The coffee table was so full with files and pictures and notes they overflowed onto the floor—and onto the couch, spilling out around Will in a haphazard orbit. In the center, Will was alone, which might not have shocked him quite so much if they hadn’t lived together now long enough for Hannibal to know that there was almost always minimum one dog within arm’s reach. Now, the closest one nestled in a bed across the room, nose tucked in but eyes open, watching balefully.
Likely, the papers had been stepped on one too many times. Will’s patience, lately, was very thin. The further into work on his thesis he delved, the more his nerves seemed to fray, and they’d been worn already the day Hannibal met him.
Now, huddled in the midst of graphs and images and studies, the line of tension is his neck was too thick to bear.
Carefully, Hannibal came closer, arranging both mugs of coffee so he had a hand free to rake through Will’s hair. Firm, and loving, his nails just scratching at his scalp. “Take a moment while it’s warm. It’s the hazelnut blend.” Enticing a break out of Will, he had learned, sometimes required bribery. It was always worth it.
Will’s hum was distracted, though it held the promise of interest. “If you set it on—“
“Then it will not be warm. Besides, there’s nowhere to set it.”
When he looked up, Will had all the hallmarks of a coming protest, but his eyes fell on the scattered notes, first, and the coffee in Hannibal’s hand second. The sound he made, then, wasn’t protest. Amused defeat, perhaps. Tired, fond frustration.
Once his fingers were curled around it, Hannibal rounded the couch, careful in the movements he made to give himself a place to sit. He was just as likely as any of the dogs to get scolded for mussing Will’s papers, but there was, usually, something of a method to Will’s chaos. So long as he kept the pictures with the pictures and the articles with the articles, he could usually squeak by with taking their prior space.
His arm pressed against Will’s spine, and for a few precious seconds that point of contact held, and they drank in silence. Hannibal could feel the stretch in his muscles, strung tight like a rubber band.
“I can’t take a break, really. I have about 200 more articles to read.”
“Then read,” Hannibal conceded, filling his mouth with the warmth of coffee, his lips still warm as he leaned in to kiss the back of Will’s neck. “but let me take care of you while you do.”
The slight dip of Will’s shoulders was answer enough, and proof of his exhaustion. He didn’t often permit distraction, but when he did, he needed it. It had helped, too, for him to learn that Hannibal’s offers at moments like this one came not from his cock but a base of sincerity—no ulterior motives, only the comforting warmth of Hannibal’s chest against his back, the just-right force of long fingers seeking out the knots in his muscles and kneading them smooth.
To keep them both to one distraction at a time, Hannibal waited until the coffee was finished, cups settled gently onto the floor to draw the inquisitive eyes of more than one dog too cautious to come close enough to sniff them.
They hesitated, and Hannibal began.
Deliberate, slow pressure, begun with the tandem drag of the balls of his thumbs down the long, hard line of stress along the column of Will’s beautiful neck. He could feel it tremble beneath him, goaded by pressure into releasing some of its strain.
Will’s fingers clenched and released around his pencil in response, like the knead of a cat.
With his knuckles pressed to either side of Will’s spine, rubbing gently, Hannibal kissed the back of his neck again, soft, encouragement rather than a tease. “Keep going.”
He carried no ulterior motives, to be sure, but when he’d finished and had Will resting back against him, eyes closed and muscles limp, falling asleep in his arms with a highlighter dangling from his fingertips…
Well. He couldn’t say it wasn’t what he’d wanted.
The first night Will slept in his bed, he had warned Hannibal about the sweat.
Hannibal’s eyebrows rose, then, utterly bemused.
It’s November, Will. I don’t keep the house that warm.
Doesn’t matter. I can sweat anywhere.
He had, tentatively, tried to make it clear that the sweat he talked about wasn’t normal, wasn’t typical. In truth, Hannibal hadn’t understood even then what Will had expected him to do, or say—ask him to sleep on the couch? Discourage him from staying over again?
Both concepts were ludicrous.
Will hadn’t been wrong that he had the ability to sweat at a level most never reached, but Hannibal’s weapons to combat that particular issue were well suited, and well honed—
Patience, a large number of bedsheets, and love for this man so boundless it refused all efforts to be constrained. He could feel it in Will’s presence and his absence, a throbbing ache that never left, only shifting when they were together to the sweet burn of a lizard soaking in the sun, drawing into himself the most primal source of life.
In comparison to the joy of having Will share his bed, the mild inconvenience of changing the sheets was nothing, nothing at all. He had tried to explain this, in the past, and could tell already that for the forseeable future, he would be explaining it again, and again.
He had whined, first, when Hannibal nudged him to get the sheets out from under him, a low, sad sound that had changed when he realized what was happening.
After that, he huddled in the oversized chair by the bed, the cold washcloth Hannibal had gotten him pressed to his forehead, warming against his skin.
“This is going to get really old, you know.”
“You know that’s not what I mean; I live with it.”
“You have it. We live with it,” Hannibal said, firm, closing the subject. Moving closer, he kissed the top of Will’s head and caught the scent of something hot and yet almost cloying. Strange, and new. The scent of stress, perhaps, at a moment of exhaustion so thorough his body had already wrung itself nearly dry?
Whatever the source, Hannibal held him close, and kissed his damp hair again. “The bed’s ready. I’ll get you another cloth.”
The sound Will made sinking into the dry, softness of fresh flannel sheets tugged at Hannibal’s heart so fiercely, so unexpectedly, that the aftershocks kept him up for ages, Will’s head against his shoulder, his hand resting on the small of Will’s back, and feeling it grow damp by increments so small he couldn’t have measured them. Slow, and inexorable.
Hannibal’s hand spread wide to cover the spot, keeping the blankets from sticking.
Outside on the porch, Will leaned against the railing. Around his shoulders he clutched the Mexican blanket his father had given him as a boy, an aberration to the décor that Hannibal had never been able to bring himself to complain about. The colors had faded with time ,and it had come to suit Will in his mind a way he’d never have expected, something achingly familiar, now, in the exact way his hands closed around the tattering ends, the habit he had of worrying the tassels between his fingers.
Hannibal’s arms closed around him from behind, enveloping Will and blanket both, his breath warm against chilled skin as he nosed into the crook of Will’s neck.
“You’ve been out here awhile. I’m sure the dogs are ready to come in.” In truth, all but two of them had already, scampering in around Hannibal’s legs when he ventured out to fetch their master. Will hadn’t stirred.
He barely did, now, but for a shuddering breath, a blink of eyes that looked to carry a hint of red even in the moonlight.
“I don’t…” Will swallowed, his arms squeezing tighter at the blanket. In response, Hannibal’s arms followed suit, pulling him fiercely close. “I don’t remember coming out here. I don’t remember anything after being in the shower. I was washing my hair, and then I was here, and it’s dry and—“
Before he could reach up to feel it, to confirm for himself again, Hannibal caught his hand, their fingers intertwining. He shushed Will with low breath, a soft sound, his mouth lingering now against the line of Will’s jaw, higher on his cheek. There was flush beneath his lips; he could feel it. The scent he had first caught weeks ago changing the sheets was there, too—hot and sweet, like mulled wine. He had named it stress, then; a stress unique to Will. Now…
“I think you have a fever,” he murmured, careful, as if he reached toward a wild bird that might at any moment fly. “And I think you have for weeks. Aspects of your life you recognize aren’t helping; they hide the symptoms, but you’re not well, and it’s physical. You smell different. I thought, before, it was a part of you I hadn’t yet caught, but I think I was wrong. You need to see a doctor. A real one, not Brian.”
Will’s huff of laughter held no humor, only something dry and a little too chilled. Brittle, like sticks snapping underfoot. “Yeah, I guess so. Forgetting an entire day is…a pretty big sign you’re out of control. I mean it’s just gone; I can’t remember—“
Carefully, Hannibal tipped his chin to kiss him—his cheekbones, the flutter of his eyelids, the warm, sweet give of his mouth. “You don’t have to; you have me. I remember. Come in the house, and I’ll tell you.”