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Sweeter Bitter

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Dr. Hannibal Lecter was not usually one to work with inquiring students, let alone undergraduates, since leaving John Hopkins. There, he had chosen his mentees with care, and now he was settled in his psychiatry practice with little time between work and extracurriculars. However, this student, Will Graham, had come to him via recommendation from Alana Bloom, and Hannibal's interest had been piqued. The young man's emails had been polite and his work promising. His work also revolved around a few of Hannibal's articles. Not often one to turn down an opportunity to talk about his opinions, Hannibal invited the student to his office.

Mr. Graham was punctual, ringing the bell just around 7:30PM, and Hannibal buzzed him in before standing from his desk to get the door to the waiting room. He was not prepared for the impression the student would make. For a moment, Hannibal wondered if he had made a scheduling error, since the man in his waiting room was painfully young, looking more like a college freshman, if that. His face was cherubic and hairless, and also strikingly beautiful despite the roughness of his appearance, hair overgrown and clothes worn. In fact, he dressed like someone much older, a flannel shirt tucked into ill-fitting chinos. No doubt he was making up for his youthful looks if he was, as Alana said, a junior.

Hannibal recovered quickly, giving the young man a tame smile. "Good evening. You must be Will Graham, please come in."

There was a sharpness to Mr. Graham's gaze, though fleeting, and Hannibal suspected that he had been caught in his surprise. He held open the door for Will. "Thank you for having me, Dr. Lecter," Will said with his eyes downcast, and then entered the office.

Hannibal watched him take in the lavish office with obvious surprise, adjusting the glasses on his nose and clinging to the strap of his messenger bag. Hannibal couldn't get Will to meet his eyes, even after directing him to sit in one of the twin chairs. His blue eyes lingered on the bookshelves and art, minute shifts in his expression telling Hannibal that his gaze wasn't merely wandering; he was taking in his surroundings and analyzing them.

"Alana Bloom speaks highly of your work," Hannibal said, settled in his chair across from the student. "She mentioned that your thesis is on abnormal behaviors."

"That's correct," Will replied. "I was hoping you could answer some questions about your article on social exclusion."

"Right to work then," Hannibal said brightly, as Will went rummaging through his bag.

"Don't want to waste your time," Will said, and Hannibal was struck by the surety in his voice that Will wasn't wanted.

"For at least the next two hours, you have my undivided attention," Hannibal assured him.

Will's grip faltered on his notebook as he drew it out of the bag. "Well, uh, I appreciate it."

The boy's questions were astute and Hannibal found himself captivated by Mr. Graham's intellect, asking him questions back, eager to hear his thoughts. He was likely on the autism spectrum, though he didn't seem to have any trouble picking up on social clues or tone. He took a few notes, but mostly the notebook and pen in his hands were something to fiddle with and look at. He was also aggressive, so Hannibal lobbed him a few flimsy arguments and watched in delight as he eviscerated them.

"Not fond of eye-contact, are you?" Hannibal asked after some time, hoping to catch him off-guard.

Will blushed and fumbled with his glasses. "I'm not fond of psychoanalysis either," he shot back.

Hannibal smiled at his fervor. “Seeing is what we do. I can no more turn of mine that you can yours.”

“Turn off my what?” Will asked, mildly offended.

“Your keen sense of observation.”

Will huffed, shaking his head. “Am I in your chair now?”

Hannibal felt his smile grow, but held it back so as not to pitch the young man into a fury. “Not at all. You don’t have any problems, do you Will?” He was teasing, now. It was difficult to resist.

“Funny. Most therapists are so eager to tell me that I don’t need to have ‘a problem’ to benefit from therapy.” The derision he held for therapy was apparent, and telling.

He was a young man, no doubt had entered college early, and by the wear of his clothes and bag was probably on a full scholarship. It was possible his family could afford therapy and counseling, and if not it must have been recommended by school counselors. Hannibal shuddered to think what Will must have been told by bumbling counselors if he was armchair-diagnosed as autistic.

“If you’ll indulge my curiosity,” Hannibal said, “What do you observe?”

Will sucked in a breath, and bit his bottom lip. It was quite charming. “Most people who ask that don’t actually want to hear what I have to say.”

“I assure you, you won’t offend me,” Hannibal said. “My ego could use a little cutting after so long talking about my work.”

Will grinned, tongue between his teeth. “Alright.” He took off his glasses and closed his eyes, and for a few moments was very, very still. Hannibal watched in fascination as Will’s eyes flickered behind eyelids, as if in REM sleep. When Will opened his eyes, his look was distant but focused. “You’re wealthy, but not from psychiatry,” Will began. “You have two doctorates, so maybe it’s from your previous practice. Surgeon or neurologist. Probably come from money as well. Your office is so ostentatious that you no doubt charge the high end for your sessions, and you have a pick of your clients. You’re a coveted psychiatrist. Baltimore’s elite no doubt would cash out to lie on your chaise.”

Will’s eyes swept to the upper landing. “You’re meticulously organized in everything you do. You take extensive notes on your patients, your more esoteric or offensive thoughts probably written in code. You like hiding things in plain sight, you have no tolerance for boredom, you’re a bachelor by choice, maybe gay. English isn’t your first language, of course, but I don’t think that’s the reason for your speech delay. You... compose your responses, verbal and expressive. It might be difficult for you to react naturally without premeditation. I also think you're sociopathic.”

The chill down Hannibal’s spine must have showed, even though his face was schooled into practiced neutrality. Will glanced at him and blushed again, brows furrowed. “Sorry, I -- I told you you didn’t want to hear.”

“It’s quite alright, Will,” Hannibal assured him. “Your observations are as astute as I suspected they would be. I am curious why you think I am sociopathic though; it’s not something I’ve been identified with before.”

Will grinned sheepishly. “Ah, well. I think us abnormal types are drawn towards study of abnormal behavior. And there’s a quality to your emotions that feels stunted. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with sociopathy,” he added. “So long as you’ve decided not to hurt others. Still, you’ve got the dangerous combination of intelligent and charming.”

Hannibal chuckled, a bare thing under his breath. “No head injuries in my childhood, I assure you.”

Will was still grinning, knuckles by his lips. “So? Am I right?”

“Well, I certainly do not have antisocial personality disorder,” Hannibal replied. “If we take the functional view of sociopathy, I do not display any of the disorderly conduct, though I am narcissistic.”

“How's your moral compass and regard for others?” Will asked playfully.

“My regard for others does not come easily,” was all Hannibal said. “And yourself? You have identified abnormal behavior within yourself.”

Will rubbed his smooth jaw, glancing towards the windows. He had yet to really make eye contact, but at this point in the conversation had eased in his posture, lithe legs spread wide. “Empathy and observations come easily, social integration does not.”

“Always on the outside looking in.”

“I moved a lot as a kid.”

“A little social awkwardness or narcissism does not abnormal behavior make.”

“Tell that to my classmates,” Will said with a grimace.

Hannibal pursed his lips. “Humans have the uncanny ability to recognize others as not belonging in the tribe. What comprises our current social contract are little more than arbitrary rules, rituals, and symbols. What is considered ‘abnormal’ here and now is sanctioned in other cultures and contexts. Rather unfortunately, those who are different but harmless are often excluded.”

“We’ve evolved many tools that are no longer useful.”

“And, socially, we condone certain flavors of violence.”

Will nodded, eyes rising as far as Hannibal’s chin. “Yeah. You can say that again.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, Hannibal wondering how far he dare push the young man. Having avoided it all evening, the contact of his gaze was minorly thrilling, even if it wasn't direct. “Do you think yourself abnormal?” Hannibal finally asked.

“Well, yeah,” Will said quickly. “I would think it's obvious?”

“I don't find you abnormal, Will.”

Will curled in on himself a bit, like a flower wilting under too much sun. “Well, you've only known me for—shit, is it that late?” Flustered, he began to put his notebook away.

“Do you have somewhere to be?” Hannibal asked.

“N-no. It's just, uh…”

“Please, Will. If you were wasting my time, I would have ended the meeting.”

“Right.” Will bit his lip. “But I should get back. It takes a while to bus back to school.”

“Very well,” Hannibal agreed, getting to his feet. "But the point stands, that I have yet to identify your abnormality."

"Maybe that's because you're weird too."

The blunt comment should have been offensive or presumptuous, but Hannibal was delighted. And Will was correct, in his own way. Hannibal knew himself well, and how easy it would be for him to turn into something monstrous. 

Watching Will shrug on his shoulder bag, Hannibal’s farewell shriveled up in his mouth. It had been an excellent conversation, charming and stimulating, the type of intellectual debate unhindered by much of old academia’s pretentiousness. Hannibal hadn't had a discussion like it in a long time. He was loathe to end the night. So, instead of his customary farewell, Hannibal found himself asking, “May I offer you a ride?”

Will froze, just for a moment, his brows drawing together in suspicion, and Hannibal realized that he had misstep. “I don't want to put you out,” Will said, drawing in on himself further.

“It's no trouble,” Hannibal assured him. “But I understand if you're more comfortable parting ways here.”

Will fidgeted where he stood, one foot coming up to scratch the back of his calf. His long hair and glasses hid his eyes, and Hannibal had the sudden urge to tuck his hair behind his ear. “Um, sure,” Will said at last. “If you really don't mind.”

“I truly don't,” Hannibal said. “Just give me a moment.”

Hannibal gathered up his belongings and put on his coat, turning off the lights in the waiting room and then the main office before guiding Will to the exit. “I have quite enjoyed our conversation,” Hannibal told him as he finished locking up. “If you would like to send me your outline, I would be happy to take a look at it.”

“Oh, thanks, that would be great,” Will said. He arched his brow at Hannibal’s car, but said nothing as he slipped inside.

“You can also send me your bibliography, and I can recommend some reading.”

“I would appreciate that.”

Hannibal drove them through Baltimore towards the college, the silence unexpectedly heavy. Will seemed uncomfortable, like he had at the beginning of their meeting. Perhaps the change of locations had caused the shift in mood. Hannibal reflected on himself and admitted that offering a student a ride was somewhat out of his character, but in and of itself not particularly strange. The reason for Will's discomfort... well. Hannibal could only think of one reason, and he did not think any of his behavior that evening had warranted Will's mistrust. At the same time, they had spent a few hours talking about violent behaviors. Will was likely just being cautious. 

“This is fine,” Will said, after deflecting most of Hannibal’s attempts at conversation. Hannibal stopped outside one of the college apartments. Will unbuckled his seatbelt but stayed in the car.

“This is weird,” Will said, shoulders tense. “I made this weird, didn't I?”

Hannibal looked at him for a moment. Something was obviously troubling the boy. “Do you feel weird, or do you believe you should feel weird?”

Will smiled, a strange response. “Uh. I don't know. I feel weird.”

“In a bad way?”

Will made a short, high noise in the back of his throat, and Hannibal could hear the click as he swallowed. “No. Not bad. I don’t usually… get along with people.” Will sighed. “And now I’m making it weird.” Before Hannibal could protest he opened the car door and stepped out, bending down to stare at Hannibal’s tie. “I, uh, it was good to talk to you. And thanks again for the ride.”

“Goodnight, Will,” Hannibal said, raising his hand in farewell.

“Goodnight, Dr. Lecter,” Will responded in kind, ducking his head and shutting the door behind him, but not before Hannibal caught the dark flush of his cheeks.