff furiously across the ground and against the wall; but likewise they don’t start barking or clawing and seem to lose interest pretty quickly – and which, on reflection, Will decides to use as further reassurance that no one was ever really there.

The most sensible thing to do now would be to go to bed. But after several hours’ worth of meetings, pathology reports and press statements Will’s feeling far too uptight to sleep and in the end retrieves a beer from the fridge along with the remains of a takeout pizza that might just about pass for edible and ferries the whole lot over to his desk where he sits for a few moments gazing into space. It’s too dim to see properly with the little table lamp as his only illumination, but there’s also something about the ambience that he finds soothing and it doesn’t make him want to turn on the overhead light. Just the soft glow of the lamp and the pale sun-blushed air as it filters through the cracks in the curtains and Will alone in the middle of it all: alert and watchful amid the solitude, like the survivor of some strange catastrophe that’s put everyone else to sleep and left him as the only person still awake to reflect on it all.

After a few more minutes of silent staring Will eventually retrieves his journal from the desk drawer and places it carefully in front of him before tracing his fingertips against the cover. Everything’s so quiet…so, so quiet, as if the room itself is holding its breath. As silent as the grave, as the saying goes. Although graves are also a place of discretion where secrets are kept and whatever’s revealed can never be known to another person. I’ll take it with me to the grave; another expression. Where better to unburden yourself, after all, then inside such concealed and scared silence? Picking up a pen, he finally starts to write.

Dear You,

So it turns out there’s been another one. Although ‘one’ implies the singular and it’s actually a multitude of ones: one more body in the mortuary, one more devastated family, one more reason for everyone to lose their minds – one more to follow on from the five that went before him. You already know that of course, although there’s still something I can tell you about it that you don’t know, which is that I knew him. God, it sounds like a grammar exercise doesn’t it: you know, I knew, we are knowing. Not that I knew him all that well, or even all that recently either. In fact it seems like a whole lifetime ago now, like a memory that belongs to someone else. It’s as if he’s a relic from someone else’s life. Which I suppose he is in a way: I was a different person back then.

Not that any of this changes the fact that I knew him, and he knew me, and now you know about it too. Known, knew, know, no. Don’t you think there’s almost something ironic about that – the way ‘know’ has a ‘no’ hidden away inside it? It’s like knowledge is built upon not knowing at all once you look into the center. Don’t worry by the way; I don’t expect you to agree. You always seem to know. And even if you don’t it’s because you didn’t think it was worth knowing in the first place, so I guess you still wouldn’t care.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time in my other letters telling you about things I don’t know so tonight I want to tell you something that I do. This thing that I know is something I’ve suspected for a while but haven’t been entirely certain of until now: just a lingering hint and a vague impression which has grown stronger and clearer over time until it’s finally vivid enough to reach out a hand and take hold of. Are you listening? I’m going to tell you now.

This thing is: I know that you’re dangerous.

The extent of it remains undetermined, I’ll admit that, but the reality of it is indisputable. I know that you are – I just don’t know how much. Likewise I’m not sure whether you’re aware I’ve worked it out yet. Do you know that I know? I suppose you must do. It’s part of your design isn’t it? It’s difficult to imagine anything happening to you that you weren’t in complete control of, so I have to assume that this is deliberate and you’ve chosen to let me really see you. Or at least you’ve started to: just small gasps of vision, like sips. What I don’t understand yet is how far it’s supposed to go – but then it’s always impossible to be certain of much with you because you’re so indistinct. You become whatever people want you to be. In fact I compared you to a chameleon once. Do you remember? I said you could use charm to blend into your surroundings. Only it’s not just that, is it? It isn’t straightforward camouflage – it’s also what predators do.

To be honest I don’t even really know why I’m telling you any of this. It’s not as if you’d care. Or would you? Would my reaction ever be as interesting or relevant to you as your own? It’s so hard to get past the idea that much of what you do is simply to amuse yourself, as if it’s a human game of chess and I’m just one of the pieces to use until you get bored and choose another one to play with instead.

Oh yeah, the chessboard. I told you about that before; how I wanted to be an opponent. That much at least hasn’t changed, only sometimes I see you as another player, sometimes as a piece, and sometimes I see you as the board itself. Occasionally you’re even all three at the same time. I guess that sounds weird to you doesn’t it? It’s true though. You have a gift for inhabiting different spaces simultaneously. You’re an intellectual shape-shifter. Okay, that definitely sounds weird. What would that even be called? Malleability? Creativity? Adaptation? These things are all considered desirable and a feature of intelligence, yet while I know so many talented people I still don’t know anyone else who could do it. No one except you.

And look, here we are. I’ve come full circle again: from what I think I do know right back to what I know I don’t. A full circle with you in the middle of it – like the ‘no’ in ‘know’ – because I hardly know anything about you at all. But then, really, how much can we ever know about another a person? It’s not like you know everything either. You don’t know how much I think about you, or that I need you, or the way I miss you when you’re not there. You don’t know that I write to you like this. You don’t know that I can’t let go of you.

Dear you, what can I even tell you anymore? What is there left to say? Because the simple truth is that you pierce my mind. You get into my head and linger there and I know I should resent you for it and try to make you stop – and yet no matter how much I try, I always find that I can’t.

*****

Will finally stumbles into bed around 6am – still wearing his clothes because taking them off feels like far too much effort – and wakes up late morning feeling unpleasantly crumpled and gritty. His cell registers five missed calls from Jack, although considering he’s spent half the night running round the FBI Will feels it can wait another hour or so and goes to have a shower instead without calling back. Then he wraps a blanket round his shoulders and lets the dogs out for a run before assuming his usual sentry post by the window to sip the usual cup of coffee and brood about the fact he’ll almost certainly be seeing Hannibal at the team meeting this afternoon.

In fact thinking about Hannibal at all feels a bit like prodding a bruise to determine how tender and uncomfortable it is and after a few seconds of anxious probing Will can’t help feeling that last night’s ruminations seem rather foreign now, as if the sunlight is bleaching and disinfecting them into half their original potency and where the impassioned outpouring of emotion seems like it happened to someone else. As if to prove the point he retrieves the journal from where it’s still lying on the desk and bundles it into one of the compartments before firmly closing the drawer on it. Then he returns to the window and nibbles absent-mindedly on his lower lip while watching the familiar danse macabre of the crows. God knows what’s really going on, but once all the hypotheticals are stripped away then the bare facts of the case are that even if Hannibal did have a moment of madness that made him want to bond with a patient (which he obviously wouldn’t), and even if Will didn’t have enormous reservations about the idea of bonding with anyone (which he does) then it still wouldn’t be possible because the legal ownership of Will lies irrevocably with Andrew. Admittedly the days of alphas killing each other over omegas are pretty much over, but Andrew is still extremely vicious and vindictive and while it’s impossible to imagine him being able to inflict physical damage on Hannibal (Will smirks slightly at the idea of it) he can – and absolutely would – take him to court over it. At the thought of this Will now gives a deep shudder of humiliation, because as a scenario it’s entirely feasible. Such large sums of money are at stake for alphas who purchase omegas that any attempt by another alpha to impinge on them is taken extremely seriously. Nevertheless it’s still impossible to ignore the events of last night completely – and besides, surely anything is better than worrying about The Sculptor – so as a compromise he makes an effort to refocus his attention onto the aspects of it that were more straightforward and therefore less heady and unsettling. Foremost amongst these is his own physical appearance, and rather guiltily he finds himself remembering the approving way Hannibal had run his eyes over the suit. Not that this should be a surprise considering that Hannibal always looks as if he’s strolled from the pages of some glossy magazine or other, and the awareness of the contrast between them briefly makes Will feel unhappy and self-conscious. Then he berates himself for caring about something so stupid and delivers a stern internal lecture about vanity and superficiality; and which is fairly convincing in its way, although by the end of it has still done nothing to remove the feeling that just for once it might be nice for Hannibal to see him when he doesn’t look like he’s just crawled out of a logging cabin.

Will’s laptop is open next to him on the desk and after faltering for a few moments he finally tugs it towards him and gingerly types ‘Being attractive to alphas’ into the search bar, furtive and embarrassed the entire time as if he’s looking up something illegal. Then he pauses and inspects the words before deciding that they’re too extreme and alters them to ‘getting along with alphas’ instead. Not that this is much better, seeing as all the websites that come up are overflowing with gushingly coy advice which is so incredibly mortifying that he decides, on reflection, that he'd rather die alone and single and half-eaten by his dogs than actually follow any of it. Waitwhat? thinks Will with alarm. What the fuck? Then he reminds himself of his long-held resolution to always remain single and that this is less about being attractive in the conventional sense as it is about being smart and personable. The websites refer to this as being ‘chic’ or ‘stylish’, which might be all right for some people (Hannibal, for example) but is not at all appropriate for him. “It’s being professional,” says Will triumphantly. Or perhaps it’s partly about being appealing…but no more than that. No more than partly. In fact he can rapidly feel himself losing interest in the whole thing and in the end just rummages in the back of the wardrobe for a jacket that’s vaguely smart-looking compared to his usual ones. Although as attempts go to make yourself look professional and/or appealing this actually feels incredibly half-assed, and Will frowns over it for a while before finally changing his shirt for one that’s sleeker and more tailored which he hardly ever wears then running his fingers through his hair a few times. The gushing websites all refer to this as giving your hair ‘bounce’ although he’s adamant that this is not what he’s doing at all (“Bounce, my ass,” says Will accusingly towards the laptop) as opposed to just making it appear a bit more vibrant and healthy-looking, thank you very much. Then he’s just contemplating leaving off his aftershave to let his natural scent come through (given that Hannibal’s sense of smell is acute enough to detect it beneath the pheromone spray) and possibly unfastening the top few buttons of the shirt to show off his throat – before rejecting both these things on the grounds that no level of internal bullshit can justify them as being in the service of professionalism – when he’s finally saved from any further deliberations by someone knocking loudly on the door.

A visit this early in the day, or in fact at any time of day, is sufficiently unusual to make Will feel uneasy and his first thought is that it’s going to be Jack breathing fire and brimstone and demanding why Will isn’t in the office. Although there’s no way Jack would haul himself out here; he’d call instead and dispense the fire and brimstone down the phone line rather than deliver it in person. Going downstairs Will falters for a few seconds, torn between a desire to ignore the knocking and resentment of the idea of being afraid to answer his own front door, before finally compromising and slotting on the chain so he can pull it open by a few wary centimetres. Naturally enough it’s not Jack, but contrary to his fledging sense of hope it’s not Hannibal either; and Will is enormously surprised to realise that he’s currently in possession of none other than Siemens shuffling around on his doorstep: pink-cheeked, bright-eyed, and muffled up against the cold in a rather comical-looking scarf whose bold primary colours and general fluffiness make it resemble something a pre-schooler might wear.

“Hey Will!” says Siemens merrily. “Look at you! You look very…” He pauses then gifts Will a slightly blushing look from over the top of his scarf. “You look very well.”

Will blinks a few times then before he can stop himself snaps “What are you doing here?” with an abruptness that’s definitely on the wrong side of rude but which is equally impossible to substitute for something more polite, because honestly – what the hell is he doing here?

Siemens’ merry expression begins to fade, rather as if someone has turned down the dial on a dimmer switch. “I just wanted to check you were okay,” he says, beginning to shuffle his feet even more elaborately than before. “You didn’t show up to work this morning. And then, well, I mean it was a bit odd: this guy just turned up looking for you.”

At the sound of this Will is aware of visibly stiffening, even as he’s desperately trying to soothe himself back into calmness. Don’t panic, he thinks. You’re okay, you’re okay. Nevertheless it feels in that moment as if the sky has grown more ominous and overcast as the clouds descend and the light drains away, and the murder of crows renew their hymn of croaking urgency that’s sufficiently loud for even Siemens to glance over his shoulder and stare at them. “What guy?” Will eventually says, trying to keep the anxiety from leaking into his voice. “What do you mean?”

“Zeller told me he’d been asking about you before and that he was probably a journalist.” Siemens hesitates then glances at Will with an expression of wary sympathy. “Which he might be of course. But from my experience…well, I thought he might be a private investigator. He just had that look about him.”

Hearing Siemens say the words aloud makes Will realise that he’d suspected the same himself all along and has been ignoring it from a desperate desire to believe it wasn’t true. He can feel his stomach starting to churn in a horrible, panicky way and in an effort to quell it stares fixedly into the horizon while gripping onto the door handle in an attempt to steady and ground himself. “You’re not…you’re not in trouble are you?” Siemens asks sympathetically. “I mean, I saw him off for you. I told him he was trespassing on federal property: quoted section 4.2 of the statutory code at him. It was completely irrelevant of course, but he obviously didn’t know that.” His mournful, moon-like face briefly looks hopeful, once again reminding Will of a dog that’s anxious for a kind word. “I don’t think he’ll come back. But I thought you should know. I mean, if someone has put a PI onto you…”

“Thanks,” says Will bleakly.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No,” replies Will in the same bleak tone. “Not really.” Siemens shuffles his feet again and Will can’t help reflecting on how it’s easy to focus on his more ridiculous aspects and forget that he’s actually a trained lawyer and, given that he immediately identified the PI for what he was, is clearly possessed of more acumen than most people – including Will – give him credit for. In fact in this respect he’s shown a level of initiative that’s bordering on uncomfortable, and despite the obviously friendly reasons for the visit Will can’t quite keep the sharpness out of his voice when he says: “How did you know where I live?”

“It’s in the file Will,” explains Siemens with evident embarrassment. “Anyone with clearance can look it up.”

Will nods absently while internally cursing himself for forgetting about this and resolving to do something about it as soon as possible. Then he sees Siemens gazing hopefully up at him with dog-like earnestness so forces himself to add: “Thank you for your concern.”

“You’re welcome Will,” replies Siemens, whose metaphorical tail has started to wag again. “Are you sure I can’t help you out with anything? Do you need a ride in?”

“No, I’m good. Thanks. I’ll drive myself.”

“Well okay then,” replies Siemens. Then he shuffles awkwardly for a few more seconds, clearly on the verge of blurting something out, and Will sighs to himself as he finally processes the coy glances Siemens is darting in his direction and has a sudden awful realisation at what it’s going to be. “Look Will,” says Siemens, taking a deep breath. “I’ll be heading off now, but before I go I was just wondering…I mean…I just wondered if you happened to be seeing anyone at the moment? Because I thought we could, y’know, maybe hang out some time?” He pauses and stares up beseechingly: hands clasped together like a salesman or possibly someone door-stepping for charity donations. “I mean if you wanted? I thought we might be able to if…if you wanted?”

Oh fucking fuck, thinks Will gloomily; and despite a sincere amount of effort he knows his reservation must have briefly flickered across his face. “I appreciate you asking,” he says, aware that he’s choosing his words so carefully it’s making him sound stilted and unnatural. “But…”

“…But you’d rather not,” concludes Siemens, suddenly looking so crushed that Will feels genuinely bad for him. “Gosh, I’m sorry Will. I’m horrible at this. To be honest I wasn’t going to say anything at all, only my analyst told me I need to get better at pursuing positive goals.”

The image of this – of Siemens sat in some therapist’s pastel-painted office earnestly discussing the pursuit of Will as a positive goal despite being doomed to failure – has a level of pathos to it that’s almost unbearable and for a few seconds Will feels as if he and Siemens are staring at each other with matching looks of dismay. “It was presumptuous of me,” says Siemens unhappily. “Someone like you…of course you wouldn’t be interested in someone like me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Will opens his mouth then closes it again and in the end doesn’t answer immediately. He knows his silence is unhelpful – is making an uncomfortable situation even worse – but it’s incredibly difficult to formulate a proper response: partly because Siemens’ awkward embarrassment appears to be contagious, but mostly due to the way this sad scene on the doorstep, for all its foolish mundanity, has stirred something deep inside Will that’s made him genuinely unhappy. Because it should be impossible to take Siemens completely seriously, standing there as he is with his ridiculous name and his pre-schooler scarf and his sad moon-shaped face: and yet there’s nevertheless an element of dignified suffering about the whole thing which makes Will feel in that moment that Siemens cuts a far more impressive figure than Will himself does. Because at least he asked. Even though he knew he’d almost certainly be unsuccessful, he still had the courage to pursue what he wanted. He had the courage to acknowledge it even exists, which is far more than Will has ever been able to manage. Siemens hasn’t taken refuge in layers of denial and evasion. He hasn’t lied to himself and everyone around him, even as Will is doing right now.

Siemens shrugs unhappily like he’s about to wilt, and the sight of it is enough to finally make Will pull himself together and say “It’s fine,” in as kind a tone as possible. “There’s nothing wrong with asking,” he adds after a few seconds pause. “It’s a brave thing do to. I’m usually so scared of rejection I wouldn’t even try for it.”

“Oh yeah?” says Siemens, attempting a smile. “You don’t strike me as someone who scares easily.”

Across the fields the murder of crows are soaring and plummeting and Will stares at them as he briefly remembers of an old observation of Jack’s: ‘Will Graham deals with huge amounts of fear. It comes with his imagination.’ He shrugs slightly. “I am,” is all he says.

“You hide it well, in that case.”

“Thanks,” says Will, trying to sound sincere.

Another torturously awkward pause then follows in which Siemens clears his throat a few times and shuffles his feet so extravagantly they appear to be on fire, while Will seems to have forgotten he’s even there and just stares vaguely into the distance at the spectacle of the pillaging, ragged black bodies of the crows. “Well, I guess I’ll be heading off now,” Siemens eventually adds. “Did you say you’ll be in later?”

“Yeah. Later.”

“Well, okay then,” says Siemens unhappily, beginning to twist the ends of the scarf together.

“We can go for a coffee sometime if you like?” offers Will, despite not really wanting to. “Y’know – as friends.”

Siemens abandons the scarf then thrusts his hands in his pockets as the mournful look briefly flits across his round face. “Thanks,” he says eventually. “I’d like that…Perhaps this afternoon?”

“I might not have time today. But, yeah – definitely sometime.”

Siemens gives a resigned nod, clearly understanding this for the polite boundary-setting it actually is, and for a few seconds the mournfulness seems to melt away as a shadow of something bitter and resentful twists around his mouth in its place. Then the look is gone nearly as fast as it arrived leaving him looking, if possible, even more sad and puppyish than before. “Sometime then,” he repeats unhappily.

“Sure.”

“Well look after yourself,” says Siemens, slowly beginning to retreat towards his car like he’s reluctant to leave. “And Will? I’m sorry for just turning up here. It was a bit forward of me; I guess I should have called instead. I just wanted to see you…I mean, I wanted to see if you were okay.”

“No problem,” says Will, attempting to slide back behind the door.

“And I hope I didn’t freak you out or anything. Y’know – with that stuff about the PI? Seriously Will, if I can help you in anyway? If you need any legal advice?”

“I’ll bear it in mind,” says Will, even though he’s no longer really listening. Because of course it’s not a legal matter; at least not in the sense that the law can protect him. Quite the opposite in fact, seeing that if the stranger at the office really was a private investigator there’s only one person who could possibly have sent him.

Back inside the safety of the house Will draws in a shuddering lungful of air and slowly lets it out again before leaning against the wall with his head tipped back. Almost directly opposite is the hallway mirror and as he stands there in the gloomy half-light he can feel himself consumed with a deep reluctance to catch sight of his face in the glass. Because by now he feels he can tell without even looking that it will be there. Pale and patient and lying in wait: that dark reflection of his…his dark mirror image. The one that wanted to beat the drug dealer to death with its bare hands. The one that lives in a twisted, outlawed space just beyond the reach of reality and croons ‘you could kill him, you could kill him’ over and over again like an eerie lullaby intended for nightmares. And standing there, alone in the silence and stillness with nothing but him and the mirror, he finds it impossible not to remember Hannibal’s words from last night in bar: seductive and rhythmic, and resonant with forbidden truths pronounced in a smoky voice. “It’s only natural.”

Chapter Text

The morning manages to drag itself on for an interminable amount on time, limping and staggering like something with broken bones, before it eventually gives up entirely and turns into afternoon; at which point Will finally pulls himself together and obediently gets in his car and drives to work to meet Jack for the scheduled de-brief. The lack of traffic makes the journey much quicker than expected, and Will decides to head to the main pathology lab to wait out the remaining time given there’s a high chance of finding Siemens loitering around in Price and Zeller’s. This is located at the very top of the building and he waits patiently for the elevator only to find himself flinching as the door slides open and the sight of the shiny panel immediately reminds him of that evening all those weeks ago when he saw the dark reflection in it for the very first time. In fact the whole interior now looks sinister somehow: a stiflingly enclosed metal cage that dangles on wires while shadows collect in the corners and strange faces stare out from the walls. Admittedly the sunlight streaming through the window and the sound of trainees gossiping and laughing down the hall should be more than enough to banish such overwrought ideas; yet in spite of himself he still feels disturbed and unsettled and in the end takes the stairs instead when he’s forced to acknowledge that he can’t get over the idea that the reflection is going to be in there waiting for him.

You’re full of shit, Will mutters to himself, attempting levity. But there’s ultimately nothing humorous or trivial about the memory of the reflection with its glittering eyes and grimly staring face, and as a coping strategy he knows that flippancy is going to be quickly doomed to failure. So he picks up his pace instead, eager now to get to the lab and find a legitimate form of distraction so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore, and pushes open the door then slides inside with something like a small sigh of relief. Beverly is on the phone when he comes in and gestures at him to take a seat, and which she somehow manages to accomplish despite jotting down notes in pencil with one hand while holding the phone in the other before swivelling round to adjust a second pencil which is wound into her long dark hair to keep it off her face in place of a proper clip. Will smiles slightly at the sight of it then settles onto one of the stools and begins to leaf through the stack of autopsy reports while Beverly snaps several variants of “…and I told you that you could have it when it’s ready,” into the phone and twirls the pencil around rather maniacally like a member of a malignantly renegade marching band. Given that Beverly’s temperament leans more in the direction of patience and fair-mindedness as a general rule, Will deduces that the person on the other end is being unreasonable in their request – and most likely has some degree of seniority as well, considering that Beverly is never known to berate or lose her temper with colleagues who are junior to herself. In this respect her promotion to head pathologist was met with a degree of good grace and lack of jealousy or disparagement that is extremely unusual, and her lab is widely perceived as a particularly pleasant and constructive place to work amongst the trainees and younger pathologists. Likewise she’s one of the very few alphas in his entire life to who Will has voluntarily admitted being an omega without having ever found cause to regret it.

“Hey Will,” says Beverly once she’s ended the phone call. “Sorry about that: one of the legal guys hassling me about paperwork. He seems to have forgotten that we don’t actually have a court case yet.”

Will gives a grunt of annoyance then flicks over another page of the reports. “It wasn’t Skinner was it?”

“It was, yeah. How did you know?”

“He was after Price for the same thing.”

“I bet he was,” says Beverly bitterly. “He keeps ranting about efficiency without ever seeming to realise that quality and speed are almost never compatible. Honestly, I don’t think he’d recognise efficiency if he tripped over it in the street.”

Will, who suspects that Skinner wouldn’t recognise efficiency if it stood on his shoulders and shit on his head, politely agrees that this is indeed the case.

“Anyway, my slide printer’s broken again so I’m behind on the new tissue samples.” Beverly gestures accusingly towards the desk at the ancient printer, which is notorious throughout the building for arising from slumber every few years to wreck havoc in the manner of some tentacled Lovecraftian God before sinking back to sleep and biding its time until it decides to rise up and unleash itself again. The printer stares back with a rather triumphant look on its malevolent silver face and Beverly scowls at it then turns towards Will again. “I keep asking Jack to replace it and he never does.”

“He’ll just blame the budgets,” says Will. “I wouldn’t bother if I were you.” Beverly sighs in agreement and Will flicks over the next page of the report then pauses and peers a bit closer at the typescript. “Hey, there’s a mistake in this one. It says internal carotid artery, but it was the external. Look: it’s too high up.”

“Oh, yes, you’re right,” replies Beverly after examining the image herself. “Good spot. Thanks.”

“It’s an odd injury though, don’t you think?” says Will thoughtfully. “The way it extends all the way to the vertebrae?”

“Everything about this case is odd. But yes, I agree, the injury isn’t typical.”

“It’s almost the way someone would cut an animal’s throat,” adds Will after another pause. “None of the others had this did they?”

“No, just this most recent victim. You think it’s relevant?”

“I don’t know. Possibly The Sculptor has experience in a farm or abattoir? Or maybe not; maybe it’s nothing. It’s worth making a note of though.”

“Agreed,” replies Beverly, reaching out again for the pencil. “I’ll send a memo to Jack. He stopped by here this morning actually: he says you knew the guy?”

“Not really,” says Will without looking up from the desk. “It was a long time ago.”

“Something to do with whatshisname…The Nemesis Killer?”

“Richard Black – don’t buy into any of that grandiose nemesis crap. He wasn’t a ‘source of defeat or downfall that’s inescapable,’ he was a pathetic sex killer who murdered those students because he liked it. And the link with The Sculptor is very implausible. But yeah; Jack’s looking into the backgrounds of the other five victims just to be sure.”

Beverly nods absently then to Will’s relief drops the subject and begins to busy herself with twisting the second pencil more firmly into her hair. “You want to grab something to eat before the meeting?” she asks when she’s finished. “We could go to the cafeteria: it feels like days since I had lunch.”

“Sure,” says Will, getting to his feet; then promptly regrets it because it means Beverly gets a proper look at him and immediately starts to smile in a rather suggestive way. “What?” he snaps, trying not to make his irritation too obvious.

“You look nice,” replies Beverly. “I mean you looked nicer than usual from the neck up, but with the clothes as well…”

“Right, yeah. Thanks.”

“You’ve done something different with your hair. New shirt, new jacket…”

“They’re not new,” protests Will. “I just don’t wear them that often.”

“You’ve left your glasses off too,” adds Beverly with a hint of triumph. “Admit it, Willikins – you’re on the prowl.”

“I am not on the prowl,” says Will with dignity. Beverly adopts an extremely obvious ‘pull the other one it’s got bells on’ face. “I’m not.”

“Well if you’re not you should be,” says Beverly. “Looking like that; if it weren’t for Anneke I’d snap you up myself.” She laughs good-naturedly to indicate the sheer impossibility of ever wanting anyone else beyond Anneke and Will can’t help smiling too in response – not only because he likes Anneke personally, but from the fact that she and Beverly’s relationship has always seemed like an emblem of what such partnerships ought to be. Because Anneke not only has a good career of her own in publishing, but defies every expectation and constraint of a bonded omega by maintaining her independence and sense of herself, wherein Beverly’s cork board is always full of photos of Anneke receiving awards or travelling to places without Beverly, and Beverly’s conversation is always full of examples of Anneke being forceful and direct and how lucky she is to have someone like Anneke as opposed to Anneke being the fortunate one – which is undoubtedly the role omegas are more usually expected to take. And Anneke herself is warm and witty and endlessly appealing: charming everyone when she turns up at office parties or drops by the lab to see Beverly, with clothes that are always brightly coloured, anecdotes which are always lively and interesting, and long swaying dreadlocks whose tips she dyes vibrant shades of puce or red whenever the fancy takes her. “You should tell her not to,” one of the federal attorneys had once advised Beverly. “It looks so unprofessional.” And Beverly had descended into glorious outrage: not only at the implication that Anneke looked anything less than beautiful and perfect, but the sheer audacity of implying that someone – anyone – had the right to tell Anneke what to do. In fact their dynamic is so extremely unusual in its equality as to appear faintly implausible; and Will wouldn’t have even believed it to be possible if he hadn’t seen it for himself.

“I don’t want to be bonded to anybody,” he now says abruptly – then blushes when he realises he’s inadvertently spoken his thoughts out loud. Beverly raises an eyebrow and he adds, rather awkwardly, “I just wanted to smarten up a bit.”

“Honestly though Will,” replies Beverly with a little smile, “no matter what you say I can’t help feeling someone’s intended to expire with desire when they see you looking like that. Who have you got your eye on?”

“No one,” says Will irritably. “Anyway, even if there was someone, then he…um, or she…I mean not that it matters, because there isn’t anyone.”

He? Go on Will, who is it? You can tell me.”

“Why does me dressing less scruffily than usual automatically have to be about someone else? What if I just want to do it for myself?”

“Because you’d never bother doing that just for yourself. And you look more than just smart, you look delectable; and I think you’re doing it on purpose. Do you know what you remind me of? That crazy 70s song people always do at karaoke: Wig wam bam, gonna make you my man.”

“Wig – what? What are you even talking about?”

“As if you didn’t know,” says Beverly, smiling into her coffee cup.

“No. No, I really don’t.”

Wam bam bam, gonna get you if I can.

“I know you think you’re hilarious, but you’re not.”

Try a little touch, try a little too much.”

“Oh for God’s sake,” says Will in desperation.

“You’re right,” replies Beverly, relenting a little. “I’m sorry, I’m being stupid.”

“I’m not going to argue with that.”

“I wouldn’t bother with an alpha anyway if I were you; we’re far too much trouble. Find yourself a nice beta instead.”

Will grunts non-committedly and Beverly presses her hand on his shoulder before moving away and beginning to shuffle various papers together. “I’m sorry for teasing you,” she adds. “I get carried away.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not really: I’m turning into one of those awful matchmaker types who tries to pair all their friends off against their will. There’s no reason you can’t be perfectly happy on your own.” She hesitates a few seconds then adds in a gentler voice: “You really sounded as if you meant that before? When you said you don’t want to bond with anyone.”

“I did mean it,” says Will firmly. Then he opens his mouth to add I just want to be close to someone before closing it again in fear of how incredibly feeble this sounds.

“I guess the idea of it might be a bit overwhelming?” suggests Beverly. “Someone as empathetic as you; bonding would be very intense.”

Will hesitates a few seconds then just gives a vague nod in response, once more aware of the familiar urge to confide in someone despite feeling completely unable to do so. Because while Beverly’s point about empathy is undoubtedly true, it’s somehow so much more than that. Even his fear of losing his independence by being reduced to someone’s omega, while easy to explain and simple to understand, isn’t the entire truth on its own. And yet the full truth is such a nebulous, confusing thing that he doesn’t really have the words to explain it to himself: how he yearns for intimacy while simultaneously being terrified of it, and the sense that allowing someone to get close makes him deeply vulnerable to giving them the power to hurt him. Not to mention the fact that once they get too close then there’s no way to prevent them seeing how fatally damaged and unlovable he truly is and rejecting him as a result of it…and that seeing his own negative perception of himself being reflected back via someone else would trigger a level of devastation that Will really doesn’t think he can bear.

“If you ever want to talk about it?” ventures Beverly. “We could go for a drink sometime if you wanted? Not that we have to talk about that – we can easily talk about other things. In fact we could go to a karaoke bar and I’ll sing that wig wam bam song as punishment for being so annoying.”

Will starts to smile and carefully rearranges his own stack of papers before finally glancing up. “Sure,” he says. “That would be nice. Only – not karaoke.”

“Not karaoke. And honestly Will, you look great. It’s good to see. To be honest I was a bit worried about you before. I thought you might be getting sick.”

“I have felt a lot better recently,” agrees Will, then experiences a jolt of surprise as he realises he’s been so preoccupied with his numerous other problems that he’s briefly lost sight of the fact he actually does feel much better. In fact not only has the pain nearly vanished, but the tremor has gone from his hands and the memory problems have more than halved; and which, taken together, is strong proof that all those doctors did get it wrong after all and his use of the suppressants isn’t having undue adverse effects. At the thought of this he begins to cheer up again, not least because it might be possible to obtain the next batch by prescription rather than having to run the gauntlet of any more alleyways.

“Much better…” begins Beverly, although the rest of the sentence is lost when the door to the lab flies open and Price and Zeller some tumbling in. “What on earth?” adds Beverly with poorly concealed annoyance.

“Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” shrieks Price. “We come to seek asylum.”

“Skinner and Siemens are in our lab,” adds Zeller in explanation, “which means we have to hide out in yours ‘til they’ve gone.”

“Not all day you can’t,” says Beverly firmly.

“You mean you’re going to refuse us shelter in our time of need?” replies Price indignantly, beginning to rifle through a tray of samples on the desk. “What a heartless young woman you are Dr Katz.”

Beverly leans over and whisks the tray to one side. “Then you’re going to have to man up, Dr Price, and throw them out yourself.”

“We’ve tried. They won’t go.”

“Then you’ll have to try harder.”

“I suppose we could always try and smoke them out,” says Price thoughtfully. “I know how to make mustard gas.”

“It’s not like they even have any reason to be there,” adds Zeller. “They’ve got nothing to do with the medical side. Well, I know why Siemens is there – he wants to marry Will.”

Beverly turns round with her eyebrows raised. “Don’t even think it,” says Will loudly.

“Well he does,” adds Zeller, taking a bite from an apple that Beverly has left on her desk. “He’s always talking about you and getting all starry eyed.”

“Can’t you go and lure them out Will?” urges Price. “Go on – take one for the team. They keep trying to reorganise my files and it’s driving me mad. Siemens in particular has a level of ineptitude that borders on impressive. I’d say he was ham-fisted, only that such a description does a disservice to ham.”

“He’s not so bad,” says Will vaguely. “I guess he means well.”

“But Skinner means badly,” replies Zeller. “And the two of them always appear in a pair. Can’t you go and lure them out? Just walk past the door a few times and Siemens will go after you which means Skinner will go after him.”

“If I ever get haemorrhoids,” adds Price to no one in particular, “I shall name then Skinner and Siemens.”

“No,” says Will firmly.

“Oh well, then we may be here for some time,” says Price, settling into Beverly’s chair in a determined way that makes it clear he has no intention of moving again anytime soon. “We’ll have to take it in turns to be look out while someone else goes to forage for food.”

“You two are ridiculous,” says Beverly. “I suppose I’ll have to go and throw them out myself?”

“If you would that’d be marvellous,” replies Price, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Seeing as Will refuses to be live bait. Are you sure we can’t persuade you by the way, Will? In fact no doubt it would work equally well for Mr Skinner: he seems unaccountably fascinated with you as well. I caught him trying to get into your office this morning.”

“What?” says Will sharply.

“Just stood there in the hallway knocking and rattling on the door handle,” adds Price. “’It’s clearly locked,’ I said to him; he just gave me one of those glares of his and stalked off. So if you would consider being live bait, I’m sure it would work incredibly well. In fact you’re looking rather more spry than usual: Mr Siemens in particular won’t be able to resist.”

Zeller gives a snort of laughter and Will, remembering the dejected face and mournful eyes from this morning, experiences a twinge of remorse that makes him feel a need to protect Siemens from further ridicule. “It’s really not like that,” he says firmly. “He just admires me professionally.” Price adopts a cynical expression that’s not dissimilar to Beverly’s from earlier and Will has a new surge of something that’s partly embarrassment and partly annoyance at the idea of Hannibal being on the receiving end of similar insinuation about Will himself. Oh God, it’s so horribly easy to imagine it too: one of Hannibal’s wealthy sophisticated friends, possibly another doctor – and almost certainly another alpha – taking him to one side for a spot of good-natured teasing about Will’s obvious admiration. ‘The way he trails round after you; don’t you think you should let him down gently? Omegas are so impressionable, they always get overly attached.’ And Hannibal, smiling slightly and shrugging before promising to explain to Will that as much as he respects him and appreciates his company, genuine friendship is out of the question and they can never be on closer terms than that of doctor and patient…

“Will?” says Price. “Are you even listening to a word I’m saying?”

Will struggles to find the energy to insist that he is and ultimately gives up. “No.”

“I said that man came back this morning. The one we thought might be a journalist.”

Will opens his mouth to say that he already knows – before remembering that this will require explaining exactly how he knows – so promptly shuts it again. “I suppose one has to admire his tenacity if nothing else,” adds Price. “You might want to send him off yourself – he’s obviously not listening to us.”

“Yeah,” says Will after a strained pause. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

“Oh God, here comes Jack!” calls Zeller, who appears to have put himself on sentry duty and has his head half wedged round the door. “I bet he makes us go back to our own lab.”

“You know this is actually rather fun,” replies Price happily. “It reminds me of my college days; just like hiding out from the dean.”

“He’s got someone with him,” adds Zeller. “I bet you anything it’s Skinner…oh no it’s okay, it’s just Dr Lecter.”

Will shuffles awkwardly in his chair at the sound of this, trying and failing to wrestle his emotions into some sort of order before making an abruptly panicked decision that he can’t possibly face his first meeting with Hannibal since last night’s fraught encounter to be in front of an audience with no warning and therefore no time to prepare himself. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he says now, quickly getting to his feet and retreating towards the rear exit. “I just to need to get that, um, stuff. For Jack.”

“What stuff?” asks Price. “And why are you wriggling around so much? You look like you need the bathroom.”

“The…reports,” says Will vaguely. “I left them in my car.” Then he dashes out before anyone can delay him further and sprints down the back stairwell so there’s no chance of bumping into Jack and Hannibal on their way up. Oh God, this is ridiculous – why is he being so gauche? It’s actually pretty humiliating; bullshit of proportions that are borderline epic. A Giza Pyramid of Bullshit, in fact. A Rhodesian Colossus of Bullshit. Then he spends so long berating himself (Hanging Gardens of Bullshit, Elgin Marbles of Bullshit, engraved Elf Palaces of Bullshit…) that he misses the right floor and has to retrace his steps in order to reach the entrance to the foyer, despite not having any real idea of what to do once he gets there. The janitor darts him a look of surprise when he materialises from via the fire exit, and internally Will begins to curse himself all over again for behaving in such a stupid way. Although at least this current plan – embarrassing as it is – has the consolation of allowing a bit of a breathing space to get himself together before having to face Hannibal again so perhaps it’s not so bad as all that. He can just saunter in casually halfway through the conversation, somewhat prepared and a bit less anxious, and it might not feel as tense as it would have done otherwise.

To kill a bit more time Will decides he might as well go to his car; especially considering that he’s going to have to pretend he’s searched it for the non-existent reports before claiming he’s left them at home instead when he comes back empty-handed. Christ. Surely being socially awkward never used to be so complicated? It’s uncomfortably cold outside without his coat and he speeds up a little before spotting the unmistakable gleam of Hannibal’s Bentley – and finding it impossible to resist taking a detour past it, despite despising himself the entire time for doing something so pathetic – when he suddenly hears someone calling his name. The voice is raspy and rather metallic sounding, almost as if the speaker has a throat full of staples, and when he turns round he sees a man with a long, tapering horse-like face who’s stood a few paces away by the hood of a dirty sedan that he appears to have just climbed out of.

“Will Graham,” he says, and the scraping voice is shot through with a note of triumph. “I knew it was you.”

Will can’t help stiffening slightly at this ominous statement and stands there for a few seconds feeling warily alert and poised to run yet likewise deeply reluctant to show anything that could be interpreted as fear or submission. “Oh yeah?” he says, and in spite of himself he’s pleased at how casual he manages to make his voice sound. “And you are…?” With a bit of effort he works in a clear dash of disinterest – disdain, even – as if the man’s mere existence is of such profound irrelevance he can barely be bothered to comment on it. “And make it quick. I’m in a hurry.”

“You always seem to be in a hurry,” replies the man, and his voice contains the same clear trace of gloating as previously. “I’ve been trying to pin you down for a while now and everyone kept telling me I’d just missed you. He smiles suggestively, flashing yellow teeth that are as large and uneven as tombstones to match the horse-like face. “Got you now though haven’t I?”

“What are you talking about?” snaps Will. “We haven’t even met before.”

“No – no, we haven’t. And we probably won’t again.” He pauses and slowly runs his eyes over Will’s face in a show of inspection that’s equal parts offensive and obvious. “Shame really. You look like someone I’d enjoy getting to know a little better. But I just wanted to see you Will, that’s all. The famous Will Graham. I just wanted to see you in person. And now I have.”

Will’s stare of contempt appears coolly controlled and appraising; yet inside he’s churning with foreboding because having processed various factors with lightning speed – the furtive manner, the clumsy attempt at a power-play – he’s convinced that this man and the private detective are undoubtedly one and the same. And what’s even worse is that the air of triumph is clearly coming from the fact that he’s just achieved the objective for which he must have been hired in the first place: to identify Will in person and confirm exactly where he can be found. Whether the rest of his odd manner is subterfuge, or some kind of creepy mind game or, God forbid, is actually genuine is impossible to say; but while he doesn’t know that Will’s recognised him for what he really is, the knowledge doesn’t make Will feel at any particular advantage. In fact it’s no advantage at all: Will could turn round now and instruct him to drop the bullshit and go back and tell Andrew to fuck himself and it wouldn’t make any difference. With an enormous effort he tries to stem the roiling sense of panic, floundering for something to catch hold of amidst the wreckage before alighting on the thought of the heat suppressants. Because as long as he’s got them, and as long as they’re working, Andrew’s claim on him diminishes substantially. That’s enough. Isn’t it? It’ll have to be enough.

The detective, wrongly interpreting Will’s strained silence as a sign of weakness, assumes a smug and somewhat predatory expression before taking a few steps closer; and the awareness of it is enough to jolt Will out of his anxious introspection and take a step forward himself in preparation of ordering this creepy asshole to fuck off away from him. Only it turns out not to be necessary after all, because he seems to have noticed something over Will’s shoulder that’s made him stop in his tracks before shuffling slightly and moving backwards again; and Will is briefly confused as to what could have happened to cause him to lose his composure when a familiar voice says: “Is there a problem here?”

“Hey man, there’s no problem,” replies the detective after a small pause. “I’ll be heading off in a minute. I just saw Will and wanted to meet him. That’s all.” The tone of his voice has noticeably altered from before, being far more courteous and ingratiating in an obvious attempt to please, and Will can’t help reflecting – rather enviously – how Hannibal possesses an almost supernatural ability to do nothing beyond standing there with an expression of polite interest on his face while still managing to silently communicate the fact that if you even think about fucking with him then he’ll happily kick your ass. “He’s sort of famous,” adds the detective as if trying to justify himself further. “I just couldn’t resist. Y’know what I mean?”

Hannibal’s dark eyes leisurely scan themselves across the man’s face before finally swivelling onto Will. “Beverly said you’d left some papers in your car,” he says calmly, “which reminded me that I’d likewise left my diary in mine. It would appear that we’re as absent-minded as each another.” Will makes a non-committal noise in response, unable to decide if he entirely believes this (given how hard it is to imagine Hannibal forgetting anything) while struggling to shift the suspicion that he merely wanted an excuse to come and check up on him after hearing how Will had darted out the room. Then he processes the way that Hannibal is staring at the detective and decides, on reflection, that this display of ultra-casualness is probably more for the latter’s benefit than Will’s. In fact the expression ‘lulling into a false sense of security’ comes to mind, even though it’s not really all that suitable. After all, it’s hardly like Hannibal is going to start kicking him round the parking lot…although admittedly it would be rather fun to watch if he did.

“This yours?” the detective is now asking, tapping his hand against the hood of the Bentley.

Hannibal’s eyes slide down to the hand then elevate back upwards again. “It is, yes.”

“It’s nice.”

“Thank you,” says Hannibal politely.

“Beautiful in fact,” adds the detective. “I like beautiful things.” Only this time he’s not looking at the car at all, but rather straight at Will; who notices immediately and struggles not to snarl at him in response

“I’d be happy to pass on a contact for the dealership,” replies Hannibal without missing a beat. “Do you happen to have a business card?”

“Ah, yeah, sure,” says the detective, who’s obviously pleased that someone has assumed he’d be able to afford one. “Right here.” He hands over a rather grubby-looking card and Will darts a furtive glance at it to see what occupation is listed. He’s hardly expecting it to say ‘private detective’ (and of course it doesn’t, instead being labelled ‘home security consultant’) although it hardly makes any difference and he ends up wondering why he even bothered. Because he knows this is what the man is – and, more to the point, that Andrew is the one who hired him. As it happens the texture and dimensions of the card are pretty much identical to the one found on the fifth Sculptor victim, although it’s not that much of a coincidence as far as these things go and hardly seems worth paying further attention to. There’s only so much variety that can be expected form a business card after all; half the state is probably carrying similar.

At some point Hannibal seems to have positioned himself between the detective and Will so that the latter now has to peer round his shoulder in order to catch Will’s eye again. “I guess I’ll be heading off now,” he says, narrowing his own eyes which are pale and practically lashless with a faint pinkish tinge like a rat. “It was nice to meet you Will.” Hannibal turns and gives him a long, slow stare and he clears his throat with an awkward scraping sound. “Mr Graham, I mean. Perhaps I’ll see you around some time?”

“That’s very unlikely,” snaps Will, unable to contain himself any longer. “And do me a favour would you? Tell him no.”

The detective’s face flickers slightly, although he recovers himself almost immediately. “I don’t know what you mean pal,” he says, careless and casual. “Who are you talking about?”

Will leans back a little then folds his arms and delivers an accusing stare of his own; and the detective glances from him to Hannibal then clears his throat again before the long horse-like face arranges itself into the semblance of a smile. “Hey, you never know,” he says. “I might bump into you again one day…now I know where to find you.”

“Try it,” says Will ominously.

This time the detective fails in his attempt to smile again and just tips his head in Will's direction in a rather insolent way before retreating to his car – completely unaware the entire time of two sets of eyes beaming into the back of his head. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me,” Hannibal finally says over the revving noise of the engine, “but I intend to ask all the same. What was that about?”

“I don’t know,” replies Will. “I’ve never met him before.” Then he hesitates and jams into hands into his pockets, overwhelmed all over again at the impossibility of confiding about Andrew despite desperately wanting to. Hannibal stares back in the usual impassive way and Will thinks of the heat suppressants and the lifeline they undoubtedly offer and tries to rally himself a bit. “It’s kind of a crossed-wires situation,” he eventually adds. “He’s got the wrong idea about a couple of things: he thinks the situation’s one way and it’s actually another. You know?”

“No,” says Hannibal. “From that description I don’t know anything at all.”

Will laughs slightly before shivering as a particularly vicious gust of wind cuts across the thin material of his shirt. Hannibal makes a regretful noise at the sight of it and Will has a sudden sense that he might be about to offer him his own coat and tries to think of a way to avert it before something so embarrassing can actually happen. “Look, let’s go in,” he says. “Jack’ll be wondering what’s happened to us.”

“You don’t need to get anything from your car?”

“No,” says Will. “I don’t suppose you do either, do you?”

“No,” replies Hannibal with a faint smile. Will catches his eye and begins to smile too and Hannibal takes a step closer. “You look very…well,” he adds, flicking his gaze across Will’s face and then down over his clothes. “Better than you have for some time.”

“Thanks,” says Will, rather shyly. Then he goes completely silent because the advice from all those crappy websites has started to replay in his mind and he’s overcome with horror at the idea he might be inadvertently batting his eyelashes or something equally awful. Oh God…he’s not is he? Christ. This is terrible. It’s entirely Hannibal’s fault for being so suave and imposing. As if reading his mind Hannibal moves a little closer still, smoothly insinuating his way into Will’s space as if he has an imperishable right to be in it, and Will promptly realises that he’s grown so obsessed with not accidentally fluttering his eyelashes that he's gone too far the other way and is now stood with both eyes fixed rigidly open like someone tragically struck down with paralysis.

“I suppose there’s no real reason for me to remark on it,” adds Hannibal. “It’s less than 24 hours since I last saw you after all.” He pauses thoughtfully then strokes his gaze across Will’s face again. “Why does it feel so much longer?”

“It doesn’t,” snaps Will impatiently, aware on some level that he’s being a rude little shit but unable to suppress his resentment at – once again – being toyed about with in this way.

“But it does,” replies Hannibal, clearly undeterred. “A quality in yourself perhaps? Artistry demands attention and absorbs imagination after all. It alters one’s perception; perhaps you’re starting to alter mine? You’ve certainly performed enough contortions on your own.” Will darts him an angry look and Hannibal smiles very faintly in silent acknowledgement of last night’s incendiary conversation about what might, or might not, be considered natural. “Art for art’s sake, and artistry by proxy,” adds Hannibal, and his now voice feels vaguely unsettling in its level of forceful concentration. Although it’s still a strangely beautiful voice, reflects Will hazily. Husky, slow and caressing…even now. Even when imbued with the smoulder of unspoken hazards; even when it’s about to tell him things that he’s not certain he’s ready to hear. Then Hannibal takes another step closer and Will feels like wincing with frustration all over again because of course it’s far more than just that isn’t it? It more than the enigmas and insinuations and strangely thrilling verbal parries – it’s just the sheer fucking contrast between them. It’s the fact that Hannibal is eternally fascinating whereas Will is desperately uninspired; that he’s light on his feet while Will casts a shadow and the way he can devise and discard his own rules of cascading and fiendish complexity as he goes along, while Will trails behind inhibited by rules and rationalisation. Hannibal is an object of indefinite idealisation. Like a genuine artwork, with his patrician bone structure and dark eyes and aristocratic bearing, imbued with all his different hues and tints – from Stygian to luminous – whereas Will is toiling away with a palette that’s far more conventional and commonplace: a lot of labour for little result. And he wants so badly to be able to saunter away without a backward glance; to tell Hannibal that these odd mind games are growing tedious and why can’t he just find something else to amuse himself with – and he deeply resents the fact that he can’t.

“I do feel better,” Will finally replies, partly because it’s true but mostly in a defiant attempt to force the conversation back onto more normal and less unsettling lines. “I’ve felt better for a while now actually.” As he’s speaking he’s aware of the wind blowing his hair into his eyes rather furiously and begins to frown with annoyance at it; and Hannibal watches too then reaches out to deftly smooth it away before allowing his index finger to skim along the tip of Will’s cheekbone.

“You look it,” he says softly. “Whatever the cause, I hope it continues.”

Just like last night it’s a startlingly intimate gesture, yet while a part of Will suspects he ought to be offended the manner in which it’s done feels more about appreciation than invasiveness: the sort of gently reverent way that someone might run their hand against a statue or the wooden frame of a painting, and which seems less about a coarse desire to touch than simply a tactile wish to appraise the thing you’ve seen which pleases you. Then he struggles against a brief urge to close his eyes, aware of how the sensation of Hannibal’s skin against his seems to have a powerfully seductive effect that’s both grounding and unhinging at the same time. In fact it’s a perfect storm of contradiction: a reminder of why, as always, he can never bring himself to walk away despite reinforcing exactly why he probably should. Yet nevertheless it’s still enough to quell his internal riot of doubts and second-guessing and replace them instead with a calm acceptance of the situation and a willingness to continue playing the game for just a little longer – if for no better reason than simply to see what might happen. How is it even possible for someone’s attention to be so addictive? Fleetingly he thinks of the crack houses he’s sometimes had to scour through in search of suspects: the rapture and the ruin and the constant glassy-eyed conviction that it’s ‘just this one last time’ as the crooked figures blinked into the darkness and fantasised night after night that the fragile, lethal love they had crafted between themselves and the drugs could last forever. Obsession. Craving. The one last fix that never was. Yet even the awareness of it can’t change the undeniable sense of charge and chemistry and as Hannibal’s finger gently strokes down his face he not only doesn’t pull away but maintains eye contact the entire time without flinching.

“I hope so too,” he finally replies. “I guess I’ll have to see what happens.”

Hannibal stares back rather soulfully. “And what do you want to happen?”

“That’s quite a question,” says Will after another pause. “Different things I guess. Sometimes I know more about what I don’t want; other times…not so much. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything at all.”

“And yet knowing is never enough on its own,” replies Hannibal. He trails a fingertip along Will’s jaw before removing his hand entirely; and even though it was there for seconds only, Will immediately feels aware of the lack of it. “We become so preoccupied with the urgency of knowing; sometimes one simply needs to do.”

“Then hopefully I’ll do the right thing.”

“And you think you’ll know what that is?” asks Hannibal, who’s started to smile again.

“No,” says Will, who’s now smiling too. “Probably not. But then right and wrong are always relative aren’t they? You said so yourself.” He stares back silently, defiant and unafraid, whereas Hannibal – extremely unusually – doesn’t appear to have a ready reply to hand and merely gazes back somewhat rapturously instead; and which immediately makes Will smile even more at the sense of having managed to have the last word.

From across the carpark there’s the sound of the door clattering open shortly followed by Jack’s voice. “Will!” he yells. “You still out here? Get those reports, can’t you, and come back in – everyone’s waiting.”

“On my way,” Will calls back without moving his eyes from Hannibal’s face.

“Another talent of yours it would seem,” says Hannibal, returning the stare. “To be so sought after and waited upon. The imperative hardly matters: whether it’s with tolerance, or impatience, or a quiet anticipation – how willing we all are to wait for you.”

“You think so?” says Will bleakly, briefly thinking of Andrew.

“Of course,” replies Hannibal. “Even you are waiting: waiting to know and accept the essence of yourself. You’re waiting so patiently aren’t you Will? You’ve been waiting your entire life.” Will continues to stare back silently, unable to fully acknowledge the implications of this, and Hannibal slowly strokes his eyes across his face for a second time in a way that lingers across Will’s lips and eyes. “Not that waiting is any particular virtue in itself,” he adds eventually. “It’s only when one can appreciate the value of what is being waiting for. And likewise, of course, to understand exactly why it is that one is prepared to wait.”

The way in which this is said has a trace of something like tenderness beneath the usual deadpan tone which isn’t normally there; and Will meets Hannibal’s eye again and finds himself unable to look away just as Jack’s voice comes floating over again, even louder this time and with an added twist of annoyance: “Will.”

“And here we have someone who is not prepared to wait,” says Hannibal lightly. “Perhaps someone should inform him that anything truly worth having is worth waiting for.”

“Maybe,” says Will. “Although something tells me he won’t particularly want to hear it.” Hannibal nods in acknowledgement then narrows his eyes rather malevolently in Jack’s direction which makes Will laugh. Then without even thinking about it he reaches out and places his hand on Hannibal’s shoulder: easy and casual as if it’s supposed be there, like he’s performed the gesture a hundred times before, and complete unaware of the way it makes Hannibal’s expression soften in response. “Come on then,” he says. “Let’s go.”

As he’s turning away it vaguely occurs to Will that he never actually got as far as his car, even though the realisation is a fleeting one and only seems to matter in terms of whether anyone noticed and how he can explain the lack of the reports to Jack. In that moment it never occurs to him that another opportunity may have been missed. Why would it? It’s just the same car in the same bay in the parking lot, the same as it always is. There’s nothing significant about it; and it’s because of this that there’s no way he can possibly know the repercussions of walking away from it when he did. No way he can know it means he’s going to miss the flat white business card that’s been tucked onto the windshield, and which in the next few hours is destined to blow away unnoticed and unremarked as it carries with it a single word printed in the centre in stark black letters: Nemesis.

Chapter Text

A few weeks later sees Will sitting on a bench in the park with his phone in one hand, a thermos of coffee in the other, and his briefcase propped on his left side while Hannibal sits close by on the right. In theory Will supposes that Hannibal ought to feel like a much less familiar accessory than the other things, but even though they’ve only recently begun the routine of going to the park together every lunchtime it already feels like an established custom; and one in which Hannibal has managed to acquire all the easy informality of something that’s been in Will’s life for far longer than he actually has.

In this respect Will can’t quite pinpoint exactly how the arrangement started – if it was him who first suggested it, or whether it was Hannibal – only that he can no longer imagine doing anything else and can sometimes barely even remember what it was like to spend lunchtimes in any other way. He also actively looks forward to it now (on some occasions going so far as to hover hopefully by the office window for the sight of the Bentley sweeping into the carpark at midday) and is even content to tolerate the good-natured teasing from the likes of Beverly about having a secret admirer whenever he vanishes from the building and returns an hour later looking bright-eyed and smiling. If Hannibal is already at the FBI for some meeting or other then it’s generally Will who drives, but if he’s coming over from his own office then Will is the one who gets chauffeured about and comes dashing down the stairs to climb into the car; and where Hannibal always says (which is also now part of the custom) “Same as usual?” and to which Will always replies “Yes, why not.” Sometimes he thinks he might say no and suggest somewhere else, but Hannibal never seems to expect any different answer and the truth is that Will rather likes the park. Or at least he likes going there with Hannibal, because it means they can arrange themselves on the same bench by the lakeside and either discuss the case or merely sit in companionable silence while Hannibal produces a steaming thermos of coffee and neat Tupperware containers whose contents are always deceptively simple yet unfailing delicious: soda bread stuffed with salmon and crème fraiche; chicken escalope with rocket leaves, sage and lemon; fried gnocci drenched in pesto and parmesan; or delicate prawns that swim in fragrant sauces of white wine, parsley and garlic. An awareness of the care-taking instincts that omegas are supposed to arouse in alphas had initially made Will uncomfortable in accepting these small attentions, but after several weeks of it he’s become convinced that Hannibal merely takes a satisfaction in feeding him that has less to do with gender than it does with an hedonic appreciation of the food itself. In fact on the rare occasions that Will isn’t able to come to the park then Hannibal merely drops off a parcel of food for him to eat at his desk – and Will no longer minds this either.

“Richard Black’s prison records have arrived,” says Will now, finally glancing up from his phone. “It took ages to get them released. Jack ended up having to ring the governor himself.” He smiles slightly at the memory. “I could hear him bellowing all the way down the corridor. Talk about pulling rank.”

“I can imagine,” replies Hannibal, who always finds other people’s clumsy displays of dominance to be highly tedious compared to the more elegant charms of manoeuvring and manipulation. At the thought of it he gives a small, fastidious eye-roll. “No doubt he enjoyed himself immensely.”

“Hmmm.”

“Although still to the purpose of course: you now have your information on The Nemesis Killer.”

“Oh not you as well. I keep telling everyone to stop calling him that.”

What’s in a name?” quotes Hannibal thoughtfully. “I suppose the grandiosity of it appealed to him.”

“Yeah exactly. The newspaper nickname suited him a lot better: The Creole Co-Ed Killer.”

“Didn’t you tell me he coined the term ‘Nemesis’ himself?”

“Because he claimed the murders were revenge against alphas,” replies Will with obvious contempt. “I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now.”

“It’s intriguing though,” says Hannibal, beginning to look thoughtful again. “And you must concede that it adds a new dimension to the Sculptor murders: if they really are an homage to Richard Black. After all, you said from the very beginning you thought a copycat was at work.”

“I also said I couldn’t explain why anyone would want to pay tribute to that asshole. Or how anyone would have even heard of him; the whole case was so incredibly low key.”

“How dismissive you are of your own insights,” says Hannibal fondly. “Considering that Richard Black is the most concrete association to the Sculptor that’s so far been found. I agree it raises more questions than it answers of course; but if there is a link, I’m sure you’ll find it.”

Will pulls a sceptical face. “What, you really think there might be one?”

“I don’t know: I’d have to see his prison files. Bring them round one evening and we can go through them together. I’ll make you dinner.”

“Okay, thanks,” says Will, sounding pleased.

“You’re welcome.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a pen to hand have you?” adds Will, who’s been rooting around in his pockets with mounting irritation and returning each time empty-handed. “I can’t find mine. I must have dropped it.” Hannibal wordlessly passes one over – a gleaming Montblanc fountain pen with a slim gold line running down both sides – and Will takes it then gives a hiss of annoyance when he blots the paper on the first few strokes.

“It’s because the nib adapts to the angle and style of its owner’s handwriting,” says Hannibal sardonically. “The pen is a monogamous instrument.”

“Not anymore it’s not. It’s just cheated on you.”

“It is at your disposal,” replies Hannibal with a smile.

Will makes an amused noise in response (mostly because only Hannibal could anthropomorphize an overpriced pen with such impressive gravitas…for some reason Hamlet declaiming to Yorick’s skull comes to mind), then renews scribbling into his notebook. “Your fingers seem a little stiff,” adds Hannibal after watching his progress for a few more seconds. “You’re not cold are you?”

“I’m all right,” replies Will without looking up. “Are you? We can leave if you are.” Then it occurs to him that they’re getting perilously close to fussing over each other like a pair of old women and resolves to let the subject drop. In fact it is rather too chilly to remain comfortably outside for much longer, but even though the weather’s deteriorated since their arrangement was first made Will always feels reluctant to leave until the hour is up.

“Jack Crawford is still insisting on a press conference,” adds Hannibal, who’s now returned to flicking through the newspaper with his usual supernatural speed. “I’ve advised him against it repeatedly. As have you. The man is completely impossible.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s the stubbornness I find most irritating,” says Hannibal witheringly.

“Oh let it go,” replies Will, who’s already heard variations of this complaint several times before.

“Yes, but you know he can never admit when he’s wrong.”

Will smiles to himself then reaches out and gives Hannibal a nudge with his foot. “Seriously though – let it go. Impossible, stubborn, can’t admit he’s wrong. You sound like his bitter ex-boyfriend.”

“You know I have nothing sensible with which to respond to that,” says Hannibal serenely, returning the pressure on Will’s foot. “You may consider yourself to have shocked me into silence.”

“Good.”

“Actually no, I do have one observation. Namely that I now have another crime to add to Jack’s existing list, in that he never warned me what I was taking on when I agreed to work with you.”

“It serves you right for freelancing as a babysitter,” says Will smugly. “You should have stayed doing therapy for wealthy alphas.”

“I should – you are quite right. You have forced me to confront my limitations.”

“And what a limitation it is; being a nanny for the FBI.” Will pauses then smirks slightly. “A Nannibal.”

“Such things you say to me,” replies Hannibal in a martyred tone.

Will smirks again then puts down the notebook so he can rummage for his gloves and tighten his scarf more securely round his throat. “You are cold aren’t you,” adds Hannibal. “I suspected as much.”

“Well so are you. You won’t admit it either.”

Hannibal smiles too then wordlessly lifts his arm and wraps it round Will’s shoulder to pull him closer. “Shared body heat,” he adds, retuning back to the newspaper. “An indispensable skill for any self-respecting nanny.” In fact the speed and smoothness with which he does it are such that Will barely has time to register it’s happened at all before he’s found himself pressed against Hannibal’s chest and is able to realise, with a jolt of surprise, that his initial response isn’t aversion or awkwardness but something more like comfort. In this respect it probably ought to feel inappropriate to be sat there entwined together on a park bench, but it actually really doesn’t. It feels…nice. Natural. So in the end he just gives a small sigh of contentment then swivels round so his head is tucked beneath Hannibal’s chin and he can manoeuvre his notebook into a comfortable position for reading. Hannibal obligingly shifts to the side to give Will more room then returns to silently reading himself, every so often moving his face so that his cheekbone brushes against Will’s hair.

After a while it occurs to Will that he seems to have gone into a rather embarrassing trance-like state that involves nestling up against Hannibal’s chest with his eyes half-closed while Hannibal rhythmically strokes his shoulder and stops brushing his cheek against Will’s hair in favour of just resting his face against it instead. Although Hannibal doesn’t appear to be remotely embarrassed or self-conscious about this, so Will supposes there’s no real reason why he should be either. “You seem very tired,” adds Hannibal gently, taking a few seconds to move his hand upwards from Will’s shoulder to caress the back of his neck. “Have you not been sleeping?”

“I don’t know,” says Will, shifting slightly to give the hand better access. “I guess so.”

“Jack’s working you too hard.”

“Not really.” Hannibal doesn’t reply and Will tugs the edge of his coat. “Hey, don’t say anything to him will you? Seriously – I don’t want you to.”

“Oh I see; you’re concerned I’m going to intervene on your behalf.”

Don’t,” says Will firmly. Hannibal makes an amused sound then gives the newspaper a determined rustle in response; and the fact that he hasn’t agreed not to makes Will pretty certain that Jack’s destined to find himself on the receiving end of a lecture nonetheless. Although in all honesty the idea of Jack being lectured into submission is actually pretty entertaining (not least because Hannibal’s ability to administer lectures is almost certainly higher than Jack’s capacity to withstand them), so in the end he lets the subject drop and concentrates on burying a bit further beneath Hannibal’s arm instead before stowing his notebook into his pocket so he can join Hannibal in reading the newspaper.

“Look at you now,” says Hannibal, slowly smoothing his palm across Will’s neck again. “How charming you can be when you try. It’s rather irresistible.”

Will (who finds the idea of being thought charming somewhat mortifying rather than irresistible), makes a non-committal grunting noise in retaliation then buries even further beneath Hannibal’s arm so if he happens to be blushing there’s no risk of it being spotted. The next few minutes then pass in companionable silence interspersed with the occasional good-natured bickering over what to read next (with Will dismissing the finance section as ‘dull as hell’ and Hannibal refusing point blank to go anywhere near the sporting pages) when the solitude is finally interrupted in the form of a young male omega walking past with a stroller. He appears to be heading for a bench opposite theirs and after a while Will abandons the newspaper and grows preoccupied with watching him instead; not least because it’s so unusual to see another one close up and the sight has aroused a curious blend of solidarity mixed with curiosity. The omega’s face has an oddly vacant expression on it, rather as if he’s examining some internal landscape far removed from the reality of a frigid park on a winter’s afternoon, and even when he’s only a few yards away he still doesn’t seem to register that anyone else is nearby. Then he deposits his backpack on the bench and prepares to sit down, at which point he’s finally close enough for Will to see the unmistakable scar of an alpha bite on the back of his neck. Despite knowing exactly what it is and how it got there, the brief glimpse of it still manages to be deeply shocking: raised and raw-looking, with jagged uneven edges as if the flesh has been torn away.

“Look at that bite!” says Will in horror.

“Where?”

There.” With an effort he lowers his voice, although it hardly seems to matter given that the young omega doesn’t give the slightest indication of having heard him or even acknowledging that he’s there. Hannibal obediently puts down the newspaper and subtly glances over himself at the same moment as Will automatically straightens up then shuffles back towards his half of the bench. He knows he probably sounds naïve – childish even, at such an overreaction – but the simple fact is that he hasn’t seen all that many bites in real life and the sight of it has unsettled him. Most omegas cover them with their hair after all, and Will isn’t on sufficiently intimate terms with any others to have been personally shown one. On the other hand the ones he’s seen in text books have always appeared neat and precise: little arrangements of dentition scars that dot across the skin with the same delicate uniformity as braille and bearing no resemblance to the violent brand-like wound that’s currently in front of him

“It’s not untypical,” replies Hannibal, who appears to have lost interest and returned to his newspaper again. “Perhaps a little pronounced, although I’ve seen worse. A male alpha by the look of it, and a first bond for the omega. The tissue is hypertrophic which makes the bite appear deeper than it is.”

Will just shakes his head and doesn’t answer. Because no degree of medical rationales can alter the fact that the bite looks vicious; a gesture of possession that seems to have far more to do with ownership than with love. Subconsciously he finds himself touching his own neck in sympathy, appalled at the idea of how much it must have hurt.

“It’s not as painful as it looks,” says Hannibal, noting the gesture and correctly interpreting what it means. “When omegas are…” He pauses tactfully. “Receptive, then the glands on the back of the neck trigger a release of endorphins. Peptides in the alpha’s saliva have the same effect. It’s the body’s…”

“The body’s natural painkillers,” snaps Will. “They activate the opioid receptors. See? I know what they are.”

“I can imagine it’s unnerving seeing it close up,” replies Hannibal calmly. Reaching out he takes hold of Will’s hand and gently guides it away from his neck, briefly allowing their fingers to tangle together before letting go. “It’s still an injury after all.”

“And they’re not always receptive. It’s a complete myth that omegas settle for the first alpha they see when they’re in heat. Need and desire…they’re not the same.”

“I know that Will.”

“A complete myth,” adds Will with clear bitterness. “And one that alphas have been responsible for spreading.”

This time Hannibal doesn’t respond at all, obviously sensing that any attempt at discussion is only going to irritate Will further, so instead just places his hand over Will’s again and gently massages his wrist with his thumb. As an attempt at soothing it’s unexpectedly effective and Will takes a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down while struggling with a wave of embarrassment over his previous outburst. Hannibal quietly returns to reading the paper without letting go of his hand and Will shuffles unhappily but still can’t force himself to stop watching the omega; and who in turn is clearly still oblivious to Will’s scrutiny and is now engaged with forlornly sketching into a large spiral-bound notebook while absent-mindedly rocking the stroller back and forward with his foot. After a while the child inside begins to wail – a sound always guaranteed to set Will’s teeth on edge – and the omega sighs and lays aside the sketchbook to tend to the pram’s squalling contents until it’s calmed down. There’s nothing obviously unhappy or resentful about the way he does it and his expression is one of patient resignation more than anything else; but Will still can’t help sending silent waves of sympathy in his direction – which promptly double in magnitude when a second stranger turns up who’s quite obviously the alpha.

Even by alpha standards he’s extremely tall and broad and he pauses and darts Will a look of blatant curiosity before catching sight of Hannibal and quickly turning his head again in a way that makes Will long to yell that another alpha is the least of his problems and Will’s more than capable of kicking his smug, stupid ass all on his own. Then he realises the reason the other alpha moved away so quickly is because Hannibal is beaming a volcanic variant of the ‘don’t even think about fucking with me’ expression in his direction, and so promptly feels irritated with him instead for regressing to posturing alpha bullshit and behaving as if Will is a passive piece of property to be squabbled over simply because he happens to be an omega. In fact Hannibal has now tightened his grip on Will’s wrist to a point that’s almost painful – and doesn’t appear to have plans for releasing him anytime soon – so Will sighs to himself all over again then mentally triples the strength of his sympathy waves towards the other omega, whose sketchbook seems to have vanished into the depths of his backpack and who is now sat bolt upright with his hands folded neatly in his lap as he responds to whatever crap the alpha’s no doubt saying to him with a look of studiously polite concentration on his face.

Will watches them for a while longer and is appalled to find himself secretly hoping that the alpha might be disagreeable to the omega in some way just so it would give Will an excuse to go over and yell at him. Although he doesn’t do anything that could remotely be construed as abusive; and notwithstanding that horrific scar of the omega’s pale, vulnerable neck he undoubtedly seems harmless enough. Affectionate even, particularly in the way he leans over the stroller and babbles some happy nonsense to the baby inside. And yet there’s still something about the way he interacts with the omega – the possessive hand on the shoulder; the complacent, self-satisfied smile – that’s enough to make Will look at him and loathe him. Hannibal, likewise, is still showing no signs of turning off the ‘fuck with me at your own risk’ expression and Will half hopes that the other alpha might catch sight of it and be scared off in the same way he was before. Although unfortunately the first version appears to have worked a bit too well, because the alpha has obviously positioned himself in a way that means he can avoid looking in Hannibal’s direction at all and has instead settled onto the bench himself and begun reading a magazine. Every so often he breaks off to show something in it to the omega who nods and smiles in response; and when he’s not nodding and smiling then he’s examining the contents of the stroller or gazing into space – although at no point does he make any attempt to retrieve the sketchbook and resume drawing while the alpha is there. Only once does the omega finally catch Will’s eye and give a very faint smile; and it occurs to Will that he’s probably assumed Will is doing the exact same thing as he is – obediently sitting with his alpha and doing his best to be attractive and available until the alpha finally leaves and you can go back to being yourself for a few hours until the alpha comes back and you stop being you and have to be their omega again. It’s the reality of being a bonded omega after all. Nothing is really left for yourself because it all gets submerged into someone else; and all you get in return is a livid gash of ownership on the back of your neck and someone to dictate and manoeuvre your every action like a pretty, useless marionette dangling on a string.

Will knows that he’s being ridiculous of course: looking at a stranger and trying to construct a whole narrative for them. The omega might have actively wanted this type of life. He might have grown up thinking of nothing else, fantasising all day and dreaming all night of when the time would come that he’d be whisked away by a wealthy alpha and provided with an endless supply of screaming strollers to push around parks. It may well be that the alpha encourages his art, actively supports it even, and that the omega is entirely content: fulfilled and free. Yet Will can’t help glancing at the sad young face: and he just knows, deep down, that he’s not.

*****

Will spends the rest of the lunch hour in a state of pensiveness, reluctant to leave yet equally unable to gravitate back towards Hannibal’s side of the bench again either. In fact amongst his numerous other sources of brooding is a new conviction that if he’d been sat alone then the other alpha would never have noticed him and it was the way he was draped halfway across Hannibal’s lap that immediately identified him as an omega – and in this respect the intensity with which he feels like he wants to be Hannibal’s arms again is bothering him, because it represents a need for protection and comfort that Will’s reluctant to acknowledge he requires, as well as a yearning for intimacy that he’s convinced will make him vulnerable in the long-term. To be honest he’s not sure how it’s even possible to be so drawn to something that fundamentally unsettles you – and doesn’t have the energy right now to try and work it out – and when Hannibal puts a hand on his arm he inadvertently flinches.

“What’s the matter Will?” asks Hannibal calmly.

“Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.”

“You seem tense. Restless.”

“I’m not.” Hannibal raises an eyebrow and Will blushes very faintly at such an obvious lie. “I have to see the doctor this afternoon,” he adds, hoping this might sound like a convincing excuse. “And, y’know – I don’t like going.”

“Is he an alpha?” asks Hannibal, whose eyes have started to narrow.

“She. Actually I don’t know; I have no idea.”

“Would you like me to come with you?”

“No,” says Will quickly, internally cringing at the idea of it. “I mean, I appreciate you offering, but…”

“But you don’t want to be nannied?”

Will starts to smile in spite of himself. “No.”

“You’ve seemed so much better in the last few weeks,” adds Hannibal, slowly flicking his eyes across Will’s face. “The physical recovery is most obvious, but mentally you’re also much improved. You’re more…purposeful.”

“It’s not like I was indecisive before,” says Will defensively.

“I know you weren’t; perhaps purposeful is the wrong choice of word. How about animated? Or vigorous? Or maybe it’s not the addition of one thing as much as the retreat of something else. You seem less inhibited.” Hannibal smiles very faintly. “It’s as if your emotions were being muted by those suppressants and you’re slowly waking up again. Coming back to life, as it were.”

Will gives a small frown at this, because surely he wasn’t that sedated to begin with? He’d have noticed if he was; someone would have told him. Hannibal, evidently, has an odd definition of what constitutes animation. “Anyway I’m still taking them,” he adds, “so the difference can’t be as big as all that.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” replies Hannibal, whose smile now seems to have turned inwards on itself as if enjoying some private joke. “Regardless of the cause the main thing is that you’re feeling better.”

Will nods appreciatively at this, although neglects to add that the main reason he’s visiting the doctor is to obtain more suppressants. The disappearance of the side effects has kindled a hope that he might be able to get them legally without further violent rendezvous in alleyways and idea of it is cheering him up considerably, despite the fact it’ll require running the gauntlet of Dr Reynold’s waiting room with its primly disapproving receptionist and acres of corpse-blue plush. Or Dr Reynolds herself amends Will, remembering how her manner last time was so patronising and unhelpful. But it has to be done, not least because of the horrifying spectre of Andrew and the lawyers and the heat suppressants being the most promising means of banishing them. In fact when the detective first materialised in the parking lot Will had spent the following few days in a state of tortured anticipation that his presence would surely herald the arrival of Andrew; and despite there still being no sign of him, it feels far too premature – if not outright dangerous – to take it for granted that he’s not going to turn up. Rather than returning to work Will therefore gets Hannibal to drop him in the city centre with the intention of heading to the clinic directly to try and get the whole ordeal over with as quickly as possible.

“I’m sorry by the way,” adds Will as he’s unfastening his seatbelt.

“For what?”

“This afternoon: I know I was a bit odd.”

“No more than usual,” replies Hannibal with a smile.

“Yeah, well. It was…”

“It was seeing that bite,” says Hannibal. “I know.” He waits a few seconds and then, when it’s clear Will isn’t going to elaborate: “It’s obvious that something is troubling you.” Will bites his lip and still refuses to reply, and Hannibal adds in a gentler voice: “It’s also obvious that you don’t feel able to talk about it. But when you are – you know where I am.”

“Thank you,” replies Will hesitantly. Glancing down he realises that his hand (that traitorous bastard), has started reaching out so that Hannibal can take hold of it, seemingly without any kind of conscious permission from Will’s brain. “I’d like to,” he eventually adds. “It’s just...it’s complicated. It’s really complicated.”

“I know,” is all Hannibal says, and nothing in his expression indicates his extreme private frustration that this is proving so impossible to establish. Given the impending results of the new tablets he’s recently increased his own surveillance of Will to a maximum level, even following him by car on numerous occasions, and yet despite the scrutiny absolutely no new evidence has ever presented itself. Will never appears to do anything beyond drive to work or drive home again, and where he barricades himself inside without ever giving the appearance of meeting with anyone or going anywhere. Something is clearly happening of course; yet short of prising Will apart like a clam there’s no obvious way to discover what it is. On an impulse Hannibal now reaches out and covetously strokes his fingers through Will’s hair, admiring how beautiful he looks while wishing a way could be contrived of levering his skull open and inspecting all the thoughts and impulses existing there. I would be so gentle, thinks Hannibal, regretful at this denied opportunity. I don’t want to hurt you; I only wish to know you.

“I’ll try,” adds Will, leaning into the touch. “Someday I’ll try and explain.”

“Whenever you’re ready,” replies Hannibal, reluctantly letting Will go so he can climb out the car. “And let me know if you need anything in the meantime won’t you?”

“Thanks.”

“Otherwise I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Definitely,” says Will. “Same time as usual.” Then he smiles rather shyly though the window before heading off towards the clinic, aware of how Hannibal is parked up watching until he’s got inside and unable to stop himself feeling touched, albeit faintly irritated, by the obvious show of protectiveness. Unlike last time the building seems almost deserted, and while the waiting room is just as pale and blue and plushy as he remembers it (and the receptionist several orders of magnitude more irritating) it turns out he’s not destined to endure either of them for very long as the clinic is running on time for once and he’s able to go through after only five minutes of waiting. Dr Reynolds is sat behind her desk as he walks in, looking so serene and inscrutable that it’s almost like she never left it since the last meeting and just lives here all the time amongst the plush, pot plants and Claude Monet prints in a state of perpetual availability that only needs the presence of a patient to make her real. It’s actually a bit weird, like one of those philosophical thought experiments on perception: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is round to hear it, does it make a sound…?

“Mr Graham?”

It’s at this point that Will realises he’s staring into space having a pointless mental ramble about non-existent trees in imaginary forests (which as a choice of occupation seems like a pursuit for only the saddest of bastards) so straightens up in his chair and politely makes his request for a new prescription of suppressants. Dr Reynolds’ mouth and forehead promptly arrange themselves into an expression that Will decides could most kindly be described as ‘concerned irritation’ and his heart sinks at the sight of it, because only a few seconds in has already made it depressingly obvious how this appointment is destined to go. She has a thin, tanned face with eyes that are very bright and brown and it’s this combined with the obvious annoyance that makes him think of an eagle or possibly some kind of woodland creature that’s wise yet wary and sets great store by its wits. “I sympathise with your situation Mr Graham,” Dr Reynolds says now in a brisk, doctorly tone. “I really do. But what you’re proposing is medically irresponsible.”

“I know,” says Will patiently, “but that was before.” Silently he wishes he could snap at her to stop telling him how sorry she is and just fucking well show it instead by giving him what he needs. “Things have changed since then.”

“How?”

“The side effects have gone.”

“That’s impossible,” says Dr Reynolds firmly. “What do you mean?”

Will blinks a few times, unsure of how to respond. In fact it’s like that tree all over again: if there’s no one to experience the side effects, do they really exist? “I haven’t had any for weeks,” he finally says. “It’s much better now.”

“You’ve still been taking the suppressants?” asks Dr Reynolds, suddenly looking beady; and Will realises he’s going to have to tread extremely carefully to avoid giving even the smallest hint of where he got them. “You have haven’t you?” adds Dr Reynolds. “Mr Graham. After everything I told you?”

The condescending tone of voice is enough to make Will shift from contrite to irritated in a matter of seconds before silently promising himself that if she even gets close to calling him ‘a silly boy’ then it’ll trigger a tantrum of epic magnitude. “I was desperate,” he says flatly, even though the past tense is inappropriate because it’s not as if the desperation has gone away. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have to.”

“Well you shouldn’t have,” snaps Dr Reynolds. “I couldn’t have been any clearer about the damage you’re going to do to yourself; that you might have already done to yourself. My advice to you is to let yourself go through a heat cycle – and the sooner the better.”

“And I told you that I can’t possibly…”

“I understand about the situation with your alpha,” interrupts Dr Reynold. “You explained it very clearly. But there are other options, at least in the short-term. You could just make arrangements privately.”

She follows this up with a glance that’s loaded with discreet implication and Will promptly squirms at the sight of it because he’s well aware that she’s referring to the practice of alphas paying omegas for a chance to take care of them during their heats. In principle the trade is frowned upon, although it’s still extremely common – not least because it’s the only opportunity that the many alphas who can’t afford to pay for bonding rights will ever have to experience actual sex with an omega. In fact a year or two of hiring himself out in this way could probably raise enough money for Will to never have to work again: but he can’t bear the idea of some anonymous alpha having their hands all over him and, even more importantly, wouldn’t trust them not to lose control of themselves and end up biting him without permission. Celibacy is infinitely preferable and in this respect he’s pretty much lived like a beta in the time since escaping from Andrew, having only had sex with a number of beta women – which was pleasant enough although not particularly memorable – and with one other man, also a beta, which was disastrous. He’d insisted on calling Will ‘baby’ the entire time and chanting ‘You like that? Yeah? You like that?’ while Will, staring numbly at the ceiling like someone at the dentist, hadn't had the heart to announce ‘No actually, since you ask – in fact I've been at autopsies with more life than this.’ The beta, on the other hand, had clearly liked it enormously (although at least someone did) and proved it by lasting less than a minute before coming with a loud roar that caused one of his neighbours to bang on the partition wall in protest and bellow that he was an inconsiderate shit. And Will had half-wanted to join forces with the neighbour and yell back ‘yeah you're right, oh my God – he’s shit’ although of course he didn't, because he didn't want to hurt the beta’s feelings. Afterwards the beta had slumped forward and murmured “Jesus Bill, you're fucking gorgeous – let's do this again” and Will had been so far beyond the point of caring he couldn't even be bothered to point out that the stupid bastard had got his name wrong so had just dived out from underneath him instead and tugged his clothes back on before nearly falling down the stairs in his hurry to leave. The memory of it now makes him feel vaguely depressed and reminds him all over again why he’s effectively given up on sex – although even that poor hapless beta with the horrible limp penis that slapped around wetly like a dead fish would be a million times more preferable to letting himself be mauled about by some random alpha just to get through a heat.

“Mr Graham?”

Will clears his throat awkwardly then shakes his head. “No,” he says firmly. “I don’t want to do that.”

“Then what do you suggest?” replies Dr Reynolds, even though the clearly rhetorical tone of the question implies that she neither wants nor expects an answer. “I can’t account for why the side effects have remitted without running some tests, but whatever the reason there’s no doubt it’s only temporary.” She pauses and glares at him over the top of her glasses. “I can’t possibly allow you to take any more of those pills.”

Will struggles not to return the glare and then falls silent for a few seconds instead, internally brooding over the fact that the improvement undoubtedly dates from the night in the alleyway and the new supply of tablets. The packaging looked identical to his previous supply, but perhaps there really was something different inside? “The heat suppressants,” he finally says, doing his best to sound casual. “Are there ones available which would minimise the reaction I was having before? A different type of compound?”

“We’ve been through this at your last appointment,” replies Dr Reynolds with poorly concealed impatience. “Yes, there are drugs, but they’re still experimental so the guidelines aren’t established. You’d need an extraordinarily skilled prescriber to be able to gauge the dose. I’d struggle to calculate it myself, I don’t mind admitting it – you’d need a very precise grasp of the chemistry to get it right.” She gives a discreet little cough. “The thing is Mr Graham, even if these new compounds were widely available – which they’re not – your insurance plan wouldn’t come anywhere near covering them. They’re extremely expensive.”

“What are they called?” asks Will, making a mental note to look them up with another dealer.

Dr Reynolds reels off a couple of names which Will carefully commits to memory before adding even more casually than before: “Any side effects to those ones?”

“They can affect the central nervous system so the side effects are mostly psychological. Aggression. Loss of inhibition. Emotional reactivity. But if you’re thinking of trying to get hold of them I’d advise against it.”

“Why?”

“No local omega clinics would be able to prescribe them for starters; you’d need to go to a university hospital and even then the chances are they wouldn’t be able to give them to you. But you see those tablets wouldn’t solve your problem either because they’re not intended to suppress heats indefinitely. They’re more of a short-term solution.” Will’s face promptly falls with dismay and Dr Reynolds adds, for what feels like the fiftieth time: “I told you so before.”

“Then can’t I have another trial of my previous ones?” Dr Reynolds starts shaking her head before he’s even finished and he adds, with unintended urgency: “I know you find it hard to believe but the symptoms really have disappeared. If you examine me you’ll see for yourself.”

Dr Reynolds abruptly pushes back her chair, and while the resulting scraping noise isn’t particularly loud its suddenness still causes Will to jump. “Mr Graham,” she says crisply. “I’m afraid this conversation is over. What you’re asking me to do could cost me my license. I’m sincerely sorry for the situation you’re in but poisoning yourself half to death with heat suppressants is not the solution to it.”

Seeing as he’d been expecting this Will can’t be bothered to get too downcast about it and instead just nods half-heartedly as his thoughts hurtle back to the best way of locating a new dealer for an illegal supply. Dr Reynolds gives a low sigh in return, obviously interpreting his sudden silence as unhappiness. “Why not look into our counselling service?” she says in a kinder voice. “I know you weren’t interested before, but if you change your mind…?”

“Sure,” replies Will. “Why not?” Then he leans forward in his chair and pretends to look appreciative: not because he gives the slightest shit about counselling, but because he can tell from the way her eyes are sliding towards the cabinet that the contact details for the counsellors must be stored in there – which means that when she turns round to retrieve them he can duck over and swipe a page from the prescription pad that’s lying on the desk. It won’t be enough to secure some long-term suppressants which require approval from a second doctor; although he can still get himself some emergency 48-hour ones with it and that, at least, is better than nothing. Dr Reynolds finally turns round again with a frown of annoyance running between her eyebrows and Will neatly palms the sheet of paper into his pocket and resumes the same look of vapid politeness of before. “I seem to have run out of flyers,” adds Dr Reynolds. “Let me write you their details instead.”

“Thanks,” says Will, attempting to sound sincere. Dr Reynolds nods in response then scribbles an email and phone number onto the back of one of her own business cards before handing it over. Added to the private detective’s and the one from the murder scene the card could be a third triplet from a matching trio, and the reminder of the two main problems in his life – Andrew and the Sculptor – makes him scrub his hand across his face with a sudden overwhelming sense of exhaustion.

“I know it’s not much,” adds Dr Reynolds, catching sight of the look. “But I really hope things work out for you Mr Graham. And if I could give you those tablets I would.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Do consider the counselling won’t you? You might be surprised how helpful it can be to have someone to listen.”

Very briefly, Will finds his thoughts straying to Hannibal. “Yes,” he replies. “I know it can.”

“I really do understand how hard it can be for omegas,” adds Dr Reynolds, shooting Will a rather owlish look from over the top of her glasses. “I see it all the time. Betas too, though admittedly in a different way. It’s really not easy living in a society where a single group holds so much influence and there’s no doubt that some alphas can be absolutely monstrous when it suits them.” She pauses, suddenly looking thoughtful. “You know I’m honestly not sure what’s worse: having a monster that loves you or hates you. Not that alphas hate betas of course, but they certainly see them as dispensable. Yet they love omegas and treat them almost as badly.”

Will catches her eye at the last part, although he doesn’t reply immediately because once again she’s posed a question to which he has no easy answer. Fleetingly he thinks of the various alphas in his life: Hannibal, Jack, Andrew…it’s not like any of them love him. He supposes Andrew might be considered to have a degree of desire, although even that isn’t entirely the right word because it implies a level of emotional investment. Andrew, on the other hand, effectively sees Will in terms of property and his desire is no more nuanced or meaningful than the way he might desire a particular car or a vintage bottle of wine. What Dr Reynolds is describing seems more closely aligned with power – and the exercise of it to subdue someone else just because you can – than it does to anything that could reasonably be described as love. Admittedly that’s not true for a couple like Beverly and Anneke, although gender hardly seems relevant in their case because what draws them together is more about their similarities than their differences; and what differences do exist are a source of compatibility which enhances and fascinates rather than divides. At any rate having a monster that loves you or hates you is different to one that intends to oppress you. Then he glances down at the business card again and for some reason Hannibal’s earlier observation comes to mind: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he does not himself become a monster…

Alphas,” says Dr Reynolds with obvious disdain.

*****

Afterwards Will trails back to the office at the slowest pace possible, desperate to spin out the journey owing to a sudden reluctance to spend any longer than absolutely necessary in the stifling, despairing aura of the investigation. Killing time: it’s such a bleak expression if you think about it too hard, as if all the seconds and minutes are left murdered and mangled and bleeding behind you. Dr Reynolds’ grim observations on the nature of alphas have likewise struck a nerve, and in an attempt at distraction Will makes an effort to reorient himself to the calm contentment he felt at lunchtime with Hannibal’s arms wrapped round him before that other alpha turned up to ruin it. In fact the scene on the park bench now feels like a little oasis of calm amidst all the doubt and anxiety, and thinking of Hannibal again he experiences a sudden powerful rush of affection towards him for how endlessly tolerant he is of Will’s assorted sharp edges and mercurial moods. The affection, in turn, then starts to get mingled in with guilt for being so rude and short-tempered towards him after seeing the bite; and the combination of the two – plus the need for killing a bit more time – provides Will with a sudden surge of inspiration to do something that might serve as a combined gesture of appreciation as well as apology. What though? It’s actually pretty difficult. Nevertheless there’s a sense of excitement in devising such a novel and unexpected idea which makes Will reluctant to abandon it and he stops walking and frowns to himself for a few seconds as he considers the problem. Hannibal, after all, isn’t exactly the type of person who’s easy to buy for; yet while something like a bottle of wine would be the most obvious solution he feels that he wants to show a bit of initiative beyond the usual clichés.

The clinic is located in a distinctly more up-market part of the city and Will glances round for a while for inspiration before finally spotting a shop at the very end of the block boasting ‘antiques, curios and collectibles’ on its elaborate gilt-edged signage. This seems fairly promising – at least more so than the dreaded bottle of wine – and being so close to it at the same time as having the idea of buying a gift has a level of synchronicity to it that appeals to him and is enough to propel him down the street and straight inside. The interior is dim and cosy with a real fire crackling merrily in a Victorian style grate, yet while it’s a nice respite from the icy street the sheer scale of items on offer seems to amplify the problem rather than solve it, because despite an abundance of choice none of it manages to be quite right for what he has in mind. It can’t be anything too big – an item of furniture, for example, being completely out of the question – and it can’t be too intimate in the manner of jewellery or grooming products; yet while he’s initially drawn to the idea of something quirky like antique medical equipment, everything on offer is so expensive as to be rendered ostentatious and therefore embarrassing and over the top.

In fact it seems rather impossible to ever find something suitable, and Will is starting to contemplate giving up the scheme entirely when his attention is finally caught by an Edwardian tea set arranged in pride of place by one of the display cabinets. Each cup is wafer thin, adorned with delicate whorls and soft curves across the handles and painted in deep rich blue with coils of white and the occasional shimmer of gold gilding that must have cost some long-dead craftsman hours of painstaking effort to produce. Hannibal has a fondness for tea, albeit the rare expensive type that Will’s never heard of – chaykhana and oolong and lemongrass chai – and looking now at the beautiful gleaming porcelain it’s impossible not to think how much Hannibal would probably like to have it. Nevertheless he still falters for a few seconds, unable not to struggle against the lunatic impulse to buy such an odd gift. In fact from one of his rare visits to the house he knows that Hannibal already possesses something similar, although while it’s no doubt far more valuable than this one is, Will still feels it’s nowhere near as beautiful. There’s also the issue of Will probably feeling far too awkward to ever summon up the courage to actually hand it over; yet the idea of Hannibal’s pleasure at something so lovely and unusual as the tea set undoubtedly is finally wins out, and after a few more seconds he abandons restraint and goes ahead to make the purchase –feeling only marginally less furtive than when he was in the pharmacy the other night getting the pheromone spray.

“They’re beautiful aren’t they,” says the storekeeper, tenderly placing the cups into a little wooden box filled with shavings with all the gentle reverence of someone laying sleeping babies into cribs. “A gift? Or are you treating yourself?”

“No,” replies Will, trying not to marvel too much at the idea of the sort of life that involves sauntering out at your lunchbreak to buy yourself antique tea sets on a whim. “It’s a gift.”

The woman smiles at this then begins to swaddle the cups in layers of tissue paper like she’s tucking them in. “How lovely. Someone special?”

Will can feel himself starting to blush, despite knowing that she’s just making conversation and can’t possibly care one way or the other. “Yes,” he finally replies. “Someone special.”

This elicits a warmly benevolent beam in response, rather as if it’s a source of profound personal satisfaction to the storekeeper that Will has someone special to buy over-priced tea sets for – and in spite of himself Will can’t help smiling back for exactly the same reason. Then he hands over his credit card before carefully stowing the box and its cargo of sleeping teacups under his arm and returning to the office, feeling absurdly happy the entire time despite a lingering suspicion that it was a stupid thing to have done. To his surprise Hannibal’s Bentley is parked in the lot and Will pauses a few seconds then removes his coat and stashes the box underneath it on the off chance they might bump into each other in the corridor. In this respect he decides that Hannibal is almost certainly going to be in Jack’s office (most likely lecturing him about Will), so silently creeps past it on the way to his own and conceals the box in his desk before wearily starting to sift through the stack of memos and papers that have been dumped on top of it. Nearly all of these relate to the Sculptor case, and he skims through them with quick efficiency before arriving at a new report about a recent homicide and going completely still. Then he draws in a sharp breath and peers a bit closer: not so much at the scribbled details of the autopsy in Price’s extravagant handwriting, shocking as they are in their lurid descriptions of ‘extensive mutilations’ and ‘post-mortem removal of the liver,’ but at the photograph of the victim. And the reason for this is because regardless of what logic dictates, you always assume it’s going to be of some random unfortunate soul who you never knew existed until you found a likeness of his dead body on your desk. You don’t expect it to be the same body you last saw living only weeks ago: a warm, breathing body that stood in a parking lot and tried to stare you into submission because it had been hired to hunt you down. Will’s job is volatile and savage, and it’s never shown any inclination to conform to a predictable order, and yet there are still things you come to expect and those that you don’t; and what you don’t expect is for a private investigator to be sent in pursuit of you only to discover a short time later that you’re the one who’s destined to try and solve his murder.

In spite of himself Will gives a low sigh at the unnerving, eerie improbability of it then runs his hand over his face in an attempt to focus and resume his inspection of the report. And if nothing else it’s certainly worthy of inspection, because while the details are scant and clinical – not nearly enough for most people to make anything of – to Will there’s still something tantalizing familiar stitched into the papery skin of the pages that’s enough to completely capture his attention in his attempt to unpick and unravel it. Normally when he does this there’s a sense of constructing a protective barrier in his mind that prevents him from merging too closely in interpreting the person responsible: a slicing, swaying choreograph of perception with himself on one side of the pendulum and the perpetrator on the other. Will’s sense of self and the Other’s sense of self – object and subject – distinct and separate. Only it’s curiously absent on this occasion and for a few feverish seconds he has no real sense of where he starts and the Other ends, as if someone has cut the pendulum string. Blurred and blended together…just as Hannibal had said about Will and the Chesapeake series: ‘You don’t see the world the same way he does, yet you can assume his point of view.

Will frowns again and snaps his eyes open – struggling against a sense of dark fascination, even of excitement, that feel vaguely inappropriate given the undeniable grimness of it – before making a concerted effort to renew his concentration and start again from the beginning. It’s a demanding task that’s impossible not to feel unsettled by, and he gradually grows so absorbed that he loses track of his surroundings and becomes oblivious to the sound of the trainees talking outside or the hum of the janitor’s vacuum or the sound of sirens from beyond the window. A lull then follows where it all goes quiet again, but Will still doesn’t register the sound of Hannibal and Jack talking together on the way to Jack’s office or, a few minutes later, the footsteps in the corridor outside – and which start off soft and faint, but slowly grow louder and louder until they finally reach Will’s office and come to a dead halt outside. But Will remains so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice; doesn’t even notice the creaking noise as the door is pushed open – doesn’t notice anything at all until the sound of a voice forces him back into the room as a herald that everything, finally, is about to fall apart.

It’s a low voice. A voice that murmurs in a horribly familiar way as it snakes and slithers its way across the room. “Hello Will,” says the voice. “Long time no see.”

When reflecting back on it later, Will is struck by how his reaction in those few surreal seconds hadn’t been to yell or shout but simply to stay rigid and motionless in his chair and excavate a long-forgotten memory of when he was much younger and had fallen from the branch of a tree during some childish game and jolted every gasp of air from his chest when he landed. The descent itself had been almost peaceful – soundless seconds of floating freefall as the world flashed by in sky and clouds and the leaves of the tree: all calm spectators without care or emotion and completely impervious to the plight of a small plummeting body. But the impact itself blazed scarlet with pain and shock when the ground finally reared up to meet him and he lay there like a broken bird as his father screamed with fear and came running and Will gazed up at the empty sky and wondered if this was what dying felt like. That long-forgotten sensation is the same one he experiences now. It’s as if he can no longer breathe or stir himself, can no longer operate on even a counterfeit level of competence. Can’t think. Can’t be. Can’t do anything except slowly suffocate in the agonised silence in which nobody moves or speaks and where his mind goes completely blank as if it’s been bleached bare by the combined force of fear and total disbelief. Because it hardly feels real, or possible, that such a thing could be happening. It really shouldn’t be possible…even though it clearly is.

The owner of the voice stares back the entire time, head slightly on one side as if relishing the spectacle of Will’s obvious shock, then takes a few steps closer before calmly closing the door and twisting the key to lock it – and it’s the sound of this amidst all the silence that finally jolts Will back to life. Christ, get yourself together, hisses an angry, desperate part of his mind. Do it NOW. Your entire future depends on it. Then the moment has passed and with a massive level of effort he carefully lays down the report before leaning back in his chair and forcing himself to look straight ahead as he replies, with a lying calmness he doesn’t remotely feel: “Hello Andrew.”

Chapter Text

Despite such a simple opening no one seems to have anything else to say, and for an agonised stretch of time there’s nothing to respond to at all beyond the sound of silence. Will isn’t sure how long it lasts. Only that so much silence feels deeply surreal: not least because it doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the numerous versions of this first meeting that he’s tormentedly scripted out in his head beforehand. But then nothing ever works out as it should, so perhaps it’s not surprising that what should have been a moment flooded with drama and crisis is ultimately nothing but Andrew standing there in an expensive-looking suit with a very faint smile on his face and Will staring up at him with an expression of frozen horror. In this respect they’re both so rigid they could be waxworks of themselves, or even a photograph; and it vaguely occurs to Will that they look like the freeze-frame at the end of a weekly serial just as the music starts to play and the announcer’s voice tells the audience to tune in next week to see what happens next. In fact everything has exactly that sort of stilted, unnatural quality: all the silence and surrealness and the expensive suit and the frozen face. They feel like props or charades; they don’t feel like something that happens to real people. The director needs to intervene and shout “Cut! It’s a wrap. Nice work guys…” and he and Andrew could shake hands and go back to their actual lives: lives where they don’t really know each other at all and this hideous scene doesn’t even exist beyond the imagination of a scriptwriter.

In the end it’s Andrew who seems to tire of the silence first and make an attempt to break it. He does this by clearing his throat, and there’s something about the stupid mundanity of the gesture that reminds Will how successfully he’s managed to mould Andrew into something of a monster – and how contradictory this image is to the reality of what’s now stood in front of him. In his mind Andrew has become a malevolent being who’s all-seeing, all-knowing, lacking in any kind of mercy or restraint, and whose sole designation and design is to make Will’s life as tormented as possible. Yet seeing him now there’s a weird sense of anti-climax in how incredibly ordinary he looks. He could be anyone in fact. Perhaps a little taller than average, a bit more good-looking than is considered typical, but certainly nothing that would stand out as unsettling in anyway. No one passing him in the street would notice him beyond thinking that he appears to be a handsome, capable-looking alpha; the kind of all-American prototype that lounges on yachts or strolls along beaches in bare feet and whose general life resembles a Tommy Hilfiger commercial which smells like money and sounds like success, and whose component parts comprise canapés and waitstaff and martinis in slender long-stemmed glasses which are sipped on green lawns where the sun always shines. Certainly they wouldn’t consider him a sufficiently serious adversary to justify the months of fear and constant running that Will’s expended on him. There’s no fangs, no claws, no forked tail: yet nevertheless an adversary is exactly what he is and Will knows that he can’t allow himself to forget this for even a second. Instinctively he now pushes back the chair and gets to his feet, aware of how sitting down means Andrew is looking down at him and hating the level of submission it implies.

“The key,” he says sharply. “Give it back to me.”

“What, that’s all I get? No welcome?” Will stares back stony-faced and Andrew gives a crooked smile then tosses over the key which Will neatly catches one-handed. “I’m not trying to trap you or anything,” adds Andrew in a conciliatory tone that Will knows from long experience isn’t remotely genuine. “I just don’t want anyone disturbing us. Let’s face it Will, we’ve got quite a lot of catching up to do.”

Will replaces the key on his desk then leans back and stares at Andrew from over the top of his glasses with poorly-concealed loathing. "No," he says. “Not really.”

Andrew has always possessed an internal catalogue of smiles that can be tailored to every possible occasion via assorted quirks of lips and teeth: the sardonic smile, the charming smile, the smile of malevolent relish. The one he selects now is of the distinctly patronising variety – like he’s oblivious to the way Will is bristling with angry aversion and thinks he’s being adorably pouty instead – and having put the smile on he now adjusts it slightly then beams it in Will’s direction for several seconds before strolling towards the bookcase and beginning to casually inspect the rows of files. “Put those down,” snaps Will.

“You’ve done all right for yourself haven’t you?” replies Andrew without bothering to look round. There’s an obvious note of approval in his voice, although Will knows it has nothing to do with respect or admiration but is merely an expression of how he feels Will’s status and newfound position reflect well on him personally. In this respect Will’s achievements and aptitudes, even his physical appearance, mean nothing – and have never meant anything – beyond how they make Andrew feel, rather as if Will is merely an avatar for Andrew’s sense of his own entitlement. “I thought omegas weren’t encouraged to work in law enforcement,” adds Andrew in an overly casual way that immediately strikes Will as ominous. “At least not without rigorous background checks.” He pauses in flicking through the files and glances over his shoulder at Will before smirking and swivelling round again. “Be honest: how many of them know?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Will quickly, trying to ignore the way his heart has begun to pound. “Of course they know.”

“All of them?”

“Yes,” snaps Will. Not that Hannibal, Jack and Beverly could in any way be reasonably considered as ‘all’ – but at least Andrew doesn’t know that. In this respect the terror of it becoming common knowledge has caused Will more than one sleepless night in the past, not least because of the horrific obstacles and discrimination he’d inevitably face from the numerous alphas and betas who are less open-minded. In fact the mere idea of it is causing his hands to shake with anxiety and he quickly tucks them into his pockets so that Andrew won’t see and suspect.

“That’s good,” replies Andrew in the same casual voice. “I guess I won’t have to disclose it to them then, will I? Technically it would be my responsibility…if they didn’t already know.”

Will bites his lip with distress before realising that Andrew’s getting ready to move again so immediately forces his expression into one of bored indifference. “You know how I found you of course,” adds Andrew, carelessly tossing the file onto the table so that the papers spill and swirl across the floor. “I would have shown up a lot sooner but there were a couple of things I needed to arrange before I could come and get you.”

“Yeah,” says Will flatly. “I bet there were.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” adds Andrew with a malevolent little smile. “You must have been expecting me straight away once you met Chris. He told me you’d worked out he was a private investigator. What was it you said to him again honey? Remind me would you.”

Will folds his arms and glares back, refusing to be intimidated. “I said ‘Tell him no’.”

“Tell him no,” repeats Andrew sardonically. “Well you’ll be glad to hear that he passed the message on. Looks like I didn’t listen though, doesn’t it? I never take no for an answer Will, you should have realised that by now.” He pauses then smiles again. “Ironic really isn’t it? If I’d just waited a few more weeks for The Sculptor case to blow up I wouldn’t have even needed a PI: I could have just looked on the TattleCrime and found you myself. The fact you worked out what he was gave you a bit of warning.”

“Of course I worked it out,” snaps Will. “He wasn’t exactly subtle.”

“No, I guess he wasn’t. Don’t think I was under-estimating you there by the way; I warned him several times that he had to be careful with you but he thought I was exaggerating.” Andrew smirks then adopts an unnervingly accurate impression of the detective’s accent. “'With respect sir he’s only an omega.' That’s what he said to me. 'How smart can he really be?'

Will automatically glances down at the autopsy report, still splayed open on his desk in all its gory glory. “Looks like he underestimated a few things,” he says tonelessly.

“Hmmm. Perhaps. At the very least you were obviously more than he bargained for. He thought you were just going to be some pretty little idiot and instead he ended up with a bad-tempered little troublemaker facing off with him in a parking lot. He should have listened to me shouldn’t he? Not that he minded all that much. In fact it seemed like he was quite taken with you.”

“Not any more he won’t be,” says Will. He pauses then waves his hand down at the report. “I suppose you know he’s dead?”

“What, Chris?” barks Andrew, sounding genuinely surprised. “Let me see.” He moves towards the desk in several quick strides and Will likewise takes a few steps back so they’re not in touching distance. “Jesus,” says Andrew, running his eyes over the page before dropping it down again with a wince of distaste. “What a fucking mess.”

“I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” replies Will sarcastically.

“As far as I knew his main line of business was missing persons,” muses Andrew who’s obviously decided to ignore this. “He was operating more in the big league than I thought; he must have got mixed up with someone serious to do that to him. Drugs, perhaps.” He pauses then gives another unpleasant smile. “You really are bad, bad luck aren’t you sweetheart? How is it that this kind of stuff just follows you round?”

With a twinge of unease Will realises that there’s an intrinsic truth to this that he doesn’t quite know how to respond to and Andrew leans back on his heels and begins to smile a little more broadly. “You’re wasting your time coming here,” says Will sharply, seeing the smile and immediately resenting it. “I want you to go.”

“I guess you do,” replies Andrew in a leisurely way. “Only it’s not quite as simple as that. You don’t just get to stamp your little feet at me and order me to leave; not after what you did. You’ve caused me a lot of hassle Will. A lot.”

“Yeah, it’s not like you gave me any in return is it?” snaps Will. “Putting me in the hospital, for example.”

“Will, honey – don’t start that with me again. You’re acting like I did it on purpose. How the hell was I supposed to know you’d have a reaction like that? How could anyone have known?”

“Oh well; that’s all right then isn’t it?”

“You know I’d never have hurt you deliberately,” says Andrew. As he’s speaking Will can see his eyes sliding towards his reflection in the window pane, briefly pursing his lips and furrowing his brow as if rehearsing the martyred expression of ‘wronged alpha’ that he intends to use in front of the judge. “Even the doctors were surprised,” adds Andrew, finally turning back again. “Besides, it would never have happened at all if you’d just levelled with me about all that medication you were taking.”

“So it’s my fault?” says Will incredulously.

“Well of course it was your fault,” snaps Andrew, the good-humoured façade abruptly vanishing. “Although to be honest I blame your old man more than you. He sat there and lied through his teeth about how you were the ideal mate; he was so desperate for the money he’d have said anything.”

“Bullshit. I told you I didn’t want a family. I couldn’t have made it any clearer.”

“He lied to me from the start,” continues Andrew, who’s obviously decided to have one of his convenient bouts of deafness and disregard anything that contradicts the version of events where he’s the one in the right. “He swore blind that I’d be guaranteed to have you knocked up in the first year. The old bastard spent hours waxing lyrical about how you were the perfect omega. Docile, affectionate; he even said you were obedient. It’s not my fault he was a goddamned liar.”

And it’s not my fault you’re a fucking idiot, thinks Will contemptuously. “You knew what you were getting into,” he says out loud. “I never told you anything that wasn’t true. Why would I? I never wanted it.”

“Only it’s not really up to you is it?” snaps Andrew. “Jesus Will, you always did this; always acted as if you have the same authority as an alpha. You’re an omega: deal with it. That means you do what you’re told.”

“Then go and buy another one,” hisses Will. “And see if you have better luck next time.”

Andrew rifles through his internal smile inventory and summons up a particularly leering, patronising specimen that’s heralded with a little flourish of teeth to announce its arrival. “But I can’t just buy another one baby,” he replies, the tone exaggeratedly reasonable as if he’s talking to a wayward five year old. “You guys are very expensive. Anyway…what if I don’t want another one? What if I want you?”

“Then you’re out of luck,” shoots back Will. “We’re not bonded; you can’t make me do anything.”

“Nice try,” says Andrew with obvious sarcasm, “but we both know that’s not quite true. You see I have a little bit of paper in my safe with both our names on it that says the exact opposite.” Will shakes his head stubbornly and takes a step backwards and Andrew gives a long sigh like someone with the weight of the world on their shoulders before clasping his long thin fingers together. “You’re so unreasonable Will,” he says with regret, rather as if Will’s refusal to agree is some sort of tragic impairment or disability that’s more worthy of pity than anger. “Why do you always act this way? You bring out the worst in me every single time. I’m not like this with anyone else except you.”

“Well stop hanging out with me then. Problem solved.”

“Because, doll face, I paid a lot of money for an omega and now that I own one I’m not inclined to let it go wandering off all by its silly little self. Besides, like I said, you’ve caused me an incredible amount of hassle. You owe me Will. Do you have any idea how bad it looks when your omega runs out on you? It makes people question your authority. I lost two promotions at work after you disappeared.”

Will just glares in response to this and Andrew laughs at the sight of it and takes a few steps closer. “I remember that look,” he says mockingly. “It means you’re going to be stubborn about it. You’ve got guts Will, I’ll give you that. Look, I don’t want this to get any uglier than it needs to, but like it or not we’re kind of stuck together.”

“Bullshit. How are we? We’re not bonded.”

Andrew waves this point away with a little wave of the wrist which makes his long fingers flicker and scuttle like the bones of a singularly pale and spindly crab. “I’m more than willing to compromise,” he says in a tone that’s dripping with false friendliness. “For starters, I’m not planning to take you down south with me. I can easily get a transfer up here so you could keep your job. At least…I’d let you do it part-time. Anyway it’s not like you’d need to work, I’d give you a very generous allowance. You’d love it Will, it’d be great. You could, y’know, do all kinds of stuff…” He pauses then looks thoughtful, as if trying to picture all the possible things Will could do.

“Let me guess,” replies Will sarcastically. “I could have lunch and go shopping. Are you out of your mind?”

“I can get us a really nice place in the city,” continues Andrew as if Will hasn’t spoken. “A penthouse apartment. Far better than whatever shack you’re stuck in right now. You can even have your own room to give you a bit of space; whatever you want.”

“Which is exactly what you promised before. And look how that turned out.”

“I mean it this time. Think about it Will. Having me around would make your life so much easier.” He’s edging closer and closer now, using his greater height and strength to try and box Will in, and Will automatically spins round and pretends to stare out the window just so it’ll give him an excuse not to look at one another. “You need an alpha to take care of you,” says Andrew in a soft, insinuating tone that’s obviously supposed to be inviting. “All omegas do: it’s what you’re designed for.” Moving even closer he finally comes to a halt directly behind and then inhales deeply before his breath catches slightly and he presses his face against Will’s neck just below his hair. “Oh Will,” he says quietly. “Baby. You're getting so close. I can smell it on you.”

Will, staring fixedly out the window, immediately feels his heart sink at the sound of the words. And it really does: as if the sick plunge of despair has the capacity to transcend metaphor and manifest as a defeated plummeting sensation in the chest. Because while they’re not bonded, Andrew’s still spent more time with him than any other alpha and can claim a level of attunement which makes it highly plausible he’d be able to detect an oncoming heat. For a few seconds he can feel darkness crowding his vision and is madly aware of the way he’s begun shaking his head in an urgent, wordless expression of denial. Because of course Andrew is lying. He must be. It’s not possible, thinks Will desperately. It’s NOT. There’s no way the suppressants could suddenly have stopped working. Besides, he’s spent far more time with Hannibal recently who hasn’t even hinted at it – and surely he would have done?

“You’re just as pretty as I remember,” murmurs Andrew, who still has his face pressed against Will’s neck. “You haven’t lost it. You just need a bit of polish and then you’d be perfect.” Reaching round he begins to slide his hands along Will’s arms in what’s impossible to interpret as anything other than a casual gesture of ownership. “God Will, I thought I was going to be angry when I saw you; I was so sure I was going to be angry. And now you’re here all I want to do is take you back to my hotel and fuck you. You need a proper knot in you, don’t you baby? That’s all you need. That would stop you freaking out all the time.”

Glancing down Will can see that he’s gripping so tightly onto the window ledge that his knuckles have gone white. And it’s not from fear, or even from anger, but simply from the shocked awareness of how incredibly easy it would be to swing round right now and seize Andrew by the throat. He wouldn’t even need a weapon to get the job done: his own bare hands would be enough. In fact the temptation to do it is so powerful that it makes him draw in his breath then screw his eyes closed in an attempt to banish the urge before forcing himself to calm down and sensibly consider his options. Hannibal, for example, is only in the next room and Will is sure if he shouted loud enough he would hear him. In fact even if he didn’t shout then Hannibal would probably still know, because such is the intensely ineffable strength of the connection between them that Will feels like somehow Hannibal would just be able to sense that Will needed him – that nothing more than raised voices would be enough. But in spite of himself he can’t quite bear the indignity of calling for help and having to be rescued like some sort of powerless victim; not least because long experience has taught him that showing any form of vulnerability or weakness in front of Andrew is a fatal tactical error. He’s going to have to get out of this by himself – just as he always has.

“Come back to the hotel,” Andrew is now saying, his voice slightly muffled from where he’s begun to rub his face against Will’s hair. “I’ve got my driver waiting outside: we could be there in 20 minutes. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, I won’t force you. We can take our time. Just let me get to know you again.” He lets go of Will’s arms and moves his palms upwards so he can take hold of his shoulders instead and rub his thumbs along each slim ridge of bone. “Look at you baby, you’re so tense. You’re scared aren’t you even if you won’t admit it? It’s okay to be scared; omegas are meant to be scared of alphas. Why don’t I gentle you? You never let me before – you always said you’d never let an alpha touch you that way. Would you let me do it now Will? I promise you’d enjoy it, I’d make it so good for you.”

As Andrew slides his hands towards the collar of Will’s shirt, attempting to flick the buttons open, Will is unable to stand it anymore and violently pulls away. “You need to leave,” he snaps. “Now. Jack Crawford is due here any minute.”

“Is he though? I don’t know if I believe you Will. Are you lying to me again?”

“You’ll be thrown out. You can’t just come into the FBI without clearance.”

“You mean you’re worried I’ll get into trouble?” says Andrew sarcastically. “That’s very considerate of you.” Nevertheless he finally moves away and Will lets out a long breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. “At least you’re wearing that spray,” adds Andrew, casually draping himself against the side of Will’s desk. “That’s good Will. It’s very good; I’m proud of you.”

“Don’t be. It’s not like I was doing it for you.”

“Have you had any other alphas sniffing round you while I was gone?” adds Andrew, beginning to narrow his eyes.

“No.”

“I bet you have.”

“I haven’t.”

“Course you have,” says Andrew briskly. “You don’t need to lie to me; I’m not angry with you about it. You didn’t have me to see them off for you so it was kind of inevitable. Anyway, alphas always found you irresistible. The guys at work could never stop going on about my cute little omega – it made it even worse when you ran off.”

“I haven’t,” replies Will through gritted teeth.

“What about your boss?” persists Andrew, who’s incapable of letting a subject drop until he’s bored with it himself. “That Crawford guy? I bet he’s been trying to get you bent over his desk since the first day you’ve been here. Tell him from me that if he comes anywhere near you I’ll have him in front of a judge within 24 hours on an ownership claim. And after that…” Andrew gives a small smile then thoughtfully inspects his fingernails. “After that I’ll kill him.”

Will makes a derisive snorting noise and Andrew’s head snaps upright with a look of such deep menace that Will can feel his throat go dry at the sight of it. “I’m serious Will,” says Andrew quietly. “Don’t fuck with me. I’m not prepared for anyone else to get their hands on my property. And as for you: you need to stop causing all this drama and learn your fucking place. I was serious with my offer before but if you don’t start behaving yourself then the deal’s off. You’re coming back to me Will, let’s be very clear about that. And you can do it the easy way, or you can do it the hard way, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to give me what I paid for when I put out all that money for you in the first place.”

“Try it,” snaps Will. “I’ll do a countersuit for maltreatment.”

“Oh that’s cute Will. That’s very cute; only who do you think’s going to take it seriously? A crazy little omega like you. You obviously need someone to look after you – if anything they’ll be thanking me for being prepared to take responsibility. I mean, who else would put up with you? You might be a pretty face Will, but let’s be real here: there’s hardly going to be a line of alphas queuing up to take you on for the long-term. They might like the look of you, but once anyone gets to know you…well; let’s just say the packaging is a lot more appealing than the actual contents.”

Will blinks a few times, stung by what he privately considers the essential truth of this, although he doesn’t betray even a hint of the unhappiness in his expression as he replies in a flat, level voice: “A hypothetical queue of alphas is hardly relevant to this, is it?”

“Not relevant? Yeah, whatever – you keep telling yourself that Will.” With a visible effort Andrew takes a deep breath and attempts to calm down, having obviously remembered that the game plan is to appear reasonable and considerate and that it’s not exactly working out as intended. “Look – honey – you know you need to come back. I don’t want to get the law involved but if you don’t give me any other choice then I’ll have to. Why let it get that far? I’ve told you I’m prepared to compromise. You’d have exactly the same life you’ve got now. Only better, because you’d have me to look after you.”

No. How many more times do I have to say it? And I don’t need anyone to look after me.”

Beneath Andrew’s right eye a muscle is starting to spasm and twitch: a sure sign that he’s struggling not to lose his temper. “Alright,” he says with another deep breath. “Look, I get it – you’ve had a shock with me just turning up here. I’m sorry, okay? I probably should have called ahead but I wanted to see you. You just need some time to get used to the idea. I’ll come back tomorrow and we can talk some more. How about that? I’ll take you to dinner.”

This time Will doesn’t even bother to reply but just shakes his head very slowly and firmly; and Andrew gives a faint smile in return then goes eerily still for a few seconds before darting out and grabbing hold of Will’s shoulders, spinning him round and pushing him against the wall face first. “The stubbornness is very cute,” he says softly, straight into Will’s ear. “It’s also useless. The more you resist the worse you’re going to make it for yourself.” Letting go of Will’s shoulders he takes hold of his waist instead, digging his fingers so hard into the hip bones that Will has to bite his lip to stifle the gasp of pain he wants to make. “Whatever crap you were taking before clearly isn’t working now baby,” says Andrew in the same tone of softly suggestive menace. “You’re going to come on any time now, and when you do there isn’t a judge in the whole country that won’t give me formal custody. And get this through your stupid little head: if you end up dragging me through the courts then you-will-regret-it. You can forget about being allowed to work. You can forget about leaving the fucking house. I’ll put a collar on you for starters; is that what you want? Is that what you’re going to force me to do? Because I will. And after that I’ll keep you in lock-down 24/7, whether you’re having a heat or not.”

He loosens his grip as if he’s about to let Will go, then rather than releasing him thrusts his body even harder forward until his face is being crushed against the wall. And Will, in turn, briefly forgets about struggling and goes completely rigid instead as his attention shrinks and constricts to the presence of a weird throbbing noise that it takes him a few seconds to realise is the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. The echo of it pulses and thrashes like a bird trapped in a cage, and if he focusses on it too much there’s an irresistible impression of how it sounds like the crooning voice of the dark reflection as each throb pulsates and solidifies and slowly turns into words: you-could-kill-him-you-could-kill-him. In fact the urge to attack is overpowering now: stronger even than the urge to escape, and subsuming his entire physical sense of himself like a chrysalis or a second sheaf of skin. An assault on an alpha by an omega is taken extremely seriously – often seen as a sign of instability and punishable by forced confinement – yet even though he knows there could be grave repercussions for what he’s about to do, the need is so strong that he abandons any last remains of self-restraint and does it anyway. Taking a deep breath, Will viciously kicks out from behind until he feels Andrew grunt and loosen his grip then drives his elbow into Andrew’s ribs so he can roughly twist himself free. The subsequent surge of power is exhilarating, and while he knows he could – and should – just leave it there he can’t stop himself now: and with a rush of energy that feels vaguely primal in its intensity he shoots out his right hand to land a brutal punch on the bottom of Andrew’s face. His fist connects to flesh with a deeply satisfying crunch and the force is so extreme that it sends Andrew staggering backwards against the desk in a crumpled heap.

Will casually straightens his jacket then leans back against the wall and regards Andrew with a level of disgust that’s practically blistering. “Let’s get one thing clear,” he says, his voice low and intense. “Touch me like that again and…” I’ll-kill-you- I’ll-kill-you “…I’ll break your jaw.”

Andrew makes another grunting sound – a weird, bestial amalgam that’s partly pain but mostly shock – and stares back with eyes that are virtually glistening with rage. “That really wasn’t smart,” he says softly. Raising his right hand he touches his face then holds it out to inspect the smears of blood. “An omega attacking an alpha? No honey, not smart at all. You dare try that a second time and I’ll have you in an institution so fast your feet won’t touch the floor.”

“Get out,” hisses Will.

Andrew goes silent for a few seconds, clearly considering his next move, and when he finally speaks Will can easily recognise the abrupt change in tactic: a shift from rage to condescension, as if Will is so stupid and trivial that he’s not even worth being angry over. “You always were ungrateful,” sighs Andrew, and once more it’s the way one might address a child. “How many other alphas do you think would be anything like as patient with you as I’ve been? It’s never enough for you is it Will? No matter what anyone does for you, you always want more. And for someone who’s constantly whining about how he’s smart enough to have a job you’re being unbelievably dumb. You can throw as many tantrums as you like, but all you’re doing is prolonging the inevitable.” Starting to smile again he straightens up to his full height and regards Will with something like amusement. “The weird thing is I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy the way you try and fight me all the time. You want to know why, baby? It’s because it makes breaking you that much more enjoyable. Like a little wild animal, Will. My father owned a ranch when I was a kid. Did I ever tell you that? I used to help with breaking in the horses. I was very good at it. I never met one I couldn’t get the better of.”

Will takes a sudden step forward and Andrew, clearly wary of being punched again, abruptly steps away to the side. “I’ll give you a week,” he says with barely concealed venom. “Call it a gesture of good will. That’s enough time to make any arrangements you need to, then after that I expect to find you with your bags packed and ready to move into a place up here with me. If not then the deal’s off and I take you down south again – by force. I know how much you hate scenes Will; I’m trying to do you a favour here. But if I have to come back and carry you off over my fucking shoulder in front of half the FBI then I will; and you know as well as I do that legally there isn’t one single thing they can do to stop me.”

“No,” repeats Will firmly; because surely if he says it enough times it’ll take on some kind of meaning? “No. Forget it. It’s not going to happen.”

This time Andrew doesn’t bother replying at all; just smiles instead before insolently leaning over and running a finger across Will’s cheekbone. It’s the same gesture a dealer might use to inspect an antique or a breeder to determine a horse’s pedigree: the mark of someone appraising a possession. “All the trouble I’ve gone to to get your attention,” he says softly. “You have no idea what I’ve done.”

“I don’t care.”

“No, I guess you don’t. You really are ungrateful aren’t you? Such a little brat, Will. You’re going to have to work very hard to make it up to me.”

“Fuck you.”

Andrew laughs outright and then pats the side of Will’s face. “Actually baby, I think you’ll find it’s the other way round. Why do you think I laid out so much money for you? It wasn’t exactly your sparkling wit and charming personality.” Turning round he now casually inspects his reflection in the window pane and adjusts his tie and smooths back his hair before retrieving his briefcase and stashing his coat over his arm. “I’m going to enjoy having you back Will,” he adds thoughtfully. “Then I’m going to enjoy having you on your back, if you’ll excuse the pun. The thing is, if you weren’t so stupid and stubborn you’d enjoy it too. You’d be a lot a lot happier if you could just accept what you are and stop fighting it. You’re not supposed to be out here getting battered about in the FBI. You always thought you were stronger than you really are. In your head you’re some big-shot investigator when in reality you’re just a frail little omega who’s one push away from a mental breakdown and can’t admit when he’s in too deep.”

Will lets out a low breath from between his teeth then leans back against the wall again with his arms folded. “You done?”

“I’m done.”

“Fine. Then listen, and understand this: lawyer up. Because there is no way I’m ever coming back by choice.”

“You really still think you’ve got a say in all this?” Andrew sighs then shakes his head with a gesture that half stylised as pity and half as contempt. “You’re an arrogant little bastard aren’t you? Then it looks like I’ll see you in court.”

“And I’ll see you in hell,” snarls Will.

“You don’t know what hell is,” replies Andrew in a voice so wreathed in venom it takes every shred of self-control for Will to not wince at the sound of it. “Seems as if you want to find out. Keep pushing me like this and I’m going to make you very – very – sorry.”

“You’re repeating yourself,” says Will contemptuously. “You think you can walk in here and threaten me? I’ve dealt with a lot worse than you before now; just take a ticket and join the back of the fucking line.”

”Oh yeah, The Sculptor is trying to get your attention isn’t he?” says Andrew with a weird little smile. “I read all about it. You really know how to pick them don’t you darling. I should probably be careful – people are going to think I’m as crazy as you are. Only the problem is Will: you belong to me. And until I say so, that means you don’t get to do shit without my permission.” Pausing on his way to the door he turns round and jabs a finger in Will’s direction. “One week. And don’t even think about running because there’s nowhere you can go I won’t find you. Then when I have my hands on that little neck of yours I’ll get a court order and have you tagged.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” says Will in horror.

“I’m sure you’re right,” replies Andrew with a smirk. “I’m sure I wouldn’t really dare. Why don’t you try running off and find out? Someone as unstable as you Will – they’d not only agree they’d be asking why I hadn’t done it sooner. And you know you’re not going to be able to pull one of those tags off: you’d have to dig it out with a scalpel.”

“You’re wasting your time – and money,” snaps Will, and through an epic force of effort he manages to stop the desperation leaking into his voice. “There’s no court in the world that would make me go back to you. Not after what you did.”

“I guess we’ll find out won’t we? Only – spoilers, Will – you already know you’re wrong. What happened was an accident. And every single doctor who saw you will back me up. It was completely your fault for poisoning yourself with all that medication; and do you really think an alpha judge is going to take your side over mine and an entire medical team?” Will goes quiet, unable to summon up the futility of a response to this, and Andrew laughs again. “Good boy,” he says. “That’s more like it. You’re cute when you’re being feisty but the depressed look is pretty good on you too. And I meant what I said – come back without a fight and you can carry on living up here and I’ll let you keep your job…at least, I will for a little while. Put me through the hassle of a court case and I’ll get you back anyway. Only I promise you this Will: I’ll make you sorrier than you’ve ever been in your life.”

*****

Jack is on the phone when Will comes stumbling into his office a few moments later: eyes wild and haunted-looking and with a face that’s noticeably pale, yet somehow, through an almost supernatural application of effort, still managing to keep the worst of the panic in check. Jack nods in acknowledgement when he pushes the door open then gestures wordlessly at him to take a seat. “On Friday,” he says irritably into the phone. “I’ve told you before. Yes. No. No, Friday. How many more times?”

Will gnaws fretfully on his thumbnail while trying not to twitch too visibly with impatience. “Friday!” roars Jack. “And I don’t want to hear any more about it until then.” Slamming down the receiver he turns and grimaces at Will. “Goddamn attorneys. Honestly, you won’t believe what they’re asking for now...” Then he seems to notice Will properly for the first time and the rest of the sentence trails off as he begins to frown and lean forward in his chair. “Hey you okay?” he says in a kinder voice. Will nods numbly and Jack, who isn’t normally one for clichés or metaphor, frowns even further and adds: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Do you know where Hannibal is?” blurts out Will. “His phone’s turned off.”

“You just missed him actually, he was here ten minutes ago.” Jack grimaces again. “Talking about you as it happens; apparently I’m pushing you too hard. Judging by the state of you I’m inclined to agree with him.”

“Well where did he go? Is he still here?”

“He said he wanted to speak with Alana about something. She did a guest lecture this afternoon, they’ll probably still be in the auditorium. Or maybe round the parking lot…Hey – hey! Sit down. What’s going on with you Will?”

“Nothing.”

“Rubbish. Something’s obviously happened: you look like hell.”

Although what does hell even look like? thinks Will wildly. Hell, after all, should surely be fiery and riotous as opposed to pale and strained and defeated-looking with grazed knuckles and bruises on its hip bones? Andrew’s vow to make his life a living hell then briefly flares into his mind; even though that doesn’t really fit either, because the hell of the Bible and Renaissance art is filled with leering, capering demons and flaming pits of sulphur and what’s the point of those when all you need for Paradise Lost is a luxurious house that you’re not allowed to leave and a life you can’t claim as your own? “Will,” repeats Jack, more loudly this time and obviously alarmed by Will’s blankly rigid expression. “Sit down please. You’re not leaving here ‘til you explain what’s happened.”

“Stop telling me what do to!” explodes Will, then sees the hurt expression on Jack’s face so takes a deep breath and makes a visible effort to try and calm down. “I’m sorry,” he adds in a quieter voice. “I’ll explain later. I promise; in fact I’ll have to explain later. But right now I really need to speak with Hannibal.”

Jack sighs then reaches over and gives Will’s hand a clumsy yet kindly pat. “Go on then,” he says. “I worry about you is all.”

“I’m fine,” replies Will mechanically. Jack raises his eyebrows. “Yeah okay, I’m not. But it isn’t really something you can help me with.”

“It’s a medical issue?” asks Jack tactfully.

“Not exactly.”

”But you think Hannibal can sort it out?”

“Maybe not,” replies Will, briefly struggling to stop the sense of raw desperation from showing on his face. “Most likely not. But…but I just need to tell him anyway.”

*****

Outside it’s already growing dark as Hannibal pauses in front of Alana’s car, both of them illuminated by the glow of the streetlamps like willowy streaks of crimson and black in their respective coats. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more use,” says Alana, tightening her scarf around her throat. “But you know how he is.” Hannibal inclines his head to indicate that he does and Alana gives a small shrug in return. “Whoever really knows what’s going on with Will? He just gets that closed-down look on his face and insists that he’s…”

“…Fine. Yes, I know: that particular scenario is very familiar. Yet he is clearly not fine.”

“I’ve tried reaching out to him,” says Alana. “I’m sure you have too.”

“I have and with a similar lack of results. Although I suppose we can hardly blame him. A forced confidence, after all, is a rather counterfeit way to confide.” Hannibal gives a small shrug of his own, and which is rather more forceful than Alana’s version although equally graceful in the way he manages to curl his shoulder blades round. “At any rate I appreciate you humouring me; these regular enquiries must be becoming a bore.”

“Not at all. I’m always happy to look out for Will. You know that.”

“I do, yes. In you he is very fortunate in his choice of friends.”

“Likewise.”

“I appreciate the endorsement,” says Hannibal with a smile. “Although I don’t suppose he would see it that way. I can imagine his irritation if he finds out I’ve been asking people about him behind his back.”

“I know. He’s so guarded.”

“He is,” agrees Hannibal thoughtfully. “It makes one wonder what he feels he has to work so hard to defend.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” adds Alana. “Anything he needs.” Then she smiles and gently presses her hand against Hannibal’s forearm. “And don’t be a stranger yourself. You know you don’t have to wait until there’s a problem with Will to look me up.”

The way she says this is completely casual and uncontrived, and Hannibal in turn feels no reservations about leaning forward so he can press a kiss against her smooth, scented cheek. “You’re so European,” says Alana affectionately. “Mostly we just clank our jawbones together over here.”

“Yes, I’m afraid I can’t entirely purge my continental affectations. Will often says the same.”

“I know he does. He never talks about himself but he’s always very happy to talk about you.” Hannibal delivers one of more inscrutably Sphinxy smiles in response and Alana smiles back at the level of restraint that prevents him angling for further details in the same way most people would. “He talks about you and you’re talking about him: maybe you should just cut out the middleman and talk to each other.”

“I suppose we should. In fact when expressed that way it appears that we’re actually both rather stupid.”

Alana laughs out loud at this then briefly replaces her hand on Hannibal’s arm. “You know, I wouldn’t presume to say the same for you but I think Will would be a lot happier if he really was that stupid.”

“Yes indeed – the comfort of oblivion.”

“Exactly. His intelligence always seems like another cross for him to bear. I’d like to think you can help him learn to wear it as well as you do.”

“Yes,” says Hannibal with his most impressive poker face. “I’d like to think so too.”

“Well if you need a middleman in the meantime,” adds Alana. “You know where I am. Now let me have a continental moment myself.” She presses a delicate kiss against Hannibal’s face then leans back and smiles again before rubbing his cheekbone with her thumb. “Ah, I’m sorry, I’ve got lipstick on you. I suppose the ladies of Europe do it more elegantly.”

“Not at all. And certainly with nowhere near as much appeal.”

“Oh stop it,” says Alana merrily. “You’re incorrigible.”

“I thought I was European?”

“You’re both. Now stop trying to charm me, you’re going to make me late for my date.”

“That would be unforgivably rude of me,” says Hannibal with another smile. He stands aside to wave her off while Alana smiles and waves back – and the dim inky duskiness that saturates and swirls around them is so complete that neither of them notice Will several metres away; stood by the entire time and nearly wholly obscured by the shadows.

As vantage points go Will’s position offers the considerable comforts of secrecy: yet in that moment it strikes him that it actually incorporates the worst of both possible worlds, in that he’s too far away to hear what the two of them are saying yet still close enough to see them and therefore torment himself with imagining it. Although the suggestiveness of the latter is so strong as to essentially eliminate the need for the former; because what else, really, could they possibly be saying to one another? It’s enough to see the way that Alana reaches out once – then twice – and casually strokes Hannibal’s arm with all the familiarity of someone who’s performed a similar gesture a hundred times before. It’s enough to see the way that he kisses her cheek and she touches her hand against his face, or the way she keeps saying things to him which make him smile and look unexpectedly animated, as if the typical marble-like impassiveness has heard something to breathe warm life into it. Yet if all these things are the kindling then the accelerant which sets them alight is the fact that while Will doesn’t know for certain Alana’s an omega, she certainly looks as though she might be. And, even more to the point, would be the type of omega that’s a million miles removed from the type that Will is: the type that’s intelligent, sophisticated, beautiful and restrained, and who’s assertive without being strident and demure without being shy. Stood there by her sleekly gleaming car she and Hannibal resemble a couple from an art postcard, or possibly some expensive advertisement for a luxury lifestyle product: the type that ordinary people like Will are intended to wistfully gaze at and think ‘If I could only spend enough money, and invest enough time, then I too might be happy and beautiful and successful and in love; just the way that these people are.’

In those few seconds, breached and stranded alone in the shadows, Will realises that he doesn’t feel angry – because right does he have to be? – and he doesn’t even feel particularly resentful either, because of course Hannibal was always destined to gravitate towards someone like Alana rather than someone like Will. More than anything else he just feels a wave of grief for the fact that yet another thing has been lost. Another version of Paradise Lost, in fact…another version of hell. And then beneath the sadness is something less profound yet almost equally painful, which is the awareness of being presumptuous and ridiculous to have allowed even the faintest hint of such a longing to steal through in the first place.

Will knows he should just leave now to prevent the risk of being seen, but still can’t resist allowing himself one final yearning stare in Hannibal’s direction as a sort of farewell gesture: although even this is destined to be disappointed because Hannibal, unaware of Will’s silent veiled vigil from the shadows, now abruptly turns round and vanishes in the direction of his own car. So Will watches him go then retreats back towards the building just as quietly as he arrived and without making any attempt to catch Hannibal’s attention. There’s no point now – not anymore – because he knows that he’s not going to tell him about Andrew. Of course there was no real point in telling him before beyond the hope of emotional comfort; but while there’s no doubt it would still be on offer, Will’s sense of pride no longer wants the comfort in the same way if it means having to share Hannibal’s interest and support with someone who has a greater claim to it. In fact it’s so miserably easy to imagine: Hannibal and Alana reclining round the house being elegant and beautiful together, possibly over a dinner table with silver candlesticks or maybe even in bed, and Hannibal saying ‘You’ll never guess what’s happened with Will.’ And Alana listening in shocked sympathy with her head on one side and a lock of dark hair tumbling prettily across her forehead as she holds forth about what a shame it is, and how dreadful, and if only there was something they could do because aren’t the laws barbaric? And then, bit by bit, they’d lose interest. Hannibal would stroke Alana’s face and brush the strand of hair out the way and Alana would curl up next to his chest, and they’d gradually grow so preoccupied with each other that they’d be glad of an excuse – any excuse – to bask in the warm, rosy glow of their own togetherness and forget about the sordid realities of someone else’s life and problems that exist in the frozen wilderness beyond their own snug circle of two.

Looking down Will realises he’s dug his nails so deep into his palms he’s almost drawn blood and the surge of pain is enough to force his attention back to the present and pull himself together. Because of course whether or not Hannibal and Alana are a couple doesn’t matter. It doesn’t, does it? It’s not even relevant. It doesn’t have the slightest bearing on the problem at hand. A problem which is quickly forming itself into the greatest problem of Will’s life; even his life, with so many problems in it. Somewhat trance-like he heads back to his office again in a slowly mechanical way – one foot in front of the other, left, right, left, right – then locks the door behind him and roots around in his desk for the bottle of whiskey that’s stashed away in the bottom drawer. The whiskey was a gift from Jack, whose idea of Christmas presents for his team has a tendency to run along the more stolidly unimaginative lines (alcohol for the men; perfume for the women) and then, because he doesn’t have a glass, unpacks one of the teacups and uses that instead. His hand is remarkably steady all things considered and he places it flat on the desk and examines it with something like pride, because right now comfort is in such short supply that even something as trivial as a steady hand can’t be taken for granted. From outside in the corridor comes the sound of knocking and Will stiffens in his chair before hearing someone calling his name and realising it’s only Siemens, so ignores him and pours out another measure of whiskey which he knocks back in one go.

It’s getting dark in earnest now but Will doesn’t want to turn on the light and advertise his presence to anyone walking past so just sits in the gloom instead with the glow of the streetlights as his only illumination. Think, he mutters to himself. Think, think! There must be something. There must be something to make Andrew go away. Only there doesn’t appear to be anything, and so Will pours out the bottle for a third time and then drags a weary hand over his face. Hannibal is probably at Alana’s house by now; or maybe she’s gone to his? Perhaps he’ll take her to the concert that he was supposed to see when Will was there but ended up in the bar all night instead. Not that it really matters, does it? Not really: not in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t matter at all.

Matter does not really exist,” Hannibal said once. “The concept is entirely contradictory, an abstract universal.” Like matter and anti-matter…opposites attract. Like himself and Will as wildly opposing counterparts: north and south, left and right and wrong. The unstoppable force and the immovable object. Like polarities, drawn together by nature and instinct. And yet ‘matter’ means something counts. It means it signifies; it means it wasn’t all for nothing.

Will takes another deep breath and then reaches out with the hand that’s so steady and picks up the teacup again to swallow down the whiskey in a bitter stinging draught. Then he slowly draws back his arm and throws the cup against the wall, because there’s something so perfect about the way all that fragile flawless porcelain shatters into a hundred little fragments that catch the remains of the dying light on their way down.

Chapter Text

Dear You,

It’s getting closer now to the end of the week.

This means the deadline is coming; it means everything’s going to collapse. And as I watch it happen my dread starts to escalate and I try to understand how it’s possible to be in so much pain when I’m not bruised or bleeding – not injured in any conceivable way – yet still feel as if I’m shattering inside. To be honest I think this is what it feels like to finally lose control. It’s like gathering everything that matters to you into your arms then flinging yourself from something near and high, because once you’re airborne the only thing left to do is submit to the free-fall and accept the inevitability of sailing down while surrendering to the loss of yourself. The anticipation is the hardest – those last few seconds when you and everything that matters are stood by the edge of the cliff – but once you’ve committed to the decision it’s supposed to bring a certain sense of peace.

At least…I guess that’s how it would work in theory. Only I have a problem with it in practice, because I know I’m not ready yet to just let go and accept the inevitable. I’m waiting, you see. I’m waiting for the disaster that my life’s become to somehow grow bearable again – and meaningful, and mine – because it might be a collection of catastrophes but it’s the only one I have and it’s still valuable to me. I want to protect and preserve it. Don’t get me wrong though; I know I don’t have to do this. I know I’m allowed to give up. I know I’m allowed to think ‘this future with Andrew is inescapable so I may as well stop fighting and accept it’. But I can’t. Would you like to know what else I can’t seem to accept? It’s you, of course. It’s always you. Because I can’t seem to let go of you either, even though I know I should.

I’m not supposed to miss you like this, am I? I’m not supposed to care. I’m not supposed to make you my prerogative when I was only ever your alternative. God it’s all so strange, because in many ways I hardly know you at all. It doesn’t even make sense to write to you like this; something that you’ll never be able to read. Yet none of this changes the fact that you weren’t just a muse, or a realisation, or a passing thought or idea or inspiration; you were everything – and I know now that if anybody could have saved me, that person would have been you. In fact it’s because you meant so much that I couldn’t comprehend or express it, and now I guess I’ll never have an opportunity to let you know. So what’s the point in denying it? None: no point at all. My conscience and rational brain is attempting to persuade me into believing something that my mind, heart, body and soul all know is a hopeless, helpless lie. The way I feel and think about you isn’t going to expire. It’s not going to die. It’s not going to go away. I can club it and pound it and kick it all I want, it just limps off and lays dormant, recuperating and convalescing, then comes back twice as vital as before and wrecks me.

The dual demands of clinging on and letting go…I don’t know which is harder. I even dreamt about you last night. In fact it was so vivid it was more like dreaming while I was awake, and it was the sort of dream that I can imagine having for the rest of my life: dreaming that you’re still here and that you’re speaking to me, that your eyes have met mine, that you’re touching me…right until the moment that I wake up cold and afraid and alone and have to reconcile with losing and letting go of you all over again. I guess that means I’ll never have a chance to stop missing you because I’ll never stop needing you: you’ll be walking away from me over and over again every morning of every day for as long as I live. I’m not even complaining about it. It’s inevitable, I suppose; it’s just the way it is. Loss and longing…you never get one without the other.

At other times I imagine what it might be like to run into you several years from now. I’d have been forced to stop working by then so it would be in a theatre or restaurant, somewhere like that. Somewhere luxurious and impersonal. You’d be there with Alana and happy, and I’d be there with Andrew and not. And our eyes would meet from across the room and we’d think ‘Oh yes, we knew each other once, we touched each other; once we nearly kissed. Just once. It was a long time ago now, but once we did.’ Then maybe we’d make some meaningless small talk, and I’d have to introduce you to Andrew and you’d run your eyes over him and give that very faint half-smile that you always do. Then we’d walk away in separate directions and I’d have no idea what was going through your head, but deep down in myself I know I’d be thinking: ‘It wasn’t supposed to end like this.’ Because that was never my version: other people, people like Alana and Andrew, should never have mattered because me and you were always supposed to be more important. Above others. Us against the world. And the worlds we lived in were different but somehow never all that far apart. We saw the same sky after all, the same stars. Didn’t we? You know that it’s true. Some of our stars were the same.

At other times I just think about the small stupid things, like how I sometimes used to snap at you; the way I‘d tell you how annoying you could be. At the time I meant it: that voice of yours, the relentless insights…like elegant instruments of torture. But you see the thing is, I’ve finally realized that nothing ever sounded so compelling as the way you spoke to me – and that nothing is so desolate as the sound of the silence you’ve left behind you now that you’re not here. It hurts to miss you. It sounds ridiculous to say I’m broken-hearted because we weren’t lovers and we weren’t in love. In fact when I flung all that porcelain against the wall I thought that might have been the sound of my heart breaking, but it wasn’t really. It’s not that sort of rupture. It’s not about dramatic gestures in dark rooms or the sound of shattered teacups, it’s more like a quiet sense of yearning that something irreplaceable has been taken away. I wonder what you’d say if I told you my heart feels broken? You’d probably ask if it was in pieces and I’d tell you that it was. You’d look thoughtful then: other people’s pain always interests you. Maybe you’d say ‘In that case create art with it, Will. Make a mosaic or a tableau – sculpt something striking from the fragments.’ Or maybe you wouldn’t say that? Maybe you wouldn’t say anything at all.

The thing is, I feel like you walked away that night with the essence of me in the palm of your hands – mind, heart, spirit and soul, all dripping and gore-stained – and I don’t even care, and I don’t want them back. You could have flayed me, if you’d wanted to. You could have stripped me to the bone and then disappeared clutching sheaves of my skin and I still wouldn’t care. And the reason I don’t is because my true self isn’t what I believed it to be, or even what I wish it was, but what I’ve spent my entire life trying to hide from myself and conceal from the world. I’ve constantly been surrounded by people who rewarded me for pretending to be something I’m not and I’ve always blindly done what they’ve asked of me. In fact I’ve spent my whole life as the property of other people: I’ve always been someone else’s expectation, or their problem, or their project; I’ve never just been myself. The only time I thought it might be possible was when I was with you.

This is why I’ll miss you. It’s why no matter who I meet in the future and how much they might inspire me, no one will ever quite be able to take your place. Dear you, you were such a beautiful bit of chaos…I can’t bring myself to regret you. In fact I don’t regret any of it, and if I had the time again I’d still want you. Always. No matter how many lives, or lifetimes, or different versions of ourselves, no matter how many people warned me away or how many times I told myself ‘no’ – it wouldn’t matter, not any of it. Because at the end of it all – at the end of everything – I’d always still find you, and I’d always still want you.

*****

“What’s the matter with Will?” says Price a few days later as he and Zeller are sifting through tissue samples in the lab. “He’s been acting a little odd.”

“Will’s always a little odd.”

“More than a little then.” Price pauses then squints accusingly at Zeller from over the top of his safety goggles. “A lot odd.”

“You’re the one who’s odd. Why do you insist on wearing those things all the time? They make you look like a giant fly.”

Musca domestica,” says Price with a hint of smugness.

“Yeah, like I said: a giant fly. And I honestly don’t know what the matter is with Will. Whenever you ask him he says he’s fine.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” replies Price firmly. “He always says he’s fine.”

“Well whatever it is it hasn’t affected his work,” says Zeller, beginning to lay out specimen trays for Price before having to be asked. “Did you hear how he was able to link the first Sculptor victim to the Richard Black case? You know – the Nemesis killer. That’s one and six confirmed now: and I bet you he finds a link with the other four.”

“Once again that doesn’t mean anything,” says Price. He frowns even harder, then to emphasise the point begins to brandish his pipette at Zeller like someone waving a stick for a dog. “Will always works well, he’s always odd, and he always tells you he’s fine. In fact it’s a perfect hat-trick where he’s concerned: and it doesn’t alter the fact that there’s clearly something wrong with him.”

“Be quiet, he’s coming,” mutters Zeller in an undertone. As Will pushes open the door, he clears his throat then picks up a bag of swabs that’s lying nearby and waves them at Price. “What do you think?” he says loudly. “Serology for all of these?”

“Yes, all of them,” replies Price, equally loudly. “Oh, hello Will, I didn’t see you there.”

Will nods in acknowledgement but doesn’t offer any further response, opting instead to sit at one of the nearby desks and begin to scribble rather furiously into the log book. “I gather congratulations are in order,” persists Price. “What’s all this I hear about you linking The Sculptor’s first victim with the Nemesis murders?”

“For God’s sake,” explodes Will, flinging down his pen with a sharp crack. “Why does everyone insist on calling him that?” Price raises his eyebrows and Will briefly looks unhappy before lowering his head and staring at the desk again. “Sorry,” he says in a quieter voice. “Just ignore me, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“It’s no problem,” says Price kindly. Catching Zeller’s eye, he silently mouths: What did I tell you?

“It is,” replies Will in the same strained voice. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way. It’s just that Richard Black was an arrogant bastard and I know how much he would’ve loved the idea of being remembered as ‘The Nemesis.’ Using his real name seems a way of denying him the satisfaction.”

“Quite right too,” says Price briskly. “These dramatic nicknames always give them an aura of power and mystique that they really don’t deserve.”

“Anyway, you heard right,” adds Will. Picking up the pen again he begins to spin it between his fingers, although still makes no move to look up from the desk. “The Sculptor’s first victim was the jury forewoman at Black’s trial.”

Price gives a low whistle. “So it’s true. There really is a connection between The Sculptor and The N…and Richard Black.”

“Yeah,” replies Will unhappily. “It’s certainly starting to look that way. Unless it’s all a monumental coincidence; we’ll have to see if anything comes back with the other four.”

“Jeez, you did the profile that caught Black didn’t you?” says Zeller. Price scowls at him and he hastily amends it to: “Not that The Sculptor would be dumb enough to come after an FBI agent.”

“Of course not,” says Price, nodding so vigorously the goggles fall off.

“Anyway,” adds Zeller reassuringly, “he only targets omegas.”

“Yeah,” says Will, continuing his intense staring at the desk. “I know he does.”

“Although I thought you said the first victim was a jury forewoman? I wouldn’t have thought omegas were allowed to do that? Or at least that it would be more difficult for them.”

“Then I suppose she probably lied about it,” says Will tonelessly. “People do.”

“So which is it for The Sculptor then? Is it omegas, or is it people linked with the conviction of Richard Black? They were all found locally after all. I thought the Richard Black case happened down south?”

“I don’t know,” says Will irritably. “What am I, psychic?”

There’s an awkward pause. “Maybe it’s both?” suggests Zeller.

“Maybe: or maybe it’s neither. Why do you all keep expecting me to have chapter and fucking verse on Richard Black?” This time it’s Zeller who raises his eyebrows and Will takes his glasses off and drags his hand across his face. “What I said before,” he adds. “’I’m sorry’ and ‘ignore me.’ Times ten.”

“It’s fine Will,” says Zeller kindly. “No harm done.”

Will nods wordlessly then puts his glasses back on and finally raises his head. “Look, I should probably get going,” he says in a strained voice. “I might…I don’t know. I might work from home today.”

“Good idea,” replies Price heartily. “In fact why not take the rest of the afternoon off? Seeing as the whole investigation is running on your insights I think you’ve more than earned it.”

“Yeah. Maybe I will.”

“And give one of us a call if you need anything.”

“Thanks,” says Will. Pushing back the chair he gets to his feet and slowly begins to gather up his coat and briefcase in a methodical, overly-cautious way as if it’s the type of task that demands extreme concentration. Zeller and Price exchange another concerned look with one another then abruptly straighten their faces as Will turns round.

“Oh by the way, I nearly forgot,” adds Price. “Hannibal’s looking for you.”

Will stiffens slightly. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes, he was in here about half an hour ago. He’ll probably be in Jack’s office if you want to catch him before you leave?”

“Sure,” says Will vaguely. “I’ll do that.”

“And take care, won’t you?”

“Always have,” replies Will in the same flat voice. Then he closes the lab door behind him and does a quick scan along the corridor to check the coast is clear before taking a sharp left turn rather than the usual right to avoid going anywhere near Jack’s office. As a strategy this admittedly seems rather cowardly, although considering that he’s really not in the mood for any awkward confrontations with Hannibal he can’t bring himself to care about it too much – and is just in the middle of privately congratulating himself for having dodged a bullet when he swerves round the corner and promptly bowls straight into Siemens instead.

“Will!” exclaims Siemens. “Careful there buddy, I almost knocked you over.” Darting out a hand he puts his palm on Will’s shoulder to steady him, letting it linger for just a fraction longer than necessary before finally removing it again. “Although it’s a neat coincidence because I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I wanted to ask if you might…”

As an opening gambit it seems harmless enough, yet Will still begins to bristle with such obvious antagonism that it makes Siemens falter for a few seconds before falling completely silent. Will, in turn, suspects that he’s being unreasonable and yet can’t avoid the fact that his desire to do it is far stronger than the trouble it would take to stop himself. Because the simple fact is that the sight of Siemens’ beaming face, as cheerful and oblivious as an eager piglet, is a painful reminder of how Will’s initial sympathy towards him was based on how Siemens’ forlorn pining echoed Will’s own ambivalent attachment towards Hannibal. The sense of allowing himself to be imposed on for so long – and for such a pitiful reason – now feels humiliating, and his resentment of it causes him to speak rather more harshly than intended. “Look,” he snaps into the resulting awkward silence, “you’re being really inappropriate here. Back off. I’m not going on a date with you and you need to understand that.”

Siemens gives a self-conscious cough and shuffles his feet before rallying enough to shoot Will a distinctly grudging look. “Actually,” he says, “I wasn’t going to ask that.”

“Good,” replies Will, refusing to feel guilty.

Siemens re-enacts his previous combination of gestures (cough-shuffle-scowl), and Will watches his progress with an awful sort of fascination while struggling against an overpowering urge to clout his briefcase straight into the shiny pink face. “If you’ll excuse me saying so,” adds Siemens with unusual fierceness, “I think you need to calm down a bit: you need to calm down Will. I apologised for my behaviour before. I got the wrong idea I admit, but it was never my intention to offend you. And I haven’t been near you since then.”

“Then why have you been hanging round the lab?” demands Will. Irritation is making him defensive now, although he also can’t help feeling guiltily aware of what a charge he’s getting out of being hostile. “You and Skinner? You’re in there constantly and neither of you have any real reason to be.”

“Skinner is after those reports from Dr Price,” says Siemens, whose normally pink complexion is adopting an unpleasant, mottled-red texture that resembles a slab of hashed beef. “And I wanted to tell you about the PI. You know: the one who was after you.”

“Of course I know,” snaps Will. “What about him?”

“I reported him,” says Siemens with a note of triumph. “For entering FBI property on false pretences. I was trying to do you a favour. I thought you’d be pleased.”

“When?” says Will accusingly. “When did you do that?”

“Yesterday.”

“Yesterday? Don’t you know he’s dead?”

“Dead? The private investigator?”

“Yes. Dead.”

Dead?” repeats Siemens, in tones of such utter incomprehension that Will has to resist the urge to yell ‘Yes! Fucking dead!’ at high volume, possibly accompanied by the Monty Python list of euphemisms for illustrative purposes (he is no more, he’s ceased to be, he’s expired and gone to meet his maker, bereft of life he rests in peace, he is an ex-person…) “Well that is unexpected,” says Siemens eventually, his mouth popping into a little ‘o’ of surprise. “I can hardly believe that he’s…”

Dead,” says Will malevolently. “Yes. Demised. Deceased. It happened a few days ago – he was murdered.”

Murdered,” repeats Siemens.

At this point Will makes an executive decision that he can’t possibly face spending the next few minutes repeating variations of ‘Murdered. Murdered? Yes! Fucking murdered!’ on an eternal loop, so doesn’t even bother responding to this and curtly announces his intentions to leave instead. Siemens blinks a few times in silent resentment and Will growls internally then reluctantly forces himself to grate out: “Thank you for trying to help.”

Siemens sniffs dismissively in response – at which point Will yearns to add ‘Only joking! You can ram your help up your ass’ – before shooting Will a sly look from beneath his pale eyelashes. “Murdered,” he repeats softly. “Bad luck for him then; although I guess you must be relieved.”

“Hardly,” snaps Will, immediately resenting the implications of this. “A man’s dead after all. Anyway I spoke to him while he was here. It was no big deal.” Siemens raises his eyebrows incredulously, which inspires Will to defiantly add: “In fact it turned out he’d got the wrong person.” Not that this is remotely close to what happened; and even as he’s speaking, Will is unpleasantly aware of how he’s getting overcome with a furtive, instinctive need to try and justify himself. Although of course this is ridiculous – there’s no need to do it (no need at all), because no one would ever assume he’d had any involvement with the detective’s murder. No one would think that, not even Skinner. Andrew’s explanation is the most likely one after all: private detection is a sordid, precarious choice of work and the man clearly got himself mixed up with something more threatening and complex than he had the skills to manage. Nevertheless the sickly insinuating quality of Siemens’ expression is something Will doesn’t definitely want to deal with anymore, so sharply turns his back on him without any further attempts at explanation and strides off in the direction of the exit instead – and where he grows so intensely and gloomily preoccupied that he doesn’t register the sound of his name being called from across the hall. Pausing at the doorway to fasten his scarf, he jumps sharply at the sudden sensation of a hand on his shoulder.

“For God’s sake,” snaps Will when he lands again. “You startled me. What’s the matter with you? Why do you always have to do that?”

“I apologise,” replies Hannibal. “But you didn’t seem to hear me.” Will frowns back mutinously and Hannibal raises his eyebrows slightly before removing his hand. “I was hoping to speak with you.”

“Can’t it wait? I’m on my way out.”

“I suppose it could easily wait; I only wanted to see how you are. You’ve been extremely elusive in the last few days.” Will opens his mouth to reply and Hannibal adds: “And please don’t tell me that you’re fine.”

“Then why even ask if you don’t want to hear the answer?”

Hannibal slowly runs his eyes over Will’s face for a few seconds and then instead of replying says: “Have you been avoiding me?”

“No,” snaps Will, privately marvelling at the level of self-confidence that could ask such a question without any sign of defensiveness or anxiety over the chance of an unflattering response. “I’ve just been busy is all.”

“Then I won’t delay you any more than necessary,” replies Hannibal in the same calm voice. “Let me walk with you to your car; isn’t that a more economical use of your time? We can talk on the way.”

Only a few days ago Will would have been pleased at this suggestion; but a few days ago feels like a whole lifetime now, and he can feel himself blanch slightly at the thought of it. Partly this discomfort stems from the fact that spending time with Hannibal promises to dredge up a degree of sadness and regret that he’s really not in the right mood to deal with – but it’s also being driven by an even more pressing concern, which is the high risk of Andrew lying in wait in the parking lot: lurking in the back of his chauffeured car like a carnivorous bloated spider just as he’s been every single day since that first confrontation. As of yet he’s made no attempt to establish contact, although Will knows that making contact isn’t the point and that the sole purpose of the vigil is intimidation and control. More than once Will has had to resist the urge to flick two fingers up while walking past the tinted windows – and probably would as well, if not for the awareness of how such a pointless gesture would make Andrew smirk with derision before exchanging a few patronising remarks with his chauffeur at how incredibly temperamental and juvenile omegas in general, and Will in particular, have a tendency to be. Nevertheless it’s one thing for Will to face Andrew alone and quite another to stroll past the car with another alpha in tow. Possibly the reservation is unnecessary – it’s hardly as if Hannibal needs Will’s protection after all – and yet Andrew’s threat of the lawsuit and ownership claim against Jack is still fresh in his mind, and the idea of Hannibal being dragged into something similar is actually pretty unbearable.

“Will?” asks Hannibal patiently. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.”

“Then why are you still standing here? I thought you wanted to leave?”

“I do,” says Will a bit helplessly. “Just…look, just wait here a second would you?” Hannibal raises his eyebrows and Will ducks round the side in order to do a quick scan of the parking lot – and where, to his great relief, he can’t see any sign of Andrew’s enormous black Mercedes. “Okay,” he adds in a calmer voice. “Sorry about that. I’ll explain another time.”

Hannibal nods serenely, rather as if Will is being charmingly eccentric as opposed to wary and paranoid, then holds the door open and follows him outside. It’s bitterly cold and Will shivers slightly and tightens his scarf around his throat before trying to think of something to say that can deflect from Hannibal’s inevitable interrogation about what the hell’s the matter with him. Although the mere fact that he has to struggle is actually pretty crushing in itself, because Hannibal is one of the few people around who Will was rarely ever at a loss for words. In fact it’s rather like being with a stranger: only worse, because if Hannibal really were a stranger then at least the opportunity would still exist to get to know him, whereas now they’re basically destined to be permanently separated from one other.

“Will…” begins Hannibal.

“How’s Alana doing,” interrupts Will in desperation. In fact the enquiry is rather masochistic because he knows the response is going to hurt, but at least it’s still something to say. Besides, after everything they’ve shared up until this point he feels like he owes it to Hannibal to be supportive and interested in his fledgling relationship rather than bitter and resentful.

Hannibal briefly looks surprised, which confirms Will’s private suspicions that it wasn’t his intention for Will to find out about it quite yet. “As far as I’m aware she’s extremely well,” he replies. “Although I’m not the most reliable source of information – I only see her very occasionally.”

Will yearns to snap that there’s no need to lie to him about it, but bites back the impulse on the grounds that he knows he’d be filled with remorse and embarrassment later on for having acted in such a petty, mean-spirited way. “I hope she’s doing great,” he replies as brightly as possible.

“With all due respect to Alana Bloom,” says Hannibal with the faintest trace of impatience, “she’s not the reason I wanted to talk to you. At the moment I’m far more interested in your wellbeing than hers.”

“Oh,” says Will in surprise. “You are?”

“I am.”

“Well…,” replies Will cautiously. “I guess I’ve been better.”

“Yes indeed. I think that much is obvious.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t returned your calls,” adds Will, neatly deflecting the original question while struggling to quell the spike of envy at the idea of what Hannibal’s ‘occasional’ meetings with Alana are likely to entail. “I guess it was pretty rude of me.”

“It’s fine Will. I’m not here to lecture you on social etiquette; I want to know what’s happening.”

“Nothing,” says Will, abruptly tiring of the whole thing and uncomfortably aware of how his fragile patience is revving itself up to snap. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Clearly; that doesn’t change the fact I want to hear about it.”

“Oh God, just drop it can’t you? I said no. Don’t you have any boundaries at all?”

“Boundaries?” repeats Hannibal politely, in the sort of tone that’s tempting to interpret as ‘Boundaries, you say? How very quaint – of course not.’

“Yeah, boundaries,” snaps Will. “Remind me how many languages you speak again? How is it that you’ve never learnt how to say ‘I should mind my own business’ in any of them?”

Hannibal makes no response at all to this, which immediately makes Will suspect that he’s gone too far and Hannibal is finally about to lose patience – and therefore lose interest and walk away. In fact he’s so convinced it’s going to happen he’s already experiencing a pre-emptive wave of regret at having once again managed to repulse the person he secretly most longs to be close to; and as such isn’t remotely prepared for Hannibal to stop walking and take hold of his shoulders with both hands instead, gently but firmly holding him in place and seemingly oblivious to the way Will’s glaring at him. The suddenness of it is disorientating and Will can’t help going rigid for a few seconds as he wrestles against a temptation to simply sink forward against Hannibal’s chest before reality reasserts itself and he makes an effort to pull himself free. Hannibal’s grip is unnervingly strong – almost frighteningly so – and it occurs to Will with a gloomy sense of inevitability that the day is just about to reach a new pinnacle of Epic Shitness courtesy of having a punch up with his psychiatrist in the middle of the FBI parking lot. “Get off me,” he says, and it comes out as a sort of snarl. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Hannibal loosens the pressure slightly but doesn’t let go, instead shifting his position so he can stoke Will’s back with his right hand while holding onto his shoulder with his left. Will, in turn, gives a hiss of annoyance and renews his efforts to push him off – overcome now with an increasingly determined urge to provoke Hannibal into losing his temper and therefore just hasten the inevitable by giving up on Will and walking away from him. Hannibal, however, shows no indication of doing either of these things and merely continues to stroke Will’s back in the same soothing rhythm until Will’s finally tired himself out with the effort of struggling and grown pliant and still. “Good boy,” says Hannibal softly, “you know I won’t let you go.” Will just shakes his head without even really understanding what he’s supposed to be agreeing with and Hannibal adds, in an unusually tender voice: “You’re not all right, are you?”

For a few seconds they stare at one another in silence until Will takes a deep breath as he feels his resolve finally starting to crumble. “No,” he says; and it feels incredibly ironic that after everything’s he’s been through, it’s this show of kindness that’s the final straw. Irritation or annoyance would have inspired an answering surge of defiance in Will, or possibly pride, or even anger; but whatever it would have created, it would still have served in strengthening his resolve to conceal how ruined he feels. But this…and Will, to his complete horror, can feel his shoulders beginning to tremble and his face crumple in a distinctly ominous way – and, oh shitting bastard bullshitting fuck.

Hannibal, with all his fastidiousness and reserve, is the type of person who Will always imagines would find displays of feeling to be vaguely distasteful. Vulgar even; as if only the most feeble-willed and emotionally incontinent would ever dare to brandish their messy, watery-eyed, slack-jawed sentiment outside the privacy of their own four walls. He’s therefore expecting Hannibal to respond to his obvious distress with something like aversion, or possibly the coolly clinical detachment of a scientist examining a cage full of rats…or pretty much anything, really, other than what actually happens: which is being gently pulled against the front of Hannibal’s coat (even though pulled isn’t exactly the right word for it; it’s more like being escorted in) while one hand cradles his head and the other stokes across his shoulder blades.

“Oh Will,” says Hannibal quietly.

“No, it’s okay, it’s all right,” mutters Will, straight into the front of Hannibal’s coat. “I’m…”

“Fine. Yes of course you are.”

Will laughs at this then goes quiet for a few seconds before becoming embarrassingly aware of how he’s clinging onto Hannibal’s coat like a needy five year old (Christ) so blushes slightly and rams his hands into his pockets instead. In this respect a cocktail of shock and self-consciousness are helping him to snap back into control again much quicker than expected; yet nevertheless he still doesn’t pull away immediately, instead lingering on for a few more seconds more as he breathes in the coat’s aroma of bergamot and cedar wood and tries not to bask too hard in the comfort of being held and contained.

“If you don’t tell me,” Hannibal is now saying, “then I can’t help you.”

“You don’t understand,” replies Will. “It’s not that sort of situation. It isn’t fixable.” The last part of this statement is accompanied by a mournful snuffling noise which makes him wonder if his nose is running; and if so whether the bastard thing has run onto Hannibal’s coat…and if so whether this is a level of embarrassment that might well prove fatal, considering that the coat probably cost more than the entire contents of Will’s closet put together (plus the closet itself as well). Oh God. Taking another deep breath he finally disentangles himself then scrubs his hands across his face as Hannibal lets go too and takes a step back. A few strained seconds of silence then follow in which they simply look at each other without speaking or moving at all; and in which Hannibal stares down with an expression of unusual benevolence on his face, and Will stares up while privately deciding that if this were a video game he’d have just unlocked a new achievement level for Public Mortification.

“Well…” says Will eventually. “This is awkward.”

Hannibal starts to smile and then deftly tucks a strand of Will’s hair behind his ear. “Not really.”

“Of course it is. Don’t be stupid.”

“Ah – there you are. Welcome back. As long as you’re being rude to me I remain in hope that your case isn’t beyond all help. I find it rather reassuring.”

This makes Will laugh again, although it seems to go wrong halfway through and turn into a sort of gasp. “Oh God,” he says unhappily. “Everything’s such a mess.”

“Well an FBI parking lot is hardly the best place to unravel it,” replies Hannibal. “I suppose we can agree on that much at least?” Reaching out he takes hold of Will’s hands in both of his, rubbing his thumbs over Will’s knuckles to try and work some warmth back into them. “Let me take you home. Or come back home with me if you prefer?”

“I don’t…there’s no point. There’s nothing you can do.”

“I want you to talk to me Will,” adds Hannibal, clearly undeterred by this show of resistance. “You always seem to think that asking for help is a sign of weakness and it’s not: it’s a sign of courage. Of courage, and of a commitment to healing and helping oneself.”

At the sound of the words Will falls silent again then closes his eyes for a few seconds: absurdly touched, in spite of himself, by this previously unconsidered concept of help-seeking as an act of bravery and self-love rather than vulnerability. In fact it reminds him of that night in his car when he thought he’d seen the intruder in the yard – the way he’d tried to reach out to the frightened part of himself in an attempt to comfort and reassure it, and how empowering it had felt to acknowledge and accept his own sense of frailty rather than constantly punish himself for it. Hannibal’s hands are still rhythmically moving over his the entire time and when he glances down all he can really see is a tangle of fingers to the extent it’s not immediately clear whose are whose: where he begins and Hannibal ends. “You’re right,” he hears someone saying, and realises with a jolt of surprise that it’s actually him. “I’m not okay. I need help.”

“I know. I see that.”

Will’s head begins to droop down as if there’s too much going on in his head for his slim neck to bear the weight of it, and when he speaks again it’s so quiet that Hannibal has to lean in to hear him. “I need you.”

“You have me Will.”

Will nods again then allows himself to sink a little further forward before the softly mellow silence is abruptly ripped apart by the angry scream of tires grinding on asphalt. Will jerks his head up sharply at the sound of it – and then immediately wishes he hadn’t, because the sight is enough to make him go completely rigid with horror as all the tentative calm of the past few minutes ruptures and withers away. Oh God it can’t be, he thinks with panic. It can’t be, it can’t be. Only of course it can, and it is: the spectacle of a large black Mercedes emerging into the parking lot with all the gloomy foreboding of a funeral hearse stacked with cadavers. It’s surely too late now and the damage has already been done, but Will still desperately pulls his hands free all the same and takes a few steps backwards in a frantic attempt to try and make the set-up appear more casual and less intimate than it actually is.

Hannibal looks at him curiously then follows his gaze towards the car and raises a questioning eyebrow. “A friend of yours?”

“No,” says Will faintly as the Mercedes grinds to a halt in a furious shriek of gears. “Oh shit. Shit. Look, Hannibal, I’m really sorry. Whatever’s about to happen, I…” Only the rest of the sentence is lost as the door flies open and a long lean figure comes exploding out the back seat: practically radiating outrage and as spindly and scuttling as some kind of monstrous insect in its shiny black coat.

“What the hell,” hisses Andrew, who’s actually gone pale with anger. “You little slut. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” In a few quick strides he devours the distance between them and roughly seizes Will’s arm, jerking him backwards then pivoting round and jabbing his finger at Hannibal like it’s a loaded gun. “And as for you, you bastard; you keep your hands to your fucking self. You talk to him again – you even look at him – and I swear to God I’ll kill you. And if you even think about touching him again, I’ll kill you slow.”

An electrified pause follows this scene during which the air crackles and sparks with tension and where Will is forced to admit that if there was ever a time in his life when he needed to pull himself together then this moment is probably the one. Yet for a few agonised seconds it seems to him as if everything just grinds helplessly to a halt. It’s an odd sensation, like a pause button being pressed on a video, and it means that all he’s really aware of is incidental things: the iciness of the air, the gathering gloominess as dusk sets in, and the pain of Andrew’s gaunt fingers digging into him as his arm gets twisted into a weird unnatural angle. But then even more than that – more than anything else – is the overwhelming sense of shame and misery at having forced Hannibal into such a humiliating situation. Because he’s clearly not going to stand for it; why on earth would he? He’s going to walk away now. Isn’t he, any second now…surely he will? Then suddenly everything speeds up again as the scene snaps back to life and Will is watching with numb disbelief at Hannibal reaching across with an eerily fast movement to seize hold of the hand that’s clutching Will and administering a sharply vicious twist. Then everything shifts for a second time and Andrew is screaming and letting go, while Hannibal is tucking Will against him so he can inspect his arm for any signs of damage before placing a steading hand on his shoulder and holding him close. Then a few seconds of silence follow in which there’s nothing to hear at all except Andrew’s sharp staccato breathing until Hannibal brushes his hand against the back of Will’s neck and takes a measured step forward.

“You’ve been very fortunate in your choice of witnesses,” says Hannibal softly, flicking his eyes towards the large FBI sign by the entrance. “And because of that I’m going to extend you something I almost never do: a warning.” Andrew glances down at his hand in disbelief, biting his lip in an obvious attempt to not betray the pain he’s in, and Hannibal takes another step closer and adds in the same unnerving voice: “I strongly suggest you don’t attempt that a second time.”

By now Hannibal’s tone has taken on a level of such low-pitched menace that it manages to be even more sinister in contrast to the raucous volume of Andrew – and glancing over at his face, Will can’t suppress a shudder of foreboding because the expression on it is nothing short of chilling. Why did I ever believe you didn’t have real emotions? he thinks numbly. Right now Hannibal seems iridescent with them: something inflammable about to ignite, as if his skin would be white-hot to the touch from burning up with a ferocious, flaring force of feeling. He doesn’t need to raise his voice or make elaborate gestures – the kind of demonstrative props that people like Andrew might use; the kind that Will himself might resort to – but it’s there all the same. It’s there in the intensity of his expression and the tension of the muscles around his jaw and shoulders, but more than anything else it’s in his eyes. Forceful even in his more casual moments they now look as if they’re glittering: as if there’s an inferno raging behind them that’s been stoked by dark longing and vengeful passions, like a fiery avenging angel from some Renaissance painting with sword in hand and baleful blazing eyes. In fact the anger seems so incredibly excessive relative to the situation that Will finds it hard to believe that Andrew, a total stranger, could be the sole cause of it and is miserably forced to conclude that he himself must be largely responsible; partly at having forced Hannibal into such an outrageous situation, but also in showing a sufficient lack of trust and openness that would have kept an enormous secret like this from him in the first place. Nevertheless Andrew has no way of knowing he’s not the sole focus of the anger – and for the rest of his life, Will decides he’s never going to forget the satisfaction of the moment that Andrew looks at Hannibal and then visibly dips his head in an unconscious display of submission. Unable to contain himself anymore, Will now draws back both arms and roughly shoves Andrew away from him: applying far more violence than necessary and oblivious to the way the aggressiveness of the gesture causes a small smile to flicker across Hannibal’s face. “For God’s sake,” says Will with something like a snarl. “Control yourself, can’t you? He’s a colleague. You know I work with alphas.”

Andrew beams a ferocious scowl in Will’s direction then takes a deep breath, visibly struggling not to lose his temper, before turning to Hannibal and holding up both hands palm-upwards in a gesture of appeasement. “Okay,” he says in a quieter voice. “Okay, I get it: colleagues.” Wincing from the pain in his wrist he gingerly lowers his arms again then darts a look at Will that manages, if possible, to be even more malicious than the last one. “There’s obviously been a misunderstanding,” adds Andrew spitefully, “and as usual it’s his fault. He’s a nightmare, he’s always causing trouble. Omegas are all the same: they love setting alphas against each other. They do it for the attention.” Turning back to Hannibal again he clears his throat and makes an effort to adopt a tone that’s fractionally more civil. “Come on though: you can hardly blame me. You know what it’s like when you see them with someone else. It’s instinctive. You’d do the same, you know you would. If he belonged to you and you saw me with my hands on him? I mean we pay so much money for them…You know how it is.”

Hannibal runs his eyes over Andrew’s face with a level of menace so carefully controlled and caustic that Andrew darts his tongue over his lips and takes a step backwards. “Money,” repeats Hannibal with an obvious dash of contempt. “Yes, our rituals have changed so much haven’t they: the conditions by which we determine who’s worthy enough to bond with an omega. Today status and dominance are determined by wealth; but it wasn’t always the case. They used to be determined…” He pauses and the dark eyes begin to narrow slightly “…by violence.” Andrew, visibly unsettled, shifts uncomfortably then actually has the nerve to glance over at Will as if hoping he might intervene. “It’s hardly the right arena for such a demonstration,” adds Hannibal after another loaded pause. “Not with a proportion of the FBI for an audience. But for our ancestors, at least, money would have had no place in it. You couldn’t purchase dominance, you had to compete for it – and the most dominant was simply the one left alive at the end. Survival of the fittest,” adds Hannibal with the faintest hint of a smile. “And then, just as now, there are some things which money cannot buy.”

Andrew clears his throat even louder and then, to Will’s infinite satisfaction, does something he’s never once seen Andrew do with another alpha in all the time he’s known him: visibly back down. It’s as if he isn’t even fully aware he’s doing it, and Will can’t help thinking that there’s something instinctual about the retreat, something primal; impossible to articulate, but simply signalling that the victim knows it’s facing a threat that is too formidable to be managed successfully. In fact he feels that if a furious, snarling dog was present it too would sense the menace in the air and grow subdued and silent – and likewise it wouldn’t fully understand why.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Andrew is now saying stiffly to Hannibal. “I apologise.”

Hannibal doesn’t reply immediately but just moves a few steps forward himself; at which point Andrew shifts even further back. “I would like to speak with you more about this,” says Hannibal, staring intently into Andrew’s face. “Tell me where I can find you.”

Andrew wavers for a few seconds as the impulse to appear assertive and fearless clearly battles against a wary sense that he’s just encountered something he doesn’t want to get involved with. The latter eventually wins out and he drops his eyes first. “I’m from out of town,” he says tersely. “I’m just visiting.” Pausing for a few more seconds he shoots a spiteful glance at Will. “This time next week we’ll be gone.”

“Go to hell,” snarls Will.

Andrew promptly swivels his eyes in Will’s direction; and a single glance at his expression is enough to fill Will with a sinking sensation that this show of defiance has badly backfired, achieving nothing beyond reminding Andrew that Will remains the main point of interest – and that while he can’t control the ominous presence of Hannibal, as far as Will is concerned Andrew is still the one with the legal advantage. Defiantly straightening the lapels on his jacket he now deliberately manoeuvres himself so he’s standing in front of Will and puts his hands on both shoulders. “Let’s just say today’s clarified a few things,” he says crisply. Making sure he catches Hannibal’s eye first, he reaches out and begins to smooth Will’s hair into place as if he’s a child before refastening the top button of Will’s coat. “Look at you,” he says impatiently. “Always getting yourself into trouble. Why are you like this? Huh? I can’t take my eye off you for a second can I? The sooner I’ve got you back where you belong the better.” Will knocks his hands out the way and Andrew gives a thin smile in response then abruptly grabs hold of both wrists and jerks him forward. Will gasps with the suddenness of it and Andrew grips onto him in what’s intended to look like an affectionate gesture for Hannibal’s benefit, but which in reality is so he can hiss into Will’s ear: “Looks like you’re nothing but a little omega whore after all. How dare you try and show me up like that?” Twining his fingers into Will’s hair, he clenches them into a vicious tug. “You’re going to pay for it.”

Will closes his eyes for a few seconds, struggling against a powerful wave of revulsion. His scalp hurts from where his hair’s being pulled, but he’s less concerned with the pain than he is with the hot, dry sensation of Andrew’s breath in his ear or the way the stench of his cologne is making his nostrils sting. In reality the latter comes wafting from the innards of expensive glass bottles that are delivered to Andrew from the reserve list of an exclusive department store, but the numerous negative associations means it’s as aversive to Will as if Andrew was doused in distilled sewage. Overcome with disgust he wrenches his head away. “Still ringing the same bell,” he snaps. “You could at least come up with something new.” Then he thrusts out his shoulder and neatly twists himself free from Andrew’s grasp, gravitating straight back to Hannibal again without even thinking about it while Andrew watches them both and narrows his eyes.

“I believe this conversation is over,” says Hannibal in a tone that, if possible, is even more ominous than before.

Andrew’s eyes narrow a little further then slither over Will’s face before swivelling back to Hannibal again. “Look,” he snaps. “I’ve already apologised to you; don’t force me to have to take it back. Once I’m prepared to overlook but make no mistake: you touch him again and I’ll have you in court.” Then he turns back to Will and casually ruffles his hair, oblivious to the way the gesture makes Hannibal’s eyes begin to gleam. “I’ll be seeing you kiddo,” he says softly. “The deadline’s nearly up then I want you packed and ready to leave. Understand? I except to see you here on Friday with a suitcase. Although don’t bother bringing any of these hideous dollar-store clothes with you; first thing I’m doing is buying you a new wardrobe.” Smirking contemptuously he flicks his eyes over Will’s face before trailing downwards. “Not that you’ll be needing any clothes for the first week or so. Nothing’s changed Will – nothing. Remember what I told you.”

“And remember what I told you,” hisses Will.

This time Andrew doesn’t respond at all: merely glares at him with a faint sliver of teeth before spinning round and vanishing into the depths of the Mercedes. He moves so fast it makes the hem of his long black coat swirl out in a gloomy parabola that brushes against Will’s legs; and as the door slams closed and the car screeches away, Will still remains frozen in place with his hands clenched like claws and the wind blowing his hair back over his forehead. He knows he should say something; do something – try and repair some of the damage that’s just been done – yet he’s so overcome with shocked unhappiness at the whole scene that no words or gestures seem sufficient to address it and he’s unable to even consider turning round until he finally feels a hand on his shoulder.

For a few more seconds no one says anything and Will takes a deep breath then tries to focus on the soothing sensation of Hannibal’s thumb stroking against the back of his neck. “So,” he says in a low, strained voice. “I guess now you know.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asks Hannibal gently.

At some point Will seems to have closed his eyes but it feels like too much effort now to open them. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I wanted to – several times. I just didn’t know how. And you see, there’s nothing you could have done. Not unless you can change the law.” He bites his lower lip, struggling once again with the crushing injustice of it all. “There’s no way to fix this.”

“There’s always a way,” replies Hannibal. Putting his hand on Will’s other shoulder he gently turns him round so they’re facing one another. “Look at me Will. Dearest; open your eyes. If you want it badly enough and are committed enough – there’s always a way.”

But Will just shakes his head, because while there might be options – the dark reflection, for example, with its crooning refrain of you could kill him could certainly suggest one or two – none of them seem remotely feasible. Yet on the other hand the ones that are feasible, such as those involving lawyers and courtrooms, or even appeals to Andrew’s better nature (which he doesn’t appear to have) share the common traits of being exhausting, demoralising and most likely destined to failure before they’ve even begun. Finally forcing himself to open his eyes, he catches sight of Hannibal’s expression and flinches. “You’re angry aren’t you?” he says quietly.

“I am – but not with you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I know I should’ve done.”

“I’m not angry with you Will. I can understand why you felt you needed to keep it to yourself. But you need to make up for lost time; you need to tell me now.” Will nods rather vaguely and Hannibal adds: “To begin with – where does he live?”

“He’s in a hotel. He wouldn’t tell me where. I don’t know.”

“Then we are going to have to find out,” replies Hannibal calmly. “Aren’t we?”

“Oh God, there’s no point. Don’t you understand? He won’t listen to me. He doesn’t care that I don’t want to go back.”

“The point is that I intend to speak with him myself,” says Hannibal with a grim little smile. “I know it’s hard for you to believe right now, but I am very confident that he can be persuaded to listen to reason.”

“He won’t.”

Hannibal waves this objection away with a smooth flick of the hand. “I intend to move quickly,” he adds, “but I need to have the whole story first. Do you understand? I want you to tell me about your history with him: everything.”

“Yeah. I understand. I’ll tell you.”

“Good boy. Now, where do you want to go? The park? Your house? Mine?”

Will makes a small sighing noise then runs his hands through his hair, suddenly so tired and overwhelmed that even something as simple as choosing somewhere to talk seems like too much to ask. “I don’t mind,” he says. “Anywhere.”

“Your house then; you’ll probably feel better somewhere familiar.”

Will nods and shrugs, seeming to have abandoned any possibility of ever feeling better, before suddenly putting his hand on Hannibal’s arm with a look of such intense unhappiness that Hannibal’s coldly furious expression begins to softens a little at the sight of it. “Andrew,” says Will, and his voice catches slightly as if it’s about to break. “If he does manage to take me…”

“He won’t.”

“…but if he does, would – would you look after my dogs? He won’t let me keep them you see, and I can’t send them to a shelter. I can’t.”

“He’s not going to take you Will. I won’t let him.”

“Sometimes they send the police after you,” adds Will, half to himself. “I’ve heard about it being done to other omegas. It’s like being press-ganged. They make you go.”

“Even if that did happen – which it won’t – then you’d find a means of escaping. You obviously did it before and you’d do it again.”

“He says this time he’d have me tagged.”

Hannibal goes extremely still for a few seconds and Will, who’s now staring at the floor, misses the expression of unearthly anger that briefly flickers over his face. “That,” says Hannibal tersely, “I will absolutely not allow.”

“Try telling him that,” replies Will in the same flat voice. Attempting to straighten up he sways slightly then staggers to one side, and Hannibal catches him to hold him steady before frowning and reaching up to place a hand on his forehead. “Stop it,” says Will, trying to wriggle out of the way.

“You’re running a temperature.” Will shrugs irritably. “And your pupils are enlarged.”

“So what?”

“You know what,” says Hannibal, whose frown is starting to deepen at the unpleasant implication that things may be starting to move far quicker than they were supposed to. “Being in denial about it is not going to help your situation. Now hold still a moment please, I want to take your pulse.”

“No. No – stop it. Stop fussing.”

“Will, listen to me: have you still been taking those tablets?”

“Of course I have. Don’t be stupid.”

“Are you sure? Because you weren’t like this when I last saw you; there’s been a clear physical change. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Will scowls again and Hannibal sighs then reaches up to cup his face with one hand, turning it one way to another to inspect for signs of flushing. “Think carefully. You’ve been under enormous strain in the past few days – it’s possible you might have forgotten a few doses.”

“I haven’t,” says Will, trying to pull his face free. “Don’t patronise me.”

“I can’t even smell you beneath all that spray,” adds Hannibal with unusual irritation. “Have you been bathing in it?”

“Oh God, just be quiet can’t you?” says Will. Closing his eyes, he allows himself to be pulled closer so he can bury his face against Hannibal’s shoulder. “You’re always talking. You never stop. You’re like a mouth on a stick.”

“Then you talk instead.” Cradling Will’s head with one hand, Hannibal begins to stroke a palm across his back with the other then briefly presses his face against Will’s hair. “Look at you, still raging away in spite of it all: the little war deity and warrior. Let me take you home Will. You’ve done extraordinarily well to cope with this on your own but you need some help.”

“Won’t Alana mind?”

“What on earth has she got to do with it?”

“Nothing,” mutters Will, his voice slightly muffled from where his face his pressed against Hannibal’s coat. “It doesn’t matter.”

“You appear to be labouring under some kind of misunderstanding about Alana Bloom,” replies Hannibal, “which I intend to address once I’ve got you somewhere private. Suffice to say that she doesn’t have the slightest investment in anything I do – a lack of interest that I reciprocate wholeheartedly. And I wish you’d been aware of that because I suspect if you had you would have come to me sooner.”

Will glances up, suddenly appearing hopeful and vulnerable, and Hannibal shifts his hand downwards so he can cup his face while caressing the edge of his jaw with his thumb. “For someone so intelligent,” adds Hannibal gently, “you have moments of stupidity that are positively endearing.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a nanny. Dr Nannibal. Personally I’d rather be stupid.”

“Very true,” says Hannibal. “I can’t fault your logic with that. Being a nanny is my cross to bear.”

Will’s mournful face briefly lifts into the semblance of a smile before ducking down and vanishing into the front of Hannibal’s coat again. “Why are you being so nice to me?” he says after a pause.

“I beg your pardon? You are very muffled. If you want a response you’ll have to talk to me rather than my coat.”

Will shifts his face slightly so his mouth is no longer pressed against Hannibal’s shoulder. “I asked why you’re being so nice to me? You’re never this nice.”

“No, I don’t suppose I am; although I do know how to be on occasion. I actually make all kinds of exceptions for you Will – you have no idea.”

Instead of replying Will tucks his head a bit closer against Hannibal once more then tentatively experiments with trying to put his arms round him before losing his nerve halfway through and returning his hands to his pockets again. Hannibal watches the progress of the hands with a faint smile and tightens his grip round Will’s shoulders in return; and Will is just contemplating making a second attempt when from across the carpark comes the shrill, urgent wail of the alarm system. In the midst of so much silence the sound is deeply jarring and it slices through the frosty air like an electric scream as an eerie automated voice begins to grate out in tandem: “Code 382. All personnel report immediately. Code 382. All personnel report immediately…” Even to someone ignorant of the meaning the noise would be unsettling, but to Will – who’s well aware that it’s the alert for The Sculptor Taskforce – the noise can only mean one thing: the wrecked and ruined remains of Number Seven. With a deep shudder of foreboding he attempts to pull himself free.

“Oh God,” he says wretchedly. “Hear that?”

“Of course.”

“There’s been another one. We need to leave.”

“It doesn’t matter,” replies Hannibal, continuing to stroke Will’s hair. “Let the others deal with it. Come back with me.”

“No, I can’t,” says Will. With a determined wrench he finally disentangles himself. “I have to go. I have to help.”

“Will,” says Hannibal gently. “I don’t want to agitate you, but a lot of time has already been lost. I realise something happened with Alana that made you reluctant to come to me, but it means this alpha of yours has already had several days head start for making his plans. Do you understand? We need to move fast.” Seeing Jack emerging from the entrance he replaces his hand on Will’s shoulder. “Leave this one Will. I don’t care about the lives you save; I care about your life.”

“Here you are,” calls Jack, who’s broken into a sort of gallop in order to close the distance between them as quickly as possible. “I’ve been looking for you two everywhere. Come on – quick as you can. There’s been another one: almost definitely The Sculptor.” Will stares back numbly and Jack’s face, half obscured beneath the shadowed brim of his hat, begins to crease into a frown. “Well come on then,” he says tersely. “What’s the matter with you? Don’t just stand there, I need you there now. In fact I needed you there half an hour ago.”

“Jack,” says Hannibal in a warning voice.

Jack, who never backs down, promptly backs down. “You don’t have to come,” he adds to Will in a kinder tone. “Not if you don’t feel up to it.”

“No it’s fine,” says Will hastily. “I want to.” Hannibal’s eyes promptly swivel in his direction and Will returns the look, silently urging him to try and understand without having to explain it in front of Jack. I need to do this, he thinks, staring at Hannibal with wide unhappy eyes. I need to go…because after next week I might not be able to ever again.

Jack, oblivious to the undertones or the fraught way that Will’s gazing at Hannibal, nods with satisfaction at having got what he wanted then jerks his thumb in the direction of the main gate. “The squad cars should be here in five minutes,” says. “Ten at most: I’ll meet you both at the entrance. And I should warn you – it’s a bad one.”

“Is there any other kind?” replies Hannibal crisply.

Jack, who doesn’t appear to have a ready response to this, merely nods again then spins round on his heels and strides off towards the building in the manner of Moses parting the Red Sea, looking neither left nor right and scattering groups of trainees like bowling pins as he goes. Will watches his progress for a few seconds then gives a cautious glance at Hannibal, who’s staring straight back with the usual kinetic intensity. “Just don’t,” says Will defensively. “Don’t look at me like that.”

Hannibal doesn’t reply immediately and merely continues to watch Will with an indecipherable expression on his face before taking a quick step forward. Up until now he’s resisted showing any overt displays of dominance towards him, mostly because he’s so aware of the type of rebellion it would cause: yet given the gravity of the situation, he now feels it entirely acceptable to reach out and gently but firmly grip Will by the back of the neck. Will quivers then goes completely still. “I’ll allow this,” says Hannibal quietly, “because I can see how much it matters to you. But afterwards you’re coming straight home with me.”

“You can’t tell me what to do,” snaps Will, although the resistance is clearly rather half-hearted.

“I can,” says Hannibal. “And on this occasion I’m going to – because you need it. You’ve been dealing with this alone for far too long. You’re exhausted and overwhelmed and, at least for a time, you need someone else to take responsibility.” Will scowls mutinously without actually pulling away and Hannibal smiles again then allows his thumb to skim beneath the edge of his collar where the skin is soft and vulnerable – rarely ever touched or seen. “Why do you always fight so hard Will?” says Hannibal tenderly. “Always: even when it’s contrary to your own interests.”

“Because I’ve had to fight; it’s what I do.”

“Y-e-s,” replies Hannibal with another faint smile. Releasing his hold on Will’s neck he trails his palm across it instead then moves himself round so they can directly look at one another. “That alpha of yours. Andrew. He had an injury on his face.”

“So?”

“So…” The faint smile grows slightly broader. “You’ve already attacked him haven’t you?”

Will shrugs without actually replying and Hannibal’s smile grows broader still before finally vanishing entirely; rather as if, having formed its conclusions, it now prefers to prowl away and examine them in private. “We appear to have something in common then,” says Hannibal softly. “Because I also like to fight Will: to the death, if necessary.” Will glances up warily and Hannibal slowly runs his eyes over his face. “You know I’ll help you however I can,” he adds. “I would imagine that goes without saying. The thing is though Will – I don’t believe you really require it. I think you could change his mind all by yourself. And I think it’s your fear of how you’d do it that’s been paralysing you all this time.”

Will stiffens at this then looks away, uncomfortably aware of how the Dark Mirror Image has begun to skitter though his head with its constant chilling refrain, almost like it’s been lingering and listening to the conversation and is now obediently answering its cue. You-could-kill-him-You-could-kill-him. Impossible, though, that Hannibal could possibly know about it? For a few surreal seconds he has an image of the reflection and Hannibal colluding together in silent confederacy while Will trails round obliviously in the foreground, and the idea of it is so unnerving he has to close his eyes in an attempt to focus before snapping them open again. “You’re not making any sense,” he says sharply, even though Hannibal is making perfect sense and that in itself is the problem. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you?”

“No.”

Hannibal’s smile promptly reappears at this, serene and inscrutable as a Pharaoh mask, as he runs his eyes over Will’s face again even slower than before. “All I mean is that your previous claim is incorrect,” he says caressingly. “Because your situation is fixable. And whether I take a lead on resolving it – or whether you do – or whether we combine our input together, the fact remains that he is not going to take you anywhere. Not now, not next week; not at any time after.” Will blinks a few times, suddenly looking strained and uncertain, and Hannibal adds: “That much, at least, I hope you do understand?”

“Yes,” says Will faintly.

“And you are going to come back with me after this and explain the whole story?”

“Yes,” repeats Will, a little firmer this time.

“That’s very good Will,” says Hannibal with another slow smile. “I applaud your conviction. You’re a determined boy aren’t you? And remember, after all, what I told you before: that the opposite of certainty isn’t doubt but imagination. Curiosity, enquiry, and mental tractability: you should use this crisis as the opportunity that it is.”

“Oh come on. How is it an opportunity?”

“Because damaged people are the most dangerous Will,” replies Hannibal, whose smoky voice is now so low and resonant it almost sounds like he’s purring. “They know that they can survive. So let your anger scream through the fear, and…become.”

“Become what?”

“Yourself.”

“Are you even listening to what you’re saying?” demands Will impatiently. “Spare me the psychobabble, positive-reframe psychology crap. There’s no way you can try and spin this as something good.”

“Left alone then it’s not – but why ask its permission to be a source of insight? Force it to become so yourself.”

“Oh for God’s sake.”

“Didn’t I tell you that you were an alchemist?” continues Hannibal cutting straight through Will’s attempts to object. “Purifying and reifying the base elements into the noble ones. The artistic ones. The phoenix needs to burn before it can arise after all, and you’ve always had a need to rise up from your own ashes. Haven’t you Will? Razing the old to raise the new.” Hannibal pauses then smiles, suddenly casual again. “Besides, none of this changes the fact that you currently possess a clear advantage which you didn’t have before.”

“What?” asks Will, despite already suspecting the answer.

“Me, of course,” says Hannibal airily. “Whatever you’re required to face, you won’t have to face it alone.” Will glances up rather hopefully and Hannibal adds, more gently and sincerely than previously: “You’ll have me by your side as an extremely committed advocate.”

Over in the west the winter dusk is beginning in earnest now as the setting sun re-paints the horizon from pale blue to shades of buttery gold and pomegranate pink – and as Hannibal watches he can see how it alights and illuminates Will’s pale face as he’s finally able to smile. You’re so beautiful, thinks Hannibal with a surge of appreciation that’s unusual for its sense of pureness and simplicity; and Will, as if in silent reward for it, finally fulfils Hannibal’s long-term ambition by being the one who first initiates contact by tucking himself against Hannibal’s chest without having to be invited. Hannibal sighs contentedly to himself then rests his face against the top of Will’s head, turning slightly towards the horizon as he does so to watch where the moon is faintly visible behind a black lacing of clouds as it waits for its time to take central place in the gathering darkness. Slim and silver compared to the gaudier glow of the sun, it appears just as striking, solitary, self-contained and glacially steadfast as Will is: and, just like the shimmering silver moon, what a forceful aura shines around him.

Pulling away slightly, Hannibal now allows his lips to rush very faintly against Will’s forehead. “Strength through unity,” he says in the same quiet voice. “We can take this on together.”

Will makes a low noise of agreement then tugs Hannibal towards him again. “Okay,” he replies, and his voice has a trace of animation in it which wasn’t previously there. “Okay then: it’s a deal. Together.”

Chapter Text

It’s almost completely dark now. Winter dusk: the kind which stifles and swirls while possessing a curiously choking quality to it that feels like being swathed in black fabric. Across the parking lot the flood lights are jerking into life one-by-one and creating a series of flickering silhouettes from the FBI agents who are trooping out of the building in a solemn line, each one subdued and grim-faced at the idea of what the night might have lying in wait for them. To save time the more senior taskforce members all pile into patrol cars to get to the scene as quickly as possible, the sole exception being Price who’s vaguely visible through the folds of darkness as he herds his crew of forensic analysts into the back of the CSI van like a teacher steering students on a school trip. Will, who’s increasingly drawn and pale-looking and doesn’t really care where he goes as long as he stays with Hannibal, drifts aimlessly towards the nearest car in a mindless sort of trance while battling the temptation to cling onto Hannibal’s coat to prevent losing sight of him. Hannibal, in turn, seems able to sense this need without having to be told, so puts his hand on Will’s shoulder and keeps it there the entire time; occasionally stoking the back of his neck with his thumb and only letting go in order to hold the car door open and gently usher Will inside before climbing in behind him – although not in time to prevent Skinner catching the handle in order to wedge himself in too.

“Room for one more?” demands Skinner, blinking owlishly into the darkness. Despite the fact that no one’s tried to stop him his tone is oddly accusatory, rather like he thinks he’s picking a fight as opposed to something as simple as proposing to share a ride.

“As you see,” replies Hannibal calmly. Skinner grunts in acknowledgement and Hannibal politely moves aside to provide more room. Then, because his legs are too long to properly fold themselves into the cramped confines of the footwell, he curves his spine further upright like a cat then rests his palm flat against the upholstery – close enough to Will’s so that the tip of their index fingers are touching. “Hello Jack,” he adds after noticing the latter hovering outside. “Are you joining us as well?”

Jack, who up until now has been striding round the parking lot like a drill sergeant so he can bark out orders at assorted trainees, squats down and pokes his head through the window. “Sure, why not,” he says. “I’ll jump in the front. Is that you over there Will?”

Will pulls himself upright then peers round the combined bulk of Hannibal and Skinner to indicate that it is. “Ah, sorry, I couldn’t see you properly,” says Jack. Will nods in response and Jack adds rather aimlessly: “That’s the problem of working in winter. It gets dark so damn early.”

“I guess.”

“You doing okay?”

“Fine,” replies Will, uncomfortably aware of how Skinner’s bony ears have virtually started to flap with curiosity at the indication that there might be something wrong with him. Jack huffs out his approval through the window and Will pointedly adds: “We’re ready whenever you are.”

“Right then,” says Jack. “Good! Let’s do this.” Moving round to the front of the car he clambers into the passenger seat, bringing in a vicious gust of icy air as he goes that causes the air freshener to jangle crazily like it’s suddenly come to life. The driver, a young and newly-appointed officer who’s clearly in agonies at having found himself responsible for chauffeuring the most prestigious members of the BSU, gives a rather tortured smile in response then immediately stalls the car. Jack sighs loudly and the driver flushes before restarting the engine and promptly cutting out again; at which point Jack summons up a rather magnificent noise of irritation that involves expelling air between his teeth and nostrils simultaneously like someone blowing out candles on a gigantic cake.

“I’m very sorry Mr Crawford,” says the driver, who looks ready to pass out with mortification.

“Well hurry up then,” replies Jack. “At this rate The Sculptor will have done Number Eight before we even get there. And ease off the break a bit would you? You’re going to send Mr Graham straight through the rear window.”

“I’m very sorry Mr Graham.”

“Put your seatbelt on Will,” adds Jack bossily.

Will ignores him then rests his forehead against the cooling glass of the windowpane, stretching out his hand and quivering slightly at the way it feels to have his skin brushing against Hannibal’s. Hannibal immediately moves his own hand a little closer and Will hesitates then does it again, consumed by an undeniable sense of frisson in touching each other like this – so soft and secret in a way that no one else can see – and wondering if it’s possible that Hannibal feels the fervour of it too? His profile in the darkness seems as calm as ever, inscrutable and impassive as a piece of marble with its chiselled angles and smooth planes; and yet surely he can’t be as unaware as he seems? It’s such a small piece of skin as well – just the tips of two fingers. So strange to think such intimacy is possible from such a tiny scrap of skin…

“Check your mirrors Agent Brennan,” says Jack loudly. “At this rate I’m sending you straight to the vehicular training unit.”

“Yes young man, you keep your eyes on the road,” adds Skinner with unnecessary malice.

“Sir,” says Agent Brennan miserably. Will meets his eye in the rear view mirror and gives him a reassuring smile, trying to imagine the sort of conversations he’ll be having with his friends in the mess hall afterwards. ‘Oh man,’ he’ll probably say, ‘you wouldn’t believe the night I’ve had. That grumpy old bastard Jack Crawford wouldn’t stop chewing me out. And I had Will Graham looking half-dead in the back seat the entire time…” Impossible, though, to imagine what he might say about Hannibal. Unlike Jack and Will, who can easily be defined by their roughest edges, Hannibal is a human hall of mirrors who possesses an enviable ability to exist simultaneously as different versions of himself – all of which defeat the onlooker and defy any attempt at classification. So Jack is going to be grumpy and Will is going to be pale and ill-looking, and Hannibal is going to be…what? Casting another furtive glance at his profile, Will experiences an overpowering urge to rest his head on Hannibal’s shoulder and has to deliberately turn back towards the window again before he can do anything so stupid and embarrassing.

“We need to get there as soon as possible,” continues Skinner, who seems to have forgotten that his role is of virtually no significance compared to the others in the car. “The local cops will be overwhelmed by now.” Jack gives a gloomy grunt of agreement and Skinner turns to Hannibal and adds “I hear this scene is a bad one Dr Lecter,” in a way that’s clearly intended to exclude any possible opinions that Will might have. “Apparently the body’s a total mess.”

“It is a mess,” says Jack before Hannibal can reply. “Mirrors, Agent Brennan. The man who found it is in shock; the mutilations were appalling. Far worse than the others. In that respect it looks like The Sculptor might be shaking up his MO – you’ll have to do a bit of digging Will.”

“Yes, you like to dig don’t you?” says Skinner, as if Will is some kind of super ferret. Will just shrugs and refuses to answer, and Skinner waits until Jack is busy berating Agent Brennan for nearly running a red light to add in an undertone: “I wonder if he’s left any more business cards for you?”

“I’m sure we’re all wondering that,” says Hannibal, shifting his finger a little more until the tips are firmly pressed against Will’s rather than occasionally brushing together. Will, still staring fixedly out the window, quivers again then after a small pause returns the pressure. “Particularly when it was never established that the card was intended as such. What makes you so sure?”

Skinner clears his throat self-consciously. “Well, obviously I don’t know for certain that it was…”

“No? Then why are you speculating?”

“Well…I mean it was reported that…”

“Oh I see,” says Hannibal. “Tell me, Mr Skinner; do you often consult the TattleCrime as your oracle?”

“My thoughts exactly,” snaps Jack, turning away from Agent Brennan who promptly slumps back into his seat like a man untied from the whipping post. “I don’t want to hear one more word about that card; we don’t even know it came from The Sculptor. And linking it with Will is downright irresponsible.”

“We should at least run tests on it,” says Skinner pompously.

“Tests have already been run,” replies Jack. “And came back with nothing. Do you have any idea how common that brand of card is? I’ve got a similar kind myself.”

“So does my doctor,” says Will, feeling like he ought to back Jack up. “She also dislikes alphas: maybe we should be interviewing her as well?”

“What’s disliking alphas got to do with it?” demands Skinner. “In case you haven’t noticed, he only targets omegas.”

“Because Richard Black…” Skinner raises his eyebrows. “Oh forget it,” snaps Will. “Just go and read the report.” Then he remembers that Andrew’s private detective also had an identical card – which in turn reminds him of Andrew – so sinks back into a brooding silence that’s punctuated only by the sound of Jack berating the hapless Agent Brennan at intervals (“Mirror…signal…manoeuvre: for heaven’s sake son, what’s the matter with you? Are you dense?”) until they’ve finally arrived at the destination and it’s time to pull up onto an embankment alongside all the other FBI vehicles. Hannibal’s finger brushes over his as the car draws to a halt, this time covering it entirely, and Will hesitates for a few seconds then cautiously moves his own finger in a shy stroking motion before the door is flung open and they’re all required to spill out again into the darkness and frozen damp. By now the sky, previously inky and funereal, is splashed scarlet on the horizon with the last dying rays of the sun and looks as if it’s been gashed open as the light leaks away and darkness prepares to consume the little left that’s clinging onto life.

I don’t want to do this, thinks Will with a sudden plunge of foreboding. In fact his reluctance is so powerful it feels sharp-edged and spiky; painful almost – the type of thing you could slice your hands on if you touched it – even though it doesn’t make much sense considering how keen he was to come. But it’s there all the same and there’s no point denying it: that mournful, frightened part of himself that murmurs at the threshold of every single scene ‘I can’t bear it.’ But of course he has no choice but to bear it – and has never had a choice – and so he says nothing. Does nothing. It’s not like it really makes any difference anyway…not in the grand scheme of things. Just one more trial within a lifetime of forcing himself to do what can't be done.

*****

The body is lying on a deserted stretch of wasteland beyond the city limits, and even though it’s only been a few hours since it was found the scene is already submerged in a seething, foaming chaos of news vans, police officers, FBI vehicles, and assorted morbid spectators and connoisseurs of horror who flock to violent tableaux like moths to a flame. Will can hear someone shouting “Get back! Get back!” through a loudspeaker, their voice crackling and distorted by the static, and everyone’s faces are lit up like crooked Halloween lanterns from the flickering lights of the ambulance and patrol cars. The air is thick with fear and anticipation, whipping the crowd towards frenzy, and the fevered pressure of it is making Will start to panic himself. Suddenly he can’t see Hannibal anyway.

“For God’s sake, this is pandemonium,” growls Jack. “Why the hell didn’t the BPD secure it better? They should have called us in from the start.”

“City cops,” says Skinner contemptuously. “They can never admit when they’re out of their depth.”

Will ignores him and begins to scan around in an increasingly frantic attempt to find Hannibal before stiffening slightly as a lone figure on the fringe of onlookers manages to catch his eye. It’s been months since he last saw them, yet Will’s remarkably retentive memory gives a twinge of recognition and compels him to peer a bit closer before giving Jack a sudden tap on the arm. “There,” says Will sharply. “Look.”

“What?”

There,” says Will. “That guy in the black coat: isn’t he the same one who was on the scene when we found Number Five?”

“Who?”

“You know,” says Will impatiently. “The one whose name sounded like Richard Black? Matthew Brown.”

“Matthew Brown?” repeats Jack in surprise. “Where?” He strains his eyes into the darkness and Will, straining too, immediately experiences a surge of unease at the eerie way in which the space where the black-coated figure was stood is now unaccountably empty.

“That’s impossible,” he exclaims. “He was right there.”

“You sure?”

“Well…no,” admits Will after a few seconds pause. “Not 100%.”

“Well, I definitely can’t see him,” replies Jack. “You might have been mistaken Will – to be honest, I’m not really sure how someone could get out the way that fast.” Will nods unhappily and Jack, who’s clearly growing preoccupied with everything else that needs to be done, adds “I’ll tell Agent James to do a scan of the crowd, but I need to speak with the commissioner now. Meet me behind the cordon in five minutes okay?”

“Okay,” says Will, still not entirely satisfied but unable to think of anything more practical to do beyond what Jack’s already proposing. Then he stares out into the blackness for a second time, trying to determine if the figure ever really was there or was just a trick of the light, before abruptly spinning round as he hears the sound of his name being called. “Hey, there’s Will Graham!” someone is shouting. “It’s Will Graham, right there!”

The voice is sufficiently clear of tone and piercing of pitch to rise above the throng of everyone else: and from the corner of his eye Will sees a familiar splash of scarlet hair that signals the presence of Freddie Lounds. Ducking his head he now turns back and quickly begins to follow Jack in the direction of the police cordon – despite it being the last place he really wants to go – only to find himself stopped halfway by a district policeman who deliberately deposits his bulky frame between Will and the crime scene tape. Will sighs with irritation and the man scowls and folds his arms in a way that’s clearly meant to be threatening, despite the fact Will can easily tell that such sternness is much more performance than truly genuine. In reality he looks strained and tense – out of his depth – and Will supposes that he doesn’t really want to be here; that he’s used to muggings and traffic violations, and that this is far too much reality for him. In fact part of Will wants to take him aside and reassure him that they all feel that way: that you never stop feeling that way, no matter how many sites you tramp across or how many cordons you have to guard. And yet isn’t this location a particularly bleak and desolate one – more than enough to justify the officer’s obvious unease? Glancing round now at the blasted patches of mud and stacks of rubble, Will inadvertently shivers. It’s hardly like there’s ever an acceptable place to be viciously murdered; and yet there’s no denying that this is a truly terrible place to die.

“Dammit pal,” the officer is saying, and his voice sounds stretched and taut from anxiety as if it’s poised to snap. “What’s your problem? Get back.” Then he peers a bit closer before blanching and giving a self-conscious cough. “Ah, I’m very sorry Mr Graham. I didn’t recognize you.”

“It’s fine,” replies Will mechanically. “You’re just doing your job.”

“You don’t look anything like your photos,” persists the officer in a defensive way; and even though Will knows he’s just trying to justify himself, the sensation is still a distinctly odd one – as if Will’s masquerading as a counterfeit of himself that’s convincing enough from a distance yet not good enough to deceive an onlooker close up; rather like the uncanny valley effect of a bad computer animation. “Go on ahead then,” says the officer, who still looks uncomfortable from his mistake. He lifts up the tape so Will can duck underneath before adding, with obvious bleakness: “Rather you than me.”

Will sighs in silent agreement then reluctantly complies; aware as he does so of a surreal sensation that the air on this side of the tape somehow has a different quality to it which stings the throat and fills his mouth with a bitter metallic taste. It’s ridiculous of course; and yet there’s always a sense of crossing over when he does this – passing from the relative safety of the normal world into the menacingly twisted dangers of the dark side – and he can’t help feeling relieved when Jack materialises from out the shadows a few seconds later, his breath coming out in little frozen puffs and looking rather phantom-like in his long dark coat. A young officer promptly bustles up with an umbrella to hold over them both, and Jack waves her away with an impatient flick of his hand.

“Where’s Hannibal gone?” asks Will before he can stop himself.

“Have you been looking for him?” says Jack. Will’s shrugs non-committedly, suddenly self-conscious, and Jack waves his hand in the direction of the ambulances. “I asked him to take a look at the guy who found the body,” he adds. “He’s in shock – no good at all as a witness until he’s calmed down.” Will shrugs again for want of anything better to do and Jack hesitates then puts a kindly hand on his shoulder. “Do you need him? I could have someone bring him over?”

“No,” replies Will, who does need him but is reluctant to say anything that might come across as weak or incompetent. “Thanks. I’m good.”

“You sure?”

In fact ‘good’ is the last of what Will feels, either physically or mentally, but he just shakes his head to show that it’s fine – even though it’s really not – and Jack claps his shoulder again then steers him down a stretch of narrow footpath that’s littered with broken brick fragments and the skeletons of crumbled leaves. It’s started to rain in earnest now and the drops set up a grimly droning rhythm which drums against the ground and ricochets from car hoods as the water draggles Will’s hair over his forehead and forces him to keep swiping strands out his eyes. In fact the wetness is something of a relief and helps to cool the clammy, sweltering sensation that’s been creeping over him ever since he left the FBI; yet for all it dismal discomforts, the weather does nothing to disperse the crowd. Of course it doesn’t, thinks Will gloomily – people want to see this. They want to be able to say they were there. ‘I was on the scene the night they found The Sculptor’s seventh,’ they want to say. ‘I saw it all; I saw everything.

“Come on Will,” calls Jack. “It’s back here.” It being the dead omega…or whatever it is that’s left of them. All around the CSI team are hovering together in clusters, pale and spectral as ghosts in their white overalls, and it feels to Will as if they’re silently turning one-by-one to stare at him as he walks past. He catches the eye of a few of them and their numb muteness and frozen faces strike him as disorientating, rather like he’s passing through a museum for an exhibition or a preview show. Something called Agony or Existential Dread: something that would get enthusiastic reviews for being raw and uncompromising and which the critics would commend it for its hallowed, tender depiction of life and death...

By now Will has reached the end of the footpath and he hovers for few seconds, suddenly reluctant to see what’s waiting at the other end until he finally feels Jack gently but firmly pushing him forward. The scene has changed again by this point – no longer haunted and elegiac, but bristling with the forensically clinical efficiency of an FBI investigation that knows exactly what to do, and how to do it, and runs on gridlines with all the mechanical competence of a factory for manufacturing the dead and deceased: tarpaulins up; flaring lights on tripods; smell of blood; raindrops rattling off every surface like the sound of bullets. The forensic photographer is crouched to Will’s right and there’s a stark, whirring drone every time his camera fires. People’s face are illuminated by the raw glare of crane lights which makes the fog appear as if it’s smouldering; and yet despite the efficiency, it still seems to Will that every face in his line of vision is wearing the same look of blanched, fearful horror. The shrill wail of sirens is almost deafening now, punctuated by shouts and the occasional sobbing noise from beyond the police cordon, and he briefly scrubs his hand across his forehead in a desperate attempt to concentrate.

“Look at that!” says Jack. “I mean just look at it. Tell me that’s not him.”

Will takes a deep breath, aware of how Jack’s staring at him – and now everyone’s staring at him – and focussing on how he has to just forget about all of them and stare at this: The Sculptor’s latest installation. He kneels down to get a closer look, struggling against the wave of nausea at the smell and sight of it whilst trying to ignore the way the perspiration is coursing down his spine in a horrible, clammy stream. “Same as the others?” he asks tersely. “No sign of sexual assault?”

“We’ll know for sure at the autopsy, but initially – no.”

“The mutilations are far more extreme,” adds Will in the same toneless voice. “He’s escalating.”

“Why?”

Will frowns then bites his lip for a few seconds before responding. “Because what he was doing before isn’t giving him the same satisfaction. See how frenzied the incisions are?” He traces his finger over the gaping slashes on the abdomen then briefly screws his eyes closed before snapping them open again. “The earlier wounds were more methodical; more considered. Remember how I emphasised the performative aspects? It was like he was working to achieve a particular effect.”

“Whereas now?” prompts Jack.

“Now he’s developing his own signature. There’s a spontaneity to these ones which wasn’t there before.”

“So what does that mean Mr Graham?” asks one of the CSI officers.

Will falls silent for a few more seconds and when he finally speaks again his voice is heavy with foreboding. “It means he’s realised that he likes it.”

A murmur of alarm ripples through the onlookers in response to this, but Will continues to ignore them and stares down at the victim instead: a young female omega with pale blonde hair and eyes with the same vivid blueness of columbines. Despite the carnage from the chest down, her face itself looks oddly peaceful. She could almost be resting – just lying on her back and gazing up at the stars – and he longs to reach down and push her eyes closed except for the knowledge that the CSI team would never allow him to touch her. “There’s no sign of a struggle,” he says out loud. “No defensive wounds; no obvious contusions. Get the tox screen to check for whether she’d been drugged.”

“She might have gone with him willingly?” adds Jack, who’s now leaning down too and getting into Will’s space. “They could’ve known each other?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps he’s charming, or harmless-looking – or at the very least a convincing actor. I can’t say for sure.”

“You’ve said a lot already Mr Graham,” says the CSI officer. His tone is admiring yet respectful, and although he gives Will a tentative clap on the shoulder it’s nothing that could be seen as intrusive or over-familiar. Nevertheless it’s still enough to compel Jack to bark out with something like a snarl: “Hey! Stop crowding him would you? Back off.”

With a twinge of unease, Will realises that Jack has suddenly begun to behave in an oddly protective manner towards him – far more than would be considered normal, or even appropriate. “Relax Jack,” he says sharply. “It’s fine.”

For a few seconds Jack looks confused, as if he’s not entirely certain what came over him, and the CSI team exchange nervous glances with one other in a way that suddenly makes Will feel horribly self-conscious and uncomfortable. Swallowing audibly, he forces himself to ignore the terrible suspicion that’s begun to creep into his mind and instead refocuses his attention on the far more important task: doing his best for this poor dead omega, who should have been lying on her back somewhere and gazing up at the stars and instead has had her life brutally stolen away in some godforsaken stretch of wasteland. “The right hand’s been placed oddly,” he says now. “There’s no way it landed like that by itself.” Then he peers a bit closer; and suddenly there’s no need to force himself to forget his private anxieties because they wither away all on their own the moment he spots something gleaming in the lamp light that makes him go rigid and still.

“What’s the matter?” asks Jack. The tone of his voice sounds ominous, clearly infected by Will’s own unease. “What is it?”

Instead of answering Will snaps his fingers impatiently at the CSI officer. “Get me some gloves,” he says sharply. Then he leans forward again and gently prises her fingers open so he can remove what he’d desperately hoped might be a trick of the light, but in reality turns out to be exactly what he thought it was: a single scrap of white card, blood stained and crumpled with the familiar scrawling writing across the front.

“Dammit,” says Jack softly.

Will holds the card up to the light to scan the contents then grimaces and wordlessly hands it to Jack so he can read it aloud for the benefit of the others. “Is it from him Mr Graham?” asks the CSI officer in a frightened voice. “Is it…is it The Sculptor?”

“It’s The Sculptor all right,” says Jack tersely. He exchanges a look with Will, who stares back as they silently share the same grim acknowledgement: that this new discovery makes the chances of the first card being genuine increase exponentially – which in turn means the ‘WG’ initials have suddenly acquired a whole new level of sinister significance. Clearing his throat Jack now reads the card aloud in a voice who’s lack of emotion in no way dilutes the impact of the message; and Will can still feel every hair on the back of his neck slowly start to prickle at the sound of it: “Hello FBI. Do you like what I made for you?

There’s a brief, shocked pause before another ripple of alarm breaks out in the assembled group; starting out softly, but gradually getting louder and louder until the voice of the first CSI officer breaks over the top of it and exclaims with obvious distress: “Jesus. He’s out of his mind.”

“Yes, thank you for that penetrating insight,” snaps Jack. “With you on hand I don’t know why we even bothered bringing Will and Dr Lecter down here; they could hardly have done better themselves.”

“I was only saying sir.”

“Well don’t,” snarls Jack. “Don’t say.” Turning back to Will again he adds in a noticeably softer voice: “Are you sure you’re all right?”

It’s not like it’s an unreasonable query to make, but the tone in which it’s said – in something approaching a kind of cooing noise, as if Jack is a large doe-eyed pigeon – is enough to convince Will that something very odd is going on; although even now, the enormity of it is so overwhelming that he can’t quite bring himself to acknowledge what it could be. The card’s grimly mocking message has sickened him, yet right now it’s also starting to jostle with a new source of fear: the awareness that the pheromone spray is practically burning a hole in his pocket, and the sense that he has to find somewhere private to douse himself with it as a matter of urgency. Abruptly getting to his feet he sways slightly at the resulting rush of blood to the head then flinches at the way that Jack and the crime scene photographer – also another alpha – practically crash into one another in their eagerness to try and prop him up again. “Look, I’ll be back in a minute,” says Will rather desperately. “I, um, I need some air.”

“I’ll come with you,” chorus Jack and the photographer in perfect unison.

“No!” replies Will; and which in spite of himself comes out in something like a shriek. Jack and the photographer immediately look mournful and Will applies a supreme level of effort into recovering himself in order to appear less distressed. “I’ll only be a minute,” he adds, trying to sound casual. “I’m fine, I promise. I’ll be right back.” Jack and the photographer immediately cheer up again and Will briefly struggles with the temptation to add ‘Stay!’ as he would to one of his dogs (fucking alphas) before ducking beneath the cordon and breaking into a kind of canter. His head is swimming now with a combination of fear and shock, and he feels crushed by the fact that his frantic need to find Hannibal and be comforted is rendered impossible by the even more pressing need to apply the spray. Briefly disorientated by the noise and glaring lights, he nearly falls straight into Skinner who makes a hissing noise of surprise; and for a few seconds Will stares numbly at him, far too panicked and overwhelmed to apologise, before managing to right himself and stumbling desperately across the patch of grass towards the relative privacy of one of the CSI vans. It’s only a short distance but it suddenly feels like miles, and he tries to ignore the throbbing sound of his pulse in his ears and the way his limbs are growing heavy and leaden as a horrified part of his mind chants over and over: Please God, oh please, not that, it can’t be…it CAN’T.

Just as Will feared each one of the vans’ doors is locked. Nevertheless its’ convenient position – close to a wall for an extra layer of concealment – plus its large size and squat design mean it’s still enough to hide behind, and he quickly vanishes into the shadows to root through his pockets for the bottle of pheromone spray. His hands are shaking so much it takes him several attempts to get the lid off and he’s aware of putting on far too much – possibly enough to cause a chemical burn – but right now he doesn’t care because the alternative is infinitely worse. Even so, he still can’t bring himself to admit that if his darkest fear is true then it’s far too late for the spray to be of any use at all – and the internal recital now seems to have taken on a life of its own as someone in the background begins to murmur ‘It can’t be, it can’t be’ in a desperate sort of chant. It takes Will a few confused seconds to realise that it’s actually him; but really, it’s impossible not to repeat it aloud because it can’t be. How can it? How could the suppressants have failed so spectacularly without any warning? Then he suddenly remembers Hannibal’s earlier suggestion that the strain of the past few days could have caused him to forget a few doses and the awful reality of it hits him like a blow to the face – not only because of the disastrous consequences, but the shocked realisation that seeing Hannibal and Alana together had such a powerful impact that it could create such a devastating mistake.

Will slumps helplessly against the side of the van, dizzy with diesel fumes and the prickling scorched sensation that’s racing through his body, but most of all by the simple sickened disbelief that a nightmare of this proportion could possibly be happening to him. In fact he’s so preoccupied with the grief and fear of it that he completely fails to register the long thin silhouette that’s appeared by the side of the van; and it’s only when he reaches up to swipe his damp hair out his eyes that he finally sees it. The shafts of moonlight are deceptive and make it appear so bony and elongated that it’s hardly feasible it could be human – but then it takes a step forward and slithers into the light and Will realises, with a plunge of apprehension, that the shadow has solidified and turned itself into Skinner.

When painted with so much dimness his face looks faintly spectral, with each plane and shaft of bone curiously emphasised like a Death’s Head or leering bit of sculpture. “Hey,” he says softly. “You okay?” There’s a trace of something like tenderness in his voice and Will hears it and promptly feels like vomiting, because he knows that Skinner is an alpha – and that this radical change in manner can only mean one thing.

“I’m fine,” snaps Will after a few seconds miserable pause. “I’m just…” Oh for fuck’s sake though, what could he possibly be doing behind a CSI van? Taking a clandestinely forensic piss? “I was just calling my dad,” he says eventually, cursing the lameness of the excuse but unable to think of anything better.

“Now?”

“Yes, obviously. There’s…there’s been an illness in the family.”

Skinner makes a crooning noise of sympathy, and Will reflects that the only likely death in the family is going to be his own via epic public humiliation. “I’m sorry to hear that,” adds Skinner in the same soft voice. “I thought you’d been looking sad recently. So sad Will – so pretty and sad. Do you need anything? Do you want me…to hold you?”

Will opens his mouth then helplessly lets it fall closed again, not least because the awfulness of the situation is now so colossal that it seems to have temporarily stolen his powers of speech. Then he can’t help wondering, rather hysterically, how incredibly mortified Skinner is going to be when the neurochemical fog has worn off and he realises he’s been trying to seduce his sworn enemy behind the back of a CSI van. As if to confirm this, Skinner leans in even closer and murmurs: “You’re an omega aren’t you Will? I did wonder.”

“For God’s sake” snaps Will, miserably aware that the point has long since passed where there’s any use in denying it. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Skinner simply smiles at this before promptly ignoring it and holding up a hand instead so he can begin to count off the points he wants to make on his long gnarled fingers. “One: you’re too good-looking to be a beta, but two: you’re too small to be an alpha. But then again Will, there’s three: which is that shitty attitude of yours that’s nothing like an omega.” Skinner pauses and blinks a few times, obviously unaware of the contradiction in trying to ingratiate himself with Will while he’s actively insulting him. “You’re a stupid little thing aren’t you? Why didn’t you say? You should have said. We’d have all looked after you better. Omegas are precious Will. They’re valuable. Don’t you know that? We’re supposed to take care of them.”

Even though Will knows he’s using ‘we’ to refer to alphas generally, the effect of the plural still manages to be deeply sinister – rather as if Skinner believes his body is housing several different people. In fact the whole encounter is making him feel contaminated and he has a sudden desire to leap into a stingingly hot shower to sluice off the effect of Skinner’s gaze, which feels like it might well be leaving oily smears across his face and clothes. Having successfully suppressed his heats for most of his adult life it’s also undeniably shocking to witness first-hand the effect that omega hormones have on alphas – particularly when he himself is the cause of it. In fact it reminds him of one of the early training seminars at the Academy where all the alphas were rounded up and made to sit in one of the labs while a synthetic version of the pheromones omegas emit while in heat was blasted into the room. “We do it to try and desensitise them,” Jack had explained. “Most of them will never experience it in their personal lives so they need to be prepared in case they’re exposed to it in the field. Can you imagine the chaos otherwise?” At the time the spectacle of it had made Will enormously uncomfortable: the way the betas had milled around outside cackling and pointing when the alphas emerged a few minutes later with flushed faces and gleaming eyes and practically bow-legged from the beginning of burgeoning knots. A few of the younger ones had lost control shortly afterwards and begun attacking each other. “They always do that to begin with,” Jack had said. “A few months’ worth of these sessions and they can handle it much better.”

“Were you ever like that?” Will had asked, finding it rather hard to imagine.

Jack had laughed and rolled his eyes. “To be honest I was far worse but I eventually learnt to control it. You have to, you see. Don’t get me wrong; the reaction is instinctive and you can’t remove it entirely, but you can take responsibility for it. And you have to. It’s not up to omegas to manage rutting alphas; it’s up to alphas to deal with their own urges.”

Thinking of this now reminds Will that despite the undeniable irritation of it, the clumsy chivalry of someone like Jack is still infinitely preferable to something like this. Suddenly panicked he takes a step backwards and squares his shoulders. “Stay away from me,” he hisses, and it comes out as a kind of snarl. “Don’t come any closer.”

The tone of his voice is so intrinsically threatening that Skinner obediently draws to a halt – although equally doesn’t show any signs of walking away again either. “It’s okay Will,” he says soothingly. “I won’t touch you without your permission. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then fuck off.”

“No, no – you don’t understand ,” urges Skinner, holding out his hands in a supplicating gesture as if he thinks he’s holding a white flag. “I want to help you; I can give you what you need.” Pausing for a few seconds he trawls his eyes across Will’s face and down his body, the pupils in the moonlight as dark and shiny as black beetles’ shells. “And you need it so bad, don’t you little omega? I can smell it on you. In a few hours’ time you’re going to be desperate. You’re going to be screaming out for an alpha to come and take care of you.” He pauses again then darts his tongue over his thin lips in an unpleasantly reptilian way. “For one of us to…fill you up.”

“Are you out of your mind?” yells Will, temporarily forgetting that to all intents and purposes that’s exactly what Skinner currently is. “Get away from me.”

“Tell me how you like it Will?” persists Skinner, who’s eyes have taken on a deeply unsettling gleam. “I’d give you whatever you want, anything at all; you only have to ask. And I’m good – I’m really good. You’d enjoy it so much.”

The sheer obliviousness of the response – and from someone Will knows in the general scheme of things actively despises him – is a terrifying reminder that the situation is now far more serious than he was able to admit to himself. Desperately he thinks of the stolen prescription from Dr Reynolds and the emergency supply of suppressants before cursing the fact that they’re lying many useless miles away in his bedside cabinet. Why didn’t he carry them with him? Why didn’t he think to do that…oh God, he really should have done that. And yet having not experienced heats for so long he’d forgotten what it was like, and stupidly – blindly – had no way of orientating the physical sensations to anything more than stress and fatigue. Is this really it then? Is he truly condemned to have to go through the nightmare of it: the uncontrollable need, the urgency, the raw desperation? Yet while the physical and mental aspects of it feel unknown and terrifying, it’s the implications for the situation with Andrew that’s really flooding him with despair. Because if Will is having a normal heat cycle then there’d be no question of things even getting as far as a legal case: he’ll be picked up on a custody order and bundled into the back of Andrew’s Mercedes by the nearest court-appointed doctor or social worker – and there’s absolutely fuck all that he or anyone else can do about it.  

At the idea of this Will makes an inadvertent groaning noise that’s borne from an agonised blend of fear and frustration; and Skinner, mistakenly assuming that it’s his presence which is the cause of it, reacts in a way that’s enough to briefly shake Will out of his introspection because it’s so unbelievably disturbing and odd. Taking a step forward Skinner inhales deeply before his breath catches at the back of throat; and when he speaks again his voice sounds like it’s pulsating from the force of the emotion behind it. “Oh God Will,” he murmurs, and his breath catches again. “Look at you: the fear, Will. You’re so beautiful when you’re frightened. You’re so fucking beautiful. Oh God, Will. Just let me...please. Please, just let me...just let me have you…”

For a few seconds Will goes rigid from the shock of it: repulsed and incredulous for his own sake, yet also powerfully consumed in some dark part of his mind by an image of The Sculptor most likely crooning something similar to his victims just before he killed them. Then he forces himself to push the fear aside and urgently casts his eyes around until he spots a discarded beer bottle glinting a few feet away in the darkness. Scooping down to retrieve it, he neatly smashes it against the side of the van then brandishes the jagged edge in Skinner’s direction. “Okay that’s enough,” he says, his voice frighteningly low and intense. “Get away from me. I’m not going to warn you again.”

Skinner slides his gaze down to the bottle before trawling back up and again and beginning to smile; and Will feels his own eyes beginning to widen in sheer disbelief at the grotesque obliviousness of it. “I don’t care,” murmurs Skinner, and he sounds ecstatic, like some kind of mystic being transported by visions and sublime revelations. “I’ll fight you if you want me to. It would be worth it. Little omega…it would prove how much it means to me. You’re special Will. Omegas are special…we’d do anything for an omega…”

He holds his hands out again towards Will in an attitude of pleading desperation, and Will takes a deep breath: processing with lightening speed the chance of terrible penalties for what he’s about to do, yet likewise powerfully aware that if those grasping fingers come anywhere near him then he won’t be responsible for his actions. Given that it’s incredibly difficult for omegas to successfully claim assault against alphas when they’re in heat it’s not like even a self-defence plea could help him that much; and yet it’s hardly as if prison would be any worse than a life with Andrew. In fact if anything it would probably be better. Skinner begins to wave his hands even faster, fists clutching at empty air and face fixed in a grimace of eerie intensity, and Will forgets about the threat of punishment and bears his teeth instead before drawing back the hand holding the bottle in preparation of sinking it into all that pale, sinewy skin.

“I’ll take it off you,” chants Skinner, lunging forwards to try and grasp hold of Will’s wrist. “You can’t hurt me with that. You’re too small; I’ll take you down.” He’s prowling now, occasionally feinting and jabbing like a boxer or martial artist, and the eerie, jerky way he moves makes his long limbs seem disjointed in the manner of a horrifically over-sized spider. Will feels another plunge of fear at the sight of it, miserably aware of the disadvantage he’s facing courtesy of his heat pains and failing coordination, yet through sheer outrage still manages to summon enough agility to duck out of the way before shooting out the hand that’s clutching the bottle and catching Skinner’s leg with the edge of the glass. The blood looks hot and gushingly black in the moonlight, yet Skinner barely seems to register the injury and is still coming at him like some kind of grisly undead monster from a horror film before the clattering sound of footsteps finally causes him to falter in his pursuit and briefly turn away towards the front of the van.

“Hey Will,” calls Zeller; and Will gives an audible gasp of relief at such an unlikely form of intervention. “You back here? I heard breaking glass and…” As his head appears round the side he catches sight of Skinner then falls silent – in dramatic contrast to Skinner himself, who reacts almost immediately by leaping in front of Will and brandishing his fists at Zeller in a weird, grasping motion that makes his hands look like claws.

“Guys?” says Zeller nervously. “Is everything okay?”

“Get away from him!” roars Skinner, his long body practically vibrating with the force of the emotion. “Back off! You touch him and I’ll rip your throat out.”

He gnashes his teeth together as if in demonstration of how he plans to do it, and Zeller’s eyes widen in shock as he slowly turns his head from one of them to the other. “Will?” he says in confusion. “What’s going on?”

“Are you deaf or stupid?” snarls Skinner. Flecks of spittle are splashing from his mouth now like spray and he swipes them away with the back of his hand. “Stay where you are!”

Zeller casts another shocked glance at Will then falls quiet again for a few seconds before making an odd, abrupt movement with his right hand that Will initially can’t make sense of before realising that he’s urgently signalling someone over. Skinner, mistaking the meaning of the gesture and assuming it’s directed at Will, snarls again then arches his back at Zeller like he’s preparing to pounce. “Stop looking at him!” he roars. “Why are you looking at him like that? If you look at him again then I’ll kill you, I swear to God. I’ll kill you.”

“Not tonight you won’t,” says a familiar voice. Skinner pivots round for a second time, arms swinging clumsily from side to side like pendula or some kind of ungainly primate, then growls even louder as Price joins Zeller by the side of the van: slightly comical looking in his forensic overalls, yet still red-faced with anger and defiantly brandishing a weapon that’s even more incongruous than Will’s beer bottle – a stainless steel bedpan that clearly been swiped from the nearby ambulance. Ignoring Skinner, who’s begun to bellow like a maddened bull, Price now raises it above his head with both hands then nimbly leaps forward and brings it crashing down on the back of Skinner’s skull with sufficient force to send him crumpling to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Wow,” announces Zeller into the resulting shocked silence. “Just…wow.”

“An excellent shot, if I do say so myself,” agrees Price, looking fondly at the bedpan. “I’ve been waiting ages for an excuse to do that.”

Will lets out a breath he scarcely realised he’d been holding then allows himself to slump against the side of the van before his legs give way entirely. His head feels so heavy now…surely it shouldn’t feel like this? It’s as if it’s packed with cement. “Someone needs to speak to Jack,” he says, and his voice in his own ears sounds extremely slurred and hazy, rather like his vocal chords have been submerged in syrup. “I think there’s something wrong with him. I mean really wrong with him.”

“You’re not kidding.” Zeller scrubs his hand across his forehead, clearly still struggling to make sense of what he’s just witnessed. “He honestly looked like he wanted to kill me.”

“Although to be fair you do tend to have that effect on people,” says Price.

Will opens his mouth to try and explain about the extent of Skinner’s disturbed behaviour, only to ultimately let it close it again once he realises that it’s going to require a clarity of thought and level of energy that he honestly doesn’t possess. His body feels molten now, like his blood has curdled through over-heating and become too clogged and curdled to move around his body and there’s a throbbing sense of pressure building up around his hips and spine that make him want to scream. Oh God, oh God, there’s no denying it now: in a few hours’ time it’s going to start properly. Maybe it’ll start even sooner? Maybe in a few minutes? Then he opens his mouth again to try and ask for Hannibal to put his arms round him before remembering there’s no point because he’s not here. Somewhere in the distance he’s aware of being asked if he’s okay and he shakes his head rather helplessly just as Price takes a step forward and places a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“All right Brian, listen to me,” says Price whose voice, despite its calm tone, is growing tinged with a clear note of concern. “Go and fetch me one of those HRPs from the van – the largest size. Quick as you can.”

“What?” asks Zeller in confusion. “You want a what?”

“A Human Remains Pouch you idiot.”

“I know what it is – but what the heck do you need one of those for?”

“Just do it please,” replies Price with unusual sharpness. He tosses the keys to Zeller then positions himself in such a way that he’s hiding Will from view to anyone who might be walking past the van, shuffling impatiently and darting the occasional anxious glance at his watch until Zeller returns a few minutes later clutching a large sheet of plastic. “Excellent!” says Price. “That’s just the thing. It’s sure to keep them from smelling you for a while.” Turning Will round he rips the seams open then proceeds to bundle it round him like a cloak before removing his own cap and pushing it over Will’s hair. “There you go young man,” he says briskly. “I always said you’d end up in one of my body bags.”

Will laughs slightly at this although it goes wrong halfway through as another wave of discomfort hits him. It’s not pain exactly – at least not yet – but more like a consuming sense of aching and restlessness, as if his skin is several sizes too small and the only likely source of relief is to clamber out of it.

“O-h-h-h,” says Zeller as the penny finally drops.

“Quite,” replies Price. “Thank you for that incredibly helpful input. Now put those great long legs of yours to good use and go and find Jack – do it now. It’s all right Will,” he adds in a kinder voice. “He can’t be far away. We’ll have him here any minute.”

“There’s no point,” replies Will through gritted teeth. “Jack can’t help.”

“I know he can’t entirely,” says Price with obvious tact. “But that bag will only work so well and if a group of them smell you I’m afraid I have only a finite number of bedpans. We need to get you out of here as soon as possible and find you somewhere safe.” Will groans again and Price sighs with sympathy and smooths Will’s hair out his eyes before beginning to gently massage the back of his neck. “Do you have…is there someone that can, um, take care of you at home?”

“I’ll be fine,” mutters Will in the usual automatic way.

“Are you sure Will?” replies Price seriously. “You know it can be dangerous otherwise.” Will flinches and Price hurriedly adds: “Well not dangerous exactly but, um…very stressful on the body. I have a few medical contacts who are alphas: very nice people indeed. Not like him.” Dismissively he reaches out and delivers a hefty kick to Skinner’s ribcage, who gives a groan in response. “Not like him,” repeats Price, doing it again. “And I’m sure in an emergency, one of them would be…”

“No!” says Will, all the old panic immediately welling up at the idea of being bitten without permission. “I don’t want to be with anyone I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t,” replies Price soothingly, resuming the stroking motion on Will’s neck. “It was a stupid suggestion. I’m afraid I’m just a silly old beta who’s watched a few too many soap operas; I’m sure you know what’s best. And do tell me if this massaging is annoying you? I saw someone doing it on a soap opera, you see, and have been desperate to try it out ever since.” Will smiles slightly and Price smiles back and then pats him again. “Doctor On Call,” he adds happily. “It’s a wonderful show. I recommend it whole-heartedly. Of course the doctor himself is a terrible idiot but the nurses seem to like him. He’s called Jackson Powers – admittedly with a name like that he’d be more suited to being a GI Joe, but he’s incredibly suave and always gets his diagnoses wrong. Not that they’re supposed to be wrong mind you, but the scriptwriters are clearly colossal idiots. I write them letters of complaint nearly every week.”

Will, who’s rather in need of such a harmless source of distraction, makes an attempt to reply before another wave hits him and he lets out an anguished gasp that’s partly discomfort but mostly a sickened sense of fear. “Here, sit down,” says Price gently. “We’ll have you out of here soon I promise. Look – here’s Brian now.” Zeller’s unmistakably lanky frame reappears round the side of the van and Price scowls with impatience at seeing him alone. “What on earth are doing back here by yourself?” he says crossly. “Where’s Jack?”

“I wanted to see if you needed anything,” replies Zeller, who’s rather out of breath from all the running. “And I couldn’t find Jack anywhere.”

“Well for heaven’s sake look again!” snaps Price. “And bring Hannibal as well while you’re at it. We could do with a few cooperative alphas about the place.”

“Please, yes please,” says Will.

“I couldn’t find him either.”

“Then look harder!” says Price. “Because if any of Mr Skinner’s friends turn up I’m going to have to make one bedpan stretch out between all of them. Come on Will; let’s get you somewhere more secure. We can wait in one of the squad cars.”

“Couldn’t he just get himself home in one of those?” asks Zeller anxiously.

“Oh I don’t know Brian, you tell me,” replies Price with heavy sarcasm. “Just look at the state of him; do you honestly think he’s safe to drive? Besides, this is the site of a major criminal investigation – they’re not just going to donate one of their personnel cars to us, no matter how good the cause.” Turning back to Will again, Price pats his arm and then lowers his voice slightly to a tone that’s less abrasive. “We need to get you a cab with a beta driver,” he says. “And a chaperone as well, just to be on the safe side.”

“I don’t need a chaperone,” protests Will, doing his best not to limp or stumble too obviously as Price begins to steer him in the direction of an empty police car.

“I’m afraid you do,” replies Price. “If you…Well, I know ‘deteriorate’ isn’t exactly the right word; but if you lose track of yourself on the journey back, then what’s to stop the driver meeting up with some local alpha and handing you over to them in exchange for a big stack of cash?” Will promptly winces and Price makes a sympathetic noise. “I’m sorry, I know it’s a horrible thought. But it’s not going to happen because we won’t send you off by yourself.” Settling Will into the back seat he jumps in behind him then quickly slams down the locks on all four doors.

“Thank you,” says Will quietly. “It’s kind of you to help me.” Struggling free from the plastic he curls himself up into a ball against the seat – aware of how he’s trying to make himself as small as possible and feeling slightly humiliated by it, yet at the same time finding it impossible to even consider doing anything more dignified.

“Don’t mention it,” replies Price. “And rest assured you’re paying me back in kind. It’s years since I’ve seen a real live omega; I fully intend to use you as a case study.” Will gives a small, mournful smile in response and Price smiles too then pats his arm again. “Honestly though,” he says fretfully, “where have Jack and Hannibal got to? It sounds like a song title doesn’t it: Where Have All The Good Alphas Gone? Mind you, I suspect I can have a reasonable guess: Jack’s probably making the trainees march round the field chanting ‘We are not worthy,’ and no doubt Hannibal has gone to the Doctor On Call set to teach Dr Powers a thing or two about being suave.”

“You don’t think they’ve left do you?” asks Will, embarrassed by how childish he suspects he sounds. “Hannibal was taking care of one of the eyewitnesses…he might have taken them to hospital. He might have gone.”

“Maybe,” replies Price, “although Jack will definitely still be here.” Will bites his lip with distress, trying to resist the urge to wail ‘But I don’t want Jack’; and Price glances down at him then sighs and pats his arm for the third time. “You poor thing,” he says. “You look terribly uncomfortable. I’m sorry by the way; I always talk complete rubbish when I’m nervous.”

“It’s fine,” mutters Will, despite barely listening anymore because he’s getting so preoccupied with a desperate, craving need to be touched. In fact the intensity of it is almost painful, yet he can’t possibly bear to ask Price to do it so closes his eyes and imagines having Hannibal in the car instead: the way would feel to have those deft strong hands running over his body, exploring and caressing it, accompanied by Hannibal’s uniquely soothing words of praise and encouragement each time Will responded to the touch. Perhaps he’d use his mouth as well? He might brush his lips against Will’s forehead while stroking his face, just as he did in the parking lot. And Hannibal wouldn’t be frightened at the thought of Andrew, not like Will is. He’d make the fear go away; he’d make everything all right again, just through soft smoky words and the feel of his hands on Will’s body. His hands would be unexpectedly warm too, because Will always expects him to be cold to the touch and he’s not. Will now makes a small, helpless whining noise at the thought of it then quickly buries his face into his arm to try and stifle the sound.

“It isn’t really fine though is it?” Price is now saying matter-of-factly. “I’m even starting to annoy myself to be honest.” Then he stiffens slightly before leaning over Will to wipe the condensation off the window so he can peer out into the gloom at where a series of flickering silhouettes are slowly becoming visible: dipping and weaving in and out of the shadows as they circle the car in a pack. “Alphas,” says Price, clearly struggling to keep the unease of out of his voice. “How do they always know?”

“They can smell it,” says Will miserably.

“Yes, but…” Price trails off then begins patting Will’s shoulder in a sort of frenzy. “It’s all right,” he says, by this point seeming to be talking more to himself than to Will. “I know being dependent on Brian’s initiative isn’t the most comfortable position in the world but he’ll be back any minute now with Jack, and Hannibal too if he’s still here. They’ll see them off for us – no need to worry.”

“They won’t hurt you,” mutters Will, before remembering how ready Skinner was to attack Zeller and briefly falling quiet again. Although surely Skinner can’t be considered typical – after all, it’s hard to imagine most alphas caring about betas in a situation like this. “They’d be more likely to be violent with each other,” he adds, hoping he sounds convincing. “Anyway the doors are locked.”

“I still should have brought my bedpan,” says Price. “Ah – listen to me: I’m rambling again. I’m sorry Will, I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling.” Will shrugs, aware of a guilty sense of anger towards Price for being himself rather than Hannibal, and Price adds rather anxiously: “How are you feeling?”

“Bad,” says Will, although makes no attempt to elaborate any further. What’s there to say after all? He doesn’t have the words for it. If it was written down it would have to be expressed in ellipses, obscured behind a sequence of dots because the enormity of it defies both awareness and articulation: ‘The things Will Graham feels are ….’ How to even begin contemplating such a thing: a problem so huge and horrifying that it’s like a living thing; like a third person in the car? Because while the speed with which he’s becoming physically overwhelmed is terrifying enough in itself, even that is nothing compared to the implications of his current situation – a situation so unbearable that it truly typifies the definition of ‘unspeakable.’ So he presses his forehead against the cooling leather of the upholstery and imagines the barren stretch of blackness that lies beyond the car as he tries to come to terms with that surge of speechless horror: the fact that his worst possible nightmare is about to come true, in that he’s stranded in the middle of nowhere surrounded by alphas with no sign of Hannibal as the only person Will wants or needs to take care of him, and – unless he can find a way to get to the tablets – condemned to go into heat at absolutely any time.

After which Andrew will find out about it. Because after such a public spectacle as this, how can he not?

And then, after that…game over.

Chapter Text

On the inside of an ambulance on the far side of the scene, Hannibal arranges his features into an expression of scrupulously polite interest and pretends to pay attention to the extravagant bleating of Stuart Anderson: retired school teacher, enthusiastic dog walker, and currently rendered slightly more interesting than he would be otherwise (although only very slightly) by virtue of being the unfortunate individual who discovered the body. The fact that Mr Anderson might also have observed The Sculptor leaving the scene means that as far as Jack’s concerned restoring him to a state of sufficient mental calmness to be interviewed is a matter of urgency. Yet being obliged to follow such requests during investigations doesn’t change the fact that Hannibal’s own criteria for urgency are considerably different from Jack’s: and which is why he’s paying minimal possible attention to Mr Anderson’s noisy distress in favour of watching Will instead.

As part of this aim Hannibal has positioned himself in a corner seat so he can observe what’s going on outside without anyone being aware that he's doing it, and he now subtly shifts his gaze in order to admire how stunning his boy is looking this evening despite the obvious exhaustion and irritability. At least the rain hasn’t done him any harm, bringing a bit of colour to his pale cheeks and obliging him to slick his wet hair off his face in a way that displays the exquisite bone structure to full advantage. He and Jack now appear to be preparing to vanish beyond the police cordon, and Hannibal sighs with disappointment at the missed opportunity of being able to watch Will tearing his beautiful dark mind into tatters in an attempt to make sense of whatever it is that’s lying beyond it. In this respect it’s hugely frustrating to see Will trapped in such a sordid setting surrounded by these drab and uninspired individuals – like some exotic bird of prey confined in a cage with a gaggle of pigeons – although it’s admittedly annoying Hannibal less than it normally would, given that he’s far more preoccupied with the fact that this evening’s physical signs suggest Will is almost certainly destined to go into heat in a couple of days’ time. In fact it might even be in as little as 24 hours, and the idea of it is making Hannibal extremely protective, and therefore deeply restless, at leaving Will alone for even a second longer than necessary. Glancing at his watch he decides that Jack can have another ten minutes of his time on this tedious task before Mr Stuart Anderson gets abandoned to his own devices (or smothered into silence; either one would do) so that Hannibal can cross the cordon himself to watch over Will.

“I suppose you think I’m a terrible idiot doctor,” Mr Anderson is now saying.

“Of course not,” replies Hannibal, radiating sincerity. Stuart: a suitably dull and uninspiring name, no doubt in this case shorted to the even more obnoxious ‘Stewie’ or ‘Stu’. Stu…stew. Bouillabaisse perhaps, although something less refined would admittedly be far more suitable. Garbure is one example that comes to mind; the type that peasants used to subsist on, and which would be served several days past its best with dollops of cabbage and stale bread. “It must have been very distressing for you,” adds Hannibal with a degree of fake sympathy that’s positively sumptuous.

Mr Anderson (Stew) has a squashed, snub nose which tilts at the end and whose nostrils flare just a little more than would be considered ideal. Rather like a snout in fact, meaning he can claim closer kinship with a pig than a sheep despite his undeniable talent for bleating. “It was just so appalling,” says Mr Anderson, blinking beseechingly at Hannibal with large watery eyes as he begins to twitch his shock blanket into a nervous little concertina shape. “You never saw anything like it in your life.”

Hannibal, who most certainly has seen something like it, yawns internally then gifts Mr Anderson with one of his more inscrutable Mona Lisa smiles before garnishing it with a sympathetic nod and following the whole thing up with a sprinkling of solidarity for good measure. Mr Anderson, satisfied with this lavish display of concern, smiles appreciatively before starting to recount his rambling account of the discovery for the fifth time (walking the dog; dog went wild; dog normally well-behaved; Shock! Horror!; phoned police immediately) and which, if possible, manages to be even more tedious and meandering than it was on the previous four occasions that Hannibal was forced to listen to it. At the sound of its master’s voice Mr Anderson’s dog now begins to poke its hairy face round the door of the ambulance as if it’s commiserating; and Hannibal, who’s been attempting to overcome his instinctive dislike of all things canine on behalf of Will, automatically stares at it with annoyance before attempting to be more charitable and wondering instead how appreciative it might be if presented with a bowl of Anderson Stew. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to recover,” concludes Mr Anderson mournfully, retrieving a large handkerchief from his pocket to attend to the pig-nose, which has started to run. “This is the sort of thing that stays with you. I’ll probably never be the same again.”

Hannibal’s internal yawn becomes so pronounced he nearly dislocates his jaw. “That is entirely possible,” he says serenely. Mr Anderson promptly looks horrified and Hannibal, who’s already deduced the obvious taste for melodrama and sensationalism, adds: “You should utilise it as the opportunity it is. The discovery will be extremely newsworthy; I would advise you to sell your story.”

“Well now, that is a good idea,” says Mr Anderson, beginning to twitch the pig-nose with excitement at the thought of it. “I might end up in Newsweek!”

“Indeed.”

“Do you think they’d photograph my wife? She’s always wanted to be in the papers.”

“I’m sure they would be delighted.” Mr Anderson’s nose twitches again and Hannibal adds, with his most impressive poker-face: “And no doubt the dog as well.”

“Well now, wouldn’t that be something!” says Mr Anderson, who’s growing vaguely starry-eyed.

“Wonderful is not the word.”

“Yes, what would the word be?”

“I can’t even imagine,” replies Hannibal in the same deadpan voice.

“It would be neat,” exclaims Mr Anderson. “It sure would be neat. Perhaps the newspaper guys would want to interview me with that FBI boss? And the other one – the young fellow.”

“Mr Graham,” says Hannibal, ultra-casual.

“They’ve gone to look at the body now haven’t they?” adds Mr Anderson. “I expect they’ll want to interview me themselves. They’ll read me my rights first won’t they? They always do that. I’ve seen it on TV shows…”

Hannibal smiles politely, then promptly tunes Mr Anderson out again as a result of this convenient reminder that it’s been a full five minutes since he last gave Will his full attention. Unfortunately there’s no sign of Will at all by this time, although Jack has reappeared and seems to be trying to haul himself into one of the TV news vans under the flurrying attentions of a young woman in a scarlet suit and extravagantly bouffant hair. Giving a media interview then no doubt (tedious). A few minutes later Zeller appears and begins to sprint across the stretch of wasteland, stopping at intervals to question passing police officers and agents before heading towards the news van himself in presumed pursuit of Jack. Hannibal observes all this with interest then checks his watch again: one more minute and he’ll leave to go and find Will. Giving another small sigh of satisfaction at the thought of it he neatly transfers his attention back to the conversation.

“The Oprah Winfrey show,” Mr Anderson is saying, who’s oblivious to Hannibal’s disinterest and is busy counting off possible sources for his story on pink, pudgy fingers whose clear resemblance to trotters succeed very admirably in matching the pig-like face. Hannibal narrows his eyes with dislike at the sight of them then amuses himself with silently counting how many items in the ambulance could be used for assisting Mr Anderson from off the mortal coil (seven, in his line of sight alone). “Perhaps I could get a book deal,” says Mr Anderson happily. “And then they’ll want to speak to me again when the case goes to trial.”

“Of course one can have too much of a good thing,” replies Hannibal (eleven: the straps on the gurney would make an ideal garrotte). “I would suggest you apply a degree of caution in exposing yourself too excessively. After all, The Sculptor may not look kindly on an eyewitness as…eminent as yourself.”

Mr Anderson gives an oink of horror and Hannibal ponders over whether it’s cheating to include the straps twice – once as a garrotte and once as noose – before deciding that it’s not (twelve). “You mean he might come after me?”

“It’s not particularly likely,” says Hannibal, pretending to be reassuring while mentally adding himself to the list as number 13 on the grounds that he knows numerous interesting ways to dispose of Mr Anderson using nothing but a level of exertion and his bare hands. “Although who knows what these individuals might do? At any rate, one can never be too careful.”

“They might put me on the witness protection programme,” says Mr Anderson with a fresh burst of excitement; and Hannibal is just preparing to extend his count to include every possible object that could be used for bludgeoning him to death when there’s a noisy clatter of footsteps outside the ambulance and one of the CSI officers appears and begins to gesture frantically in their direction.

Hannibal raises his eyebrows, intrigued in spite of himself, and even Mr Anderson briefly halts his endless prattling at the promise at some fresh bit of drama. “Sir!” exclaims the officer. “Sir!”

“Yes?” says Hannibal coolly. “What is it?”

“Agent Crawford sent me to come and get you sir,” pants the officer, who possesses the type of bulky body that’s not at all designed for running and is now battling to catch his breath. “He wants you to come straight away. There’s something the matter with Mr Gra…”

Hannibal abruptly jumps to his feet, fast enough to knock his stool over, then leaves Mr Anderson mouthing in surprise behind him and vanishes out the ambulance in a swirl of long dark coat. “Tell me where?” he says with such deep menace that the officer shrinks back slightly at the sound of it.

“Over there.”

Where?

“Back by the cordon.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I don’t know,” gasps the CSI officer, struggling mightily to keep up with Hannibal on the basis of having much shorter legs. “Mr Crawford just said you needed to come.”

Hannibal nods curtly in acknowledgement then refuses to waste any more time on pointless questions and strides off towards the cordon at high speed instead, ignoring the shouts of the police officer attempting to guard it and only finally stopping – and even then reluctantly – when Jack appears from out of the gloom and waves him over. Hannibal, who can curse fearfully, fluently and extravagantly in several different languages, now internally proceeds to do in Jack’s direction for having the lack of foresight in persuading him to counsel the preposterous Mr Anderson in favour of being at Will’s side where he ought to have been from the beginning. “There you are,” says Jack. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“I was exactly where you asked me to be,” shoots back Hannibal, in a tone of such foreboding that Jack briefly looks unsettled and goes quiet. “In fact I might say the same for you – surely liaising with the media has a better time and place?”

“Okay, look,” says Jack, who’s attempting to sound calm without entirely succeeding. “There’s no easy way to say this: we’ve got a bit of a situation with Will.”

Where is he?” snaps Hannibal.

He makes no attempt to remove the aggressive undertone from his voice and Jack waves his hands again in a placating gesture and says: “He’s fine.” Hannibal’s eyes narrow in a distinctly ominous way and Jack hastily adds: “He absolutely is: I give you my word. He’s safe. We’ve got him locked in one of the squad cars. I’ll show you in a minute – he’s been asking for you.”

“Then show me now,” says Hannibal, attempting not to hiss.

“I’m going to. I just want to explain what’s happening before you see him.”

Hannibal makes a sighing noise so low and smouldering it’s practically enough to set the air on fire. “I think I can guess,” he says tersely. “He’s on the verge of going into heat?” Jack’s mouth falls open in surprise and Hannibal takes a menacing step forward. “I’m not going to ask you again Jack.”

“I’m going to take you. I’ll do it now. I – I just didn’t realise you knew he was an omega.”

“Of course I know,” snaps Hannibal. “I’m his doctor.” Jack nods confidingly, and in spite of himself Hannibal experiences an extremely rare twinge of self-reproach for not acting more firmly on his earlier suspicion that stress had caused Will to forget to take several doses of the medication. Even so, the speed at which things have moved is almost unfeasible – clearly supressing his heats for so long has created a series of medical complications that are going to require further investigation. Hannibal’s normally impassive features now flicker with concern at the idea of Will being in such a risky situation and he briefly leans away from Jack so that his face is more in the shadows, given that this is a rare example of the concern being genuine – as opposed to skilfully feigned in the service of manipulating someone – and his one condition of permitting himself to indulge in such feelings is that no one is allowed to see him do it. Then he begins to urgently scan his gaze around the stretch of wasteland, overcome with a craving need to locate where Will might be and simultaneously feeling relieved that he’s safe inside the car while cursing the fact it makes him impossible to smell.

“Okay,” Jack is now saying. “Well, I guess that makes it a little easier – if you already know.”

Instead of replying Hannibal narrows his eyes even further until they’re darkly glinting slits and takes an ominous step forward. “I want to see him Jack – now.”

“Come on then,” says Jack, gesturing at Hannibal to follow him as begins to stride towards the perimeter fence. “He’s right back here; I just needed to make sure you knew what you were dealing with first. I mean I didn’t just want to spring it on you.” He pauses and when he speaks again he sounds distinctly awkward. “Unlike me. I’ve got to admit, I made a bit of a fool of myself with him.”

“How?” asks Hannibal in a warning voice.

“Oh, you know…patronising him, treating him like he wasn’t capable. All that chauvinistic nonsense it sometimes bring out. I feel terrible actually. I just…I wasn’t thinking.”

“Then try,” says Hannibal witheringly. “All it requires is a bit of self-control.”

“I know: you’re right. I’m going to apologise to him later. Honestly though, it was coming off him in waves.” Jack shakes his head unhappily. “One dead omega and one in heat; I’m surprised it didn’t start a riot.”

“That’s hardly to the purpose,” says Hannibal impatiently. “Because it didn’t.”

“Well it might have done,” persists Jack. “You know it could. I just don’t understand why he didn’t say anything?”

“Probably to avoid a foolish overreaction like this,” snaps Hannibal. “What he’s experiencing is a perfectly normal process after all; this sort of hysteria is quite unnecessary.”

“Maybe it is,” replies Jack irritably. “But it’s not just about him, is it? Look Hannibal, I trust my guys to control themselves; just like I know you and I can control ourselves. That lot out there,” he pauses and jerks him thumb towards the crowd behind the cordon, “not so much. I can’t have this entire scene swamped by alphas. I need him out of here now.”

“Naturally he needs to leave,” says Hannibal with equal irritation. “And as soon as possible.”

“It must be pretty unbearable for him,” agrees Jack with obvious sympathy. “Getting stuck in this godforsaken place.”

“Quite.”

“They like to be somewhere sheltered don’t they?” adds Jack, who’s unconsciously adopting the fond, protective tone that alphas inevitably tend to use for omegas. “Secure and warm: that sort of thing. Somewhere they can start nesting in.”

“I have no idea what ‘they’ might prefer in general,” snaps Hannibal. “I’m more concerned with what Will needs – which might be entirely different to the rest of ‘them.’”

Jack, to his credit, has the grace to look embarrassed. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m sorry – although I honestly didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that omegas are so rare. If you’re not careful you wind up thinking about them more as a concept than as actual individuals.” Hannibal makes another impatient noise and Jack adds: “At least I do; and I agree that I really shouldn’t.” He hesitates again then finally stops walking and puts a hand on Hannibal’s arm to indicate he stay still. “Look,” says Jack, ignoring the gimlet-eyed glare that’s now being beamed in his direction. “I’m going to level with you here. Will told Price that he has some meds at home that can delay things, but there’s no way I’m putting him in a cab without a chaperone. He keeps asking for you and I know he’d be happy if you’re the one who goes with him. But…”

“…But you want to establish if he’s in safe hands and whether I intend to exploit him in any way?”

“Yes,” says Jack firmly. “Exactly that.”

“Then I can reassure you that I have no intentions of exploiting him,” replies Hannibal, removing Jack’s hand from his arm. “And that while I appreciate your concern for his wellbeing, you should also remember that Will is an adult and therefore capable of giving consent and making an informed choice. You don’t need to protect him from his own decisions Jack. Or perhaps you feel that you do – but it still doesn’t give you the right.”

“You understand why I asked though?”

“I do,” says Hannibal calmly. “And am not remotely offended on my own behalf – only perhaps a little indignant on Will’s.” Jack makes a huffing noise and Hannibal catches his eyes and finally smiles. “The indomitable Uncle Jack,” he says. “So protective and parental yet I can’t bring myself to resent you for it. I know you’re acting from good intentions.”

“I am.”

“Of course you are. And there’s no doubt Will could do with a few allies from time to time.”

“I care about Will,” replies Jack gruffly. “He needs a bit of help. Underneath all that intelligence and attitude there’s just something so vulnerable about him.”

“Indeed there is,” says Hannibal thoughtfully. “Yet how he thrives regardless.” Then they turn the corner and he immediately falls silent as his excellent eyesight detects something flickering in the distance that causes him to stiffen slightly before abruptly abandoning Jack and darting off into the shadows with a silence and speed that’s vaguely unnerving.

“Hey – hey! Where are you going?” yells Jack.

This time Hannibal doesn’t bother to reply, because he’s just spotted a car that he can immediately sense has Will inside without having to be told – and around which a few members of the pack of alphas who originally followed Price and Will towards it are beginning to slink back again, despite having been initially driven off by Jack. Catching sight of Hannibal – or, more to the point, Hannibal’s inflammable anger – three of them falter then begin to retreat; with the exception of one who’s a little braver than the rest and is clearly reluctant to give up without a fight. Hannibal, who isn’t even out of breath after his sprint, now draws to a dead halt in front of him and looks him up and down with a level of contempt that’s practically blistering before taking a menacing step forward. The younger alpha, now that the competition is close enough to get a proper look at, promptly loses his nerve as well and holds up both hands in an appeasing gesture before shuffling back a few paces and then turning round and bolting away into the blackness himself.

“Bastards!” puffs Jack, who’s finally appeared behind Hannibal and is looking a little worse for wear after his run.

Hannibal narrows his eyes and watches the younger alpha depart – briefly tempted to go after him simply for an opportunity to vent his feelings by assassinating something, but ultimately abandoning it in favour of the far more pressing concern. Spinning round he now raps briskly on the window of the car; aware of the need to avoid doing anything that could sound overly aggressive or frightening and risk unsettling Will, but likewise unable to suppress the urgent need to see for himself that his boy is safe and unharmed. The window promptly unwinds by an inch and a pair of eyes come peering over the top.

“What’s the password?” says Price. “If you want to enter you must answer my Riddles Three. Oh, Hannibal – I thought you were Jack. Where on earth have you been? Well, better late than never I suppose; I know someone who’s going to be very pleased to see you.”

There’s the sound of the door being unlocked and Hannibal abandons any pretence at self-control and practically wrenches it off its hinges in his haste to fling it open so he can bundle Will into his arms. He looks extremely drawn and fragile by now, almost as if he’s shrunk in the past few hours, but the sight and scent of him is incendiary and Hannibal breathes him in then rapturously runs his fingers through his hair and kisses his forehead and eyelids, oblivious of the way that Jack and Price are beginning to stare.

“Where were you?” mutters Will, who’s clinging onto the edge of Hannibal’s coat. “I wanted you.”

“I know dearest,” says Hannibal, very quietly so the others can’t hear. “I’m sorry. I’m here now.”

Jack exchanges a glance with Price then clears his throat, obviously unsure of the best way to proceed. “How you doing Will?” he finally asks. Will pulls away slightly from where he’s burrowing against Hannibal’s chest and stares unhappily at Jack, who smiles encouragingly and prompts: “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” says Will, despite looking alarmingly pale and glassy-eyed from the shock and humiliation of it. “I’m fine.”

“Good!” says Jack heartily. “That’s good isn’t it?”

“Look I’m really sorry,” adds Will, beginning to twist his hands together. “I honestly don’t…I mean I can’t understand how…”

“Don’t start that again Will,” says Jack, although in a kindly rather than impatient way. “None of this is your fault. I was just explaining to Hannibal that it would be better if we could get you somewhere quiet.”

Will nods then glances from Jack to Hannibal and back again before seeming to wilt slightly as he begins to mutter something under his breath about a stolen prescription, repeating the details to himself in a fervent, urgent way as if it’s an article of faith.

“What are you saying?” asks Hannibal gently, taking hold of Will’s hands in his own.

“I can stop it,” replies Will, more clearly this time. “I have some meds at home…I can stop it before it happens.”

Jack tuts with sympathy then turns towards Hannibal. “What we discussed before: are you still able to take him?”

Instead of replying to Jack, Hannibal puts his hand on Will’s shoulder and moves him round so they’re facing one another directly. “Will,” he says, “is that all right with you?” Will nods rather aimlessly and Hannibal puts a hand on his other shoulder. “Are you happy for me to take you home?”

Will nods again then grips hold of Hannibal’s arm just as Price re-emerges from the front seat of the car. “Thank goodness for police radios,” he says when he notices everyone staring at him. “There’s no cell phone reception at all out here. I’ve just called in for a cab for you; it’ll arrive here anytime.”

“Ah, thanks Jim,” says Jack. “In fact excellent job over all – very quick-thinking.”

“Oh I didn’t do all that much,” says Price with a modest little flourish. “Just brained Mr Skinner with a bedpan then put Will in a body bag.” Hannibal raises his eyebrows. “It’s you two who did the hard work fending off all those alphas,” adds Price cheerfully. “How terribly macho you both are. I suppose I should’ve really given you a hand myself, although rest assured that Will and I were peering through the window and cheering you on the entire time. Who were they anyway?”

“Not any of ours,” says Jack firmly. “Mostly they were local policemen. Plus a few members of the public who’d got past the cordon.”

“Really?” says Price in surprise. “They must have been very keen. Quite a back-handed compliment to you Will – a bit like a bachelor party.”

Hannibal briefly glares at Price as if he wants to kills him and Price, oblivious to the look, yawns and stretches his arms over his head. “Well come on then Jack,” he says. “There’s still a lot to be done here. Let’s leave them to it.”

Jack nods in agreement but doesn’t make any immediate move to follow, instead gesturing at Will and asking in the same kindly tone as before: “You sure there’s nothing else you need?”

“Don’t crowd him Jack,” says Hannibal, beginning to stroke Will’s hair. The tone of his voice, while controlled, is still sufficiently stern that Jack promptly stops walking and neglects to come any closer. “Well if you do need anything…” he begins before catching sight of how Hannibal’s frowning at him and briefly trailing off again. “Then you just…y’know. Give me a call. And don’t worry about tonight. Honestly – it’s not a problem at all.”

“Thank you,” says Will quietly, whose expression clearly indicates that as far as he’s concerned it’s an enormous problem.

“And don’t hurry back to work. Just take as long as you need,” Jack hesitates again then casts an uncertain look at Hannibal. “Both of you. If you’re…um…staying together over the next few days.”

“You should go back to the scene Jack,” says Hannibal firmly, who’s now reached the limits of his patience and is no longer prepared for another alpha to be anywhere near Will at the moment, no matter how benign their intentions might be.

“Yes, come on Jack,” calls Price, who’s beginning to pick his way back across the field, delicately lifting his feet like a pony over the worst of the rubble. “The last thing poor old Will needs is any more alphas fussing over him. Give him some space.”

Jack immediately looks bashful again then nods kindly at Will before beating a hasty retreat himself. Hannibal watches him go then curls his hand round the back of Will’s neck. “Come here,” he says softly.

Will, who’s normally allergic to being told what to do, slowly turns round and then wavers for a few seconds as the need to be close to Hannibal obviously battles against an ingrained sense of stubbornness for obeying orders. Hannibal smiles very faintly as the former eventually wins out; and as Will moves forward he unfastens his coat then holds it open so Will can nestle against his chest and be wrapped up in it.

“Oh God, this is terrible,” says Will dolefully, his voice rather muffled from where his face is pressed against the front of Hannibal’s shirt. In fact he sounds incredibly strained and unhappy, even though there’s no denying that things are far less terrible than they were was a few minutes ago. In this respect Hannibal’s presence is having an unexpectedly positive impact, in that it’s helping to clear Will’s head and make him feel more alert and aware while simultaneously releasing a languorous, sensuous impulse which makes Will want to arch against him adoringly like a cat. It’s odd in a way – how it’s making him both more grounded and more unhinged at the same time. Will supposes it must be all the alpha pheromones that are doing it…which as realisations go is actually pretty mortifying.

“You seem much calmer now,” says Hannibal smugly, as if to confirm this.

Will makes a humming noise of agreement then closes his eyes while battling a powerful surge of self-consciousness at the way he’s burrowing deeper inside the coat. In fact if he’s honest with himself it’s coming perilously close to snuggling. Jesus. Hannibal gently strokes his neck with one hand while rubbing his back with the other and Will buries a bit further before muttering: “What took you so long?” Aware that he’s blushing slightly, he ducks his head even further so Hannibal won’t be able to see. “I thought you of all people would have been able to smell me.”

“I can smell you now,” murmurs Hannibal, smoothing his palm along Will’s neck a little harder than before.

“Yes, but why not earlier?” demands Will, clearly aggrieved. “When it would have done some good?”

“Because I was on the other side of the field, dearest – in an ambulance, of all places – whereas you seem to have spent most of your time in this car. We’ve been like ships that pass in the night.”

“Plus shits that pass in the night,” mumbles Will, thinking of Skinner.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing,” replies Will, who can’t be bothered to explain it. “You were right by the way. What you said before: I did forget to take a few doses of my meds.” Then he sighs loudly with frustration at the idea of this disaster being self-inflicted – although still can’t quite bring himself to add that it was the shock of seeing Hannibal and Alana together which caused such a terrible mistake in the first place.

“I know you did,” says Hannibal. “Although I’m still struggling to understand how it could have happened so fast.”

“Yeah; tell me about it.”

“So many years on suppressants must have affected your metabolism.”

“I guess.”

“I blame myself,” adds Hannibal, tightening his grip around Will’s shoulders. “I should have stopped you coming tonight and made you go straight home.”

“It’s okay. If you’d tried I wouldn’t have listened to you.”

“And do I even dare to ask about the bedpan – or why you ended up in a body bag?”

“No,” says Will, who doesn’t want to think about it even if he had the energy to explain it (which he definitely doesn’t). “It was just something that happened. Price helped me out.”

“You can tell me another time,” says Hannibal, deciding to forgive Price for the bachelor party remarks before resting his face against the side of Will’s hair. “Suffice to say that once again you’ve exceeded yourself. I could tell you were close but I never imagined it would happen this soon – I expected several days at least.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t expect it at all.”

“You are to be congratulated: even when inconveniencing yourself you still manage to be prodigious.” Hannibal pauses then smiles slightly. “What an over-achiever you are.”

“Oh God, shut up,” says Will. “And let me out of here. I look ridiculous.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you do. Like you’re in a papoose.”

“No, I look like one of those monkeys that get carried around on their parents’ chests. Technically that makes you the big monkey. You look almost as stupid as I do.”

“That’s rather unlucky for me,” says Hannibal. “But I’m still not letting you out until the cab comes. And if anyone comes near you before that,” Hannibal pauses and smiles again, before adding with obvious relish: “then I will kill them.”

“How are going to manage that with me wrapped round your torso?”

“Admittedly it would be rather inconvenient. Although they do say that where there’s a will there’s a way.”

“Ugh,” says Will. “You’re so annoying. I’m not even talking to you anymore.”

“That’s good,” says Hannibal, brushing his lips against Will’s forehead. “It means I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”

Will makes an amused noise and then finally abandons self-restraint and tucks himself a bit closer against Hannibal until only the top of his head is visible above the coat. “So much for dynamic crime solving,” he says wryly. “Look at us both. We look absurd. I bet this sort of thing never happened to Starsky and Hutch.”

“Who?”

“Never mind.” Will closes his eyes then makes a little rumbling, purr-like noise as Hannibal begins to stroke the back of his neck. Hannibal, unbearably charmed, increases the pressure to make him do it again. “I’m glad you’re here,” says Will sleepily.

“Not as glad as I am dearest. When I think what might have happened…”

“It’s okay. It didn’t.”

“Yes, but it might,” says Hannibal severely. “I’m afraid I badly misjudged the situation.”

Will nudges Hannibal’s leg with his foot. “Excuse me? Did you just admit to being wrong about something?”

“I did. I should never have let Jack persuade me to speak with that eyewitness. I shouldn’t have left you alone.”

“Oh stop being such a martyr about it,” says Will. “Actually don’t – carry on. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you admit to being wrong before.” Hannibal kisses his forehead and Will adds, suddenly serious again: “Oh God though, it’s all been so public. It’s humiliating. Happening like this…now everyone knows.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. Although at least it grants you a measure of freedom – consider, after all, that you’re no longer under any pressure to hide it.”

“Yeah, but going into heat. You realise it means that Andrew will find out?”

“Forget about him,” replies Hannibal. “Focus on yourself. There’s still plenty of time to deal with the situation and he’s certainly not going to be able to take you anywhere while I’m here. Speaking of which – look. Here’s our cab.”

Will makes a relieved noise and Hannibal unwraps him from the coat then leads him towards the cab by the hand. “Evening guys,” calls the driver, whose head has come poking out the window. “Is it true then?”

“Is what true?” says Hannibal waspishly.

“That this is where they found The Sculptor’s latest? It’s all over the news.”

“Then you have your answer don’t you?” snaps Hannibal. The driver grunts in response and Hannibal curtly gives directions before ignoring him entirely in favour of tenderly helping Will to settle into the back seat. Then he climbs in behind him and takes hold of his hand again, noting with interest how dry and hot the skin feels and the way his pulse is fluttering in his wrist. In this respect Will is clearly still in the prodromal phase, but it won’t be more than an hour or two before he tips into full-blown heat…Or at least he would if nature was allowed to take its course. “Those tablets you mentioned,” adds Hannibal casually. “The ones you stole? I assume you know they’re only a very temporary solution?”

“Of course I know.”

“A few days reprieve at most.”

“I know,” says Will bitterly.

“So – then what?”

“So – then I’ll think of something else.”

Hannibal, who’d already anticipated something like this and isn’t particularly discouraged by it, nods serenely in response then on an impulse takes hold of Will’s waist and eases him downwards so he can lie with his head on Hannibal’s knee. Will groans then arches his back. “I’m sorry,” says Hannibal, gently carding his fingers through Will’s hair. “It’s getting very uncomfortable now, isn’t it?”

Will groans again then jerks his hips down before starting to gnaw on his bottom lip. The movement looks fraught and rather desperate and Hannibal watches his progress with something like fascination because Will’s lips are unexpectedly luscious when bitten and it’s hard not to imagine what they would look like when flushed and swollen from an excessive application of teeth. Rather reluctantly he presses his finger on Will’s mouth to make him stop then gently rubs the side of his jaw to relax the muscles until it makes Will give a small moan and start to quiver with pleasure at the touch. Hannibal smiles again at the sight of it then subtly shifts away from the window so the moonlight can stream in and illuminate Will’s face without his own shadow blocking it and he can enjoy the way the flickering silver accentuates Will’s cheekbones: as gracefully moulded as a piece of porcelain with a faint dusting of freckles on the edge like the speckled centre of a tiger lily. Will is so artistic, thinks Hannibal reverently. A very refined type of beauty, like the favourite model of some Renaissance Master with his haunted elegant pallor and tangled coils of hair – an El Greco martyr perhaps, or de Ribera’s Saint Sebastian – although the luminously lively eyes and passionate mouth are not from any painting in particular but are entirely Will’s own. Hannibal silently promises himself that at some point he’ll have to produce his own drawing of Will, preferably straight after being made love to, and he now takes a few contented seconds to mentally compose the scene: the way the sheet should drape across his hips, the plane of each collar bone, the curve of every rib, and the sensuous sylph-like way Will would curl his body across the bed. Nymph, in thy orisons, Be all my sins remember'd quotes Hannibal admiringly to himself. Charcoal would probably be most suitable to capture the softer contours; gently smudged around the edges with the thumb to imply latent movement, with the stark contrast of black and white suitably blended to signal vulnerability combined with a nuance of dark ferociousness.

Down on Hannibal’s knee, Will is clearly growing increasingly uncomfortable as he starts to thrash his head from side to side. “I can’t…” he’s muttering desperately to himself. “It’s so…oh God.”

Hannibal makes a soothing noise and strokes Will’s damp hair out his eyes while privately admiring the way he’s begun to grind his hips against the seat of the cab. It’s clearly unintentionally done – a source of discomfort and embarrassment if anything, judging from the way Will is blushing over it and trying to force himself to stay still – and yet to an observer it’s almost unbearably voluptuous and beautiful. “Look at you,” says Hannibal, very quiet and tender; and Will moans again and screws his eyes closed as Hannibal mulls over how very easy it would be to take hold of his waist and make him lie face down so Hannibal could pull him further over his knee and slide a hand down the back of his jeans. It wouldn’t even be necessary to unfasten his belt: he’s fretted away so much weight in the past few weeks that his clothes are loose and would make access extremely easy indeed – practically an open invitation. There’s also no doubt that Will would allow it: would encourage it even, thrusting his hips up towards the touch and biting his lip to try and stop himself making too much noise. He must be so receptive by now that he’d easily be able to take two fingers, possibly three, and it would be beyond pleasurable to explore that exquisite body in all its hot, wet tightness while making Will suck the fingers on Hannibal’s other hand. Feeling something inside him would excite him so much that he’d come almost immediately, and would be so sweetly and stunningly humiliated afterwards that it would be a new source of pleasure simply to comfort and reassure him. In fact the entire image is so heady that Hannibal is strongly tempted to do it; ultimately only resisting – and then reluctantly – because of an even stronger sense that his beautiful boy deserves to be taken properly rather than being fingered on the back seat of a filthy common taxi cab. Besides, there’s also the fact that it would give him the relief he needs and there’s something about seeing Will so divinely desperate and discomposed that’s undeniably its own sort of satisfaction. Instead he strokes Will’s forehead again then reaches down with his other hand and gently but firmly pushes Will’s legs apart to encourage him to renew the rocking motion. “Don’t be ashamed,” says Hannibal softly, lowering his voice so the driver can’t hear. “Listen to your body. Just do what you need to.”

Will shakes his head, obviously embarrassed, and Hannibal smiles to himself then slowly slides his palm down Will’s chest until it’s pressed against his abdomen; at which point Will makes a small wailing noise and begins moving again. “Do it harder,” murmurs Hannibal and Will hesitates a few seconds then complies. “Harder,” says Hannibal silkily. “Now spread your legs. That’s it, good boy. Doesn’t that feel better?” Will makes another whining noise, although still isn’t sufficiently deep into a heat state to have lost his sense of self-consciousness and after a few more seconds he bites his lip and goes still again. “It’s all right Will,” murmurs Hannibal. “Just breathe. Only a little longer now and we’ll be home.”

“Getting to his time is it?” blurts out the driver, who's watching the whole thing with interest through his mirror. “Lovely looking little thing. He shouldn't be out in that state.”

“Fuck off,” hisses Will through gritted teeth.

“You should have kept a closer eye on him,” persists the driver to Hannibal. “They’re not supposed to leave the house when they’re like that. Don’t you know you’re supposed to lock them up? He’ll be giving you no end of trouble if you don’t look after him better.”

“Oh my God,” says Will, struggling to sit upright until Hannibal gently but firmly pushes him back down again. “Just shut up and drive the goddamn cab.”

“My wife’s sister is one,” adds the driver confidingly, who still seems determined to address all his remarks to Hannibal. “They sold her to a property developer from New York State and made a small fortune. How much did you pay for yours?” He glances uncertainly at Will who’s now struggling to sit up again and looking on the verge of attempting to leap over the plastic screen dividing the backseat from the driver’s cab. “Bit of a handful is he?”

“What do you think Will?” says Hannibal, beginning to stroke Will’s shoulders. “Are you a handful?”

Will makes a sort of growling sound, which strikes Hannibal as rather adorable because of the way tiredness and disorientation render it completely ineffective – and how the ineffectiveness doesn’t stop him from doing it anyway. Smiling to himself he tugs Will back down again then idly slips the tip of two fingers beneath the collar of his shirt; Will repeats a variation of the growling noise and tries to pull away. “You’re burning up,” says Hannibal placidly.

“I know,” snaps Will.

Hannibal smiles again then place his hand over Will’s forehead to keep his head still and finally turns to the driver. “Would you possibly have a card?” he says with excessive politeness. “I’ll be needing a cab for the return journey.”

“Oh stop asking for people’s business cards,” says Will fretfully. “You’re always doing it. Have you got some sort of fetish? You sound like The Sculptor.”

“Who, me?” asks Hannibal with another tiny smile.

“Yes – you. You got one off that PI as well…” Hannibal’s smile broadens slightly and Will frowns then suddenly goes very still as the rest of his sentence trails off.

“Oh yes,” replies Hannibal. Slowly he trails his finger along Will’s cheekbone. “I did, didn’t I?”

Will meets Hannibal’s eye for a few seconds before promptly ducking his chin again and looking restless. You suspect don’t you beloved, thinks Hannibal languorously. You just don’t want to admit it. Then because strained silences don’t bother him, he proceeds to ignore it and instead makes the most of the opportunity to appreciate how finely drawn Will’s features are when thrown into flattering relief by the pale glint of the moonlight. Really, it’s as if everything curves upwards: the tip of his nose and the tilt of his cheekbones, his eyelashes, his full upper lip, his mouth itself, when smiling – which admittedly isn’t often. In fact Will is still frowning, clearly trying to battle through the mire of his physical discomfort in order to process this new apprehension about the PI, and Hannibal idly resumes the stroking movement up and down his cheek. “Look, we’re here now,” he adds as the cab prepares to draw to a halt. “Do you still want me to come in with you?”

Will hesitates then catches Hannibal’s eye again, this time holding the gaze for a little longer before finally looking away. “Yes,” he says in a low voice.

So Hannibal smiles to himself and strokes Will’s face more tenderly than ever as a reward for being so courageous before paying the driver – and taking a business card – then helping Will stagger the short distance towards the house. In fact he’d rather like to carry him in, cradling him in his arms like a lover would, only he knows that Will would never allow it so has to settle for acting like a kind of human crutch instead. Will, in turn, clearly resents the need for assistance and pulls away as soon as he’s inside so he can cling onto the bannister, struggling for breath now and startlingly pale beyond a flush of colour across both cheekbones. “I need…” he starts to say, then takes another shuddering breath and goes quiet, seemingly unable to describe what it is that he needs – if he even really knows anymore; or ever knew at all.

Hannibal runs his eyes over him then turns to close the door before something in the hallway catches his attention and causes him to pause. Will, still slumped against the bannister, follows the gaze then flinches slightly – just as Hannibal takes a few steps forward so he can inspect the hallway then through the door to the living room.

“Don’t,” snaps Will as Hannibal opens his mouth to speak. “Just for once, can’t you? Just…just don’t.”

Hannibal darts a look at him then runs his eyes over the scene before turning round again, clearly undeterred. “Will,” he says gently. “Why have you smashed all the mirrors?”

Will flinches once more but ultimately just shakes his head and refuses to reply – in that moment, completely unable to describe how he’d grown delirious one night through stress and exhaustion and become consumed with a maddened sense of the Dark Reflection literally living behind the glass. Briefly he now remembers it: the way he’d stared into the fragments at his sad Picasso face, distorted by the shards and so haunted and harried that he’d barely even recognised the remains of himself. How to even begin explaining something like that? He can’t: he doesn’t have the words for it. It’s impossible to describe it to Hannibal, just as it’s impossible to tell him about the endless nightmares of blood and bone, or the relentless obsession with the idea of killing Andrew. He can’t tell him about the dark mirror image; can’t tell him anything. Because while he’s known for some time that Hannibal himself is dangerous – possibly even extremely so – it’s one thing to contemplate someone else’s darkness and another thing entirely to begin acknowledging his own. Shaking his head again he gestures towards the stairs and mutters “I have to get the pills.”

“Do you need any help?”

“I’ll be fine,” snaps Will. With a level of effort that’s clearly agonising he begins to drag himself along the banister like a bird with a broken wing; reappearing around ten minutes later looking marginally calmer and having obviously taken the emergency suppressants. He’s pushed his hair back off his face and changed into a pale grey sweater and a fresh pair of jeans, both of which are slightly too large for him and make him appear young and waifish.

Hannibal’s normally deadpan expression begins to soften. “Feeling better?” he asks gently.

“Not really,” says Will, and for a few seconds Hannibal can see a glimmer of moisture on his eyelashes. “It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t seem to stop it. It’s going to happen anyway.”

“I know – I’m sorry. It’s frightening for you isn’t it?”

Will makes a subdued sniffing sound and for a second it looks as if he really is on the verge of crying before he just runs his hands through his hair and nods instead.

“I think it’s for the best,” adds Hannibal in the same gentle voice. “Those tablets were doing you enormous damage.”

Will’s head promptly jerks up. “What do you mean?” he says sharply, and Hannibal raises his eyebrows in a politely questioning way. “You said were,” persists Will. “Not are. Past tense. Why did you do that?”

Clever boy, thinks Hannibal approvingly. “Why do you think?” he replies softly, staring Will straight in the eye.

Will hesitates for a few seconds before the fight visibly seeps out of him and he suddenly looks lost again: obviously aware that something’s being hinted at, yet feeling much too tired and ill to properly work out what it could be. The fact is he’d increasingly wondered whether the new supply of pills could possibly have been the expensive, experimental ones described by Dr Reynolds – the ones only intended for short-term suppression and with no physical side effects but a host of psychological ones: side effects like aggression, loss of inhibition and emotional reactivity. But how could Hannibal know anything about it as opposed to it simply being an error on the part of the drug dealer? Briefly he now remembers Dr Reynolds’ account of the difficulties in obtaining the new pills: You’d need an extraordinarily skilled prescriber to be able to gauge the dose. I’d struggle to calculate it myself, I don’t mind admitting it – you’d need a very precise grasp of the chemistry to get it right. How could Hannibal – who doesn’t even specialise in physical medicine, let alone omega health – possibly be expected to be capable of working it out? And why would he even bother; why go to so much trouble? Besides, the safety caps were still on.

“You don’t understand,” Will eventually replies, and the fretfulness in his tone makes him sound much younger than he normally does. “I don’t want to go into heat.” He shakes his head again, seemingly confused by the injustice of it all as if his body itself is conspiring against him. “I don’t want it.”

“I know you don’t Will,” says Hannibal. “I see that. It’s just one of many things you don’t want.” He pauses delicately, allowing his eyes to run over Will’s face until Will begins to squirm with the force of the scrutiny. “You work so hard to control every aspect of your nature don’t you? To inhibit all your…impulses. Perhaps it’s time to let go of the fear of indulging them.” Hannibal idly inspects his hands then suddenly snaps his head upright and looks Will straight in the eye in a way Will can’t help but find sinister. “To cultivate them as the inspirations they are.”

As if the Dark Reflection is answering its cue, Will is immediately aware of that eternal chilling refrain of you-could-kill-him- you-could-kill-him and suddenly the horror of it – the horror of everything – strikes him in that moment as unbearable. Then he hears himself hissing “Get away from me,” even though he’s no longer sure whether he’s really talking to Hannibal or to that dark part of himself…isn’t sure any more where one starts and the other ends; so tightly merged as they seem in that moment to be. The front door is still slightly ajar, and without even thinking about it Will darts through and begins to run, despite having no idea why or where, or even what for – nothing beyond an urgent sense of a need to try and escape from himself.

Outside the house it’s bitterly cold, eerily silent, and bleached spectrally pale and colourless as above Will’s head a misty sliver of moon is just about visible behind a ragged lacing of black clouds. It gleams like a piece of bright bone in the sky – rimey, raw-looking and slightly vaporous from all the fog – and it seems to be watching over him as he runs and runs and runs: consumed now with a strange sense of freedom that temporarily eclipse the fear as the skeletal outline of branches flash past and somewhere beyond the fields the same night creature from before renews its chilling screaming sound. Will’s heart is pounding like a piston in his ears and it strikes him almost as bizarre that he can still be breathing so reliably in the midst of such a crisis, that his heart can still be beating – that all those vessels and cells and fine blue veins are endeavouring away, just as they always have, as if they think this is survivable and that life is just going to continue in the same mechanical way as before. In fact his chest is really hurting now, with a thrashing heart and lungs that feel ready to burst. Bursting lungs, thinks Will wildly, is that even possible? What if they actually did; how would it look and feel? Would they slowly sigh and sink in on themselves, deflating like tired balloons, or rupture apart splashily and showily like scarlet glass?

He’s very close now to the tree where he first saw the murder of crows, and as the screaming sound renews from beyond the field Will doesn’t even need to look over his shoulder to know that Hannibal is running after him. But, oh God, he must be really close now because Will can hear his breathing and it suddenly feels like being hunted. Like something inescapable is in pursuit: something that’s momentous and unavoidable and a lifetime in the making. Something like destiny…something like that. The urgency of it fills Will with a sharp surge of fear that causes him to rally his bursting lungs and scream “Leave me alone,” even though he doesn’t know what he’d really do if it happened; and when an arm shoots out of the darkness with lethal precision and wraps itself round his waist, he doesn’t do anything to resist beyond a helpless, frightened wail at the sense that whatever it is can’t be outpaced entirely. Then for a few seconds he struggles with a sort of fateful franticness before eventually collapsing in Hannibal's arms with a choked off sob. Hannibal doesn’t say anything immediately, just runs a hand up and down his back while cradling his head with the other, and for the first time in forever Will’s finally aware of a sense of feeling safe.

“You can’t outrun yourself Will,” says Hannibal gently. “You’ve been trying your entire life.”

“I know,” mutters Will, even though he doesn’t. “I know, I know.”

Hannibal tightens his grip and Will clings onto him in return as the words from one of his diary entries fleetingly run through his head: Don’t you think there’s something ironic about that – the way ‘know’ has a ‘no’ hidden away inside it? It’s like knowledge is built upon not knowing at all once you look into the center…And look, here we are. I’ve come full circle again: from what I think I do know right back to what I know I don’t. A full circle with you in the middle of it – like the ‘no’ in ‘know’.

“Don’t leave me,” he hears himself gasping out, and his voice in his ears sounds very far away. “Please. Don’t let me go.”

Hannibal presses his lips against Will’s forehead. “Never,” he says.

Will nods wordlessly, even as the implications of it crowd into his mind in a way that’s frightening and overwhelming because they’re too much to face. The sense of want and dependency, the sense of need; the aspect of himself that rejects intimacy and fears whatever it is that Hannibal truly represents: and yet an aspect that likewise leans towards Hannibal with wild eyes and its lips slightly parted as it pledges itself to the other half of its equation. That other half of that aspect of Will, who’s standing there now in the moonlight with his chiselled face and smoky voice and the carefully controlled hint of menace that’s still not fully understood yet undeniably there regardless, like something dark and unknown that darts around beneath the surface of water which otherwise remains smooth. And yet that part of Will doesn’t care, because all it wants is to find the other half of itself. I want you and I’m not afraid of you, that part says, looking Hannibal straight in the eye. I want all your beauty, all your art and horror; the best of you, the worst of you; the wonderful and the terrible – all of you, all the time.

Hannibal tightens his grip again as if he feels it too, and Will screws his eyes shut and clings on like someone drowning until Hannibal finally pulls away and removes his coat so he can wrap it round Will’s shivering shoulders. Will lets him do it and stares down at the floor instead while feeling oddly numb and enthralled; although when Hannibal speaks again he immediately looks up – and this time looks him straight in the eye. Hannibal’s eyes are so dark that they’re practically all pupil, and Will holds his gaze while understanding that these are the same eyes which can really see him, despite there being so much that Will can never possibly show. In fact in that moment he can even believe that there’s no greater way to demonstrate regard than those three small words, surpassing even love itself. I see you. As if love is just a pale and unconvincing counterfeit of perception: of the acceptance and awareness that comes from knowing that you’re really being seen by those dark, fathomless eyes in the angular face that’s so beautifully fine-boned and fierce. An all-seeing I, thinks Will hazily. Something pure and elemental.

“Come with me now Will,” says Hannibal in the same quiet voice. “Come back to the house. We can talk some more. I want you to tell me everything; and then we can decide what we’re going to do.”

His eyes are gleaming very faintly in the moonlight and Will feels like he can see the hint of darkness in them, enough darkness to drown in, but still can’t bring himself to pull away. So Hannibal stares straight back, exchanging silent pledges and wordless recognition; and this time, when he holds out his hand, Will reaches out after barely any hesitation and takes it.

Chapter Text

The journey back to the house is made without further conversation and the completeness of the silence is striking to Will – not only that they’re making no noise themselves but that the scenery wrapped round them has such an unearthly quietness about it, rather like it’s holding its breath. In fact after the frenetic activity of the crime scene the silence is particularly noticeable. Jarring, almost; as if the whole world has been sedated and he and Hannibal are now its only living inhabitants, pacing through soundless fields together in glacial moonlight and frozen fog while everyone else lies numb and insensate behind closed doors. If he was on his own, or even with a different companion, then it might feel desolate or unnerving, but in this respect what’s equally striking is how calm and comfortable the silence feels. Hannibal walks – or, more appropriately, strides – in a quick decisive manner, very similar to how he does so much else (head up, shoulders back); and Will unconsciously finds himself mirroring the posture as a substitution for his more usual anxious hunch before deciding that he definitely prefers the former. He keeps tight hold of Hannibal’s hand the entire time, only letting go when they’re finally back at the house and Hannibal has settled him onto the sofa and arranged a blanket over his shoulders. Will, in turn, knows that the urge to pull it over his head is a result of lingering heat hormones that are creating an urge to feel sheltered; and the awareness of this is embarrassing but still not enough to stop him doing it, despite an unpleasant suspicion that it makes him look like ET in the basket. It’s possible that Hannibal thinks the same, because he turns round then begins to smile when he sees Will peering out at him from beneath the folds.

Will clears his throat self-consciously then gestures to where Hannibal has been busy arranging logs into the fireplace in a neat little stack. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“What, build a fire? Of course I can. I learnt when I was very young.”

“Right,” says Will. He wants to add something about Hannibal seeming far too privileged and rarefied to have ever needed to learn a plebeian activity like fire-building, only can’t think of a way of doing it that won’t sound rude. Honestly though…where did he learn? It’s not impossible to imagine him having had actual servants to take care of those sorts of things.

Hannibal returns the stare then smiles again as if reading Will’s thoughts. “I had occasion to acquire all kinds of unexpected skills,” he says. “Some have declined in their usefulness; others not so much. How to light a fire happens to be one of the more serviceable ones.” He pauses and looks thoughtful, his angular face bathed in the crimson-glowing light in a way that’s slightly eerie. “My life was very different when I was a child.”

“Would you tell me about it?” asks Will, who’s intrigued by the idea of this.

“Some other time,” replies Hannibal. He sits down on the sofa, delicately wiping a few stray specks of soot from his face with his forearm like a cat washing its ears. “Tonight I want to talk about you.”

“Yeah, I figured you would.”

“You did promise,” adds Hannibal, with another small smile. This one is rather more suggestive than the others; a slight flickering around the mouth like the way flames would lick across a sheet of paper. “Are you still prepared to?”

“I guess,” says Will cautiously. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything.” Will rolls his eyes but doesn’t reply, instead stretching out a foot and prodding Hannibal’s leg in silent indication that as a conversational topic this is far too ambitious. Hannibal smiles again then catches hold of the foot and begins to stroke along the arch, enjoying the way Will’s toes flex in response to the pressure. “Very well,” he says. “I’m prepared to be more modest with my expectations. In that case I want you to tell me about your current difficulty.”

“Which one?” says Will gloomily, mentally scrolling through his internal database of problems (the bastard thing). “How to stop the heat? The whole world finding out I’m an omega? The Sculptor’s business card…?”

“The situation with Andrew.”

“Oh God, I don’t know,” says Will with obvious fretfulness. “It’s such a long story. I’m not even sure where to start.”

“Start at the beginning,” replies Hannibal. “It’s as good a place as any.” Reaching out he gently tugs the blanket down so he can see Will’s face – who promptly scowls then pulls it back up again. “In fact start at the very beginning. Tell me what your parents said when you presented as an omega?”

Will sighs then stretches out his legs and stares fixedly into the fireplace at the way the flames flicker and writhe, obviously trying to summon sufficient inspiration to begin describing a painful and intricate subject. “Parent – singular,” he finally replies. “Only my dad was around by then. And he didn’t really say anything. I suppose he would probably rather have had an alpha for a son but it wasn’t like he was angry about it or anything. More like…quietly disappointed.” Hannibal frowns with disapproval at anyone being stupid enough not to appreciate such a unique and stunningly precious possession on its own terms, and Will sighs again then adds rather aimlessly: “Although he cheered up a hell of a lot when he realised how much money he could get for me.”

“I understand,” prompts Hannibal when it looks like Will’s going to grind to a halt without continuing. “So Andrew approached your father before you?”

“Of course,” replies Will in surprise. “That’s nearly always the way it’s done. He’d struck a deal with my dad before I even met him.” Hannibal frowns again, severely displeased by the idea of this, and Will stretches and sighs even louder than before. “It was when I still lived down south,” he adds unhappily. “I was already working for the police by then, but I’d sometimes help my dad fix boats over the summer and Andrew was down in New Orleans for some business conference. He must have spotted me by the dock because he’d turn up every afternoon and watch me. A few of them did – alphas I mean. There was a group of them.” His eyes narrow mutinously at the memory. “Just sat there staring. Then one evening I went home and there he was: sat in the kitchen with my dad and a custody contract.” Briefly he runs his hand through his hair, bitterly remembering the scene: the way they’d both fallen silent when he walked in, his father’s aura of smug celebration, Andrew’s of acquisition, and the way possessiveness and superiority had lingered in the air like stale cigarette smoke. “It was a done deal before I’d even laid eyes on him.”

“Why didn’t you refuse?” asks Hannibal gently.

This time it’s Will turn to frown, despite knowing that the question comes from a place of curiosity rather than judgement. “I guess because I was younger then. And far more naïve; I didn’t know any better. Plus my dad wanted me to.” He pauses and frowns again. “What you have to understand is that if you’re an omega then you spend your entire life being brainwashed with the idea that your sole purpose is to end up bonded with some wealthy alpha – and how lucky it makes you and how grateful you ought to be. I mean I knew it was bullshit; even back then I knew it was. But the main thing is you feel like you don’t have any other choice.”

Hannibal, unable to resist the temptation any longer, reaches out and takes hold of Will’s hand; rubbing his thumb over the knuckles and letting their fingers twine together. “I understand,” he says. “And of course in many ways you don’t have a choice.”

“Right,” replies Will, unconsciously returning the pressure on Hannibal’s hand. “Bonding isn’t actually compulsory – but it may as well be, because the entire system is set up to make it as hard as possible for omegas to live independently. You know that we’re taken out of regular school as soon as we present and sent to special academies?”

“I did know that, yes.”

“Well the official line is that it’s to protect us, but that’s bullshit; it’s so we have less access to education. Which means right from the start it’s harder to get a job – even if most employers were prepared to hire omegas, which they’re not. So if you want to live on your own then you’re seriously going to struggle to provide for yourself, not to mention the fact you need alphas to get through your heats because it’s so difficult to get suppressants. But of course all this is presented to you as if it’s for your own good – because you’re so incredibly special and lucky to be an omega – and it’s not. It’s an enormous injustice. All of it is about alphas; nothing to do with omegas’ wellbeing, but because of how we make alphas feel. And rather than bother to control themselves, they decided to control omegas instead.”

Hannibal begins to run a hand through Will’s hair, which reminds Will that at some point he and the ET blanket have migrated along the sofa and managed to curl themselves onto Hannibal’s knee. He’s not even entirely sure how it happened; only that now he’s here he doesn’t want to leave again, so rolls onto his side to face the fireplace as Hannibal begins to rub his shoulders with his other hand. “They regulate us as if we’re property,” Will adds, leaning a little forward so that Hannibal has access to stroking his neck as well. “Which in effect, we are. But then once they’ve got you, you’re even worse off because there’s no way they’re going to let you go again. I mean technically, every single thing in this house belongs to Andrew.” Hannibal makes a disdainful noise and Will sighs with irritation. “Yeah apart from you, obviously.”

“Obviously,” replies Hannibal. “Although I wasn’t referring to myself – I meant you.”

“Oh God, why can’t you get it?” snaps Will in frustration. “As far as the law goes I absolutely belong to him: signed, sealed, delivered. I belong to him, my dogs belong to him. If we’d had children – God forbid – then he’d be the one with automatic custody, not me. They finally changed the law a few years ago, but before that I would’ve remained his property even if he died. He could have left ownership rights to someone in his will; his next of kin would have inherited me. It’s completely horrific: and that’s where the indoctrination comes in, because you have people telling you from childhood onwards that this is what you’re destined for and you don’t have a choice. Usually it’s your mother who does it, only mine wasn’t around by that point so it was a teacher who did it instead. You learn things off other omegas too: birth control, managing heats…how to fight off alphas. Things you’d never get told officially because the alphas wouldn’t allow it.”

“You must have felt very powerless,” says Hannibal gently. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well,” replies Will in the same toneless voice. “It is what it is. I did my best though – to try and put him off I mean. So I was really clear with him that I didn’t want a family, but he just kept saying he didn’t mind. Then I told him I wanted to keep my job and my own house, and he made out like he was fine with that too. Those kinds of demands were way out of line for an omega; I was hoping he’d think I was too stubborn and opinionated and change his mind. But he didn’t; he seemed to like it. He liked that I was rebellious.”

“I can imagine,” says Hannibal fondly, briefly letting his fingers stray from Will’s hair to stroke his cheek instead.

“So he signed the contract anyway then paid my dad and that was it: control of me literally got passed from one of them to the other.” As he’s speaking Hannibal resumes the rhythmic stroking movement across his scalp and the sensation causes Will to fall quiet for a few seconds, suddenly aware of how strange it is to be talking this critically about alphas to an actual alpha without any indication of offence or resentment. Although the thought is actually a comforting one: a reminder of how in many ways the connection between them transcends something as categorical as gender. In the resulting silence Hannibal moves his other hand back to Will’s shoulder again and begins to massage it in silent encouragement to continue, and Will clears his throat and tries to remember where it was he left off. “The first thing he did was take me round to his place to show it off,” he eventually adds. “He was expecting me to see how luxurious it was and change my mind, but of course I didn’t. There was no way I was going to live together.”

“And I don’t suppose he was satisfied with that?” says Hannibal in a low, chilling tone. Without even thinking about it he possessively tightens his grip on Will’s shoulder, only realising he’s done it when Will gives a wince of pain. “Forgive me,” says Hannibal in a gentler voice, giving the shoulder an apologetic stroke. “Only I find the concept…aggravating.”

“Tell me about it,” replies Will bitterly. “I mean I’m not completely naïve – obviously I knew I was going to have to sleep with him. He’d send his driver round to my house when he wanted to see me and I’d end up getting chauffeured across town every other night.”

Hannibal briefly grips Will’s shoulder again, then with effort forces himself to let go. “You didn’t feel able to refuse?”

“I couldn’t refuse; how could I? He’d have had me institutionalised. They make out like it’s a form of mental illness – alphas pay off doctors to sign committal papers all the time. Although the weird thing is that I wasn’t particularly unhappy about it. That’s the brainwashing part – at that point I was living the type of life I’d been told was unavoidable, so I just got on with it. And I still had my job, which was a huge bonus; in many ways I was actually pretty contented. Plus Andrew was still putting a lot of effort into being charming, so he wasn’t all that bad to be around.”

“A gilded cage is still a cage,” says Hannibal. He places a possessive hand round the back of Will’s neck, alternating between stroking it with his thumb and gently massaging the top of the spine. “So when did it go wrong?”

“It’s not like it was ever right,” says Will. “But yeah – things came to a head. Basically the fact I was single-minded stopped being a novelty and because a massive irritation instead. He got sick of me saying no to him; although the real crisis didn’t happen until he started talking about wanting to bite me. Obviously we hadn’t bonded because I was still taking the suppressants and bonding is so unreliable if the omega isn’t in heat. I’d been expecting it of course – to be honest the only surprise was that he’d waited as long as he did to push for it.”

“So what did you do?”

“I told him I’d consider it,” says Will wearily. “Again, it’s the brainwashing: I didn’t feel like I had a choice, and in many ways it was easier than saying no outright. I mean he owned me by then – I was stuck with him anyway, and it didn’t seem realistic to try and spend my whole life avoiding it. I wouldn’t shift on the children part though, and that’s when he really lost his shit. He kept ranting about carrying on his family line and all that kind of crap. Then he started making out like I’d misled him for the money, even though I couldn’t have been clearer from the beginning about what I wanted.” He pauses then gives a bitter, humourless laugh. “Besides, I never even saw any of the money – my father got the lot. But I stood my ground and I honestly thought he’d give up; he’d always backed down before with the other things so I assumed he would this time too. Only he didn’t.” For a few seconds Will goes quiet again and when he speaks his voice has taken on the odd, mechanical quality of someone trying to distance themselves from what they’re saying. “It happened a few weeks later. His chauffeur picked me up one night as usual then when I got out the car the bastard knocked me unconscious; he had a rag with some kind of chemical on it and he held it over my face. I mean I tried to stop him, but he was bigger than me – this huge alpha. And I was so tired that day; I didn’t have any energy…”

“None of it was your fault,” says Hannibal gently. “None of it.”

“Yeah, well, he took me out in a matter of minutes. When I woke up I was in this storage room off of Andrew’s basement. There was nothing in there except a mattress, a bucket, and a crate of bottled water…And that’s when I knew.” He stops speaking and Hannibal waits patiently, gently running his palm up and down his back without attempting to make him continue. “He was going to force me to go through a heat on my own as punishment,” Will finally says. “The suppressants weren’t as refined back then as they are now, so if you missed more than one dose it was enough to set it off. And of course it did – it took less than 24 hours.”

“Oh Will,” says Hannibal softly.

“I hadn’t had one for so long I was completely unprepared for it,” replies Will in the same flat, toneless voice. “It would have been tough enough anyway, but if you don’t have an alpha with you it’s like…Jesus. It’s like your body’s trying to devour itself.” For a few seconds he falls silent again, unable to describe how in the midst of the overarching horror of it, it’s the smaller degradations and humiliations that really stick in his mind: how he’d leaked slick everywhere and had no way of cleaning it up, the misery of being forced to use a bucket as a toilet, or the way he’d broken down completely on the second day and screamed helplessly into the mattress at the unbearable pain and despair of it all. “It was one of the worse things that’s ever happened to me.”

“It was torture,” says Hannibal, whose voice has now taken on the same toneless, mechanical sound. In fact his private level of anger is so extreme that it’s difficult not to express, but he doesn’t want to do anything aggressive that could unsettle Will so forces himself to subdue the worst of it and resumes calmly stroking Will’s back instead. “My love. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“I never called out for him though,” adds Will with pride. “That was the whole point of it – for me to beg him. But I never did.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

“The plan was to frighten me into submission,” says Will with obvious contempt. “He didn’t want to hurt me in a way that would leave marks, so he did that shit with the basement instead. He would’ve used it as a threat to force me to bond with him and God knows what else. Only it went wrong. I mean badly wrong, because he hadn’t counted on what would happen by putting my body under that much stress. Long story short, there was a massive build-up of toxins in my bloodstream and my liver failed.”

“Acute liver failure,” repeats Hannibal in horror. “You could have died.”

“I know; I nearly did. Then my kidneys failed too. I was in hospital for months. God, you should have seen him – he was frantic. Obviously he wanted to make me suffer but he didn’t want to literally kill me. He told the doctors he’d been away on a business trip and his dumb little omega had forgotten to take its suppressants. Of course they were all alphas so they immediately believed him; or at least they pretended to. The nurses didn’t though. One of them came into my room at night and slipped a card for an omega crisis shelter under my pillow. I’d heard about those places – they’re not really much use because the alpha usually turns up and makes a scene and most of the time the omegas end up getting handed over to them again. But just the fact that someone had seen through Andrew’s bullshit was really comforting.”

“So then what?” asks Hannibal. With both hands he gently cradles Will’s head, deftly exploring it with his fingers then pressing harder until he’s touching the skull like someone attempting to chart it out: occipital bone, parietal bone, up along the jaw then straight across the forehead. “What did you do?”

“I escaped,” says Will with simple pride. “I told Andrew I was sorry for being so stubborn and that I’d finally realised what was best for me – and how much I looking forward to coming home and being bonded. The stupid bastard was so arrogant he fell for it immediately. But it meant he let his guard down, so when he left the hospital that evening I just got my stuff and walked straight out. I still had my car and a bit of money, and a friend from the police force agreed to sell my house for me and forward the money on. Then I headed up north. I’d already got a bit of a reputation for my work on the Richard Black case, then I eventually met Jack and ended up here. And honestly, I really started to think I might have got away with it. When he didn’t show up I began to hope he’d just lost interest and bought another omega to replace me. Only he didn’t: and now here he is again.”

“Indeed: here he is.”

“And I don’t know how to get rid of him,” adds Will with a flash of despair.

Hannibal, who knows exactly how – but likewise knows that Will isn’t ready to acknowledge it – gathers Will a little tighter into his arms and presses a kiss against his temple. “Thank you for being so open with me,” he says. “I understand how difficult it must be to talk about.”

“For all the good it’s done,” replies Will unhappily. “I told you before: there’s nothing you can do.”

“On the contrary,” says Hannibal with impressive self-restraint. “There are one or two things.”

“Like what?”

“Tell me,” says Hannibal, neatly dodging the issue, “why do you think The Sculptor case has attracted such enormous publicity?”

“You know why,” replies Will with barely concealed impatience. “It’s because he’s killing omegas.”

“Precisely: the choice of victims. Harming omegas is viewed extremely badly by other alphas.”

“Doesn’t stop them though, does it?”

“It does not; but it does stop them wanting it to be discovered. Believe me Will, the last thing this alpha of yours is going to want is the publicity of a court case. No matter how much he denies it, the mere implication that he’d hurt you would be disastrous for his reputation: and he knows it. It’s why he’s trying to scare you away from pursuing one.”

“Do you really think so?” says Will with a small glimmer of hope.

“I’m certain of it,” replies Hannibal firmly. “If he was confident about taking you to court he would have done it by now. This is like a game of poker and we must call his bluff. In the interim you need a letter from a good attorney that communicates in no uncertain terms the intention they have to,” Hannibal pauses very fractionally, “to dismantle him if he makes it as far as a court room. Elizabeth Lewis is one of the very best in these matters – I suggest contacting her as soon as possible.”

“The DC firm? I can’t possibly afford that.”

“No; which is why I propose to pay for it on your behalf. It’s only a loan,” adds Hannibal when Will opens his mouth to object. “If you insist on paying me back, although I really don’t expect you to, then you can organise it at your convenience at a later time. The main thing is sending him back where he came from as soon as possible. Then at some point in the future we can visit him together” – Hannibal smiles happily to himself at the thought of what such a visit would involve and kisses Will’s forehead again – “to guarantee that he won’t make a similar claim on a second occasion.”

“I don’t know,” says Will doubtfully. “I don’t think he’ll want to give up that easily.”

“That does not matter,” replies Hannibal in a distinctly chilling voice, “because I am not remotely interested in what he wants. It is a case of him doing what he’s told.”

“Well…” says Will, who still doesn’t sound very certain. “I guess it’s at least worth a try.”

“It’s a shame we don’t know exactly where he is,” sighs Hannibal. “We shall have to wait for him to come to you. When did you say you’re expecting him?”

“On Friday. He said he’d come to the office.”

“Then I will speak to him as well.”

“Yeah, that would be good. He was obviously scared of you.”

“Yes, but it seemed to me that he was wary of you as well. Not surprising given that injury on his face. An omega attacking an alpha…” Hannibal’s smile widens fractionally. “What a warrior you are.”

Will makes a non-committal noise in response then burrows a little further into Hannibal’s arms as sleep begins to irresistibly overtake him. “You’re tired aren’t you?” says Hannibal tenderly. “Get some rest. Nothing’s going to happen to you while I’m here.” Will makes another small noise and Hannibal runs his fingers over the soft wool of the sweater, trying to trace the curves of Will’s ribs and collar bones through the material. Will reacts almost voluptuously to the touch, stretching and arching like a cat, and Hannibal increases the pressure slightly until Will gives the faintest hint of a moan and lets his head tip back. “My love,” murmurs Hannibal, very low and gentle, then takes hold of Will’s hand in one of his own and leans over to kiss his forehead. In fact there’s now only a thin layer of grey fabric between Hannibal and complete gratification, but he prefers to wait. He could almost certainly take Will now if he wanted to – could have him in front of the fireplace without even taking the trouble of getting to the bedroom – but the balance is still too delicate, and he’s aware of the risks of moving too soon and ultimately frightening Will off for the long-term. And the long-term, undoubtedly, is very much what Hannibal has in mind. Neither does he have the slightest inclination for pressuring Will into anything, because not only is coercion ugly and vulgar, it has none of the charms of seducing Will into actively wanting it…and wanting a lot of other things as well.

Will, who’s now half asleep, makes a mournful sound when Hannibal gently lifts him up and lays him down again on the sofa. “What are you doing?” he says, his voice furry and indistinct from tiredness. “Don’t leave.”

“I’m not going to leave,” replies Hannibal, covering him up with the blanket. “I just want you to be comfortable. I’ll still be here when you wake up. I’ll wait for you.” Will sighs contentedly and Hannibal watches him for a while before reaching out to tuck a stray strand of hair behind his ear while his earlier words from the parking lot weave through his mind: Not that waiting is any particular virtue in itself – because anything truly worth having is worth waiting for.

*****

Will falls into a deep, dreamless sleep that feels like it ought to have gone on for several days and which, upon waking, he’s surprised to realise lasted a little less than an hour. Having virtually fallen asleep in Hannibal’s arms his sudden absence feels striking, and Will has a surge of bleakness at the idea that he’s gone home before rolling onto his side and realising that he’s sat on the chair opposite: poised and watchful and staring straight at Will with eyes that are gleaming faintly crimson in the firelight.

“Ugh, you startled me,” says Will. He rubs his hand across his face then pauses and peers at Hannibal from over the top of his fingers. “Seriously, don’t do that: it’s so creepy.”

“I apologise,” replies Hannibal, despite not sounding remotely sorry at all. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Will makes a grunting noise in acknowledgement then rolls onto his back again, yawning and stretching before getting uncertainly to his feet and staggering off to the kitchen to hunt for coffee. To his surprise Hannibal immediately gets up and follows him; then proceeds to not only insist on preparing it himself (in addition to the most elaborate possible sandwiches that the paltry contents of Will’s cupboards can be persuaded to provide), but then carries everything back to the living room on a tray (which makes Will want to cackle because it makes him look like a butler) before sitting next to him on the sofa and tenderly stroking Will’s back and shoulders or even, on occasion, attempting to ruffle his hair. And when he’s not doing that then he’s gazing straight at Will with an expression of intense fondness that seems only a few steps away from fluttering his eyelashes. In fact his behaviour, affectionate enough before Will went to sleep, seems to have temporarily shifted in that moment to become downright devoted.

“Why are you so loved-up all of sudden?” says Will grumpily, despite secretly liking it. “Have you been at the wine?”

“Not at all,” replies Hannibal with a faint smirk. “Something infinitely better.”

“Are you hormonal?”

“I am not. I’m merely engaged in thinking about the future – and how much more pleasant everything’s going to be once this alpha of yours is out of the way.”

“Okay then,” says Will, who can’t quite summon up the same level of optimism. “Whatever.” Then he chews absent-mindedly on the sandwich and smiles at the sight of the dogs dozing by the fire in a contended furry heap before allowing his eyes to vaguely drift around the room – only to promptly slow them down and back them up when they reach the desk.

Oh,” says Will before he can stop himself. “I didn’t realise I’d left that out.”

“What?”

“That’s my journal.” Hannibal’s eyes politely swivel in its direction and Will swallows audibly. “You – you didn’t…did you?”

Hannibal’s eyes swivel back to Will again. “You mean did I read it?” he says, and Will can feel himself starting to blush at the bluntness of the accusation, despite the fact that this is exactly what he was trying to ask. “Of course not,” adds Hannibal calmly, as his features compose themselves into their most serenely innocent expression. Look at my FACE, the expression clearly says; would this face LIE to you? Hannibal catches Will’s eyes and smiles again before rearranging his long limbs around the sofa like a large jungle cat basking in the bough of a tree. “Reading your private journal would be incredibly inappropriate.”

“Right. Yeah.” Will shuffles uncomfortably then darts another look at Hannibal, who promptly repeats another variation of the ‘Would this face lie to you?’ expression. “Are you sure you didn’t…?”

“Will,” says Hannibal, with extreme sincerity. “Do you really think I would do something so invasive?”

“N-o-o-o,” says Will cautiously. “It’s just that…”

“What?”

“Well…you’re in such a good mood.”

“Why would my mood have any bearing on the contents of your journal?”

Checkmate, thinks Will gloomily. “No reason.”

“Have you written something flattering about me inside?” asks Hannibal, radiating innocence.

No. Of course not.”

“Then why…”

“Oh look, forget it,” snaps Will. “It doesn’t matter.” Getting to his feet he goes to the desk, stashing the journal in the bottom drawer and determinedly locking it in, before heading over to the window and gazing out into the darkness in a rather aimless sort of way.

“What’s wrong Will?” asks Hannibal in the same calm voice.

“Nothing.”

“Something clearly is; several things in fact. Although at least you didn’t insist on telling me how fine you are so I’m prepared to be more forgiving on this occasion.”

Will smiles slightly then shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again without turning round from the window. “No,” he eventually replies. “I’m not fine, but I’m still a lot better than I was so – yeah. I can settle for that.”

“Your ambitions for your own wellbeing are somewhat modest,” says Hannibal serenely. “We’re going to have to do something about that.”

“Hmmm.”

“How are you physically? Still…uncomfortable.”

“Yeah, a bit. Those tablets helped.”

“Can I do anything for you?” Will shrugs and repeats the shuffling movement of his feet. “Would you like me to gentle you again?”

“No,” says Will warily. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not? Are you cautious about being touched?”

“Oh for God’s sake,” snaps Will with obvious impatience. “Why do you always say things like that? Why can’t you just take no for an answer?”

“Because I know how hard you find it to ask for what you need,” replies Hannibal, not sounding remotely perturbed. Will scowls with impatience then renews the restless shuffling movement of his feet before resting his forehead against the windowpane. “Will,” says Hannibal gently. “Come here.”

“No. I don’t want to.”

“At least try it. I admit it’s not particularly gratifying to reduce myself to a set of pheromones, but I think the presence of an alpha might help you relax. And if I truly can’t compete with the window there’s nothing to stop you going back to it again.”

Will performs the shuffling movement for a fourth time – by which point he feels it’s virtually developed into a kind of tap routine – then wavers for a few more seconds until Hannibal purrs “Come here to me, Will,” in a tone that’s so incredibly amatory and suggestive it should come with an age-restriction warning. In fact the sound is almost irresistibly enticing, and Will shoots Hannibal a rather helpless look that’s intended to convey his resentment of it (You crafty bastard – that’s such an underhand move) which Hannibal returns with a few slow blinks (Indeed it is – sue me) before he finally gives in and launches himself across the room towards the sofa so he can cautiously perch on the side of it. “Very good,” says Hannibal approvingly, “although I still think the arrangement can be improved upon.” He moves himself round until he’s positioned lengthways with his legs stretched out then pulls Will down so he’s lying face-up on top him with his back against Hannibal’s chest. “There,” says Hannibal. “Much better.”

“Maybe for you. Your hipbones are digging into me. And your ribs. It’s like lying on coat-hangers.”

“Although I don’t suppose you want me to lie on you instead?”

“No,” says Will, adjusting himself so his head is tucked beneath Hannibal’s chin. “I bet you weigh a ton.”

“Indeed,” replies Hannibal. “It’s lucky for me that you’re so physically…insubstantial.”

“I am not insubstantial.”

“Flimsy?”

“Oh shut up,” says Will. He readjusts himself again to get more comfortable then lets Hannibal take hold of his hands so their fingers can tangle together. “Even by omega standards I’m not small.”

“No, dearest; you are just not entirely large.”

“Hilarious aren’t you?” says Will, whose voice is now rather muffled from where he’s buried his face against Hannibal’s neck. “I suppose that means you think you are? You don’t need to sound so smug about it by the way: technically that means I’m the brains of the operation and you’re just the muscle.”

“I can live with that,” says Hannibal, repositioning himself too so that Will can have more room. “There, how does that feel?”

“S’okay,” replies Will. “I guess.”

“It’s a shame your sofa isn’t a little wider. It’s nearly enough for two people, but not entirely.”

Will opens his mouth to say ‘We should go to bed instead’ then immediately closes it again, because even sharing a bed platonically feels like a step too far and the idea excites yet unnerves him. Instead he closes his eyes as Hannibal levers his hands up so he can rub Will’s shoulders. The position is such that it must be uncomfortable, but it feels so soothing that Will allows self-interest to override consideration and ignores his instinct to tell Hannibal to stop if he wants. “You like that don’t you,” says Hannibal fondly. “You’ve gone so soft and pliant. No resistance at all.”

“Hmmm. It’s nice.”

“And you were so opposed; you would have chosen the window as your companion if I’d let you.” Will sighs without bothering to reply and Hannibal continues the rhythmic stroking motion for a little longer, occasionally letting his fingers dip beneath the collar of Will’s sweater. “So are you going to tell me why?”

“Why what?”

“Why the reluctance? Was I correct when I said you were wary of being touched?”

“I guess.”

“You guess, do you? I suspect you know – although I won’t force you to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“You couldn’t force me, genius – not if I didn’t want to. Anyway you partly guessed at it before.”

“Your dislike of intimacy?”

“Yeah...at least partly.”

“Because of how empathetic you are,” says Hannibal thoughtfully. “Although I suspect it’s more than just that: it’s your fear of losing control. Am I right?”

“Yes,” says Will unhappily.

“I understand,” replies Hannibal in the same soft voice. “Just like the way I want to know you better myself, despite the fact it hurts us both. And how it hurts. Doesn’t it Will? Closeness to another person can do that; it requires a level of discomfort, even of pain. All the different heights and depths of intimacy – the intellectual, the emotional, the physical. The unwelcome insights it can bring, the way the Other reflects back oneself. And how uncontainable and overwhelming it can feel: surrendering control and suffering the loss of self-deception.” Hannibal leans forward again – slow, measured and very slightly menacing – and begins to trace his lips against Will’s face, interspersing the hint of feather-light kisses with the continuingly crooning words. “One day we might do that Will – relinquish our control together, like a leap of faith from the same precipice. The same plunge into the same abyss at exactly the same time. Would you like that?”

“I’m not sure,” says Will slowly, aware in spite of himself that a darkly double meaning is weaving and darting through the words. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, it’s too soon to say isn’t it? You’re so protective of yourself Will, even though you have no idea of your true value. Not that it matters: didn’t I tell you I was prepared to wait for you? Just as you’re waiting for yourself.” Will sighs again and Hannibal raises a hand to stroke the side of his face before resuming the massage along his shoulders. “Forget about the future,” says Hannibal, “the present is more than enough.”

“Hmm.”

“So how are you feeling now?”

Will thinks for a few seconds before answering, once again picking over the bones of the evening and how exposed he feels. “Humiliated,” he finally says.

“Still? And yet you know you didn’t do anything wrong. Do you think those alphas are feeling ashamed of what they did?”

“No,” admits Will, who hadn’t really considered this.

“No, of course they won’t be.” Will shrugs without replying and Hannibal slowly begins to increase the pressure on his shoulders. “So much self-reproach,” he adds softly. “Do you know how I sometimes work with patients who experience large amounts of shame? I encourage them to experiment in taking pride in what they are ashamed of. You’re ashamed of being an omega, so I want you to try and feel pride in your body. Your mind. Your…impulses.”

“Later,” says Will irritably. “Turn it off for once, can’t you? Stop trying to analyse me.”

“Why? Are you still tired?”

“Yeah, exhausted,” replies Will, who’s suddenly feeling sorry for himself. “I’m wrecked. And everything hurts: my head, my stomach, my shoulders.” He pauses, trying to decide what else deserves including in this catalogue of woes. “My skin is prickling; even my clothes hurt.”

“Do they?” says Hannibal calmly. He lets his fingers dip beneath Will’s collar again then leans forward to brush his lips against his temple. “Then why not take them off?”

Will goes extremely still for a few seconds as his breath catches into a sharp little oh sound. “I can’t do that,” he finally says in a tight, flat voice. “You know I can’t.”

“Why not beloved?...Have you lost the use of your hands?”

“Don’t be so stupid,” says Will, his voice rising slightly with agitation. “I can’t do that with you here. It would be weird.”

“It would,” purrs Hannibal sliding his own hands down so he can take hold of Will’s and manoeuvre them towards the edge of his sweater. “It would be a very strange thing to do.” Will shifts nervously and Hannibal, who’s well aware of how striking his voice can seem to native English speakers (and has always exploited this to full effect) does it now by deliberately rolling the vowels and adding a smoky inflection to the timbre that’s not usually there. Will flushes rather beautifully in response but still makes no attempt to move away, instead closing his eyes and allowing Hannibal to puppeteer his hands into pulling the sweater up and then over his head in a way that, despite his overwrought state, is still surprisingly graceful. Hannibal sighs with admiration and reverently strokes his palms over Will’s shoulders and along his ribs. “Just stay like this for a few moments,” he adds. “I want to look at you.” Will makes a breathy gasping noise and Hannibal trails his hands downward and strokes along Will’s abdomen, enjoying the way it makes him tremble. “Perfect,” he says softly, brushing his lips against Will’s forehead a little harder than before. “Doesn’t that feel better?” Will nods, arching up into the touch, and Hannibal leans even closer and murmurs: “Now…take off everything else.”

Will lets his breath out from where he’s been holding it then gives a rather crooked smile and pulls himself upright. “Take off everything else,” he repeats, in a good approximation of Hannibal’s accent. “Have you even heard yourself? You’re so authoritative.”

“Yes,” replies Hannibal with a slow smile. “I dare say.”

“I was right anyway,” adds Will. “This is weird.”

“Indeed it is: positively bizarre.”

“Inappropriate.”

“Outrageous, in fact,” says Hannibal, kissing the side of Will’s throat before taking hold of his hands again and guiding them down towards his belt. “A shame and a scandal.”

Will quivers again and makes a small sighing sound, although still remains defiant enough to knock Hannibal’s hands away so he can finish undressing himself without any help before flopping backwards so he’s lying down and Hannibal can lean over him. The clothing disparity is obviously making him uncomfortable, and while he doesn’t seem to want to go so far as to demand Hannibal undress as well, he still fidgets warily and tries to position his arms to cover himself. “Don’t,” says Hannibal firmly. Taking hold of Will’s hands he moves them up so his arms are stretched behind his head then grips onto his wrists to keep them there. “So beautiful Will: let me look at you.”

Will briefly catches Hannibal’s eye before blushing and abruptly turning away again: by now far too numb and enthralled to react and finding it impossible to process how he’s able to feel so vulnerable and desperate, and so dazzled and so overpowered, flushed yet shivering, trembling with strain while kinetic with need…and so very unwilling to stop even though he knows he possibly should. In fact it’s hardly feasible that this can be happening at all, and he has a brief, surreal image of himself from only a few hours ago: talking with Jack, traipsing across the wasteland in the glare of the ambulance lights…or even alone at home, pouring out his innermost thoughts to the Dear You of the journal. It’s like a different lifetime ago now, and he wonders what that version of himself would say if they could see him like this, and whether they’d be impressed at his daring, or horrified at his recklessness…or whether that person even really exists anymore, because surely they can’t survive a situation like this one. And isn’t that another impossibility; that he can ever be the same after what’s about to happen? That he would even want to be? Everything's shifted: everything.

In fact Will is visibly nervous now, clearly starting to panic at being in such an unexpected and vulnerable position; and while his hasty attempt to collect himself and appear casual and unconcerned would be convincing enough to persuade a lot of people – perhaps even most people – Hannibal is not remotely deceived and can immediately tell that Will is feeling wary and self-conscious (and trying desperately not to show it) so leans over him again and gently strokes his face to try and settle and soothe him into calmness. The strategy is instantly effective and Will sighs happily, obviously unused to being the subject of such tender and highly focussed regard, as Hannibal presses their foreheads together then cradles Will in his arms so he can inspect his prize in loving detail. In fact even in his most detailed imaginings the reality is far more perfect than he’d hoped it could be, with Will’s delicate bones and willowy limbs having something of the medieval frescos about them – grimly haunted glamour, exquisite pain and heavenly suffering – while his coils of hair and large luminous eyes are pure pre-Raphaelite and belong to the more enticing, sensuous spheres of bliss and decadence. Art for art’s sake, thinks Hannibal reverently, tracing a finger along Will’s throat so he can feel the way his pulse is fluttering. If The Gods were real – although not the Abrahamic Gods of stolid severity and morality, but rather the Hellenic Gods of Ancient Greece and Rome with their divine passion and dazzling violence – then Will would undoubtedly be their masterpiece.

In fact Will is totally motionless now, eyes closed and long feathery eyelashes sweeping down his cheeks, although whether it’s tranquillity or overwhelm that’s causing it is hard to say. But he’s so pale and still he might almost be asleep. The sleep from which one never wakes…he might almost be dead. A serenely lifeless object of devotion: like a statue that’s been chiselled by an expert hand with infinite love and patience then displayed in a courtyard so the marble feels warm and sun-kissed beneath the fingertips and gives it the illusion of life. Hannibal frowns at the thought of it then leans forward and tenderly kisses Will to wake him up – to gently breath the life back into him – and Will makes a soft gasping noise then reaches out a hand which Hannibal takes hold of so he can entwine their fingers together; pressing light kisses against Will’s forehead and eyelids, calling him “Dearest” and “My darling,” telling him how beautiful he is, how wanted, and how good it’s going to feel. It’s rather like trying to win the confidence of something wild and wary – at which point Will suspects he’s being patronised and grows irritable and offended; so Hannibal just smiles and kisses him again, even more gently than before, while mentally surveying and appraising the various options for how best to proceed. In this respect actual sex seems ill-advised, partly because Will doesn’t look physically able to cope with it after all the medication, but also – which is almost more important – isn’t emotionally prepared to deal with the implications. Considering his heat is going to happen before too long anyway, waiting is obviously preferable…and yet it’s impossible not to touch him at all. Hannibal sighs to himself and begins to trace a finger along the hollow at the base of Will’s throat, overcome with an unfamiliar sense of ownership, but also of obligation: that Will is his possession to influence, control and manoeuvre; but also his responsibility to cultivate, protect and take care of. Just…his. Then he gathers Will closer against him, pressing his lips against his forehead with a powerful surge of protective tenderness, and Will gives another contented sigh and leans appreciatively into the touch.

There’s also the unavoidable problem that the sofa isn’t big enough for what he has in mind, so on an impulse Hannibal scoops Will into his arms and pushes the dogs out the way so he can lay him down in front of the fireplace instead where he’ll be warm and comfortable. Will makes a surprised noise at the abruptness of it but doesn’t make any attempt to pull free, and the fact he’s being so docile makes Hannibal aware of the undeniable charge of being able to demonstrate dominance and physical strength through being able to pick Will up and position him how he wants him. Even though he knows it’s only because Will’s so tired and overwhelmed the pliancy is still rather addictive and he places a possessive hand on the back of Will’s neck, imagining what he’s going to be like when in the ecstasies of a full-blown heat: on his knees with his legs spread, slim thighs glistening with slick, and utterly desperate to take whatever it is his alpha is going to give him. And yet he’ll be so fiery and agile too…ferociously and passionately aggressive, attacking Hannibal simply because he can and, at least initially, almost impossible to control. In fact the image is so intoxicating that Hannibal falls quiet for a few seconds to give it his full and rapt attention, only stowing it away again when Will demands, with obvious impatience: “Why won’t you kiss me properly?”

Hannibal smiles at this then cups Will’s face with his palm. “Because I want to look at you,” he replies truthfully. “And to watch your expression when you’re being touched. You’re so responsive; it’s rather beautiful. I can’t even imagine what you must be like when you’re in heat.” Will closes his eyes, obviously uncomfortable at the implications of this, then wraps his arms round Hannibal’s neck and knots his fingers in his hair; tugging it at intervals rather than replying. “It’s all right,” says Hannibal softly. “I know you don’t like the idea of losing control. I need to go slowly with you don’t I?”

“What about you?” says Will, twisting Hannibal’s hair even harder. “You’re holding yourself back too, I can tell.”

“Perhaps I am.” Hannibal leans in closer, curling his palm round Will’s neck again so he can hold his head still. “Would you like to see me lose control Will – leave you afterwards trembling and empty and aching because I’ve taken you so hard?”

Will’s breath hitches and Hannibal leans in even closer, blatantly smelling his skin from jaw to collarbone in what’s an unmistakable gesture of ownership. “You might have bruises on you afterwards,” he says softly. “Little mementos all over your neck and thighs as a testimony to my lack of control; you’re so pale they’d stand out like amethysts in the snow. I’d make you press your fingers over them the next day, just enough to hurt – remembering all the pleasure and passion which placed them there.”         

“Don’t patronise me,” murmurs Will. He lifts up his hips, whining slightly at way he can feel his cock starting to twitch against his stomach and how hot and heavy it feels. Hannibal, seeing it too, catches his breath. “You think you’re lowering yourself to give up your control, don’t you Dr Lecter? Well you’re not giving up anything – I’m taking it.”

“I know you are beloved,” says Hannibal, struck by both the undeniable truth of the statement as well as the astuteness within Will that’s able to notice and articulate it. “You overpower me completely when you’re like this. All my sense and reason abandons me and instinct takes over. All I can think is: look at this beautiful little omega. He’s so excited. He needs me to take care of him.”

“No I don’t,” snaps Will, defiant even when delirious.

“Yes you do,” replies Hannibal calmly, tangling his fingers in Will’s hair and tugging very gently while beginning to run the other hand across his torso. The touch is exploratory yet worshipful, paying careful attention to each plane of bone and curve of muscle, and the way his hand dips lower each time makes Will quiver and arch his back while unwittingly letting his legs fall further apart. “You want me to touch you and start exploring your body,” adds Hannibal caressingly. “Here for example.” Reaching down, he trails a finger along the outer edge of Will’s thigh. “Look how strong your legs are: evolved for running fast away from predators – although in your case you’re more likely to be running towards them. Or here; the definition of the muscles.” Will’s breath hitches as he feels Hannibal’s hands begin to move once more, briefly trailing along his ribs before skimming across his chest and then finally trailing down again so Hannibal can dip his thumbs into the hollow of Will’s hipbones. “How perfectly constructed you are Will,” says Hannibal, almost thoughtfully. “Your anatomy is exquisite. The length of bone and slenderness of limb; the firmness of muscle tone balanced by all these smoother contours. The softness of your skin…the sheer aesthetics of you. You have such a frail façade but look how strong and wiry you are. You are a true canon of artistic proportions. Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio: Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Imagine my private rapture if you’d first come to me in a personal capacity rather than a professional one. How should I have been able to control myself?”

Will gasps out loud, helplessly aware of how he’s arching his entire body against Hannibal’s while feverishly trying to cling onto him so he can writhe in his arms: and when Hannibal finally bends down to kiss him Will can hear himself gasping “Oh yes…yes,” in a frantic, urgent voice that he doesn’t entirely recognise before their mouths crash together and Will tastes a faint coppery tang from where his lip has caught against Hannibal’s teeth. His head is being pulled back now, roughly tugged by the hair to expose his throat, and he wants to care about that but can’t because, oh God, he’s dying for it – desperate and derailed by desire – even though it’s unnerving because it’s so intense. Too primal; too primitive: the kind of mindless longing that he associates with being in heat whereby sense and reason are disregarded then distilled into an insatiable survivalist urgency to be claimed, consumed and owned. Enslaved to physical instinct…And the realisation of this is so unsettling that it makes him struggle against it, starting to panic again and pulling away.

“It’s all right, little wild thing,” murmurs Hannibal in a languid, sensuous tone that goes straight to Will’s groin. “Don’t be afraid.” He wraps one arm around Will’s back, just beneath his shoulders then strokes his hair with the other hand. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know you’re not; I won’t let you.”

Hannibal smiles faintly at this then leans even further forward so his face is directly above Will’s. “There’s no rush,” he says softly. “We have all the time we need. Just – slowly.”

“Y-e-s,” replies Will, whose eyes are still closed.

“Naturally yes. You’re not simply going to accept me into your bed are you? You expect me to prove myself first; to do something to earn your trust. And why shouldn’t you? You’re right to make us all compete for you – to demonstrate that we’re good enough.”

Will snaps his eyes open but still refuses to reply, and for a few seconds there’s nothing to hear at all except the crackling of the fire and the slight panting sound of his breathing. “Your heart’s beating so fast,” says Hannibal, pressing his fingers against Will’s chest before skimming his lips against the same spot. “You’re a courageous boy aren’t you? See how wary and unsure you are – yet here you stay. It’s impressive Will. Fearlessness might be a gift of nature and temperament but true courage is not the absence of fear, but feeling afraid and persisting regardless.” Wrapping both arms round Will he pulls him close before adding in a softer voice: “Fear is not a reason to cease and desist; it is the inspiration to strike out. And you have the most exquisite grace under pressure.”

Will closes his eyes again. “Have I though?” he says sardonically.

“Of course you have: native, natural grace. And beauty. And darkness. You conceal it so well don’t you, Will Graham…but you know that I can still see you.”

Will makes a small whining noise at this, aware once more of the irresistible double meaning, and Hannibal kisses his throat then hauls them both upright until he’s sat with his back resting against the side of the chair and he can tug Will into his lap. “I’m not going to touch you at all…yet,” says Hannibal softly. “But you can touch yourself can’t you? Run your hands over your body – show me what you like. You’re so aroused, I know you want to; and I want to see it. I would like to watch you. Would you do that for me?”

Will’s breath hitches again, although he makes no move to obey and instead goes still and winds his arms back so he can resume tugging on Hannibal’s hair. “You don’t want to, do you?” says Hannibal tenderly after a few seconds of silence. “You’re feeling too self-conscious. Or perhaps that’s not it at all – perhaps you just want to deny me the satisfaction? Is that it Will; do you expect me to put more effort into persuading you?”

“Yes,” says Will. His tone sounds defiant – rebellious even – despite the fact his breath has sped up and he’s started to quiver from a heady combination of longing and overwhelm. “That’s exactly what I expect.”

“What an exquisite challenge,” sighs Hannibal, straight into Will’s ear. “So that’s my task? To bring you to the point you’re so full of desire you’ll find it impossible not to do what I asked for. Very well. Where should I begin do you think?” He trails his hand up Will’s chest and along his throat and jaw then begins to stroke his lower lip until Will makes a small whining noise and opens his mouth so he can suck Hannibal’s fingers. “Is that what you’d like my love?” says Hannibal caressingly. “Would you like to feel my fingers inside you?” With his other hand he skims along Will’s ribs and along his waist, finally coming to a halt against his hipbone. “Tell me how many do you prefer – what gives you most pleasure?”

Will screws his eyes closed and lets his head fall further back against Hannibal’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” he says breathlessly. “Two, I think…I don’t know.”

“Two, you think; but you don’t know? Then I suppose we should try and find out.” Hannibal brushes his mouth against Will’s jaw – soft press of lips; the barest hint of teeth – then runs his palms back up along Will’s chest so he can rub slow circles over his nipples until Will starts to gasp and arch his spine. “Do you like the idea of that Will?” says Hannibal softly. “Does it excite you?” Sliding his hands down he begins to dig his thumbs into the hollow of Will’s hipbones before moving back to his nipples once more, sighing with pleasure at the way they stiffen beneath his fingertips. Will gives a long low moan and Hannibal murmurs appreciatively at the sound of it then runs his tongue along Will’s lower lip. “What do you think would happen if I did it,” he says softly. “If I put my hand between your legs right now? Would you be wet for me? It would be simpler if you were – I could explore you so easily that way, my fingers would just slide straight in. But it doesn’t matter if you’re not, my darling; it just means that I’d need to take my time. I’d have to persuade your body to relax and let me in.” Moving forward he rubs his face against Will’s gently nuzzling him combined with the occasional light scrape of teeth. “Do you think you’d enjoy that Will? Would you like me to try?”

“Oh God,” gasps Will. “Yes – yes. I want that. I want you to.” Even though Hannibal is fully clothed he can still feel the hot, thick line of his cock pressing against his spine and it’s making him so aroused he could nearly scream with it: a heady sense of strained trembling anticipation, despite not wanting actual sex so soon after taking the suppressants. And yet, oh God, the idea

“Move up a little then,” says Hannibal softly. “Up here; rest your head on my shoulder again. Good boy. Now spread your legs.”

Will makes another whining noise and Hannibal returns his hands to his hips, noting with pleasure how sweetly and snugly the small curves of bone slot into his palm as he curls his fingers round them. Bending his head again he kisses Will, much slower and gentler this time as Will gives a low, breathy sigh and pushes up against him. “Look at you,” says Hannibal tenderly. “So needy and beautiful. How long do you think you could last like this?”

“I don’t…God,” says Will, rather desperately. Hannibal’s hands are playing him like an instrument now – just the lightest, most delicate touch across his ribs and chest.

“No, don’t close your eyes,” adds Hannibal, soft but firm. “Keep them open. I want to watch you while I’m doing this.” With one hand he cradles Will’s head, staring intently into his face as his other hand finally, finally trails downward; although still determinedly ignoring Will’s cock, which is almost painful from lack of attention and lying hard and wet against his abdomen from where he’s started leaking all over himself. In fact the awareness of it makes Will feel self-conscious, almost like urinating in public, because it’s so rare for omegas to do it unless extremely aroused and is the type of thing alphas tend to mock and patronise on the basis that omegas aren’t designed to do the penetration so pre-come is of no practical use. It’s so cute the way they do that, he’s heard alphas say, as if it’s something adorable yet ridiculous. Hannibal, on the other hand, gives no sign of finding it ridiculous; instead letting out a low sigh of satisfaction before running a finger through the glistening trail on Will’s stomach and gently pushing it against Will’s lips as an invitation to open his mouth. In fact he’s half expecting Will to refuse, so is surprised yet delighted at the ecstatic way he sucks on Hannibal’s fingers, swirling his tongue across them as if they’re something delectable and moaning slightly when he realises he can taste himself.

“That’s it,” murmurs Hannibal. “Good boy. You look beautiful doing that – I wish you could see yourself.” Will moans louder in response, and Hannibal strokes his jaw with his thumb while reflecting on what a stunningly sensuous nature he clearly has. And how incredibly satisfying it is that Hannibal’s going to be the one to cultivate it; not least because the idea of his Will being in hands that are any less adoring or competent than his own (or indeed, any other hands at all) is completely intolerable. In fact Will’s now arching his back to the point of discomfort, rolling his hips and giving little quivers of anticipation and Hannibal kisses his forehead then glides his hands back down his chest. “I’m sorry my love,” he says. “I’m neglecting you aren’t I? And yet you’re being so wonderfully stubborn – still refusing to do what I asked you.” Resting his palms on Will’s thighs he begins to trace small circles against the skin. “You expect me to work harder to persuade you; yet at the same time you want me to touch you myself. Are you going to beg me Will? I’d like to see you beg. You’d do it so beautifully it would be impossible to resist you.”

Will groans again and unconsciously spreads his legs, desperately trying to give Hannibal access to where he needs attention the most. Hannibal makes an approving noise at the sight of it then knocks them even further apart: rather more roughly than intended, and not for any real purpose beyond wanting to see Will look as vulnerable and as debauched as possible. “Let me hear you Will,” he says softly. “Show me you want it.”

“God yes, yes…I want it.”

“That’s good my love. Now tell me how much.”

“So much. Oh God, just…just do it.”

“Spread yourself open for me first – use both your hands.” Will groans then complies, pushing his cheeks apart with hands that had started to tremble slightly. He’s now so wet with slick that his thighs look as if they’ve been rubbed with oil and Hannibal’s breath hitches again at the sight of. “That’s right,” he says softly. “That’s perfect. Look at you. How long has it been since you wanted it like this?”

“Never,” gasps Will, finally letting his guard down and abandoning any attempt at restraint. “Never…only with you.”

Hannibal gives a sigh so low it’s almost a hiss then roughly searches out Will’s mouth again while dipping his hand further down, briefly pausing to caress Will’s thighs and taut flat stomach, before finally moving between his legs so he can begin to massage his hole with the pad of one finger. The effect is immediate, and Will cries out into Hannibal’s mouth over and over again before going totally rigid as a visible ripple of pleasure runs through his entire body. Hannibal makes a soothing noise to try and calm him down, although as a task it’s increasingly difficult because of how his own sense of control is rapidly beginning to slip. His boy feels so luscious now, so ready: sweet and slick, unfeasibly responsive, and sufficiently flushed and fervid that if a mirror were held above his body it would surely mist over as if touched by warm breath. He can’t see him properly from this angle, although it’s easy to imagine the incredible sight of Will’s lovely, needy hole being breached. It’ll be so little and beautiful: tight, wet, the perfect pale pink shade of an unbonded omega, and – most importantly of all – soon destined to be filled up with his knot. Hannibal makes a low growling noise at the thought of it then drags his teeth against the side of Will’s throat. The pressure is hard enough to graze the delicate skin there; and Will whines as Hannibal gives the marks a tender lick of apology before promptly resuming the relentless scrape of teeth all over again.

“Oh God, it feels so good,” says Will. He sounds slightly shocked, almost panicked. “Oh, I like that, I like it.”

“I know you do,” purrs Hannibal. “My beautiful boy.” Pressing rapturous kisses against any part of Will’s face he can reach, he waits until Will’s breath has quickened even further before adding a second finger to the first and increasing the pressure. “No, don’t hold back,” he adds, seeing the way Will is biting his lip to try and stifle the sounds he’s making. “I like seeing you lose control. I adore it. You have no idea.”

“Oh God. Hannibal…”

“Is this what you’ve wanted all this time, beloved; my fingers exploring you in such a private place? You only had to ask. You know I’d give you whatever you wanted.”

“I want more,” gasps Will, who’s no longer even fully aware of what he’s saying. “I want them inside me...please.

“I know,” replies Hannibal, beginning to rub the side of his face against Will’s. “Patience. You’re going to take it so beautifully aren’t you? I can already tell.”

Will makes a helpless keening noise: arching his back as his voice goes high and young and the realisation of how much he needs this hits him with the same force as a stinging slap to the face. The way he’s being caressed is almost unfeasibly good – the warm tips of Hannibal’s fingers moving back and forwards in delicate strokes – and he can feel the way the initial tightness of the muscle is eagerly yielding to such gentle yet firmly persistent pressure as the fingers hover just shy of pressing in. His hair is damp with sweat now as his entire focus shrinks and constricts to the intensity of the sensation, and when Hannibal slowly pushes the tip of a finger inside him he loses control completely: crying out and then shuddering so hard Hannibal has to wrap his free arm around his chest to keep him upright.

“You’re so ready beloved,” murmurs Hannibal, almost breathless with admiration. Withdrawing the fingertip entirely, he begins to stroke around the rim again in a devastatingly teasing move that’s enough to make Will shatter into bright-edged fragments of raw desire. “So ready. I think you could take a full knot when you’re like this. You wouldn’t need any preparation at all.” Will whines in response and Hannibal lowers his head again, pushing his tongue deep into Will’s mouth at the exact same moment he slides his entire finger into Will’s slippery slick-smooth hole. Will’s head immediately snaps back, spine curving and hips jolting as Hannibal kisses his throat and begins to work in a second finger. “That’s it,” he says softly, using his free hand to smooth Will’s damp hair out his eyes. “Take it Will. You want it don’t you? Take it deeper.”

“Oh God, oh fuck,” gasps Will, sounding almost panicked. “I’m…oh God. Oh God, I’m going to come. I’m coming, I’m…oh God, Hannibal…”

“Beautiful,” says Hannibal, shifting backwards so he can give Will even more room to arch against his chest. “You like that don’t you my darling? You like it so much. Show me if you like this too?” Sighing reverently at the way his boy is so responsive and perfect, he presses down with his thumb just above where his fingers are thrusting into Will’s body – then watches with breathless delight when Will gives a long low moan as his cock twitches against his stomach and he comes all over himself in a series of hot wet pulses.

Beloved,” murmurs Hannibal, beginning to press ecstatic kisses against Will’s face. “Look at you…if you had any idea.” Will gasps out something unintelligible and Hannibal roughly tugs his head back by the hair so he can press his teeth against the side of his throat. “You’re perfect,” says Hannibal, his voice soft and intense. “You didn’t even know, did you? Didn’t know your body could feel like this. I told you you should be proud of it.” Lightly gripping Will by the neck he lets his other hand start to slowly trail downwards again. “It’s never felt like this before has it? Not with anyone else; no one except me.”

Will makes another helpless gasping noise and shakes his head as Hannibal tightens his grip on the back of his neck: his face, pressing against the side of Will’s, looks vaguely infernal by the flickering light of the fire. “No one except me,” he repeats, and this time his voice sounds as if it’s smouldering as darkly as the flames are. “Say it.”

“No one except you. Oh God. God…it’s so…”

“…So good,” says Hannibal, beginning to circle Will’s nipples again with the edge of his thumb. “I want you to do that again for me beloved. My beautiful boy: do you think you could? Are you going to try?” Will gives a series of breathy moans, seemingly past the point of coherent speech, and Hannibal begins to dip his hand even lower still. “That’s very good Will,” he says softly. “I don’t want you to think anymore; I want you to let all the noise in your head go quiet and allow your instincts to take over. Now spread your legs again. No – wider. Just like that; that’s perfect.”

Will screws his eyes closed and obeys; groaning loudly as he feels a broad thumb slide deep inside him before being replaced by a finger, and then two, which rub in exquisitely deliberate circles. He feels as if he’s slipping away from himself now and the main thing he’s really aware of is whiteness: spectral white noise filling his head, white hot heat in his body, white light sparking in front of his eyes. It’s like being wrapped in a cloud – the kind that’s heavy with heat and electricity before lightning sparks from the edges and sets the sky on fire. Gasping again he reaches up so he can wrap his arm round the back of Hannibal’s neck, strongly aware of an enclosing sense of safety that means no matter how hard he pushes back, he won’t be allowed to fall.

“Yes?” murmurs Hannibal, kissing Will’s temple.

“Yes. Yes.”

“Look at that,” adds Hannibal, beginning to move his hand a little faster. “You’re soaking wet. You’re loving this aren’t you? Displaying yourself to me; flaunting your beauty. Showing how desirable and unique you are.”

“No,” says Will, whose breath is coming out in a series of desperate pants. The pressure from Hannibal’s teeth seems to be all over his skin at intervals now, even though he’s not actually being bitten. “It’s not…I…oh God.”

“I don’t blame you,” replies Hannibal caressingly. He begins to thrust his fingers even harder, sighing with pleasure at how easily they glide in, and Will clenches round him rather beautifully just as Hannibal murmurs “Good boy” at the way he’s whining and rocking his hips, desperate to get the pressure as deep as possible. “No, I don’t blame you at all,” adds Hannibal. “Why shouldn’t you revel in it? You know how much power my desire for you gives you over me.” He withdraws his hand nearly all the way and lingers a few seconds before pushing back in – pushing in deep – and Will moans even louder and thrusts his hips against the long slide of Hannibal’s fingers. “You’re powerful in numerous ways of course, but they all require such effort – don’t they Will? This requires nothing more than simply lying back and looking beautiful, then watching while I fall at your feet.”

Will gives another long, low moan then abruptly moves his right hand from where he’s clinging onto Hannibal’s hair and begins to trail it downwards across his chest. He’s feverishly hot and his palm slides easily over smooth sweat-slick skin before pausing for a few seconds as Hannibal tugs his head back so he can lick into his mouth. Will whines out loud at the raw sensation of it – all need and hunger and hot warm breath – then without breaking the kiss wraps his fingers round his achingly hard cock: rubbing his thumb around the head a few times before beginning to thrust up and down in a sort of frenzy. Being on the edge for so long is making him sweat with effort and he gives a desperate cry as the first sharp waves of pleasure begin to hit. Hannibal’s hand moves downwards at the same time to tightly grip onto his hip, pulling him harder onto his fingers as he fucks into Will with them and making a sound almost like growling as he presses his mouth against every part of Will he can reach: biting and lapping at his jaw, throat and shoulders before stabbing his tongue into Will’s mouth for another searing kiss. Will gives a fraught sigh and bucks his hips; frantic now to make himself come again and helplessly fisting his cock while resuming the desperate tugging at Hannibal’s hair with his other hand.

“That’s it,” says Hannibal, breaking the kiss and letting go of Will’s hip so he can cover his hand with his own. “Finally – just what I asked you to do. Thank you my darling; I thought you were never going to agree. Now show me how you like to be touched. Show off this beautiful body.” He rubs the wet tip of Will’s cock with his thumb – which elicits a frantic wail – then works in a third finger with his other hand, rocking it between Will’s legs for few more moments before gradually slowing the movement then stopping entirely, instead allowing Will to set his own pace and move how he wants to. He looks achingly beautiful this way: sublime in the intensity of it with his head thrown back and throat exposed like a young martyr, all muscles swaying and flexing, and the way the sheen of perspiration makes his skin glow in the firelight. In fact Hannibal is endlessly fascinated by Will’s skin, which is pale without being wan or pallid and instead possesses a creamy, luminous quality that’s warm and smooth to the touch like ivory, or even bone. Ducking his head slightly he runs his tongue along Will’s throat in a hot wet swipe, relishing the lingering brine-like taste of sweat and humidity. His neck is so slim. In the past it was the habit of alphas to put their omegas in collars, and he now finds the idea of having Will in one for special occasions to be almost unbearably appealing. Black leather would be best: something profane and beautiful to stand out against all that pale skin.

“Exquisite,” says Hannibal with something like reverence. “You look so delicate yet so passionate. So debauched. Practically…edible.”

Will groans rather wantonly then gasps out “Oh fuck…God, oh my God” – only once he’s started seems unable to stop himself, and keeps repeating it in an increasingly helpless chant. He’s already extremely close again – Hannibal can tell from the way his body is quivering and tightening, preparing itself for orgasm – and with his fingers buried so deep inside he can feel every single tremor and clench. It’s as if Will’s trying to grip onto him; and in turn the feeling of that leads to the inevitable awareness of how those muscles would feel tightening onto his knot if it were sunk deep inside Will’s trembling body and Will was about to come round it; and the idea is so intoxicating it requires every shred of Hannibal’s iron self-control not to simply take hold of this beautiful nervy being by the hips then fuck him right into the floorboards then and there. In fact despite being dulled and drugged by countless heat-supressing chemicals, the way Will’s still primed to respond so rapturously to his touch is nothing short of miraculous: a flawless arrangement of artless naiveté tempered by utter dissolution and shamelessness, and all the more perfect because it's so obviously unconsciously done. It’s not the result of omega training but pure unadulterated instinct – and shows that while Will’s mercurial moods and acerbic temperament make him undeniably hard work in the capacity of friend or colleague, in the role of a lover he promises to be completely perfect.

“Next time I’ll put my mouth on you,” says Hannibal, beginning to move his hand a little faster again while stroking Will’s leg with the other. “All over your body. Then I’ll use my tongue to open you up and make you ready for me. Would you like that?”

“Yes, oh God. Yes. I want that.”

“You’re stunning this way,” murmurs Hannibal appreciatively. “So vulnerable and desperate. All those noises you’re making; they might be the sounds of distress as much as desire. And the way that you’re writhing and shuddering against me you could almost be struggling; like something fragile and breakable fighting for its life. I’d have to keep clinging onto you through the final throes, wouldn’t I; hold you in my arms until you grew silent and still? And yet there is so much life in you.”

Will moans again then angles his neck into a painful twist in order to reach Hannibal’s mouth, pillaging hungrily as if his life depends on it and roughly clawing his fingers against Hannibal’s neck and shoulders with one hand while fisting at his cock almost brutally with the other. He’s planted his feet against the rug to give himself better leverage for thrusting his entire body against Hannibal’s; and Hannibal now neatly brackets his ankles around Will’s so that when he moves his legs apart Will’s are forced wide open too. “Don't stop,” gasps Will, somewhat helplessly. “Just...oh please, please. It feels so good.

Hannibal strokes Will’s hipbone with his free hand while rhythmically rubbing his cheek against Will’s. “So close to the edge now,” he says softly. “All that’s needed is a little push to send you spinning over the side. Just – one – little – push.”

“Yeah…oh God.”

“It’s a paradox isn’t it beloved?” murmurs Hannibal, beginning to kiss his way down Will’s throat. “I’m going to teach you all about physical pleasure, help you discover how your body can make you feel. I promise, I’ll make it so good for you; we’ll make it so good for each other.”

“Oh yes, yes. I want that.”

“But you want more as well. Don’t you Will? You want the pleasures that mind and soul can attain – you want the desire first hand. It’s what you’ve always wanted.” Wrapping an arm round Will’s chest he begins to rock him in the same rhythm as he’s moving his hand, easily able to take his weight and push him down at the exact moment he brings his fingers up until Will cries out again as another stream of pre-come spills over his fist. “You want to venture into the shadowy places and bring something back,” whispers Hannibal, straight into his ear. “You long for it, don’t you beloved? It consumes you. You know it every time you cast off morality and obey your instincts. You knew it when you attacked your alpha, and you know it right now. And you know that I can show it to you.”

“Oh God…God…Hannibal…” Will moans again and frantically pivots his hips downwards, exposing his throat so Hannibal can scrape his teeth across it. He can’t fully take in the meaning of the words, can’t separate anymore between the feverish cacophony in his head and the rapturous swell of desire in every part of his body; every cell, every fibre, every drop of heated blood. He can feel how achingly hard he is, his cock growing slick and heavy in his hand; and even though he’s hardly been touching himself for any time, in that frenzied moment he knows he’s going to come anyway. He doesn’t even fully want to – doesn’t want to lose control that spectacularly again so soon – and the inability to do anything about it instils a combination of something like humiliation spiced with ecstatic, needy abandonment. The truly unnerving thing is that it’s not even something that’s fully physical, as opposed to swelling and spilling over within a frantic and fervently over-heated mind…and Christ, it shouldn’t even be possible. Then he can feel Hannibal’s teeth digging into the fragile skin of his shoulder and, oh fuck, he’s actually being bitten; and then: “Oh God,” gasps Will, sounding slightly panicked. “I can’t…I…I'm going to…Oh Hannibal, fuck. Oh…oh I’m coming, oh God I’m coming, I'm coming…I…”

“Oh yes,” says Hannibal reverently. “My beautiful boy. Here it is.” He crooks his fingers upwards within the tight, smooth heat of Will’s body, expertly exploring and caressing, before pressing down hard on the rim with his thumb at exactly the same time; at which point Will gives a long, low moan as he tenses, quivers, goes rigid, then gasps Hannibal’s name as his hips give a final frantic jolt and he starts to come. Hannibal wraps his arms round Will’s chest to hold him through it, kissing his throat and murmuring praise and encouragement the entire time; and then, when Will has finally stopped shuddering, neatly taking hold of his shoulders and manoeuvring him down onto the floor. Will slumps forwards and buries his face in Hannibal’s neck, and Hannibal retrieves the blanket from the side of the sofa and enfolds him in it then presses his lips against his forehead.

“Breathe Will,” he says quietly.

“I can’t, it’s…it’s just so…”

“Just breathe with me.”

“Oh God it’s so much…” says Will eventually.

He sounds overwhelmed, and Hannibal is entirely aware that he isn't only talking about the physical sensation. Instead he pulls Will even closer and brushes his face against his hair. “You were perfect,” he says tenderly. “You did so well.”

There’s a long pause, and then: “So well at what?” grumbles Will from under the blanket. “I came all over myself – twice. It’s hardly Nobel Prize material.”

Hannibal smiles to himself then gently lifts Will’s head upright so he can look at him, and who promptly frowns and screws his nose up in response. “Oh I see,” says Hannibal, leaning forward to kiss the nose. “You think I’m patronising you? Only you did do incredibly well. Look how masterfully you can overcome your inhibitions when you try. A part of you felt this was the ‘wrong’ thing to do and yet how beautifully you did it anyway.” Will flushes a little and Hannibal slowly runs his eyes over him, imagining what it would be like to see all that passion and aggression channelled into more destructive channels: Will with blood on his face, black in the moonlight and so graceful, luminous and precise in his ability to elevate violence into a means of expressive art. “So tell me,” adds Hannibal softly: “Are you still feeling ashamed?”

Will doesn’t answer straight away, obviously turning the question over in his head and giving it proper consideration. “I don’t know,” he finally replies. “Maybe a little.”

“Only a little?” says Hannibal. Moving his hands so they’re cradling Will’s face, he begins to rub his thumbs beneath his eyes as if trying to wipe the shadows away and murmurs “Tell me what else you’re ashamed of?” Will frowns with irritation at the question and Hannibal smiles at him again before adding, almost as if it’s an afterthought: “Are you ashamed of the fact you want to kill your alpha?”

For a few seconds Will goes completely rigid then glances at Hannibal with wide, panicked eyes before trying to pull himself free. “It’s all right,” says Hannibal, tightening his grip to keep Will in place. “You don’t have to admit it if you don’t want to; you don’t even have to acknowledge it. Only know that everything you’ve said and done has silently communicated it to me – and that I don’t think any less of you. On the contrary; I admire your courage. And your sense of enterprise.”

“I don’t want to do that,” says Will stiffly. “You’re wrong. You’re completely wrong.”

“I know you want to believe that’s true,” replies Hannibal, gazing intensely into Will’s eyes. “What you’re considering in your darkest fantasies horrifies you – it’s why you broke your mirrors isn’t it? Yet that doesn’t alter the fact it’s a fantasy which wrenches ugliness out of the world and leaves something beautiful in its place. Didn’t I tell you that you were an alchemist? Indeed, I find the synchronicity of the whole thing to be incredibly fascinating. Because regardless of what you do in the future, your actions so far have transformed what is unworthy and useless into something artistic.”

“Why on earth,” says Will in a tight, strained voice, “would you think that?”

“Simple. Because your association with this alpha – this shambling lesser being, so artless and graceless and pointless – has set into motion a train of events that yields beauty and purpose.”

“How?”

“Because,” says Hannibal, gently kissing Will’s forehead, “it brought you here to me.”

*****

Afterwards Will grows very quiet and thoughtful again, trembling slightly from the intensity of what just took place and ultimately becoming so subdued and pliant that he allows Hannibal to carry him over to the sofa so he can fall asleep on it wrapped in his arms. He wakes up some time later, still entangled together, and finds that in the interim the dogs have assembled round the sofa like a line of accusing, furry enforcers that growl at Hannibal whenever he makes an attempt to move.

“They think you’re hurting me,” says Will, gently shooing them away.

“They’re protective of you, clearly,” replies Hannibal. He shoots the dogs a look of dislike then firmly positions himself between them and Will as if he resents their attempts to claim his attention. “Although I suppose I can’t blame them; as far as they’re concerned you’re their alpha.”

I want you to be my alpha, thinks Will hazily, although it’s too large and overwhelming a thing to admit out loud. Instead he pulls himself up so he’s lying directly on Hannibal’s chest then tucks his head beneath his chin. “Look at you,” he adds, giving Hannibal’s shirt a tug. “You never even got your clothes off. Do you want me to…y’know.”

“No, tonight was about you. I want you to rest now – you’ve been under terrible strain for the past few weeks.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Besides, you have nothing to apologise for,” adds Hannibal with the hint of a smirk. “I can guarantee that I enjoyed myself immensely.”

Will gives a small laugh then reaches out a hand so that Hannibal can take hold of it. “How long was I asleep for?”

“About an hour. You should really go to bed.”

“I should have a shower first,” says Will wryly. “You didn’t have to stay here by the way; you must have awful cramp by now.”

“I don’t mind. I like seeing you like this; you look so peaceful. Vulnerable also – and I admit, I like that too.”

“Why?”

“Because it shows you trust me.”

Will makes a humming noise in agreement then starts to wriggle at the sensation of Hannibal stroking his neck. “Stop it,” mutters Will. “That tickles.”

“What, that?” says Hannibal innocently, doing it again.

Will makes an inadvertent growling sound in response that turns into a yawn halfway though, and which Hannibal finds so endearing that he promptly returns his fingers to Will’s neck in an attempt to make him do it again. “Stop it,” says Will. “Ugh, you’re so annoying. Have I ever told you that?”

“Yes dearest,” says Hannibal, increasing the pressure very slightly. “Often.”

“If I wasn’t so tired I would end you.”

“Then it makes sense for me to take advantage of the situation while I still can.”

“Don’t patronise me,” says Will, nipping at the side of Hannibal’s jaw with his teeth. “You think I couldn’t end you?”

“I think there are very few people who could attempt that successfully – although I accepted some time ago that you would most likely be one of them.”

“You don’t believe that at all do you?” says Will, pretending to bite Hannibal’s jaw again. “You’re so vain. You’re turning into the stereotype of the big alpha, macho meathead.”

“I am certainly not,” replies Hannibal with dignity. “You are a ridiculous boy.”

“You are a ridiculous narcissist.”

“Brat.”

“Old man.”

“If I am an old man,” says Hannibal, “then our current situation makes you a sort of catamite; although admittedly a rather elderly one. I shall have to start calling you Ganymede. Or would you prefer the Latin equivalent?”

“Ugh, gross. Don’t you dare.”

Hannibal smiles to himself then lifts his arms to allow Will to burrow further beneath the blanket before lowering them again and beginning to stroke his hair. Will makes a contented noise and tucks his face a little more securely beneath Hannibal’s chin, occasionally making an absent-minded tapping motion against his collar bone with the tip of his finger. “Can I ask you something?” he finally says.

“Anything.”

“I’ve decided to stop taking the tablets,” says Will shyly. “You’re right; they were messing me up.”

“Indeed they were. I’m proud of you Will; I know it’s not an easy decision.”

“Yeah. So. When it happens…”

“What? Your heat?”

“Yes. Would you…” There’s a small pause. “Would you stay with me?”

“You already know the answer to that,” replies Hannibal softly, kissing the top of Will’s head. “How can you even need to ask?”

Will blushes then buries a bit further beneath Hannibal’s arm as a silent indication that he’s happy about this before adding, rather hastily, “Although obviously not to bond.”

There’s another pause and from where he’s lying Will can’t see the way Hannibal’s face flickers slightly before he finally replies: “Obviously not.”

“Andrew could have you arrested.”

“Yes,” says Hannibal, renewing the rhythmic stroking motion on Will’s hair. “Although that’s not the only reason, is it?”

It’s a simple enough question, yet this time it’s Will’s turn to go quiet as fractures and splinters from the last few months cram into his mind and prevent his attempt to answer it. Hannibal waits patiently without trying to rush a response, and Will screws his eyes closed then abruptly snaps then open with the force of the realisation, because…Oh God I’ve fallen in love with you, he wants to scream out at Hannibal; and it would need to be screamed – something raw and urgent – not whispered coyly but ripped, flayed and dripping, from out of the very core of himself. I’ve being doing it the entire time haven't I? he thinks helplessly. Falling and fallen. I didn't even have a choice. Oh God oh God, I love youbut I don't want to – I really don’t – because the way you make me feel is overpowering. You frighten me and I’m frightening myself. I want to know you but I don’t know how. I want to feel sure. I want too much. I just want you. What have you done to me? What have you done...?

“Will?”

Will realises he’s begun to clutch onto Hannibal’s shirt in a stupidly urgent way and the awareness of it makes him flush self-consciously then let go. It’s no use though, because it’s impossible to process the enormity of such a revelation. He doesn't want to have to face what it means, it's too much; he can't do it, even though he knows he's going to have to. But not yet. Not yet. “No,” he finally says; and he sounds angry and agonised yet so hopeful and yearning, all at the same time.

“No,” repeats Hannibal. “I see that. I could see it from the way you responded to that couple in the park. The intimacy of it frightens you – the idea of being so close to someone.” He pauses again. “What it means for your sense of yourself…what it would mean for us both.” But Will just shrugs and refuses to reply, and Hannibal wisely decides not to push it for the time being so just resumes stroking his hair again instead in a soothing way that’s intended to calm. “Where do you want to be when it happens?” he asks gently. “Here? My house? Or I could take you to a hotel: somewhere luxurious and beautiful, away from the city.”

“Here,” replies Will, obviously grateful for the change of subject. “I need to look after the dogs.”

“Oh yes,” says Hannibal wearily. “Them.”

“Well I do.”

“It’s all right Will; whatever you like.”

Will makes an appreciative noise then arches up a bit closer to Hannibal who kisses his forehead again before rearranging the blanket round Will’s shoulders. “I was right though,” murmurs Will sleepily. “What I said before. This is weird.

“Hmm?”

“I didn’t really imagine us like this. What we just did. Y’know?”

“I do beloved: I was there at the time.”

Will makes a half-hearted attempt to kick Hannibal’s leg. “You know what I mean. I just didn’t imagine that us like that.”

“You mean as lovers?”

“Yeah. It’s hard to explain.” Will pauses, too tired to devise a proper response yet likewise cautious about saying too much and giving himself away. “I guess I kind of saw you as…more than that,” he eventually adds. “More than just sex.”

“Good,” says Hannibal, resting his face against Will’s hair. “That means that even after you let me make love to you, we still have something for which to aspire.”

“You understand what I mean?”

“I do, yes. As it happens I feel the same way.”

“Tell me,” says Will, despite being halfway towards sleep again.

“W-e-l-l,” replies Hannibal thoughtfully, “what does it really mean to describe someone as a ‘lover’? I suppose in the most basic sense it refers to sexual intimacy with a person to whom one is not bonded. Eros, as the Greeks would have it: fervent passion and anguish, like love set on fire – like hurtling headfirst from a cliff. But there are other ways to love a person. Philia: friendship, and a meeting of minds. Or agape: selfless love.” Will murmurs something indistinct and Hannibal tightens his grip around his shoulders. “Not that there is any such thing of course, because love is selfish. We don’t love as an act of charity; we love for ourselves because we feel elevated and emboldened through the act of bestowing our love. You, for example: you don’t wish to be loved as much as you wish to be understood.” He pauses for a few seconds, his expression softening slightly as he runs his eyes over Will’s face. “Yet no one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them. With that love, we see potential in our beloved. Through that love, we allow our beloved to see their potential. Expressing that love, our beloved’s potential comes true.”

Will stirs sleepily and Hannibal smiles again then runs his fingers through his hair. “Betrayal and forgiveness are akin to falling in love,” he adds in the same low voice. “So that’s why I understand what you were saying, because I also see you as more. More than a lover; more than an encounter for the body but as an awakening for the soul. Like Plato’s Symposium: a single soul inhabiting two bodies. One might have many lovers, yet the true object of desire…” he pauses and presses a kiss against Will’s forehead, “can never be replaced. There is only ever one imago Will; only one twin flame.” Will, now deeply asleep, murmurs something indecipherable then pushes himself a little nearer to Hannibal like someone seeking closeness and reassurance. “You can’t even hear me, can you beloved?” says Hannibal gently, beginning to stroke the side of Will’s face. “And yet it’s all for you – all of it.”

Outside the window the night has frozen and solidified, swirling in spectral silver moonlight that clashes with the scorching glow of the fire, and Hannibal watches it for a few seconds so he can enjoy the drama of the contrast between the dark and the light. Like opposing polarities – the unstoppable force and the immovable object – until the day finally comes that they can merge in the middle and Become. Flare of tinder, spark of flame, and then…ignition. In his arms Will begins to stir, frowning slightly as if his dreams are troubling him, and Hannibal smooths a palm against his back until he grows silent and still again.

“The night is always darkest before the dawn,” adds Hannibal in the same soft voice. “Did you know that? So much darkness; yet so much light for the one who can endure it and slice their way through. Try to trust me Will. One day…I promise you’re going to understand.”

Chapter Text

Will wakes up next morning in his own bed without any memory of how he got there and swaddled up against the cold in an old grey bathrobe that he likewise has no memory of putting on. There’s no sign of Hannibal at all, although a lingering smell of expensive cologne on the pillowcase next to Will’s suggests he must have been there at some point. He’s also retrieved Will’s glasses from wherever it was they ended up and placed them on the bedside table, and Will stares at them now rather hazily while finding himself absurdly touched by this small attention. In this respect Hannibal must have been responsible for the bathrobe as well…and which, when taken to its logical conclusion, would strongly imply that the reason Will is now in bed with no memory of getting into it is because Hannibal carried him there. The idea of this is undeniably a whole new level of embarrassing, and Will broods over it for a few seconds before straining his ears for any signs of life in the rest of the house. At first there doesn’t seem to be anything at all but after listening a little harder he thinks he can detect faint sounds of movement from downstairs, blended with a low thrumming noise that’s most likely coming from the radio – possibly classical music, although it’s hard to be sure.

Will rolls onto his side, suddenly overcome with self-consciousness at the idea of facing Hannibal – and which admittedly feels rather cowardly, although still justifiable considering the condition they were both in when they last saw each other (not to mention the bathrobe and the carrying) – so gazes out the window instead where it’s just beginning to snow. The flakes look stark and rigid against the gun-metal grey air and the trees are straggling upwards with blackened limbs like they’re trying to snag the sky as the murder of crows, undeterred by the cold, occupy themselves with skimming and slicing their danse macabre with the usual grim choreography that never fails to strike Will as sinister. In fact the whole scene is unbelievably bleak; and self-consciousness aside, it’s hard to ignore the increasingly pressing need for companionship and reassurance. The aroma of frying bacon also serves as a reminder of how hungry he is, so after a few more seconds of silent staring Will finally untangles himself from the sheets and forces himself to get out of bed. Then he attempts to do something with his hair, which is sticking out at improbably mad angles that defy the known laws of physics (sex hair thinks Wills with horror), and replaces the bathrobe with some clothes before cautiously making his way downstairs and sidling towards the kitchen while trying not to make any noise.

Hannibal is stood by the counter breaking eggs into a porcelain bowl with a series of neat little cracks, and Will pauses for a while with his fingers on the handle so he can admire him from the secrecy of the doorway. This is accomplished in a series of small furtive glances like sips; although even as he’s in the middle of doing it, Will can’t help feeling awkwardly aware of how difficult it is to admit to himself that he finds Hannibal physically attractive. It’s much easier, after all, to pretend that he’s predominantly drawn to his mind and personality – that the appeal is something lofty and intellectual, belonging more to the brain than the body. But it’s there all the same and it’s impossible and pointless to continue denying it because Hannibal, Will decides, is beautiful; even though it’s not an epithet that’s typically applied to male attractiveness, and which shouldn’t even be true at all given that his component parts don’t really work in isolation. He has too many slants and sharp angles; all glacial skin, lean juts of bone, and features that are about as planed and fleshless as a Medieval saint. Yet combined together they still create something that’s undeniably striking. In another way he also reminds Will of the illustrations on the covers of the adventure stories his father used to buy him when he was much younger: venturesome, hyper-masculine alphas with chiselled faces, broad chests and rippling muscles who were always primed to shoot bandits or wrestle wild bears or rescue miners from collapsed tunnels (or some equally implausible bullshit) while doll-faced omegas swooned over them in the background. Not that Hannibal’s habits or personality remotely accord with the same aesthetic. Impossible, for example, to imagine those mettlesome lantern-jawed alphas stepping out of their cover illustrations to speak a dozen different languages, host elaborate dinner parties, or adorn themselves in immaculately tailored three-piece suits with matching pocket squares. In fact if anything, considering his job, a life of roughness and privation is more suitable for Will; although once again appearances are clearly deceiving because no one would think that to look at him. Will now reflects rather ruefully on his slim face with its irritatingly delicate features – the sensitive mouth, the wide eyes obscured behind his glasses – before brooding over the sheer unfeasibility of him ever being able to quell a bullying alpha like Andrew into submission with a single wave of the hand in the same way that Hannibal can.

“Good morning mylimasis,” says Hannibal without turning round.

Will flushes slightly, resentful of being caught in the act. “How’d you know I was there?”

“I can smell you of course,” says Hannibal, beginning to whisk the eggs into a pale froth with a fork. “I apologise if you were trying to ambush me and I ruined your plans.” Turning round he gives Will a faint smirk. “Feel free to go out and come in again, and I will pretend to be startled by your unexpected arrival.”

“Whatever,” says Will. On an impulse he goes and stands directly behind Hannibal and presses his face between his shoulder blades. “I’ll get you next time.”

“Of that,” replies Hannibal, “I have absolutely no doubt at all.” Putting down the fork he reaches round with one hand and tangles his fingers into Will’s hair in a gesture that’s simultaneously both intimate and casual; and Will gives a small sigh then leans luxuriously into the touch, because all the way out of bed and down the stairs he was dreading some sort of excruciating post-mortem over what happened last night and is extremely relieved that it looks like it’s not going to happen. “What does mylimasis mean?” he asks instead.

“It’s a term of endearment in my own language,” says Hannibal. “It doesn’t translate exactly. In essence it means that you belong to me – and that you are beloved.”

Will makes a sarcastic noise in response, mostly to cover up the fact he feels unexpectedly touched by this, then occupies himself with pressing his forehead against Hannibal’s back in an assorted series of angles while tentatively allowing himself to enjoy the complete lack of awkwardness between them. In fact he’d been convinced it would be hovering in the air this morning like smoke – some toxic combination of embarrassment, recrimination or regret – but it’s really not like that. Then he tries to identify what’s there in its place, and finally decides that it’s a warm sense of intimacy which is somehow both charged yet relaxed to the extent it’s almost contradictory: like a couple with honeymoon passion who’ve in fact been married for decades. Even having Hannibal in his personal space isn’t turning out to be the ordeal he expected it to be – and which logically it really should, because Hannibal has a way of taking up so much space. It isn’t just a matter of height or musculature either, but the way his sheer presence draws the eye and demands awareness; the way he breathes glamour and intrigue the same way normal people breathe air, or the aura of sensuous strength and carnality that sometimes seems to shimmer around him. Briefly Will closes his eyes, remembering last night’s scene in front of the fire: the barely contained ferociousness in the way that Hannibal was touching him that was all desire and craving with a promise of savagery only just concealed below the surface. There was a frantic white-hot ruthlessness to the whole thing – and that’s not the way alphas traditionally tend to interact with omegas. In this respect even Andrew, for all his vindictiveness and aggression in other areas, was generally the picture of consideration and self-restraint whenever he wanted to take Will to bed, tending to handle him with extreme caution as if he was something fragile and delicate that was liable to break.

Hannibal on the other hand, despite the studied aloofness, is clearly someone of ravenous desires that are only barely restrained by a veneer of polite propriety. And of course it’s a convincing veneer – and elegant, and compelling – but that doesn’t quite change the sense that it’s a façade nonetheless. Fleetingly Will now remembers the veneer on the cabinet in his childhood bedroom: the way he used to lie in bed during successive sleepless nights and pick and pick at it to see what was lying underneath. In his professional life Hannibal often seems to be someone who’s more brain than body, so coolly controlled and glacially calm that you could almost shiver in his air. And yet the promise of what lies beneath this outer coating – this veneer – is intoxicating. Intoxicating is a word closely linked with alcohol or drugs, and Will turns it over in his head for a while before deciding it’s still the right one. It makes him feel glazed and heady, like being in a heat-haze or spinning on a carousel; the type of feeling that should be described by swirling cursive letters on a billboard or poster because normal plain pronouns can’t adequately capture it. Drunken and dazed on darkly destructive delights…Then he gives a small, contented sigh and arches further towards Hannibal, gently grinding his hips against him before growing self-conscious about it and going still again.

“Look at you,” says Hannibal fondly, beginning to tighten his grip on Will’s hair. “How very charming you are.”

Will, who loathes being called charming – ‘charming’ being the only slightly more macho cousin of being ‘sweet’ or ‘cute’ – abruptly decides that that’s quite enough of that, so clears his throat and tries to think of a way to revert the conversation to more mundane grounds. Hannibal, in turn, finally releases Will’s hair and returns to preparing breakfast; and Will decides this is as good a subject as anything so prods Hannibal’s foot with his own and says: “Where’d you get all this food from?”

“From the store of course,” replies Hannibal, pouring the eggs into a waiting saucepan and adding butter and cream. “Where else would I get it from?”

“Did you hitchhike,” asks Will, knowing it can’t possibly be the case but still hoping it might be because the image of Hannibal looming by the side of the road and glaring at passing drivers into obediently puling over is so hilarious.

“I did not,” replies Hannibal with dignity. “I made use of a cab firm like a civilised person.” Turning round entirely he runs his eyes over Will’s face as if daring him to mention the business card from last night’s cab driver – and by extension that of the private investigator – and Will defiantly returns the stare for a few seconds before finally giving a small frown and looking away, still deeply reluctant to allow himself to process the implications of what it might mean.

“It’s fortunate I had the foresight to ask for that card,” adds Hannibal with clear deliberation. “As you quite rightly noted I have a tendency to do so, and one never knows when these little tokens may come in useful.” Will still doesn’t reply and Hannibal’s faint half-smile grows broader. “Of course one might also…deny the usefulness,” he adds. “One might decide that the point and purpose of such a thing takes too much trouble to acknowledge.”

“Are you going to serve that up or what?” says Will, abruptly gesturing towards the food. Hannibal, recognising this as the deflection strategy it obviously is, raises an eyebrow. “It’s going to burn,” snaps Will.

“It will not burn,” replies Hannibal, still stroking his eyes over Will’s face. “Because I have an impeccable sense of timing, which means I always know when to adjust the heat accordingly. Just like you, in fact: smouldering along until the moment comes to ignite.”

“Oh God,” says Will, “give it a rest can’t you? It’s breakfast, not metaphysics. And I’m ravenous.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” replies Hannibal, obediently shifting back to his previous, more casual mood. “You’ve got far too thin recently. I’m looking forward to feeding you up.”            

“Not too much,” says Will, beginning to devour bacon and eggs like someone half-starved. “I need to be able to run away from The Sculptor when he tries to give me another business card.”

“You could always roll away,” replies Hannibal with a faint smile. “I’m curious though – you’re clearly being flippant, yet you acknowledge it’s a possibility?” Will shrugs and pours himself some coffee. “Are you afraid?”

“Of course I am,” snaps Will. “I’d be stupid not to be.” Reaching across the table he tugs his laptop towards him then winces when he sees the scrolling banners across the news page. “God – look at that. It’s everywhere.”

“Naturally it is,” says Hannibal calmly. “He’s just killed his seventh victim.”

Will nods and then pauses for a few seconds before pushing the laptop closed with a sharp little click. “Everything’s just got so crazy recently with Andrew,” he adds with something that sounds close to guilt. “It’s like I’ve forgotten we’re in the middle of the biggest murder investigation in years.”

“Indeed we are,” replies Hannibal, who doesn’t sound as if he finds this particularly interesting one way or the other. “And speaking of which, you still need to show me the files on Richard Black.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m planning to.”

“The so-called Nemesis Killer.”

“So-called,” says Will sharply.

“Oh yes, you dislike these grandiose monikers don’t you?” Hannibal pauses and looks thoughtful. “I wonder what you’re going to be able to call The Sculptor when you catch him?” Pausing again he casts a long look at Will from over the top of his coffee cup. “Call him by his name perhaps?”

Will stiffens slightly then returns the look. “You think it’s someone I know?”

“From what you’ve said I think it’s…a possibility. And I believe you think so too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll have to catch him first won’t we?” says Will, suddenly tiring of the whole subject. “One problem at a time.”

He sighs, tipping his head back as he does so, and Hannibal uses the resulting view as an opportunity to admire the smattering of bruises along the side of his throat: slightly smudged by now, as though blended by an artist’s brush, and a rather attractive shade of indigo with threads of crimson and violet around the edges. Hannibal doesn’t need to see his hips to know that corresponding ones will be speckled there too, and it takes a degree of self-control not to reach out and touch them merely for the pleasure of running a thoughtful finger over tender flesh and feeling the thrum from the carotid artery underneath. On Will, Hannibal decides, everything is flattering: from burst blood vessels on the pale canvass of skin to the shadows dappling along his cheekbones or the way his hair is tangling over his forehead. He looks rather coltish this morning, all large eyes and languor, although was admittedly even more fetching when sleeping several hours ago: draped across the bed with his head on Hannibal’s chest and as sculptured, elongated and perfectly loose-limbed in the winter light as a young Narcissus lulled to sleep through the soothing charm of his own reflection. Hannibal sighs with pleasure at the memory of it, although despite the lure of the image is still quick to acknowledge that a beautiful face and body are by no means the most significant aspects of Will’s appeal. Because not even his physical charms can fully compete with how tremendously attractive his emotions are – whether angry, sad, pensive or playful – and where everything from quiet impishness to balefully blazing outrage are like little drops of elixir for an observer to breathe in and savour. Every moment another turn of temperament, muses Hannibal to himself, admiring the strong, well-shaped lines of Will’s jaw and the determined curve of his mouth. Every instant another thought or reflection, and every second a sting of conscience battling against desire and nature. You’re so painfully uncomfortable in your own skin; yet see how you always set yourself to seek out more? More knowledge, more experience, more passion, more power – more opportunities to unleash yourself upon the world and find a sense of conquest in it.

As if drawn by the intensity of Hannibal’s gaze Will briefly glances up and catches his eye before turning away again. He looks distinctly mournful now, staring into space from over his coffee cup like someone observing happiness from a distance, and Hannibal’s thoughtful expression softens slightly as he reaches across the table and places his hand flat over Will’s. “I know it’s hard for you to see your own situation objectively,” he says in a gentler voice. “I imagine it’s that process of ‘brainwashing’ you referred to last night. But if another omega described an identical set of circumstances to you, your advice to them would be very different from what you’re able to give to yourself.” Will shrugs without saying anything and Hannibal tightens the grip on his hand and adds: “I’m confident that we can deal with the situation successfully.”

“I guess,” says Will, trying to rally himself a bit.

“He’s coming on Friday, yes? That’s a whole three days away.” Will nods in response then picks up his fork and begins to twitch it across the plate in an aimless, fidgety way that suggests he’s working up the effort to add something else. “What is it?” asks Hannibal in the same gentle voice as before.

Will takes a deep breath then blurts out “Would you be able to contact that law firm soon?” in such a rush that the words all trip over each other as if determined to escape from his mouth before he can change his mind and gather them back again. Then he pauses and directs a rather doleful glance at Hannibal, obviously consumed with reluctance at being forced to request such a huge favour. “I promise I’ll pay you back as soon as…”

“That’s really not necessary,” says Hannibal firmly, waving away the objections with an elegant little flick of the hand. “And regarding contacting them, I did it already while you were sleeping. I know Elizabeth Lewis fairly well – she’s promised to courier something over to my office by this afternoon at the latest.”

“Really?” says Will with visible relief. “Thank you so much. It’s very generous of you.”

“It’s fine Will.”

“I wish I could give you something in return,” adds Will, beginning to look anguished all over again at the sense of being indebted to someone.

Hannibal smiles at this then abruptly uncoils himself from his chair and prowls round the side of the table in one long, fluid motion so he can stand behind Will and put his hands on his shoulders. “You did,” he says, leaning forward and