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One gunshot wound, successfully stitched closed, and the patient stabilized. It’s his third surgery of the night; the first involved putting pins in a compound-fractured tibia, the second was reattaching the partially-severed finger of a drunk man attempting to operate a table saw. Hannibal has only barely exited the operating ampitheatre when he is accosted by a nurse.

“Oh, Doctor Lecter. I’m really sorry to bother you, um…” Bernadette, one of the newer hires, shuffles in place. She has not yet gotten to the point where she uses her no-nonsense tone on him—Hannibal almost finds it funny. Nurses are without a doubt the backbone of the emergency room. He simply goes where they bid him, and now is not the time for her hesitation.

“I understand, of course. Duty calls. Is there another one?” His shift is nearing an end; Hannibal has the good sense to admit he is growing weary. When he’s tired, he’s ineffectual. An ineffectual surgeon can be a death sentence. He is weighing the options of taking on another patient, depending on severity, when she interrupts his thoughts.

“Kind of—Dr. Guthrie is with a patient, and Dr. Cruz just stepped out. We have two patients in their early 20s who were just escorted by police. Suspected concussion and badly bruised rib cage; the other one is in pretty good shape, aside from a split lip and a probably-fractured hand, but they won’t let anyone get near them.”

“Assault?” Hannibal asks, and removes his soiled gloves. He quickly, thoroughly washes with the pungent antibacterial soap up to his elbows. “Assuming it’s not an emergency, then.”

“No,” she says, and uncertainty threads through her voice.

“What is it, Bernadette?”

“One of the patients is gender non-conforming,” she says. “And the police seem to be pretty laser-focused on them.”

Hannibal is silent while he considers this. Transgender and nonbinary people face a much higher risk of assault. It is an unfortunate side to his job that he sees them fairly often. But he has developed something of a reputation for his understanding in dealing with them—in that regard, he’s not surprised Bernadette has brought this to him in absence of searching out Dr. Cruz, who is… decidedly less accepting. He shakes the water from his hands and reaches for paper towels to blot himself dry.

“Understood,” he replies. “Do you have their chart? I can provide an assessment of the situation.”

Bernadette practically deflates with relief. “Thank you, Doctor. Here. I’ll show you to them.”

Hannibal flips the chart open, scanning as he follows his nurse, dodging the hustle and bustle of the busy Saturday-night Emergency Room as a practiced participant. The data in the chart is minimal: William S. Graham, twenty years old, student at the University of Maryland. Nothing in the medical history to cause alarm. Insurance provided through his—their—school.

And then Bernadette leads him behind the curtain, and Hannibal absorbs everything at once.

The officers stand on either side of the bed; there is no safe haven for William to draw away, and thus, they have drawn in on themselves. Their hair is frazzled, piled atop their head in a haphazard knot; damp with nervous sweat at the hairline, wisps of curled bangs hastily swiped away from carefully-outlined blue eyes by bloody knuckles. Their teeth are bared, a row of straight, sharp teeth painted red by a split lip, dripping blood over the artificial sheen of lipgloss.

Hannibal’s keen eyes immediately make note of the darker patches on the knees of their black denim pants that disappear into black boots; contusions on the knees. Their flannel shirt is green and black plaid, smudged with blood and dirt and what appears to be brick dust. It hangs unevenly open, clutched closed by Will’s other hand; a cracked pair of glasses is folded over the gaping collar. Through the gap that reveals smooth, pale skin, Hannibal sees a flash of a black satin undershirt.

“Look, you’re facing arrest for assault and forgery of documents. You shouldn’t have been out at that bar. Just tell us where you got your fake ID, and maybe we can let some of this slide—”

“Are you kidding me?” they snap. Their eyes flash to Bernadette and Hannibal, then back to the cops. “I’ve told you anything relevant. If you can’t do your jobs with what I’ve given you, then you don’t deserve your badges. There had to be thirty witnesses back at the bar.”

“The witnesses don’t change the fact that you were breaking the law,” one of the officers says, and Hannibal feels his blood run cold like ice, slicing through his veins. “Lying about your age, presenting yourself under false pretenses—”

It is a strange sensation, sympathy. One that Hannibal is in no hurry to embrace, and no rush to repeat. But he has always found the treatment of LGBT individuals by law enforcement to be tasteless.

And this is his domain, at least for the moment.

“Officers, I will have to ask you to step outside the curtain,” Hannibal says smoothly. “My name is Doctor Hannibal Lecter, I’m here to tend to the patient.”

“He’s suspected of a crime,” one officer says, short and mean-eyed, and for a moment, Hannibal considers what the flesh of his belly might taste like, rounded as it is beneath his uniform blues. It’s been months since his last display, and of course, this is too close to home—but still, he considers the benefits. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“Short of attempted murder, I will have to insist,” Hannibal replies. His gaze slides to William, and finds himself being sized up, measured by the fury behind sharp blue eyes. There is a predator living inside that skull—or, at the very least, anger enough to fuel one. “HIPAA privacy laws are very clear. I will supervise here; Bernadette, if you would care to escort the officers to question the other patient? This interview seems quite one-sided, considering most of what I see at first glance is an extensive collection of defensive wounds.”

The officers bristle; Bernadette radiates satisfaction. Police escorts are not uncommon in the emergency room, of course, but neither are victims being pressured before being properly tended to… or without legal counsel. Hannibal intends to remedy at least one of those issues.

“Officers, follow me, please,” Bernadette says. “I can lead you to Mr. McCallum, and then to our front desk to fill out chain of custody paperwork.”

They go. Some tension seeps from William Graham’s shoulders, but none of the anger from their face.

“My nurse informed me you wouldn’t let anyone tend to you,” Hannibal says, and makes no move to approach quite yet. “Would you allow me to disinfect your cuts?”

Slowly, slowly, they nod.

Hannibal gathers supplies from the cabinet; sterile wipes, non-stick gauze, and a collection of bandages and paper tape. He rolls the nearby stool to the edge of the bed and sets everything there for William to see, pulls on a pair of nitrile gloves before holding out one hand in silent query.

One shaking, bloody hand is set gently into Hannibal’s palm, and he gets to work.

“What are your preferred pronouns?” Hannibal asks, careful to keep his voice even. He tears open a sterile wipe and swipes in short strokes over the abrasions on bruised knuckles.

“I don’t care,” they reply quietly. “He and him is fine, I guess. I’m not trying to lie to anyone.”

Hannibal nods once. “You have no need to explain yourself. Gender identity is a deeply personal thing. Do you prefer to go by William, or do you have something else you’d like me to call you?”

He swallows. With the rage melting from his body, all that is left is exhaustion and simmering anger, a thin blanket to mask his fear. “Just Will.”

“Hello, Will.” He glances up and offers a small smile. He rarely has cause to use it in the operating room; it feels rusty with disuse, but knows it appears sincere. “I’ll warn you, I am usually a trauma surgeon. I was alerted to the situation by your nurse. I may be called away if another emergency arises, but in the absence of one, I am qualified to tend to your wounds.”

Will says nothing. He takes a deep breath and lets it out; it shudders, and he shivers, drawing his other arm tight around his body. “I was just defending myself. Now they’re coming after me about my fake ID.” He laughs once, bitterly. “Cops don’t care about fake IDs. Not really. They only care because of how I look.”

“And how do you look?” Hannibal asks, curious as to what Will might say.

Will glances up. He meets Hannibal’s eyes and holds them. “Different.”

Hannibal discards one blood-soaked wipe and reaches for the gauze. He wraps Will’s first hand, and tapes the bandage into place. He considers this. “Are we not all different?”

Will scoffs. “Only a special kind of different gets guys to try to beat you up outside a bar.”

Hannibal tsks and holds out his hand for Will’s other. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to belittle your experience. Gender and sexuality-nonconforming individuals are at a much higher risk of violence. I see it often enough within these walls to not be ignorant of the cause.” He sets to work on Will’s other hand; the skin on his fingers is callused with years of hard work, but his fingernails are painted with sheer varnish and carefully shaped. His knuckles, though, are swollen purple and blue—very likely broken. “You will need an x-ray of your hand. It appears you may have fractured your first and second metacarpals.”

Hannibal gently flexes Will’s wrist; when he detects no flicker of a wince or any indication of pain, he hums with consideration. “No inflammation elsewhere; you know how to throw a punch.”

At that, Will grins. It makes his lip stretch, crack, and bleed again. The scent of artificial cherry is the only indication that the flushed color of his mouth is not solely from spilled blood. “Yeah. Learned that one early on.”

Hannibal answers with a small, satisfied huff. He holds off on wrapping Will’s broken hand and stands to reach for a hospital gown. He sets it on Will’s lap. “There’s blood on your pants; it seems you may have cut your knees. Do you think you can get undressed without hurting your hand and without assistance?”

Will grimaces; the wolf’s smile is gone. “I’m sure I can manage.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Hannibal replies patiently. “I’d be happy to get a nurse to help you—”

Will shakes his head. “Don’t. If you could just…” Will looks frustrated with his own inability, so terribly, vulnerably young. “If you could help me unzip my boots, I can do the rest on my own. I’m not going to hurt myself getting out of my clothes.”

“People manage to hurt themselves doing much less.” Hannibal’s voice is droll and perhaps exasperated, but the most miraculous thing happens:

Will laughs. “Seeing the most graceless of humanity day-in and day-out must get exhausting,” he says with a smile.

Hannibal is stunned. The monster inside him is vindicated, though he does his best to hide it. How strange, the worldly secrets that spill so carelessly out of the mouths of babes. “And the accident-prone.”

“And the violence-prone,” Will adds. He reaches for his boots and winces when he puts weight on his injured hand; shuffles to readjust and recalculate.

Hannibal interrupts before he gets that far. “Allow me.” He keeps himself steady and clinical as he lifts one black leather boot and unzips it from calf to ankle. There is a strange, sensual weight to Will’s eyes on him that borders on unprofessional. He probably should have gotten a nurse to assist Will after all, but alas—“The other, please.”

There is a considering tilt to Will’s smooth jaw, a cautious grace as he uses his toe to push the first boot off, then offer the next. Hannibal narrowly resists wetting his lips at the flash of sheer black stockings underneath.

What a fascinating conundrum.

“I’ll give you a moment,” Hannibal says. “I’m just going to check and make sure there haven’t been any intakes since you’ve arrived. I’ll be right outside.”

“Not worried I’m gonna run?” Will asks. He slips his other foot free and peels the stockings off, turning them right-side out with his careful hands and folding them together in one neat, fluid movement that is unhampered by injury. He leans back against the incline of the hospital bed, and with a flash of challenge and consideration, moves slowly to reach for the button of his pants.

Hannibal waits until his fingers reach the narrow waistband before he averts his eyes and stands. He does not consider it a failure; he knows he shows no disgust on his face, no inappropriate intrigue. The only intrigue he feels is well-concealed, and not so crudely manipulated.

“Without your shoes?” Hannibal replies with a faint tilt of a smile as he heads to the curtain, soiled wipes gathered into his palm to be discarded. “Where would you go? Slip away into the night and back to your dorm? Tend to your wounds yourself?”

“I might do better than you’d expect.” He hears the creak of the hospital bed as Will stands, the rustle of fabric as he begins to undress. It’s crass. Cheeky. Against his better judgement, Hannibal finds it amusing rather than offensive. Will’s attitude is intelligent; not purely reactionary. “I’m resourceful.”

Hannibal resists the urge to look back and behold the sight of Will Graham laid bare. No, not so soon. His shift is near done, but his night has only just become interesting. If nothing else, Hannibal is a patient man.

Something tells him that Will Graham is worth savoring piece by piece.

“I believe you,” Hannibal says, and to his own surprise, he does. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Hannibal discards his gloves and the bloodstained remnants of Will’s care in a biohazard bin. Then he heads to the front desk to locate another of the floor nurses.

“Will Graham in lobby three will need an x-ray for his left hand,” he says. “Unless there are any emergencies, please bump him up the queue. He has at least one fractured knuckle, and I’d like to get him casted before I’m off-shift. Please page me if I’m needed for an emergency, otherwise I will need to finish tending to his wounds.”

Hannibal does not wait for their surprise or for anything more than a confirmation before he slips through the office and into the staff room just down the hall. He dials into his assigned locker to extract his wallet, and slips a business card into the plastic pocket that holds his hospital ID. He retreats to Will’s sectioned-off area of the ER, decided.

If the police insist on giving Will a hard time for the altogether unextraordinary crime of possessing a fake identification, then Hannibal will give him a leg-up in the form of a legal reference. Though he specializes in medical malpractice suits, James Deioss is an accomplished lawyer who, to Hannibal’s knowledge, has more than one victorious discrimination lawsuit under his belt.

Granting favors is not something Hannibal is in the habit of doing, but Hannibal is curious—and under the pressure of Hannibal’s curiosity, strange things are bound to happen.

Will Graham is a curiosity.

“Will?” He asks when he returns to the boundary of the curtain.

“Come in,” Will replies, and Hannibal does.

He pauses as the curtain falls shut behind him.

Will’s clothes are in a smartly-folded pile on the foot of the bed—stockings, pants, satin camisole, flannel shirt, cracked glasses set atop it all. His heeled boots are neatly tucked underneath the hospital cot.

His back is to the door, legs crossed beneath him, and the hospital gown slouches off one shoulder. The disheveled bun in his hair has been removed, and a cascade of mussed brunette curls has been swept down around the side of his throat.

The pale canvas of Will’s back has been painted with bruises; shallow, parallel scrapes have drawn pinpricks of blood that the removal of Will’s shirt has torn free. They are, Hannibal notes, exactly the right distance to denote a hard impact with a brick wall.

And lower, clinging to Will’s narrow hips, is a swath of black lace in the form of sheer briefs.

He is the perfect marriage of lust and violence. Hannibal inhales silently and commits the scent of blood, sweat and cloyingly-sweet cherry lip gloss to his memory. All of it paints a portrait in his mind that he will commit to graphite later—the shape of a patient who occupies one night of his life in October, the signature scrawled H. Lecter, and the model’s name, Will Graham.

“Your back is quite a sight,” Hannibal says, and swallows down his appreciation for the image of red and purple and blue watercolor, the body’s natural palette of pain. “Does your head hurt?”

“Only a little,” Will murmurs. He looks back over his shoulder, and there is a clever, exacting light in his gaze. Normally, that sort of thing would be incensing. Incredibly rude and presumptuous, even from one so young, so naive. But Will’s face holds and uncertainty, a deep melancholy that shifts beneath his skin in the form of an injured wolf, abandoned and alone. It howls with no hope for an audience, but even over the din of the Johns Hopkins PA system and the commotion of the emergency room, Hannibal can hear it echo.

Hannibal slips on a new pair of gloves. “Will you permit me to check your skull for damage?”

Will snorts. “If you can find damage to my brain, Doctor Lecter, I’m sure my classmates would be thrilled. By all means.”

Hannibal huffs a breath. With careful fingers, he touches the back of Will’s vulnerable neck and privately revels at his shiver. He wonders what it would be like to touch without the barrier of nitrile gloves between them; he feels the shape of Will’s scalp, skims lightly with his fingertips for any rough or tender patches.

Only one place draws a closed-mouthed moan of pain—toward the crown of his head, there is a lump and the faintest crackling sensation of scabs where Will’s head must have impacted. Hannibal withdraws, and his jaws click shut, teeth snap together behind his lips; to think the police were willing to paint Will as the assailant and the one in the wrong, when all indications point to the assault he had suffered.

“Would you like to tell me what happened?” Hannibal asks. “Between your back and your head, you seem to have faced some amount of violence. I’m sure that’s not what you expected of your evening.”

“I wasn’t at the bar for a good time, if that’s what you’re implying,” Will murmurs.

“That’s not at all what I’m implying.” Hannibal’s fingers slip from his hair and he retreats to the supply cabinet to fish out another antiseptic wipe. “Only that speaking of what happened to you may be of some help. The attack must have come as a shock.”

Will’s voice tightens. “I don’t need therapy, either.”

“I am simply trying to assist you, Will.” Hannibal isn’t quite sure why he bothers, and a flash of annoyance means he is well on his way to stop trying, intriguing boy or not. “If you tell me what happened, it may not only be of help to you emotionally, but I will be able to corroborate your story based on the pattern of your wounds. If you have a cell phone, I would be happy to take photographs for you to submit as evidence to the police. This is not my first incident, Will. Those marginalized by society based upon preference must stick together if we are to survive. We are vastly outnumbered by those who would gladly see us fade away.”

Will looks back. His eyes are huge and wide, oceanic blue, framed by black ink and painted-black lashes, pink powder blush and bright red scrapes. He is as lovely and vulnerable as a spring fawn. Will says nothing at first, but searches Hannibal’s face with something he might categorize as desperation. No victim ever wishes to be alone in the aftermath. Hannibal wonders if Will Graham has anyone he will call once he’s released.

But the implication sinks in. Hannibal can see the moment it clicks that he is safe, that he is a friend, and Will melts back into the nitrile-coated safety of Hannibal’s palms. Will reaches back blindly with his less-injured hand to extract a badly-scratched smartphone from between the tower of his clothes. He unlocks it and hands it to Hannibal.

“Document it,” Will says softly. “Please. You’re my only real evidence.”

Hannibal obligingly steps back and does as he is bid. He takes photographs of the bruise pattern, the scrapes. He gently parts Will’s untamed curls and snaps a picture of the rust-red scabs on his scalp. Then he steps around, sits on the edge of the bed facing Will; takes Will’s hand in his own and captures and image of his knuckles, and a close-up of his split lip.

To the violent aesthete that lives in Hannibal’s heart, he is photographing the finest sensuality, and Will Graham is a new and unexpected muse. He steels himself back to impassivity as he hands the phone to Will and sees the photos locked and archived, out of his grasp.

Will swallows hard. “Thank you.”

Hannibal extracts the wipe from the sterile pack and sets to work. After scant seconds of indecision, Will begins to speak.

“I was at the bar to meet a source,” Will says. “Some guy kept trying to hit on me. He wouldn’t take a hint. I thought I got away from him when I started my interview, but he was waiting for me to leave. When he got outside, he must’ve realized—the street lamps were bright, I don’t know. But he shoved me into the wall and he punched me, and I just… reacted. I put him down. I don’t know if or when it stopped being self-defense, but then the cops were there and I was being dragged away.”

“Do you often find yourself lost to violence?” Hannibal asks. The thought is fascinating.

Will shakes his head. “Not like this. I just… I did what I did in self-defense. I should stand by that, right?” His chin drops to his chest, and the fall of his hair shifts with it. The tender nape of his neck is exposed to Hannibal’s ravenous eyes. His teeth ache. “I’m going to get expelled.”

“You are the victim of an assault,” Hannibal replies firmly, for Will’s benefit rather than his own. He does indulge in letting one hand settle over the back of Will’s neck, to steady him as he deftly cleans Will’s wounds. “If you were to be expelled, it would be an injustice.”

Hannibal sighs as though a thought is occuring to him only for the first time. He extracts his lawyer’s card from his identification pocket, and rounds the bed to sit across from Will. He presses it into Will’s palm. “I fetched this for you earlier. This lawyer is a friend of mine. If the police give you a difficult time in their questioning, I advise you to call him. Tell him I told you to. He will take care of you, pro bono of course.”

Will’s lips part, exposing the pink slip of his tongue. He wets his lips; blood and sweet color are swept away. “I can’t. I couldn’t.”

“I insist,” Hannibal replies. “Though I cannot force you to do anything you don’t wish, Will. It’s common sense. Your future should not be impacted by the bias of a few.”

Will’s eyes lift to his, bright with life and swarmed with guilt. “I’m the one at fault.”

“You are a victim of an assault,” Hannibal repeats. “Will. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you that you do not deserve to be found at fault for this.” Hannibal pats his hand and draws back. He has crossed lines already, and does not wish to cross any more—not so soon, anyway.

But as he retreats, Will’s clever gaze follows him. “Why would you do this for me? I’m a stranger.”

Hannibal sets to work covering Will’s scrapes with gauze. He pretends not to notice Will’s head tipping back to brush against his hands, a wild and lonely thing looking for a kind touch. “Kindness and courtesy costs me nothing, but my apathy may cost you your future.” Hannibal secures the tape on one cut and moves to the next. “You said you were meeting a source. May I assume you’re a journalist?”

“Trying to be.” Will takes a breath and leans forward, ducks his head to his chest and rounds his back like a cat, the vibrant plane of it a feast to Hannibal’s roving eyes. He wonders if Will is manipulating him even now, or if he is simply as exhausted and vulnerable as he seems. “I’m a student at the Merrill College of Journalism. I’m trying to assemble my senior project, but I’ve… well, I’ve chosen an ambitious subject.”

Will’s voice is wry. Hannibal senses a story. “Ambitious projects and journalism go hand-in-hand, do they not?”

“Maybe if it was political,” Will concedes. His voice is muffled. “But this is mostly petty.”

Color him intrigued—Will has not struck him as the type to be unduly spiteful. Hannibal works his way from wound to wound. “Oh?”

“It’s about that serial killer,” Will says. “The one who the cops are stumped by—I’m sure you’ve seen the news. The one that no one can decide if it’s one killer or a few killers. Six victims in short bursts over the last eighteen months.”

Hannibal’s hands go still. “And such a topic is petty?”

Will makes a soft sound of embarrassment; Hannibal can admit that he is much too distracted to pay it mind. “Only because I picked it to prove my classmate wrong.”

Hannibal is almost offended. He keeps himself in check. “You don’t find it interesting?”

“Oh!” Now Will sounds offended. “Of course I find him interesting. He’s a genius. It’s only petty because Freddie is wrong.” There’s a sneer in his voice.

Hannibal is… he’s not sure what he feels.

But Will is still going. “Freddie’s idea of journalistic ethics is to use anyone she can to spin any sensationalist story. She doesn’t think about impact. She doesn’t care about truth. It’s like if, if—” Will makes a frustrated sound. “If a doctor used their position to victimize those at risk. It’s like violating do no harm. It’s abhorrent, and she’s going to get people killed because she doesn’t think about what she writes. She doesn’t understand the fuel to a fire that journalism can be to a murder case. That naming something gives it power, but if you name it wrong?”

Will’s bitter laugh is the finest wine on his tongue, a symphony to soothe the restless corners of his mind. Hannibal’s heart makes one strong, fascinated thump before he gets himself under control once more.

“If she names him wrong, he won’t stand for it, you know,” Will murmurs. “Not this one.”

Hannibal inhales. Exhales. His hands flatten on Will’s back as he smoothes one last piece of tape into place. “You speak as though you know him. It’s a bold assumption.”

Will hmphs, casts a hard look back over his shoulder. All Hannibal can see of him is one sharply-lined eye, one highlighted cheek washed nearly white in the cold hospital light. “If you spent your time and risked your freedom making art, then got categorized as something so amateur as The Baltimore Butcher, wouldn’t you be pissed? I would.”

Even the suggestion of such a name is sour. Distasteful.

But it is unimaginable that Will Graham might infer that from—from what?

“Art,” Hannibal says. He removes his hands, puts distance between them. Discards the cloth in one of the smaller biohazard containers mounted upon the wall. “You find the killings artful? Most would consider them gruesome.”

The mattress creaks; Will sits up. He stretches, and when he lifts his head, the sheet of his curls tumbles down his back in an untamed wave, brushing the edges of his scapulas. He hums a short tune in a voice smooth and clear. A bar from a song, perhaps. His lips turn up at the edges in a wistful, complicated smile that he directs up at the ceiling.

“Glory and gore, though, right? Making headlines. He considers them art—or better than they were before, anyway. They’re better to him dead. That doesn’t sound like just a Butcher to me.” Will’s smile falters; irritation creeps in around the edges, and soon enough, he’s scowling. “And he doesn’t only operate within Baltimore, which Freddie seems very ready to discount for the sake of clever alliteration.”

Hannibal tips his head in consideration. He holds out one last sealed sterile wipe; Will looks at it, then at him. “For your lip,” Hannibal says. “You’re still bleeding.”

“Oh.” Will tears it open without hesitation, and doesn’t seem to think anything of it as he wipes away his lip gloss. Not fussy, then. “Yeah, thanks.”

“You have quite a number of thoughts about this killer,” Hannibal says and quirks a brow, distracting himself from the sight of blood and lip color mingled together, brutal and effeminate. He’s not sure what effect he intends his words to have, but Will flushing red to the tips of his ears is not what he expects.

“Yeah, well…” Will hesitates, staring down at the wipe. Then, without a second thought, he folds it in half and begins to scrub at all his makeup. Black liner smudges and bleeds under the force of the alcohol; mascara smears in the hollows underneath Will’s eyes, lilac with sleep-deprived shadows and starving veins. Concealer, blush, powder, everything fades. The prettily-painted facade of Will Graham becomes the face of an exhausted young adult. Bruising at his jaw had been concealed by his foundation, and is now visible to Hannibal’s fascinated gaze. There is the faintest haze of ingrowing stubble, though not much to speak of.

Clad in a hospital gown and lace underwear, Will Graham is naked and defiant before him. He pulls his hair into a loose knot at the nape of his neck. With a mournful sigh, Will reaches for his glasses and wipes the cracked lenses with the edge of his hospital gown and puts them on.

Then he looks up at Hannibal, and there is a certain expression he wears—the exhausted expectation of rejection. And Will smiles, but it is not happy. “No one’s just one thing,” he says. “There’s no singular truth. But that doesn’t make the truth less fulfilling, does it? So I want to see his truth.” Will nods to himself. He looks down at his hands, his painted nails, his bruised and bloody broken knuckles. “And maybe I’ll keep Freddie from getting killed and prove her wrong all at once. But I’m not doing it for her.”

“An unconventional but noble pursuit.” Hannibal frowns. Suddenly he finds himself faced with a strange creature that he is not quite sure what to do with. A young predator with terrible potential, snared in chains of conventionality; a young knight on a noble quest for his Holy Grail. “So who would you do it for? Your quest to behold this killer and his truth.”

“Journalism gives a voice to the voiceless,” Will replies. There’s still mascara smudged beneath his lashes, blood painting his mouth where the color was wiped away; the cracks in his lenses are prison bars caging the duality of the creature within. “It seems to me this killer’s voice is the one that’s going unheard.”

Hannibal considers this. It’s an interesting thought, and he wonders what new dimensions might be reached if the tableaus left behind had an adequate eye to interpret them. “And with your insight, if you could and if you would, what name would you give to him?”

“Other than The Baltimore Butcher?”

Hannibal nods once. His curiosity is burning—to see what title someone like Will Graham might unknowingly bestow him.

Will stares in return. He has not been caught without an answer—it lurks somewhere inside his eyes, behind his teeth. He is gauging whether or not he wishes to share it; Anubis weighing the heart of the worthy.

“His comfort zone is large,” Will finally says. “Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, D.C. He crosses state lines with ease and avoids detection. He doesn’t seem to have any visible victim preferences, so either he’s random or he’s smart. He’s communicating through these murders, whether or not anyone is listening.” Something flickers across Will’s face, and is gone before it can be categorized. “But I’m listening.”

Yes, Hannibal realizes. Yes he is.

Will’s eyes waver and drop. With a sigh, he takes off his glasses again and casts them to the end of the bed, a lost cause. “It’s not my right to name him, Doctor Lecter. I’m just a student, I’m not a professional. I’m not law enforcement or a psychologist. Every guest lecturer says to never name a criminal. That it can embolden them, spur them to action and greater heights, seeking greater attention. But I’ve named him in my head, because in my head I know him. He speaks, and I hear his words. When he kills, I become an extension of his will.”

His Will. Hannibal rather likes the sound of that.

“To me,” Will says softly, “he’sThe Chesapeake Ripper.”

The Baltimore Butcher. The Chesapeake Ripper. Of the two, Hannibal immediately knows which he prefers. There is a subtle cleverness, a reverence that is beholden with being named after Jack the Ripper. It is a history as rich as the Chesapeake Bay is vast.

And most importantly?

Jack the Ripper was never caught.

Hannibal bites hard on the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood. He narrowly avoids smiling. “Well,” he replies instead, “It’s been months since any such killings. Perhaps he’s finished his work.”

“He’s not done,” Will says with certainty. “He’s not.”

Hannibal hums. No, of course he’s not done. He’ll never be done. Even if Will’s Ripper fades or relocates, Hannibal will never be done. Blood and bone are his birthright. Conquering is his nature.

Perhaps Will’s professors were right.

To be named is a powerful thing.

“It’s certainly more tasteful,” Hannibal says with a nod. “Your name for this killer. It’s a fitting title.”

Will blinks slowly, doelike. The removal of his makeup has not diminished the length of his lashes; the smudge of black around his lids accentuates the crisp color of his eyes. He looks up at Hannibal, soft and open and vulnerable, a heart ready to be crushed. To be consumed.

How would Will Graham taste?

“I wish you every good fortune with your project,” Hannibal says with a small smile. “Aside from the misfortunes of this night, of course.”

Will, though clever, is so terribly young, so sweetly naive when he lowers his eyes and murmurs, “It hasn’t been so bad.”

There is a knock.

“Yes?” Hannibal replies.

Bernadette pokes her head around the curtain. “I’m ready to take Will for an x-ray if you’re done with him, Doctor Lecter.”

“Thank you, Bernadette, that will do nicely,” Hannibal replies. “And your guests?”

“Mr. McCallum cracked like an egg,” she replies with a smug smile. “The officers might have more questions, but I think everything is going to be fine.” She turns her gaze to Will and goes soft with sympathy at his ruined makeup. “Oh, honey. I hope you weren’t crying.”

Hannibal surveys Will, his demure persona. Now that the fight has worn away, he’s malleable. “No, nothing of the sort. Will is very strong.”

Will is indeed quite strong. And unbelievably soft.

“Thank you for your help, Doctor Lecter,” Will says. The flicker of a familiar business card between his fingers is quick as a minnow, and disappears to be folded into Will’s clothes again. “And your understanding.”

“It’s been my pleasure, Will.” Hannibal reaches out, and Will reaches back. Will’s handshake is warm and firm. Respectable. He looks into Hannibal’s eyes and does not look away until they part. “I’ll check in with you when you return, schedule allowing—”

The beeper on Hannibal’s hip goes wild at the same time he hears, “Paging Doctor Lecter, Ambulance Bay One. Doctor Lecter, Bay One.”

Hannibal sighs, looking skyward as though the PA speaker embedded in the ceiling held any answers, or perhaps mercy. “Well, perhaps not.”

“I can manage from here,” Will replies. His head tips to the side in consideration. “Good luck.”

Hannibal nods in thanks. He pats Bernadette on the shoulder as he passes. “Thank you for your help. Good evening to you both.”

It’s a strange thing, perspective—how the appearance of one person in a life can completely eclipse another. Will Graham lingers on Hannibal’s mind, stalks the shape of his shadow to the operating room, and home thereafter. When it comes time to write his notes on the surgeries he has performed this night, he finds himself struggling to remember names. More concerning yet is that his usual page-per-patient policy has been consumed. Will Graham, who should have been a footnote at the bottom of his daily log, grew a life of his own beneath the strokes of Hannibal’s pen and took up two pages from beginning to end. From his bared teeth and wild eyes to the secrets he revealed for want of a sympathetic audience.

The Chesapeake Ripper.

Yes, Hannibal decides, and sets down his pen. He closes his journal and picks up his sketchbook with a memory of watercolor bruises in his mind. Yes, he likes the sound of that.

 

 

Chapter Text

Weeks pass. Though Will Graham never entirely fades from Hannibal’s mind, he does slip to the back of it. Work is all-encompassing, as it always is—and what few gaps exist in Hannibal’s schedule are filled by his studies.

Surgery is… exhausting. It consumes him, of course, but it requires more energy and time than Hannibal is strictly willing to give as he approaches his forties. As a surgeon, he lives a solitary life. He moves between shifts like a wraith, kept company only by his nurses and any poor soul who finds themselves eating vending machine food in the break room. Hannibal rarely has time for his finer pursuits of art and music. He barely has time to cook for himself.

So he studies. Psychology, he thinks, is a suitable use of his time. Office hours to keep, his own life to maintain. It is a long road of sleepless months, if not years that lay before him of splitting his time, but the result will be well worth it.

But in the meantime…

A name lingers in Hannibal’s mind, gifted to him. It carries infinitely more power than if he were to bequeath it to himself. But a realization hovers just beside it, a roiling stormcloud that demands the audience of raindrop eyes—

If Hannibal does not make a display of his kills again, and soon, no one will have any cause to know Will’s name for him.

So he thinks. He plans. And with the bitter memory of discrimination floating across the surface of his mind, Hannibal thinks of Andrew Caldwell; he pulls a business card from his rolodex and a recipe card from his cookbook.

He arranges a place for Andrew Caldwell in the archives of his own personal history. Andrew is, of course, quite beside himself to be included.

Hannibal considers who he might next commit to the halls of his memory palace while preparing his favored recipe for armagnac-sauteed kidneys with roquefort and walnut butter, served over finely-sieved potatoes. The food is delicious, but the meal itself is… lacking. Hannibal ponders for some time what ingredient he might be missing, what element he might add so his next dinner hits a more satisfying note.

It is not until he paces the halls of Johns Hopkins and spies a familiar silhouette that he realizes it may not be the food, but rather the company.

Or the lack thereof.

And Hannibal does not chase. But he finds himself following the click of high heels (because his nurses certainly know to wear more sensible shoes) and the sickly-sweet scent of cherry lip gloss.

“You know I’m not gonna name names,” that familiar voice wheedles, and Hannibal prickles at the familiarity of the tone as he closes the distance between them. He quiets his steps and listens carefully as he approaches, as the voices turn off into one of the smaller sample labs. “Please, Bev? Five minutes. I know procedure. I won’t post any pictures. I just need to see it in person.”

“You don’t want to see it in person,” a young woman replies, droll and exasperated, but no less fond. “He only just got released and he’s all… melty. No one wants to see it in person. I don’t want to see it in person, and that’s my job.”

“Yeah, but I do.”

“Then you’re nuts, and I’m keeping you out for your own mental health.”

Hannibal leans against the wall outside the lab, content to listen—he’s not needed for nearly another hour, and though he’d intended to finish up paperwork, this is much more worth his time and interest.

“You know that if you just, like, submitted a letter of request to the feebs, they might let you look, right?” There is a shuffle of sound, the slide of a cabinet, the hum of a centrifuge. Ah, so Will’s cohort is an employee.

“They wouldn’t do that,” Will replies unhappily. “It’s an ongoing investigation, and I’m a student. Hell, I had to wait until he was released here.

“I’m a student, too, and I’m not losing my internship for you. This is Johns Hopkins, Will. I worked my whole life for this.”

“I know that.” Will sounds defeated. “You know Freddie’s probably sleeping with Zeller right now and stealing his access card, right?”

“Then good for Zeller for getting laid, I guess, but I’m glad it’s not my ass on the line.” Another shuffle of movement. “What did you do to your hand, by the way?”

“Got jumped by some asshole. It doesn’t matter. You should see the other guy.”

“Where’d you get patched up?”

“Here, where else?”

“Who’s your doc? Hope it wasn’t Cruz. He’s an asshole to… to—”

“To people like me? Yeah, most are.” Will goes quiet with consideration. “Some trauma surgeon called off the cops. Doctor Lecter. He was really… nice.”

“Doctor Lecter? Wow, Will. I thought that guy was too busy to smile.”

WIll groans quietly. “He was. I rambled like an idiot and then he got paged. Probably freaked him out with all the murder talk.”

“Nah. Guy sees more death than half the doctors here. He’s hardcore.” Another series of noises. Hannibal is quietly amused, silently pleased. The idea of Will having freaked him out with his talk of a murderer is quaint, even if the murders were not of his own making. But then—“Hot, though, right?”

“Bev, please, ” Will says, so strained and emphatic it’s nearly a whine. “I was dying inside.”

“You’re hot too, you know,” Bev replies knowingly. “And it wouldn’t kill the guy to have a human interaction with someone conscious now and again. You’re probably the prettiest thing he saw all night.”

Well, she’s not precisely wrong, but Hannibal would hardly use the word pretty. Exquisite, perhaps. Beautiful, at the least.

“Bev.”

“What? Just the facts.”

“Okay, you win. I’m going. Will you at least get me a copy of the autopsy report?”

“Quantico won’t release it to us until the case is closed, and god knows how long that will take. Even the one done here will be under lock and key. We’re lucky they even released the body since the sister hasn’t chosen a funeral home. Sorry, Will.”

Will makes a murmur of quiet discontent. “Journalism is dying a slow and brutal death.”

“Should have gone into law enforcement,” Bev says sympathetically. “Get your degree and come run the Quantico gauntlet with me in a year or two.”

“They’ll want me to cut my hair,” Will replies. “And everyone in the psych program wanted to diagnose me.”

“The empathy thing, right?”

Hannibal’s attention is drawn. Empathy thing?

“And the gender thing, and the personality thing. Chilton called me a unique cocktail of personality disorders and neuroses at the intake interview, then he was all pissed when I left.”

“Fuck that guy.”

“I’d definitely rather not.”

“How about Doctor Lecter?”

“Jesus Christ. I’m leaving.

Will’s retreating footsteps grow nearer, as does the brusque and agitated click of high heels, and Hannibal only has time to turn and make it appear as though he is just passing by when Will rounds the corner and slams into him. He reels back, stumbling, and Hannibal reacts quickly—he catches Will at the waist and hauls him forward, uses his own weight as a counterbalance to keep Will on his feet, even as his messenger bag tumbles to the ground.

And Will is as lovely as he remembers.

Brown eyeliner, glossy red lip color, peach blush that steadily reddens—Will stares at him in open-mouthed wonder and despair. His glasses are perched precariously atop his head, lenses replaced; Hannibal reaches out to catch them before they tip backward. His hair is loose, careless curls smooth and pretty. His soft green button-down hangs loose over skintight denim tucked into brown leather boots. His eyes are vibrant, the green making them shine verdant, rather than oceanic blue.

And there is an olive-green men’s hunting jacket tied around his hips. It’s decidedly out of place, but its presence gives Will the appearance of curves. Hannibal’s gaze sharpens. He wonders who it belongs to.

Bev emerges at the commotion and Hannibal has a split-second of recognition for Guthrie’s young intern, Beverly Katz. She sees him in return, and when the surprise melts away, she wears a look of sly satisfaction.

“So,” Beverly says, “Doctor Lecter. Come down to the blood lab often?”

Hannibal’s brows raise. Will’s features smooth into something appropriately flustered, but there’s a glint of mortification in his eyes. “As it happens, my office is down the hall.” He assures that Will is steady and stable before he releases him. Will takes two steps back and puts his glasses on, shoulders tense as he stares determinedly at the frames rather than Hannibal’s eyes. He does not prostrate himself to pick up his dropped belongings. It’s telling in its determination not to lose what little ground he bears. “Hello again, Will.”

Will’s jaw twitches. His face smooths. It seems the more strain he is under, the more variable his ability to control his reactions. Fascinating. “Hello Doctor Lecter.”

Will’s left hand is bound in a cast from fingers to forearm; his sleeve is tucked into the top, and he holds it close to himself. It looks to be in good shape, but Will’s posture is defensive. Hannibal hums, a perfect picture of appropriately casual concern. “I do hope I haven’t hurt you.”

Bev takes pity on her friend. She scoops Will’s bag up and slides it onto his shoulder, then inserts herself smoothly at Will’s hip. She links their arms together. “We were just going for lunch.”

Hannibal resists the urge to smile. “With your gloves on?”

Will’s eyes close. He sighs, low and long and pained.

Bev shrugs shamelessly, unconcerned at being caught in her white lie. Well, at least she follows through. “The brain wants what it wants.”

His lips twitch. “So I hear.”

Will ducks his chin. The defeated gesture lasts only a second before he stands tall and composed and forces a smile of his own, all teeth. “Actually, Bev, I have some questions for Doctor Lecter about taking care of my cast. Can I catch up with you?”

There is an intensely interested glint in Beverley Katz’s eyes. She hesitates, eyes flickering between them, but not for long. Whatever concern her instincts raise is smoothed by Hannibal’s stellar reputation. It’s the benefit of a reputable career. “You better,” Bev says, and stares at Will meaningfully as she passes. “I’ll see you later.”

Will waits until she’s gone before he turns a wry glance to Hannibal. And oh, there he is—the shrewd and vivacious creature he’d met those weeks ago. “How much did you hear?”

Hannibal radiates satisfaction with the small slip of his smile. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

Will scowls; his arms fold across his chest, and the shift exposes a thin strap beneath his daringly-buttoned collar. He’s expectant, demanding. His fire lights him from the inside, shining from beneath his skin.

Hannibal wonders if the bruises on his back have faded.

Will waits, and Hannibal indulgently relents. “What would you like me to have heard? The tail end of gossip between two friends? Or perhaps your maneuver for your associate to give you confidential patient data? That’s quite rude, Will. Very fortunate for her career that she decided not to share it with you.”

“I knew Bev wouldn’t give me anything,” Will replies. He doesn’t seem cowed at all. What a shameless, stubborn thing. “I was hoping she would, but I didn’t expect it.”

“And what is it in the morgue that has you so interested?” Hannibal asks. He suspects he already knows.

Will does not disappoint. His stance softens; he leans one shoulder against the doorway and stares wistfully down the hallway. “There’s a new body,” Will says, hushed and reverent. “It was released from Quantico this morning to Johns Hopkins morgue in the absence of a funeral home to take care of the remains. I wanted to see it, if I could.”

Hannibal had heard as much. He’s much more interested in why . He inclines his head. “And what would you hope to find?”

The barest points of Will’s teeth show behind his lips. He inhales, drags the scent of antiseptic and sterile plastic over the roof of his mouth like an animal scenting for blood. His nose wrinkles with the faintest twinge of disgust. Yes, the odors of the hospital are artificial and pungent and take getting used to. Hannibal will not miss it when he leaves to start his own practice.

“Answers,” Will says.

Hannibal breathes evenly. He considers Will. He considers his options. He has only months left at this hospital, but he would be a fool to risk his reputation. However, he will not deny that he is curious.

What answers does Will hope to find within the bloating, distended corpse of Andrew Caldwell?

More importantly, what answers does Hannibal hope to find from Will?

“We are all, in this life, seeking things that are not easily found,” Hannibal says, and nods in the direction of Will’s longing gaze. In a smooth, genteel gesture, he offers Will his arm. “As it happens, I have a form to pick up at the mortuary for a patient who passed last night. Perhaps you would accompany me?”

Hope. It breathes life and rapt attention into Will Graham, as well as a sudden, sharp current of suspicion. It is strangely soothing to know that Will is sceptical of his motivations. As he should be. It’s a testament to his clever nature, and the expanding satisfaction behind Hannibal’s ribs reminds him that he is not wasting his time.

No. He’s simply… indulging.

And what is life without indulgence?

Will opens his mouth, and he hesitates. He closes it. Perhaps he’s rethinking asking questions or looking this gift horse in the mouth. It’s both a blessing and a curse—Hannibal is prepared to allow Will peer behind the veil, so long as he is willing to overlook the fangs within the stallion’s maw.

Finally, he nods. His teeth worry his lower lip, and some of the glossy color is swept away. Will seems entirely unconscious of it as his lips press together, redistributing the gloss as Hannibal has seen his nurses do a thousand times, and has never caught his attention before now. The soft pop of Will’s mouth parting on a sigh is temptation incarnate.

“If you’re sure,” Will says, and slips his callused, manicured hand into the bend of Hannibal’s elbow. The other, casted in white, is a stark reminder of their meeting and hangs at Will’s side.

One corner of Hannibal’s mouth curls into a smirk before he bites it back, and simply absorbs the pleasant weight and warmth of having Will Graham on his arm. In truth, there are not many things he wouldn’t do to see Will’s face as he takes in Hannibal’s work. It matters not if Will believes his artwork to be anonymous—it simply means that his reaction to it will be unfiltered. Raw.

Hannibal is so keenly interested in what Will thinks.

“Quite sure,” Hannibal replies.

Will glances up through his lashes, equal parts calculating and uncertain. Hannibal sees wariness there, a ticking clock counting down behind his eyes to the moment when Will fears he’ll find out what Hannibal wants. Perhaps he thinks he might already know.

“Thank you. You really don’t have to do this.”

At this angle, the frames of Will’s glasses obscure his eyes. Slowly, as to give time to avoid it if he’d prefer, Hannibal reaches to adjust them.

As the frames slide up the delicate bridge of Will’s nose and settle into place, Will doesn’t flinch.

Blue and green and gold around the pupil—Will really does have such stunning eyes. What will he see when he looks at Andrew Caldwell? A broken man, sliced in half and divided between the aisles of a school bus?

Or will he see something more?

“Will, believe me,” Hannibal says, and bares his teeth in his most charming smile. “It will be my genuine pleasure.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

For obvious reasons, the morgue is kept colder than the rest of the hospital. Hannibal is used to it, thin cotton scrubs or no. Though he is able to save most patients who end up on his operating table, it is only natural that he lose some as well. As such, he stops by often enough to know what to expect.

Will shivers against his side as they cross the threshold, and the door swings closed behind them. It’s not unlike stepping within the gates of Hell, Hannibal would imagine: a slow and measured descent further and further from the sun’s warmth.

To their good fortune, it’s lunch time—the medical examiner has stepped out and the room has been left unsupervised. Hannibal slips his arm from Will’s with a quirk of his lips, and makes himself busy searching for the paperwork he needs in a nearby filing cabinet.

The click of Will’s heels against the tile is nearly deafening. Hannibal glances up—Will is turning in place beside the desk. His oversized hunting jacket flares around his hips like a gown, and Will’s face is writ with such consuming wonder that one might think he were in a museum or gallery of fine art. Hannibal wasn’t aware that a morgue could be so fascinating. Perhaps to someone who does not normally see one, there is some sort of morbid glamor to the cold sheets of steel.

“Have you never been in a morgue before?” Hannibal asks.

Will huffs a laugh. He’s out of place here, but now that he’s settled, he doesn’t seem to feel it. “Only once, and I wasn’t exactly thinking about it at the time.”

Intriguing. Hannibal lifts a clipboard from a hook on the wall and shuffles through in search of his patient’s name from the night before. He allows himself to focus on Will instead. He is, after all, what Hannibal is really here for. “Good manners would tell me not to ask.”

Will shoots him a shrewd glance at his non-question. After a moment, he turns his back to Hannibal and shrugs. It’s a paltry defense, but Hannibal lets him have it. Any ground he gives to Will is trust being built. He would see it become a bridge, if he has his way.

“My father died,” Will admits, and leans his hip against the ME’s station. “Heart attack—but they found liver cancer once they opened him up. There was no winning, really. I went to UMMC Midtown to claim his remains.”

Hannibal grimaces with distaste. He watches Will pace across the room, dodging around the autopsy table. He stares at the body lockers, stacked three-high in a grid across the wall. His shoulders roll back, and Will’s free hand wraps around the bulk of his cast behind his back. “No wonder. That hospital is one health inspection from condemnation. Perhaps it’s best you don’t remember.”

“Don’t remember,” Will says, and shrugs as he turns to face Hannibal, “don’t want to remember. It’s all the same. This is different.” He stops. His eyes are luminous as he meets Hannibal’s, even and assessing. “I know what I’m here for. But what are you here for, Doctor Lecter?”

Hannibal steps forward and stops, sits against the examiner’s desk. He rolls up the cuffs of his white medical coat around his forearms with one hand. How unexpected of Will—and foolish. “Do you really intend to interrogate me before you get your answers?”

Will frowns and watches the motion of his fingers. “ You have my answers. So, yes. I’d like them before I find out I’m digging myself into a hole.”

Hannibal pulls the form he needs from the clipboard, then stacks and sets them flat on the desktop beside him. “Very well. Perhaps I can ease your mind.”

Will paces with precise, cautious steps. His fingers skim the narrow ledges atop the metal cooler doors, and lifts his head to look up at the very highest row. The movement jostles his curls, which shift with the tilt of his chin. He’s on the prowl, a lion cub chasing locusts, preparing to pounce.

Hannibal settles back and tries not to smile. He wouldn’t want to insult Will, after all. Insult is the last thing Hannibal intends. Consumption, perhaps—flesh between his jaws and blood slipping down his throat, the sweet warmth of a squirming body and a chase that ends in carnality.

The real question is… one-sided or two? How deep does Will’s fascination with his killer reach? And where does his attraction to Hannibal’s physicality intersect with his need to discover the Chesapeake Ripper’s mind?

What steps will he be willing to take to get what he desires?

Will sets his back against the lockers and folds his glasses over his collar. They slip down, settling in the gap between the buttons—a tempting vee exposing a pale chest dotted with freckles. Hannibal blinks, slow and languid, and doesn’t avert the path of his eyes as they dip and return to lock with Will’s.

“What is it you want?” Will asks softly. It echoes off the steel and tile.

Hannibal tilts his head just so, and remains quite still otherwise. “Nothing in particular,” he says, and it’s not entirely a lie. “I prefer to encourage academic curiosity. You had a problem, and I had the means to provide a solution.”

Will takes a breath and lets it out. There is a crack of vulnerability in his armor; he wears femininity and precociousness with finesse, but the threat that looms at the edge of his instincts has no regard for male nor female—it’s simply predator and prey. Will senses something larger than him in the room, and he knows it has teeth.

His awareness alone is worth Hannibal’s respect.

Will slips his bag off his shoulder and lowers it slowly to the floor. The strap falls away from him, coiling like a serpent around his feet. Perhaps he is unburdening himself in preparation to run. Or perhaps it is a show of trust—dropping what juvenile weapon he might have in the form of a heavy weight. His intentions are a mystery… but in his eyes, so are Hannibal’s. “What do you want in return for my solution?”

Hannibal’s lips twitch. He lets Will see it. “Who says I want anything from you, Will?”

Will’s voice goes quiet. His answering, flickering smile is pained. “Everyone wants something from me.”

If Hannibal were a more simple man, the display might arouse a protective instinct. It’s vulnerable. It’s faltering. It’s uncertain.

And there is a light in Will’s eyes that says it is entirely dishonest.

Hannibal smiles then, truly—he finds honest appreciation in Will’s deception. Wilting flower, indeed. He seeks to force action from Hannibal by painting himself in such a light. Any usual predator would pounce on Will in this moment. Any genuine soul would reassure him.

Will seeks to bluff him into folding.

“I find your interest interesting,” Hannibal says. He looks aside over the medical examiner’s desk, casually straightening objects with only vague focus upon them. Order begets order, after all. “I have no need to seek out life and death. For me, it’s simply part of the job. But you, Will.”

He looks up. Will is attentive and sharp, and Hannibal’s grin widens.

“You’re clever,” he says. “Determined. A bright young mind in search of truth, looking in places where devils dare not tread. I admire your tenacity, and I am no great fan myself of red tape.”

Will’s fingernails tap against the stainless wall. His head tips to the side and pulls a tidal wave of curls with it. It’s coy. Coquettish. And when Will smiles, there’s amusement there that’s genuine. “So, what? I’m young and pretty and you just want to thrill-seek by letting me break the rules?”

Hannibal barks out a laugh. The concept is ludicrous—and yet. “And if I told you that were exactly it?”

Red lips bare white teeth, and Will’s eyes are shards of glass.

It happens all at once.

He turns on a dime, wrenches open the handle on the cooler, and the stainless slab slides out. Hannibal sits forward; he’ll admit the move surprises him, especially when it is so clearly two halves of one body that distends the sheet—Andrew Caldwell.

Something tells him that it’s not luck that has guided Will’s hand.

Will coughs at the stench; his broken hand covers his lower face, and his eyes narrow in a fierce, watering squint. Hannibal is on his feet and crossing the room in an instant, but Will is quicker. A nitrile glove snaps out of his pocket, and Will pinches the corner of the sheet between its folded halves. He rips it back, and Caldwell’s body is exposed.

Hannibal grinds to a halt.

The body is purpling, chilled in stasis, but clearly rotting. It’s the corpse of an animal that is long since fresh, and in the end, all flesh bloats the same in death. The face is distorted. The figure is misshapen.

Will’s eyes are ravenous.

“Sorry, Doctor,” he says. There is a creased and folded piece of paper in his hand, and he stares down at it, eyes flickering rapidly as he reads the stolen ME’s report and finds his way back to the victim. Hannibal’s victim. “I don’t find you that interesting.”

Any normal man would be insulted. Some, perhaps, to the point of violence.

Hannibal is not normal.

Neither, it seems, is Will Graham.

And he has never been more thrilled to be proven wrong.

Will glances to him, but barely for a second; whatever he sees in Hannibal, he dismisses as inconsequential. In the moments that Hannibal takes to understand the manipulation he has faced, Will absorbs the corpse before him. And just as Hannibal opens his mouth to speak, Will takes a step back. His eyes close. He tucks the paper back into his pocket, and falls entirely still.

And then Will reaches back—he ties his hair into a rough bun at the base of his neck. Without looking, he puts his glasses on, though he doesn’t yet look through the lenses. He picks at the knot of the jacket around his hips, and casually shrugs it on. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and sticky red gloss smears across his knuckles; licks his lips and consumes the rest.

In thirty seconds, Will Graham has donned the skin of someone else.

And then he opens his eyes once more.

His voice is a growl that rumbles from the depths of his register—not the smooth and sweet intonation he has used both for Hannibal and for Beverly. And when he speaks, he hemorrhages secrets that are not for him to know. Each word is picked and precise, but flows into the next. Each syllable is percussive, and he speaks a melody of death into existence.

He does not walk around the slab. He stalks.

“I attack Andrew Caldwell from behind. His struggles are minimal. I’ve surprised him—for some reason, he trusted me. I am either known to him, or I gave him reason to let his guard down. I put a needle in his neck, and he is unconscious in seconds. This is what I do. It is my first step, and I am a practiced dancer.”

Will rounds the table to Caldwell’s right side. He crouches, and puts himself on eye-level with the jagged, festering wound. He tsks as though disappointed, and casts a stony look to the man’s disfigured face. “I tear him open. He is awake while I do it. I am a sadist, but this man’s suffering is special to me. I savor it. Each cut is not so much a cut as it is a tear. I rip him open. Whatever his transgression, it is particularly offensive—he’s made it personal for me. He’s offended me, enough that I break my silence. Enough that I return to my stage and declare this man a heretic to the holy rite of my good name.”

Will stands— towers over Andrew Caldwell. He looks down dispassionately, a cruel and capricious god.

He is stunning.

“I sever him at the spine. I am sure to break him last. I don’t know or care if he dies from shock or a broken spinal column. My last act is to remove his kidney, liver, and spleen.” Will hesitates. He blinks slowly, and so softly, he murmurs, “One of these things is a lie. I don’t care about all of them. But it doesn’t matter; he hurts until he dies, and I am satisfied.”

Will looks him over, head to toe. His hand hovers over the body, just inches away—close enough to feel the chill, not not so close as to taint the evidence. It lingers in the air over the disjoin between torso and hip. “I place him in a school bus, because this man is unseemly and juvenile. He is across the aisle from his other half, just as I was beside myself at his offense. It is undignified. It is brutal. He deserves this. With this act, I will put him from my mind at long last. This is my design.”

Will’s eyes waver, assess the body of Caldwell like one might consider a swatted pest.

He lifts his head. He takes a breath. His eyes close, and Will’s shoulders roll, and the jacket slips down his arms until it catches on his elbows, a cloak donned and shed in equal turn.

Will hooks his finger over the nosepiece of his glasses and pulls them from his face, secures them at his breast. It is the removal of a helm. Beneath the lenses lies a different person—a different shape of Will Graham. In this moment, Will is the Tower of Babel, divorced from himself and banished from Hannibal; the creature that speaks with his shared tongue is gone, but not forgotten.

Hannibal has captured a glimpse of a divine creature of God.

An empathy thing, they had said. Now Hannibal sees Will’s truth: pure empathy. The ability for Will to place himself within the bones of another and ride the waves of a mind.

And he is beautiful.

Will wears the hunter’s jacket like a shawl. He ducks his head while he covers Caldwell’s body once more, careful to use the nitrile as to not contaminate that which has already been combed for evidence. With a push, Caldwell’s remains slip back into the locker. Will does not seek to take pictures.

When he turns to Hannibal—and he does—it is with the medical examiner’s report extended, and his chin held high. “Thank you, Doctor Lecter. I believe this belongs to you.”

Hannibal isn’t sure what his face shows, but he can feel the glow of his own intrigue. He reaches to accept the page, and knows he’ll conceal what Will has done here. He knows he’ll allow Will anything.

Anything but leaving him behind.

Hannibal will create a trail of bodies if he must, so long as it leads Will back into his grasp.

“Astounding,” Hannibal says honestly. Emphatically.

Will’s hand falters. The report slips from his fingers, and Hannibal captures it before it falls. Will blanches, leaving only the cool pink tint of his foundation atop his ashen skin. “Excuse me?”

“I said you are astounding,” Hannibal repeats. He knows Will heard him the first time; knows Will is floored and displaced by the words from the flutter of his lashes. The smug insolence is gone, and so is his stony countenance. “Forgive me, Will. You may not think me interesting in the least, but I find you wholly unique. An individually stunning mind in a world of mortal men.”

Will stares at Hannibal with raw disbelief. He doesn’t budge, and gives no ground now that the shock has passed. “Most tell me it’s terrifying. Unsettling at best.”

“Unsettling,” Hannibal acknowledges with a nod. He steps forward, and is pleased when Will doesn’t give an inch. Defiant to the last. “Most would find it terrifying to find their voice coming from another’s mouth. Do they fear what you will see inside them, I wonder?”

Will grits his teeth as Hannibal draws near. Though pale even now, Will radiates heat. “Do you fear what I’d see inside you?”

“I have no qualms about the contents of my character,” Hannibal replies, and reaches out. Will watches him like a hawk, but goes still and silent when Hannibal skims the frames of his glasses with one finger, mere inches from his sternum—close enough to brush the gaping collar of his shirt and allow Will to feel his warmth in return.

But Hannibal doesn’t touch him. Not really.

“I know what to expect from myself,” he adds smoothly, then tucks his hand into the pocket of his scrubs. Will’s pupils fatten with either arousal or adrenaline, perhaps both. His jaw snaps shut, and Hannibal languishes in his undivided attention. “Though I keep finding myself surprised by you.”

When Will speaks, it’s neither his soft persona or his inner predator whose voice Hannibal hears—it’s something in between. A little of both, accented by distinct pronunciation and the clicking of teeth. “So you often pursue those much younger than you, Doctor?”

So gratingly, delightfully rude.

Hannibal leans in, if only to see the fluttering of Will’s lashes, the subtle flash of his nerves that he dares not indulge for want of appearing strong. “Not at all,” Hannibal says into the slip of space between them. “Though if I decide to start, Will, I’m sure you’ll be the first to know.”

“Liar,” Will murmurs. His eyes are bright and fierce. He is as keenly stimulated by their banter as Hannibal is. “I see the way you look at me. You want me twice as much now that you’ve seen my parlor trick, Doctor Lecter. Have you been studying psychology very long?”

Hannibal grins. “Preparing for a second residency. I’m sure the emergency room will be quite sad to see me go.”

“It’s a shame I have no use for a psychiatrist,” Will replies. His gaze goes hard. Challenging.

Hannibal puts space between them to better look at Will: his silhouette, his bristling, threatened mind. He clearly thinks Hannibal means to use him for his empathy—nothing more than a rat running in a maze, like that buffoon of a psychiatrist, Frederick Chilton, meant to use him for.

Hannibal wishes to watch Will run, but the last thing he hopes to see is a rat.

“No,” Hannibal agrees. Lightning crackles through his veins, through his mind. It’s been years since an opponent managed to stimulate his thoughts, to offer any challenge at all. If this is Will Graham at twenty, what will he become by forty? And what greater heights might Will reach if Hannibal is the one who accompanies him there?

It’s a strange and dangerous thought.

Before him lies a hunter of monsters. What might it take to make him a hunter of men?

“You don’t need a psychiatrist,” Hannibal says softly, knowingly. “You need access. You’re smart, Will. You know what steps to take for getting what you want. What you need is a reason to be in the places you go.”

Will’s eyes narrow. “What are you suggesting?”

“Perhaps something for both of us.” Hannibal takes another step back, and another. His smile grows as Will leans forward, follows his path like a hound tracking the scent of blood, not yet released by the hand of his master.

He hopes Will’s ready to do his worst.

Will lifts his chin. He blinks, measured and slow. Then he tips his head back against the morgue wall—a lovely, deadly thing—and stares at Hannibal through the black fringe of his lashes.

He certainly looks ready.

“What do you have in mind?”

 

 

Chapter Text

The space between them is not enormous, but the tension makes it feel more vast than it is. Will stands tall and proud, a demanding and expectant muse. Hannibal sits atop the desk once more. He allows Will the position of power with the high ground, while Hannibal assumes the position of comfort. He has no intention of bowing to Will, but compromise is the currency of a successful negotiation. His only goal is to gain more than he gives.

“You’ve read me right, Will. I’m curious about you, and what you do. And you need a very good excuse to linger in these halls where you’re not meant to be. What better reason than a scandal, but one that’s just plausible enough to mask your true intentions?”

Will is quiet for a moment. Then his mouth pops open, and there is a furious and fascinated expression that overcomes him. “You want to use me.”

Will Graham’s mind is a drug, and terrible satisfaction is its side effect. Hannibal is vibrant with it, a half-step removed from a natural high. “You started it, Will. I’m now simply making you an offer.”

Will’s jaw goes slack, but he is sharp with calculation. Even as he works to find words, his gaze flickers and settles on Hannibal, his thoughts skipping to every permutation of their unusual circumstance. Every terrible consideration—and every heated desire. Color rises in his cheeks. Hannibal is content to wait, if only to watch him burn from the box seats.

“So—what, you study me?” Will asks. He bristles, vibrates, snaps and snarls with offense and intrigue. “An all-access pass to the freakshow?”

There is a killer instinct in Will Graham that he’d like to cultivate; a gauntlet yet to run, to be shared between just them two. “I only thought to ask the pleasure of your company.”

Red lips curl into a fearsome sneer. If Will were not so lovely, others might find the aggression ugly. But Hannibal sees all sides of him—not just the sides Will makes public and displays in shapely silhouettes and pigmented ink.

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like that.” Will’s nose wrinkles; he does not look nearly as disgusted as he’d like to think. “One body doesn’t guarantee a trail, Doctor Lecter. Mr. Caldwell’s remains being released to this hospital was a fluke. If it doesn’t happen again, I won’t have any reason to bother with you.”

His words are shaped to wound, but Will is painfully transparent.

“You would be, of course, free to end this arrangement at any time.” Hannibal glances down at his nails, picks an imaginary speck of lint from his scrubs. He picks up his paperwork from the Medical Examiner’s desk, folds it, and places it into the breast pocket of his white doctor’s coat. “And I would ask nothing more from you than you’re willing to give.”

Will’s nostrils flare, searching to catch Hannibal’s scent as though it will lead him to the inner workings of his mind. “What exactly do you think I’m willing to give you? You’re awfully presumptive, Doctor.”

Hannibal quirks a brow. “You’ve already given me some of your time. I’m a doctor of quite some standing within this institution, Will. As such, I’m expected to present a certain… persona.” Hannibal tastes the word on his teeth, the distaste lingering in the back of his mind. “Social functions cultivated for the donors of Johns Hopkins, where they might rub elbows with their best and brightest and be assured that their generosity is properly appreciated. Dinners and fundraisers and charity events. Glamorous proceedings for those not accustomed to excess. All attended by the sorts of people who might be useful references to you, invaluable networking opportunities.”

Will huffs a bitter laugh. “People like that don’t know how to react to people like me. Anything that exceeds their ideas of a so-called binary existence is a threat to them. What would they think of you for keeping company with me?”

Hannibal’s lip curls. The idea that he might set stock in the opinions of sheep is beneath him, and frankly, beneath Will. “I care very little for what they think of me, beyond what use it has to my position here,” Hannibal answers, abrupt and flat. “Let me be transparent, Will, so we need not dance around the subject: the kind of access you seek is something even seasoned journalists would struggle to attain without connections. I will provide those to you, and an alibi. If you become known as someone who keeps company with me, no one will question you running simple errands and stopping into places you would otherwise not be allowed to go. You’ll become a fixture within these walls, rather than a stranger worthy of suspicion. The more you are trusted, the more you can get away with. That is what I offer to you.”

Will watches him for some time, backlit by the cold light of the fluorescent light reflecting off metal. He taps his manicured nails on the doors. The sound is not unlike a ticking clock, denoting the passage of time as he weighs Hannibal’s words. Hannibal can practically hear the whirring of his thoughts.

Finally, Will steps forward. He dips to collect his bag and haul it over his shoulder, and for a moment, Hannibal thinks he might walk out. He imagines trying to stop Will, and the consequences therein. But, no—if Will decides to go, Hannibal must let him. It would be, after all, perhaps the most clever mind of all that avoided this game entirely.

But Will doesn’t leave.

He approaches, slow and measured, until he’s an arm’s reach away. Like this, between his considerable height and the addition of his heeled boots, it forces Hannibal to look up at him. It’s an attempted intimidation—the black queen staring down at the white pawn while it considers its certain doom.

Hannibal patiently awaits the day when Will becomes aware that the inverse is true.

“And you want to give me all this out of the goodness of your heart?” Will asks softly, warningly, with a hint of a wry and dangerous smile. “All for the pleasure of my company? Giving me an out to end this arrangement whenever I please? You know what it sounds like you’re asking for, right?”

Hannibal tips his head back, an imitation of Will’s technique. He bares his throat, though the beast inside his skin itches with how wrong it feels—but silently revels in the hunger it sees reflected back at him. “You’ve captured my interest, Will. Believe me when I say that this will be just as beneficial to me. A suspected lover would relieve the weight of societal expectation on my shoulders. Attempted matchmaking from my acquaintances is tiresome and uncomfortable. Dating anyone within my employ would be inappropriate and nearly impossible with the hours that I keep.”

Will laughs once. He shakes his head incredulously, which ruffles the curls that fall across his forehead. “So I’d become your on-call pet psychology project. Attach myself to your gilded leash so your nurses stop asking you out in the lunchroom. I let you play dress-up with me on the weekends, and you let me make connections with your blue-blooded friends and run around the hospital to my heart’s content. And throughout all that…” Will takes another step forward. His thighs nearly brush Hannibal’s knees, the pale canvas of his neck and collar bones at eye-level. Casual temptation as he shrugs his jacket off and ties it around his trim waist, and he watches Hannibal deliberately follow the stilted motion of his hands, hindered by the presence of Will’s cast. “What do you expect me to give you within the context of our relationship?”

“We need only be as physical with each other as it takes to be convincing,” Hannibal says. His eyes drag up Will’s body, button by button of his shirt, his chest, his throat, his jaw, his eyes. His attraction to Will is no secret, and neither is Will’s to him—but such a heavy-handed coercion would be tasteless and not worthy of Will’s intellect. “Though we should be seen in public together outside of solely hospital functions. I will, of course, cover the costs of whatever outings we may take together, as well as your transportation if it’s needed.”

Will nudges one leg forward, presses it against Hannibal’s—there is a challenge in his eyes. Hannibal is not one for losing. He allows his legs to fall open, create a truly rude amount of space between them that Will has no hesitation in filling.

Will rests his forearms atop Hannibal’s shoulders, just above the edge of his cast. There is the soft sound of skin as he laces his fingers together behind Hannibal’s head. He is near, so near, so warm as he looms close, eyes half-lidded and weighty with consideration. He looks down and Hannibal looks up. The saccharine scent of the lip gloss clings to Will’s skin, even now that it has been wiped away.

There is nothing Hannibal would like more than he move as he likes, to seize his urge to act upon the intrigue he senses in the empty space between their bodies. Instead, he parries Will’s blow by curling his palms around Will’s waist, resting on the comfortable ridge that awful jacket creates. He raises his eyebrows in unconcerned query, even as he drinks his fill of Will’s burning heat so close to him. He had likened the morgue to the gates of Hell, but without any warning, Will has consumed and become the Sun itself.

He is determined not to break the silence first. Whatever gambit Will is playing, he must wait Will out to ascertain his strategy. Not all with Will is as it seems—Hannibal has already learned that lesson once today.

Hannibal is perfectly still when Will’s fingers brush the fine fuzz at the nape of his neck and thread into his hair. He counts it as a personal accomplishment. The monster in his bones snaps and snarls; his instincts regard Will’s hands as weapons whose origins and intentions he is uncertain of.

“Soft,” Will murmurs, and his voice fills every vacant inch between them.

Hannibal is tugging on the threads that hold himself together, pulling them tighter. Will seems determined to pick him apart at the seams. Their conversation is inconsequential—a moment’s reprieve. “Hair products are not allowed in the operating room. Otherwise, I usually prefer to use hair gel.”

Will grins; Hannibal has no time at all to prepare himself for Will’s fingers running wildly through the strands, disturbing the shape and raising shivers on Hannibal’s scalp, zinging with electricity at the brush of well-shaped fingernails.

Hannibal reacts. He catches Will’s wrist in a punishing grip, breathes through his nose to steady his heartbeat and is quietly infuriated when Will doesn’t so much as blink at the bruising force.

Instead, his grin grows wider. “Careful, Doctor,” he purrs, “or you’ll break my other hand, and then I’ll need you to do everything for me.”

Hannibal does not yet release him. The self-satisfied look in Will’s eyes is a loss; Will has ruffled him. Of course he has, the terrible thing. But Hannibal hasn’t been touched so casually perhaps ever in his life.

Not since—

“Relax,” Will says, and some of his childish glee relaxes into smug amusement. He wiggles his fingers, and his tendons flex in Hannibal’s palm. “If I’m going to make myself unavailable so I can become your fake girlfriend, I want to make sure I like the way you feel. You’re gonna have to get used to me touching you too, you know.”

The word girlfriend rings like a bell in Hannibal’s mind. He frowns as he lets Will go, and his hand falls to the desk beside him, does not return to Will’s waist as half of him desires to. “Would you prefer that I refer to you with female pronouns? I understand you were under duress the first time I asked. I’d like to ensure you’re comfortable.”

This seems to surprise Will; he flexes his fingers again, then lowers his hand back to Hannibal’s shoulder. The side of his thumb brushes the curve of Hannibal’s neck, just barely starting to prickle with the fresh growth since he’d shaved this morning. Hannibal knows from experience that Will covers what shadow he acquires under the layer of his foundation. He focuses on that instead of the feeling.

Will shrugs; he lips pressed into a grimace, a wrinkle between the bold but clean shapes of his brows. “I don’t really care about pronouns. I don’t like any of them, but…” Will breaks eye contact. That questioning his gender, of all things, would bring Will to a stuttering halt proves to Hannibal that he is conflicted over it.

It doesn’t feel like a win. Hannibal feels a strange twinge of something that might be guilt.

Will takes a breath, shallow and uncertain. He’s still so near; he presses his leg outward against Hannibal’s thigh, almost a nervous gesture, but makes no move to pull away—so Hannibal nudges him back. Not so different from a reassuring squeeze of a hand.

And Will relaxes. Sighs in a huff, then starts again. “I don’t like being called strictly male or female, but I don’t like any of the other pronouns, either. He is familiar, so I don’t notice it as much. But sometimes my brain doesn’t really click with it. It’s like…”

Will tips his head back, glances up at the ceiling. He heaves an exhale that Hannibal feels move against his fingers, the expansion and contraction of Will’s delicate ribs against his palm. They would crack so easily, he knows. A resilient cage of bone that contains the sources of his life. His stomach. His lungs. His heart.

Perhaps Will’s exterior is a cage for him as well. In that regard, Hannibal can understand his struggle.

“It’s like,” Will says again, his thumb still following that maddening path over Hannibal’s carotid, “there are two of me. And we don’t agree on what we are. Sure, we’re here, and we get along okay. There’s never just one of us in control—we both hear, we both react. I have one thought process, one name, but I timeshare with myself. When I wake up in the morning, what I do lays the foundation for who I am that day. But sometimes it switches unexpectedly, and it’s like waking up in the wrong skin.”

Will laughs. The sound is pained, his smile flickering and sad as he looks down, looks to Hannibal, looks for his reaction. “It’s crazy, right? It’s not dissociative. I always know who I am. It just feels wrong sometimes. I don’t know what to call that.”

“Dysphoria,” Hannibal says, and Will is shaking his head before he’s even finished saying it. “Perhaps some other manner of dissociation.”

“No, it’s not either of those, it’s different,” Will replies. His face is cracked open on a broken little smile. Then, like a switch flipped, he inhales. His expression smooths. He tucks his feelings away behind the wall inside himself.

Hannibal wants to break him open and see it again.

“But no, I don’t care about pronouns. I’m not a boy or a girl, a he or she, they or them. But calling me he is just fine.” Abruptly, Will’s thumb stops. His hand slips to the outer curve of Hannibal’s shoulder and rests there, and he meets Hannibal’s eyes. “I won’t always look pretty, you know. I don’t do this all the time. It’s conditional that you’ve only seen me dressed up and nice. It’s not always that way, and I’m not going to change myself for you.”

Hannibal blinks slowly. There are layers to Will Graham that he had not strictly anticipated, but he certainly can’t say he’s disappointed. He glances down to the hunter’s jacket tied around Will’s hips; perhaps it simply belongs to Will because he likes it. It is an adjustment to his thought process, but not an unwelcome one. Will is a puzzle, and Hannibal is continuing to connect the edge pieces before filling him in. “I would not expect you to.”

There is the slightest prickle of nails as Will’s fingers curl. Out of the corner of his eye, Hannibal sees a pinkish smear across the back of his knuckles. Femininity and brash confidence, combined in the shell of something bold, something new.

“The other thing,” Will says, and his voice goes flat and hard. “I have a condition for this arrangement.”

That’s more like it. Hannibal smiles slightly; the sight of it makes Will’s eyes narrow. “Your terms?”

“I won’t have my career ruined before it starts,” Will warns. “I don’t want my name appearing anywhere in any paper or any medical journal. Anything you write must be abstracted beyond recognition, and before you so much as think of submitting anything for consideration, I want to read it—whether or not you think I’ll understand it.”

“Accepted,” Hannibal says without hesitation. The arrangement he has proposed with Will would be in extremely poor taste—and a borderline violation of ethics—if it were to come out that Hannibal’s research was not performed in a doctor-patient setting. It could be career-ending for them both. “Anything else?”

Will blinks at the rapid acceptance—had he expected his common sense to raise an argument? “Um—I mean, my grades are important. I have a full course schedule.”

“I will give you my email and you may send it to me. I have no intention of being unreasonable, Will. This arrangement should benefit us both. I would very much like it to.”

Will hesitates. He nods. Uncertainty plays across his face, and his unsheathed claws in Hannibal’s shoulder relax and subside. He glances down as though he hadn’t noticed doing it in the first place, and fretfully pets over the spot as though to soothe the hurt.

And then he stills. Will takes a slow, measured inhale, and meets Hannibal’s eyes. He is unfailingly lovely in his hesitancy, his open and tentative expression. With one hand steady on Will’s waist, the other slips beneath the drape of Will’s jacket to settle on his hip, to scritch his nails ever-so-gently over the body-warm denim.

Will’s pupils fatten; his eyes sharpen with attentiveness. His lips part, still faintly pink. He touches the expanse of Hannibal’s shoulder. His fingers stumble down his back, returns to clench in the back of the collar of Hannibal’s white doctor jacket. Then Will smooths over that, too—trails his nails along Hannibal’s hairline until he reaches his jaw. Electricity follows Will’s caress, entrancing beyond explanation, leaving trails of fire in his wake. The calluses on his palm are old, raised but made soft through careful care. His bone structure is proportional, well-formed and strong—an artist’s hands.

And where Will’s bones have broken, and even now regain their strength, he evolves. His hands will become a hunter’s.

No matter the context or the cost, Hannibal thinks he would gladly consume Will Graham whole.

Will’s fingers curve around the sharp angle of Hannibal’s cheek in a confident touch more befitting of a long-time lover. The weight of his other arm shifts with the cast, the pads of his broken fingers drag downward, dip under the lapel of Hannibal’s coat.

“You protect my interests,” Will murmurs. “And I’ll protect yours. Even Steven.”

Will kisses him.

He tastes of artificial cherry, tart and sweet, and his eyes glimmer with clever light until his lashes flutter closed. His lips are sticky, and the pull of their breathless separation and convergence is ripe with texture. Hannibal’s hand clenches on Will’s hip, threads two fingers into Will’s belt loop to drag him closer, and Will pushes their bodies together in a slide of beautiful friction. Will’s fingernails are a bright sting on Hannibal’s face and he holds too hard, insistently tilts Hannibal’s chin for a better angle. He laps at Hannibal’s mouth, encouraging, demanding

“Um, what the hell are you doing in here?” someone says, and Hannibal pulls away from Will with a snarl building in his chest. When his head whips to the source of the sound, it’s a familiar face that waits, wide-eyed and pink-cheeked, brows raised in irritated shock.

Ah, right. The medical examiner; Price-something, Hannibal’s sure. He can’t currently find it in him to care.

But he schools his face into an appropriate expression: surprised, embarrassed. He searches for a response, but finds he doesn’t need one, because—

Will moans in pure, raw mortification and hides his face in Hannibal’s shoulder. “Oh my god,” he whines, and peeks up at Doctor Price. “I am so sorry.”

Will’s hands encircle Hannibal’s wrists, and as he reels back, he pulls Hannibal up after him with surprising strength. Hannibal has only a second to catch the flash of something satisfied in Will’s face before he’s back to his demure display, scuffing his toe on the floor like a chastised child as he tucks himself under Hannibal’s arm. Shoulders bunched around his ears, head ducked, Will’s demeanor is not unlike a kicked puppy.

“I just,” Will says softly, apologetically, and glances at their intruder, “We stopped in to pick up his paperwork and it’s been all day and I wasn’t thinking. It won’t happen again, I swear. God, I’m so embarrassed.”

Price stares at Will. His eyes flicker to Hannibal and back. The force of Will’s performance is staggering, and Hannibal does his best to appropriately echo it.

“The morgue?” Price demands, grimacing. “I mean, really?”

“It’s not very well done of me, I’ll admit,” Hannibal concedes, and curls his arm around Will’s shoulders in a show of protectiveness and comfort.

Price nods in dumb agreement. Then he stands aside and holds the door open. “Alright, get out. Don’t make it a habit or I’ll file a report.”

Hannibal should count himself lucky Price isn’t planning on filing one for the first offense. Instead, all he can feel is irritation at the interruption. “Duly noted.”

Will skitters out the doorway, giggling with mortified frenzy like a teenager as he pulls Hannibal along behind him. The effect of it seems to soften Price’s expression, and as Hannibal passes, he says, “Just use one of the supply closets next time or something. Not my office, thank you very much.”

“I’m really sorry,” Will repeats, a sweetly anxious flush darkening his cheeks.

Price scoffs and shakes his head. Lingering in the hallway, Will shuffles in place before he darts forward and places a quick, chaste kiss on Hannibal’s cheek. The scent of cherry overwhelms the antiseptic, and Will’s hand skims down the outside of Hannibal’s arm, curling their fingers together, even as he pulls away and apart.

“I’ve got to go catch up with Bev,” Will says with a helpless smile. Hannibal stares at him, at the approximation of flustered joy and the way it paints Will in shades of pink, rich bronze of his restrained curls, glimmering green-blue for his eyes.

There is something sharp inside that gaze, calculating and pleased as Will plays the part of a lover, bubbly and sweet as champagne. Will walks backwards, one slow step at a time like he can’t bear to be parted from Hannibal, lit from the inside with affection and magnetism that longs to pull them back together.

What strange and glorious happenstance he’s found in Will Graham—a long last, the potential for a familiar mind as unpredictable and changing as he.

“So soon?” Hannibal asks with a faint shadow of a frown. He and Will still have much to talk about.

“Don’t worry so much,” Will says and winks. “I’ll call you later. I’ll be at Knight Hall until late, so don’t worry if you miss my message, ok? Just call me back when you can.”

Hannibal has no doubt that Will means as he says; given what he’s managed here today, he’s surely resourceful enough to have gotten Hannibal’s phone number.

Hannibal will simply have to… trust him.

Hannibal absolutely does not trust him—but he does believe him.

“Alright,” he says, all polite disappointment and terrible fondness for the eyes of their witness. He finds it is only half a lie. “Drive safely.”

“Yes, dear,” Will teases lightly, and Hannibal absolutely does not smile as Will walks away.

(He does.)

“Wow,” Price says, and raises his eyebrows as he shoots Hannibal a sidelong look. “Where’d you find that one?”

Hannibal shakes his head once in wonderment that is not entirely feigned. “The emergency room.”

Price snorts. “Figures.” His eyes narrow with a sly, satisfied smile. “Your hair’s all messed up, by the way.”

Hannibal sighs.

Well, he supposes, that’s one way to introduce Will to his coworkers.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hannibal’s shift crawls by. He operates with his usual level of efficiency, but his mind wanders. It is a fortunate thing indeed that he is accomplished at compartmentalization, lest his patients suffer—but they don’t.

His replacement arrives at one in the morning. Hannibal is one of the rare few surgeons who frequently signs up to work shifts in excess of ten hours, though such shifts are not uncommon for the nurses; a considerable portion of his reputation was earned from shared long hours and consecutive days. However, with his intention to restart his residency in psychiatry, he will need to cut back and rearrange his schedule, though he’s not yet made arrangements to do so.

Fortunately, he is not needed for another thirty-six hours, and he intends to make them count.

And when he reaches his personal locker to collect his belongings, he is pleased to find a message waiting from an unknown number.

 

>> I know I said I’d call, but then I thought about it and realized your phone might be ringing in the break room and that would be annoying.  

>>I should be here working until after midnight, so don’t worry about waking me up. Bev says you’re an ER tryhard and work 12+ hour shifts almost every day, which I guess I should have expected.

Hannibal raises his brows at the screen, then presses the dial button with a huff. It rings three, four, five times, and for a moment, Hannibal is concerned that perhaps Will has fallen asleep—

“This is Will. Oh, goddamn it—”  there is the sound of tumbling, a sudden thump on the line, followed by distant cursing.

Hannibal’s brows creep upward, but his lips also curl in the shadow of a smile. Such terrible language. He checks his pockets for his belongings as he waits for Will to recover from whatever mishap he’s experiencing, then sets out toward the parking garage.

When Will’s voice comes, it’s hushed and urgent, rougher than Hannibal usually hears it. It sounds closer to how Will spoke while empathizing with the corpse of Andrew Caldwell. “Damn it. Sorry. Still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here,” Hannibal replies. He frowns. “Having difficulties?”

“More like running for my life. I posted my article about the Ripper and Freddie doesn’t actually know who wrote it, and of course I VPN’d it six ways from Sunday and uploaded it from off campus on my anonymous tablet on public wifi, but I just heard her storm into the building and she’s out for blood. But she can’t confirm it was me if she can’t catch me, so I’m on the move.”

Hannibal is fairly certain he understands what Will said, but given the speed and the volume at which he’s speaking, he is only mostly positive. He is hit with a deep sense of intrigue. What is it that Will’s written? “Does she intimidate you so much?”

“Honestly, I’m way more worried about the FBI. Freddie can’t do shit, but if they come around asking questions, she’ll be the first one to point fingers. I wouldn’t put it past her to contact them to report me. I should get a burner cell.”

The thought is amusing and troubling. “Should you have waited another day or two before posting your article to put distance between the events of this afternoon and your publication?”

“If I waited any longer, Freddie was gonna get there first. She totally slept with Zeller and got her hands on the autopsy report probably two or three hours after I did. I had to do it. Hopefully I’ll be able to be more careful from here on out. The metadata should say the article posted from Wilmington, so that should buy me some time from anyone but her.”

Hannibal hums in amusement as he crosses into the dark din of the parking garage. “I’m surprised you would allow your rival to know you well enough to identify you by writing style alone.”

“It has more to do with my deductions.”  Will’s voice is breathless and distracting in his ear. His passion for the Ripper is a balm for Hannibal’s ego—it’s fortunate indeed that he has plans for further displays, for gathering a broader span of Will’s opinion. “I’ve argued with her too many times, so she knows about the way I think. It’s too unique. She can pick my reports out of a crowd because no one thinks the way I do.”

“I see. That’s the price of notoriety, I’m afraid. One moment Will, I have to start my car.” His lips twitch as he approaches the Bentley; unlocks it and climbs inside, sets his briefcase and go-bag in the passenger seat. The engine turns over, and in a handful of seconds, his phone is picked up by the Bluetooth speaker. “Still with me?”

“Yeah, I’m here,”  Will says. His voice fills the space around Hannibal, and though the sound quality isn’t particularly high, it’s easier to imagine that Will is present. “Sorry, I realize you probably didn’t call to listen to me bitch after you did me a favor. I should be thanking you.”

“Fortunate career happenings and the resulting stress are not mutually exclusive. Though I assume there has been some unusual happenstance for you to be running from your peer.” Hannibal directs himself out of the parking garage and heads for home. The thought of his own bed is unusually attractive, but he has also had an unexpectedly eventful day, and the hour is quite late.

“You’ll see when you get home. Or maybe on the morning news.”  There is the slam of a car door, and Will spends a few moments simply breathing.

Hannibal listens with rapt fascination, and hums with surprise when he hears the sound of another car’s ignition. Strange—he had assumed Will lived on campus. “Fleeing in a vehicle?” He asks with some measure of amusement.

Will laughs. “Yeah, I’m going home. Maybe it’s a good thing we keep the same schedule.”

He hums. He tries to picture Will’s living situation, but finds he does not yet know enough about Will to imagine anything concrete. “Where do you live?”

“Suppose you’ll find out soon enough anyway—I have a house in Wolf Trap, Virginia.”

Hannibal makes a faint sound of surprise. “A house? You’re quite young to be a homeowner.”

Will snorts in return. “Yeah, tell me about it. But my dad had a retirement fund and life insurance that I inherited when he died. I probably could have sold the place to pay for school, but…” Will trails off into contemplative silence, both fond and sad. “I don’t know. I never had a stable home, so I guess I liked the idea of it. There’s lots of land. Room to wander. A river where I can fish.”

More and more surprises. Hannibal pauses at a red light and wonders what Will’s own drive home must be like. If he remembers it correctly, Wolf Trap is a rural town. Hannibal has only ever seen Will fairly put-together—not the sort to go traipsing out into a field. More puzzle pieces fill in, another corner of Will’s life taking shape. “You fish?”

“All my life. Grew up on the water and the bayous outside New Orleans. Only things I have left of my dad are his boat and his dog.”

Hannibal enters his familiar brownstone neighborhood, civilized and urban. What would it be like to live in the country? He finds he can’t imagine it anymore. He’s grown so accustomed to city life—Paris, Florence, Baltimore. “You are a collage of fascinating circumstances, Will.”

Will laughs. Even over the tinny line, the sound is rich, smoky and warming like whiskey. “You know, maybe I’m just over-tired, so I’ll admit I was nervous about all this. But you’re surprisingly easy to talk to. Maybe it’s because we don’t know anything about each other. Are you sure you won’t get bored when the mysteries stop flowing in?”

Quite sure. Hannibal pulls into his driveway and pulls into the garage, putting the Bentley in park. He lifts his phone off the passenger seat and disconnects from the Bluetooth speaker, holding the phone back to his ear. “Are you sure you’ll ever run out of mysteries?”

He turns off the car lets himself inside, operating one-handed as he goes through the empty house. “No one can keep up mystique and wonder forever. Someday you’ll see me covered in mud and fish guts and run away screaming. Or maybe you’ll just see me without my makeup on, it’s practically the same thing.”

The words startle a sharp laugh from Hannibal as he steps out of his shoes. He places his keys in a bowl by the door, then makes a quick stop in the kitchen to wash out the glass dish he’d used for his packed lunch, extracted from his bag. “I’ve already seen you without your makeup, Will, and I have not found you lacking. Not to mention if blood and guts were enough to run me off, Doctor Gideon would have my office and I’m sure I would have less punishing hours.”

“Doctor Gideon may get your office yet if we’re not careful,”  Will says. He sounds like he’s smiling. “I’d apologize for attacking you without warning earlier, but you didn’t seem to be complaining.”

“Your distractionary techniques are brutally efficient,” Hannibal replies, reveling in Will’s pleased murmur as he turns the water off and sets the dish aside. He heads for the stairs, intent on freeing himself from his day-worn scrubs. “In fact, it would seem quite a shame to discourage you from them. Have you ever considered acting as a career path?”

“Not even once,”  Will says. Now that he’s away from the source of his stress, Will seems to be in quite a good mood. “Though I’m glad you think my performance is good enough to warrant that sort of thing. It bodes well for your reputation—or poorly for it, depending on how you look at the situation.”

Hannibal can hear the soft whirr of his tires against the road. The sound of it is soothing; he’s always enjoyed driving, though not the stop-and-go of heavy traffic. Perhaps he’ll visit Will at home, sometime—get a sense for him and the place in which he lives. “Rumors were spreading by the time I left. What did you say to Miss Katz?”

Will practically purrs. “I didn’t have to say anything at all. She saw my lip gloss was all fucked up and told me I was banned from ever bothering her for access ever again now that I’m, and I quote, ‘banging a hot doctor whose salary is worth more than her entire mortal soul’, end quote. Then she made me buy her lunch for her trouble.”

Hannibal smirks to himself. “I appreciate her sentiment, even if it’s a bit premature.”

“A bit? ”  Will asks archly. “Why, Doctor, I think you may be overestimating your timeline. I have it on good authority that a proper gentleman would only ask for the pleasure of my company.”

“Your company is a pleasure all its own.” Hannibal turns on each of the lights in his room and sits on the edge of the bed. He pins his phone between his shoulder and ear, then reaches for the tablet on his bedside table. He waits for it to boot up with grating impatience and terrible indulgence. “How far is your drive?”

“Maybe half an hour. It’s not too bad. I like driving.”

“I share the sentiment, though I’ll admit, I’m surprised you live quite so far.”

“Having second thoughts already?”

“Not at all. Simply recalibrating my timeline to account for the commute.” The joke at his own expense is worth the warmth of Will’s laugh. Hannibal waits as his tablet powers on and loads slowly, so slowly. “So, what news is it of yours that I should be looking for? You’ve piqued my curiosity, and I’m fascinated in seeing how your gift translates from mind to paper.”

“Oh—you really don’t have to read it,”  Will says, and sounds fretful. “It’s just college journalism. Not exactly Pulitzer material.”

“Will,” Hannibal replies with carefully-constructed patience, “each award-winning writer was once an amateur. I would like to read your work, if you would let me.”

“If I don’t tell you, you’re just going to go looking for it, aren’t you?”

Hannibal smirks to himself. “Perhaps.”

“Well, I can at least be comfortable in the fact that under normal circumstances you wouldn’t find it.”  Will laughs, and Hannibal feels a flicker of irritation before he continues, “But I’ll tell you. You deserve to know.”

“Are you self-conscious about your writing, Will?” Hannibal asks. He frowns down at the open, empty browser. The cursor blinks at him, unyielding.

“You’re not a psychiatrist yet, Doctor Lecter.”

“You told me you had no use for a psychiatrist.”

“Correct. So don’t psychoanalyze me.”  Will’s voice is not quite cold, but certainly firm. “You won’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed.”

Hannibal thinks he would very much like to psychoanalyze Will, no matter how heavily the threat of his retribution looms. He would take any retaliation Will saw fit to give.

“So do you want to read my article on psychoanalyzing, or what?”

Hannibal drums his fingers on the back of his tablet. Will rides a fine line between entertainingly and distastefully rude. And then he realizes: no one else has ever been amusing to him in their rudeness before. Will Graham is… set apart.

“Yes, I would like to read it.”

“No laughing at my domain name, or I’ll block you. Not everyone can get a URL as snappy as tattlecrime dot com.”

Hannibal’s tapping nails fall still. “Tattle—” The realization comes swift and sudden. “Your classmate is Freddie Lounds?”

Will makes an exclamation of sudden outrage and offense. “Oh God, not you too.”

“I hadn’t made the connection, though now I’m surprised that I didn’t make it sooner.” Hannibal lifts the phone away from his face and frowns at it, Will’s unhappy sigh a wave of crackling static in his ear. “Her posts are sensationalist nonsense, but her coverage is prompt. I wasn’t aware Freddie Lounds is a student.”

The comment seems to draw Will’s ire away from Hannibal and back to Freddie. That, at least, is a small mercy. He’d prefer to avoid upsetting Will—the closer their thought processes seem to align, the easier it will be to gain his trust. The more Will trusts him, the easier it will become to understand him, anticipate him, and divert him if necessary.

“Of course not. The less people know about her, the easier it is for her to pretend she’s not who she is and manipulate people into getting what she wants. This is all Ethics 101, which Freddie failed. Repeatedly.”

“I assume you are speaking metaphorically.”

“I mean—yeah, she didn’t actually fail Ethics. You have to know the rules before you break them with such extreme prejudice.”  Will sighs heavily, and there is a distant sound of clicking: a turn signal. The crunch of wheels on pavement accelerates again. “I guess I don’t have any room to talk.”

Hannibal hums thoughtfully. “You’ve demonstrated a certain regard for minimizing harm for those impacted by your stories, rather than exacerbating it. I believe that gives you some amount of moral high ground.”

“And maybe someday I’ll believe you when you say it, once you’ve known me for more than, like, six hours total.”  Will goes quiet for a moment. Then he sighs. “Jesus Christ, what am I doing?”

Hannibal assumes he is not speaking in regards to driving home, or passing judgement on Freddie Lounds, or even posting his article and all its mysteries that caused him to flee from his work space in the middle of the night.

And then Will murmurs, “Agreeing to this, doing this with you. Getting into bed together, even in a figurative sense—I don’t know anything about you, Hannibal.”

Will’s use of his first name is a punch to the gut. Alone in his austere bedroom and empty home, Hannibal swallows. The screen of the tablet goes dark with disuse where it rests on his thighs. Slowly, silently, Hannibal lays back until his spine is flat on his mattress and he is staring at the ceiling, the sound of Will’s car humming through the phone at his ear. “All relationships, no matter how significant or long-lasting, begin with the introduction of strangers.”

“You don’t know the way my life has been. To meet someone successful and well-connected who wants to do what you’re offering for me, asking comparatively nothing in return—it’s a hard pill to swallow. I didn’t stay alive this long because I trusted strangers, I survived because I was pragmatic. And yet, here I am…”  Will laughs, the sound hollow, distant, self-deprecating. “Talking to you at one-thirty in the morning.”

Hannibal reaches up to hold his phone properly, and his eyes slip closed. The dull glow of his bedroom lights filter red through the thin membrane of his eyelids. The words he comes up with sound coaxing and clever within the echoing hallways of his mind, but when they escape his lips, they simply sound… exposed. Raw, like a nerve. “You’re not the only one breaking patterns tonight.”

Perhaps it is more clever altogether to make himself sound vulnerable, whether or not he intends it—because Will sighs when he hears it, and says, “You know, there’s not much different about pretending to be in a relationship with someone and actually being in one. I’ll need to know you. You’ll need to know me.”

Hannibal’s eyes open. “Does the idea discomfit you?”

“Incredibly. You?”

Hannibal laughs quietly. He tips his head back against the sheets and listens to Will’s voice in his ear, the way it starts to drawl as Will grows tired and uncertain. The shadow of the South has left an impression on Will. Hannibal knows that his motherland has made its own impressions on him. “Yes, very much.”

Will hums, and the sound vibrates against Hannibal’s cheek like a caress. It’s easy to imagine Will here, lying beside him with his slender legs dangling off the bed and brushing against his own, the way Will wears his sly slip of a smile like armor. It’s easier yet to imagine the way his curls might pool around his head, a bronze and bright halo against the blue of Hannibal’s bedclothes, his eyes radiant and azure to match.

In his mind’s eye, he can picture Will on his other side, dyed red with blood, saturated up to his elbows like the finest evening gloves. His glossy lips here are wet, crimson, dripping, spread open on a sigh. In the private gallery of Hannibal’s thoughts, Will’s throat is mottled with bruises shaped like Hannibal’s teeth, hot with fevered want beneath steady surgeon’s hands; he sings odes to death with the sweetness of his moans.

Two sides of Will. Two sides of Hannibal. And both craving, longing to find their worthy match. In order to be Seen, Hannibal must first make himself Known. It is an uncomfortable realization indeed, but no conqueror ever reigned without first overcoming all opposition, both external and internal.

Hannibal himself is just another enemy to be conquered in the battle for Will Graham.

“But I have faith you’re worth the risk, personally and professionally.”

Will makes a wounded little noise that is barely even there over the hum of his vehicle, but Hannibal hears it. He pins it down with a monster’s claws and carries it off to the safe place inside his mind palace, the fountain oasis made to hold everything to do with Will. He is a lost, wandering thing following a trail of bodies to find his place in the world. If that is what he seeks, Hannibal will lay him a path, and ensure Will knows its destination by the end.

“Why?” Will asks. “Why me?”

Hannibal blinks at his ceiling, turns his head and looks at his solitary reflection in the mirror mounted across from his bed. He wonders at the portrait they might make, exposed and resting there together; something rich and bold like the paintings of Veronese. Will is a force of untempered beauty and power to rival Venus herself.

He is a classic tableau worthy of the old masters—worthy of Hannibal.

“You are sharp and spirited. Driven. Clever. I wish to see the impact you’ll have on the world from up close, if you’ll allow it.” Hannibal replies. Regardless if Will deigns to allow him, Hannibal will find a way to see him live and thrive outside the chains society has laid upon him. “To that end, Will, why me? I feel I’m not mistaken in thinking whatever magnetism lies here goes both ways.”

Will is silent for a while. If not for the rumble of his tires on the distant, unnamed road, Hannibal might have thought he hung up. His tablet is now all but forgotten. Whatever news it is that Will has broken tonight will still be there in the morning; he’ll be content to wait all night if he must.

“You see me as a person,”  Will says finally. “When I talk, I know you hear me. You don’t just nod along like an idiot, you listen and ask me questions. And earlier, when I… when I told you about how I am, the way I think, you didn’t look afraid of me, or worried about my wellbeing. You didn’t pity me. You didn’t tell me I had a problem that could be fixed. I’m a puzzle you want to solve because you want to see the image I make, not because you think my pieces are a mess. I don’t know if I’m making sense. But you don’t even have to think about it or try, you just… do. I’m not a trendy commodity or some weird fetish attraction, and I’m not something immoral and distasteful when you look at me. You look at me like you want me because I’m interesting.”

Hannibal inhales and exhales slowly. “Is it really so atypical, that you noticed me because I treat you like an equal?”

“Yes,”  Will whispers, barely a breath of sound.

Hannibal ruminates on how long it might take to find every person who has ever made Will feel like an inferior being. It is a terrible shame that most of them probably don’t have business cards—and that even if he killed one a day for the rest of his life, he’d likely not reach them all.

Will is not a person. Hannibal would never call him something so tasteless and insulting.

“Maybe that’s why I’m chasing this killer,”  he adds. “I wonder how long it’s been since anyone looked at him and saw him for who he is. If he was just killing for himself, he wouldn’t display them. His murders are trials for public consumption. He wants someone to share it with. I think he’s probably been doing this for a really long time and got tired of being alone.”

It feels like a lead weight is sitting on Hannibal’s chest. “You believe he’s lonely?”

“He probably wouldn’t call it that. He’d probably just call it boredom. But it’s the same thing, right? This is what he does: he hunts and kills, an instinct and a hobby. But it is lonely, being the only person who does what you do—who can appreciate your hard work, no matter how bloody it is. It comes with a sort of… dull ache.”

An empty bed. An empty home. Hannibal has always preferred his solitude, back when he believed no one would ever understand because they were incapable of doing so. If he had to explain, it would ruin the meaning. With Will, he doesn’t have to explain. He just… sees.

“Do you feel alone, Will?”

Will makes a quiet sound: it’s not what Hannibal expects. It’s tentative and wistful—almost warm. “I’m starting not to.”

Hannibal sits upright at long last. He glances down at the tablet on his lap and, finally, sets it back on his bedside table. His plans for tomorrow can be put on hold—ideas, unlike meat, will keep. Too, perhaps Will’s article is better consumed on a well-rested mind, especially given how much of his attention the writer himself demands.  

“Yes,” Hannibal says, “I believe I know what you mean.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Will arrives home and says goodbye in short accord. After they hang up, Hannibal showers and readies himself for sleep at his leisure.

Will’s article is an itch at the back of his mind, a curiosity. He so keenly wants to know Will’s thoughts on the murder of Andrew Caldwell, but lingers on Will’s statement that he wouldn’t be able to find his article.

Luckily for Hannibal, he doesn’t have to look. As soon as he loads his home page, he realizes what Will meant by normal circumstances lending themselves to his anonymity.

His article has gone viral.

 

 

Dear Boss: Silent Communication and the Chesapeake Ripper

Let’s face it: we live in an era where everything is spelled out for us. Social media reigns supreme, I’m no stranger to it. “Live by the pen” has become “live by the keyboard”. Getting to a story first is everything in the world of journalism, and both pictures and your thousand words about them are what define your life. There’s no denying that print just can’t keep up with the instant gratification of the internet at your fingers. Everyone itches to leave their mark on the world and be recognized by their peers. For most, that involves the typical social networking sites: Facebook, Reddit, Youtube, Twitter.

That’s not the case for the Chesapeake Ripper.

Nine murders in eighteen months, grouped in sounders of three—two cycles complete, and the next has just begun with victim ten. Police have hesitated to even connect the killings. There’s no correlation they can find between the victims, no common traits, no cookie cutter mold. No single age, race, or class. There’s no notes left behind, no explanation of what he does or why. He doesn’t need one. In his mind, why explain the slaughter of animals?

The only indication that his victims were once people is the way he communicates with them—and by extension, with us. The Chesapeake Ripper’s kills are rich with symbolism, a modern letter From Hell, complete with the surgical removal of organs. He is judge, jury, and executioner, but his victims are far from prostitutes—they’ve each done something to draw his wrath. Don’t take that the wrong way: the connection between killer and victim will be minimal, and perhaps even years past. He won’t be a victim’s boyfriend, neighbor, or college roommate. He’s smarter than that, and smarter than most. Likely attractive, established, and successful. He’s able to cement trust enough to disappear victims from plain sight without anyone noticing. That takes skill and practice. It takes a certain level of finesse.

If or when the police find him, they’ll probably find that he has far, far more than only ten victims.

But here’s what we know about them, beginning with his most recent tableau: Dr. Andrew Caldwell.

Read More…

 

Hannibal is fascinated.

AbnormalAnalysis.net, reads the web address. The tagline of the Homicide section reads Death By Design. All created by an anonymous author and contributor, which he knows to be Will Graham.

Will’s articles on the Ripper cases date back more than a year, back to Hannibal’s third exposé. Will had drawn the conclusion that the murders were linked even before the police had. His detailings on the crimes are intricate, though most of the articles posted quite some time after the crimes themselves had been committed—unsurprising, since Will likely had limited access to the information. Even now, Hannibal notes, there are no photos of Caldwell’s body, no scans of the autopsy report, though much of the information shared was taken verbatim from it.

He wonders how much more Will might absorb and infer if he were able to see a scene himself, rather than just the body in the aftermath.

Hannibal shuts his tablet off and plugs his phone in to charge, then sets about turning off his bedroom lights. It seems he has much to think about in relation to Will Graham, and the best path to take in regards to their… relationship.

One thing is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt: Hannibal wants him, and it seems Will is receptive to his company in return. Their fates are lashed together by the iron chain of Hannibal’s true persona, and by extension, Will’s obsession with it. So long as Hannibal can provide Will with informative references and distinct social advantages, he’ll be free to court Will on a personal basis. He needn’t know that the killer he seeks is the one seeking his favor in return.

Not immediately, anyway.

It’s well after two by the time Hannibal climbs between perfectly-made sheets, and as he schools his mind into a state of peace, there is a sudden bright light and disruptive noise. There is only one person who would text him so late at night, and he should most certainly be asleep by now.

Alas, it seems he’s not. Yet, Hannibal can’t say he’s displeased.

 

>> I’m sure you’ve seen it by now. What’s your verdict, Doctor?

Hannibal squints at the blinding screen in the dark as he taps out his reply.

 

<< A thorough analysis that has great merit. I see it’s gone viral.

>> Everyone’s calling him the Chesapeake Ripper now. Too bad I didn’t trademark it.

Hannibal blinks slowly as the concept of being a trademark sinks into his mind. He frowns as he considers his reply, but Will gets there first.

 

>> What do you think the chances are that he’ll see that article?

Hannibal’s brows creep slowly up his forehead. Does Will hope he’ll see it, or does he dread it?

 

<< Very likely, I’d think, given that the crime is so recent and the response has been so large. If he has any online presence at all, he’ll probably run into it.

<< Are you concerned for your safety, Will? You yourself assured your anonymity was well-protected.

>> No, I’m not worried.

Hannibal stares at the message, even as the blinking gray bubble shows that Will is still typing. Will is either quite reasonable or quite insane, and Hannibal is not yet sure which.

 

>> Part of me wants him to see it. The other part of me thinks I’m crazy and have a death wish, but it kind of sounds like my dad’s voice.

>> Maybe I am crazy. Either way, I should let you sleep.

>> Thank you for talking to me on my way home tonight.

Hannibal hums and turns onto his side, phone in hand. Technology was not nearly so prevalent in his school days. He wonders if it’s so common for students to stay up at all hours for such conversations, but decides that even if it is, the conversations he has with Will are worth the restless night.

 

<< It was my pleasure, Will. Get some rest.

>> Thanks, you too.

Hannibal no sooner sets his phone down than it buzzes again.

 

>> Are you free tomorrow?

He smiles. 

 

<< Yes. What do you have in mind?

 


 

There’s a certain sense of doom that comes with realizing yesterday was not a fever dream.

Will lies in bed for much longer than he should, Winston crushing the breath from his ribcage. It doesn’t make the text log or call history on his phone any less real as he holds it high above his face.

Hannibal Lecter. Doctor Hannibal Lecter. The man who had, in essence, saved him from being arrested nearly a month ago for the very serious crime of possession of false identification and self defense while gender nonconforming, the latter being the primary problem with the former.

Will had thought him something of a fever dream back then, too—attractive and compassionate, who didn’t ask Will invasive questions about his mental health to invalidate his gender identity. It was too much to ask for in most people, but in doctors especially.

But then Will had gone home with fractured pride and a fractured hand, and life had gone on.

Until now.

Will never expected to see Hannibal Lecter again, and now he’s… he’s…

“Winston,” Will groans softly. “Get down.”

Winston does as asked; he’s always been a good listener, whether for Will or his father before him. It’s the product of good training. Dogs are simple like that.

He gets down and Will gets up, tugs at the hem of his oversized sleep shirt, drags on the first pair of pants he sees (which happen to be fleece-lined leggings) and pulls his father’s jacket over the top of it all. Will trudges to the entryway, crams his feet into his steel-toed boots without bothering to look for socks, and opens the door.

Winston bolts into the light of the morning. Will, somewhat less gracefully, squints at the sunlight. With the weight of his keys in his pocket, follows Winston down the steps.

The brisk morning air is sobering, enlightening, wakeful. It helps draw Will from the cacophony of his dreams, and back into the strange reality in which Will has agreed to enter a sham of a relationship with a stranger—a source.

It goes against every bit of ethics he’s learned. And yet… it’s hardly the craziest thing he’s ever heard, at least in theory. In practice, it feels pretty damn crazy.

Will finger-combs through the tangle of his hair, straightens the wild fall of his bangs. Winston zooms around the main yard but doesn’t go beyond the boundary of tall, dead grass—predictable as always.

Will thought he was predictable too, until yesterday.

He’s managed to surprise himself.

Will leans against the porch and tips his head back to feel the sun. It is, by all rights, a beautiful morning. He wishes he hadn’t stayed out so late, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to journalism. He wonders what he’ll be walking into later when he gets to the news bubble in Knight Hall—how quickly Freddie will find him and confront him about the article. Will wonders what he’ll say to deter her, if he can make her back off at all.

He wonders if he’ll feel better or worse when he sees Hannibal again.

Will exhales slowly in a cloud of steam.

Hannibal.

Will is the first to admit that he’s probably lost his mind. But if Hannibal really means to introduce him to the higher-ups at the hospital, ferry him around from function to function, and only seek Will’s company in return, then what choice does he have? He’s right, after all—he has exactly the kind of connections that Will needs to survive in his chosen career path. And if a doctor feeling a midlife crisis wants to indulge Will’s interests in exchange for being arm candy and late-night conversation, well—Will’s certainly done dumber things.

Not in a while, though. Which makes this choice feel especially foolish.

Will whistles through his teeth, and Winston comes running. With a click of his tongue, the dog heads back inside the house, and Will returns to face the day.

Will hangs the coat on a hook by the door, kicks his work boots off in a graceless clatter. There’s a table for his fly-fishing gear on one side. On the other, there’s an armchair and a bookcase, and a vanity tucked into the far corner with a backlit makeup mirror. Will passes all that and heads for the kitchen, sets out a generous scoop of dog food and a fresh bowl of water, then continues on to the bathroom.

First things first. Will tips his head over and gathers his hair at his crown, pulling it back into a careless bun. There’s a mess of assorted bobby pins on the sink; he scoops two up and holds them loosely between his teeth, he gathers his bangs and twirls the curls together around one finger. He clips them down and back, pins crossed over one another in an X-shape.

Will stares into the mirror and sees someone else’s mind sit behind the barricade of his eyes, the faces of others he’d seen inside and echoed yesterday. Some unintentionally… and some intentionally.

Andrew Caldwell.

It’s dangerous for Will to do what he does. When he allows himself to slip inside someone else’s thoughts, he’ll always run the risk of getting swept away. He makes sense of his madness in light and color, can pull images from air, from light, from breath. He can stand in a place and paint it as it once was, but it comes and goes without form.

Mirror neurons, they told him. Too many mirror neurons. Will is a mirror, and what he sees, he reflects back—good or bad or anything in between.

William Graham’s identity is flexible, changing and multidirectional like the sea.

Wilhelmina is his port in a storm.

She lives inside his ribcage, proud and dignified. She is a solid identity. A protector. When the pieces of Will are floating downstream, she is his safety net. Maybe she’s not quite him, but neither is she someone else. She allows him to define his own lines and color them in, sculpting himself from pigment and powder. She’s familiar. Family. Catlike and crafty, a stretching subset of his thoughts that have tied themselves to an identity for Will to assume. She is an anchor when he is drifting that ties Will to his sense of self.

She is a tailor-made suit of armor, a first line of defense for a person who sees too much. A built-in bodyguard.

And when they are together, they become one solid silhouette named Will.

Will licks his lips, takes a breath, and gets to work.

He showered last night, so there’s only this morning to attend to. He shaves the faint shadow from his face and neck first and foremost. There’s not much of it to speak of, but each step of Will’s routine cements a part of him in place. After shaving comes soap and warm water, which is a hell of a thing to manage with his cast. He washes the sleep from his eyes and lets his nightmares seep down the drain. By the time Will blots his face dry, he feels almost human.

Cotton pad and toner next—foundation is hell on his pores, and only careful maintenance can save Will’s complexion from the unforgiving cameras of the university news station. Antiperspirant is a must, and glides onto the smooth, shaven skin of his underarms. Hypoallergenic face moisturizer follows. Will exfoliates his lips, then brushes his teeth with his electric toothbrush while the lotion dries. He turns off the water and retreats to his living room. He has the routine down to a science.

He adjusts his gait as he walks down the hallway, takes a breath and centers himself. By the time Winston wanders out of the kitchen in search of him, Will’s movements are carefully controlled, his steps measured and even. He feels taller, more purposeful. Graceful. Like temperance.

He strips, and his clothes make a pile on his mattress. Will scoops up the remaining clothes on the floor that didn’t bother him yesterday, deposits them all in the hamper, then straightens the blankets on the bed. This is his method of thinking, his sense of focus. Will selects his outfit for the day from his closet and lays it out: woolen socks, black denim, his favorite blouse—both feminine and alluring in royal blue, a low ruffled neckline and wide-cut sleeves. His fingers skim a soft, satiny pair of boyshort-style panties and he takes those; upon second thought, takes the matching bralette, too. He may as well, and the texture of the fabric is pleasing on his skin.

Then Will remembers they’re filming a new UMTV segment today—he grimaces and doubles back. He prefers being comfortable, but professionalism is a must…

Will hums in conflicted consideration, then extracts his backup outfit. What the hell, right? He can pack it to go and change at school. It’s better than being uncomfortable all day, and he’s not making two trips.

Will gets dressed slowly and adjusts his sleeve over the top of his cast, then heads toward the vanity; he slips onto the worn thrift-store bench and turns on the backlit mirror, and with no time to waste, starts his process.

Primer all over, applied with his fingertips. Concealer beneath his eyes, green-tinted color correcting creme where his cheeks and throat are red from shaving—Will blends them in and evens their tone with a makeup sponge. Then comes liquid foundation, set with a large, flat brush over his full face and down his neck, blended until there’s no perceptible difference in color. Foundation had been a bitch and a half to find for his cool-toned fair complexion. Expert recommendations had made all the difference.

Cream contour: dark lines to define his cheekbones and nostrils, to make his face look rounder around the edges. Highlight across the bridge of his nose, the apples of his cheeks, between his brows, beneath his chin to soften the shape. He blends each section carefully, making sure the contrast looks like natural light and shadow. It’s a delicate process—but then again, he had a good teacher.

His blush is in stick form, peach with gold undertones, and Will places careful dabs between the contour and highlight of his cheekbones, swept upward toward his temples with an angled brush. Matte translucent powder sets everything in place; Will sets the compact aside to take with him, since he’ll need it prior to filming.

Brows next. Will regularly keeps them shaped, but he fills in a few lighter spots with a pencil and scrubs the color through, then sets them with clear gel. He collects several small brushes and a palette and places his eyeshadow, light shimmer at the inner corners, highlight below his newly-defined brows, and a matte nude gradient that fades to a soft brown at the outer corners and offsets the blue of his eyes. Will pulls the corners of his lids ever-so-gently taut, and uncaps his liquid liner with his teeth. He traces lashline to outer edge in small, swift strokes; releases the tension, and adds a subtle wing from the natural curve of his eye. Repeating the process has taken the most practice of anything; mascara is a snap compared to the rest. Will curls his eyelashes first, then wiggles the applicator at the base to ensure volume before he pulls outward. He reapplies at the very ends to add length.

Will defines the bow of his lips with a pink pencil, then fills them in with long-stay matte liquid lipstick. He’ll take that to go, as well. He pulls the bobby pins from his fringe and slides them securely onto his right front belt loop. He sighs in irritation as he fights with his bangs; curls are nearly impossible to tame when dry.

Will sifts idly through a decorative ashtray atop the vanity and extracts a pair of faux-pearl post earrings. The backs click on with a satisfying little snap that reminds him of the click of high heels against tile. The sound is one of power and femininity bundled together, two for one.

When Will looks up, he recognizes the person staring back. The focus dedicated to his process fades away and leaves behind a sense of peace. When Will stands, he can breathe easily. Though his identity is an ever-shifting amalgam that isn’t so simply defined by a name or pronouns, he feels right. He feels secure. His lines are colored in.

The day is ahead of him, and he’s ready for it.

Will switches off the vanity light, then smiles at the sight of Winston laying in the sun on the floor. A dog’s life is really such a simple thing, he thinks as Winston’s head lifts and his tail starts to wag. He’s scruffy, some sort of speckled brindle mutt, but his bone structure is solid and he’s athletic to a fault. Smart. Will thinks they have a lot in common. Of course, if he were a dog, he’d be fortunate to be as well cared-for as Will himself takes care of Winston.

“Hey buddy,” Will murmurs fondly, then sinks to his knees to run his palms over the smooth fur of Winston’s ruff. “You gonna be good while I’m gone?”

Winston’s tail wags. He licks Will’s hands, and Will’s nose wrinkles fondly as he laughs. Winston’s always had a taste for his lotion, the strange thing.

“Yeah, you’re a good boy,” Will says. He feels a pang of guilt as he stands, despite knowing his neighbor down the road will stop by to let him out this afternoon. It can’t be fun staying all day by himself—god only knows that living by himself is a lonely task for Will. Maybe he should get another dog, someone to keep Winston company. “I’ll be back earlier tonight, I promise.”

Winston whuffs, and rolls onto his side. He stretches in the golden light of the winter sun as Will goes about and collects his things.

Phone, wallet, car keys, student ID. Messenger bag slung over his shoulder, complete with change of clothes, charger, and laptop; touch-up makeup and hair clips zipped safely into the front pocket.

Will shrugs on his father’s old jacket, faded green and patched at the elbows, worn through where it used to rub against the docks while fishing, when he leaned back on his arms to look at the sky. The weight of heavy canvas reminds Will of a different time, of callused working hands and beers drank far too young. Of a father alone, trying to do right by a son and a daughter and neither and both at the same time. The rusted cab of a truck. Cheap motel rooms. The scent of the ocean, whiskey, and cigarettes: all three were Beau’s vices to the end.

All that’s left of his life is here in Wolf Trap, Virginia, one thousand and eighty miles from home.

Will’s been trying his damndest to make this place a home for himself. It’s funny, though: he’d never found anything to do or met anyone in particular that couldn’t be found somewhere else…  until he met Hannibal Lecter.

Minus the Chesapeake Ripper, of course.

Will pauses in the doorway and pulls his phone from his pocket, then opens the string of messages from late the night before. He sends another.

 

<< Heading to class now. Text me when you get to campus so I can come find you! I should be done this afternoon, maybe around 1:30 or 2?

Will lets himself out the front door and locks it behind him. He shivers in the cold air and hitches his rucksack up his shoulder. His Volvo beeps as he unlocks it and sets the bag on the front seat, keys and phone set in the first and second cup holder, respectively.

Will no sooner turns over the ignition than his phone buzzes loudly, the sound of plastic-on-plastic.

 

>> I’m looking forward to it. Drive safely.

Will’s heart thuds in embarrassing rebellion. He’s simply glad that there’s no one to witness his stupidly reflexive smile.

Then he sets his phone down, and rests his face against the cold steering wheel.

He breathes. Picks it back up, and selects a different contact. Unnamed.

 

<< Tonight, the new place?

>> I thought you’d never ask.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hannibal looks up with interest at the simple, modern lines of the brick building of Knight Hall; huge windows to let in the light, framed by clean steel beams. Will had mentioned its recent construction and directions to its location in his messages the night before. Hannibal, of course, has come prepared—Will mentioned finding lunch somewhere on campus if Hannibal was willing to make the commute. And though he’d been more than willing to make the drive in favor of seeing Will’s base of operations, food was the one thing he would not negotiate on, so he’d brought lunch with him.

Hannibal lingers outside the doorway, drawing the glances of passing students, their curious eyes fixing on his tailored slacks and woolen peacoat. He’s a stark contrast to their winter jackets and denim jeans, but he pays them no mind. He’s simply here for Will, and will wait for his guidance. Then the door swings open, and Will is there with him in the courtyard, breathless and beautiful. He shivers with the wave of cold autumn air, and there’s no wonder why.

His hair is a knot of curls clipped at the crown of his head in a casual-but-pretty updo, the wisps of his bangs falling across his forehead. His blouse is royal blue, his cast partially concealed by wide-cuffed sleeves. The elegant v-shape of the neck morphs into a waterfall of ruffles that guide the eye downward and—Hannibal’s brain makes a notable pause. Will’s blouse is tucked into a tasteful black pencil skirt, layered over opaque nude tights and sensible black heels.

Black liner frames Will’s eyes, exaggerated by the fringe of thick lashes. His cheeks burn pink, though not from powder or the cold; there’s a sparse flush that reaches as low as his exposed collarbones and heaves with his quickened breath. Will’s plain black lanyard and student ID rises and falls with the motion of his chest. The chilling breeze carries no hint of cherry scent—today, Will’s mouth has been painted with a matte shade of dusty pink lipstick.

“I thought I said two o’clock,” Will says instead of a proper greeting, though he looks alarmed enough to excuse the abruptness. He looks Hannibal over with wide eyes, and tucks a stray curl behind his ear to expose modest pearl earrings. He truly makes a stunning, classic image. “Did I not say two? Honestly, I can’t remember anymore—”

The hour is only one o’clock in the afternoon; Hannibal is deliberately early. He’s curious enough about Will’s institution of learning that he decided to arrive slightly ahead of schedule—though admittedly, his drive progressed much more quickly than expected. He’s so early it could easily be considered rude, to leave his companion unprepared for him. But he’s so very glad he has.

Before Will can work himself into a frenzy from his unexpected arrival, Hannibal’s hands find his waist and cheek, reeling him in for a chaste but lingering kiss. Hannibal can sense the prickling sensation of passing eyes resting heavily upon them. Excellent.

Will is the one to disengage, looking faintly dazed. His cheeks are nearly glowing, eyes cast downward, and Hannibal knows he’s aware of their curious audience of nameless students. “Oh,” Will murmurs. “That’s revenge for yesterday, isn’t it?”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” Hannibal replies with a smug, pleased smile. “How was your morning?”

“Eventful.” Will struggles to pull his eyes from the brick walkway below their feet. Hannibal notes with some curiosity that his glasses are nowhere to be found. “We just finished recording our new segment for UMTV—I, um, meant to go change before we met up.”

“Don’t be shy. You look beautiful.”

Will’s head snaps up. There’s a sharpness about him, assessing the truthfulness of Hannibal’s words and the intent behind it. Hannibal wonders if Will has been conditioned to analyze every compliment he’s ever received, or if he’s just skeptical of Hannibal specifically due to their arrangement. He decides that neither is acceptable. Will’s confidence should not be halted at the border of his gender identity, patrolled by his own sensibilities. Hannibal would see him competent, capable, and confident in all aspects of himself.

Apex predators do not have time for doubt.

“Alright, alright, you flatterer,” Will mumbles, and sounds on a knife’s edge of embarrassment and pride. Hannibal realizes that there must be people watching them that he recognizes, especially when Will draws close and nuzzles at his jaw, casually hooking his fingers into the strap of Hannibal’s insulated bag and pulling it from his grip. “What’d you bring me?”

Hannibal inhales the faint scent of shea butter lotion that clings to his skin, counterpoint to the powdery smell of the shaving cream Will used that morning before applying his makeup. It’s subtle, easily swept away by the wind. Will himself is, fortunately, not so easily moved. “I thought I’d bring you lunch.”

Will blinks; his surprise is clear and true as he draws away, straps looped over his wrist. “Did you make it?”

Hannibal nearly laughs. How much they still have to learn about one another. “Yes, of course. We should go inside before you freeze, mylimasis.”

Will’s eyes flash at the unfamiliar endearment, but he thinks better of questioning it in public. He tosses his head in stubborn pride and nearly dishevels his hair. His carelessness is surprisingly charming. “I’m tougher than that.”

Hannibal does smile at that, his hand slipping to Will’s hip and turning him manually—it’s an impatient and affectionate gesture between lovers comfortable with one another’s bodies, entirely for their audience. “I have no doubt.” He gives Will a nudge toward the door. “Go on. I’ll follow.”

Will tosses a challenging look back over his shoulder, then reaches down to tangle their fingers together. He leads Hannibal along, confident in his command over the territory within. “Wouldn’t want you to get lost. We’re just finishing up in the news bubble, but it might be a little while longer. I didn’t expect you ‘til later.”

Hannibal surveys the inside of the building with interest, observing the new fixtures and high ceilings, the bright and spacious halls, and the students on clusters of couches that look up to watch them as they pass. “It seems I overestimated the commute. I expected more lunchtime traffic.”

Will hums as though he doesn’t believe Hannibal very much at all. “Or you wanted to see me on your terms instead of mine.”

Every time Will reads him right, there’s an odd pang of satisfaction at his cleverness. With anyone else, Hannibal is sure he’d be put off, perhaps threatened. Will is an outlier. “Perhaps.”

“At least you brought food.” Will tugs him along with purpose. “What’d you make me?”

There is a persistent sense of anticipation at the thought of Will consuming his cooking. Perverse satisfaction, anyone else would call it, if there were anyone else to know. Approval of his preparations is, perhaps, the only true validation Hannibal seeks in life. Outside of the medical field, Hannibal’s dedication to all manners of fine cuisine is his most dedicated hobby. It would be a pleasure to have someone to share it with more regularly. “Lamb Kokkinisto and orzo, with a salad of tomato and cucumbers.”

Will pauses in the threshold of a large multimedia lab and filming space, glancing down at the bag as though he might see straight through it, and then turns back to Hannibal. “Really?”

“Yes,” Hannibal replies with a faint frown. “I hope that’s acceptable.”

Their hands are still twined. Will’s fingers are chilled from the outdoors. There is no one to see them, or Hannibal would use that excuse to rub warmth back into his skin. Will doesn’t even seem to notice; instead, he seems surprised. “I mean, yeah, of course, I’m just—” Will laughs, a little awkward. He touches his face, ducks his chin. “Most people I know don’t know how to cook, let alone bring me lunch. It’s kind of you.”

Ah, so the discomfort lies in being provided for. Will is a solitary creature used to looking out for himself. It’s likely that any sort of unexpected attention will always make him feel ill at ease—at least until he grows to expect it. Hannibal wonders absently if Will could perhaps be trained to anticipate care, demand it, to seek out Hannibal to fulfill his needs.

“I have a passion for the culinary arts,” Hannibal says by way of answering. “And I’m very particular about what I put into my body. I make nearly everything I eat myself.”

Will’s responding expression is complicated; a little bit of a smile, a bit of a frown. “You could have just said no to lunch.”

“Nonsense,” Hannibal replies. He leans closer and crowds Will comfortably against the doorway, absorbing the warmth of his body and savoring the subtle dilation of his pupils. “You wanted to see me, I wanted to see you. Bringing you something was the least I could do for you, Will. I know your education keeps you busy.”

“Says the emergency trauma surgeon,” Will answers, a valiant attempt at sounding droll, but merely coming out breathless.

Hannibal grins in response, all teeth. “Go on. Don’t let me keep you from your work. I’ll wait until you’re done.”

Will inhales and exhales sharply, eyes bright. The heave of his chest rolls with his breath, and Hannibal’s eyes rove the stunning form of Will’s figure with pure aesthetic appreciation—up until the moment Will huffs a second time, and turns to walk away. His hand slips from Hannibal’s as he goes, but Hannibal is smiling as he trails along in pursuit.

Will sets the bag on a small, unoccupied table toward the rear of the room where a silver laptop is propped open, cursor blinking expectantly on the screen. Light boxes are suspended from the ceiling, pointed at a replica newsdesk at the opposite end of the room. Students mill about on computers, comparing screens; some pore over large, industrial cameras. The temperature is quite warm from the equipment and the bodies; it’s unsurprising that Hannibal finds Will’s green hunting jacket draped over the back of the abandoned chair.

“I need to go check with Peter and make sure the film turned out okay. Give me a few minutes, I’ll be back.”

“I’m at your command,” Hannibal answers with a self-satisfied smile, and sits at Will’s vacated seat.

Will shoots him a complicated frown, then tugs his lanyard and student ID over his head. He presses it into Hannibal’s hands. “Here, hold on to this. If anyone gives you a hard time, just mention you’re visiting me. You can use my laptop if you want, just don’t mess with any of the open tabs or I’ll have to go digging for them.”

Hannibal puts the lanyard around his neck, then sets about unbuttoning his coat and making himself comfortable. “I’ll be quite alright, Will.”

When Will doesn’t immediately depart, Hannibal looks over and finds Will staring. He glances down at himself—white shirt, slate waistcoat to match his slacks, and he’d made the executive decision to forego the tie lest he look too formal, replaced by a few undone buttons at the collar—then back up at Will.

“You are…” Will trails off into silence. His jaw twitches, and he averts his eyes. “Not wearing scrubs.”

Is that what this is about? Amusement and pride wells in Hannibal’s chest at rendering his sharp-tongued companion to such a state. He unbuttons his cuffs and carefully rolls them up around his forearms; for one lovely, suspended second, Will’s eyes close and he sighs as though pained.

“I prefer to wear real clothing outside of the hospital,” Hannibal replies, politely pretending not to notice Will’s unsubtle crisis. It seems they’ve established an equivalent exchange when it comes to being well-dressed, and it’s satisfying to know that Hannibal is not the only one between them capable of appreciating aesthetics.

Hannibal looks up and catches the sight of a nervous-looking boy several feet off, standing patiently and expectantly while he waits for Will. He immediately averts his eyes when Hannibal notices him, shoulders tensing up around his ears and disheveled hair. He has truly deplorable posture. “It seems someone is trying to get your attention.”

“Hm?” Will is distracted, but relaxes abruptly when he notices the student who waits for him. Hannibal catches the sight of an easy smile blooming across Will’s face, and feels a momentary wave of something unnamed and unpleasant. “Oh, Peter! Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Will walks purposefully and professionally despite his high heels; he must be used to wearing them. The realization is… enlightening. Hannibal admires the figure Will makes as he follows Peter back toward one of the industrial cameras, surveying the footage taken before Hannibal arrived. Will lingers just behind the break in the studio lighting; like Hannibal, he is cast in its shadow.

He wonders at how vibrant Will might look at the moment he steps into focus. Bright. Radiant. A shining, illuminated avatar of divinity.

And then someone sits down across from him.

He’s not sure what he expects—some curious friend of Will’s, perhaps, or a staff member inquiring as to his business here. What he gets is a petite young woman with angular features, pursed lips, and pale blue eyes. Between her focused demeanor and her mane of red ringlet curls, her overall appearance is decidedly vulpine.

“Haven’t seen you around before,” she says with a bright smile. She inclines her head toward Will. “Family?”

Hannibal follows her gaze, its sharp attentiveness, and realizes quickly that the woman may perhaps not be Will’s friend at all. The saccharine-sweetness of her tone strikes him as artificial.

It’s an expert rendition of friendly interest, he’ll admit. But there’s shrewd calculation in her face, and Hannibal is a master of seeing through false pretenses. From what rapidfire information his mind gleans, he pieces together a conclusion—this woman is Freddie Lounds, and she has no genuine interest in Will beyond muckraking his reputation.

Hannibal matches her smile with one of his own, unfailingly polite. “Not family, no. Though I am Will’s guest on campus.”

“Any questions I can answer for you while Will’s busy?” She leans forward, elbows on the table, and rests her chin upon them. The gesture gives a rather generous view of her bosom if one cares enough to look.

Hannibal does not. Instead, he notes her careful avoidance of Will’s pronouns, and raises a brow of his own. If she intends to test his mettle, Hannibal will let her think she’s won. Overconfidence is often the most revealing tell in any opponent’s strategy.

He levels her with his most charming smile, and sits more upright; he angles his body toward hers in a subtle mimic. “Plenty, I’m sure.” He holds out his hand to her. “Doctor Hannibal Lecter.”

Freddie’s eyes flash with both interest and flickering fury; she’s young yet, and has not yet learned to hide her emotions. She’s clearly smart—she immediately pieces together the importance of his title with her suspicions regarding Will’s authorship of the Ripper article. If Hannibal didn’t know how much it would infuriate them both, he might compare her to Will.

“Freddie,” she says, and her eyes crinkle in a way that is well-practiced at appearing harmless. Her handshake is brisk, firm; she is lacking nothing in her picture-perfect overture of welcome. If Hannibal were a less intelligent man, he might not pick up on her friendly tone masking her swift sidestep of her surname.

“So, Freddie,” Hannibal continues without any particular weight, any indication that her name means anything to him, “How long have you attended the University of Maryland?”

“Three years,” she replies easily. “I transferred in after my freshman year.”

No mention of where she transferred from. Interesting. From the stylish cut of her clothing that speaks of careful wardrobe curation, Hannibal would guess a community college. No one tries so desperately to fit in as someone who knows the sense of being excluded. “And how long have you known Will?”

Her grin flickers, but holds firm. “We met after Will transferred here two years ago. We’re both journalism majors, so we have almost all our classes together.” Freddie alludes to a friendship that Hannibal knows does not exist. She’s still avoiding Will’s pronouns—fishing for Hannibal’s interpretation of Will’s gender before she submits her own. She tilts her head to the side and makes her countermove. “How’d you meet Will?”

Hannibal’s smile widens. That, at least, he has a good answer for. “Emergency room. Will was brought to me with a broken hand that I treated and set to rights.”

He searches out Will without being fully conscious of doing so, an automatic homing beacon that seems to have set itself in his mind. Will leans over Peter’s shoulder at one of the desktop stations, pointing at something obscured on the screen. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s consumed in his work, Hannibal might suspect him of engineering the way his skirt creeps up the backs of his thighs and stretches over the shapely curve of his ass.

“We got along quite well,” Hannibal adds, and the corners of his lips twitch, his eyes linger and slip up the concave slope of Will’s spine, follows the trickle of a loose curl down the nape of his neck. “Intellectually compatible.”

Will straightens as though he feels the weight of Hannibal’s eyes as a physical touch. For a moment, he’s still and silent with his back to Hannibal and one ear tipped to the air, a wolf listening for the howl of his pack…

“Oh?” Freddie asks. “What hospital?”

...or the growl of an enemy.

There is murder in Will’s eyes and a lover’s smile on his lips as he summons himself to Hannibal’s side. Freddie eyes Will with cruel contemplation, but even she hesitates at the ease with which Will leans against Hannibal’s seated form, slips one hand into Hannibal’s hair and tenderly cradles the back of his neck. It’s so intimate and possessive a gesture that Hannibal is momentarily captivated by the sensational scritch of nails against his scalp.

“I see you’ve met Freddie,” Will says with every tonal indication that this is uneventful but pleasing news. Even outside the scope of Freddie’s narrowed eyes, Will’s thumb massages sensual circles at the base of Hannibal’s skull.

Two can play at Will’s little game, and Hannibal is as experienced at playing clueless as he is at being clever. “Yes, we were just talking about you.”

Will’s smile is frozen, chilling. Freddie’s beaming grin is a porcelain mask. “Thank you for keeping him company, Freddie, but I think I’m done now.”

Freddie leans back in her chair, every muscle in her body held stiff. She is a predator backing away, but not backing down. “Shame, and I thought we were getting along so well,” she says, and her eyes fall to Hannibal. Her voice is smug with satisfaction. She pronounces every syllable when she purrs, “Intellectually compatible.”

It’s a shame for her that Will is a stunning actor, and Hannibal is always willing to indulge his scenes.

Will laughs, soft and clear as a bell. He bends at the waist to nuzzle the top of Hannibal’s head; Hannibal slips his arm comfortably and possessively around Will’s waist. It is a display any encroaching prospect would wisely heed: a statement shared by a mated pair that says I am his and he is mine.

“You’re in high demand, Hannibal,” Will says, and smooths back Hannibal’s bangs to press a kiss to his forehead. His lipstick is flawless—it leaves no trace behind, but for the burning impression Hannibal feels on his skin.

“Perhaps fortunately for Miss Lounds, my attention belongs solely to you,” Hannibal replies warmly. It’s a two-for-one shot, and Freddie’s lips thin with displeasure. Hannibal offers her a polite nod. “I won’t take up any more of your time. Enjoy your day, Freddie.”

Will radiates vindicated pleasure enough to shield Hannibal from the bitter chill of Freddie’s curt sneer.

“You too, Doctor Lecter,” she says sweetly. It’s a reminder—she’s not forgotten the clues she thinks she’s found. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again.”

“I’m sure we will.” He dismisses her and looks up, sees Will backlit by studio light—beautiful benediction that he is. Will tenderly straightens Hannibal’s hair with his fingertips, the backs of his knuckles ghosting over Hannibal’s cheek. He finds Hannibal’s palm at his waist and takes it in his other, mindful of the cast in the way, and spins out slowly with the grace of a dancer.

Hannibal rises to his feet and draws Will’s broken hand to his chest. His eyes are only for Will as he brushes his lips over rough, plain plaster. “Shall we have lunch? I trust you won’t let me pull you prematurely from your work.”

“Not prematurely, no,” Will replies with sweet indulgence, and only pulls his hand from Hannibal’s in favor of gathering his belongings. “But I think I can get away with some self-care time.”

Will closes his laptop and slides it into his messenger bag; Hannibal shrugs on his coat. Freddie rises and slinks away with frequent backwards glances, though whatever emotion she is feeling is of no concern to them. Hannibal smirks and places his hand at Will’s lower back, pitches his voice to be intimate but audible. “I believe your care is my responsibility and privilege, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Sometimes,” Will says with a coy glance over his shoulder. “When I decide you’ve earned it.”

“Have I earned you yet today?”

Will zips his bag closed; Hannibal reaches over before Will can stop him and lifts it onto his own shoulder, then slips the straps of the tote containing their lunch over his forearm. Will visibly wars with himself and considers arguing. He’s unsettled by Hannibal taking care of him in this way, but their audience demands a gracious and thankful lover, and so Will has been put in check. Will’s brow crinkles at the realization before he smoothes it over. It’s a victory for Hannibal, albeit one that only he and Will can understand and enjoy.

His victory is cinched when Hannibal gathers Will’s jacket and holds it up, and Will is politely blackmailed into letting Hannibal help him put it on. He’s discomfited, but Hannibal is nothing short of satisfied.

“I think I’ll let the food decide,” Will says. He turns, their bodies close together, and is conscious of their curious audience when he reaches out to snag Hannibal by the lanyard. He lingers close, head tilted, eyes fixated on Hannibal’s lips—

Will pulls the lanyard gracelessly over Hannibal’s head and walks away. Hannibal stares after him before he is forced to follow.

“If that’s the case, then I’ll have faith in my chances,” Hannibal replies.

Will turns, walking backward out the doorway, forced to take small steps due to the restrictive nature of his pencil skirt and high heels. They’ll have to stop somewhere for Will to change at some point (since he’s sure Will has a change of clothing), but until he bends his neck to ask, Hannibal will carry on. His brows raise, and he plays his false sense of comfort well. “You’re that confident in your cooking skills?”

“Yes,” Hannibal says. They return to the hallway, bright with afternoon sun—two well-dressed and out-of-place people among the throng of coeds, sweatpants and tee shirts, faded denim and thrift store winter jackets. Freddie is well out of earshot, but they have enough witnesses for Hannibal to know he can get away with it when he says, “And in my ability to please you, my dear.”

Will pauses, allowing Hannibal to properly catch up before they set off side by side. He shoots Hannibal a sidelong look, coolly unruffled despite the boldness of Hannibal’s suggestive implication. “That remains to be seen.”

“All appetites at some point demand to be sated.”

Will’s eyes flash. There is the threat of danger in his aura, and the vibrations of Will’s irritated instincts in the atmosphere are addictive. Hannibal could happily find himself in trouble if he continues to indulge without temperance.

Hannibal lifts the lunch bag, a deflection and a ceasefire—for now. “Shall we sate yours?”

Will tucks his hands in his pockets, and the curl of his lip exposes the very points of his canines. “Yes, perhaps we should. I am getting pretty hungry. It would be a terrible shame if you were to tease me for too long and I decided to sink my teeth into you, instead.”

It’s meant as a tease; an offhand threat from an irritated, lovely thing with his patience pushed too far.

It still sends a shock through Hannibal’s blood.

“So long as you didn’t waste me, I believe my soul would find peace with that fate,” Hannibal replies. There is a pressure in his chest that he cannot dispel.

It’s want. Terrible, terrible want.

Will hums, aloof. Curls fall from his updo in the aftermath, catching in the folds of his collar. His eyes are fixed ahead, off Hannibal entirely. “Do you believe in the soul?”

He is, perhaps, more beautiful now than he has ever been. “As wholeheartedly as I believe in you, Will, and all that you are capable of.”

Will huffs, a singular wry laugh. “My biggest fan.”

Hannibal thinks of blood, of bone, of words on a screen and secrets printed in pixels. He thinks of being seen, and the gleam of steel; a morgue’s slab, the cold shine of a blade—the museum halls from which his art is appreciated. Will is, first and foremost, the premiere curator of Hannibal’s masterpieces.

But the greatest complement as an artist is to inspire another’s work. Hannibal is most keenly interested in attending an exhibition of Will’s own making, watching the reverent eyes of the student become the steady hands of a master.

Hannibal had never seen the benefit of a legacy or a partner until he was seen by Will.

“Yes,” Hannibal says, and he smiles. “I believe I am.”

They reach the atrium, and with classes still in session, it’s not terribly crowded. They find seats at the window bar and set down their belongings, and Hannibal pulls out Will’s chair. Will nods his thanks in a regal incline of his head. He doesn’t fuss. He’s already learning, already allowing Hannibal to mold and change his shape.

Hannibal unzips the insulated carrier and sets two sealed tupperware containers before each of them, utensils and napkins beside. He’s come prepared. The stew is still warm and the orzo fragrant; watching Will absorb the mingled scents when he removes the lid is an exercise in restraint.

Hannibal waits, watches with rapt fascination while Will takes the first cautious bite.

His lashes flutter as he closes his eyes. He savors. Hannibal immediately likes Will better for it, that he takes the time to roll the flavors over his clever tongue before he chews and swallows.

When his eyes open, he seeks out Hannibal with a wry twist of his lips. He looks conciliatory and challenging in equal measures, and Hannibal can tell he is biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling.

Hannibal raises one brow in expectant relish; Will looks very much like he’d like to hit him for it.

And yet again, Will surprises him. He demurely crosses his ankles as he leans over, draws Hannibal in with soft fingers along his jaw to offer a chaste, appreciative peck. Then he goes back to eating like nothing at all has happened.

“It’s delicious,” Will says, and pointedly doesn’t meet his eyes. “Thank you.”

The food has decided things. In this moment, without anyone of importance watching them, Hannibal has earned Will’s approval. It’s gratifying. Complicated.

Hannibal takes a slow, silent breath, and removes the lid of the kokkinisto. Underneath the bar, he feels the smooth toe of a high heel brush against his calf. He turns his head to look at Will; in profile, his vibrant eyes are concealed by the wisps of his bangs, but his cheeks glow with warmth.

That’s two things Andrew Caldwell has been good for. It’s two more than he’d ever contributed in life.

Hannibal hides his smile and takes a bite. “My pleasure.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It seems no sooner than Hannibal arrives that Will is seeing him off.

There’s a bittersweet pleasure in being back to his normal self, sleek pumps replaced by chunky heeled boots, skirt tucked away into his bag, updo dismantled and replaced by a sloppy, perfunctory bun. Yet, Hannibal’s eyes seem to linger just as much as they had before.

College Park is a big campus. For every student Will knows, there’s ten he doesn't. As he wanders toward the visitor parking lot tucked under Hannibal’s arm, he wonders what they look like to people who don’t know them. Does the age difference make it seem sordid? Do they look happy together? How many people see heels and skinny jeans, long hair and makeup, all of it at a distance and think that Will is Hannibal’s girlfriend, not his…

Well, he’s not really Hannibal’s anything. But it would be far too easy to get used to this.

Homemade food, casual touch, a sharp mind to spar with—Will languishes in Hannibal’s attention and walks the tightrope of his want. There’s only so much he can give under the guise of their arrangement. Anything more feels… greedy.

Hannibal wants to study him, Will reminds himself. Study him in exchange for access, connections, and confidential information. Their flirting is a means to an end, a reputation shared and built for the eyes of all around them.

There’s no need to touch Hannibal in private. Of course, neither is there any need to see Hannibal in private. Outside the realm of meeting each other in public places, somewhere between Will’s school and Hannibal’s hospital and a few rendezvous points in between, they’ll never have reason to spend time together one-on-one outside of information exchanges.

The thought leaves Will strangely lonely. Perhaps he and the Ripper have that in common: pursuit of their goals at the cost of all else, including companionship. If he gets attached, gets used to this war of wills and trials of affection, it’ll only making losing Hannibal more painful when their arrangement comes to an end.

“You’re thinking quite loudly,” Hannibal says as they cross from the sidewalk to the pavement. His arm is a strange and comfortable weight around Will’s shoulders; the lunch bag is nestled on Hannibal’s other hip, looped over his forearm. Will’s not even sure how he came to be in this position. He only knows that it makes his heart race, but he feels settled. Safe. “Would you like to talk about it?”

Will bites back a growl and a sharp retort about being psychoanalyzed again. He exhales through his nose. If Hannibal wants to psychoanalyze him… well. That’s why this whole thing started, right? “I’m just irritated about Freddie,” he lies.

It’s not entirely a lie. But it’s just enough of one.

Hannibal hums in response. If he senses Will’s dishonesty, he doesn’t indicate it. “Her interest will pass. For now, she sees me as a gateway to incriminating information about you. You needn’t worry—the novelty is temporary, and her perception of our relations will grow boring.”

“I’m not worried,” Will replies. “I’m angry. You could be anyone and she’d still stick her nose into this. She just won’t leave me alone.”

Hannibal’s hand curls around Will’s bicep. His fingers flex, and for a moment, it almost hurts. “Do you believe she seeks to influence you personally or professionally?”

“For her, it’s one in the same.” Will sighs in irritation. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to hunt you down.”

Hannibal makes a noise of interest. “That seems excessive for a college rivalry.”

“Well, that’s Freddie,” Will grumbles. Yes, he’ll have to take precautions. Starting with a backup phone line. Maybe a new device from which to post his articles and secure his research. Encrypted notes. “There’s still time to back out if you don’t want this following you into your professional life, you know.”

The words sting, but Will knows he means them as soon as he says them. Perhaps it would be the kinder thing to do—for Will to struggle on alone without pulling Hannibal into his world.

“I welcomed you into my professional life, if you’ll recall,” Hannibal replies pointedly. “I don’t have an unrealistic expectation of what that might entail.”

“It’s nearly impossible to expect the things that follow me around,” Will replies darkly. “I just want to warn you ahead of time so you can’t say I didn’t try.”

Hannibal stops in the middle of the parking lot; Will stumbles ahead, then turns back to face him. His expression is unreadable, up until the moment he steps forward and grasps Will by the shoulders.

“Whatever unpleasantries haunt your steps, you don’t have to face them alone,” Hannibal says seriously. He surveys Will’s face with singular, rapt attention.

Will averts his eyes and focuses intensely on Hannibal’s cheek. Hannibal may not be a licensed psychiatrist yet, but he’s still one of the most perceptive people Will’s ever met in his life. He doesn’t want to know what personal truths may be unearthed through eye contact. “That’s not your responsibility.”

Hannibal’s gaze intensifies. “Is it not?”

“No,” Will says, and swallows hard. There’s panic in his chest, and he takes a breath. He lets it out in a shudder. This is uncomfortable. He doesn’t like it. He’s being boxed in, and like a feral, nervous dog, he’s feeling pressured to bite by the instincts rattling around his skull. “I’m an adult, I can handle myself.”

“Everyone needs a support system, no matter their age. For the foreseeable future, I am yours and you are mine.” There’s such possession in those words that it feels like a collar, thick enough around his throat that Will feels every swallow like a tug on his chain. He wants to run, to plunge directly into the frigid stream behind his house and never emerge, so long as he drowns while untethered. They’re not committed, Will is not owned, so why does it feel like he is? “You said yourself that there’s not much difference between pretending to be in a relationship and the reality of being in one. If I’m to confide in you, Will, you may also confide in me.”

Will’s heart kicks up to double-time, but he’s sure he manages to conceal it well—other than the heat he can feel in his cheeks and spreading down his chest, a visible flush disappearing under the collar of his coat. Damn it. “That’s not your responsibility, either.”

Hannibal’s hands draw together, creeping steadily across Will’s shoulders with enough pressure that Will wonders if he’s about to be strangled. When Will glances up, he is stricken still and silent—the light catches Hannibal’s eyes, and they glow red like coals, like hellfire. He is beautiful, and for a second, he is truly terrifying.

Will cannot look away.

“I want to help you, you stubborn thing,” Hannibal growls. “If something threatens you, Will, it threatens me, too. We were seen together in the morgue hours before your article was posted. Like it or not, we are in this together. You think I’ll spill all if your classmate happens to track me down? Incriminate you to save myself?”

“It’s what you would do if you were smart,” Will murmurs. He tears his eyes away, and focuses on the embossed buttons of Hannibal’s coat. It’s fine wool, dyed a rich navy blue. If it weren’t for Will’s hunter-green coat interrupting blue and shades of gray, they two would nearly match.

He likes that idea more than he should.

He’s getting attached.

Fuck.

Hannibal’s hands reach either side of Will’s throat. Will closes his eyes. What would it be like if Hannibal snapped his neck right now? Put Will out of his misery, his aching loneliness, his troubled mind, his graying morals?

No, he thinks as he feels a thumb stroke gently over his earlobe, the faux pearl earring. No. Hannibal wouldn’t do that to him.

Hannibal cradles his jaw, and Will opens his eyes. “Then mark me as a fool,” Hannibal says with his unreadable face, “because I have no intention of turning you away for my own gain. Our choices will determine whether we rise or fall, but Fate has brought us together.”

Will swallows. Hannibal’s pupils dilate at the feel of it.

“Then Fate’s a transphobic sonuvabitch,” Will replies softly. “And a frat boy.” And despite being deliberately glib, Hannibal looks truly amused. Honestly fond, and honestly annoyed when Will adds, “We’re gonna get hit by a car if we don’t move pretty soon, you know.”

Will grins. The tension breaks. There is something vulnerable inside him that is peering through the cracks in his shell and likes what it sees, and it may very well be the person Will is when he first wakes up in the morning. The person he is before he puts on his armor, becomes someone who can keep up with Hannibal. That person is the one who takes Hannibal’s hands away from his face, but kisses the backs of Hannibal’s knuckles before he pulls him along.

Yes, like Hannibal said, turnabout’s fair play. And Will is only getting started.

Hannibal takes the lead while respecting the limits of their tangled hands, searching out his vehicle and bringing Will along for the adventure. The commuter’s lot isn’t far from here; once Hannibal departs, Will has errands to run before the rest of his evening takes shape. It promises to be an interesting one.

“I had meant to ask you,” Hannibal segues, “there’s an upcoming benefit gala for the Baltimore Symphonic Orchestra in a few weeks, shortly before Thanksgiving. I was hoping you might accompany me—as my guest, of course.”

Will raises a brow and shoots Hannibal a sidelong look. “Is that you asking or telling?”

Hannibal’s lips thin with momentary irritation, and against his better judgement, Will feels a flicker of satisfaction. If Hannibal’s so insistent on keeping him around, he should be privy to all Will’s quirks. Then his face smooths over; after a second of silence, he almost looks amused. “Where are my manners? Yes, Will—would you do me the honor of attending as my plus-one?”

Will hums in approval. “Much better.” With a fizzle of warmth and anxiety muddling together in his belly, he replies, “Yes, Doctor Lecter, I’d like that. You’ll have to send me the information.”

“I will trade it for a copy of your class schedule,” Hannibal replies with a warm twist of his lips.

“Which I’ll trade for a copy of your shift schedule.” Will shrugs casually. “Then neither of us will have any reason to surprise one another but our own intent.”

Hannibal seems to like that answer; a strange and curious smile plays about his mouth for a handful of seconds. “Indeed.”

Will flexes his fingers within his cast. “I hope your black tie event accepts unconventional accessories.”

Hannibal frowns, then catches on to Will’s meaning. He huffs in amusement as he lifts his head, attentive—they must be getting close to his car by now. “You’ve been in the cast for three weeks; I believe it’s high time to transition you to a splint. If you’d like to stop by the hospital tomorrow evening, I should be able to remove it for you.”

Fierce anticipation is Will’s immediate reaction. “Yeah. Definitely, yes. I hate this thing.”

“It’s decided, then,” Hannibal replies. He makes a sound of recognition, and there’s a flash of keys in his free hand. “Ah, here we are.”

Will stares at the sleek black vehicle, its immaculate chrome grill, the classically square silhouette. Even in the height of road salt season, it’s perfectly detailed. His lips part in awed apprehension. “I’m hesitant to admit that I don’t know what kind of car this is.”

“That’s not terribly surprising, since it’s not an American-made vehicle. It’s is a Bentley Arnage. European.” Hannibal unlocks the car and reaches in to put the lunch bag into the passenger side footwell.

“This thing’s a tank,” Will says. He paces around it, wide-eyed. “Jesus. No expense spared, huh?”

Hannibal stands, arms crossed casually on the roof of the car. He watches every move Will makes, and Will has the distinct feeling of being hunted. It’s both intimidating and exhilarating. “I prefer to think of it as an investment. Few things are still made like the classics.”

“Yeah, I guess so. This thing’s gotta have one hell of a motor.” Will’s technical side is intrigued. Of course, he would never dare lay hands on such an intricate system that’s worth more than, in Bev’s words, his entire mortal soul. He’ll stick to the boat motor and his pipe dream about taking her back out on the Atlantic, thank you very much.

“Five hundred horsepower,” Hannibal replies mildly. He must see the intrigue in Will’s eyes, because he asks with intrigue of his own, “Are you interested in mechanics?”

“I mean, enough to get by,” Will replies. He lays his good hand respectfully on the Bentley’s hood, much in the manner that one would pat a prized racehorse. He imagines that he can sense the power beneath the steel, combustion fueled by gasoline and human will. Motors are truly one of humankind’s most ingenious inventions. He strokes his fingertips lightly over the glossy paint. “I should get going, too. I have some errands to run before I can go home.”  

Not precisely a lie. Half-truths seem to be the best way to escape Hannibal’s sharp-eyed scrutiny.

There is a slight furrow between Hannibal’s brows. “If I knew you planned to go, I would have walked you to your car, not the other way around.”

Will smiles. Offending Hannibal’s genteel sensibilities could become a dangerous pastime. “Don’t worry, I think I’ll survive the walk in broad daylight.”

He frowns at Will. “It’s the principle of the thing. It’s only polite.”

Will tilts his head to the side and offers a grin. “I think a little impropriety is good for the soul every now and again, don’t you?”

“Perhaps.” Hannibal looks slightly mollified, but rather like he suspects Will has pulled one over on him. Maybe he has. Either way, he’s definitely preparing something of his own in return when he says, “I can assist you in choosing something suitable for the gala, if you’d like.”

Will’s grin widens. It’s clearly not the reaction Hannibal expects. “I’ll get back to you.”

His eyebrows creep upward. “If you insist. Let me know sooner than later, in case we require the assistance of a tailor.”

Will drums his fingers on the Bentley’s hood and takes a few steps backward, smiling as he goes. “Oh, I’ll be sure to.” Will knows he should say a proper goodbye; perhaps gift Hannibal with a peck on the cheek to maintain appearances. He does nothing of the sort as he walks back on his heels away from the car, absorbing the mess of emotions that Hannibal tries so valiantly to hide. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, okay? I’ll text you my schedule when I get home later.”

Hannibal clearly has questions—denying him answers is Will’s only satisfaction. Hannibal’s already had too many victories over him today. Sometimes there’s pleasure in being petty.

Hannibal opens his mouth; he looks like he means to ask something, and then his jaw snaps shut. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.”

Will pauses. Denying Hannibal is all in good fun, but denying Hannibal is denying himself, too. He realizes all at once that he wouldn’t mind a goodbye kiss—but perhaps that’s even more reason not to let himself have it.

Games of propriety are truly exhausting.

“Drive safely,” Will says, and hopes a softer smile conveys his genuine feeling. “I’ll be out until late, probably. You know, if you feel like calling.”

Hannibal’s expression smoothes. It’s not relief, per se—but Will is filled with a certain clarity in regards to Hannibal’s clenched jaw not a minute ago. Of course he won’t ask for what he wants. It’s simply take first, unless it’s outside the range of what seems well-mannered and polite.

“Of course, Will.” Hannibal stares at him intently over the roof of the car. He doesn’t blink. “Enjoy your afternoon.”

Will nods, lifts his hand in farewell, and retreats.

Hannibal fades from view. Will picks his way toward the commuter lots across campus, and his phone buzzes in his pocket.

>> hey what time are we meeting again?

<< i got out early. want to meet at 4?

>> day drinking! i like it!

<< awesome i’ll meet you there.

It’s not until the message is sent that Will realizes he didn’t bother with grammar. It feels like it matters when he’s texting Hannibal. It’s not the same with his friends.

He can think about it later. But in the meantime, he has errands to run. Will jogs to his Volvo and tosses his bag carelessly onto the passenger seat, climbs in and cranks the ignition. His car groans to life—hardly a classic or a high-class machine, but Will’s been able to keep it running since his dad died, and that’s really about all he can ask of it.

It’s about all he can ask of himself, and he seems to be doing pretty well. If he can keep going, he’ll count it as a success.

Will can only hope he’ll reach his destination unscathed.

 


 

Hours later, in a bar across town, Will drops into his seat in a graceless slump. He meets sharp green eyes; she watches him like a hawk. The weight of her gaze is familiar, and in its own way, comforting. He knows exactly what to expect from her, and what to expect from their time together.

Will reaches across the table, and they clink glasses.

“So,” she says, and her red lips spread into a sly grin, “tell me about this doctor of yours.”

Will groans softly and tips his head back against the booth. His curls tumble in a wave down his back, fuzzy from a long day of exertion and work. She is his echo, his foil—perfectly posed and sleek, a flawless woman off the cover of a magazine. She is Will’s teacher, his support system, and most importantly, his closest and most trusted friend.

“Margot,” Will sighs emphatically, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“So you’re fucking,” Margot says bluntly. Her perfectly-sculpted false nails make an intimidating taptaptaptap on the side of her glass, even though she’s smiling.

“We are not,” Will protests. “You literally heard everything I just said.”

Margot waves her hand vaguely. “Now or later, Will, what I’m hearing is that you’re hooked.” She looks pleased by this. Her eyes are lit with humor, pride. “And he’s hooked on you.”

He is not. Margot, please.” She shakes her head like Will is someone young and naïve; a high school girl protesting the semantics of sex and attraction. Will is anything but that, but Margot has a way of reducing him to his roots.

“You found a man who wants to give you nice things, introduce you to the right people, and pay for your entry fees and your fancy outfits. And what he wants in return is to listen to you talk.” She speaks slowly, patiently, like Will is perhaps very stupid, or maybe very sweet. “He’s a goner, Will Graham. We’re in this together? He may as well have asked you to marry him.”

Will leans forward, elbows braced on the table. His hands fold over his lower face, the bridge of his nose, and put gentle pressure at the inner corner of his eyes. “Is this some sort of rich people thing?”

“I dunno, maybe,” Margot replies easily. “But I do know that entry to the Symphonic Orchestra Gala starts at more than a thousand dollars per person, but Doctor Lecter is usually a Principal Sponsor.”

Will blanches at the implications.

Margot continues on carelessly, gesturing with her glass as she speaks. Her whiskey threatens to slosh over the side. Will knows she can afford the waste, but the principle of the thing would make his poor blue-collar father roll over in his grave. He really has to work with her on holding her liquor—there’s nothing quite like a sloppy drunk to alert the bartenders to the fact that they’re both too young to be here, no matter how large the bill Margot slipped the bouncer when they entered. “I mean, ten thousand is chump change to Daddy, but for a normal person, that’s perfectly generous.”

Will’s jaws part in stunned horror. “Ten thousand?”

“Per person, of course.” Margot tilts her head to the side. Her picture-perfect curls drag over the grimey table, and she doesn’t seem to notice. She’s a woman whose every motion is calculated and controlled, every word hand-selected, but for those times when she’s with Will. They make each other safe. Will needs her guidance in this world he’s chosen and terribly unprepared for; Margot desperately needs relaxation and someone who doesn’t heap expectations on her shoulders. These things usually balance each other out, except for on nights like these, when Will remembers how completely worlds-apart they truly are.

“Last year’s gala raised more than two million dollars,” she says with a shrug. She takes another long sip of her whiskey. Her cheeks are red as her lips, and there’s a smudge where her lipstick has left an imprint on the glass. Will’s has all but rubbed away with the hours of wear.

“Our symphony’s not as fancy as Boston or the New York Philharmonic, but we make due. Daddy usually sponsors as a Senior Underwriter and gets a table for the family to the cool tone of one-fifty. All the best publicity, you know.” She nods sagely, a bit sarcastically. Will knows there is no love lost between the members of the Verger family, especially between Margot and her fundamentalist Christian father.

She, like Will, is unconventional. It’s one of the reasons they get along so well.

“I’d invite you to go with us, but…” she mutters glumly into the bottom of her glass. “Well, you know.”

Will does know. Beau Graham had worked for a time maintaining the Verger’s yachts and keeping them in sporting shape, and Will along with him—up until an incredibly intrusive Mason Verger discovered that Will was not the poor, helpless girl he’d previously assumed.

Things got complicated after that, but much to the Vergers’ consternation, Will and Margot have remained good friends even after the Grahams had moved on. Will remains a pariah at the Verger properties—it’s why they always meet in Washington, venturing to try out new and exciting bars and restaurants when the pressures of their lives grow to be too much. Though in the summer, they are also happy to spend time at the little house in Wolf Trap.

So long as Will’s in good company, he’s not often picky of the locale. Which is why the idea of spending ten thousand dollars (per person?) to go anywhere is beyond unreasonable.

“I know, don’t worry about it,” Will says, and ducks his head. He sips at his whiskey and rolls the smoky taste over his tongue, the faint burn as it slides down his throat. He’s had smoother spirits, but he can’t complain about cheap and flavorful. It’s hardly the jet fuel moonshine he’d grown up on in Louisiana. “I’m still trying to get over the sticker shock.”

“It means he likes you,” Margot replies kindly. In her heart, Margot is a terribly sweet woman, made ruthless by her raising. She rarely shows the crueler side of herself to Will—he tries to make it so she doesn’t ever need to.

But in this moment, Will would prefer honesty to kindness. “Or he wants something from me.”

Margot leans back; her back hits the booth with a huff. “He can want something from you and still like you. Rich people don’t stay rich because they blow their money on frivolous stuff, Will. They stay rich because they invest in things they see as worthwhile. You don’t have to be a financial advisor to realize Doctor Lecter’s investing in your future.”

Will laughs quietly. The idea is ridiculous. But that is what’s happening, isn’t it? “We’re practically strangers. He doesn’t even know me. Why would he do that?”

“Every artist needs a muse.” Margot sets her glass on the table. Her eyes are shockingly sharp and clear considering the alcohol she’s consumed so far. “We’re all artists in our own right. We all need a reason to get up in the morning, and sometimes the reason’s unexpected. Maybe you’re his unexpected.”

Will takes a deep breath. He lets it out. He swallows hard, and knocks back the rest of his whiskey, then sets his glass beside Margot’s. “I didn’t ask for this.”

Margot nods. “That’s okay, though, Will. If you like him, let him take care of you. Let him do this, because obviously it makes him happy. But if it makes you unhappy…” She sighs, and purses her faded red lips. She opens her mouth—

“It doesn’t,” Will interrupts softly. His palms flatten on the tabletop, feeling the smooth formica slide against his skin. “I’m not unhappy. I’m just… unbalanced.”

Margot softens; she reaches for his hand and comfortingly wraps her fingers around his. “You’re not supposed to be balanced. It’s called falling for a reason.”

Will snorts, but obligingly turns his hand in hers. He’s her shadow, her persistent follower, and it’s clear to him like this—with painted nails and callused fingers, where Margot is professional manicures and hands that have only ever been roughened by the reigns of show horses. He wonders how she would define them instead.

“I’m not falling,” Will replies. “Barely stumbling.”

“You’re flat on your ass,” Margot retorts. She smiles. “Even if you don’t know it yet.”

“If I don’t know it, it definitely doesn’t count.” Will huffs. He considers whether or not he wants another drink and decides against it—then considers Margot’s glass, instead. “I was wondering if you could help me with something. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. It may get us into trouble with your father.”

Margot tips her head to the side and considers him, appropriately cautious, but indulgent. “In regards to…?”

Will taps his nails on the table. “My wardrobe for the gala.”

Margot smiles. She picks up her glass, turns Will’s hand over, and places it in his palm. “This is my fee,” she says. “Go get me another and we’ll talk.”

Will’s lips pull at a grin. “You already have something in mind, you just want a free drink.”

“Guilty,” she confesses. She’s a shark, a shrewd businesswoman, and if her only charge is a stiff drink, then Will counts himself lucky to be among those she favors. It’s not easy for most to strike a deal with a Verger. Will is one of the few.

Will raises his brows. “Any requests?”

“No. You know what I like.” Margot tilts her chin up, cheeky, and shoots him her finest smile. “And I know what you like. And when you get back, you’re going to tell me what Doctor Lecter likes, and I’ll try to make us all happy.”

Will balks. “I don’t even know what he likes.”

Margot leans forward, elbows on the table. “We know he likes you,” she says. “So go get me that drink. We’ll start from there.”

 


 

“Doctor Lecter, come in.” She stands back, tall and dignified, and motions for him to enter.

Hannibal steps into her domain and takes in several things at once: her decor is minimalist but soothing, photographs of nature and simple objects. The walls are painted a tasteful gray-blue that borders on stereotypical. The books on the shelf, though, are first-edition—expensive, classic tomes.

Of course, Hannibal always knew she was a woman of taste. He would not be here otherwise.

“Thank you, Doctor Du Maurier,” he replies. “I promise to keep this brief. I know you’re a busy woman.”

He waits for her to shut the door and round her desk before he sits. Though Hannibal usually prefers to stay away from the hospital on his days off, this meeting is a necessary evil. He does take some comfort in that he’s not conferring with a woman of her status while wearing scrubs.

Bedelia Du Maurier is the picture of poise, perfect posture as she sits at the edge of her desk chair, leaned politely forward and engaged. Her hands are lightly crossed before her, in full view. She is unthreatening but commanding, and there is a glint in the green of her eyes that Hannibal rather likes. Like him, she is more than she seems.

“What can I do to help you today, Doctor Lecter?”

Hannibal mimics her posture. He is cautious not to take up too much space, lest he seem presumptuous and self-assured. He is confident, of course, but not overconfident. “I’ll be frank,” he says simply, and she raises a brow in response; gestures graciously for him to continue. “I find surgery to be a challenging and fulfilling path. I have no regret for how I’ve spent the last ten years between my residency and subsequent years as a trauma surgeon. However…”

He considers his words carefully. Her expression has not changed, nearly impossible to read. Against Hannibal’s better judgement, it makes him like her more. He would be glad not to suffer the next years of his life under the beck and call of a simpering fool.

“…as I age, I am considering a change. The physical demands of surgery are somewhat more grueling than I anticipated, and this career leaves little time for other pursuits. With that in mind, I have started considering my options.”

She does not buckle. Instead, she inclines her head. “I assume there is a reason you are at my door, rather than the Dean of Medicine’s office with a letter of resignation.”

He quirks his lips in response. “Quite. As the Director of Psychiatry, I thought it best to appeal to you first and foremost. I applied late last month for a residency position in your department. I know it is not my decision to make, but I hoped to discuss the matter with you.”

“Yes,” Doctor Du Maurier says with a faint smile. “I did note your application. I had wondered if and when you would reach out.” She sits back in her chair, comfortable and considering. “It may comfort you to know that I had intended to reach out next month when we interview the rest of our candidates.”

The information is pleasing, albeit not surprising. Hannibal has been a doctor of note within these walls for quite some time. However, satisfaction knows no master, and he feels it all the same. “That is a relief.”

“I’ll admit my surprise, Doctor.” If she’s surprised, she doesn’t seem it. “Though your complaints of strain and stress are valid, you could more easily convert your specialization in trauma surgery to something routine outside of the emergency room. Scheduled hours Monday through Friday, a comfortable life. With, I will admit, a much higher salary than submitting yourself to a new residency.”

Hannibal smiles politely in response. Ah, yes: money. The first and foremost worry of the average American. He is much more interested in her choice of words. “The money is of no concern to me. I have saved and invested enough to be comfortable while I, as you say, submit myself to a new residency. ” Her eyes flash. Good. She knows that he has picked up on her subtle test. Any psychiatrist worth their cause must be able to note latent intentions in the verbal patterns of their patients. Hannibal is more than suited to the task. “I’m simply faced with the reality that I’m no longer happy with my practice. I cannot bring myself to regret the time I’ve spent, but I have always counted myself deeply fascinated with the workings of the mind. I would like to take the opportunity to change directions with my life, and I would prefer to do so as close to home as I am able.”

The suggestion of roots is a farce. Hannibal has no care for house or home, but it is an instinct most identify with and respect. He has no family here, just a superfluous circle of associates. There are only two things tying him to the Baltimore area now—his outstanding and infernal reputations, and the presence of Will Graham.

Bedelia hums. She surveys him without blinking, and does not shy away from eye contact. She is brutally confident in herself and her position, though without the need to overcompensate her authority. It’s refreshing.

Hannibal would like very much to work in her department, indeed—if only for the ability to study her further.

“I assume you’ve been brushing up on your studies,” she says.

Hannibal nods. “I collected the curriculum from several of the professors and have been doing the current readings on my own time. The human brain is a mystery; new material is added as we discover it. The body itself is much more routine. Outside of genetic abnormalities, I find one person bleeds much the same as any other.”

Something flickers across her face, there and gone again. Hannibal considers the fraction he’d been able to survey, but categorizes it easily: unease. He has discomfited her. Bedelia du Maurier does not seem like a woman who encounters such a sensation often.

She must have good instincts.

Even better instincts when she smiles, a wan slip of a thing, and replies, “And despite this, no two minds are alike. I would imagine you and I have very different perceptions of the world.” She inhales and exhales slowly, and her eyes drift away from him. For a moment, she is far away in thought, but only for long enough for her mind to settle. She returns her attention to Hannibal. “And because of that, we have different things to offer in our care of patients.”

Hannibal stares at her. He waits. He senses it’s not an outright rejection, or perhaps not a rejection at all. She studies him carefully in kind.

And then she relents with a small, satisfied nod. “I believe you have the attentiveness and disposition of a worthy psychiatrist, Doctor Lecter. I will submit a favorable review for you to the board when it comes time to match our new residents.”

Hannibal inclines his hand. “Thank you, Doctor Du Maurier.”

When he doesn’t move to stand, she purses her lips. “Is there something else I can do for you?”

“To familiarize myself with your department, with your permission, it would be my privilege to shadow one of the current fellows.” Hannibal inclines his head. “At your discretion, and at whatever time is most convenient, should you agree. I needn’t come into contact with any patients if privacy is a concern—I’d simply like to learn the layout, as well as what to expect of a day. I’m quite sure the change in a regular sleeping schedule will already be a shock to my system, when the time comes.”

Bedelia raises her brows, but seems agreeable enough. She hums in consideration, then leans forward to press a button on the intercom on her desk. “Alana, if I could borrow a moment of your time.”

“Right away, Doctor.”

Hannibal blinks; within a handful of moments, there is a soft knock at the door.

“Come in,” Bedelia calls.

A young woman pokes her head in carrying a clipboard. She’s a lovely little thing, perhaps Will’s age, with bright eyes and a nervous smile. Hannibal recognizes her as the young woman who was stationed at the small desk just outside Bedelia’s office. Her secretary, or perhaps an intern.

“Alana, this is Doctor Lecter,” Bedelia says. “Doctor Lecter, this is my intern, Alana Bloom, a fourth-year student here at Johns Hopkins Medical. She’s another of our applicants for the psychiatric residency.”

Alana’s mouth forms a tiny o of surprise. “Changing specialties?”

It’s a bold question, but a prudent one. Hannibal finds it amusing. “I have been reliably informed that fourteen hour shifts are rather uncommon in psychiatry.”

She grins, immediately at ease. “I sure hope so.” She turns her attention to Doctor Du Maurier. “What can I do for you?”

“I understand you’re shadowing Doctor Chilton next week. I was wondering if you wouldn’t be adverse to company.” Bedelia inclines her head to Hannibal. “And you, Doctor Lecter.”

“Not at all,” Hannibal answers with a smile.

Alana nods easily. “Sure, I don’t mind.”

Bedelia hums, satisfied. “Excellent. I’ll take care of arranging everything with Frederick.” She looks askance; it is not quite a roll of her eyes, but neither is it entirely polite. “He does so enjoy an audience, I’m sure he won’t mind.”

Alana snorts, then promptly covers her face with a hand. She flushes bright red with embarrassment at revealing herself so obviously; Bedelia sends her a scolding-but-humorous glance. Having read Frederick’s contributions to the recent psychiatric journals, and heard such unfavorable things about his demeanor from Will, Hannibal already finds himself glad for the company of what seems to be a good-spirited young woman.

“Thank you, Alana,” Bedelia says with a small, polite smile and a certain fondness in her eyes. “That was all.”

Alana excuses herself with a little wave as she goes; she, too, looks relieved at the notion she won’t be facing Doctor Chilton alone. Hannibal makes a sound of faint amusement as he turns his attention back to Bedelia.

“I will email you the details,” Bedelia says, and is already writing a note to herself on a fine pad of stationary. “Of course, if your schedule interferes, don’t hesitate to inform me, and I can make other arrangements.”

“I’m sure Doctor Gideon would be willing to swap shifts with me if that’s the case,” Hannibal replies evenly.

“Then it’s settled.” Bedelia looks up, and something in her seems to be settled at Hannibal’s easy acceptance of Alana. Perhaps Bedelia considers her a good judge of character, or similarly perceives anyone who enjoys her to be tolerable. Hannibal is quite certain that Alana Bloom will be joining him in the residency program next autumn.

Hannibal rises and holds out his hand. “Thank you for making time to see me, Doctor Du Maurier. I appreciate your transparency.”

Bedelia, too, stands. Her handshake is firm and certain, her eye contact direct. Yes, Hannibal decides, working with her—or for her, as the matter stands—would be acceptable.

“And yours, Doctor Lecter,” Bedelia answers. “I’ll be in touch.”

Hannibal accepts it for the dismissal it is, and allows himself out. He offers Alana an approximation of a friendly smile as he exits, and heads for his car. He checks his phone along the way—it’s just after five. He debates sending a text to Will, but thinks better of it. No, he can wait a while. Will said he’d be busy for a time, and Hannibal would not want to seem impatient, or worse, desperate.

Perhaps he’ll head home and start on dinner instead.

Liver does taste so much better fresh, after all.

 


 

Will sees Margot to her UberLUX and obligingly kisses her cheek. She’s flushed, a little tipsy, but the girl driving greets Margot like a friend—unsurprising, since Margot rarely drives anywhere within the city—so Will doesn’t worry.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Will promises with a smile. “Text me when you get home.”

“I’ll send you some pictures,” Margot replies with an easy grin. “And we’ll make decisions from there.”

Will laughs. “You’re a menace.”

She winks, and Will closes the door. The Escalade pulls away from the curb, leaving Will with his hands in the too-small, too-tight pockets of his black jeans. He waits until she’s gone before he starts walking the other direction.

He pulls out his phone as he starts off toward the parking garage.

>> I’ll be there in 20.

<< I’ll be waiting.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hannibal does not oft find himself without control of his own thoughts, but once he’s eaten the remainder of Caldwell’s liver and the dinner plates have been cleared away, one seems to stick in his mind in particular: the house feels empty.

Hannibal has never minded being alone before now. In many cases, he’s often preferred it. He can take whatever time he likes when cooking and eating, savor each bite if he so desires. He can curate each room of his home to its most aesthetically pleasing point, create perfectly-placed arrangements of priceless belongings.

He’s never once felt like he’s living within a museum until recently. The empty spaces on the walls beg not for artwork, but for a more personal touch. The austere furniture that is rarely used suddenly seems uninviting; Hannibal considers, if only for a moment, replacing his shapely statement pieces with vast and comfortable installations. By the time he finds himself in his study, distracted from the readings spread out across his desk, Hannibal realizes the source of his unease is not a what as much as a who.

He’s never been one to ascribe the feeling of loneliness to himself prior to Will’s unexpected arrival in his life. Now it seems he can think of nothing but.

Companionship. It’s a strange notion.

Hannibal glances down at the desktop, at the screen of his phone reflecting the light of his lamp. He hesitates for only a moment, and then lifts it into his hand—it illuminates and displays the time, 10:38pm.

Will said he would be out late, but surely he’s on his way home by now, if not there already. He seemed to welcome the notion of Hannibal reaching out. And, Hannibal supposes, he should probably confirm what time he’ll be removing Will’s cast tomorrow. Yes, he has every reason to call Will. Perhaps after they speak, Hannibal will be able to put these thoughts from his mind and focus once more.

He presses dial and holds the phone to his ear. It rings one, two, three, four—

“Hey baby,”  Will says sweetly, and Hannibal’s brain stutters to a halt. “Give me just a minute, okay?”

It picks up again in short accord, and takes in the background noise: loud music, a man’s voice, the screech of a door hinge and the subsequent sounds of the outside.

“You’re not alone,” Hannibal replies, and swallows down the strangely bitter taste at the back of his tongue. “My apologies. I’ll let you go.”

“No, no. I was literally just leaving. Hang on—”   A muffled sound, and Will must cover the mouthpiece of his cell, but Hannibal still hears it when he says, “Thank you for meeting me again. I’ll be in touch.”

Hannibal does not hear the reply. He leans back in his chair slowly as he listens to Will say a quick goodbye. He’s immensely more aware of his teeth than he was a moment before. His hand falls into his lap; his fingers curl, and there’s the faintest sting of pain before Hannibal realizes his nails have sunken into the meat of his outer thigh. He forces himself to relax. He is smoothing over the wrinkles he has wrought in his slacks when Will’s voice returns. He sounds much more relaxed, much more himself. “Yeah, sorry about that, I was getting dinner with a classmate.”

Hannibal pushes away from the desk. He stands.

Lie.

“Of course,” he replies smoothly, and paces as he imagines Will must be pacing, headed perhaps for his vehicle, for his home. Hannibal, too, is on the move—restless.

Why would Will lie about who he’s meeting?

“Don’t worry,”  Will says, “it wasn’t half as good as lunch.”

Placation. Hannibal wonders if Will can sense his unease, or if it’s simple flattery. At the very least, the sentiment sounds genuine. He swallows down his irritation and schools his voice into something smooth and light. “I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I’ll have to cook for you again sometime.”

“You know what they say about feeding strays, right? Better watch out, or you’ll never get rid of me.”

That assumes Hannibal wishes to be rid of him. Of course, he cannot say as much. Will’s mind is too clever, and Hannibal is no fool. “Do you consider yourself a stray?”

“Maybe a little,”  Will replies with a dark, self-deprecating vein of humor. “But maybe I always have been. It’s not exactly a new state of affairs.”

Hannibal pauses in his path, close enough to feel the crackling heat of the fireplace. He touches the mantle, and for half a moment, his eyes flutter closed to enjoy the warmth. It’s all too easy to imagine Will stretched out across the settee behind him, the length of his hair swept up and over the arm of it, long legs kicked up and over the other—perhaps with a glass of wine held between his manicured fingers, or maybe whiskey instead. Either way, illicit: Will is still a handful of months from being old enough to drink by this country’s laws. Hannibal has always preferred the law of the home.

It’s dangerous that he can picture Will at home here.

“Did you consider yourself secure when you lived with your father?”

Will laughs, and his voice is rough and warm. There’s no slur to his words; there’s a subtle rasp as though he’s been speaking for some time. Meeting a classmate, indeed—one who he parted from with the words I’ll be in touch, when a simple see you tomorrow would suffice. No, it’s much more likely that Will is on a mission of his own. Hannibal will simply have to wait and see what it means for them both.

“Jumped straight to the daddy issues, huh, Doctor?”

It’s a deflection, but it’s effective. There’s something about the way Will’s subtle accent curls around the words that makes them nearly suggestive.

Hannibal inhales silently and turns away from the fire. With very little thought of purpose, he climbs onto the very settee he’d imagined Will on moments before, and stretches out in a shockingly informal pose. He allows himself to assume Will’s casual demeanor. It’s… almost comfortable in its crudeness. Perhaps it will bring him closer to Will’s state of mind.

“One’s relationship with their parents can be telling of their overall place in life,” Hannibal answers.

“Fortunate, then, that I can dodge this line of questions, since I have no relationship to speak of.”

Hannibal’s lips turn toward a smirk. “I suppose that answers my next question about your mother.”

Will huffs. This sound is not half so amused. “Some lazy psychiatry, Doctor Lecter.”

“Was it?” Hannibal asks. “I thought it rather clever.”

“I’m sure you often think yourself clever.”

Hannibal’s smirk widens into a grin. “Often, yes. Perhaps more clever than you give me credit for.” It’s a tease and a warning, but perhaps Hannibal does not give Will enough credit, either.

“I think I give you enough credit,”  Will replies. “That doesn’t mean I have to give you all the answers.” Hannibal blinks slowly. Ah. So what Will’s dishonesty (or perhaps lack of transparency) presents is a challenge.  Before he can meet it, Will diverts him again. “And for that matter, then, what about your parents?”

He’ll concede to Will… for now. This line of questioning provides an interesting opportunity to strengthen the bonds of circumstance between them. “They died when I was young.”

The sound Will makes is one of understanding, but not of sympathy. The blows of their rapid exchange finally slow, gentle, and Will’s empathy is a caress. His voice, when it comes, is soft. “So you’re as alone as I am.”

There’s an understanding there, dawning and true. Being seen is an adjustment, Hannibal realizes. Being exposed by Will’s sharp mind is disconcerting. But the sensation is growing on him. “Perhaps we’re both alone without each other.”

Will’s sigh is so close, so intimate, that Hannibal’s eyes close to better enjoy it. The room is dark but for the glow of the desk lamp and the fireplace, and though Hannibal is alone, in this moment, he doesn’t feel it. It seems that even conversing with Will when he is not present is enough to satiate his need for intelligent interaction. They are intellectually compatible. It’s a rare trait to find.

“Hang on, I’m at my car,”  Will says, and there’s a distant beep and the sound of his door, the engine turning over. “We always end up here, don’t we?”

Hannibal huffs, not quite a laugh. “To be fair, I didn’t call to interrogate you about your parents, Will. I was simply following my curiosity through to the end.”

“So what did you call for?”

“I thought I’d ask what time you’d like me to remove your cast tomorrow.”

Will makes a pleased little hum. “That depends when you’ll be at work.”

“I work from two until midnight. Cases allowing, any time will do. Cast removal isn’t a terribly time-consuming process.” Hannibal sits upright at long last, turns and sets his feet on the floor. He stands again, and sets off toward the kitchen. A glass of wine sounds pleasant at the moment.

“I’ll text you. Speaking of, did you get my schedule?”

“I did,” Hannibal confirms. He crouches in the kitchen to peruse his wine cooler, and selects the open bottle of Chateau Margaux 2004, the fine red he’d paired with this evening’s liver. He fetches a bordeaux glass from the cabinet, and pours himself a generous measure. “It’s an ambitious lineup.”

“You’re one to talk. Do you work any shifts under twelve hours?”

Hannibal’s lips quirk in a wry smile. “Not often. Though I’ve found myself recently with a reason to consider a more generous schedule.”

Will doesn’t balk; Hannibal’s smile widens. “You were considering psychology before I came along. When your supervisor complains, you better not blame that on me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, my dear.”

Will huffs, skeptical. “Well, whatever. I’ll try to swing by tomorrow evening.”

Hannibal corks the dregs of the bottle firmly and puts it back in the cooler. He takes his glass back to the study, and unbuttons his waistcoat as he goes. He sets it on the desk, then drapes his brocade vest over the back of the office chair. “I’ll endeavor to be free, so long as there are no pressing emergencies.”

“Oh, yes,”  Will replies, terribly droll, “I’ll be so very upset if my de-casting doesn’t take precedence over a car accident. I’m not gonna worry if I have to wait to see you, Doctor.”

Hannibal lifts the glass to his lips and takes a long, measured sip. He mulls the words over in his mind, but eventually decides to say them, anyway. “I hope you don’t plan on calling me Doctor around my colleagues.”

“Why not?”  Will asks, and there’s a hint of cheek to his tone. “I thought it was only polite to refer to you by your title. You worked so hard for it, after all. By the time we’re done, you may be a doctor twice over.”

A flicker of darkness passes through Hannibal’s mind. By the time he’s done with Will, he may very well be a doctor ten times over, MD and PhD et al. He knows he can’t say as much, no matter how he’d like to. “Polite, perhaps. However, it gives the wrong sense of familiarity. Our aim is to appear close, is it not?”

“Short of getting caught with our pants down, I don’t think your coworkers will have any doubt about how close we are if Price runs his mouth like Bev seems to think he will.”

The reminder of their encounter elicits a flash of heat, curling pride and pleasure in the pit of his belly. Hannibal sits, running his fingertips over the smooth pages of the textbook. “As fond as my memories are of the morgue, I do believe that sort of thing is better suited to supply closets and private offices, if Doctor Price himself is to be believed.”

Will chokes, coughs, and barks a laugh. “Jesus. Bev didn’t mention that.”

“No, I supposed not.” Hannibal smiles to himself. He’s rather fond of Will’s startled laugh. It’s especially honest, strangely endearing. He takes another sip of his wine and glances down at the thick, heavy tome. Even in modern times, psychiatry texts can be especially dry reading. “I should probably get back to my studies.”

Will makes an understanding, albeit withdrawn hum of consent. “I need groceries, anyway.”  His voice lowers to a grumble. “I was waiting for the ad revenue from Analysis to hit, but I guess I’m just gonna have to be careful.”

Hannibal blinks slowly. He sips. “Are financials a concern for you?”

Will doesn’t respond at first. When he does, he still sounds irritated. “Not when the site’s reliable. I dunno, I guess the spike in activity raised a potential bot flag. It got submitted for review. Go figure.”

Hannibal frowns at his glass. “Would you like me to—”

“Don’t you even finish that sentence,”  Will growls. “Don’t think I didn’t find out how much those goddamn gala tickets cost, Hannibal.”

It’s a thrill to hear his name snarled like that, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. “I’m a patron of the fine arts. I would be attending the gala regardless of your company, and likely with a guest I have no taste for. Your companionship is preferable and mutually advantageous.”

“Bullshit. Not about the patron part, I fully believe that you’d be going by yourself if I wasn’t with you. But I don’t believe you’d be bringing a guest if it weren’t for me.”

Hannibal smiles to himself. “Presumptuous of you, don’t you think?” He murmurs, even though Will is exactly right.

“No, I don’t just think. You’re not the only one with important friends.”

Well that certainly strikes Hannibal’s curiosity. “Is that so?”

Will grumbles. “Do you think you’re the only one who’s ever noticed me? Or noticed you, for that matter?" Something about Will’s phrasing raises Hannibal’s hackles. He can’t quite place the what or why. But as soon as it occurs, Will is simmering down again. “Sorry,”  Will murmurs. “Sorry. I’m just tired and hungry. I don’t mean to be an asshole. Fuck.”  There’s a hollow thud of something being struck, likely Will’s palm impacting the steering wheel.

Hannibal considers this. He pushes his glass away, the last few sips rich and wonderful and waiting, but not for this moment. No. Strangely enough, his concern is for reassuring Will and soothing his nerves.

What a terrible impulse. Hannibal also finds it impossible to resist.

“I’m not offended, Will. I know this must be a departure from what you’re used to.”

“There’s no excuse for a bad attitude.”  The words sound rehearsed, but not his own. Hannibal wonders if it’s the ghost of Will’s father whose voice he’s hearing now. Will heaves a heavy sigh. His car slows, his wheels crunch against the gravel. In a handful of seconds, Hannibal hears the vehicle come to a stop, but no sound to signify him exiting. When Will speaks, he sounds defeated. “I’m sorry.”

“Will,” Hannibal replies, drawn by suspicion of some underlying issue. Will is not usually so swift to be contrite. “How long has it been since you ate? Answer me honestly.”

There is hesitation, and then there’s an answer. “Lunch.”

Hannibal’s hands slowly curl to fists on the tabletop. They flatten just as swiftly, but the frustration remains. “Do you have the funds to feed yourself?” Will’s reply is vague, a mumble. Hannibal thinks he hears some mention of Winston something or another, so he persists. “Will. Tell me.”

“Yeah, I do.”

Hannibal purses his lips. “Are you lying to me, Will?”

“...no. There won’t be much, but I’ll be ok. I had to buy dog food first. Winston doesn’t deserve to go hungry.”

Hannibal feels the points of his canines with his tongue and narrowly resists biting at his own mouth hard enough to bleed. “Neither do you.” Will makes a noncommittal noise like the concept is ridiculous. Hannibal wants to shake him, pin him by his throat until he’s forced to accept his own worth, to yield to the vision Hannibal sees within the blurring outlines of his shape. Will’s potential, solidified; his evolution, complete. A creature strong and confident enough to understand his place in the world, to demand the veneration he deserves. “Will—”

“Look, stop, I’ll go get something,”  Will says, abrupt but vaguely apologetic. It seems his resistance to being looked after has reached the breaking point for the day. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Will.”

“Goodnight, Doctor Lecter.”

Will hangs up on him. Hannibal is left with his fingers clenching convulsively around the phone, his pride on the proper side of too stubborn to call him back. No. If Will wants to act childish and avoid the issue, then that is his prerogative. If he wishes to refuse Hannibal’s help, well, there is nothing he can do to force it at this juncture.

No matter how much he’d like to.

Hannibal sets the screen face-down. Irritation and annoyance bubble just beneath his skin. It is not entirely Will’s fault, he knows. It’s the product of his raising, his modest upbringing. Hannibal himself would deny charity given out of pity rather than good intentions. His pride demands nothing less.

But Will—

Well, Hannibal will simply have to win his trust. That, or find some other way to give Will what he needs and will never ask for.

Hannibal drains the last of his glass and barely tastes it. It’s a shame; the wine is wonderful, truly, but Hannibal is simply no longer in the mood to enjoy it. He has too much energy fizzling through his nerves, excess electricity that needs to be worked off.

It seems he won’t be concentrating on his studies tonight, after all.

He closes his textbook.

Reaches for the rolodex.

 

 

Chapter Text

Anger follows Will’s footsteps like a stray through the aisles of the grocery store. It nips at his heels, winding around his ankles whenever he slows enough to lift something from a shelf and put it in his modest basket.

Yes, his account is running lower than he’d prefer. He doesn’t touch the money that sustains the house, his bills, his taxes—that’s all separate, and for all intents and purposes, Will pretends it doesn’t exist. Could he draw from it if he needed? Yes. But it would feel like a failure.

His savings are supposed to be fed by the revenue from Abnormal Analysis. With the hold recently put on his direct deposit… well, he keeps a close eye on prices as he picks out enough dietary staples to get him by for the week. He skips store brands and chooses generic. He calculates the tax in his head down to the penny, mindful of his latest account statement. When the hold clears, he’ll be just fine—but right now, things are tight.

Will runs his fingers through his bangs and pushes them out of his eyes. He’s exhausted, overworked, irritated. His meeting tonight has not been the first and will not be the last with this source, and he’s fortunate he has something to show for it.

There are copies of Andrew Caldwell’s medical reports tucked safely in the center console of his car. More information, any information that may lead Will closer to the Ripper is worth any price. But what he’s given in exchange is not of monetary value, but emotional value.

Understanding. Empathy. Companionship. Advice. The insight Will offers always sticks in his mind, warns him of the dangers that can come from a conventional life. Unhappiness, boredom, being surrounded by people who don’t understand, and who only wish to mold one into the shape they better desire.

His source is grown, smart, and capable. He has all the makings of a stellar life, but for his dissatisfaction with his personal relationships. He’s an easy mark, an easy target. He’s eager to talk about himself, eager for understanding and sympathy.

And he works at Johns Hopkins.

He is precisely the cover that Will needs to protect himself and to protect Hannibal should they fall under suspicion.

Of course, he doesn’t want to tell Hannibal that—the more he knows about Will’s contingency plan, the more likely he is to interfere in it. Circumstance has presented Will with an opportunity for Hannibal’s plausible deniability.

It’s his duty to protect Hannibal as his primary source, no matter how infuriated the man makes him.

Will takes a breath and lets it out. He plucks a box of generic pasta from the shelf and drops it into his basket, then carries on. Of course a man who can afford to drop ten thousand dollars on a glorified party ticket wouldn’t understand. Will’s obligations come before himself. They have to. His home, his education, Winston—they are all Will’s responsibility, under his protection. They take priority.

Will’s been doing okay since his dad died. He doesn’t need someone rich to come along and solve all his problems. There’s honor in honest work, there’s wisdom to be found in hard times. Though Will endeavors to be comfortable someday, he hopes he doesn’t ever forget what it’s like to be where he is now.

He’s surviving. He’s doing just damn fine.

And maybe his source’s problem is that he’s forgotten that sort of thing. The man’s so wrapped up in appearances. He hates his wife, hates his life. He comes to Will for sympathy because Will can see beneath his self-important facade, see the frustrated creature prowling beneath his skin. He’s so desperate to escape the hole he’s dug himself into that he’s willing to risk his career giving Will confidential information in exchange for… what? A friendly ear? A shoulder to lean on?

His source is clever, truly. But he’s also an idiot. If he wants to give Will exactly what he’s looking for without a fuss, then Will has no compunctions in accepting that kind of charity. At least Hannibal has the good sense to ask for more for what he offers in return. Not. Not—

Will doesn’t need a hand-out.

And he doesn’t need Hannibal.

But—

Sometimes the lines of Will’s self blur. Tonight, he’s empathized too deeply with his source, absorbed too much of his disdain. The lingering sense of helplessness, of aggression and frustration, cling to Will like a second skin. In combination with the guilty unease that came from paying for Margot’s drinks despite his dwindling account, Will feels cagey. Trapped within himself. Irritated with where he is in life, and desperate to change it.

Not all of those feelings are his own, but they stick to him regardless.

Will growls under his breath. The cold fluorescent light of the grocery store feels surreal; the hum of the coolers and the buzz of cart wheels against the tile floors feel stark and strange against the deep dark that peeks through the windows to the outside. Will looks up and sees himself reflected. Over the edge of the lenses of his glasses, he sees himself in double.

Two sides of himself. His lines are blurring.

He needs to calm down. He needs to get home. Winston is probably hungry. It’s not his fault that Will maintains his awful hours, he doesn’t deserve—

Neither do you.

Will inhales slowly. He holds it til the count of ten, and when he exhales, he keeps his eyes on his reflection. Frizzy, messy bun. Oversized jacket, a cast poking out from under one sleeve. Long legs, black denim, heeled boots. He’s the same person he was this afternoon. The same person who Hannibal drove halfway across the state to visit and bring him lunch.

Will shouldn’t have snapped at him.

The realization drains the rage from his body, and the tension from Will’s shoulders. How long has it been since someone cared enough to check on on Will, to make sure he ate at appropriate intervals? Margot hadn’t even noticed. Bev is a good friend, but they see each other too infrequently. Peter is busy enough trying to hold himself together. Will’s father is dead and gone. His mother has never been there at all.

And against all rhyme and reason, the one person remaining is Hannibal, who seems determined to place himself firmly within the daily comings and goings of Will’s life—at least temporarily. To check on him. To talk to him.

It’s terrifying, realizing how lonely Will has been for the past few months. He was never even aware of it until now. Will rubs at his eyes, shoving his glasses up his forehead. When he pulls his hand away, the back of his hand is smeared with eyeliner.

“Shit,” he mutters. He laughs to himself, quiet and bleak, and carries on.

Will swipes himself through the self-checkout in silence. Milk. Rice. Pasta. Jarred tomato sauce. Will has some vegetables left over and frozen at home that he can work his way through, the remainder of what he’d grown out back in the small patch in his yard. He’s sure he can trade eggs from his neighbor in exchange for adjusting the fence around her coop, making it taller so the foxes can’t get in. Honest work for an honest exchange. It’s one of the things Will likes best about living in Wolf Trap—it reminds him of home.

And his modest menu makings remind him of home, too. The rice and pasta will stretch through the week. Will can catch fish from the river out back. If push comes to shove, Will can find odd jobs to supplement income for the rest. It’s not as easy in the winter when there’s no snow yet to speak of—there’s no lawns that need mowing, and no driveways that need shoveling. Instead, everything’s just cold, and not even so cold that there are cars or heaters he can repair.

Ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand fucking dollars. The thought blows Will’s mind, and he steadies himself too quickly against the self-register as a wave of lightheadedness hits him. He hisses in pain as his cast impacts the scale. Then he finishes bagging his groceries, pays his bill, and loops the handles of the bags over the plaster shell.

Will bristles at the sidelong look the self-register attendant gives him. He’s new, young, doesn’t know Will and Will doesn’t know him. His eyes linger on Will’s heeled boots, squinting with distaste.

Will makes sure his steps are pointedly loud as he stalks away.

He stops outside when the cold air hits him, tugs his hair down from the bun that’s been slowly but surely giving him a headache. Will runs his fingers through his hair to free it from tangles and pulls his jacket closer around himself. It’s getting colder. Thanksgiving is only just a short few weeks away, and the first frosts have already started. He’ll have to switch to his real winter coat soon, but the thought of putting Beau’s jacket away for the season is a melancholy one, tinged with nostalgia.

Will sighs, and his breath steams in the air. He reaches into the crepe-thin plastic bag and pulls the single protein bar free. He unwraps it and holds it between his teeth as he digs for the keys in his pocket.

And he sighs. Pauses. Takes his phone out instead.

>> I’m sorry that I snapped at you. I’m not used to people worrying about me. I did get some groceries and I’m going home now.

He sends it. It doesn’t feel like enough.

>> Thank you for caring. I appreciate it.

There’s no immediate reply, but Will didn’t exactly expect one. He busies himself loading his car and driving home, listening to the sounds of the road and the hum of the radio in the background. The protein bar is appropriately disgusting, but by the time Will is pulling into his driveway, he has to admit he feels better. He digs Caldwell’s files from their safe storage place and gathers his bags. He has a long night ahead of him.

Will unzips his boots inside the door, putting the grocery bags down and switching to his steel-toed work boots. Winston nearly bowls him over in excitement and, of course, the desire to be let outside. Will leaves the groceries where they lay and follows him into the dark. He wanders out into the field, through the cut path in the tall grass. Winston, given the permission of Will’s presence, darts off into the shadows.

Will walks out far. The cold is bracing but not entirely unpleasant. Winter nights in the country are damn near silent once it’s cold enough for the bugs to hibernate. There are no buzzing insects, no chirping crickets. There’s only the distant howl of a coyote in the distance, and the rustling of the grass as Winston blunders through.

When Will turns back, his house is a beacon; the living room light is a golden glow. The stars above are bright, unpolluted by city lights. It reminds him of the ocean, of crewing fishing boats in the bare hours of the morning, miles from shore. It was hard work, but a simpler time.

Nothing feels simple anymore. Not when there’s a murder victim’s medical records waiting for his attention, a killer hovering on the edge of Will’s awareness.

And one person in his life who has the audacity to give a damn about Will’s wellbeing.

Will checks his phone. No reply. With shame and nerves making a mess of his stomach, Will swallows his pride and presses dial.

Hannibal doesn’t pick up.

 


 

Will awakes slowly in the morning, fighting against the cold gray of the early morning. He’d stayed up too late the night before poring over the files, searching for clues. Somewhere there will be something, some detail as to how the Ripper found Caldwell and decided on him. He’s the most recent victim, and Will’s best shot. If he can figure out how the Ripper chose him, maybe Will can figure out how he picked the rest.

But his search thus far has been fruitless, and Will has only a headache and an empty stomach to show for his efforts.

It’s all he’s ever had where the Ripper is concerned.

Will pulls himself out of bed with a groan and sets about his routine, letting Winston out into the yard with a yawn. Caldwell’s report is still spread across his desk. Thirty-six, no wife, no children. An unremarkable life as an independent medical examiner. Good health history. No major incidents. An address outside of Bethesda. He owned and drove an SUV.

It’s nothing. It’s less than nothing. Of course it is, that’s how the Ripper works.

Will flips the reports over and shuffles them into a pile. Well, there’s no use in worrying about it now. The Chesapeake Ripper is blessedly consistent, and it’s been days since the last body. The next will be soon, a new canvas for Will to survey.

In the meantime, he has his own canvas to attend to.

Will whistles out the door, waiting for Winston to return before he locks up and heads for the shower. The process takes longer since he still has to wrap his cast before bathing; he hasn’t bothered to keep the roll of cling wrap in the kitchen since he first came home from the hospital. It’s an annoyance, but it’s necessary. Will strips out of his night clothes and kicks them into a pile, cranks the shower on and waits for it to warm, until steam billows and he climbs inside to savor the feeling of the hot water.

He tips his head back into the flow and feels the heat of the water over his skin, weighing his curls to his scalp, sticking to his shoulders. There’s something calming about being submerged, something therapeutic about taking the time to scrub through his hair and subsequently detangle it. There’s a sensuality in the smooth slide of conditioner through his fingers, creating ringlets where frizz usually reigns supreme. Will likes that he’s able to buy his own shampoo now, take up as much space on the shelf as he desires for pretty, frivolous things. He prefers the scent of peach and vanilla to whatever the hell the scent of male-coded body wash is supposed to smell like. Sometimes he takes the time to shave his legs, but not always; really, whenever the mood strikes. Less likely in the winter, more often in the summer—but there’s no comparison to the feeling of bare legs on smooth sheets when he sleeps at night. Life’s little pleasures and whatnot.

It’s only when he’s stripped bare that he feels the pressures of being anyone else fade away. It’s only when no one else is around that he feels… whole. Unconcerned with what he is or isn’t. Wilhelmina settles under his skin, and Will’s mind comes to calm. For a moment in time, there is unity between them, and it feels like peace.

And with peace comes… other things. Here, he’s safe. Alone. But in his mind’s eye, he’s not alone. The tension he hadn’t allowed himself to process from being near Hannibal comes back all at once, leaving invisible imprints of hands all over his body, strong and sure, rich with possession. There’s not even so much as bruises, but the memories feel like brands.

Will shudders and shivers and bites his lip as he presses the heel of his hand to his cock. Fuck, he wishes he’d given himself more time, not taken so long getting himself out of bed. His hands feel too small, too familiar, but he gives in regardless. When his legs fall open, he imagines a thigh pushing them apart; when his spine bends forward and his cast braces against the wall, Will imagines the heat comes from a body pressed tight and close against his back.

He wants. God, he wants. It’s been so long since he wanted anyone at all, but—

“Hannibal,” Will whispers and water streams into his mouth, into his eyes, and he can imagine it’s not his own hand around his cock squeezing and stroking, that he’s being held still and surrounded, touched and consumed, that there’s imperfect teeth scraping over his shoulder and a voice in his ear that wants him right back. And Hannibal does want him, doesn’t he? There’s no doubt in Will’s mind that he could have this if he wanted, but he can’t let himself.

God, why is he so mean?  Snapping left and right at the only person that seems to give a damn, and he knows Hannibal has his own agenda, but fuck, doesn’t everyone? Doesn’t he?

Will arches up and wishes there was weight there to hold him down. His wrist twists and he whines, squeezes cruelly at the base of his cock like he’s not the one depriving himself. The lights filters through his eyelids and Will imagines everything going dark, fingers over his eyes, fingers in his mouth, fuck. Maybe he just needs someone to shut him up, quiet his mind, make him stop fucking thinking—

He gasps and his hips twitch, his grip tightens and slides so goddamn good, and Will strokes himself through the height of his orgasm thinking that maybe Margot was right. Maybe now or later, getting into bed with Hannibal is inevitable. The desire is there. There’s no clear line drawn, no boundaries or walls built between them other than the ones of Will’s own making. He could knock them down, knock it all down. Take, and let himself be taken.

Fuck, he wants that.

And maybe he needs that lifeline, needs Hannibal to take him by the throat and drag him from the depths of solitude. The Ripper has been Will’s anchor for so long that he’s forgotten what being afloat even feels like. If Will can stop drowning, give death its due and its time, but also remember how to live again, would that really be so bad?

Every artist needs a muse, Margot said, and Hannibal’s presence in his life has already brought him new insight and awareness. Maybe it can go both ways. Maybe Hannibal is Will’s unexpected.

Will moans as the water rolls over his twitching limbs, his shaking fingers. He washes the evidence of his desire down the drain and follows it with grapefruit body wash, coconut oil conditioner. He stands in the stream until he’s clean, dazed and blinking under the aftershocks of pleasure and unbidden epiphanies.

Will turns off the water and emerges into the cold, wraps himself bodily in one towel and his hair in another. From there, it’s business as usual, but nothing feels usual. Will squeezes his hair damp-dry and unwraps it, massages leave-in conditioner through to the ends, finds his part with a fine-toothed comb. He ties it back only for long enough to brush his teeth without getting hair in his mouth. When he lifts his head and looks at himself in the mirror, yes, the circles under his eyes look darker, but he feels more awake than he has in a while.

Hopeful, maybe. Is that the right word for what he feels? But before hope comes common sense. None of this means anything if he can’t apologize to Hannibal properly.

He can only hope he hasn’t fucked things up too badly before anything even starts.

Will gets dressed, throwing things in his bag as he goes. No worries today, no filming, just class—he pulls on tight jeans and a sweater, charcoal-gray and oversized that slouches off his shoulder and exposes the lacy strap of a blue bralette. Casual and comfortable. Will leaves his hair free and rushes through his makeup, anxious not to get caught in the morning rush traffic. Gray liner, smokey eye, quick contour, berry chapstick. He’s got it down to a science. He grabs an old beanie on his way out the door and crams it down over his drying curls, the simple silver studs in his ears—then rushes back inside to fill Winston’s bowl with an emphatic apology.

Phone, wallet, keys, glasses—check. Will pulls on his coat and zips up his heeled boots, hoping it doesn’t snow. His bag thuds painfully against his hip with the weight of his laptop and his camera inside.

He gets in the car, starts it. Blasts the heat.

Calls Hannibal.

It rings, rings, rings.

“Damn it,” Will mutters as he throws the car into reverse and backs out of the driveway. But then—

“Good mor—”  A yawn. “My apologies. Good morning, Will.”

Guilt and relief war for Will’s attention, but neither wins compared to Hannibal. Will glances at the car clock and sees 6:34am. “Shit, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Did I wake you up?”

“I’m usually an early riser, you’ve simply beaten my internal clock.”  Hannibal’s voice is warm, pleasant, rough from disuse. Will feels like an idiot; of course Hannibal was asleep. Any reasonable person would be.

“I’m sorry for last night,” Will says in a rush, barely focused as he reflexively follows the roads out of Wolf Trap toward the highway. “I texted you after and of course you didn’t get them because it was probably after midnight and it’s still early and I just woke you up. You were trying to look out for me and I was a bitch.”

There’s a rustle on the other line that Will attributes to one rolling over in bed. A pang of helpless fondness hits him in the chest and pulls his lips toward a smile. Huh. Fluffy Hannibal, not quite put-together and perfect. There’s a thought.

“Your apology is accepted, so long as you accept that I wasn’t particularly upset about it in the first place.”  Hannibal hums with thought. “Though I suppose I should count myself fortunate that you were concerned enough about my feelings to call me first thing in the morning.”

“You’re astonishingly verbose for someone who’s been called first thing in the morning,” Will retorts.

“You’re astonishingly verbose for someone who called me first thing in the morning to apologize for being ‘a bitch’.”

Will balks. He must make some kind of terrible noise, because the next thing he knows, Hannibal is laughing, and the sound is so nice that it doesn’t even matter that he’s laughing at Will.

“I was just trying to be polite,” Will grumbles, though he’s smiling and thinks Hannibal can probably hear it. He flips his directional as he turns onto the interstate and heads north.

“I think we’ve moved past that, don’t you?” Hannibal replies. “Polite and impolite. It seems you and I simply are, and we do our best to accommodate level ground between the niceties and animosities as we go.”

Will’s heart thuds weakly at the words, at the ease with which Hannibal aligns them. Like Will is anything more than an exhausted and ungrateful student, and like Hannibal is anything less than an accomplished, well-off surgeon to whom Will is a convenient distraction and a psychiatric curiosity. “Are you saying I shouldn’t apologize anymore when I piss you off?”

“If this is to become our normal state of affairs, then indeed, perhaps not. I know I will find myself apologizing again and you’ll tire of that eventually, so we have to consider using apologies sparingly.”  Hannibal sounds amused by the notion. “If I ever truly feel that you have wronged me enough to warrant an apology, I promise, I shall ask you for such. I make a point in keeping my promises.”

“I should hope so, given the nature of promises,” Will replies. He merges into traffic and sets his foot on the pedal, minding the flow of the vehicles. It’s not a terribly far drive between Wolf Trap and College Park, but given that he has to skirt the perimeter of D.C. to get there, he tries to give himself as much time with his commute as possible. Accidents are unfortunately common on the thruway. Will avoids rush hour traffic as much as possible, which is easier to do if he stays out late in the evenings—less so in the mornings, when it seems everyone has somewhere to be much at the same time.

“You’d be surprised at how quick most are to break them.”

Will huffs a laugh. “I really wouldn’t.”

“…no, I suppose not.”

Wolf Trap isn’t far from the Maryland state line, and as Will approaches the bridge over the Potomac, he notices the signs of slowing traffic. He groans.

“Are you alright?”  Hannibal asks in concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Will grumbles, and leans forward in the driver’s seat. He peers ahead and sees that the cars are still mobile, albeit at less than half speed—maybe if he’s lucky, it’ll be nothing more than a fender bender that’s easily avoided. “Looks like a jam up ahead or something. Son of a bitch.”

“Can you go around?”

Will creeps over the bridge and grimaces when he realizes he’s already past the only feasible exit point, even if he meant to turn around and backtrack. He’d still end up late for his eight thirty class—going the long way around would take him south, cutting straight through D.C. itself. That commute is usually more than an hour, and adds an extra thirty or forty miles in addition to what he’s already driven. “No, I’m already past the turnoff. Gotta keep going, I guess.”

He passes the Maryland welcome sign at a grueling fifteen miles per hour. Not far past it, traffic grinds to a complete and total halt. Will laughs bitterly. Horns are blaring, impatient drivers sticking their heads out their windows, all to no avail. Strangely enough, Will doesn’t see any oncoming traffic, either.

“Will?”

Suspicion picks at the back of Will’s mind. The lanes are separated by heavy concrete barricades. Short of a vehicle busting through one of them, he can’t imagine why there’s no cars coming from the opposite direction. Sure, not many people head in to rural Virginia, but there would definitely be someone headed home at this time of the morning. Night shifters, truckers—this is the Capital Region.

Cars are lining up behind him, and quickly. Even without the ability to turn off properly, Will is now completely and totally boxed in. He’s not going anywhere fast.

And now he’s curious.

“Will, are you still there?”

“Hang on,” Will says, and plucks his phone from its honorary place riding shotgun in the cup holder. He switches the audio output from Bluetooth to the phone’s inline speakers, then kills the engine. Will crams his keys in his pocket and kicks his bag under the passenger seat. He can only hope it won’t be stolen, but it’s too heavy to carry with him. “Still with me?”

“Always,”  Hannibal says, and the sincerity makes the breath catch in Will’s lungs. Hannibal carries on without noticing. “What’s going on?”

Sirens in the distance, faint as the coyote from the night before. Smoke. Will moves on autopilot forward, forward.

Screaming.

“Something happened,” Will says, and a sense of terrible foreboding sits like a stone inside his chest. His heels click against the ground and his footsteps speed. He dodges around opening doors, around angry and confused fellow drivers and passengers, slipping sideways between cars and vans as he nears the source.

“What do you see?”

“There’s some kind of accident—” Will weaves through the cars and smells burning gasoline. Fire. Metal. “Jesus.”

Hannibal’s voice gets sharp, serious. “An accident? Will, do be careful. Damaged vehicles can be volatile. I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’ll be fine,” Will replies on autopilot, because as of now he is fine. The people up ahead are decidedly not fine.

Will draws around the bend in the interstate, and the sound of his feet hitting the ground only partially drowns out Hannibal’s growl. “Will—”

It doesn’t matter.

No, it doesn’t matter at all.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Will says.

An overturned semi takes up both sides of the highway, twisted into a near-unrecognizable shape by the full-speed impacts of other cars, torn to bits. People scramble from their vehicles, some piled three or four high, sideways, upside-down. There’s crying. Screaming. Oil on the tarmac—or is it blood? Is it both? Sirens wail loud enough to pierce his ears, and flashing lights overwhelm his vision. They reflect off the sea of shattered glass that covers the road, shine directly into his eyes.

Will’s casted hand clenches so hard around the phone that his fingers hurt.

It’s a fucking bloodbath.

“I’m gonna have to call you back,” Will says weakly, and feels something inside him freeze over like the depths of Hell itself.

“Will. What is happening?”

“There’s gotta be thirty cars,” Will says, and presses his free hand over his mouth. “All piled up, people are trapped, Hannibal, I—”

“Will, I’m getting a call from the hospital on the other line—”

Will’s eyes lift higher, higher. When he sees it, he knows it’s the cause of the chaos below. He laughs, but the sound is awful. Maybe it’s a sob.

“Will?”

“There’s a body hanging from the overpass.”

Hannibal goes silent.

Will’s is numb. His throat clicks with the force of his swallow, and his teeth snap together. The scents of fire and death consume his senses. Nowhere he looks is free from the destruction, but for the simple serenity of the tableau before him. There is shockingly little blood on the body suspended in the sky. Instead, it’s smeared and splattered all over the Capital Beltway.

“It’s the Ripper,” Will says. “It’s one of his.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The call cuts out.

Will is lucky he still has the presence of mind to hold his phone and hold it tight. He has one moment suspended in time. The pragmatic part of his brain whispers that this may be his only chance, the only scene he ever sees with his own eyes, so he takes a picture—because he has to. He has to be as close as he can get, even if close really means too close.

Then Will jams his phone in his pocket, even though he’d rather throw it down to shatter on the pavement and blow his life before this morning to bits.

Around him is Hell. Hell, with one exception:

The Hanged Man—Will recognizes him immediately. It’s a classic piece of iconography.

The man is suspended upside-down from his right ankle, his left leg crossed behind gracefully at the knee, and arms folded behind his back. It’s casual, almost. It lacks the clumsy pull of gravity, and the clothes are the same—red pants and a blue shirt, somehow defying the laws of physics, held perfectly in place as though the man were standing upright.

A halo of blond hair is the exception as it hangs downward, fluttering around the man’s head with the air currents, the plumes of smoke and ash rising from below. The hellish orange light from the putrid oil fire casts the skull in a terrifying light—for indeed, there is no face or flesh to speak of on the surface. Everything from scalp to throat has been carefully cut away, and the bone wiped clean down to white.

The hanging saint has been peeled back like a ripe fruit, revealing Death below.

The only blood that Will can see on the victim is a stain on the man’s shirt, a perfectly excised hole that coincides with the left pectoral: his heart has been removed.

The murder, like The Hanged Man, is a pendulum bound in place, moving neither forward nor backward from its tether. It cannot move beyond present circumstances or relinquish control, no matter how it desperately needs to. Its release will bring about, not death itself in such crude terms, but an evolution. With it, he will become something, someone new.

Will stares up at it until his eyes start to water. Until the scent of the fire and the death and the burning fills his nose and forces its way out through his tear ducts. Until he can ignore the carnage below no longer, and is forced to tear his attention away from the masterpiece hanging above him.

Will squeezes his eyes shut and feels tears roll over his cheeks, pool in the creases of his mouth, fall from his chin. He takes a breath and chokes on the scent of sizzling tar, then pulls his hair back; shoves his hat in his pocket and runs in to help.

He shouldn’t. He’s heard the horror stories of people suing those who helped them out of wrecks like this, but there are human lives in imminent danger from the gas fire spreading from the overturned cab of the semi. If it explodes and kills him, then he’ll be damned if he doesn’t help as many people as he can to escape before he dies.

It’s hard work interlaced with terror. Each moment is uncertain as he hears the crackles and pops of blistering metal, and after some time, Will is no longer sure which of the blood stains came from him and which came from each person he helps escape. There are cops and EMTs screaming in his ears, urging him to get back, to get away, but they need every able body they can get to help them—and as long as Will is pulling people from the wreckage, he feels useful. He cuts open the palms of his hands, his fingers, until his hands are slick with fluid. There’s blood dripping into his cast and sweat dripping off his face, but he keeps going.

If he can save his father’s jacket after this, it’ll be a miracle. If he can save himself in the midst of this, it’ll be a miracle.

Will falls to his knees and helps a wild-eyed man pull a sobbing, screaming little girl out of a flipped teal Honda. The windshield shattered on impact, and the glass crunches beneath his knees. He can see the body of the girl’s mother inside, saturated with red. The little girl’s a pretty thing with auburn hair, huge blue eyes. She’s lucky she escaped with only a shallow slice along her throat—if it were any deeper, she’d be still and silent as her mother, trapped inside that crushed metal shell.

“Thank you,” the man cries, weak with exhaustion as he scrambles back with his daughter cradled in his lap. He holds her tight enough to bruise. “You saved her. You saved her. Bless you.”

“Get her out of here,” Will commands through his exhaustion, his desperation. “Get back. You save her.”

“Thank god,” the man says, and Will moves on. “Abby, Abby, thank god.”

The next girl isn’t much younger than Will—mid-teens, maybe. She pounds with bloody fists on the inside of an intact car window, trapped beside the broken body of a man who could certainly be her father.

“Shield your face!” Will commands, she she hurriedly obeys. He grabs the closest piece of debris he can find, some unidentifiable piece of a demolished vehicle, and smashes the window until it breaks.

She barely winces as she crawls over broken glass. Her pupils are huge, wide and black with adrenaline, limbs shaking. As soon as she’s free, she reaches back inside. “Daddy!”

Will seizes her by the back of a jean jacket that is not nearly enough to keep her warm in the cold. Steam rises from the heat of her blood and sweat. Behind her, Will can see the smoke rise higher, knows the flaming wreck is spreading—he pulls. “He’s gone!” Will snaps. “Come on, please!”

She struggles, fights him. She’s strong and scrappy and doesn’t give up easily, and Will would normally admire that if he weren’t trying to save her from dying. “He’s gone!” Will shouts again. “Kid, he’s dead!”

She freezes. She looks back over her shoulder with angry, red-rimmed eyes and says, “We can save him!”

And Will wants to cry. He wants to cry, but he can’t. He has to keep going, he has to, for as long as he can. “No we can’t. You know we can’t.”

Her tears cut through the red smears on her cheeks. Pink drips from her chin, saturates her jacket. It’s the same goddamn color of the chapstick that’s still in Will’s bag back in his car, and he hates that. Fuck. He’s never wearing that color again, not after this.

But the girl lets him pull her away, lets him get her further from the fire, and a blonde-haired cop rushes over when she sees them get free. She nods solemnly, thankfully at Will—and Will recognizes her as one of the ones who’s been in as deep as he has, trying to save as many as she can, distracting the EMTs away from Will, directing them to save those who are trapped or unconscious.

And Will’s about to get there, himself. He’s done too much, pulled out more people than he can count. His body is on the verge of collapse. This girl, whoever she is, is the last one he’ll manage. He hauls her back by a grip on her collar, a mother dog carrying puppies back to the nesting box. He feels exhausted. This feels like labor, and she feels like his after all he’s been through, soaked in blood and tears.

“I want to go home,” she says, weak with exhaustion and shock. “I wanna go home. Please.” She turns to Will and throw her arms around him, even as he tries to shepherd her toward an ambulance, any ambulance.

“Don’t leave!” She shouts as Will tries to pull away. She’s imprinted on him, and what else can Will do? He’s hastily wrapped in a shock blanket by harried and pale-faced EMTs, ushered off to the side to make room for transport for those who are in more dire need of emergency care than the both of them. They lean against an intact concrete barricade fifty feet from the scene of the crash, and Will stares up at the Ripper’s omen like its jaws will open and temperance will spill from its mouth.

The Hanged Man and Death sway on their tether, but when Will looks at this tableau, all he can see is The Tower.

“Who are you?” asks the girl. She’s shaken, pale. Pretty, under the right circumstances—the right circumstances being not here and not now. “What’s your name?”

“Will,” he answers. He swallows hard and turns to her, offers his broken and bloody hand. “You?”

She shakes, and winces at the pressure. She doesn’t try to avoid his blood; if there’s a disease to be had, they’ll get it from one another regardless. In this moment in time, they are only concerned with being mutually alive. “Clarice.”

“I’m sorry about your father, Clarice,” Will replies. His throat feels tight. He clears it, and tries again. “Do you have anyone else? Anyone we can call?”

Clarice ducks her head, her matted hair falling into her face. She nods, hiccups, but does not cry. “My mom.”

Will pulls his phone from his pocket. The screen is cracked. He can’t find it in himself to care, because at least it lights up, at least it’s functional as he hands it to her. “Watch your fingers,” he warns. “Where’re you from?”

“West Virginia,” she whispers. He barely hears her over the wailing sirens, the shrieking cries, the distant car horns of those not close enough to see and understand the horrors happening here. “We were comin’ to see the Museum of Natural History. I—”

She doesn’t finish her sentence. She doesn’t dial out. She doesn’t do anything but hold his phone, and Will sees at least one missed call, sees the blurry shapes of an H and an L that are bisected by the fractured glass.

He nearly breaks, but he holds himself together. He has to, he has to. At least for now, he has to be strong, even though the sounds and the smells are closing in and drowning him. He’ll make it back to Hannibal when the time is right, but that time’s not now. Not yet.

“Call your Mama,” Will says softly, and maybe it’s the Louisiana breathing out of his bones, but all he can do is see a girl that’s just like him, say the things he wished someone had said when his dad died. He wished like hell that he’d had a mama of his own to call back then, but that’s just not the way of things. Maybe Clarice is luckier than him, after all.

But she does—she calls. She cries, and once she starts it pours from her, wave after wave of sorrow and grief.

Will puts his broken arm around her shoulders and holds her while she screams. He can feel one perched under his chin, but he can’t let it out.

He knows that if he starts, it’ll never stop.

 


 

The emergency room is chaos. There is no other word for it.

As soon as Will’s call cuts out, Hannibal answers one from Johns Hopkins. He answers their plea for him to come in, to help treat the wounded being brought in from the accident on the I-495—an accident that never should have been at all.

Incompetency is the only reason Hannibal can guess at for the pile-up, though he doesn’t have time to ask for specifics. There are too many people who need treatment, too many bleeding organs and broken limbs. Too many patients being split up and delegated—some to DC, and some of the more severe cases airlifted in to Baltimore where they boast an effective surgical staff.

Thirty-seven vehicles, he will hear later. Thirty-seven cars, trucks, and vans that piled up because a tractor-trailer swerved to avoid an obstruction, struck a concrete barricade, and spun out across both the outgoing and oncoming lanes of traffic. It flipped, killing the driver instantly, and spilling gasoline and engine oil across the Beltway.

He will hear later that at least one vehicle exploded.

There is no confirmed tally of the injured, or of the dead.

But in these first moments, he doesn’t know the details. He only knows that he has lives that need saving—and that Will does not answer when Hannibal tries to call him back.

There is an agitated energy that fills a hospital during an event such as this. He has witnessed it only several times before, but it masks his feelings now quite well. One snappish surgeon does not stand out when everyone is on edge, when there are more patients than there are staff, when there are more emergencies than they can suitably handle at once. Hannibal is aware of nurses being called in to help just as he was. There are close to seventy emergency patients, if not more, spread across the tristate area from this one incident alone.

And Hannibal does not know where Will is.

“Bernadette,” he says as he leaves one patient’s amphitheatre to wash briskly and prep for another. It’s somewhere around lunch, though he’s largely lost track of time. There are no windows in the operating rooms, and Hannibal has bounced from one to the next. As he has not yet had to declare a time of death for any of his patients, he remains figuratively in the dark.

She looks harried. Her powder blue scrubs are usually bright against her darker complexion, but today, she is smeared in stains of iodine and blood. This is her first large-scale emergency, and Hannibal knows it will not be her last. Already there is the shine of a veteran developing in her eyes. No matter what Hannibal is seeing today, his nurses are seeing far more of it. “Yeah, Doctor Lecter?”

“If…” Hannibal pauses in his washing and assembles his thoughts. His lips press into a thin line, then he starts again. “If Will Graham is admitted, I want to know as soon as I am available. If he requires medical attention, I want to be present. I understand you can’t see everything on a day like this, but please keep me apprised of the situation.”

Bernadette frowns, rustling through supplies for whatever it is she’s looking for. “Yeah, I can keep an eye out, but…” She glances back toward the pandemonium behind them. “I mean, are you expecting him here?”

Hannibal’s teeth click together. He forces a tight, tense smile that is probably more frightening than it puts her at ease, but he cannot find it in himself to be in good humor right now. “Will lives in Virginia. He called me from the scene of the accident, but his call cut out and I have not heard from him since.”

Her expression twists into a grimace of dismay and sympathy. “Damn,” she breathes. “Yeah, Doc, if he gets brought in I’ll let you know.”

Hannibal nods slightly. “Thank you.” He washes the disinfectant from his arms and suits up for another round. “Next patient?”

She gestures toward the next operating room. “Prepped and waiting, pierced in the abdomen. Just got brought in about ninety seconds ago. You’re the first one out, so you’re up.”

The crux of the situation is this: this was decidedly not what Hannibal planned. A standstill, yes—a body placed on a state line ensures FBI presence to sort out the jurisdictional war, and he would not have been surprised if traffic had been halted for hours while they assessed and cleared the scene. Will would have gotten caught up in the mess. That was what he wanted. He knows enough of Will to know his curious mind. He would have found the scene as Hannibal planned it, seen his work firsthand, and been able to develop a clearer understanding of Hannibal’s intentions, and perhaps even surmised through this silent language of flesh and bone what Hannibal intends for him.

Somewhere between the moment when Hannibal left the body and the moment Will spoke of an accident is where the blur has occurred that has brought him to now.

Hannibal does not feel guilt over these interrupted lives, and too, the ones that have been lost. This accident is not unlike a church roof collapse: an act of violence punishing sinners, though faithful they may be. The only death Hannibal will claim as his own is the one that was wrought of his own hand. However, this changes things—this will change the public’s perception of the Chesapeake Ripper. It will change Will’s perception of his killer. And that, Hannibal finds, is so unacceptable that he’d like to stage another scene right now, force himself to be understood.

But to be understood, he needs Will to see him.

To be seen, he needs Will.

And he is not yet sure where Will is.

He passes from one perforated kidney and lacerated liver into the next operating room, with barely a break to choke down an organic protein bar and a bottle of water. “Anything?” he asks when Bernadette darts into the break room and chugs a power drink with such speed that Hannibal fears for her heart health.

“No, nothing,” she replies. “I’ll keep you in the loop. Good luck.”

And so it goes. One more patient, two, three. By the time Hannibal realizes night has fallen, his hands have developed a tremor—and though he’s sure there are more people who need treatment, in the end, he is the one who decides he’s done as much as he can. He’s sixteen hectic hours into what was supposed to be a twelve hour shift. He hasn’t had a chance to eat anything of substance, and he’s running on dwindling caffeine and sheer spite.

He cannot yet rest. He still has a mission to accomplish. If Will has not been brought to him, then Hannibal will go searching for him if he must.

But as he splashes water on his face in the break room and feels the impatient scrapings of the monster beneath his skin, he is interrupted by a familiar face. “Hey,” Bernadette says, and gestures brusquely for him to follow. He thought she left hours ago, but he does as he is bid—follows her out of the break room, into the hall, through the corridors until he is in a familiar wing of the hospital.

Bernadette opens the door to Hannibal’s office (which he is determinedly certain he locked) but before he can demand answers, he sees the source of her tenacity.

Hannibal feels a lead weight melt and drain away from his lungs; he can breathe much easier all of a sudden. The monster’s pacing does not cease, but it slows. Will is seated at his office chair, and his head is pillowed on his bare arm atop Hannibal’s desk. He’s asleep.

“He wasn’t admitted,” Bernadette says softly, as not to wake Will. She looks at him with a sad and fond expression, wrapped up in her own exhaustion and the horror of what she’s seen today. She’s brought Hannibal to him, not only out of her own kindness, but because her soul demands attention to whatever shred of happiness and light it can find. She sees them as the source of that light, if only for now.

She has done something good. Perhaps there is hope for her.

“Actually, he refused to be admitted,” she continues with a huff. “And he only showed up about an hour ago, anyway. He told me he’d wait, but honestly, I didn’t have the heart to make him stay in the ER with everyone else. I hope that’s okay.”

“Better than okay.” Hannibal inhales and exhales, turns his eyes to Bernadette. “Thank you, truly.” He flashes a flicker of his own exhausted smile, but most of the peace within it comes from territorial satisfaction. Will is here. Whether or not Will is safe remains to be seen, but Hannibal has enough faith in his own abilities that he will make it so.

“Goodnight, Doctor Lecter,” Bernadette says.

Hannibal nods and lays his open palm on her shoulder, comforting and thankful all in one. He is fond of her, yes, but in his current detached state, it has no more meaning to him than patting a hunting dog who has served its master well. She has served him well tonight, and he is pleased with her performance. She will get along just fine here at Johns Hopkins—

—but she is not Will, and thus, she is not his priority.

“Goodnight, Bernadette,” Hannibal says, a kind dismissal, and steps into his office. He sees her go from the corner of his eye. The door clicks closed behind him.

Will does not stir.

Hannibal has never seen him so rumpled, swathed in sweatpants that slouch down over his boots and a baggy gray tee-shirt. His bag is spilled across the floor. Whether it toppled over, or Will simply dropped it that way, Hannibal cannot be certain. But prior to waking Will…

Hannibal crouches, inspects the careless collection of objects, and picks up a creased, plastic-jacketed checkbook. The upper left corner says William S. Graham, 9866 Faust Dr, Wolf Trap, VA.  

Hannibal’s lips twitch. Oh, God does so love to entertain him; each cruelty comes part and parcel with a gift such as this. Hannibal is coming to believe that the cruelty imparted in taking Mischa from him may yet be replaced by the complex benediction that is Will Graham.

Hannibal checks the front page of the checkbook—it seems Will doesn’t keep a physical log, or if he does, it isn’t here. No record of which number he’s on. It’s just as well. Hannibal tears a single blank check from the book and folds it; he slips it through the seam of the lower desk drawer to survey later, knowing the drawer’s proximity to Will’s leg and the terrible metal screech would wake him if he were to open it properly. Instead, he packs Will’s belongings back into his messenger bag.

But there, crammed into the bottom of the satchel, is a mass of fabric tied off in a grocery bag. Hannibal frowns; through the thin plastic, he can tell whatever is encased is soaked with moisture. Hannibal picks apart the knot that holds it together—

—he is assaulted by the scent of blood and viscera, gasoline and oil, smoke and flame. Death. Inside Hannibal spies the blue of denim, the soft gray knit of a sweater. Rough canvas, hunter green. Will’s jacket, all but destroyed.

Anger flashes through Hannibal so strongly that he feels his heart lunge forth, a predator ready to strike. Will had gotten close. Too close. He had walked willingly into fire and—Hannibal inhales deeply—drudged himself in the blood of more than one person, some of it his own. Foolishly, bravely dedicated to helping. He looks up and notices that Will’s cast, cradled in his lap, is caked with a flaking brown patina of blood, not entirely scrubbed away. Hannibal’s rage condenses into a fine, bright point in his heart when he imagines what might have happened if Will had been standing too close when the vehicles exploded. If Hannibal had gone out to find him, searching for days because Will has no formal tie to him: no legal obligation, no one for a hospital to call in case of an emergency, no next of kin. The idea of Will Graham going into an unmarked grave because there’s no one to claim him is incensing. A mind like Will’s being lost to the cruelties and the whims of the ages…

Hannibal won’t allow it.

He ties the bag closed again and replaces it in Will’s satchel. His cleaner has been known to work miracles—perhaps with the proper chemicals and financial incentive, Will’s belongings might be saved. Hannibal will be looking into it at the first available opportunity.

But for now, his curiosity has been piqued, and it growls to be fed. Today’s brand of hell has been one of his own making, but he must know of Will’s experience walking through it. Years of habit in medical fields demands he look Will over, search out his wounds, poke and prod at them to assess his condition thoroughly so that Hannibal might better dress them later.

Hannibal reaches for Will, lays his hand on Will’s arm and gives him a gentle nudge. “Will,” he says softly, coaxingly. “Can you hear me?”

Will’s bicep twitches under Hannibal’s palm. It is the only warning he gets before Will comes awake all at once, gasping for breath like a drowning man breaking above the water’s surface. His eyes are wild, dark hollows in his sockets, fierce red lines where his face has been cut by crash debris. His hands come up before him, like he seeks to protect his body—purple and yellow, cut and bruised. All of Will that Hannibal can see is damaged in this way.

Will chokes for breath. His eyes do not focus, up until the moment that they do. Will’s brilliant terror smooths with an expression Hannibal is not used to seeing directed toward him: ruinous relief.

“Hannibal,” Will whispers. His hands snap out and Hannibal nearly puts him on his back in reflex, but—

—Will’s arms encircle Hannibal’s neck in a frantic embrace. He tips himself out of Hannibal’s office chair and lands solidly in his lap. Hannibal winces; his body aches, and being sprawled across tile is far from ideal, but the discomfort ceases to matter at the moment Will tucks his face into the curve of Hannibal’s throat and clings to him like a trembling babe.

It is the second time today Hannibal has found himself in an unexpected situation. however, as he has already proven once, he is adaptable. He scoops Will into his arms and hauls him close: victims of shock often find comfort in human contact if they are the first to welcome it. And holding him feels…

Will’s warmth is pleasant. His weight, Hannibal thinks, would be if it weren’t for the hospital floor beneath their bodies. There are no soft scents clinging to Will now—only the smell of disinfectant soap and the faintest tinges of iron and steel. But there is freedom now in being able to touch Will as he pleases, to splay his fingers wide and run his palms over the slim lines of Will’s back, feel the way his trim and lovely body fits into the spaces made by Hannibal’s own. And feeling him shake, feeling him cling, feeling his need—

“Breathe deeply, Will,” Hannibal murmurs, and winds one hand into Will’s hair to cradle his skull. “I’m here with you, and you are with me. You’re safe.”

Will is vibrating out of his skin, shaking so hard that Hannibal trembles with him by sheer exchange of force. “I can’t,” he whispers, “I couldn’t. I tried.

“I know. I know you did,” Hannibal soothes. He holds Will until his own arms ache, and even then, he holds tighter yet. Holding Will like this reminds him of the way Mischa would attach herself to him in search of comfort. Perhaps that’s where the memory of how to comfort comes from. Hannibal has to believe that, since the alternative is that nurturing is his base instinct—or most concerning of all, a response that has developed specifically for Will.

Will’s face is damp as he nuzzles frantically at Hannibal’s throat, a desperate animal gesture that only eases when Hannibal guides Will to the crook of his neck. There’s no disgust to be found for the wet drip of his tears. Instead, a bolt of electricity shoots down his spine when Will’s breath hitches and his teeth graze Hannibal’s skin.

This is the closest he has been to another person in… quite some time. And short of (or even exceeding) impersonal sexual encounters, surely the most intimate.

His fingers slide through Will’s hair, carefully working the elastic out of the mass of his curls, letting it roll back over his knuckles and settle like a shackle around his wrist. Will clutches at his back hard enough to bruise. Hannibal selfishly hopes Will leaves marks that he can savor after this moment has passed, gaze upon in the mirror and map the topography of Will’s need.

They sit like that for a while. Hannibal is content to wait until his aching muscles begin to stiffen, an object in motion finally coming to rest. Hannibal, too, needs to rest, just as much as Will requires peace and quiet.

“Do you have anyone I can call for you?” Hannibal asks, though he knows the answer is—

“No, I don’t,” Will says, and his hands curl into fists in the back of Hannibal’s scrubs; the edge of his cast digs into Hannibal’s spine. “I don’t.”

Hannibal tips his head to he side and rests his cheek atop the crown of Will’s head. He breathes slowly, the faintest scent of Will’s home lingering on him like it has permeated his person too far to be lost. “I feel I must insist you not be alone right now, mylimasis.”

Will’s fingers clench convulsively at the slip. It’s as though Will’s heart understands the word his brain does not. It is only once it escapes Hannibal’s lips that he remembers that they are no longer in public, no longer supervised. He is no longer obligated to say such things.

It’s fortunate, then, that this does not feel like an obligation.

Will’s noses at Hannibal’s throat like their proximity is still not enough to settle him. The clutch of his fingers, his insistent closeness—he seems nearly ready to claw Hannibal open and crawl inside, curl up in the cradle of his ribs, lock himself in the cage of Hannibal’s attention and affection. Hannibal is ready to let him.

“Please don’t send me away,” Will whispers. “I know you’re tired, you’ve been working all day, but just let me stay for a little while, Hannibal, please.”

“I would prefer you to stay where I may look after you,” he replies. Hannibal gently pushes Will back by the shoulders until Will’s eyes meet his, a mess of makeup revealing the shape of him underneath. Until Hannibal can survey the frenetic worry on Will’s face. Until he can smooth Will’s bangs back from his forehead and watch the flutter of black lashes, the way Will presses his cheek into his palm. “Let me remove your cast. Then, if you’ll allow me, I’ll bring you to my home. Make you something to eat. We can sit and talk, or sit in silence if you prefer. Whatever it is that you need. I want to help you.”

Will’s fractures. Hannibal can see him crumbling within his responding agonized smile. It‘s a reflex, one meant to temper his edges and hide the true depth of his pain. Instead, Will only reveals it, peeling the teary-eyed cover back to expose the grinning horror inside. He has seen death today: the careless kind that has no rhyme or reason, that does not take the time to choose the guilty or act as an agent of justice.

Hannibal knows that is the weight sitting heavily upon Will now—but there was never anything he could do to stop this.

“You shouldn’t,” Will says. His smile flickers and breaks, and his eyes squeeze shut. Will rubs his fists against them, and when he lets his hands fall, they are smudged with salt and kohl. “I should have done more—”

“I feared you were dead,” Hannibal says, perhaps more sharply than he should. He cups Will’s cheeks in his palms and finds peace in the open, raw emotion he sees staring back. He smooths mascara tracks away from Will’s cheeks with the pads of his thumbs. “I don’t care about the lives you save, I care about your life. If the price of their mercy was your destruction, I would choose you.”

Will stares at him like he is the sun—blindingly vibrant, and Will cannot hold his gaze for long. “You’re biased,” he murmurs. His voice cracks. His eyes fall to Hannibal’s collar, but he knows Will can still clearly feel the weight of his regard. He buckles under it. The longer Hannibal stares, the more Will’s eyes fill with unshed tears.

“I am.” Hannibal’s hands slide down until they curl around Will’s neck and jaw, hold him steady with fond possession. “That doesn’t make it less true.”

Will’s lip trembles. All the color has worn away, leaving only soft pink behind. It’s the natural color of his mouth, and Hannibal longs to see it redden under the pressure of his teeth. When he finds out exactly what color that is, he’ll buy Will a new pigment to ensure it never fades. He doesn’t want any of this to fade, from Will’s sweet and eager responses to being touched to his reliance on Hannibal’s support. The best way to ensure it never ends is to ensure Will wants it even after he’s gone.

Yes, the creature living inside his soul rather likes the thought of that.

“Come home with me,” Hannibal prompts again. “Let me look after you. For my own peace of mind.”

Will’s eyes gleam, spill, overflow down his cheeks and drip from his chin. He hiccups, then nods. Nods, nods, nods. Helpless, melting into Hannibal’s hands. His for the taking. His for the shaping.

“Yeah,” Will says, and the monster in Hannibal’s heart purrs. “Yeah. Yes. Please. Please.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Everything is blurring.

The hospital lights, the sirens; the procedure room, the ambulances; the smell of antiseptic, the smell of blood; the sight of Hannibal, Hannibal, Hannibal is here. Hannibal is here, and so is Will, though he’s finding it harder and harder to remember that he’s no longer drifting. He’s safe. He is safe.

The cast cracks open, and it’s the first real moment of clarity that Will has experienced. It comes from a piece of kibble falling out of the plaster and clattering on the floor. Will stares down at it.  The rust-red smudges that have been trapped against his skin cease to matter. Instead, it’s inexplicably funny that there is dog food, of all things, that has been stuck in his cast.

He laughs until there are tears streaming from his eyes, until Hannibal levels him with a look of grim concern and Will answers that no, it doesn’t hurt much, and yes he can move his fingers just fine. It’s winter, so fortunately the skin beneath the cast is not a terribly different color from the rest once Hannibal washes the blood away.

Hannibal sits him down and sits across from him, pats his arm dry with paper towels and gentle hands. The warmth of his palms feels nice, even if there’s a subtle ache to Will’s arm that hasn’t quite faded. But it feels good to let it breathe, let it breathe, he can’t—

“Breathe, Will,” Hannibal murmurs, and his hand is on Will’s shoulder, anchoring him, and the other feels for his pulse. “In and out, with me.”

So Will does. He does as he’s told, and maybe that’s the easiest thing he’s ever done, because he doesn’t have to think about it. Hannibal is a doctor; he knows this sort of thing. He can be trusted.

“That’s very good,” he says. It hangs heavy around Will’s neck like a medal, like a collar, like a noose. “Where’s your car? How did you get here?”

The highway. Metal, fire, rubber, glass. Drifting across tarmac like the ferryman across Acheron, pulling bodies from vehicles, howling and trapped within eternal torment. It felt like every emergency vehicle in the tristate area converged on the wreck, pulling apart the mess of cars and trucks, the police and the FBI converging on the body, and Will ducked out and slipped away from Clarice. He retreated back to his car before anyone could stop him, and no one had the manpower to follow him given the magnitude of the accident that had occured.

It still took hours for traffic to start moving again. Will’s not exactly sure what happened in that time, only that he found himself  in the ER lobby, shaking and bloody and asking for Hannibal. Then a nurse had recognized him, and he remembered her, and she gave him a change of her clothes from her locker and a grocery bag for his things, and—

—and then he had woken up again and Hannibal was there, and everything seemed a little bit more okay after that.

“Drove,” Will says, and his voice falters. His hair is a mess in his eyes, feels suffocating around his neck and shoulders. “I think.” He pats at his leg and feels keys in his pocket. “Yeah, drove.”

Hannibal’s lips press into a thin, firm line. “I’m afraid I can’t let you get behind the wheel again, given your state of mind. Will you give me your keys?”

Will hands them over without argument. That, at least, draws a small smile from Hannibal. Will likes it. Wants to see it again. Wants to make Hannibal smile more. His approval feels like calm waters compared to Will’s capsizing ship of self. Not even Wilhelmina can keep him afloat when there’s still blood under his nails, showing through the cracks in the polish.

The splint goes on. It’s stiff but breathable, held on by velcro straps, less than half the size of the cast. Will immediately likes it much better, and likes it better yet when Hannibal says, “Hold my hands, I’ll help you up,” and Will can feel their fingers tangle. He exhales softly, slowly, and only wobbles a little when he’s pulled to his feet, though standing itself is painful beyond measure.

Hannibal carries his bag, won’t let Will take it, even when he grumbles. Will narrowly avoids making an argument for his case by telling Hannibal how exhausted he looks, but he figures he probably looks worse, and he doesn’t want to irritate the only person who’s endeared to him right now. And if he reaches for his bag, he’ll have to let go of Hannibal’s hand; he wants the contact more than he cares about his pride. He lets Hannibal carry it, and tries to mask his limping when Hannibal leads him toward the parking garage.

The exit from the heated hospital halls into the unheated garage is sobering; Will is more aware of where he is once they exit into the dimness, as the flickering lights paint the clouds of their breath gold. He shivers without his jacket to warm him. When Hannibal stops, Will is silent and watchful until the very moment he sets Will’s bag down and shrugs his coat from his shoulders to sweep it around Will’s.

Will makes a wordless, wounded sound. He feels helpless, gutted by the simple act of compassion. He can’t even find the words beyond his racing thoughts, or summon the presence of mind to try to give it back. He only knows that he is cold and the coat is heavy and warm and smells like Hannibal. Will’s knuckles go white when he clutches it close, feels his curls caught under the collar and can’t bring himself to care.

Something in Hannibal’s eyes is softer than Will remembers it being before. Will hates to think of what he must look like, wide-eyed and needing, weak. But Hannibal cups Will’s cheeks in his palms, doesn’t so much as twitch at the faint prickle of stubble—so far removed from Will’s usual self—and kisses his forehead.

No one’s around, it’s just them, but it doesn’t seem to matter to Hannibal that he has no one to impress, no obligation to fulfill, and Will is not about to complain. Hannibal radiates heat and smells like antiseptic, spice, and the faintest hint of sweat—human, he is human and he is alive and Will is a malleable substance in his hands.

“You break my heart, mylimasis,” Hannibal murmurs against his skin. His voice is a rumble, tangible, and Will shivers as though he’s still cold but he’s not, he’s not. “You look at me as though no one has ever done anything kind for you before.”

Will opens his mouth to reply and closes it again. He is too busy absorbing every molecule of this moment, saving it within the preserved sections of his mind. He inhales, and his nose brushes Hannibal’s jaw. If his hands weren’t busy holding on to Hannibal’s coat, he might do something significantly more embarrassing.

“Where has that voice gone?” Hannibal asks, though he doesn’t seem to expect an answer. He withdraws only enough to look Will in the face, to push his bangs out of his eyes with the backs of his knuckles so very gently. “Are you with me, Will?”

Will nods. He can hear Hannibal, yes. He just can’t seem to find the words to reply. His jaw works silently. He’s trying. He wants to, but everything seems to be falling apart. Hannibal is the only light, the only focus, and it’s only when he kisses the crown of Will’s head that he feels as though he can breathe.

“Alright,” Hannibal says. “Come, now. Let’s get you home.” He strokes Will’s hair, then takes both his hands and the gentleness, the soft consideration—Will swears he could call it love if he dreamt it hard enough, but even that seems too far out of reach, too sweet to let melt on his tongue. His heart is in his throat at the thought of home being with Hannibal. Maybe he’s right, though; maybe it is.

Hannibal picks up the bag, and Will tucks himself into Hannibal’s side; links their arms together, inseparably twined like summer vines as they search out the Bentley in the dark.

Hannibal opens the passenger door for him, then puts Will’s bag in the backseat. He slides behind the wheel with grace and ease, and cranks the heat until Will is melting—head tipped toward him on the passenger seat, limbs leaden and lazy. His eyes are half-lidded, blurry around the edges; Will hopes his glasses are in his bag, but he has no way of being sure. He can survive without them if he has to, he supposes. But here, in this warm, safe space, he has no need to be aware of anything but Hannibal.

“Rest, Will.” Hannibal reaches over and lays his hand atop Will’s, squeezes it for one long, fond moment. “I’ll wake you when we arrive.”

Will finds his words at long last, though they arrive with the lingering horror that if he goes to sleep, he might wake up somewhere else. Somewhere significantly less pleasant. Somewhere that he is, and Hannibal is not. “Not gonna drop me off an overpass, are you?”

It’s meant to be a joke. But when Will says it, his voice breaks, and Hannibal looks over sharply like so many schoolteachers and guidance counsellors that looked at Will sideways when he made one self-deprecating joke too many. “Do you take me for the sort of person who would do that to you?”

It’s said with an edge that sounds like hurt. It hurts Will right back that he might be the cause, but the sight of one strong hand on the wheel of the car makes him stop before he backtracks. The knowledge that Hannibal has seen life and death a hundred times over floats restlessly in his brain.

What kind of person would be capable of The Hanged Man’s murder?

His face was removed. The lines had been clean, the skin expertly flayed and excised. It all seems so clear in retrospect: the Ripper has medical knowledge. A mortician, a veterinarian, a surgeon, an army medic—all people of good standing. Trustworthy members of the community.

Will closes his eyes. He rolls his hand in Hannibal’s grip, feels the twitch of his fingers when Will doesn’t pull away, but tangles them together. The splint is so much lighter, so much more comfortable; he can feel Hannibal’s palm against his, and it’s as comforting as an embrace.

“I think you’re probably capable of a lot. More than most people.” He doesn’t open his eyes, but he knows Hannibal means to protest—but the truth of all Will has seen forces its way out through his mouth before he can bite it back.

The Hanged Man’s body had been the sole pillar of sense in a field of chaos. When Will looked up, everything there had meaning. Everything below was random, unpredictable, unknowable.

There’s comfort in precision. He has faith that, good or bad, Hannibal will do nothing more or less with Will than exactly what he intends.

As for what Will intends for Hannibal… he’s not yet sure. He only knows this moment and the stability it brings. He doesn’t want to think too much about what it means.

“I’m probably capable too, under the right circumstances,” Will says softly. “But I couldn’t do that to you, so I don’t think you’d do it to me.”

Hannibal huffs a breath. Will cracks his eyes open to stare at Hannibal through his lashes and his frizzy bangs and sees the hints of a smile on his lips. Will squeezes his hand again, and Hannibal squeezes back. “No, I don’t believe I could.”

His eyes are heavy. This feels like a moment he doesn’t want to let slip away, but he’s undoubtedly sliding backward down this slope. Hannibal is his tether to reality, but the warmth of his touch feels like permission to let himself go. To trust.

“Tell me I’ll be okay,” Will whispers. “That if I fall asleep, you won’t let me disappear. That no matter what I see in my dreams, I’ll be here with you.”

Hannibal looks away from the road. For a moment, there is only them, only the hum of wheels beneath their bodies, the motions of the car. Lights from a passing vehicle illuminate Hannibal’s eyes, make them glow like rubies, dripping with affection like a bleeding heart. “You are safe with me, Will. I promise.”

Will holds his gaze until his lids fall closed, until the sounds of the engine and Hannibal’s breathing pulls him under. And, faintly, the sound of radio static and violins. It’s a symphony of sound that sings Will to sleep.

He trusts.

 


 

It is dark.

Will sits by himself, suspended in the black, knowing he is upright, knowing he is lost and he is alone, and—

—there is blood beneath his feet. The world smells of metal and decay. He is so warm that he wishes he were cold. The dark is closing in and he is drowning, he is dying, and there is no escape, his body hurts, everything is sharp, and the blood is his.

“Pay attention.”

Everything else disappears but her.

She is him, but she is not him. She shares his face, but idealized—she looks the way he sometimes imagines he would look if he were in a movie, with everything just a little bit prettier, every piece of his body just a little smoother. There are pieces of her that remind him of Margot. Her smoky eyes, her highlighted cheeks, her shapely lips, her glossy curls. She bears the soft swell of breasts and hips that Will sometimes envies but sometimes doesn’t, caught between the two sides of himself, neither able to agree on which he is.

He knows her. She has always been with him.

“Pay attention,” she says, but her mouth doesn’t move. She leans forward, elbows on her knees, and the shins of her jeans are cut up and soaked in blood. When he looks down, his wounds are the same. When he looks up again, there are cuts on her face, on her hands, the same as him.

“To what?” Will asks. He’s not sure if his voice comes out at all or if he only thinks it, but she understands. He knows she does.

“We know him. He knows us. He’s coming,” she says. Her lips part. Inside her mouth, she has fangs. She smiles. “Pay attention.”

Will’s heart speeds, beating like a bird’s wings in his throat. He knows who she means. He knows better than to ask sense of a dream, but he must. He must. “How much time do I have?”

She stands. Her manicured fingers twist and crack and grow claws, smooth and sharp as false nails. She is a creature, a wolf wearing human skin. Her lashes are thick and black around her eyes; her pupils are slitted, glowing red.

She is Will, idealized.

Wilhelmina lunges. Her teeth sink into Will’s throat with the sweetness of a lover and the vicious force of a killer. Her hands brush gently over his skin, echoing all the places Hannibal touched. Her claws find Will’s hairline and begin to cut, to peel his face away and expose the skull beneath.

“None.”

“Will?”

Will howls, screams, but does not die. As she cuts him away, a creature springs forth from beneath his flesh—pitch-black limbs splitting through his skin, antlers ripping through his scalp, his curls wild and free around him like a mane. She is a wolf but he is a stag, and she has no pack, no safety, and they are an even match. He drops his head and snaps upward, goring her through the chest, her pretty blouse and tender breasts ripping apart like tissue paper, blinding him with arterial spray, but she laughs, and Will laughs, and they are two halves of the same terrible thing, triumphant—

“Will, can you hear me?”

Wilhelmina stares into his eyes. Blood drips from her mouth and paints her lips red. She ducks her chin and kisses his forehead, and he can feel her teeth against his newly-grown skin.

When she whispers, it’s with a different voice, neither his nor hers, but familiar all the same. It is her face, her mouth, but Hannibal’s eyes stare out of her skull.

His voice.

“Pay attention, Will.”

 


 

Will snaps to awareness at once, knowing he is somewhere dark but unfamiliar, a blur of sleep and fear linger heavily at the back of his mind. It’s the only observation he makes before he realizes there are hands on him, and he lashes out in a wild flux of instinct.

One hand finds a throat, closes around it. His fingers protest, ache, and Will realize that if he is threatened, he may very well die here since he’s attacked with his broken arm—

—he meets his attacker’s eyes, and there is no light within them. No panic. No concern. Just the flat assessment of a predator considering the merits of fighting back against prey, knowing how fully and thoroughly they will win.

“Will,” Hannibal says, and the vibration of his vocal cords shakes Will’s fragile bones. “Please release me. I’ll only ask once.”

Will relents, and the dream fades. He withdraws in an instant. He pushes himself with his feet and aching legs until his back meets the passenger door of the Bentley, creating as much space between his body and Hannibal’s as he can. Horror wells at the back of his tongue, thick and acrid, and he covers his face with his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Will whispers, and guilt chokes him. What was he about to do? What the fuck is wrong with him? “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Jesus. I’m sorry.”

Hannibal inhales and exhales audibly. His breath is steady, alive, living, no thanks to Will. “No,” Hannibal says, and Will’s heart lurches. This is it. He’s fucked it up. “No, don’t be sorry. I should have been more thoughtful. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Is he always so fucking reasonable? If it’s even possible, that makes Will feel worse.

“Will, I’m going to get out of the car now. I’m going to come around to your side and help you out. Do you understand?”

Will wants to sob. He nods, brisk and shaky, and jumps at the sound of the car door closing, then flails when the door opens behind him and his body is assaulted by cold air. He’s blurring. But Hannibal’s hands on him are solid.

“There,” he says, and one hand splays across Will’s back, steadies him as he unbuckles Will’s seatbelt. There’s a palm on his outer thigh that tugs at him, turns his body manually until Will is facing Hannibal. He’s too guilty, too ashamed to meet his eyes, so Will stares at his throat like he can see bruises forming, despite knowing he was not nearly strong enough to cause that sort of damage. But logic has no place in his mind now—only fear.

“Don’t be afraid, Will,” Hannibal says. He reaches out to touch his cheek, and Will shivers. Swallows. “What did I tell you before you fell asleep?”

Will thinks. His eyes squeeze shut. “That I’m safe with you.”

“And you are, aren’t you?”

Hannibal’s hand falls to Will’s shoulder, rubs at the juncture of his neck, and Will slumps into that sensation. Rests his cheek against Hannibal’s wrist. “Yeah.”

Will heaves a heavy sigh, feels himself tremble down to his bones, and he can’t entirely help it when he noses at Hannibal’s pulse. He feels base. He feels animal. He feels like Winston, begging for pats, and it’s so damn pathetic—

It’s like Hannibal reads his mind. He strokes Will’s bangs back from his face, touches his cheeks. Will moans softly, helplessly at how nice it feels. How good it is to be taken care of. It’s so unfamiliar but so welcome that he could cry.

He doesn’t want to cry. He just wants to be close.

“We’re at my home,” Hannibal says, and Will forces himself to focus. To open his eyes and look beyond Hannibal, to take in the sight of the driveway and the yard beyond. The freestanding brownstone home looming above them. Hannibal’s eyes scan Will’s face, linger until Will meets them. Whatever it is that he sees, it gives him pause. “Will, if you’d like me to drive you to your house, I can—”

“No, please,” Will replies. No, he can’t be alone. He can’t. The dreams will make a monster out of the kind person that he knows, and he needs reality to ground him. He needs Hannibal near. “Please.”

Hannibal tsks quietly, tilts his head and surveys Will. “You know I always welcome your company. I have no desire to send you away, I only want to be sure that you’re comfortable.”

“No, I want to be with you.” Will wants to scream as soon as he says it, can’t believe he’s said something so damningly desperate. Hopes that Hannibal doesn’t think he’s immature, too young, too needy, decides to call this whole thing quits while he’s ahead. Will wouldn’t even blame him for it. It’s no secret that he’s a headcase. That was the first thing Hannibal learned about him.

But Hannibal smiles. There are faint lines around his eyes, and he bares his teeth in a wolfish grin. He looks pleased. Relieved. “Alright, then,” he murmurs. “Then let’s get you out of there and inside where it’s warm.”

Will’s eyes widen. There’s no sign at all that Hannibal is bothered, but his arms are bare and his only protection from the brisk November night is the thin cotton of his scrubs. “You should have said,” Will protests, hisses as his untamed hair catches on the headrest and pulls free, leans forward to stagger to his feet, but once he has, he stumbles. His shins are screaming with pain that had faded from his mind, and he whimpers at the stretch of skin. It’s too dark to know whether he’s bled through the sweatpants. There may yet be glass grit in his legs, though he’d done his best to wash them when he changed.

Damn it.

Hannibal steadies him with a concerned glance and a hand on Will’s arm, pulling away for only a moment to retrieve both his go-bag and Will’s satchel from the backseat. The car beeps as it locks, and Hannibal returns to place his hand on Will’s spine. “Are you well?”

Will shrugs for lack of a better option. His teeth are unwittingly bared, face twisted with pain he had hoped to hide. “I, uh, cut my legs up pretty badly earlier.”

Hannibal’s frown deepens as he leads Will to the door slowly, one step at a time. His expression darkens when Will gasps with the sting. “Why did you not allow yourself to be treated?”

Each step up to the door is agony. “Can’t,” he stammers through gritted teeth and faded, cracked lips, “Can’t let anyone know I was there. No records.”

Hannibal unlocks the front door, holds it open for Will with one hand, holds Will’s hand with his other. “I’m assuming you have a good reason for that, so why did you not tell me when we were at the hospital? I could have tended you then.”

“Didn’t think of it—!” Will barks out a sharp, pained laugh as he crosses the threshold, as the door closes behind them and the lights go on, as he has only a moment to take in the fucking grand foyer before the world spins, and—“Oh, holy shit, Hannibal, what—”

Will’s arms loop around his neck in desperate reflex as Hannibal scoops him into his arms, hands scrabbling for purchase against his clothing. His stomach lurches with surprise and his toes curl inside his boots in a fruitless search for level ground; his body tries to make sense of being airborne, on being completely reliant on someone else who is just as goddamn tired as he is.

“You’re going to aggravate your wounds by walking before they’re treated,” Hannibal replies, and to his credit, sounds only slightly inconvenienced by Will’s weight. Oh god, he’s so close like this, and Will can barely even process the flattering indignity of being princess-carried before they’re in motion.

He’s still wearing Hannibal’s coat. He’s in someone else’s sweatpants. His hair is a damn mess from being touched and from the absolute hell of Will’s day, caught between their bodies and tugging with each step. His cheeks are starting to grow prickly with day-end stubble, most of his makeup has faded, and he’s sure what little of it remains is probably supposedly-waterproof mascara that has smudged a thousand times over and given him racoon eyes. There’s only so many times someone can sweat and cry in a day that even the most dedicated of all-day-wear formulas can endure.

And despite all of this, Hannibal smiles indulgently at Will’s shell-shocked expression. He hitches Will up and Will scrambles to hold on and tries not to claw him too badly as he’s carried up the staircase.

“I could have made it,” Will replies. He decides firmly on being mortified at being manhandled, rather than allow any of the other more complicated emotions to arise.

“Yes, I’m sure you could have, you terribly stubborn thing,” Hannibal replies with a self-satisfied twist of his lips.

Will wants to smack him for it. He also wants to run his fingers through Hannibal’s hair. He certainly can’t have both, so he’ll settle for neither, and rests his face against Hannibal’s shoulder. He feels like a child, and yet Hannibal’s careful treatment of him makes him feel… important. Special.

“Don’t drop me,” he murmurs, and his arms tighten around Hannibal’s neck.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Hannibal carries him into a dark room, flipping the switch with a casual bump of his elbow. The walls and ceilings vault high above their heads, painted a rich and soothing blue. The lamps shine brightly, all of them similar, but not entirely the same. There is artwork hung on the walls too far away for Will to see, and a bed that is entirely too large to go unnoticed.

Will’s heart beats in his throat, and he makes a small, meek sound at the sight of the ornate mirror mounted across from the mattress. He covers it with by clearing his throat—or tries to. He’s not sure he succeeds, so he aims for an air of arch indifference instead. “Get a lot of practice carrying your girlfriends into your bedroom?”

Hannibal glances at him, eyes lit with curiosity and amusement as he heads toward the master bathroom. “I don’t make a habit of carrying people over thresholds, female or otherwise. You would be the first, my dear—and, I imagine, the last.”

So much for indifference. Will balks. Hannibal’s smile widens.

“And, of course, I only purchased this house last year, and have maintained hectic hours ever since. You’re among the first to gain entry through the front door, and certainly unrivaled here.”

Embarrassment flares like a fire beneath his skin. Try as he might to purse his lips and ignore it, the heat in his cheeks is too much to handle. Will tucks his face against Hannibal’s neck with every intent of hiding until the moment passes. It’s truly too bad that he feels Hannibal’s chuckle reverberate from his ribs through Will’s own; no matter if or when he surfaces, Hannibal is aware he’s won and that Will’s petty challenge was met, matched, and conquered.

Will swallows hard, and they cross another threshold. The bathroom is opulent: a ceramic sink set into a marble countertop with not a personal item in sight, towels layered over one another in different colors that give the impression of a hotel room, a walk-in shower easily large enough for two, and a tub inlaid to a platform that is of a size for a grown man to easily submerge himself. It’s there that Hannibal sets him down, on the edge of where porcelain meets tile.

Letting Hannibal go is an exercise in restraint when all Will wants to do is hold on. He forces a weak smile when Hannibal draws back, crouching at his side with his hand resting on Will’s thigh. Will can feel the warmth of him through the fabric like a claim, like a brand.

“I’ll have to go downstairs to retrieve my medical kit,” Hannibal says. “Will you be okay here for a moment by yourself?”

Hannibal’s thumb makes slow, soothing circles, and Will can focus on nothing else. He bites the inside of his cheek; if he shows how it’s affecting him, Hannibal may tease him for it—or worse, stop. He forces himself to nod. He can handle being alone for a few minutes.

And Hannibal stares. Stares, like he’s trying to figure out if Will is being honest, like Will’s not ready to fall apart under such a simple goddamn touch. Like Will is a mystery to be puzzled out, so much more complicated than he feels right now, instead of a kid who’s damn near ready to break open on marble tile, the not-so-pretty pieces of him laid bare for Hannibal to see.

He glances down at Will’s legs, eyes lingering on where his hand rests, and Will tries not to shuffle. When Hannibal speaks, it sounds like an apology. “It’ll be easier to treat your abrasions if I can see them properly. Normally, I’d offer you a medical gown, but in this case, a towel may have to do. I can put your sweatpants in the wash while I’m downstairs, if you’d like.”

Will’s flush spreads to the tips of his ears. “They’re not mine,” he replies. Hannibal blinks, and his eyes narrow just slightly in consideration, so Will continues, “The nurse gave them to me. Bernadette. My clothes are in my bag, and I don’t. I don’t know if they’ll get clean, so you can—” Will’s breath catches in his throat at the thought of his father’s jacket, inevitably ruined. The words feel like swallowing glass, despair and sorrow coiling around his heart. “You can throw them out.”

Hannibal’s expression flickers; his frown deepens. “I’m sure that’s not necessary. I know an exceptional cleaner. If the stains won’t come out in the wash, we’ll see if they can’t be restored professionally.”

The words hit him first. The understanding of the implications follow.

He sees Hannibal blink, then again with shock, and then his figure blurs entirely. Will’s vision swims. The simple kindness overwhelms him. He doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve Hannibal. But he nods, because he’s selfish. The tears drip from his lashes, down his cheeks, and Will tries his best to smile but it comes out twisted. He laughs, and it’s a sob.

“Thank you,” Will says, swipes at his eyes and feels deeply embarrassed by his own vulnerability, but—

—Hannibal is there. He sits beside Will in an instant, lifts Will’s legs up and over his lap so their bodies are angled together, and wraps Will in his arms. Long fingers slide into Will’s hair, curl into a strong and steady grip; and Will moans and hiccups all in one, grounded by the touch and grateful for it. He wants to lean his head back into Hannibal’s palm, press forward against Hannibal’s shoulder. The anxiety of wanting and needing both makes him temporarily frantic until Hannibal guides Will’s face to the curve of his neck, to the collar of his scrubs that has not yet dried from Will’s first crying fit in the hospital.

Fuck, he’s a mess. An absolute mess. His ship of self is capsizing, but Hannibal is his lighthouse, his beacon, his lifeline, his safe port—the only thing standing between Will drowning and a successful voyage home.

Hannibal shushes him, touches him, rubs his back and cocoons him in warmth, and Will’s fractured heart breaks open in his hands. There will be no coming back from this. There will be no undoing this. No one else will be able to emulate or replicate this moment, and Will knows he’ll accept no substitute.

No, this is it. This is his, and he needs it desperately.

“It’s alright,” Hannibal murmurs into his hair. “It’s alright, darling. Stay with me, Will.”

Will clings. Squeezes his eyes shut, feels his heart clench, and something clicks into place. He kisses the side of Hannibal’s throat with his trembling mouth and tucks his face against Hannibal’s shoulder when he feels him freeze.

It feels like the fealty of a warrior riding off to battle, the empty assurances of a reporter headed into an active war zone. It feels like the beginning of devotion and the beginning of goodbye. It feels like Will is a fucking idiot for ever thinking this could be simple. It’s not, and it never will be. But if his dreams hold any weight, if he’s going to die bloody by the Ripper’s hand, Will wants to have Hannibal near for as long as he can. He’s sure of it now.

Will’s glad his face is hidden when the cold reality sinks in. If Hannibal could see him, he’d surely know the moment Will’s voice catches on the lie. For now, he hoards every piece of affection he can in preparation for when it’s gone: the weight of Hannibal’s arms, the scent of his skin. “Where else would I go?”

How much time do I have?

None.

It was no mistake that The Hanged Man was left on his commute. For all Will’s precautions, he should have known better. He always knew the Ripper was a genius, but some naive part of him never expected to be found.

It was a message: Will has seen and been seen.

The Ripper knows who he is.

He’s coming.

 

 

Chapter Text

It takes some time for Will to calm, though Hannibal spares no thought for the length of the process. What matters more is Will’s reliance on him, his proximity, his need. By the time his quiet tears mellow into sniffles, Will is exhausted—wrapped in Hannibal’s embrace, legs draped across his lap, anchored by his body and nosing at his throat. He is sweet-natured and gentle, the rough edges of him broken off and sanded down.

He is Hannibal’s to sculpt, to mold. All it took was tragedy and kindness in equal measures.

In that regard, Hannibal has to take pride in what he has done today, despite its departure from his intended display. It has brought Will to this point, and Hannibal with him. From here, there is only forward to move. There is no turning back—and even if it were possible, Hannibal would not wish it so.

Already, he can sense their dynamic shifting. Will has stared at him with wounded reverence, worshipful hands, Joan of Arc ascending from flame among angels, honored in Heaven for her suffering upon Earth. And what a warrior Will is: emerging from a battle he needn’t have fought, but did for the good of the many. Saving lives simply because he was called to do it by the selfless demands of his heart.

What a shame for him that Hannibal is a terribly selfish man.

Will’s trembling fingers clutch at Hannibal’s neck and shoulders, a silent beg to own and love. Whether or not Will knows it for himself, he treats Hannibal like someone he wants to keep near. His tears have stopped, and he holds himself insistently close. Hannibal is more than willing to indulge him. In fact, indulging Will is a joy and a pleasure of its own.

But letting Will have his way is only going to hurt him, and quite literally so. Hannibal smooths his hands down Will’s spine; they curl around his slender hip bones, and he hides a smile when he feels Will flex into the grip, testing. Feeling. Huffing out a little sound against Hannibal’s neck, breathy and wanting. Hannibal denies him because he must, though it’s certainly no want of his own. “As reluctant as I am to leave you, I’m more reluctant to leave your wounds untended, mylimasis.”

Will nods, silent but accepting. His lips brush the underside of Hannibal’s jaw in a smooth path, over and back again. It’s a delight and indulgence both for Hannibal to allow it, and he does allow it. Enjoys it. Convinces himself that allowing Will to grow attached is advantageous, and that his growing attachment is of no concern.

But then Will asks, “What does it mean? That name you call me?”

And Hannibal thinks of lying, but he doesn’t. “Nothing so unlike what I call you in English, I suppose. Dear one, darling.”

He does not mention the most direct translation: my beloved. It seems too much to speak aloud. He has no wish to overwhelm Will when the imprecise is already damning enough, and when the precise is not… it’s simply not. Not yet.

But it could be, and the possibility is enough to make it worrisome, and enough to let it slip between his teeth.

And Will sighs, like the words are a net of spun gold instead of a fence of barbed wire. He rests his temple against Hannibal’s shoulder, and his forehead in the crook of his neck, and says, “I like the way it sounds.”

Hannibal does not say I like the way it feels, but he thinks it. Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps it is too much. But that, at least, is true. “I find myself called back to my mother tongue from time to time, though I use it much less now than I used to. There is no reason to use it in conversation anymore now that my family is gone.”

Will nuzzles at his throat, nods simply. “Where are you from?”

“Lithuania,” Hannibal answers. The memories flicker before his eyes—the forests, the acreage, the stone walls of his parents’ castle estate, echoed in images both pristine and falling to ruin. Blonde hair, amber eyes; milk teeth at the bottom of a stone bowl. He chases the scent of blood and grown men’s screams from his mind by replacing them with the scent of Will, the sound of his voice. “But many years ago. I am more apt to consider Paris my home, or Florence. Baltimore, too. I know all of them better than I remember that place.”

“I know what you mean,” Will replies. He’s silent for a moment before he continues, “When I think of where I’m from, I think of New Orleans, even though I know there were a bunch of cities before that. I guess Wolf Trap is the closest runner-up I’ve got.”

Hannibal rubs his back. Getting Will to speak is an improvement. The more he speaks now, the easier it will be later. “Have you never left the country?”

Will shakes his head. Hannibal thinks it a terrible shame. He thinks of how lovely Will would appear among the masterpieces in the Uffizi, the Louvre. He is a beauty worthy of Botticelli’s Venus, curls untamed, utterly exposed by his very nature. Though he has been successfully shielded by Hannibal’s coat, Will is no less bare in his raw emotion, his honesty.

Perhaps they will have the chance in the future, once Will overcomes his resistance to being cared for. Hannibal thinks he would rather like to be the one to expose Will to culture, to finery and refinement. If Will ends up enjoying Europe so much that he has no wish to return, well, Hannibal always imagined he might live there again someday. He can think of far less pleasant things than wandering the canals with Will at his side for the remainder of his life.

In truth, he can imagine few things more pleasant than that.

“Perhaps someday you will,” Hannibal replies. “Though if that’s to come to pass, you’ll certainly need use of your legs.” Pulling away from Will is a superhuman effort, though he allows Hannibal to go obligingly enough. It is only once Hannibal is standing and staring down at Will that he sees the idolatry in the depths of his eyes—reflecting his own.

It’s a complication. It should be unacceptable. Hannibal is allowing himself to be compromised by a pretty face and a sharp mind. And even still, he kisses Will’s forehead as he makes to leave and says, “I’ll return momentarily.” He tells himself it is a comfort to Will, but Will’s nod is already accepting and without doubt. He already knows that Hannibal will return without being reassured of such.

It seems the need to reassure comes not from Will’s desire for it, but rather from Hannibal’s desire to give it. Though not to just anyone—even inside the confines of his mind, Hannibal cannot abide the thought of treating anyone else like he treats Will.

“Okay,” Will says. “Let me just. Um.” His cheeks flush a lovely shade of pink, counterpoint to the red and raw slices on his jaw and forehead. Will ducks his head, and his curls roll forward with the movement. He clutches Hannibal’s fine wool coat like a safety blanket up until the moment he pulls it off and lays it lovingly at his side.

Will’s teeth sink into his lower lip as he hooks his thumbs into the waistband of the sweatpants. He pushes them over the curve of his hip bones before he has to adjust his weight—one is slender and pale enough to glow in the dim light. The other hip is mottled with scrapes and bruises.

Hannibal cannot decide which is more beautiful.

His fingers flex into a fist at his side. He forces himself to relax just as swiftly. “Do you want my help?”

Will swallows, audible in the quiet room. “I’m embarrassed as hell, so no, I don’t want your help. But I need it. Please.”

Better leverage assures less pain for Will. He’ll be at a better angle not to hurt him if he’s on a similar axis. Hannibal nudges Will’s legs apart with his knuckles and sinks to his knees between them, and Will looks gutted. Sweetly so—wide eyes and parted lips, the pink stain clinging stubbornly to the apples of his cheeks. Hannibal endeavors to keep his touch as professional as possible, no matter the lingering desire to feel Will tremble under his hands, though he does so without Hannibal having to try.

Hannibal’s fingers brush Will’s as they curl around the waistband, the backs of his knuckles dragging down Will’s hips and soft thighs. He pauses only for Will to lift his hips with a sound that is distinctly pained, a wince and tiny hiss that escapes between Will’s teeth. Bernadette’s sweatpants peel back and Will’s body is exposed, from the abrasions on his shins to the swath of blue lace that causes Hannibal’s mind to fall strangely, eerily silent.

The panties do little for the sake of modesty (and, Hannibal suspects, for comfort), but the aesthetic is beyond lovely. The color contrast of rich pigment against Will’s skin is striking. The bruises the lace covers on the other side are more so. Will’s body is a painting in shades of ivory and blue, purple and red; he is a classic, stunning silhouette, entirely for Hannibal’s perusal. For a moment, Hannibal considers leaning in, pressing his mouth to the bleed of purple, laying his own mark on this beautifully prepared canvas—but Will makes a soft, distressed sound at Hannibal’s rapt attention, and so he turns his focus elsewhere, to the pool of age-worn gray cotton that is snared around Will’s boots.

The afterimage lingers in his mind.

Hannibal holds one heel in his hand and unzips the leather with the other. Weeks ago, this was how their journey had begun. He could not have anticipated Will’s importance at the time, or the things he would make Hannibal want.

Hannibal keeps his eyes on his task. There is blood that has dripped down inside the leg of Will’s boot. Hannibal is unsure if it belongs to Will or to someone else entirely. There is sparse hair there, currently unshaven, but that speaks of a history of routine shaving or waxing. Hannibal removes the shoe, and one damp sock follows; he smears a drop of blood away with the pad of his thumb. “You don’t have to be embarrassed with me, Will. I prefer you speak your mind. If you’re uncomfortable, tell me so I may address the source.”

“The source is myself,” Will replies quietly, haltingly. “So there’s not much you can do about that.”

Hannibal switches to the other boot. “Are you uncomfortable with your body?”

Will’s bare foot twitches against Hannibal’s side, like he’s considering whether or not to kick. Hannibal masks a smirk; hidden under the layers of Will’s vulnerability, there’s a fighter trapped beneath his skin. Perhaps the abrasions from the accident are cutting him free.

“No. But being mostly-naked in front of strange men isn’t exactly normal for me, either.”

The jibe hits home, but not in the way that Will expects. The split-second thought of Will like this before anyone else is grating. Hannibal’s conscience is soothed knowing he’s the only one. He looks up at Will as the other shoe hits the floor, as he pulls the pants and remaining sock free; it leaves Will bare but for the ill-fitting shirt and his lace underwear. “Do you still consider us strangers?”

Will stares at him. Hannibal imagines the picture he must make—he’s certainly disheveled, exhausted, clad in scrubs instead of formalwear, and far fallen from the poised persona he shows to the world. It is not just anyone Hannibal will allow to see him kneel, let alone in blatant supplication, weary reverence. If it were going to be someone, though, of course it would be Will. In turn, he can’t imagine Will allowing himself to be reliant on Hannibal’s care and not feel the strings of fate tying them together. At least they are equally compromised.

They are nearing their event horizon. Perhaps they’ve already reached it.

The backs of Will’s calves settle in his palms. Hannibal traces slowly downward from knees to ankles. He absently kneads at one Achilles tendon while he waits for Will’s answer; he’s vindicated at the flutter of Will’s lashes, the involuntary curl of his toes.

“No,” Will says, softly reluctant like Hannibal has forced it from his diaphragm. “I don’t. You’re, um. You’re probably the only person who really understands me.”

Hannibal pauses. The admission is unexpected. Pleasant. He must test it. “You have friends.”

Will’s ducked head evolves into hunched shoulders, drained and defensive. It only brings him closer to Hannibal, though he stubbornly avoids eye contact. “They know me. I know they care about me. But you… you get me. You give me everything I need. You don’t even have to ask what it is.”

At his side, Will’s injured hand fists in Hannibal’s coat. Hannibal frowns, then reaches up to gently pry Will’s fingers from it, to tangle them with his own. Will looks at them, and then at him. He presses his lips together. They tremble. And then he laughs in a burst of wretched sound. He bends at the waist and their foreheads touch. Will’s curls brush his cheeks, and Hannibal can feel the softness of his breath. It’s strange. Intimate. Like this, Will takes up the full scope of his vision—but in this place of no importance and this moment of life changing significance, Will has always been the only thing worth looking at.

“See?” Will asks, and squeezes Hannibal’s hand with weak fingers, that same faltering grip that had closed around his throat not long before. It is testament to Hannibal’s fondness for him that Will is still alive right now. Their joined hands are pinned between their bodies, but Will holds as tight as he can; it would be so easy to break his grip, but Hannibal does not. Instead, he reciprocates.

“I see you clearly,” Hannibal replies, and Will meets his eyes at last. It feels like a victory. “Your ache, your loneliness. You don’t have to be alone if you don’t want to be. You said yourself there’s little difference between pretending and true feeling. I know the lines have blurred for me—and I know that fact is no secret to you. I don’t enjoy your suffering, Will. I can help you, if you ask me to.”

Despite their closeness, Hannibal cannot feel Will’s warmth; his skin is chilled, body stripped down by Hannibal’s design, broken and bleeding in more way than one. And yet his eyes hold such affection, such trust. Hannibal knows that now is the moment. This is when Will must decide their path forward, and he must choose it himself. Hannibal would rather not do this now, or here, but the moment has undeniably presented itself. They must see it through to the end.

Will closes his eyes. He noses at Hannibal’s temple, rests his face there and sighs with what sounds like longing. His lashes are wet, stuck together; there are dark rings under his eyes, smudged and faded mascara. “We’re so different.”

Agreement and dark amusement settle in Hannibal’s chest. It’s smothered by something else entirely, something unfamiliar, but undeniably fond. “In some ways, yes. In others, I think us remarkably similar.”

Will takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Rubs his cheek against Hannibal’s hair. In this state, he is reduced to base instinct, an animal seeking comfort, reassurance. Hannibal wants to give it to him, so he does.

He reaches up with his free hand, slips around the nape of Will’s neck and gently squeezes. It’s a primal gesture—one for mothers protecting their cubs, for a predator claiming their mate.

Will’s eyes fly open, vulnerable and startled. The tremulous whine that bursts from his chest is damning for them both.

The first time they kissed had been ill-fated flirtation.

This is something else.

Desire calls them together; their mouths meet in the middle. Kissing Will is a new kind of consumption, feeding Hannibal’s desire in a way he is keen to explore. It is seduction of a softer sort, imploring in its intensity. It is reciprocation, satiation. Will’s lips part with a gasp that Hannibal swallows, tracking it back to the source behind Will’s teeth. His fingers quiver as they push into Hannibal’s hair, trailing cracked nails gently over his scalp.

Hannibal pushes forward and pale thighs fall open, tightening around his ribs; Will tucks his calves against Hannibal’s sides to draw him closer, despite the pain he must feel at the attempt. He catches Will’s cracked lip between his teeth, and it’s a fascinating accident when the skin splits. Blood blooms hot and metallic against his tongue, the flavor amplified by the knowledge of its source. It smears between their lips, and when Hannibal cracks his eyes open, Will’s mouth is tinted red, made dark and rich by the shadow his hair creates across their faces.

Will must sense his gaze. When his eyes open, they are dark as stormy seas, his pupils an abyss of black, fixed on Hannibal’s face with single-minded intensity. He is a banshee, a siren, some beautiful and terrible creature. Hannibal can imagine the blood on his mouth not as his own, but from a conquest they share. In his mind’s eye, he can see Will’s teeth sinking into a fresh kill—consuming the hearts Hannibal would give him readily, if only Will knew he could ask.

Will licks the blood from his mouth. His chest heaves as he breathes, and Hannibal can see the gleam of it on his teeth. The sight is singularly erotic. He’s drawn forward with the desire to taste again; Will nuzzles him in open affection and Hannibal turns into it, cups Will’s cheek and dips his tongue between the seam of his lips, to lap and tease until they come together again. Will’s voice trembles, shaking with a moan as Hannibal presses at the joint of his jaw. He pries Will open and takes what he wants, sucks sin and sweetness from Will’s tongue, tastes the flavor of life and death from the chalice of his mouth, spilling into him from above.

When they part, Hannibal knows.

Will’s lips are pink and slick, blood sluggishly welling from that open split, lapped away before it can drip down his chin. He touches Hannibal’s face with shaking fingers, and Hannibal allows it—feels the chill of his fingertips as they brush the bridge of his nose, slide down his cheek, touch his mouth. Will’s thumb slips inside and touches the sharp points of his teeth. The sensation is so strange, so intimate, that though the instinct will always be to bite, he doesn’t. Will touches his molars, his canines, unknowing of the things that have passed between them.

In this moment, Hannibal wants to tell him. He wants to confess all, but it’s much too soon. He wants to take the twisted vision of the Ripper inside Will’s head and correct it, iron the creases from this disaster of a day. He wants to place this moment in a gilded frame and hang it among masterpieces.

The pad of Will’s thumb lays heavy against his tongue, and Hannibal laps around it; closes his lips around the first knuckle, tilts his head and kisses the side of the joint. Will’s pupils fatten. His lips part in sympathetic response. He slips the digit into the soft innards of Hannibal’s cheek. The ridge of his fingernail is a sweet sting against the supple skin.

The symbolism is not lost on him: Hannibal is hooked. He knows it. Will knows it. What remains is what Will plans to do about it, and what Hannibal will make of that decision.

Will’s thumb slips out. He paints Hannibal’s lips with the moisture accrued there. The sounds of their labored breathing echo off the tile. Will stares.

Hannibal wonders if he sees his creation and thinks it good.

He must, because Will bends again and holds Hannibal’s cheek in his palm and presses their lips together, slow as seduction, sensual as sorrow, and he does it over, over, over and again. He sups of Hannibal’s affection and attention. When Hannibal strokes his fingers through Will’s tangled curls, he’s rewarded with a boneless sigh.

Will touches their foreheads together again, and Hannibal stares up into the blue of an endless sky. If only for a moment, he holds his breath.

“I want this,” Will says. “I want you. I want us.

Hannibal’s exhale is soft, shuddering. Then this has not been for nothing—the foundations of a bridge between lives has been built, and all that remains is the construction, the transformation. It seems that Will received his message, writ upon the body of a man whose very presence enacted death.

Perhaps God rewards the wicked, after all. Order is birthed from chaos, and this is their beginning.

Hannibal smiles. “Then I am yours.”

Slowly at first, and then brighter than the sun, Will smiles back.


 

iruutciv commission 


 

The soiled clothes are put in the wash, and Hannibal gathers his medical kit. He cleans the glass from Will’s wounds with gentle hands and Will’s heavy gaze upon him, but leaves him to shower before he bandages them. In the meantime, his mind races. He cooks.

He slices thin steaks from the remnants of the pharmaceutical representative’s heart (a discourteous man who not only interrupted one of Hannibal’s rare opportunities to visit the symphony with his ringing phone, but also the terrible manners to answer it), crusts them in flour and herbs and pan-fries them. He sets them in a foil-covered plate inside the warming drawer, then halves a modest serving of fingerling potatoes. He roasts them in the same cast iron skillet, tossed with lemon and parsley and melted butter, then puts the pan into the oven to crisp. It’s not his usual fine fare, but it’ll do—the flavors will be agreeable for Hannibal, and with any luck, the casual presentation will be comforting to Will.

Hannibal washes the utensils, the chef’s knife, the cutting board. The white noise of the shower carries on overhead. It’s certainly been twenty minutes or more, but the hot water will last; Hannibal is more concerned that Will may regress into shock if left alone with his thoughts for too long. If he takes much more time, Hannibal will have to check on him—though he’s reluctant to interrupt, lest he violate Will’s sense of privacy.

A sound interrupts his thoughts. Hannibal frowns at the electronic beep before he catches sight of Will’s bag on the corner chair. He’d nearly forgotten he’d put it there.

Ping!

Hannibal frowns. Another?

Ping! Ping! Ping!

His curiosity gets the better of him. Will’s phone is tucked into a front pocket under the flap of the messenger bag. The screen is badly fractured, rough in some places. It is also, however, dormant: not the source of the noises Hannibal is hearing even still.

He digs deeper, into the cavity—and there, a shining beacon glows through the lining of the bag. A concealed zipper pocket, and within it is the culprit. It’s a second phone: sleek, silver, anonymous. The screen is filled from top to bottom with push notifications from the email app. All boast the same tagline:

[Abnormal Analysis] Comment on: Incident I-495

In some portion of his mind, Will having more than one mobile device makes sense. He suspects the first device is for Will’s personal use. The second mobile is likely for his sources and journalism projects. But the uncomfortable reality remains that Hannibal was unaware of it, and unaware that Will has, apparently, already written and posted an article about his experiences.

Another realization grows, more unsettling than the first: Will has shared what he’s seen with strangers before he’s confided in Hannibal.

Hannibal swipes across the glass, urgent interest in his mind and a strange, cold feeling in his chest. His lip curls into a snarl when it pulls up a lock screen requiring a passcode. His hand clenches. He inhales deeply and bites the inside of his cheek to find calm within pain.

He doesn’t know enough about Will to even guess at the code.

Irritated, Hannibal switches the phone to silent and puts the mobile back where he found it. Will needn’t know that he’s aware of it, especially if it will give Hannibal the opportunity to survey it at a later date. He’ll be seeing much more of Will from now on, after all—beguiling creature that he is, and all his mysteries.

For the moment, one remains: he must know what Will has written.

Overhead, the water turns off. He is out of time.

Hannibal exhales through his nose. There will be ample time to read Will’s assessment once he’s fallen asleep, and Hannibal knows that given the events of the day, Will is close to collapse. He’s not far from it himself, but he can be patient.

Upstairs, Hannibal’s medical kit waits in his bedroom, backpack-style with multiple zippered layers filled with everything from Neosporin to sterile suture kits. Treating Will’s abrasions should not take long, but it may not be pleasant. He frowns faintly, until an idea strikes. He smiles. Hannibal goes to the beverage cabinet and extracts a glass and a decanter, pouring a generous measure of whiskey. At worst, the alcohol will dull Will’s pain. At best, on an empty stomach, it may loosen his tongue.

One way or another, he will have answers. By the end of the night, he will know Will’s thoughts, his feelings, the truth of what he has seen. Perhaps Hannibal can gently dissuade his misconceptions, open his mind to alternatives. The Chesapeake Ripper is a killer, not a mass-murderer. Hannibal has no interest in domestic terrorism or public panic. He can only hope that Will is amenable to the suggestion of such.

Will is prideful, after all. And Hannibal would so hate to embarrass his new paramour by proving him wrong.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The sound of the water fills Will’s ears. Everything before the accident now feels so far away that it seems like a different day entirely. Though by now, maybe it is.

Just this morning he’d been in the shower and thought about Hannibal without any other care in the world. And now, here he is, in Hannibal’s shower, bleeding from the knees to his ankles. Will’s hair is plastered in thick curls to his neck, his shoulders, tangling around him in such a way that he feels like he’s choking. The pressure of the water bearing down on him feels like drowning. Lemongrass shampoo sinks into the drain, stinging the crushed glass cuts on Will’s shins. The suds follow a wave of blood.

Will’s only saving grace is that the soap smells like Hannibal. It keeps him grounded. Keeps him present, when he himself feels ready to dissolve like spun sugar, fragile and impermanent. Already, his makeup has melted, washed away and left him exposed. Will feels like he might go with it.

When did he get here? How did he get here?

Where is he, again?

Will scratches at his own skin; dirt and grime cakes underneath in crescent slices of grayish-blue. He scrubs at his broken nails, and when that’s gone dry blood remains, too deep to be scoured away. Will is stained by the lives of Abby, Clarice, the many nameless others he’d pulled from the wreck before he’d kept going. Perhaps the color red will never truly lift from his skin.

There is a photo negative impression on the inside of Will’s eyelids in the shape of The Hanged Man. It, like Hannibal, is the only thing that brings him comfort.

Will opens his mouth and water streams in. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, and winces when he realizes they, too, are scraped—laughs and inhales water, coughs until he nearly falls to his knees. He catches himself on the shower knob and knocks it to the side, and suddenly he’s standing beneath an arctic deluge. In seconds, he’s chilled to the bone.

He wants to cry. He cannot erase what he’s seen. He can’t eliminate the chaos that he now knows to be the natural order of life. There is no mercy. There is no sense. There is only death and cruelty, blood and fire. Good people make better kindling.

The Ripper knows this. The Ripper has always known this. And in the wake of a truly random universe, Will knows with certainty that the Chesapeake Ripper’s victims were chosen for a reason, whatever it may be. Will may yet be blind to it, but he’ll see it someday. And when he does, he’ll understand the Ripper to the depths of his soul.

Will needs that. He needs to understand.

And in the meantime, he needs Hannibal. The sense he brings, the kindness, the compassion. The soft touches, the shrewd words. Hannibal’s practicality is a plaster cast for a broken world, surgical pins holding together the pieces of Will’s fractured heart.

Will needs him. Miraculously, Hannibal wants him in return.

He stands there, naked and shivering, and for a moment he allows feeling sorry for himself. Then he takes that feeling and burns it out; turns the water to scalding until his skin is beet red, until his wounds scream in protest. Until Will’s teeth are bared, gritted with endurance, and what was once pleasant heat now feels like an excruciating test of hale heart.

He can withstand. He can maintain equilibrium, a stasis of normalcy, a mask of indifference—

—but it is so. Fucking. Hard.

Will conditions his hair simply by force of habit. When he rinses it out and his fingers slip through the strands, he flashes back to the feeling of blood. It is nearly incomprehensible that his hands are clean, unbelievable that he is here. He is safe.

He turns the water off and stands still. Water drips from his body, his limbs, his hair. When he finally moves, he feels leaden—squeezes the excess moisture from his roots with weak fingers, works his way to the ends, and by the end he is still sodden. The shower door slides open beneath his fingers; there’s only one towel, but Will wraps himself in it bodily. It’s large enough to encompass him from chest to thighs, and it’s warm enough to feel like an embrace.

The realization hits him all at once: he has nothing else to wear. No outerwear that belongs to him that isn’t ruined, and he’s reluctant to put his undergarments back on given that he’s worn them all day, and the nature of the day he’s had. If it weren’t for the embarrassment, he might’ve asked Hannibal to wash them; perhaps he’ll be able to make use of the laundry units himself. The only thing he has left is the splint waiting on the bathroom counter, and even that was given to him.

When Will looks down, he realizes his wounds are still seeping. He’s dripping blood and water on the floor. All he can hear is the sound of the drip, drip, drip, drip, and he watches the red and the clear fade together into pink, until his footprints are the color of his favorite lipgloss, until the tile is discolored and he is Moses and the river around him is changing, becoming—

He’s not sure how long he stands there. Will only knows when the knock comes, and he is snapped out of his reverie.

“I—” His voice breaks. He is disjointed, confused. “I’m not—”

“Will?” Hannibal says softly, and his voice is a beacon, shining and bright. “Are you well?”

“I don’t—know,” Will says. Everything feels fuzzy, indistinct. Impermanent.

“May I come in?”

No. “Yes,” Will says, because he has to. This is Hannibal’s home. Hannibal has cared for him so well.

The door creaks open. Hannibal looks wary; his medic bag is slung over his shoulder, and there is a glass of something amber in his hand. When his eyes find Will, standing sodden and bleeding in his towel, he blinks slowly. He sighs, though not in anything like disappointment—rather, in sympathy. Compassion.

The med bag hits the floor. The tumbler clinks as it touches the shelf; the liquor wobbles within its vessel. Will’s eyes are still on it when Hannibal touches his face, his soaking hair.

“I left you too long,” Hannibal murmurs. “I knew I should have checked on you.”

“I’m fine,” Will says on autopilot. He knows he is not fine. “I just can’t—” He searches for the words. “I can’t.”

Hannibal touches him. Will’s mind weeps with relief, even if his eyes have not yet caught up. Hannibal guides him until Will sits atop the toilet seat, leaning sideways against the pillar of the sink; he feels for Will’s pulse with the pads of his fingers.

“Too fast,” he says softly. “Will, you’re in shock.”

“Yeah,” Will replies. Yeah, that makes sense. He probably knows that. He shivers. “I’m cold.”

“You’re nearly burned.” Hannibal’s voice is gentle but disapproving. “Will. May I get you a change of clothing?”

“Yeah.” That seems okay. Will tries so desperately to get himself to focus. He knows he’s making a fool of himself. It’s the last thing he wants when Hannibal is so… polished. “Will you stay after?”

“I will accept nothing else.”

Hannibal pets him, one hand on his cheek, the other smoothing over his wet hair, down the back of his neck. Will feels like a dog; he feels loved. Owned. Possessed. All the things he has always hated and adored. He feels like an animal. He feels like Hannibal’s.

“Can I have something that smells like you?” Will asks. The words leave his mouth before he fully thinks them through. When Hannibal’s hands freeze, reality catches up to him. Will is abruptly terribly, thoroughly mortified. “I—that was a weird thing to ask, wasn’t it?”

Hannibal’s knuckle rests under Will’s chin, gently tips his face up to meet his eyes. Will wants to avoid them but he can’t, though he cringes like—actually, he doesn’t know why. He knows Hannibal would never hit him, hurt him, but he feels like he’s done something wrong and he wants to hide from it.

Hannibal cradles his jaw in both palms, sweeps his thumbs back over Will’s cheeks, and Will’s lashes flutter in bliss. This is so much more than he could have asked for. Embarrassed or not, he wants this. Needs this.

“Not at all,” Hannibal replies. His smile is small, but his eyes are warm. “It’s said that scent is the sense linked most directly to memory and can provide comfort in times of turmoil. It’s no surprise you’re seeking out what’s familiar to you. Your mind is searching for those stepping stones back to normalcy.”

Will leans helplessly into his grip. His eyes are half-lidded, sedate. If he’s looking for comfort by instinct alone, then maybe his body’s pretty good at it. “I used your shampoo,” Will confesses.

Hannibal strokes his face again, and Will feels his muscles soften to putty. “Yes, I noticed. It suits you.” Hannibal pulls away slowly, reluctantly. The thought that he might want to stay is a comfort. “Give me just a moment.”

He goes. Will ducks his face to inhale the scent of the linen—no detergent smell. Will always gets the cheap stuff for home. Maybe he’ll change that once Analysis’ advertising snag is cleared up. In the meantime, Will wipes the water from his face, squeezes the ends of his hair in the excess length of the towel.

Hannibal returns, carrying a navy robe over one arm and a bundle of dark fabric in the other. He quirks a small smile as he hands it over—black boxer-briefs, soft to the touch. “These are clean.” And with little ceremony, unfolds the robe and sweeps it around Will’s shoulders. “And this is mine.”

As promised, it smells like him. Will turns his nose into the collar and breathes. He feels surrounded. Encompassed. Safe. “Thank you,” he whispers. “I’m sorry you got more than you bargained for with me.”

“Never apologize for that,” Hannibal says. “Your presence in my life is new and unexpected, not something to be sorry for. Far from it, Will.” He places his hand atop the crown Will’s head, lets it drift down over his temple, his ear, his throat. Hannibal smiles. “I’ll be just outside while you get changed. Then I’ll bandage your legs, and we can talk.”

Will feels a muscle in his temple twitch. Hannibal’s eyes flicker; maybe he notices. But anxiety is a heavy burden to bear, and it’s creeping up Will’s throat. He’s not ready to define what this is, he only knows what he wants, and he wants Hannibal, and other than that—“Now?”

Hannibal inclines his head. “Talking about what you’ve seen can prevent the onset of post-traumatic stress. I’d like to help you however I can.”

“The accident,” Will realizes, and his shoulders slump with sweet relief. He nods. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Good.” But Hannibal doesn’t retreat. Instead, his knuckles brush the side of Will’s neck, gently feeling again for his pulse. It feels so intimate. Nice. Will has never enjoyed being touched before Hannibal came along. Now it feels natural; he wants it all the time. “Nothing else needs to be defined tonight, mylimasis. There’s no need for us to rush. I’m in no hurry.”

He always knows what to say. Will rests his jaw on Hannibal’s wrist, gazes up at him in soft contemplation. A new sense of peace settles behind his ribs, and pleasant, calming warmth within his belly. Hannibal blinks, serene and slow, and bends at the waist to touch his lips to Will’s.

It is belonging, acceptance.

Oh, he’s so fucked.

“Let me know when you’re ready,” Hannibal murmurs, and as he withdraws, the tip of his nose touches Will’s in an affectionate nuzzle. Before Will can process, the bathroom door clicks closed, and he is left wondering how someone with their life so put together could possibly want him, even when he’s dripping blood and water in pink puddles on the floor.

 


 

He feels better once his curls are no longer dripping down his neck, when the towel is hung over the shower door. Will smooths just a little bit of conditioner through the ends of his hair before he puts it up. Hopefully that will calm the worst of the frizz in the absence of his usual leave-in formula. Will wipes his hands on the towel and puts the splint back on. When the velcro straps are secured, some of his ache abates. He feels a little more centered.

The boxer briefs aren’t Will’s normal fare and haven’t been since before high school, but they’re comfortable; Hannibal’s robe is oversized and heavy, obscenely soft against his skin. Will belts it around the waist, and when he catches sight of the silhouette of his body in the mirror, he double-takes. He looks…

Exhausted. There are circles under his eyes without his concealer to mask them. His face looks more broad without the familiar shape of his contour, and his skin is patchy from the residual heat of the shower. There are a few faint, stinging slices—one on his forehead, another along his cheek. Neither bleed actively, but both are obviously there. His hair is lumpy on top since he used his fingers instead of using a fine-toothed comb. There is the faintest shadow of stubble along his jaw. The usual markers of masculinity that he works so hard to hide are showing through.

Hannibal has never seen Will like this before. Not really. Even in the hospital the very first time, Will was shielded by his clothing, his pretty underwear, the stubborn remnants of his eyeliner and mascara that didn’t wash away with an alcohol wipe. Hannibal didn’t know him, so it was easier for Will to hide between sharp words and the fort that had so effortlessly sprung from his mind.

Now, Will is laid bare. He is known. He’s not at his best and he knows it. Hannibal knows it, too.

Will looks down at the countertop, at the waiting glass of liquor. There’s only the one, so Hannibal surely doesn’t mean to get drunk with him. More likely, it’s a peace offering, and the most ancient of anesthetics. God, but his legs really do hurt.

Will scoops it up in his injured hand and inhales the scent of whiskey with a satisfied murmur. When he sips it, there is no burn—it slides smoothly down his throat, warm and smoky. It’s good. Ridiculously good. Expensive, definitely. Of course it is.

He fortifies himself. Then he opens the bathroom door.

Hannibal waits outside, arms casually folded behind his back, surveying one of the many paintings mounted along the walls, and Will realizes he has changed clothes—form fitting black pants, and a black button-down to match, the sleeves rolled around his forearms, and the top two clasps undone. He turns when he hears Will, and in the dim light, the movement of his body is leonine. His eyes gleam, rich and dark like merlot, and when they fall on Will, he is sure he’s being measured in some way. Likely, Hannibal is taking in all the differences of Will’s change. “How do you feel?”

“Um,” Will says. Naked. “Exposed.”

Hannibal nods. His bangs brush his forehead, fall into his face, and if this is Hannibal when he’s in casual clothing and drained beyond measure, then he’s even more out of Will’s league than previously anticipated.

Will licks his lips. Hannibal’s eyes follow the movement. “I see you found the whiskey. I thought it might help.”

Will glances down at the glass in his hand and resists the urge to flush. “Hope you don’t lose your medical license for giving it to me.”

Hannibal’s lips quirk. The light in his gaze is sharp, and he approaches—prowls, and Will’s heart is in his throat. “Only if you tell.”

Will holds out his uninjured hand, palm up; Hannibal takes it and guides Will back toward the bathroom. Will sits on the unused edge of the tub again. He’s made a damn mess of the floor, but it’s too late to fix that now without a mop. Hannibal, to his credit, seems to have no compunctions about kneeling in the mess as he unzips his medical bag.

“If I get you in trouble, neither of us is any good to the other,” Will replies, only half-joking.

Hannibal pauses. He looks up. “Unless we simply enjoy each other, without the need for usefulness.”

Will smiles faintly. They’re certainly moving beyond the original terms of their arrangement, but he can’t say he’s disappointed. He takes another sip of whiskey and rolls it around his tongue. Hannibal watches the motion of his jaw before he sets back to his task. He unearths disinfectant on a non-stick gauze pad and swipes at the wounds in light, short strokes.

Will hisses through his teeth. “Ah—alcohol aside, we’ll violate ethical boundaries if we keep this up. Patients, sources. It’s a big damn mess, we both know that.”

Hannibal smirks to himself. He doesn’t look away from his task as he opens a packet of neosporin and starts to dab it on the worst of the cuts with a sterile swab. “If you plan on becoming my patient, you’ll have some time to wait before I’m in practice. Then I suppose we can start worrying about it.” Will huffs. Whimpers, and cringes away; Hannibal catches his ankle and holds him still, though not tight enough to hurt any more than the ointment does on its own. “Steady, darling, I’m almost done.”

The pet name grips Will’s heart, squeezes until he very nearly cannot breathe. He distracts himself, because the alternative is melting into one of the puddles he’s left behind. Another sip, another faint buzz. “You’re still my source. Supposedly.”

Hannibal places the swab aside and unearths a roll of gauze. “Supposedly, yes. And I will continue to give you whatever information you require, and provide you the opportunity to find what answers I do not have. That won’t change for us.”

“Then what will change?” Will asks.

Hannibal works diligently. He sprays the abrasions with something that stings, but then starts to numb. He unwraps a non-stick pad and places it against the wound to absorb seepage, then starts at Will’s knee and coils the roll of gauze around it, not too tight. “Not much, I imagine. Only that I will be there whenever you need or want me, and we may spend time together whenever we wish. I can still cook for you, and every so often turn up to embarrass you in front of your classmates.”

“You’re the least embarrassing thing about my life,” Will admits. He smiles sadly to himself, and perhaps takes a larger sip than he should. The liquor is hot as it slides down his throat, settles heavily in his belly. He’s starting to feel it. “But I might be the most embarrassing part of yours.”

Hannibal clips the gauze in place with two metal fasteners around Will’s ankle. He looks up at Will steadily from his place on the floor, and there is an intensity to his face that Will can’t quite name. “Do I seem embarrassed to you? Have I ever?”

Will swallows around nothing. There is little alcohol left in the glass, but he takes another quick sip. He fidgets defensively. “…no.”

“And I never shall,” he replies firmly. He starts on the other leg. “You’ve never seemed insecure of yourself to me, Will. Why would you assume I would be insecure of you?”

Will wants to reach out and touch Hannibal’s hair. He barely resists, and tightens his hand around the glass, then bites the inside of his cheek instead. He barely feels it. “Most people don’t know how to categorize me. One on one is fine, but we get into a group, and suddenly there’s all these… hesitations. They don’t know what to call me.”

“You defy categorization. That’s not a bad thing.” The gauze makes a quiet swishing noise as it coils around and down, down, down. “It’s one of the many things I like about you. If I must call you something, I believe I’ll start with your name. Unless you have any protests.”

Will doesn’t. He licks his lips again and ducks his head and everything starts to spill inside him. Words swim before his eyes and fade to black. Defying categorization is the least of his problems. Obliterating expectations is closer to the truth.

He wonders how many furious comments are waiting for him. He wonders how many death threats, and from people who weren’t even there.

Will’s hands clench in his lap. He doesn’t realize he’s gone silent until Hannibal taps his leg—he’s already done wrapping. Will’s wounds are dressed and complete, the bag is zipped, and Hannibal is looking up at him expectantly. Perhaps Will’s eyes are empty, lost as he feels, because Hannibal’s narrow with resolve. He stands and holds his hands out to Will.

Will takes them. He stands, and the world tips sideways; his head rushes, his limbs buzz, and he has grossly underestimated the amount of force it would take to keep him upright. Hannibal catches him around the waist, and the glass as it tips sideways in Will’s hand.

“I’m okay,” Will says, but he’s not. He sways in Hannibal’s arms like The Hanged Man had gently swung from the overpass, a pendulum in motion denoting the flow of time. Will knows he can reverse that flow if he should feel so inclined to watch it again.

He doesn’t want to watch it again, and yet it feels like he can do nothing but.

“Lean against me,” Hannibal murmurs, and his arm is a warm and weighty vise around Will’s body.

Will knows he’s an idiot. He drank too fast, and he’s hurt and he hasn’t eaten anything, and though the whiskey tasted nice in the moment, his body has soaked up the alcohol like water. He is distracted by the lightness of Hannibal’s shirt and his radiant heat from beneath it. He feels so nice, so present, so solid. He is comfort personified.

And if Will defies categorization, then, “You defy… everything I know,” Will says slowly, enunciating each syllable carefully. His tongue feels weighted and clumsy in his mouth. In this moment, it is so desperately important to him that Hannibal is aware. He touches his lips to Hannibal’s shoulder and absorbs the feeling of being wanted and cared for. “Thank you.”

Hannibal’s hands are calm, authoritative, possessive, warm and wide on Will’s back as he touches him. “I’m glad you allowed me to bring you here,” Hannibal says. He swallows, and Will feels it. “When patients started arriving, I feared for your safety. Your life. Having you within reach is a comfort to me.”

“I didn’t even think,” Will mumbles. “I just drove right to where you were.”

Hannibal exhales gently, and his lips brush Will’s temple. The stillness stretches between them, until the quiet peace of it passes. “I’ve made food, if you think you can make it downstairs. Normally I insist upon eating in the dining room, but I think the study will suit us best tonight.”

“Sounds good,” Will says, and does not move. He lingers for so long that Hannibal chuckles.

“You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten,” Hannibal says. “Come on, Will. Can you walk?”

“I can manage.”

His legs are mostly numb and certainly unsteady, but lack the agony of movement now that the crushed glass has been removed. Hannibal’s arm remains around Will’s waist as he draws back, and when he walks, Hannibal moves with him. It’s not so bad once he gets going, and they make it to the stairs and slowly downward without incident.

“Smells delicious,” Will says as the scent of food fills his nose, the richness of meat and the citrusy tang of lemon, the earthy smell of potatoes.

“You’ll have to forgive the simplicity,” Hannibal replies, though his voice is tinged with pleased pride. “My only thought was for ease and time. I’ll make you something more interesting the next time you visit.”

Will is so damn hungry that he’d probably eat a microwaveable meal and not complain. Will tips his head to the side and bumps Hannibal’s shoulder as he’s led onward. “If it tastes s’good as it smells, you’re already forgiven.”

The study looks like something out of a home living magazine. A well-organized desk, a full but unlit hearth, plush chairs, a couch and cushions in varying shades of sage, an elegantly modern coffee table. The whole room is green and dark wood, jewel tones and tasteful texture. Hannibal’s home is beautiful, and intimidating in its perfection. Meanwhile, Will is hardly standing on his own feet, wrapped in gauze and wearing Hannibal’s bathrobe, his hair piled in a damp bun atop his head. Perhaps on a normal day, he could have pretended he belonged. Now it seems so obvious that he is out of place.

Hannibal helps him lie across the couch, then crouches to light the fireplace—oh, it’s gas, but fortunately that means the fire is alive and well in moments, and Will is immediately soothed by the sound and ambient heat.

“Should I call this take three ?” Hannibal asks with a faint upward tilt of his lips.

Will leans his head back against the cushioned arm and offers a tired, tipsy smile of his own. “Third time’s a charm.”

Hannibal stands still for a moment. His eyes intently flicker the length of Will’s body, his casual sprawl. Backlit by the fire an clothed in all black, he looks fiercely handsome. Will wishes absently that this were any other time, any other night. That he could have this when he feels whole and prepared, when he could feel emboldened by the intensity of Hannibal’s gaze, and act upon it accordingly.

Perhaps someday he will have this chance again. But tonight, Will stares up at him, and all he can manage is what he is.

“I’ll be right back,” Hannibal says, and Will is left alone.

He sighs quietly, and with the beginnings of a headache that could be injury or faint drunkenness or dehydration, Will pulls the hair tie from his curls. He combs through them with his fingers and shifts in place to get more comfortable, lets his hair drape over the arm of the couch.

He squeezes his eyes shut at the memory of blonde hair and a fleshless skull.

Each peaceful moment is reclaimed by horror, it seems. Will covers his eyes with his hands and tries to reconstruct this room in his mind, commit its details and extravagances to his memory as a distraction. But as the patterned carpet covers the floor of his mind, it is laid over asphalt; upon it are not chairs, but overturned cars. The scent of the hearth fire and food is replaced by blood and oil. And when he opens his eyes—

Will jerks violently with shock when he sees that Hannibal has re-entered the room on silent feet, carrying two plates and utensils on one arm like any practiced waiter, a glass of water in his other hand, and Will’s bag hanging from his shoulder. He frowns as Will lays a hand over his chest and tries to catch his breath, his heart thundering against his ribs. “Apologies, Will, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Not your fault,” Will whispers. He pushes himself up despite Hannibal’s furrowed brow and started protests and sets his feet on the floor, then drops his head to his knees. He takes a deep breath and surrounds himself with the room, the weight of the robe, the warmth of the fire, and Hannibal. He’s safe. He is safe. He is—

The couch dips beside him as Hannibal sits, places the plates and the glass on the table and Will’s bag at his feet, then wraps his arm around Will’s hunched shoulders. “You need to talk about it, Will.”

“I just can’t make sense of it,” Will whispers. The blood. The sirens. The screams.

“It’s common in the wake of tragedy to not be able to make sense of death,” Hannibal says. His voice is even, soothing, familiar. It is a lifeline Will desperately wants to take hold of. “It’s natural.”

“No, no, no. It’s—” Will cuts himself off. The body swings. The pendulum swings. Everything moves in reverse. The lives he’s saved crawl back inside their vehicles to die. Will’s cuts heal themselves on his palms, his face. One by one, each victory is reversed to its original state, its original horror, to what it had been when Will first walked upon it. Was he a different person this morning? Maybe he was. “This wasn’t death, Hannibal, this was chaos. I was surrounded by blood in the streets and the only—”

Will’s voice breaks. He swallows hard, laughs sharply. He can imagine comments piling up, condemnations. But does it matter? He knows what he saw. He knows what he knows. “—the only sense I found was hanging from that fucking overpass.”

Hannibal’s grip tightens. Will’s heart beats in his mouth. Tonight will be the night he gains everything he wants and then shatters it. He knows that. But he can’t lie about this. He can only bear the consequences of his truth. “It’s like he had to show me the negative so I could see the positive. Order in the chaos. The Ripper doesn’t kill senselessly, he has a purpose. This was purposeless.”

“Do you think it was his intention?” Hannibal asks quietly. His voice is carefully schooled. At least he has the decency to hide the disgust he must be feeling, but Will can’t yet find the strength to look up and see it in his eyes. “To see all those people die? Perhaps an act of God.”

Will’s head snaps up at that. He feels anger in his breast, helplessness. Righteous indignation, and he’s not sure if it is his own, or if he’s simply read it from the brushstrokes of a murderer’s masterpiece. “The Ripper’s not God, Hannibal. He’s just a man, he just—he didn’t plan for this!”

Will stammers for words, avoids Hannibal’s eyes, can feel himself start to shake. His head is fuzzy. Without the armor his makeup provides, his entire self feels strange and indistinct. He is brushing up against another outline that is not his own, but it wants to merge with him. It wants to become him, and it is bigger, smarter, stronger.  

Will is being consumed.

“I’m sure he sat back and watched the chaos with some measure of interest, but…” Will takes a deep, shivery breath, and it catches. He swipes at his eyes, keeps his gaze on his bandages instead of Hannibal. He stares down at the floor and though he sees green, he feels red.

His throat is scratchy. Will’s hand covers his trembling mouth, and he steels himself for the inevitable argument, the disgust, and closes his eyes. “The only man the Ripper meant to kill was The Hanged Man. Everyone else was an accident—or at least it was unintentional collateral damage.”

Hannibal sighs, and Will’s chest clenches with pain and cold at the disappointment. His words, at least, are a measure kinder. “How do you know?”

The words are torn from Will’s lungs before he can stop them. “Because if the Ripper cared about mass casualties, he’d have made a bomb and taken out the bridge. He’s obviously smart enough, but this is a man who makes—makes organic sculptures.” Will bares his teeth and resists the urge to snap. He has to hold himself together, despite the fraying he can feel at his edges. “The Ripper is an artist. He curates his body drops, everything from position and placement to exactly when and where they’re found. But he’s human—and what happened today was human error, nothing more or less.”

Hannibal is silent. Will presses on.

“Is he responsible? Yes. He placed the obstruction that caused the truck driver to swerve, but that is not the same thing as intent. The Ripper sees himself as fair. He chooses his victims, and I don’t know how, but it’s obviously not a type, and every scene he makes is personal, so it can’t be random. But this, today? This was random. There was no sense. There was no—” Will’s voice breaks. His lips curl in a silent snarl, aggression and rage and pain with nowhere to go. He snaps his teeth and presses his hands hard against his eyes, curls in on himself and away from the rejection he knows is coming. Away from pain. Away from death. “There was no point. That’s how I know.”

For a long time, all Will can hear is his own breathing. Then he feels Hannibal turn—

toward him. One hand on Will’s knee, the other on his back. Hannibal’s chin rests atop his head. “You have an unparalleled mind. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Will’s breath hitches with shock and surprise, a quiet dry sob. “N-no.”

Hannibal kisses his temple. The relief is so sweet that Will turns his head. He meets Hannibal’s gaze at long last, though his eyes are swimming and blurry with the start of tears. What he sees is not what he anticipated.

“Your insight amazes me,” Hannibal says, and kneads comforting circles into the tense stoop of Will’s spine. “You think beyond what you feel. You see with incredible detail. You’re objective. You would make a wonderful psychologist.”

Will hiccups. He tries to blink back the tears. “You’re not—mad?”

Hannibal’s brows raise. “Why? Everything you’ve said is plausible. Am I meant to shoot the messenger when you bring a clear view of your killer’s motivations?” Will rubs his eyes with the back of his hands; Hannibal tsks and reaches out to wipe beneath his lashes with his thumb. “You’re not responsible just because you bore witness. Great revelation can come from tragedy. When the horror of what you’ve seen has passed, it will have changed you. That’s the nature of life.”

Will’s lips tremble in a bitter smile. “I wrote the article in my car while I waited for traffic to move. When I posted it, the first comment called me a monster because I refused to denounce him. The second told me that I deserved to be hung off the overpass if I endorsed a murderer. The third threatened to do it themselves. So I…” Will’s head drops. His shoulders bow, and he collapses inward, a dying star. His heart is a void, the fear and anger bubbling. Endorse the Ripper? Endorse? Like the Ripper is some kind of fucking politician with an empty smile and shaking hands, and not a reclusive artist whose medium of choice is murder? What would Will’s opinion matter to a person like that, outside of whether he is right or wrong? But Hannibal matters. His opinion matters to Will. “I know I’m anonymous, I know I take precautions and it wouldn’t be easy to dox me, but it’s possible. But you know who I am.”

Hannibal’s face is perfect impassivity, but his hand slowly curls into a fist in the back of the robe. “You feared I would judge you as others have judged you.”

“I just had to give them another reason,” Will says with a grimace. “Like they didn’t already have enough when I understand someone like this. Now they see me defending him, but I’m not, I’m just. Clarifying—” Will cuts himself off. He sounds like he’s making excuses. How can he explain that just because he knows why doesn’t mean he supports it? But at least the Ripper’s way has reason. “It’s so much easier to keep your head down, isn’t it? To just… not look up. To let everything float on by. Wade into the quiet of the stream and let it all go. But today the water ran red, and—why? Hannibal, why did they have to look up?”

Desperation wells thick on his tongue. Will remembers frightened cries, frightened eyes. He knows for a fact those girls will haunt him to the grave. “I watched two different girls lose family today. I pulled them out and saw the corpses of their parents trapped inside their vehicles. There was no reason. It was just random, dumb fucking luck.”

“It’s the way of the universe, I’m afraid,” Hannibal replies. There is something in the tense way he speaks that seems unspeakably angry, though his hand flattens and continues on its path along Will’s back. But he is silent, still as stone, and Will is quiet, and when Hannibal continues, he knows the reason for it. “The ones who threatened you—you’re safe from them?”

Will nods. Slowly, so slowly, he leans in to Hannibal. Part of him still expects rejection, disgust, for Will’s understanding and—yes—admiration for the mind of a man that Hannibal has called his killer. In a way, maybe the Ripper is his. Will has named him. Will has known him.

Will is known in return, though to what extent, he is still uncertain.

If some asshole on the internet posts his address, the last thing Will worries about are anons showing up on his doorstep. He’s much more concerned about someone much more dangerous. That is, if the Ripper doesn’t know exactly where he lives already. Clearly he has some idea.

Oh, God. Oh, God—

His breath comes in trembling gasps. Hannibal’s fingers close around the nape of his neck and drag him close, and he can feel Hannibal murmur against his hair, “Don’t be afraid, Will—”

He’s terrified, but not of those people, but if the Ripper is going to be tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty of domestic terrorism, Will is right up next to him now. He’s no longer the star witness. In clarifying the Ripper’s intentions, he is seen as defending him. In defending him, Will’s an accomplice. And he’s socially isolated opposite a man who would gladly make an art installation of his innards.

If they find out who he is, it’s over. He will never have a successful career as a journalist. And Will knows this. Knew it when he refused admission to the hospital. In the absence of sense, he’d run into the fray and pulled people out, but now he needs to minimize. He needs to shrink his impact as small as possible and pray that no one knew him, that he can pretend he was never there, that he never got that picture, and—

—no one can ever know.

No one who doesn’t already. And that makes Bernadette and Hannibal.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Will whispers, and his fists clench in Hannibal’s shirt, anchor at his chest. “Okay? No one. I know I was an idiot. I know I pulled people out, but none of them will remember me from the chaos, or they’re too young to make a difference. But no one can know I was there today. If that article gets linked back to me, my career is dead in the water.”

Will looks up. Hannibal stares back, his eyes dark, his lips a thin, grim line.

“Promise,” Will begs. “You never break your promises, right? Promise me you won’t talk about it. Even Steven. I protect you, you protect me.”

Hannibal takes the injured hand that has clenched over his heart and gently pries it away; holds Will’s fingers in his and solemnly brings Will’s knuckles to his lips. “If that’s what you want, Will, I won’t betray your confidence.”

It’s a relief. He is relieved. But everything is building up and he feels like collapsing. He’s so damn tired. He’s ready to have a meltdown. He’d already be there if it weren’t for Hannibal. Will takes a breath, but it doesn’t help. He takes another.

“It’s going to weigh on you,” Hannibal says quietly against Will’s fingers. His eyes burn in the low light. “Living alone with death. You must make me a promise in return, and say you’ll come to me if it becomes too much, Will.”

Will nods shakily. Hannibal turns his palm over and touches his mouth to Will’s fingertips. Will can feel his pulse beating in them. He wonders if Hannibal can feel it, too.

He extracts his hand to cup Hannibal’s cheek; winces in sympathy, since the vinyl splint must scratch a little, but Hannibal doesn’t so much as grimace. When Will leans in, he is ready.  Expectant. Tips his head sideways and slots their mouths together until there is no space between them at all, until the indulgent slip of tongues redirects the sorrow away from Will’s heart. Will’s mind goes quiet and finally, finally submits when Hannibal rolls Will’s cracked lip so very gently between the sharp points of his teeth.

Hannibal’s hand slides from his back to his waist, wanders down to settle on his hip. He squeezes gently and Will winces—it’s his bruised side and it twinges; Hannibal must have forgotten, but it’s enough to pull him back with a soft gasp. “Sorry. Hurts,” he whispers.

Hannibal’s expression flickers and melts into contrition, and smooths over the area again in apology. “Forgive me, I thought it was the other one.”

“S’ok.” The sting fades quickly, but the ache lingers. Will’s brow furrows and his lips part, shiny and wet; Hannibal’s eyes stay locked on his face, and his thumb passes over Will’s hipbone in another soothing sweep. He’s focused entirely on Will, no facet of his attention reflecting anywhere else. It’s strange to be the subject of such a singular regard.

Will wants to kiss him again—wants more than he’s fully prepared to give. But fortunately for his sensibilities, his stomach rumbles, and they are both suitably distracted.

“I’m a bad guest,” Will says with one final sniffle and a small, private smile. “You made me dinner and I haven’t even tried it yet. Terrible manners.”

Hannibal seems deeply amused at that. His fingertips trail from Will’s hip to his belly in an affectionate caress, and even though the quilted robe, Will’s shivers at the touch. “I’ll forgive you so long as you promise to finish it all. You need a good meal and a full night’s rest.” His smile grows. “Doctor’s orders.”

Will snorts. Though the horrors linger inside his head, for now, his heart is light. “I could eat. I could definitely eat.”

He sits up and settles comfortably against Hannibal’s side. To Hannibal’s credit, it smells fantastic enough that Will would eat it all on a full stomach, besides. Something about steak and potatoes seems so decidedly beneath Hannibal; Will knows the menu choice was not for his benefit, but for Will’s.

Hannibal waits with a raised brow as Will slices off a strip of steak, the flour coating crunchy and the inside perfectly cooked. The flavor is rich and bursts across his tongue, and he can’t resist a helpless sound of appreciation at the taste.

Hannibal’s smile is almost unbearably smug. Will nudges him with his shoulder, chews and swallows before he replies, “Shut up. Good meal, he says. Fucking incredible meal, more like.” Will tosses him a look and a half-serious scowl. His cheeks are pleasantly warm. “You let me freak out when I could have been eating? Next time just hand it to me or something, I promise I’ll shut up a lot faster.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hannibal replies in good humor. He watches Will take another bite before he starts slicing his own. “Though comforting you is no hardship, Will. On the contrary; I consider your continued wellbeing to be a responsibility and privilege to look after.”

Will pauses in chewing. Savors. Swallows. Leans just a little bit more into Hannibal’s side, and for a second rests his head against his shoulder. Warmth burbles inside him; he doesn’t want to appear too needy, and he already knows how far outside the bounds of his usual behavior he’s gone tonight, but the thought remains: Hannibal is genuinely good for him. And the part of Will that has already laid claim inside the confines of his mind is determined to keep him.

“You too, you know,” Will murmurs. He turns his head and looks up at Hannibal, meets his eyes. “I know I’m the wreck of the day, but this goes both ways. I don’t care about how established and accomplished and strong and silent you are. You talk a big game about my needs and looking after me, but we’re both just people.” Will smiles, bittersweet but affectionate. Hannibal blinks slowly and regards him with careful consideration. “I know you must be exhausted right now. I’m falling to pieces, but you saw just as much shit on the other side of this. And if you say you’re mine, that means telling me whatever I need to know so I can take care of you.”

Hannibal stares at him. Unthreatened, unconcerned, Will stares back. His hair is trapped under his head, spilling over the shoulder of Hannibal’s black shirt. He wonders if he’ll leave a strand or two behind to be found later. Strangely, he likes the idea. Imagines someone plucking one long, brunette filament from his designer clothing and enquiring about his girlfriend. He wonders what Hannibal would say. If he’d correct them.

Will imagines he would.

Hannibal turns his head, kisses Will’s cheek in sweet, sincere fondness. “You’re a very kind person, Will.”

“I’m really not,” he replies quietly. “But I don’t have much family, and I believe in taking care of what I’ve got. If we’re in this together, you’re family.” He flushes, turns to his his face against Hannibal’s shoulder, and shivers when his nose brushes Will’s cheek. “I know it’s really soon to say that sort of stuff, but I mean it, you know.”

“Loyalty is an admirable thing. And from you, I imagine it’s not easily won.” Hannibal’s voice rumbles through his chest and into Will’s. The moment is undeniably intimate.

“Do you feel you haven’t earned it?” Will asks. He lifts his head and sits up straight—he really is hungry, and it would be such a waste to let Hannibal’s cooking get cold.

Hannibal glances at him. He takes a bite and chews it thoughtfully, and though he makes no sound, Will can tell he’s satisfied with the flavor. He looks at Will as he does, and when he swallows, he says, “I will leave that to your good judgement.”

“That’s such a politician thing to say,” Will says with a laugh. They eat in comfortable silence for a time, and the room grows warm from the fireplace. If Will had to mark one of the strangest days of his life, this would be it. Both good and bad, he has been changed forever. But one thing stands out above all else—Hannibal, and the golden thread of fate that has bound them together, that is mending the fraying seams of Will’s shape. At long last, he says, “I think you have.”

Hannibal has finished eating. He turns bodily toward Will, lifts one leg to rest across the couch. He waits patiently until Will finishes the last bite of his food, leans back against the cushions and looks over at him in turn.

He reaches out for Will’s injured hand, and so very gently curls their fingers together. Will’s heart rate speeds, but he feels peace. He knows that this is dangerous. He knows there’s a good chance this will end badly. But in this moment, Hannibal is safety, and he feels like home.

“Then I’ll do what I can to assure your trust is not in vain,” Hannibal says.

Will swallows. He nods. And he knows with certainty that though he’s not quite there yet, he’s going to fall in love with this man, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it.

“I’ll clean up,” Hannibal says, “and then we should get you to bed. Forgive me for saying so, but you look exhausted, my dear.”

Will doesn’t take offense. He knows he looks like hell warmed over. Instead, he smiles faintly. “Yeah, so do you.”

Hannibal nods in gracious acknowledgement. “It’s been quite the day.” He stands, gathers the plates and utensils, and dutifully waits while Will drains the glass of water before he takes the empty vessel. Uncertainty flutters in Will’s stomach—the worry of expectations, but before he can even mention it, Hannibal says, “I’ll prepare the guest room for you. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll be right back.”

He goes. Will is left alone with his racing pulse and his full belly and the terrible sensation of hope. He bends to lift his bag into his lap from where it had sat on the floor. His clothes are gone—as promised, Will guesses Hannibal has set about trying to treat the stains from them. His chest flutters with affection. If his father’s jacket can be saved, there’s really no price that isn’t worth paying. Will knows he’s alarmingly nostalgic, but he has precious few relics of Beau, and he’d like to keep whatever he can.

He turns on his phone, careful to avoid the cracked edges of the screen. He can repair it himself, but he’ll have to order the part. In the meantime, it’s functional; the battery is critically low, but at least gives him the time to shoot off a text to his neighbor and ask her to let Winston out in the morning. She owns a farm several miles down the road, so he knows she’ll see it before even the sun rises when she wakes to tend her own animals. He adds a note that if there’s a mess, to leave it for him to deal with. It’s his own damn fault for falling apart like this, for neglecting his duties to his poor dog, waiting alone for Will to come home.

He’s fortunate he’ll make it home at all.

He puts the phone into low power mode; he’ll plug it in when he gets upstairs. For now, he stows it. And then, with a surreptitious glance up and down again, reaches into his bag and extracts his backup mobile.

[167 Unread Messages]

Will swallows and closes his eyes. His hand shakes. He knows that more than half will be angry. He knows that they may be threatening. He knows he may very well deserve them.

Am I meant to shoot the messenger when you bring a clear view of your killer’s motivations?

Will’s eyes open.

No. Maybe he doesn’t deserve them. At the very least, he certainly doesn’t deserve them tonight.

He turns the phone off. He puts it away. He can hear the sound of running water from the sink, and really, Will has never been very good at being a guest and letting others take care of him. And if this… relationship is going to last, Hannibal is going to have to allow him to contribute however he can.

Will rises on shaky feet, slings his bag over his shoulder, and goes to help.

 


 

Will lies in darkness. He has been for close to an hour. When his phone lights up at his command, it’s the early hours of the morning, approaching three.

He knows he’ll have to go to class tomorrow—today. He knows he’ll have to pretend everything is okay when he just wants to collapse. Everything is loud and bright behind his eyes, and whenever he starts drifting, he feels like he’s falling, and startles back to wakefulness with a pounding heart.

He can’t sleep.

A thought lingers in his mind. It’s enough to make him nearly sick with anxiety. But nothing can be worse than this.

Will rises from the bed (comfortable, opulent, so different from home with no Winston to keep his feet warm) and pulls Hannibal’s robe on, brushes the flyaway curls from his bun out of his face. He leaves his belongings where they lie: his phone on the bed, his bag on the floor, his splint on the bedside table.

He takes a deep breath before he opens the guest room door and creeps down the hall. He stands still for a moment, and his worry is thick in his throat when he lightly, haltingly knocks on Hannibal’s door.

No response.

He has two choices, and one isn’t really a choice at all. He can either lie awake and in fear all night, or he can ask if he can stay and hope that Hannibal doesn’t send him away.

Will turns the handle and slowly, slowly opens it. He has only a moment to take in the darkened familiar room, the shape of a man under the blankets, the glow of the street lights outside that barely gleam through thick curtains. The door squeaks.

Hannibal is half-out of bed in a moment; eyes dark, hair mussed, locked on Will’s silhouette in the doorway, and Will startles. His back hits the door frame as fight or flight kicks in, even though he knows Hannibal, he knows him, it’s just surprise and instinct, they’ve both had a hard night—

They both freeze at the same time. Will tries to catch his breath. Fuck, this was a bad idea. He should have just stayed—

“Will,” Hannibal says, and he sounds exhausted. Drained. He heaves a sigh and rubs a hand over his face, his eyes, and slowly relaxes.

“I-I’m sorry,” Will stammers. “I knocked.”

Hannibal blinks. “Did you?” He asks, and for some reason, that seems to unsettle him. Hannibal sits upright, muscles shifting under skin, and Will realizes as the sheets pool around him that he’s shirtless, wearing only sleeping pants. He’s more fit than Will would have anticipated, a sculpted physique built for strength, thick arms and broad shoulders, defined pectorals and thick, dark chest hair.

Will’s cheeks flare hot. Finding Hannibal unclothed was not what he expected, though he’s not sure why he expected anything else. It’s Hannibal’s home, his room, he can do as he likes—

“Will?”

Will snaps back to reality. He meets Hannibal’s gaze with an anxious, guilty conscience. “I can’t sleep,” he confesses. “And I know you probably have to work tomorrow, and I have to go to class, and I’ll try not to be in the way, I was just hoping I could—”

“Will,” Hannibal says again, and Will falls silent. He stares at Will for a moment, surveys him in the dark, and then exhales. He blinks slowly, and holds out a hand. His voice is drowsy, heavy with his accent when he murmurs, “Come in, mylimasis. Close the door.”

The door clicks behind him as it closes, and Will goes; walks the floor on shaking, aching legs and takes Hannibal’s hand, pauses at the edge of the bed in the dark. His injured hand touches the knot of the bathrobe belt, and he hesitates.

Hannibal understands. Of course he does. He squeezes Will’s fingers and says, “However you will be most comfortable, Will.” Then he respectfully turns his attention to the blankets and pulls the covers back, making space for Will at his side. In his bed.

Will’s teeth sink into his cracked lip as he pulls the tie free, as the robe slips from his shoulders and down his arms and puddles around his ankles. He is bare but for the underwear Hannibal lended him, and for some reason that feels more naked than his own lace lingerie. Will’s heart is in his throat as he crawls into cool sheets and settles beside a warm body.

Will swallows. His pulse is loud in his ears, and it takes him a moment to focus when he hears Hannibal ask, “Nightmares?”

Will scoots closer, not quite enough to touch, but enough to feel his heat. They’re close. So close. Hannibal’s eyes are half-lidded but intent; the way his hair falls into his face is unfairly attractive.

“No,” Will whispers. He wants to touch, but he clenches his hands in the blankets instead. “Didn’t get that far. Kept feeling like I was falling.”

“An ancient instinct designed to keep us safe in times of stress,” he murmurs. His lips turn up in a strange, small smile. “It seems we’re both having issues with that tonight.” Will nods. Hannibal blinks, shifts in place. “I may be able to help. May I touch you?”

Will is going to explode. His voice is the barest hint of breath when he replies, “Yes.”

He shivers when Hannibal touches his waist, burning with sleep-warmth; his lungs stutter on an inhale, and he hears Hannibal sigh softly to match. “Holding you could convince your mind that you are grounded and safe. If you turn, it may be more comfortable.”

Will huffs a nervous laugh. He feels ready to vibrate out of his bones. Everything is so different in the dark, without clothing. He feels vulnerable. Perhaps more vulnerable than he ever has. “Spooning?”

Hannibal makes an amused hum, but it sounds on-edge. Perhaps he’s feeling this pull as keenly as Will. “Yes. But only if you would like to.”

Will thinks about laughing him off, of downplaying the moment. In the end, he doesn’t. This has weight. Significance. It’s something he wants and needs, and they are balanced on a knife’s edge of intimacy and desire. If he’s too rough with the fragile thread of their shared fate, it may not repair.

“Okay,” Will says, and turns over.

The bed dips as Hannibal shifts closer. Will’s breath leaves him entirely when Hannibal’s arm settles in the curve of his waist, when a broad palm spreads possessively over his belly. Their legs tangle, and the silky slide of Hannibal’s sleep pants against Will’s skin makes him shiver. Will’s ass is cradled in the slope of Hannibal’s hips, and his chest presses firmly against Will’s bare back; Will is overwhelmed by his warmth, the texture of his chest hair, the soft swell of his cock through the layers that separate skin, the thrum of his beating heart. His other hand touches Will’s hair, smooths his bun up and away before his arm slides under Will’s pillow.

Hannibal’s lips touch the nape of Will’s neck, and Will loses the ability to speak.

“Is this alright?” Hannibal asks, and Will feels the words against his spine, rumbled into his ear, and he bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from moaning.

He can’t remember the last time someone held him like this. If anyone he’s dated has ever held him like this. It’s certainly never felt like this.

Will nods. When he exhales, it sounds like a sob.

God, it’s so good. It’s so much.

Will covers the palm on his diaphragm with his own. His hand feels small in comparison; he’s never noticed before, never had only the feel of it to concentrate on. He notices now as he curls them together. He knows Hannibal can feel the breath rushing in and out of his lungs.

It takes time. Long moments to get used to the proximity, the pressure, the heat. For Will’s heart to stop screaming through his veins and stop creeping up his throat. For him to find words again.

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” Will whispers, and squeezes Hannibal’s hand. He’s exhausted. Fading. Melting into Hannibal’s arms, though he still can’t quite believe he’s there.

Hannibal trails sleepy kisses from the nape of his neck to his throat, up to the shell of his ear.

He murmurs, “I’m not.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When Hannibal awakes, he is not alone. It takes a moment to remember why that is so.

(But in the meantime, Will slumbers on, undisturbed. He will never know why, in this moment, it is momentous that he is still alive.)

Once he does, the world resumes.

Will is there. He is warm, his back a broad swath of heat against Hannibal’s chest, and his hair falls askew from the bun he had tied it back in the night before. He breathes evenly, content as one might hope to find themselves in the company of their beloved. His jaw is rough with morning stubble, and for a moment, Hannibal envisions what Will might look like if his hair were cropped closer to his ears in the echo of Endymion, rather than lovely Selene. It matters not in the end, Will simply is, and Hannibal—

Hannibal frowns. Brushes his lips back and forth across the pale, exposed crest of Will’s shoulder, and ruminates on the invasive thought that he is endeared by Will’s individuality, his daring mind, his timeless and pleasing bone structure, and the singular ability to shift shapes within his own skin. He is both ephemeral and eternal, feminine and masculine, judgemental and just—Iustitia with scales heavy in her hands, poised to strike down evil with her sword, even while she remains blind to it.

But Will’s sword is his pen, and his scale to measure the Chesapeake Ripper is weighted with public opinion. It’s terrible injustice that Justice herself is subject to it.

An infuriating injustice that Justice is threatened by it.

He will have to keep a close eye on Will. His safety. His well being. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Will is a magnet for trouble in all forms, and keeping him out of it may be a full-time job in and of itself.

Hannibal presses his face to the back of Will’s neck and inhales the scent of lemongrass soap, fresh linen, of blood pooling beneath his skin in vivid bruises. Will’s rear fits snugly against the slant of Hannibal’s hips; a lingering half-realized arousal smolders in the depth of Hannibal’s gut. The weight of Will’s body is lax, trusting in Hannibal’s arms, and there is something about Will’s presence that doesn’t feel intrusive. It doesn’t feel like competition, or like danger, nor does Will feel suffocating in his need.

Family, Will had said the night before. It’s been many years since Hannibal has even allowed himself to consider the concept as a whole. Now he finds the idea centering on a person.

If only Will knew the truth of the kinship he had found. Would his view of himself change if he knew he found comfort in the touch of a killer? Or would his opinion of the Ripper adapt to suit the kindness Hannibal is capable of?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. For the moment, Will does not know the truth.

But what if he could?

The thought is heartening—and deeply unsettling. With it in mind, Hannibal reluctantly extracts himself from the warmth Will provides and tucks the blankets into the space he leaves behind. Will stirs, but does not wake; his brow crinkles in an unconscious frown, and he makes a soft, sleepy noise of discontent, but turns and settles against Hannibal’s vacated pillow. His hair is wild around his face, curlier than Hannibal has ever seen it before. Dark circles linger under his eyes, lilac hollows and blue-veined lids, a soft fringe of lashes with mascara clinging stubbornly to the roots. His lips are pink and parted, exposing the barest glimpse of the points of his teeth.

Hannibal commits this moment to his mind: the image of Will asleep in his bed, tangled in silk sheets and heavy blankets. He blames the clinging threads of unconscious arousal when he  imagines what it might be like with a different context. If Will’s face were unblemished by glass cuts, if his neck were mottled with bite marks. If there was stubborn blood clinging under his nails from the throes of pleasure, instead of the grasp of death.

He imagines Will knowing. Knowing and wanting. The fury of his whispered words, impassioned suggestions, both in and out of their bedroom. Will, beautiful and triumphant, gleaming with blood as red as rubies, later writing the poetry of a death created by their hands. At night, convergence—gasping breaths and snarls and lust and greed, consuming and consumed. Order and disorder, twin shadows standing at the top of a food chain less known to the waking world.

They would be together in all things. Known in all ways. Joined. Bonded. Family.

Against everything Hannibal has known for most of his life, he, too, wants.

It is with that thought that he rounds the bed, scoops up his fallen robe and drapes it over Will’s slumbering form. He snags his shirt from the night before, clean enough to be passable and pulls it on. Prior to taking his leave, he lifts his tablet from its resting place on the bedside table. He lets himself out and softly closes the door behind him.

The sun is risen; it’s unlike Hannibal to wake so late, but he owes it to his unusual night. He’s gotten only slightly less sleep than normal—four hours, perhaps five. Though given the strain of the day prior, he certainly feels it. Coffee is in order. He descends to the kitchen and makes enough for two, despite knowing Will is likely to be asleep for hours yet. As he should: he’s exhausted, overwrought, healing from his trauma.

Trauma that he has given voice to, and that Hannibal is about to discover.

Hannibal sits at the head of his dining table with only his teacup and his tablet, and begins to read.

 

 

Incident I-495: This Is What Happened

I try to speak about my impressions of the Chesapeake Ripper’s killings in an impersonal sense as much as I can. I’m finding that a little hard to do today.

I saw a body hanging upside down from an overpass, posed as the major arcana tarot card The Hanged Man. He was tethered from one ankle. The other leg was crossed peacefully over his knee. His clothes seemed completely untouched by gravity. I would later realize that this, and the pose, was because they were sewn in place through the body’s flesh. And most of it was there—unlike some prior victims, this man was almost whole. The exception was a perfect hole where the heart had been cut out, and the victim’s entire face gone, polished down to the dull yellow bones of his skull, leaving the scalp attached. His hair was pale like corn silk and swayed with his body in the wind.

The Hanged Man was suspended from an overpass allowing Persimmon Road to transect the Capital Beltway, not half a mile from the Maryland state line. One hundred feet before that was a sign that I stared at for a while that said Fender Bender? Please Move Vehicles From Travel Lane. Police Assistance Call *77.

I wondered if it was a joke. I think it was. The Chesapeake Ripper was poking fun at the reaction of self-ascribed decent people. “Go ahead,” it says. “Call the cops.”

But I don’t think the Ripper was laughing after what happened today.

I’ll be the first and the last to say it: the Chesapeake Ripper didn’t intend for the 37-car pile up that caused at least a handful of people (number yet unknown) to die. I think he intended one of them to die, and that was the one he left. Everyone else will come as a surprise, and it won’t be one he’s happy about.

“But he should have expected it,” you say. “How could he not expect hanging his victim on a busy highway to have consequences? Accidents happen every day!”

My answer is: not in his world, they don’t.

The Ripper is primarily a creature of order. Everything he does has a purpose. Every detail he leaves has a place. He makes his decisions carefully, and usually weighs potential actions with the expectation of consequences. He doesn’t leave bodies haphazardly all over the road. He doesn’t deal in overturned cars and uncontrolled fires.

The Hanged Man’s body tells me the Ripper is awaiting a time of transformation. The intersection where it was left tells another message—historically, persimmons represent the passage of time to gain wisdom. He is waiting for an awakening, a new sense of enlightenment and understanding. The removed face of his victim is telling of the following major arcana card, Death, which denotes a time of change from one event into the next.The removal of the heart says something else.

Someone has caught the Ripper’s attention. Now he is waiting to see what they will do, and who they will become.

It’s a clean message. A whole and complete thought. It is art in the form of a body. Everything else underneath it was a disaster zone of artlessness. If the Ripper wanted to kill that many people, he would have done it before now. Why curate a career of single sculptures in short bursts, and then interrupt his triumphant streak with a mess? It’s sloppy. It’s beneath him. The only reasonable explanation is that the accident was not the Ripper’s design.

Major news media outlets are already condemning the Ripper as a domestic terrorist and a mass killer. I would advise them to take caution in misinterpreting his intentions. While the Ripper is absolutely a serial killer, he has carefully built a reputation and a name for himself with deliberate murder tableaus and artfully rendered displays. Destroying that reputation for the sake of sensationalist coverage may anger him and cause him to lash out. He may even extend beyond his usual cycle of three to make sure that his set is uninterrupted and properly understood.

In the meantime, I warn anyone reading this to hold their loved ones close tonight. Lives have come to an end without warning. Those lost today were good people. Old and young, parents, siblings, children. There is no karmic order to life that protects us because of good behavior. It is all you can do to live each day the best you can.

But after what I’ve seen today, if death has to come for everyone, I’d rather meet my end at the Ripper’s hand than the hand of God. At least one of them cares enough to see us die in person.

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Hannibal sets the tablet down, and fights the urge to leave it and his coffee where they rest, to go back upstairs and crawl into bed beside Will again. He doesn’t, though he’d like to.

Professional from the first word to the last; clear and direct, delightfully insightful. From the locale to the detail of the stitching, Will’s interpretation of his thoughts—

Hannibal locks the screen and watches it go black. It seems he has a lot to think about, and plans to make, starting with how best to clarify the Ripper’s intentions to Will without Hannibal revealing himself in the process.

He will only accomplish it if he can be patient.

For now, one thought remains in the back of his mind, one sense of keen pleasure interwoven with exasperation. Of course Hannibal has noticed someone. Perhaps he needs to be a bit more obvious to prove to Will the who and why.

But the Chesapeake Ripper is the public’s new Most Wanted. Any and all will be suspicious of strangers, and caution will be necessary if he’s to make it through this time undetected.

Hannibal drinks his coffee in silent contemplation. He likely has a few hours before Will wakes up, but there are things he can accomplish here at home. With that thought, he stands, gathers his tablet and his cup, and heads for the kitchen.

The foundation of their bridge bears blood in the mortar, steel cables stretched across the chasm between them like desperate, grasping fingers. If Will would prefer the Ripper’s hand to God’s, then Hannibal will certainly give it to him—will wrap his palm around Will’s bleeding heart and squeeze it back to life.

And if Will reaches back and ends up wrist-deep in Hannibal’s chest in the process… well, Hannibal can safely say that he would prefer Will’s hand to God’s, too.

 


 

Will wakes up alone in an unfamiliar place. Normally this would not be a cause for panic. However, in this instance, there are screams rattling around inside his skull, and the weight of the blankets echoes the distorted nightmare of a crushed car bearing down on him, and Will freaks.

He hits the floor hard, nearly re-breaks his arm, and only realizes once he’s on his ass that the thing entangling him is a robe, not the mangled remains of a seatbelt. His heart pounds as he pulls it over his arms, barely gets it pulled around his chest before he’s on his feet, dizzy and panting with the strain. He trips, and his shoulder hits the doorframe on the way out; his head is a mess of aches and pains more related to dehydration than last night’s drunkenness. Will’s legs are weak, and it is to his great fortune that he catches himself on the railing at the top of the stairway without falling down them—

—Hannibal stands at the bottom, staring up with a pinched look of concern, and Will’s mind starts to calm.

“Will,” he says, and slowly starts upward. He is cautious in his approach like he’s not sure he’s welcome. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. Will can’t imagine being happier to see anyone else. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Will says softly, blearily. Shit, he’s tired. He was too crazed to even realize it before. “I was just—” Scared. “—anxious. Didn’t really remember where I was, and I was alone, and...”

He cuts himself off when Hannibal meets him halfway. Will sags against the wall and the railing, careful not to lean too much weight forward, lest he lose his balance and send them both crashing to the ground floor.

Hannibal is patient, gentle as he touches Will’s face, rests a hand at the curve of his neck. “I’m sorry you woke up alone. I’ve been awake for some time, I didn’t want to disturb your rest.” His eyes are dark, affectionate, attentive. Will thinks he’d forgive just about anything when Hannibal looks at him like that. His hand drifts down to Will’s and takes it in his own. “Where’s your splint? Still upstairs?”

Will nods dumbly. Being touched feels nice.

“Well, a little time without it won’t hurt,” he says. He gently tugs, guides Will downward toward a the scent of coffee and food and that is everything right with the world. “I’d hoped you would wake soon. I made food if you’re hungry.”

“Starving,” Will admits. Upon further introspection, his whole body hurts. That’s just great. “I wouldn’t say no to caffeine and some advil, too.”

Hannibal shoots him a sidelong glance that morphs into a faint, fond smile. “I believe I can accommodate that reasonably well, though I’d prefer if we didn’t start off each morning feeding you painkillers. We shall have to endeavor to keep you whole and uninjured going forward.”

A shocked, ragged laugh is pried from between Will’s teeth. When Hannibal slows for Will to catch up, Will leans into his body with his own. His voice is exhausted, resigned when he says, “You might have to have to take that up with the Ripper.”

An odd look crosses Hannibal’s face. It’s not fear, as Will might expect from any reasonable person being told to face down a serial killer for the well being of their… maybe-boyfriend. Nor is it disgust. In truth, it’s something Will can’t categorize, which is in and of itself, extremely unusual. Then again, it’s not his best morning, either.

But then slowly, strangely, full of teeth, Hannibal smiles. “I’ll be sure to.”

 


 

Early afternoon sees Will in the hospital parking lot, the Bentley pulled up beside Will’s old Volvo. The contrast is staggering, Will thinks, as he leans his hip against the back bumper of his station wagon. The difference between them is less obvious now. Will is comfortably clothed in his own pants, one of Hannibal’s button-downs, and an oversized but painfully expensive wool coat.

I insist, Hannibal had said as he slid it onto Will’s shoulders in the entryway, tied the belt around his waist with sure fingers. Don’t ask me to send you out into the cold without anything to keep you warm. It’s just for a little while, Will. Ease my conscience.

Will yielded, of course, when faced with that concerned, affectionate gaze and strong hands smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric. The coat is beautiful, slate-gray and heavy, smells like tasteful cologne, and even standing so close to Hannibal himself, Will can’t help but to tuck his face into the collar and inhale.

His jaw has been shaved smooth, his belly is full, and though it’s not the full extent of his normal routine, Will’s touch-up makeup supply has been enough to redefine himself. He feels moderately more like a person, but only just. Lingering deep in his gut is a sense of anxiety and foreboding at leaving Hannibal that no under-eye concealer could ever truly erase. Will worries at his lip with his teeth; Hannibal leans against the back of Will’s car, close enough for Will to touch, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t, and he’s already in withdrawal.

“I’ll be here if you need me,” Hannibal says, and allows Will his distance, little though it may be. The space between them feels intimate even without touch. “And you may call me at any time, Will.”

“I know,” Will murmurs. His voice is lost to the din of the garage, but Hannibal reads it on his lips anyway. Then, like a capsizing ship, Will leans forward until his face touches Hannibal’s shoulder. He noses at the navy overcoat, shivers at chilled leather against the nape of his neck from Hannibal’s gloves as he’s held close. It’s cold. Will knows that underneath the layers, Hannibal is warm, but he can’t feel it like this. Part of him longs to crawl back into the passenger’s seat of Hannibal’s car, to ask to be taken back to his home. He’s fairly certain Hannibal would do it if he asked.

But he can’t. Life must go on. Will must return to class, and Hannibal to work, despite the weighted knowledge that nothing will feel quite the same ever again.

“I’ll return Bernadette’s clothing to her,” Hannibal says. “And assure her discretion. I’m sure she won’t mention your presence yesterday.”

“And tell her thank you,” Will mutters into the coat.

Hannibal chuckles, and Will is sure it’s at least partially at his expense. “Of course.”

Neither pulls away. Will wants to stay forever. He almost thinks about saying it, but—

“I enjoy your closeness,” Hannibal says into to Will’s ear, and it sounds like a secret shared between them with heads bent, his lips against Will’s unbound hair. One hand remains curled around the base of Will’s neck, and the other loops around his waist. He falls into Hannibal’s gravity with ease. “Last night, this morning. I want you to know you’re always welcome with me, Will. If you want me near, you need only ever ask.”

“I want to stay,” Will confesses, turns his head for his lips to brush the side of Hannibal’s throat as he speaks. He feels like he’s drowning with how much he wants, how his heart races when Hannibal’s fingers tighten around the nape of his neck. It’s only propriety that won’t allow him to have. “But I have to go to class. I have to keep going. I’m…” Will searches for the word. “Unmoored, right now. I don’t want to lose myself. You might not recognize me if I do.”

Hannibal’s glove feels like the slide of cool water through his hair, tangling in Will’s curls and guiding him up into a kiss that makes his knees weak. Will shakes with it, his body bracketed by Hannibal and his father’s old car, and feels the two sides of his life tearing away from each other. There is no common ground. On one side is his humble beginning, and on the other side is Hannibal, a sophisticated existence that Will does not yet fit into properly. He’s a guest there, not a resident—but he knows Hannibal would make it so, if only Will would let him.

Will wants to let him.

No, half of Will wants to let him.

The other half wants to pull Hannibal down to meet him, as they meet now in a slick slide of tongues. Take all his polished edges and mess them up, make him rough. Make it so he’ll never forget Will, even once the Ripper catches up to him and elevates the sum of his underwhelming life to art. It’s selfish, so fucking selfish, to want to ruin this man so he remembers Will when he’s gone.

He knows he can’t avoid the Ripper. In truth, Will’s not even sure he wants to. He’s sure the moments before his inevitable death will hold the most clarity he’s ever had in his life. Complete understanding of someone who comprehends the universe more than Will ever could on his own. Enlightenment by proxy.

And Hannibal is acceptance by proxy. Will dares not call it love. He doesn’t deserve to call it love, knowing what he knows. Knowing how fast this is moving. Knowing his intentions in the end. Knowing that, whatever Will feels for Hannibal is burning hot and bright, but its half-life is short.

Hannibal murmurs into his mouth, “Whatever shape you take, my regard for you will not change.”

Will breaks away, licks his lips, watches Hannibal watch him. He takes Hannibal’s face in his hands, absorbs the intensity in his eyes, the single-minded focus rapt on Will, ochre eyes so deep and rich that they burn like embers. It’s like staring into the sun, and Will feels himself going blind for anyone else. The image of Hannibal like this will be seared permanently into his mind.

“I feel like I’ve dragged you into my world,” Will whispers, and tremulously brushes his thumbs over the sharp ridges of Hannibal’s cheekbones. The melancholy of it is profound, but he wants this too much to stop.

There is something staring back at him that is wide and dark, lurking inside Hannibal’s gaze. There’s a certain possessiveness that lives in the heart of successful men, that locks onto things that they want when they find them. Will is now certain that, for Hannibal, he is one of those things. He’s certain that Hannibal would fight for him.

But there is a difference between powerful, prideful men, and the kind of person that the Chesapeake Ripper is. Hannibal’s life has purpose in saving the lives of others. He means more like this than he ever would in death.

Will has to keep him alive, no matter what it takes.

“I got here on my own,” Hannibal replies. He leans in again and Will relents; his lips part before they touch, and he moans quietly at the press of Hannibal’s tongue as it slips between his teeth. He’s surrounded by sensation—the buttery softness of leather, the heaviness of fine wool, the liquid heat of not being alone inside his own mouth, and the aching emptiness of wanting to have.

Hannibal sucks at his lower lip, laps around the place where the stinging split has tentatively started to heal, and pulls back. Will is left panting, wide-eyed, hands shaking at his sides, glad for his Volvo to hold him up and the thickness of Hannibal’s borrowed coat so he can’t feel how badly Will wants him.

Hannibal smiles like he knows. “But I appreciate the company.” His hand slips from Will’s hair, down his spine, falls away.

The distance between them now feels monumental. Will clenches his hands into fists to stop himself from reaching out again, and tucks them into his pockets. He takes a breath to steady himself, ducks his chin, breaks their eye contact.

Will has been flayed raw. Hannibal has seen the truth of him. He’s perhaps the only person alive who’s ever done so, and it leaves Will feeling uncomfortably exposed. “Thank you for taking care of me, Hannibal. For caring about me. For everything.”

“Will,” Hannibal says. He waits. “Will,” he says again, and Will looks up.

Hannibal is solemn. Serious. His head tips to the side in silent surveyance, and his hair ruffles with the movement. He’s so damn put-together. He walked away from yesterday like nothing had happened at all. Is that the kind of thing that comes from years of experience in emergency situations? Will wonders if, with time, he’ll become as immune to the violence in the stories he covers.

“You thank me like you believe you’ll never see me again. This is not our end. This is not goodbye,” Hannibal says. Will’s heart stutters painfully. “This is our beginning, yours and mine. The journey is ours to share. We have exactly as much time as we wish to have.”

Will’s smile falters, but he grits his teeth through it. “I know,” he lies. He sighs as he inclines his head, a mirror of Hannibal that sends his curls spilling over his shoulder. Hannibal doesn’t look like he believes him. It’s just as well. But let him wonder. “I should go. I’ll call you when I get home tonight.” A lump forms in his throat at the thought of sleeping alone. Of facing the nightmares with the dark silence of Wolf Trap surrounding him. Of Hannibal not being there.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Hannibal replies. He takes a breath, exhales. His eyes rove Will’s face with an intensity that makes him want to fidget. “Be safe, mylimasis.”

Will nods. He takes a step back, denying the magnetism that wants to pull him forward. “You too.”

Hannibal stands rooted in place, and only moves once Will is in the driver’s seat. Will’s hands are white-knuckled on the wheel as he pulls away, out of the garage and into traffic.

He makes it halfway to campus before he pulls over. Every car that speeds past him feels like a bullet dodged. His hands shake too badly to do anything but cling to the wheel. His vision blurs through the tears, and every breath shakes his bones. A lead weight sits atop his head, atop his mind, and he is being crushed under its weight.

“It’s okay,” he whispers through the encroaching blackness. “It’s okay, it’s okay, we’re okay.”

And then everything is still.

Calm.

Will takes a deep breath and lets it out. His limbs feel heavy, but no longer weighted. Behind his ribs, a void opens up. His hands shake with the remaining adrenaline, but his mind is quiet.

Will lifts his head with purpose, looks into the rearview mirror, and wipes the mascara from under his eyes. When another vehicle speeds by, he does not flinch. He takes his chapstick from the cup holder and puts it on; it’s sheer, coral-colored, and smells more like peaches than it tastes.

“Okay,” Will whispers. His voice is softer, smooth with temperance. He fixes his bangs in the mirror. Cracks the car window and lets the cold air wash over him. It stirs the scent of familiar cologne. His overwhelmed senses rewind from one hundred percent to zero. “Okay.”

He folds himself inside Wilhelmina’s confidence. Inside Hannibal’s calm. He will rebuild himself piece by piece, that much is true. But parts of him are broken, and need to be replaced. Will is faced with the unique opportunity to choose what to include.

More than restoration.

Creation.

“We’re okay,” Will says to all the fragments of himself, shifts out of park, and starts to drive.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He makes it through class by sitting in the back. Will isn’t known for being sociable, anyway. Screams echo in his ears instead of the lecture on ethics law, but it fortunately requires little to no participation. It’s only his first day back after the accident, and Will is determined to weather the creeping shadows he sees in the corner of the room, the sirens wailing on the horizon of his mind. He dedicates his attention to taking notes and hopes they come out coherent. Despite his shaking hands, he has fewer typos and red underlines in the word document than he expects, so that’s something.

And then he makes eye contact with fucking Freddie Lounds across the classroom, sees her looking at Will’s cut-up face and Hannibal’s coat like she’s just gotten the scent of a solid lead, and he swears under his breath, because damn it. Damn it.

Will flees as soon as they’re dismissed. Knight Hall’s atrium is light and bright, white tile halls and a wall of windows from floor to the vaulted ceiling. The sounds of student conversation filter down from the raised upper level, and Will stalks toward the staircase to slip out of view. But he’s wobbly on his heels, his bandaged legs are sore, and Freddie is nothing if not quick. Their classmates are hens, and she is a fox—but Will, too, is an opportunistic omnivore. Even in his injured state, he has more dangerous teeth.

He slows on the ascent and she pounces. “Not looking so good, Graham,” she says as she vaults up the stairs behind him. The soles of her sporty sneakers squeak as she takes them two at a time, and for a moment, Will wavers. He clutches the railing with creaking bones and white knuckles as the sound becomes squealing tires, flames licking at his heels, the crunch of glass—

Freddie heads him off, stops him cold, blocks the flow of traffic on the stairway, much to the irritated grumblings of their classmates who are forced to go around them. Her eyes are huge, sharp blue like his, and if Will didn’t know her better, he’d take that expression for concern. But he does know better. He knows Freddie doesn’t mean him well. He feels Wilhelmina prickling behind his gaze, assessing their rival; Freddie embodies everything he wants and everything he hates at once. It’s a rare trait.

“Get out of the way,” Will says.

“No can do.” Freddie crosses her arms across her chest. Her leather jacket looks old, worn. Thrift store. Smells like car interior, and Will sees overturned seats instead of her sharp, almost accusatory expression—“I know you were there.”

Well, if she won’t move, he’ll go around her. As he tries, she blocks him. His head aches. His teeth ache. His hands ache. He wants to hit her, but thinks of Hannibal. Will’s supposed to be coping, but all he wants is to go home.

First and foremost, no one can know. His only option is to deflect. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. You missed class yesterday,” she says. For someone so slight, she’s learned to use her frailty like a barricade. As afraid as people are of looming threats, they are equally reluctant to break fragile things. Most can’t tell from looking at Freddie that her ivory skin is stretched over barbed wire. She looks like a china doll. Will feels more like a dime-store cast-off. Today, he is as beaten and bruised as they come. “I know you were the only person who called him the Chesapeake Ripper and now everyone on the Eastern Seaboard has that name in their mouths. Shame you didn’t trademark it. You could have been rich.”

Will stares at her balefully. She’s tried this before, to pry an admission out of him. For as long as Analysis has been running opposite Tattlecrime, she’s had her superior hit count to lord over him, her increased ad revenue from her tabloidism while Will picked apart abnormal psychology over everything from abductions to serial burglaries. He’s spent his undergraduate career in the mud, boots on the ground. Prior to the Caldwell murder, he’d have been lucky to get more than a few hundred hits on a page. One viral article had put him front and center on her radar. The second meant target locked.

He supposes he can’t blame her, though resentment is the primary emotion on his mind. If turnabout were fair play and her smear campaign had been the coverage that got picked up on the Ripper, Will might have gone ballistic. In the months following the Ripper’s footsteps, Will’s gotten a feel for him. He knows the Ripper wouldn’t abide a liar. Similarly, he knows the Ripper wouldn’t stand anyone using his work to further their own agendas.

Will is a reporter. An interested observer. Freddie fancies herself a rabid dog catcher while she dangles scraps over the nose of a wolf, and she has no idea what she’s getting herself into. She has no idea what Will’s spared her from. At the very least, he’d like to think that the Ripper's focus on him might keep Freddie from getting herself killed.

Will almost hates her for it. “Trademarks are for products, not people.”

Freddie’s gaze is unwavering. “People can be products.”

Will’s bag weighs heavily on his shoulder. His legs radiate with pain. He imagines how the Ripper might stage Freddie if she ever had the gall to say that to his face, knowingly or unknowingly. The image of a man with his tongue flattened inside a bible flashes before Will’s eyes. He had been among the first publicized set, but not the Ripper’s first. Certainly not his last.

The Chesapeake Ripper™—murders as the miniaturized replicas of masterpieces sold off the shelves in museum gift stores. The Ripper, Will’s Chesapeake Ripper, mass produced at low quality for consumption of the general public. The idea is abhorrent. “Not to me.”

“Then you’re a bigger idiot than I thought.” He clenches his fists at his sides; his broken nails feel like claws. He’s worn too thin to be dealing with Freddie right now. She looks him over and clearly thinks the same; cuts to the chase, because despite all her many bad qualities, when Freddie wants something, she starts off direct. He respects that much about her, and not much else. “How did you get there so fast?”

“Think you’ve got the wrong idea,” Will replies. He can’t summon the energy for a smile, nor would she expect one of him. “I drank too much Monday night. I was hungover yesterday. No state to go anywhere at all.”

Freddie’s eyes narrow. She taps her toe sharply against the stairs. “You’re limping.”

She doesn’t believe him. Will knows that. She doesn’t have to. It’s enough for him to know she won’t find hospital or police records. Outside of finding a witness to identify him in the mess, she’s out of luck. Will arches a brow despite his thundering heart and tells her the truth. “Spent the night with my boyfriend.”

They’re at an impasse. Freddie’s lips purse in displeasure, and fine lines crease the corners of her eyes as she frowns. “You know I’m going to find proof.”

She can’t trace his IP back to him. She won’t find him on public record. “Of my hangover? Best you’re gonna do is get me banned from Tune Inn when you tell them my ID was a fake.”

Will tries to step around her. Yet again, she stops him—this time with a hand on his chest. Will wonders if she’d be so quick to touch him if he had breasts, and wrenches away. Her hand is petite, dainty, cold. He can practically feel the spite in her fingertips. He wonders if she can feel his. Hopes she does.

“You’re not half as smart as you think you are, Graham,” Freddie snaps.

Impatience builds beneath his skin, and a dull sense of panic. He’s getting antsy. He can feel eyes on him from curious onlookers, their classmates. Their unasked questions rattle inside his skull. His legs hurt. He wants to talk to Hannibal. Will wishes he could admit his presence if only to force her to leave him alone, but that’s off the table. “As long as I’m half as smart as you think you are, Lounds. There’s no story here. You’re wasting your time.” Irritation builds and makes his tongue sharp when he snaps, “I guess the intel from fucking morgue interns in the supply closet is only as good as the lay.”

A moment of silence. Will hears at least one person sitting on the couches below start to snicker. Another whispers oh, snap, and Freddie goes red in the face.

He knows with a sickening sense of immediate dread that he’s made a mistake when her eyes fall to Hannibal’s coat. Her responding smile is razor-sharp. “You’re right,” she says. Her hand touches her mouth in cruel contemplation as she tips her head to the side. Red ringlets spill around her neck like blood. “Maybe you’re good for something, after all. I should set my sights higher. Available doctors are in such short supply nowadays.”

It takes a second for her words to sink in. Panic is a gag in his mouth, and the urge to strike her a vise around his throat. She corners him, she interrogates him, and Will can take that. He can. But if she dares to do anything to Hannibal—

His vision goes red. Fury lingers behind his eyes, staring out through him and focusing on her. There’s a certain weight inside his ribs that is borne from a predator readying to strike in defense of their mate. Will knows better than to try to deny it. His fists clench at his sides. His voice catches in his throat and shakes as he forces it out. “You’re not the only one with intern friends in convenient places. Don’t get anyone else involved in this, Freddie. I mean it. Don’t go chasing ghosts where there aren’t any.”

Freddie smiles; she lights up like she’s won something. “My, someone’s defensive,” she purrs. “Have something to hide?”

“No,” He snaps. “But I have a good man’s reputation to protect from your bullshit.” Will takes a step up. It forces them closer together; Freddie grimaces, but doesn’t back down. Will’s voice drops to a whisper. “You think I’m spiteful now? If you wreck this for me, I will ruin you, and I’ll do it better than you’ve ever sabotaged yourself by opening your mouth.”

“Careful, Graham,” Freddie replies softly. Her eyes narrow. “One might get the impression you’re making a threat.”

“If a threat is a promise of justified retribution to an unjustified witch hunt,” Will imagines all the ways he could make her bleed, personally and professionally. Wilhelmina shifts restlessly beneath his skin. Graceful. Merciless.. Somewhere in the core of this body they share, the two of them despise her, equal but opposite how strongly they feel for Hannibal.  “Then yes. Back. Off.”

Freddie smiles, ice and glass. “If he really loves you, nothing I say will change what he thinks. But maybe he should be aware of the kind of person you are under pressure.”

Will forces a smile in return. In all honesty, he bares his teeth. Of course Hannibal doesn’t love him. It’s too soon for that, and that’s exactly Will’s concern. This thing between them, whatever it is, is fragile. Promising, yes, for however long it lasts, but it’s not impervious.

But admitting that to Freddie is as good as admitting defeat. She’s looking for weaknesses anywhere she can find them—and right now, Will has more than he’d like to admit. Hannibal is first and foremost of them, and she knows it.

So he arms himself with words, because he’s good at it; levels her with a stare that gives no quarter when he says, “Hannibal knows what kind of person I am under everything.” Let her make of that what she will. Let her make of it what anyone else would, and what Will wishes his last twenty-four hours had been, instead of the reality of what they were. “But good luck, I guess.”

Freddie stands still. “I’ll take that as permission.”

Will inhales slowly through his nose. He takes one more step up, forces her stumbling backward up the stairs; she nearly trips before she pivots sideways, and Will ends up two stairs above her, staring down. His eyes burn. Fury leaks from his pores, and Will straightens his spine, lifts his chin, feels powerful like this. Regal. His hair piled atop his head is his crown, the heavy wool coat his armor. It feels like Hannibal’s hands on his shoulders, his lips at Will’s ear.

When he imagines her taking Hannibal from him, Will feels as the Ripper feels. The Hanged Man swings in the amphitheater of his mind, and her hair is red. “You should take it as a warning, Freddie.”

He can feel her resentment. Taste it. And he can sense her determination, see it reflected back at him. “You think you’re untouchable because you hide your IP and encrypt your notes? People talk, Graham. You obsess over crime. You put yourself in the heads of criminals. You’re even starting to defend them.” She clicks her tongue in patronizing disapproval, but her expression blazes. “When that site gets linked to you, it might even bring up doubts about your involvement. Where were you when the body dropped?”

Will feels eyes on him. The sensation puts his heart in his throat. Is she trying to align him with the Ripper? He holds up his broken arm, nudges down the sleeve to show his splint, and sneers. “Doing something more useful than making baseless accusations. You should try it sometime.”

Freddie’s eyes flicker to it, and back to him. “Fresh cuts on your palms.”

“Tripped,” Will lies flippantly, and tucks his hands into his pockets. His patience has come to an end. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have forty minutes before my next lecture. I’d love to stay and chat, but I don’t actually give a damn about anything you have to say.”

For a second, Freddie’s expression twists with something dark, ugly. She smooths it into a pretty, vicious smile with admirable quickness. “I’m gonna nail your ass to the wall if it’s the last thing I do.”

Will huffs a laugh and swallows hard. Part of him would love to push her just to see her fall. He digs his nails into his hands instead and shrugs. “Sorry,” he says. “I have a boyfriend.”

Her grimace is the last thing he sees before he turns and ascends, the click of his heels loud on the tile, pride purring inside the cage of his ribs. It’s almost loud enough to drown out the memory of sirens.

 


 

The hospital is still busy when Hannibal arrives to work. Dealing with the aftermath of the accident and the influx of crash victims is a full-time job and then some for all staff on hand. Though he generally prefers the days when he’s busy with surgery to pass the time, after the last twenty-four hours, Hannibal finds himself tiring more quickly than normal. The remainder of the heart he has brought for his dinner is not nearly as flavorful without the time to savor it properly. Hannibal ruminates on the matter in the hospital break room, frowning down at his meal with a truly shocking amount of inattentiveness.

“Deep thoughts, Doc?”

Hannibal glances up. Abel Gideon is rinsing a tupperware container in the sink. They’ve been colleagues for some time, though don’t often converse; he’s an intelligent man, an accomplished surgeon. Hannibal notes the dark circles under his eyes and suspects that Gideon, like him, has been working extra hours to deal with the overflow of trauma patients. “Not particularly,” Hannibal replies with a slight, polite tilt of his lips. “Simply enjoying the quiet while it lasts.”

Gideon laughs under his breath. “I hear that. Seems like the only quiet I get lately is here.” He huffs, tears a paper towel from the dispenser, and wipes the water from his container. “You got a wife?”

Hannibal’s brows creep upward. Ambivalent silence to discussion of their home lives? And from the topic of conversation, Hannibal’s warning instincts are piqued. “I’m afraid not.”

“Afraid not? Count your blessings,” Gideon replies. He turns around and leans back against the counter. Hannibal’s fingers curl around the handle of his fork. He has never felt uncomfortable in the emergency department’s break room before; it is often occupied by exhausted nurses, doctors eating as quickly as possible to return to their stations. It’s not uncommon to be the only one present, or to not exchange a word with a single soul there. This happenstance is unusual. “Free advice: if you value your silence, don’t get married.”

Hannibal’s expression remains neutral through virtue of practice alone. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Gideon nods. He rubs a hand over his face. “Nothin’ quite like getting home from a day like yesterday and getting yelled at by someone who faints at the sight of blood.”

Intrigue picks at the edges of Hannibal’s mind. An unhappy home life? He wouldn’t have supposed that of Gideon. And that aside, there is something else he can’t quite put his finger on—some signal from his instincts. He is unaware of its exact purpose, but he is not one to ignore the signs given to him by his superior mind. These things usually have purpose. For that reason, he schools his voice into one of polite understanding and offers a faint nod. “That must be difficult.”

“All the more reason to pick up extra hours.” Gideon exhales through his nose. He’s not an unattractive man; stocky, perhaps, but fairly young. If he’s really so unhappy, Hannibal is sure he would have another chance at satisfaction if he were to leave his current circumstances—though far be it from his place to say so.

Hannibal taps his fork thoughtfully against the glass, then lifts it free. He replaces the locking lid on the dregs of his dinner, perhaps to be attempted again when his shift is over. No use in wasting perfectly good meat on a lacklustre appetite. “Do you have children at home, Doctor Gideon?”

He smiles wryly. “Abel, please. And no, thank God, I don’t.”

Religious man, or turn of phrase? Hannibal inclines his head. “Hannibal, then,” he replies. He considers his wording carefully. “Perhaps a hobby away from home would spare you the stressors of excess work and the undue criticisms of your spouse.”

Gideon barks a laugh. His face lights up, eyes crinkling at the corners. It removes years from his appearance. “That’s the politest anyone’s ever told me to get a life before.”

Hannibal frowns faintly. “I meant no offense.”

Gideon snickers to himself, bites down on a smile. “I’m not offended. You’re not wrong.” He crumples the wet paper towel in his hand and tosses it into the open bin with surprisingly good aim. “And you’re not the first to say it. I used to be something of a musician. Now I only go to performances.”

More intrigue. “Hospital hours can make attending the symphony difficult.”

Gideon blinks, then lights up. “You’re tellin’ me. You play?”

A smile tilts Hannibal’s mouth. “The harpsichord, among others. And you?”

“Trombone. I like to think if I ever quit my day job, I could take over Wilson’s chair.”

Hannibal restrains a laugh. It’s certainly no secret that the symphony’s second chair could use replacing with some urgency. He’s even considered dispatching the man himself, if not for the fact that his last victim had ties to the symphony already. He can’t be seen going about and developing a pattern. Still, Hannibal nods in approval, tips his head in the suggestion of something not quite impolite, but not quite kind—an exchange of words open for interpretation. “That may be a blessing to those in the audience.”

Gideon is free with his amusement. His eyes are sharp, shining. In them, Hannibal sees someone not unlike himself, though Gideon’s killer instincts are not yet honed. He may yet stay on the path of the straight and narrow.

And yet.

Hannibal leans back slightly in the uncomfortable cafeteria chair. “Will you be attending the charity gala?”

Gideon raises his brows. “Wouldn’t miss it. You going?”

“I plan on it, yes. Perhaps I will see you there.” It will be interesting to see how Gideon fits into the social structure of the Baltimore elites outside of the hospital walls. Hannibal is a patron of the arts, yes—but the more people he knows who attend an event such as this, the more he finds he has to learn from it. “And your wife.”

A flicker passes over Gideon’s features. He maintains an impressively genial poker face, and gracefully sidesteps Hannibal’s remark with a joke. “Bringing one of the nurses?”

Hannibal offers a practiced grimace that sets Gideon to laughing again, and shakes his head. “No, nothing like that. I’ve started seeing someone recently; they’ll be attending with me.”

Gideon’s brows raise with interest. He whistles between his teeth. “Must be one hell of a date.” Something passes through his face; his brow crinkles in thought, and then he snaps his fingers in recognition. “Wait a minute. Ten-seventeen, last month. You were the attending on that pretty little thing—what was his name? Friends with Katz down in the blood lab. Sharp as a tack, hell of an attitude.”

Something tightens unpleasantly in Hannibal’s chest. He shifts in place, feels the flickerings of cold intent in his bones. Slowly, deliberately, he tilts his head to the side and assumes a curious expression. “You know Will?”

Will, yes, that’s the one.” Gideon nods decisively. “I set his cast after you got called away. He spoke highly of you.” Hannibal blinks; the unpleasant sensation is temporarily soothed, but his wariness remains. Gideon’s grin stretches, wide and knowing. He hums with amused consideration. “You know, I thought I saw him around again.”

“Will’s stopped in to visit once or twice,” Hannibal replies. He tracks Gideon’s movements, tries to get a read on him. Flattery does tend to go a long way with doctors. “I wasn’t aware who treated him after I left. Thank you for the care you showed him with your expertise; he’s recovering well.”

“Glad to hear it, glad to hear it.” Gideon nods easily. That thread of amusement in his expression doesn’t fade. “Gotta admit I’m surprised; he’s a little young, but I can’t say I blame you. Kid’s a spitfire.” Before Hannibal can summon irritation or rebuttal, Gideon’s expression creases with a frown, a flash of something in his gaze that is there and gone again. “He had a Virginia address, right? He wasn’t tangled up in the mess on the 495 yesterday, was he?”

Interesting. Gideon has a particularly keen memory. Hannibal shakes his head again, allows his shoulders to relax in the approximation of relief and weariness. “No, thankfully.” He knows Bernadette will say no differently, loyal as she is, what with her protective fondness for Will. But surely she is not the only one who had seen him. “But he came here last night to visit after my shift. When cell service went down, and with how busy we were, I was…” Hannibal frowns at the unpleasant memory of deep uncertainty. He searches for a word that is both performative and accurate.

“Natural to be worried,” Gideon says. “Good of him to stop by. Glad he’s alright. Shit like that definitely makes you think, that’s for sure.”

Hannibal’s brow furrows. This time, it is not a choice. “Yes, it does.”

Gideon sighs, both wistful and weary. His spine curves as he stretches, rolls his shoulders and his neck. He taps his tupperware against his open palm. “Well, back to the ol’ grind. Good chat. Godspeed for the rest of your shift, of course.”

Hannibal nods. “And to you.”

Gideon goes, humming to himself as he does; some jovial tune that sounds faintly jazzy. Hannibal is left alone in the break room with only his thoughts as company.

Worry. It is not a sensation he would usually ascribe to himself, but now that it has been spoken aloud, it feels like its existence is tangible in his memory. He was worried for Will, his well being. More than irritation or passing fascination, but genuine concern. He has grown so used to a solitary existence that the realization he is no longer alone is something of a surprise. The nature of it has crept up on him, unexpected. Unbidden. And now that it has dawned on him, he cannot seem to shake it.

This bridge he is building will go both ways. If he has his way, he will be tied to Will Graham for the remainder of his life, and Will to him. There will be no other. He wants no other.

Will’s declaration of fealty and family was not one-sided.

Hannibal’s eyes linger on his sealed food. He stands, and places his food back into his insulated bag, then heads for his locker. Time is limited; he only has until the next emergency begins, but perhaps he will have time enough. When his food is safely stored inside it, he unbuckles his go bag and pulls out his phone. He’d left it on, but silent, rather than turning it off. It’s unlike him. Everything is unlike him now that he holds the expectation of Will reaching out to him in return.

But evolution is necessary to sustained life. Will’s introduction to his life has forced him to adapt. There is no shame in that, he tells himself as he pulls up Will’s contact. There is strength in numbers for both predators and prey.

Hannibal leans back against the lockers; focuses solely on the ringing in his ear, the keen anticipation of Will’s voice. He does not disappoint.

“Hannibal,”  Will sighs, like his name alone is sweet relief. “Hi.”

But it’s a relief they share.

“Hello, Will.”

 


 

In the darkness of his lonely living room, Will dreams.

The day of the crash has not left him. If possible, with distance from the event and from Hannibal, it’s grown more vivid. Blood and viscera. Oil. Fire. Screams. The Hanged Man sways gently from the overpass, a mockery of tenderness in contrast to the polished bone of his skull, the hole in his chest. The world shifts, tilts, freezes.

Will’s gaze lifts. Sitting on the edge of the overpass is a woman who looks like him. Her feet swing in the open air, glossy black heels with blood red soles that drip down onto the carnage below. She is draped artfully in a red gown, delicate with floral-patterned beading and a plunging neckline, a voluminous skirt slit high up her thigh. She glitters under the memory of morning sunlight, decadent and lovely.

Her bare legs are wrapped in bandage from knees to ankles.

“What is it about this one?” Wilhelmina asks. Despite her distance, Will has no problems hearing her clearly. Then again, he has never had a problem hearing her.

He stands below on frozen tarmac, barefoot in shattered glass, and realizes the blood that drips from the soles of her shoes is the same blood that drips from the soles of his feet. She wears the destruction like finery, but Will is the one who will bear the scars. “I’m missing something.”

She tips her head to the side, and her loose curls tumble over her shoulder. She smiles at him indulgently and with terrible fondness. “No one understands him like we do.”

Will takes a breath. It echoes in the stillness. Her shoes tap together as they dangle but never fall, and he can’t help the sardonic flicker of awareness that he’s not in Louisiana anymore. There’s no physical evidence. There are no papers to be written about how time of death conflates with the evidence when there is no evidence. There will be no clicking his heels and being transported to a land far away, back to ten years old studying dead fish on the riverbank while his father hauls catches from the docks.

There is only here and now, and the knowledge that the great and powerful wizard he is searching for has sole custody of Will’s heart and mind and courage and home.

“I don’t understand this,” Will says.

Then he, too, is sitting atop the overpass. They wear the same red lace and chiffon, the same extravagant Louboutins. She leans forward without a care in the world, elbows on her battered knees. She is starting to bleed through the bandages, and doesn’t even seem to notice. “Yes you do,” she says. She turns toward him and smiles with joy in her eyes and a carnivore’s fangs in her mouth. “What comes after death?”

Philosophy? Will frowns. He doesn’t know.

When he shakes his head, she sighs. “Yes, you do. It’s what he wants. What comes after death?”

“I don’t know,” he snaps.

She frowns. Will is flooded with the knowledge that he has somehow disappointed her. In an instant, he is on the ground. She towers high above him, alluring and distant as Helen—ready to wage war in her own name, prepared to launch a thousand ships for the sake of her pride. “Then you’re not paying attention.”

“To what? ” Will asks desperately. “I’m looking. I want to find him,” his dream-self says, though he knows in his heart he’s terrified. They both know of whom he speaks. Here, despite any and all sense and kindness, there has never been any other him. “But I know he’s going to find me first.”

Yes. ” Her smile is vicious, but her lashes flutter with affection, satisfaction. Love. “Will you be ready?”

Surrounded by wrecked cars, with bleeding feet, he’s half-demolished—his world is crumbling. No, Will’s not sure he’ll be ready at all. He wants to keep an excess of time in a lockbox. He wants to hoard a limitless supply of warmth and affection, secret smiles, sleepy kisses. He wants Hannibal. He wants to be selfish.

And at the same time, he wants blood. He wants justice for the suffering he’s faced, the lonely nights, the aching void inside his heart that has longed to be filled by an equal. Someone who can see and know the way he does. He wants to stand in austere halls and feel the vibrations of stars through chapel windows. He wants to see the flow of life spill across ancient marble floors. He wants to see flesh transformed, bear witness to history heightened from the vessels of unimportant men, sinners who dared to place their worth above the might of gods who walk the earth.

He wants both. He knows he cannot have both.

“I don’t want to die,” he whispers, but he knows she hears him, because she always does.

Wilhelmina inclines her head. She stares down at him like he’s hopelessly naive. “What comes after death?”

Fury builds within his breast. Doesn’t she understand? He doesn’t know. All he is certain of is that death is coming for him. The world starts to move again in a screech to deafen the ages—screams, sirens, Will stands at the center and weathers it all in the name of staring her down. He stands in his blood-soaked clothes, his father’s jacket, his heeled boots, Margot’s hand-me-down sweater, and snarls up at her. She remains above, a queen holding court.

Her eyes light up from the inside and burn red. She’s so fucking magazine-perfect, so beautiful it hurts—and yet, Will cannot imagine being her. Not really. Part of him will always belong to the man who pulled him from the wreckage of his solitary life.

He is neither. He is both.

“Now you’re getting it,” she says. Nods once with approval.

And she plunges her hand into her own chest. She does not wince or gasp or scream as she tears out her own heart and holds it in her hand. It beats with the remnants of life, pulsing blood over and between her fingers. It darkens her dress, her chest, and leaves an empty hole inside, so raw with gore it is nearly purple.

Their eyes lock as she lifts it to her mouth.

She bites.

Soaked in sweat, gasping for breath, shaken to his core, Will is wrenched from the world of dreams and nightmares and whispers, “He’s eating them.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It’s been two days since Will’s nightmare revelation. In that time, he has been desperately, frantically busy going back over the details of every Ripper case. Though he knows and feels with certainty that his insight on the Ripper’s cannibalistic nature is true, he needs evidence. And given the killer he’s hunting, Will knows he’s looking for forensic evidence that doesn’t exist—at the very least, nothing he can confirm without finding the man and asking directly.

And that’s just the damn problem, isn’t it? Finding him.

He has always known that the Ripper was an apex predator. When Will had first stepped foot into Baltimore as a teenager, he had witnessed the fear and respect the Ripper’s presence has inspired. He’s a man of culture, of class—intelligent, thorough, commanding attention from news crews and law enforcement and the public. He’s no garden-variety killer preying on high-risk victims. He’s better than that.

And he’d captured Will’s attention. Enough for Will to shift his focus away from the disappointment of being pigeonholed by the Criminal Justice Academy and the psychology department at Johns Hopkins alike. Taking the hit to his transferable credits had been worth the opportunity to change his major, start over. Worse things had happened than transferring into Merrill as a sophomore instead of a junior.

In the years since, Will has dedicated himself to the pursuit.

In his own way, the Chesapeake Ripper was what led Will to Hannibal. Will tries to remember that fact when the guilt eats away at his conscience—when he sits in his car in front of his house and lies via text message, says he needs time to focus on school instead of admitting that he’s going on a research bender, about to blow off the only person who really gives a damn about him. Will is not accustomed to feeling guilty. He lives a solitary life, makes his own decisions, and has no one to answer to. He’s been that way since his father died. Even preferred it, somehow, to the days when Beau had been alive. Though Will likes to think that Hannibal would understand his need to take this time for himself, humans are rarely so rational. Schoolwork is one thing. Chasing a murderer is another.

And Will is chasing. Chasing his fucking tail, chasing dead ends, coming up with nothing more than he’d started with. He has eight bodies displayed like art installations, missing organs, left everywhere from Baltimore to the Beltway. Men, women, young, old, different races, different body types.

Will has no idea how he’s choosing them. He only knows that the Ripper is eating them.

He needs to tell someone. He can’t tell anyone. All over again, the Ripper is the cause for his secrets, and the pursuit of him is the reason Will must keep them. How many secrets will they share by the time Will catches up, he wonders? How much will be held in confidence between them by the time one finds the other? Now that Will sees the truth, he can’t let it go. He can’t stop making a list in his head of the organs taken—livers, kidneys, intestines, lungs, heart. Offal. Edible.

The descriptor of sounders has never seemed so apt. It is not, Will supposes, a far leap for a killer to go from predator to carnivore.

Artist. Murderer. Carnivore. Cannibal.

And Will is a glutton for punishment.

Dread is thick inside his chest as he gets off the Beltway and takes the back roads. The residential neighborhood is quiet. Quaint. It’s the kind of place he can hardly imagine the Ripper setting foot in—children play in front yards, watched by the haunted eyes of their parents who understand the horror this week has brought, encroached upon the place they felt safe. It’s the kind of development where no one is up past ten at night, let alone the early hours of the morning. No traffic cameras. No witnesses. Nothing.

Will pulls over and parks his car.

There is a sidewalk on one side of the road, closed off to the public with caution tape and nothing else. There are no officers stationed nearby to enforce it. They surely collected everything they needed for evidence within hours of the crash, but Will is thankful for the barricades as he ducks under them—no one who lives here will dare to ignore them, and anyone who sees him will believe he belongs.

Right now, Will’s not sure where he belongs. He’s not even sure he belongs in his own skin.

Over the years, being Wilhelmina—or, at least pretending to be Wilhelmina—has given him a sense of direction. There’s enjoyment to be found in nice things. There is comfort in the routine of putting himself inside her clothing, inside her shoes, folding himself up in her mind and zipping himself inside. Over time, her wardrobe has become his armor. Her mindset is separate but similar. When he becomes her, it’s just enough for Will to shed his uncertainties. To feel strength in all his soft places, rather than being exposed, uncovered, unprotected.

The cuts and bruises on his legs have turned into an ugly mash of green and yellow, sealed beneath new bandages, but aching all the same. Will has decided upon mercy for himself and worn his old jeans, baggy in the legs and ass; flannel lined, comfortable to a fault. It’s been some time since he wore them in public. The green plaid shirt is soft against his skin, the very same he’d worn the night he met Hannibal. Will is stripped down to his base blocks, clad in ill-fitting clothes and worn-in work boots.

But here, like this, he is raw—hair thrown up in a careless knot, glasses perched upon his nose, clean-shaven but not concealed, undiluted yet undefined.

The departure from his more streamlined appearance is both comforting and unsettling. At the very least, the presence of Hannibal’s coat is a reminder that his safety matters to someone. That he is wanted. That if the Ripper were to walk up behind him right now and Will was never seen again, he would be missed—or, at the very least, the version of him that is a version of Wilhelmina would be missed.

But following her presence in his dreams, Will now feels the distinct and naked sensation of being alone inside his mind. She is quiet today, leaving Will to his own devices.

And his devices have brought him here.

The wind whips through the unprotected bridge and chills him to the bone. Will stands on the overpass from which The Hanged Man was suspended and looks down over the Beltway. Cars and trucks scream by, going well above the speed limit. Will doesn’t even try to count them; in retrospect, it’s a miracle that only thirty-seven were involved in the pile-up. Hundreds, if not thousands of vehicles pass beneath this bridge every minute. It could have been worse. So much worse.

But at the time, what it was seemed bad enough.

There’s a short chain-link fence that lines either side of the concrete bridge—a safety precaution for children, but no deterrent to any dedicated adult. It can’t be any higher than five feet, though the sidewalk side bears a protective inward arch that could be a deterrent to anyone looking to climb. It says something that the Ripper suspended the body from this side, instead of the other where it would have been easier to haul the body up and over. In order to set the scene he envisioned, the Ripper took the time to overcome the inconvenience.

Common sense says controlling. But the inner workings of Will’s head whispers stubborn with such terrible fondness that Will can’t help but be affected. He’s been following these tracks for so long—surely it’s at least a little justified to feel vindicated at finally being noticed? Eighteen months of following the Ripper, analyzing his movements, reading his scenes and getting to know him.

If Wilhelmina stands directly at Will’s right side, then surely the Chesapeake Ripper stands at his left. He has been a constant companion through Will’s days and nights; in nightmares, too, at least Will has not been alone. The Ripper’s presence is heavy, a weighted blanket bearing Will down and keeping his feet flat on the earth. Even now, the Ripper stands beside him. In the absence of the man himself, Will is left with his photo negative—a dark silhouette, tall and broad, ominous as an old and unknown god.

What is it the Ripper wants from him?

To devour him, maybe. Will wouldn’t be surprised. The Ripper has never seemed like the kind of person who wanted a companion or wanted to be known. Maybe Will has crossed the line with Analysis, wiped away the mystery that the Ripper wanted to maintain. And because of it, Will can’t imagine publicizing what he now knows. The terrible truth of the Ripper’s consumption feels like a secret between them, between Will and this shadow man who sees him as thoroughly as Will sees in return.

WIll ducks his head, loses himself in the sound of the cars below. Perhaps it’s insanity to feel he can’t betray the trust of someone who may very well want to kill him, but Will has never claimed to be sane.

Sometimes he thinks the Ripper might be more sane than he is.

“Hey!” Someone shouts, and Will’s head snaps up at the alarmed and irritated sound of a woman’s voice. “You’re not supposed to be up here!”

He turns and freezes. They recognize each other immediately. It’s the blonde-haired cop who had distracted her fellow officers while Will was in rescue-mode. Will can honestly say he never expected to see her again, let alone like this—Will intruding onto a closed crime scene, with her placed solidly between him and his car, his only means of escape.

Goddamn it.

The stubborn set of her jaw and shoulders slackens some—her eyes flicker up and down. Will knows he looks different than he had on the day of the crash, but it’s obviously close enough for her to remember him. If he’d known she’d be here, he wouldn’t have come in person. He would have relived it within the safe and people-free barricades of his mind. This complicates things: after all, Will had never given a police statement. He had escaped the incident without going on record. But with her here now, and with his car parked so conveniently nearby, waiting with his name registered on the title, she could have him. If she so wants to, she can turn him in, have him questioned, could get a warrant for his phone, and all of this would be over. The article for Analysis would be traced back to him, and the Caldwell article to Hannibal and Johns Hopkins.

Will can’t fail Hannibal like that. He can’t.

And it is with that thought in mind that he finds his center, relaxes his shoulders, and breathes deeply until his muscles slacken. Wilhelmina is nowhere to be found. Will is on his own.

He knows he’s been recognized. But he can use that to his advantage.

“I, um,” Will says softly, and averts his eyes to her prying gaze. He can see her surprise, her curiosity as she draws closer. He shifts his weight from side to side. “Sorry. I know I shouldn’t have come.”

She stares at him from the other side of the police line. It is with a heavy sigh that she bends underneath it and approaches.The sleeve of her uniform blues reads Montgomery County Police Dept. in golden thread, shifting as she tucks her hands into her pockets. To some extent, Will relaxes. If he was going to be arrested, she’d have her cuffs out. “No, you shouldn’t have,” she says. She steps up onto the sidewalk, looks down at the cars below. “But I know why you did.”  

She’s petite but fit, with her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She can’t be much older than Will, if she is at all. No makeup. No nonsense. Will likes her already. They have the same mentality, just expressed in different ways. He uses his routine to imbue strength. She uses her lack of one for the same.

“If you do, you’ve got a better idea than me,” Will says. Let her think that he is lost and looking for existential answers. He’s not. He’s just looking for the Ripper.

She leans her hip against the concrete barricade, her shoulder against the chain-link fence. She doesn’t hold out a hand for him to shake, and Will’s glad for it. “Miriam Lass.”

Will nods once in acknowledgement. He takes a slow breath and lets it out. “Are you planning on bringing me in? Because if you are, I don’t really think I want to tell you my name.”

“Bold to assume I didn’t already run your plate,” she says, but with a hint of good humor. “No, I’m not going to bring you in. I’m off shift.”

Will glances backward—indeed, the car parked behind his is not a police cruiser, but a beat-up old sedan, faded gray and mottled with rust spots. “Huh.” He frowns down at a passing semi, and gives her a sidelong glance. She meets his eyes and quirks a brow. “So why are you here?”

“Same as you. Can’t get it out of my head.” She sighs. Her breath shudders. Will can feel the horror lingering in her lungs, grasping the inside of her throat and ready to escape as a scream. He feels much the same. “You saved a lot of lives. If you stepped forward, they’d call you a hero.”

Will shrugs, uncomfortable with the idea of so much attention, of the expectations and publicity. He prefers the quiet. That’s why Analysis is and always has been anonymous. “Not why I did it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Will shoots her a look, and she replies with a wry laugh, “Never seen anyone run into someone else’s wreck while wearing heels because they wanted the attention.”

Will grimaces. Yeah, for good reason. He’d probably have fared better in the boots he wears now, but the time for that is long past over and done. He hopes like hell he’ll never run into anything like it again, or maybe he’d start carrying a more sensible pair of shoes in his car. Maybe he will anyway.

Will looks straight down over the edge. He watches the cars pass. She stands beside him in silence until he figures out what to say. “Had to do something.”

“You’re a helper.” She, too, shrugs. “Helpers help. Doesn’t matter where or why. They just do. At least, Mister Rogers says so.”

That draws a startled bark of laughter from Will. He looks at her and sees her smiling. She’s pretty, in a simple sort of way. A hometown girl. Even with the dark circles under her eyes from sleepless nights, he can see it shining inside her. She’s a good person. Smart. She meets his eyes, and he makes a calculated decision. “I’m Will.”

“Good to meet you.”

“Yeah, you too.” Will rolls his shoulders back and thinks. He could pass this off as the impulse of a wistful mind, never return again. He thinks she’d probably let him go if he spouted some line about closure, offered her a sad smile, and beat a hasty retreat. It would be the wise thing to do. It would keep his cover.

But it won’t get him anywhere but back in his own car, doomed to the limitations of a missed opportunity. It will only get him further away from what he seeks. Right now he is standing where the Ripper stood, and it’s like standing in the footsteps of Lucifer—living in the memory of the most beautiful destruction the world has to offer. Will can never catch up if he only ever gives chase. Sooner or later, he’ll have to start trying to get ahead.

This officer—Miriam—is Montgomery County PD. Bethesda. Local. First on the scene, not a handful of miles up the road. The tense lines of her face and lavender hollows of her eyes say that this place weighs heavily on her. Will senses that’s not for nothing.

Maybe he can use her knowledge. Maybe he can offer her something in return. Quid pro quo.

“There’s no evidence,” Will says. “Right? He never leaves evidence. No witnesses. Nothing.”

There is a stretch of silence punctuated only by the sound of wheels. Will turns his head and sees her rigid form, sees her complicated expression. He knows he’s right. Of course he does. He knows who did this. They both do. But now she knows he knows.

“I came up here to stand where he stood,” Will admits. “To look down there and see it from this perspective. His perspective. It feels a little like being God.” He inhales deeply through his nose; even at midday, the cold air stings his lungs. There’s still the faint scent of oil, stains sunken into the pavement below. Runoff from this accident will be polluting the ground for months, years. Long after the horror of it fades from the minds of normal, decent people, the earth will remember the one and only time the Ripper made a mistake. What is that if not divinity?

Miriam’s voice goes cold and hard. “The killer’s not God. He’s just a man.”

Will shrugs, rolls his neck. Removes his glasses. Folds them and hooks them over the collar of Hannibal’s coat, and squints at the subtle strain of his eye muscles. “Then understanding his perspective is even more important. The what and where lead to how. How leads to why. Why leads to who.” Will exhales through his nose, catches the sharp look she gives him, and meets it with a grim stare in return. He is balanced on the edge of getting arrested after all, and getting the intel he so desperately needs. He gestures at the Beltway below. “I know where. I know what—mostly.”

Miriam stands up straight. She squares her shoulders, and a stubborn glint makes itself known in her eyes. Despite her fitness, she’s smaller than Will; he could be dangerous to her if he wanted to be, and he sees her sizing him up. He knows he’s less likely to get what he wants if she sees him as a threat.

Will holds up his hands palm-up in a placating gesture. He makes sure she sees his scraped skin, his splint; he relaxes right along with her, when she sees his perceived weaknesses and writes him off. But she returns right back to suspicion. Will admires that. “Who the hell are you?”

“No one,” Will says. At her disbelieving glance he says, “Really, I’m not. I’m just a student. My ID’s in my car.”

Miriam squints suspiciously. “Psychology?”

Will shakes his head. “Wanted to, but no.” He shoves his hands in his pockets and resists the urge to shudder at the bitter wind. “People like me don’t study, we get studied.” Miriam stares at him in silence. Will knows if he gives no quarter, he’ll gain no trust. With a sigh hissing through his teeth and anxiety clenching around his heart, he says, “Journalism.”

A grimace—Will feels the easy peace fading with her disdain. “So you want the glory of catching him.”

Will sneers in response. In an instant, the space between them is tense, and the sound of vehicles roaring by beneath the overpass is deafening. “It’s not my job to catch him, officer. That’s your job.”

Silence. A car horn. The scream of an engine. Breath.

“So what do you want?” she asks.

And Will replies, “To find him. And let you do what you will.”

More quiet. Her eyes are shrewd, calculating, knowing. “You’re the one who writes that website.”

Will’s lips purse. He’s on a delicate precipice in which plausible deniability may save them both someday. Best to deny it. “Not sure what you mean.”

“Cut the crap.”

They stare at each other. In the space of a heartbeat, Will reads her—her ambition, her drive, the practical ruthlessness that lives inside her. “You don’t care, Miriam. You just want to be the one to catch him.”

Miriam’s face tightens. She doesn’t like the implication that she doesn’t care. He’s sure she does—she just doesn’t care what he does, so long as he doesn’t interfere. “He needs to be caught.”

Will tilts his head ever so slightly to the side, measuring her. Weighing his options. Right now, his options are limited, but not altogether bad. “If you give me the intel, I’ll give you my insight.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“I live,” Will replies. That doesn’t even take any thought. Living in this situation would be ideal. Anything else is a bonus, aside from—“And I find him.”

“Why do you care?”

“About living? Thought it was obvious.”

“You know what I mean.”

It’s a simple question. One to which Will does not have a concrete answer. “Because…” he falters. How can he explain a fascination like this? How can he justify it in such a way that she doesn’t immediately write him off as crazy, hopeless, or dangerous? Perhaps it’s best to downplay. To not explain at all.

(But maybe Will can’t even explain it himself.)

Miriam’s eyes are piercing. She doesn’t so much look at him as look through him. She reads people well, though he supposes in her career path, that’s likely a necessary skill with the added benefit of keeping her alive. In Will’s case, it might be what gets him killed.

“There’s a place in my head where the Ripper fits. If he’s not there, it’s just empty.” Will feels the roughness of the cold concrete against his fingertips as he touches the barricade. He wonders what the rope that suspended The Hanged Man was made from. Would it be polyester, rough, entirely common? Or would it be rare, like silk?

When the Ripper catches up to him, how will he take Will apart?

“Don’t you think that’s better than filling yourself up with death? If you keep going like that, you won’t have room for anything else.”

It feels like a slap. Will stares at her with wide eyes, seeing the flicker of her awareness that she’s stung him, and the tendril of regret for it. But she doesn’t take it back. And she shouldn’t.

She’s right.

If Will was smart, he’d cut and run. He’d stop chasing the Ripper, stop writing his articles. Sell the house. Move somewhere else. Finish his degree online. He’s leading himself into the jaws of death, and quite literally so. If Will chases this lead to the end, he won’t come back the same—won’t come back at all.

“No,” Will replies, and the words are shards of glass spoken into existence, cutting him up from the inside out. “It’s not better. What I’m doing is all I know. Without it, what do I have left?”

She doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need her to. The moment he asks the question, he knows.

Hannibal. He’d have Hannibal.

But he wouldn’t be enough.

The realization is a knife to the chest, a bitter blade that slices a hole the size of a man’s palm and perfectly excises his heart.

Will laughs to himself but it sounds like a sob, and looks away from the road. He looks at their cars, two old models in similar states of function but disrepair. It’s not so dissimilar from how he feels—worn down, but serving his sole purpose in chasing the Ripper.  When he sees her, he sees the same. “Our paths are aligned, Officer Lass. If we work together, maybe we can both get what we want.”

Miriam blinks. Purses her lips in consideration. “Maybe we can.”

They stare at each other. The silence stretches.

It is broken by the ping of Will’s cell phone, and the subsequent frown that draws together Miriam’s brows. Will sighs as he pulls his mobile from his pocket; he expects a text, or maybe an email. What he finds instead makes him freeze.

“I take it back. Maybe you should arrest me,” Will says. His heart thunders inside his ribs, in his throat, and his hand starts to shake as he drags it over his face. Sentimental rage works its way through his veins, and it hurts. The last thing Will sees is Miriam’s look of alarm before he closes his eyes. Exhales through his teeth. “I’m going to kill him.”

 


 

 

It’s been two days since the last time he saw or spoke to Will. Hannibal knows better than to think he’s taking it particularly well. The distance is wearing on him, the ineptitude of everything from passing drivers in morning traffic to the family members of his patients—the desire for yet another display to bring Will back to him again, despite his perfectly respectable and apologetic request for time to catch up on his schoolwork.

He knows it is unreasonable. He is strong enough to resist it. But it itches at his mind all the same.

And it has side effects. Namely, impulsivity. In a moment of weakness, he draws Will’s blank, folded check from where he’d hidden it in his desk drawer and surveys it. Notes the routing and account number. And in his medical records, Will’s permanent address and social security number.

Will had never clarified whether the hitch in his advertising revenue had ever been resolved. If he had mentioned it, Hannibal thinks, then ensuring his financial security wouldn’t be necessary.

It is with keen anticipation of the consequences that Hannibal transfers five thousand dollars into Will’s savings, then shuts off his phone.

After that, it’s only a matter of time.

Surgeries, breaks, scrubbing up. More surgeries. It’s almost laughable how routine his days have gotten now that he knows what the alternative feels like. Hannibal is a man of action, and despite the sense of godlike power that some doctors boast of, the glory and gore of it all is starting to fade. Most patients he saves, some he doesn’t. He relishes the challenge, but the laser-focus fades the moment he steps out of the operating theater.

“Doctor Lecter,” a nurse says as he pokes his head around the corner of the prep area. Yet another new hire, this one younger and more tired-looking than Bernadette has ever managed. “Someone here for you.”

Hannibal smiles to himself. “I’ll be just a moment.” He dries his hands and looks up; frowns faintly when he notices the time. No, Will should be in class. He can’t imagine Will skipping a lecture to drive to Baltimore in the middle of his day.

Well, yes he can. But he can similarly imagine Will sitting and stewing in silent anger, and he is more apt to believe the latter of his two preconceived notions. Which leaves the question of who, exactly, is waiting for him outside.

It is to a great deal of surprise that he finds her leaning against the doorway outside where she most certainly doesn’t belong—tight jeans and heeled boots, a vee-necked blouse and an old leather jacket, and ringlets tied at the top of her head. She smells overwhelmingly of artificial vanilla, and Hannibal narrowly resists wrinkling his nose. He takes one look at her and sees the shadow of Will in her outfit, and knows that’s not a coincidence. She’s much too shrewd for that.

“Hello, Miss Lounds,” Hannibal says with an arched brow. He cocks his head to the side at her solemn expression, and keeps in mind the less than favorable things Will has said about her. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Freddie offers a sad little smile that is entirely disingenuous, and that Hannibal sees through in less than a second. Her eyes are too sharp, too focused on surveying him and sizing him up. What does she see when she looks at him, he wonders? Opportunity, surely—she sees it in a way that Will did not. “I was hoping to talk to you.” Her eyes flicker up to the theater nurses shuffling out behind him. They are all too exhausted to pay them any mind, but Freddie adds, “Alone.”

Hannibal will admit that he is curious—but, too, he has a part to play. He frowns, knowing very well she’s not here for anything so benevolent when he says, “Is Will alright?”

Her teeth sink into her lower lip, eyes cast downward and glances up through her lashes. It’s coquettish. Irritating. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

And then he catches sight of the bracelet around her wrist, tucked under her sleeve—emergency admissions. She is here under false pretenses. What emergency bay did she skitter off from? It’s an expensive way to conduct an impromptu interrogation, though Hannibal has to admit he is somewhat impressed with her tenacity.

Hannibal allows his eyes to shift to hers as though he hasn’t noticed it at all. No, he’ll get more answers from someone like Freddie Lounds if she believes she is the smartest in the room. He weighs his options between allowing her to know the location of his office and having their conversation overheard, and decides that if she should ever try to return to break into his files, he has enough layers of security to deter her. “Very well,” he says. “If you’d like to walk with me, my office is in this direction.”

“Great,” she says with a simpering smile. “Thank you so much, really. I appreciate it.”

She trails along slowly behind him, an obvious encouragement for him to walk ahead. Instead, Hannibal matches her pace. He will keep her in view at all times. The fact that this seems to agitate her into a swifter pace only confirms her intent to be out of his line of sight. It’s an incredibly subtle manipulation. He has to admit that if it wasn’t for Will’s warnings and their prior meeting, he might have been tempted to underestimate her. Fortunately, he knows better.

He unlocks his office door with his keycard and six-digit code that he makes a mental note to change once their meeting is over. He stands aside for Freddie to enter first, and sees her twitch when he elects to leave the door open. Good. Anything to set her off-kilter.

“It’s kind of a private conversation,” she hints. Her eyes flick toward the open doorway and back.

Hannibal offers a polite smile. “My apologies. I must be available to hear the PA system if I’m paged.”

Freddie’s replying smile is frozen, unwavering. Plastic. “No beeper?”

“The signal in the lower levels of the hospital is spotty, I’m afraid.” Hannibal inclines his head as he rounds the desk and sits opposite her. “I’ve brought up my concerns multiple times, of course. But until the workaround is implemented, it’s standard policy for all doctors on call.” Freddie hums, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, though he knows she does not entirely believe him. As she shouldn’t—a hospital like Johns Hopkins would never abide such a gap in communication coverage, especially for emergency staff, but she has no immediate way to confirm that knowledge. Hannibal folds his hands together on the desktop and leans forward. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

At long last, her smile fades into something neutral, almost worried. She chews at her lip and lowers her eyes, rubs at the back of her neck in a gesture meant to convey nervous embarrassment. She’s quite the actress. “Look,” she says, “I’m sure you care about Will.”

Hannibal’s brows raise. “Very much.”

There is a tightness around her eyes that meanders along the border of bitterness. “And I’m sure he cares about you in his own way.” She pauses, lets the words sink in. If Hannibal were a lesser man, he might grow nervous—but he knows better than to allow Freddie Lounds to quantify his relationship with Will. What insight could she offer that Hannibal has not discovered himself? “But I’ve known Will for a long time.” Overstatement. “And I think you should know that he’s an extremely dedicated person.” Obvious. “He has good instincts.” Clearly. “But he uses his instincts to track down stories, no matter the cost.”

Hannibal tilts his head to the side. He doesn’t move otherwise. “Yes, I’m aware of Will’s commitment to his education.”

There is something that flashes across her face, like she thinks Hannibal is an idiot. But then she considers, carefully shrewd. “Will’s been chasing a story about a killer.”

Of course he is. But Hannibal is not about to say as much, and give Freddie the confirmation she’s been looking for. Hannibal frowns, like this is news. “Is he?”

Freddie’s hands fold in her lap. She stares at Hannibal like she can rip the secrets from his mind by sheer will alone. “Yes. The one who caused the accident yesterday on the Beltway. I’m sure you heard.”

Hannibal’s frown deepens. “Yes, I certainly heard. I was called in to assist.” Slowly, Hannibal reclines in his seat. “And he’s in pursuit of this killer, you say?”

Freddie nods, eyes backlit by cold curiosity. “Will’s been obsessed with this murderer for as long as I’ve known him. He’d do anything to catch up to him.” Her smile turns sympathetic, sweet. “Including lying to those who care about him. Taking advantage of them, if he thought it would get him what he needs.” One finger touches her lips. “Will’s the first person I ever heard call him the Chesapeake Ripper. And now it seems like everyone knows that name. It’s quite the coincidence.”

Hannibal carefully schools his expression. There is a strange sort of joy that comes from Freddie’s assertions that Will is obsessed with his work. He’s seen the fascination, surely—Will’s interest in the Ripper was what had brought them together in the first place. But the thought of Will and obsession leaves a honeyed taste on his tongue, something to be savored and consumed. Enjoyed.

Obsession is an open flame, and Hannibal would gladly see it consume him and Will both.

But he doesn’t show this train of thought. Instead, he allows himself to display a flash of discontent. Let her make of it what she will. “While it may be dangerous for Will to follow such a person, I’m not sure what you expect from me, Miss Lounds. He’s a creature of free will and fierce independence. I would have him no other way.”

“You don’t find it suspicious?” Freddie asks. She leans forward, the collar of her shirt sagging and exposing a flash of her collarbone and ivory skin. It is a juvenile attempt to draw his attention. Such a lure may work on simple, unattached men, but Hannibal is far beyond that. It hadn’t worked the first time, and it won’t work now. She really does have so much to learn.

But then her smile spreads, and her head tilts, and she looks at him with such pitying condescension that Hannibal must resist the urge to snap her neck then and there.

“No offense, Doctor, since you’re obviously successful and I’m sure you do very well for yourself. You’re a catch. But Will Graham doesn’t do relationships. Will dates, and he goes out with anyone who has information he needs, young or old, male or female.” Her finger taps impatiently on her knee. “So you’ll have to forgive my skepticism of him. But I thought you deserved to be warned, before Will takes whatever information he can get through his relationship with you and publicizes it. I just don’t believe a good man deserves to be ruined for trusting a pretty face.”

Perhaps Freddie is a skilled manipulator—but with her words, and not through the immature temptations she seeks to elicit with her wiles. Hannibal counts himself fortunate now for the conversations he’s had with Will, for the insight into how lonely his companion really is.

The significance Freddie puts behind the word dates—Hannibal wonders how Will would categorize it. Meetings between friends, perhaps, willfully misinterpreted by her for the purpose of misleading him. No, Hannibal decides, he does not very much care for Freddie Lounds at all. Though far be it for him to end a life with such close ties to his own, and to Will’s. But someday, perhaps. Someday.

“No, he does not,” Hannibal says, and though it sounds like agreement with her sentiment, it could be nothing but the opposite.

Freddie meets his eyes. Then, slowly, she realizes. “You don’t believe me.”

“In the time I have known Will, I have never found him to be anything but genuine and caring.” Hannibal allows the readable traces of expression to close off, become stoic. Let Freddie see him shutting her out. Let her be aware of how he doesn’t appreciate the audacity of her questioning his relationship. “I won’t lie to you, Miss Lounds. I’m aware of the rivalry you share with Will. And I’m quite aware of the website you run, and the information sourced from this hospital that you published upon it.” He sees Freddie’s expression pinch. Good. “I saw the scans of the autopsy report. I’m not sure how you came into possession of that knowledge—” Lie. “—but I know that if I reported you to my supervisors, you would not be allowed across our threshold again. Nor even, I think, in the case of an emergency, given your abuse of our trust.”

Hannibal nods knowingly at the hospital bracelet slipping from beneath her sleeve. Freddie scowls in a flash of lips and teeth, but her eyes are stricken when she looks up and sees Hannibal pinning her in place with the weight of his gaze.

“I find your conduct unspeakably discourteous,” Hannibal says with all the weight of a lord communicating a capital sentence. “And unethical, even for a student.”

“And what about Will’s ethics?” Freddie asks with a sneer. Her hands tighten on the arms of the chair. “Or, for that matter, your own? Do you make a habit of dating patients?”

Hannibal feels the lines of his forehead and the flesh around his eyes tighten with disdain. His back is rigid, locked in place to keep him anchored. “Will was never admitted to the hospital outside of the emergency room, and my treatment of him was taken over by another doctor when I was called away to surgery. He has never been my patient, and will never become my patient.” His teeth snap together as he imagines her flesh between his jaws.

Freddie’s smile is accusatory, poisonous. “And Will’s injuries, all those bumps and bruises—no comment, Doctor?” Her nails make an agitating clickclickclickclick against the metal armrests. “You know supplying a minor with alcohol is grounds for ethical review for your job.”

A vein throbs in his temple, shooting tension down to his toes. Hannibal forces a slow smile. Will would never reveal such a thing to someone like her, even by accident. She’s guessing, grasping at straws, making assumptions of circumstances from the constellations of Will’s injuries. “Whatever Will does with his own time before arriving at my home is his business.”

“How surprisingly cavalier of you.” Freddie huffs an irritated breath, a disbelieving laugh. She’s livid; he can see the fire inside her shining brightly, ready to destroy him, were he not made of stone. But the cruel curl of her lips promises her dedication to the attempt. “You’re protecting him.”

Hannibal raises his brows. “From slander and discriminatory bias? I certainly hope to.”

“Bullshit. You know what Graham’s doing. You know about his website. You probably gave him his intel.” She laughs incredulously. Her breath catches in her throat, and she stares at Hannibal. “You don’t care that he’s chasing the Ripper. You don’t care if he’s using you. You already know.” She covers her mouth, and her eyes narrow into sharp slits. Her fingers curl, nails biting into the soft skin of her face. In this moment, Hannibal dearly wishes they were his own. “He can’t possibly be that good of a lay. What does he have on you?”

There is no longer any perhaps about it. Someday, he will kill Freddie Lounds.

Hannibal feels the mask descend in full. His good humor is gone. He resists the urge to stand and tower over her, lest she interpret intimidation as guilt—but the desire is strong to make her aware of how inconsequential she is, and what a terrible transgression she has made against him. He can’t manage it to his standards at this moment, but the time will come. Hannibal folds his hands atop his desk and levels her with a piercing stare. The tone of his voice lowers to the sibilant warning hiss of a great serpent, threatened and poised to strike. “Miss Lounds, I would ask that you listen to me very carefully.”

Freddie freezes in place. She is a butterfly pinned to a specimen box for his enjoyment. He wonders if she can yet feel the piercing pain. “Are you listening?” Hannibal asks.

She swallows, sets her jaw. “Yes.”

Hannibal leans forward. This office, this room, is his to command. This place is his territory, this hospital is his base, and he is well-respected here. She is no threat to him, and it seems only now that she is starting to realize how her bold accusations may immediately and with fervor come to haunt her. “I do not appreciate your insinuations about Will’s character, or my own. Whatever vendetta you have against Will, be it personal or professional, I would ask you keep it away from me in the future, and out of my place of work. If you continue to disregard patient privacy laws, I will have you arrested.” He tilts his head to the side. “I will be reporting this incident. If you continue to harass Will, I will see that he brings a lawsuit against you. You will be expelled from your school and excommunicated from your degree field. This type of behavior is utterly unacceptable in the adult world, and altogether unlawful.”

Freddie’s face slackens with shock and dismay. For a split second, he sees a flicker of her fear. It is the most powerful he has felt since he cornered the pharmaceutical representative following a drug deal; the most satisfied since he woke up with Will in his bed.

“I hope you will take this opportunity to learn and grow,” Hannibal says, and lifts his chin. He is prideful, victorious, and she has lost this headstrong amateur gambit to the patient workings of a master. They both know it. “And I hope that if we are to stumble upon each other again, it will be under more civilized terms.”

Freddie swallows hard. She looks so incredibly young, filled with anger and apprehension that knows no direction. Her fingers shake as she winds them together in her lap; her eyes are still bright with indignation.

And then she ducks her head. Her red lips part on a sneer and a laugh. “I’m going to prove it, you know.”

Hannibal disregards her. He lifts one hand and gestures calmly to the open doorway. “You may see yourself out. Don’t delay. I’ll give you five minutes before I call hospital security.”

Freddie stands. Then, with vitriol in her eyes, she dips low in a mocking curtsy, a sardonic by your leave. She excuses herself without another word. He gives her the time he promised, and not a moment more, before he returns to the emergency department. As expected, Freddie Lounds and all her belongings are gone.

Perhaps she is not so smart as she believes she is, Hannibal thinks, as he turns over her information and description to the security staff. He bites down on a smile, and maintains his carefully-sculpted expression of concern. It is entirely for the staff’s benefit; Hannibal could not possibly care less what personal information she comes across, so long as it is not his or Will’s.

He returns to the operating room with a strong sense of satisfaction. Though it will not be today or tomorrow, Hannibal will catch up to her.

Freddie Lounds left behind an address.

That is, however, the only vindication Hannibal receives. He works to the end of his shift without any further interruptions, and Will doesn’t come.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Not calling Will is a matter of pride.

It seems exceedingly unlikely that Will wouldn’t have noticed the money transfer by now. Concerned though Hannibal may be, he has made his move. He is not going to retract it. Nor, it seems, is Will planning on addressing it. Hannibal turns his phone on as he climbs into the Bentley, but finds no angry text messages or scolding voicemails.

For a moment, he feels a flicker of worry. But there is no sense in allowing it to take over, and reaching out would be admitting defeat. It’s best to leave these things alone and let the chips fall as they may. Will is bound to contact him sooner or later.

And if Will’s rebuttal of choice proves to be the silent treatment, Hannibal will make himself impossible to ignore. He does know where Will lives. Or, he could always take the less-direct route and escalate. The money is no object to him. Depositing larger and larger sums would be a rare opportunity to test the boundaries of Will’s irritable nature. He hasn’t had the opportunity since before the accident. Needling Will’s sensibilities would be a return to their earlier dynamic—normalcy, almost, if they truly know each other enough now to have a normal.

(And the idea of Will pink-cheeked and snarling is undeniably attractive.)

It is with Will in his mind that Hannibal arrives home to dark and empty halls. The hour is late, nearly midnight, but his mind is energized. Hannibal ascends the stairs to shower and change, to free himself from the smell of antiseptic and sterility of the hospital.

The master bedroom is dim before him, light filtering from the street lamps outside through the curtains. Crossing the threshold brings only the faintest lingering scent of Will, still folded into the threads of his bedsheets. The presence and absence in his bed was one he never thought to notice until Will was tucked in beside him, soft and trusting and radiating heat. The pale nape of his neck had glowed in the moonlight, begging for the impression of teeth; Hannibal had resisted from propriety alone. If fate should return them to such a time again, in the absence of trauma, they may be more free to interact as they wish. Mouths against mouths, skin against skin, Will’s hand squeezing his so desperately in a scramble to stay anchored—this time without fear, without the looming shadow of death, though perhaps not without a trace of blood.

How is it that he has found himself searching the empty spaces in his home and imagining Will within them? Somehow, the time they shared together only seemed to absorb Will’s imprint. It has left shadows of him on the walls, burned into the floors. The places he has touched hold traces of his memory. Hannibal, too, can feel the handprints Will has left upon his skin. Hannibal’s fingers slide across his mattress, the silhouette of Will’s sleeping body still present in the palace of his mind.

The Beltway had been close. Too close. Whatever display he arranges next will have to be more carefully thought out. He will take his time—consider it, craft it, plan more elaborately than he has since he started displaying his kills in the Chesapeake Bay basin.

His hand halts. Curls in the quilt, leaves a wrinkled impression that now mars the previously-perfect military-corners of his bedspread.

The Chesapeake Ripper.

Now that Will has named him, has claimed him, it is so easy to think of himself as Will’s Chesapeake Ripper. A hint of irony clings to his mind whenever he calls the Ripper your killer; he has murmured it into Will’s ear and received no denial, no disgust. It is not a suggestion, or an implication, but a strange and dangerous truth.

And just as he belongs to Will, Will belongs to him. Will is his for always, forever. Hannibal is going to keep him, tame him, train him. Take the raw edges of this precious, finite resource and mold Will into his most refined self. His most elegant shape. The most savagely beautiful killer. His perfect one, his only—mylimasis, beloved.

Already he can see the shape Will has begun to take beneath the ivory veil of his skin, spinning himself into a chrysalis of his own making. Chasing the Ripper, assuming his mindset, is good for them both. It keeps Hannibal on his toes, keeps Will alert and attentive. Though the desire is so strong to tell and share all, it’s not time. Will must come to the realization on his own—ideally, unassisted. When the time comes, Hannibal has moderate confidence that Will’s feelings for him will be enough to give him pause, to pin his morals in place for long enough to assess his conflicted feelings.

And it will be a conflict; Hannibal is sure of that. Will is of two minds—the male and female finding peace somewhere in the middle. It is common ground they share where Will is of one mind to care about Hannibal, and one mind to pursue his mark. Hunter and Huntress living inside one skin.

In that regard, it has never been a stretch to understand Will’s mentality. It is one he shares.

Hannibal takes a slow breath, inhales the last dregs of Will’s scent clinging to the corners of his bedroom. Soon enough, he tells himself. He only has to be patient, and Will is sure to return to him. With that in mind, Hannibal strips from his scrubs and places them in the hamper, then heads for the shower.

The diluted-pink puddles of Will’s blood are long since scrubbed away, but Hannibal can still imagine the color on the tile. It’s almost as good as the real thing, but not quite.

 


 

Though he would usually dress well for dinner, the late hour and long day demands something slightly more comfortable. Hannibal settles for soft but tailored lounge pants and one of his older gray button-downs, flexible and worn around the cuffs when he rolls them up around his forearms. He makes a mental note to put more effort in tomorrow; he should have plenty of time in the evening, once his co-opted shadowing of Frederick Chilton is over for the afternoon. A more elaborate menu, a trip to the organic market, and perhaps, if he is fortunate, Will might have decided to break his silence in time to be open to a dinner invitation.

The thought is satisfying, and Hannibal hums one of Chopin’s nocturnes to himself as he descends the stairs, planning a menu in his mind. In the meantime, he sets about putting his day-old scrubs into the wash, donning his modest chef’s apron, and prepping for a late dinner—a thawed and ten-hour sous vide section of loin from a snappy dental hygienist who had cut him off in traffic. He had never bothered to display her; as a runner, and a particularly lean woman at that, she had exceptionally prime cuts. It seemed such a waste to let her rot for the sake of pettiness, when simply allowing her to be forgotten was far more practical recompense.

All that’s left is to crust the loin and sear it, then prepare some sort of vegetable; perhaps radishes and purple carrots shaved into a slaw with a lemon poppyseed vinaigrette. That leaves a grain—Hannibal debates the merits of a brioche crouton with a balsamic reduction as he brings the dutch oven to the sink to drain. He extracts the vacuum-sealed loin and slices the bag with a chef’s knife, then sets it on his cutting board to rest.

From the pantry, he finds a jar of his favored French-imported dijon, and fresh Virginia parmesan from the fridge. He pats the loin dry with paper towel and is pleased to find it perfectly cooked. Sous vide is a reliable method of preparation, and simple to a fault. Difficult to get wrong when all he has to do is set it aside when he leaves for the day. It’s not unlike a crock pot, but with none of the room for error, and that is immensely satisfying.

Hannibal spreads a thin layer of the dijon and a generous coating of the cheese over the outside, then sets a pan atop the burner, liberally coated with oil. He has only just turned the flame up and is on a mission to retrieve the slaw ingredients when he hears a sound and freezes.

Listens. Hears it again.

Someone is knocking at his front door.

Hannibal retreats to the cooktop. With a moment of consideration, he turns the flame off, movements stilted. Surely the FBI would not be so polite as to knock. Hannibal’s neighbors know he maintains irregular hours, and are fairly self-reliant people anyway. Outside of an accident on the road drawing someone to his home in search of help, Hannibal can’t imagine what someone would be visiting for so late.

Unless—

Hannibal strides to the door, listening with all his ability like he might hear and identify the heartbeat on the other side of the entryway. It turns out he needn’t have bothered.

Will is gloriously livid, eyes wide and dark, and rudely pushes past Hannibal in the time it takes him to blink. Will does not look his usual self, rougher and boyish with his hair tied back at the nape of his neck, clad in unfitting clothing and work boots, wrapped and buttoned into Hannibal’s wool coat that he wears like a monarch’s robes. It suits him.

“You son of a bitch,” Will says with a furious scowl, cocks his hip and sets his jaw, and yes, there he is, outfitted by the shadows in Hannibal’s entryway, backlit by the glow from the kitchen. The cuts on his face have scabbed over, two red and rough patches across his cheekbone and along his jaw. His glasses sit atop one; Hannibal wonders if it hurts. Will probably doesn’t care if it does.

Hannibal stares. Absorbs. He is not ashamed to admit that he is silent and admiring of Will’s rage, and would gladly cultivate it to see this irate creature storm into his home on any given night. Perhaps he should cement Will’s financial security more often.

Hannibal closes the front door and locks it. He expects Will is going to be here for a while. “No hello?”

“Don’t,”’ Will replies shortly. “You know what you did.”

“Shoes off.” Will blinks, temporarily off-kilter, and Hannibal presses his advantage. He walks away. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you’d like to continue your tirade.”

He hears Will scrambling to unlace his boots behind him; the muffled curse as a shoulder impacts the wall. Hannibal chuckles to himself as he crosses the kitchen threshold, then makes himself busy extracting two glasses and a bottle of chianti from the wine cooler. He no sooner has two measures poured than Will stalks into the kitchen, and his coat is gone. Instead, Hannibal takes in meshing tones of green and black plaid, and the ill-fitting shirt is familiar for the memory it holds—the night they met, Will just as sharp-tongued and combative now as he was then.

It calls for a countermeasure. Hannibal catches him off-guard when he hands Will the glass, traps him within the confines of civility. Will has a certain reverence for Hannibal’s belongings. He’ll be too careful being mindful of the glass’ fragility to slip into true anger.

Hannibal sips, and schools his features as he does. The flavor of the chianti bursts across his tongue like Sangiovese grapes between his teeth. Will’s expression is drawn and tight, a frustrated crinkle across his brow as he holds the glass in his splinted hand. Though he often finds the presence of mind to shed his manners in Hannibal’s presence, he was raised into them—Will spitefully and obligingly takes a small sip, his eyes on Hannibal all the while. He tracks Hannibal’s movements and stays very still; he is a lion on his first hunt, unsure but full of intent. But Hannibal is not prey, and does not feel the need to hide himself in that regard, not from Will.

He balances the carrots, radishes, and a head of red cabbage in the crook of his arm; teeters a fresh lemon atop them all, and sets them aside on a clear portion of the counter. With the ease and mastery of one comfortable in his domain, Hannibal extracts a handheld grater from the drawer and large cutting board from the cabinet below. He puts everything atop it, and reaches high to pull down a glass jar of poppy seeds. Will’s eyes weigh heavily on his back; Hannibal savors the sensation.  

He takes another sip, and pulls a second knife from the butcher block. He turns, inclines his head, and holds it out handle-first to Will. “Would you like to sous chef?”

Will stares at the knife. His fingers tighten around the stem of the wine glass (but, Hannibal notices, he does hold it correctly). When his gaze lifts to Hannibal’s face, it seems to be with a slow and baffling sense of incredulity. “You’re offering me a weapon when I’m pissed at you?”

“You will either stab me or you won’t,” Hannibal replies. Amusement fizzes subtly inside his chest like champagne. He’d like to see Will try; absently wonders the depths to which he’d have to irritate Will to get him to truly consider it. With a frisson of pleasure and pride, he realizes Will wouldn’t have mentioned such a thing if he hadn’t already imagined it. “I’ll take my chances against your ire.”

Will takes another slow sip. The glass presses provocatively against the healing split in his lower lip as he considers the blade, considers Hannibal. His mouth is pleasantly red with the tint of the wine, a color that will become more bold and rich the more he drinks—if he does. Hannibal wonders if he might settle Will’s anger, temper his rage, convince him with soft words and soft touches to spend the night. Glut himself on Will’s scent, his weight, his warmth, taste the sweetness of his lips and the sting of his teeth. The two of them, evolving.

With a sigh, Will steps forward and reaches out. He takes the handle, and their hands touch; Hannibal holds the spine of the blade pinched between thumb and index finger. One wrong motion could cut him badly if Will so desired, but he holds steady. Holds Hannibal’s eyes.

“It’s good to see you, Will,” Hannibal murmurs.

A soft, hesitant expression flickers across Will’s face. His shoulders hunch under Hannibal’s attention, defensive and unsure, and Will hides it behind the chunky frames of his glasses. It seems he has rebuilt his brittle outer shell in their time apart. Hannibal must once again coax him out and free, steep him in positive attention until he blooms.

It is a challenge, but not an unwelcome one. Having Will confident and wanting under his hands is too tempting a reward to pass up.

Will glances up over the rims of his glasses, through the curls of his bangs, and back down again to Hannibal’s hand. He brushes their knuckles together, slow and deliberate, and in the same motion, deftly twists the knife away. He swivels around Hannibal with his head held high. “I’m still pissed at you.” He stands at the counter and takes another sip of wine, turning the knife in his hand as he considers Hannibal’s selected ingredients. “What am I making?”

The loin can wait a few minutes more. Hannibal insinuates himself at Will’s side, just shy of hip-to-hip. “A winter slaw,” Hannibal replies. “Dice the cabbage finely, then grate the carrots and radishes together.” Hannibal extracts a stainless bowl from the cabinet above, as well as the glass bottle and pouring spout of oil. “And a lemon poppyseed vinaigrette. If you’d like to start with the vegetables, I’ll toast the seeds.”

Will nods and sets the wine glass aside. He doesn’t hesitate with the blade, chopping deftly in firm, even strokes. He falls into the rhythmic motion of slicing, steel against the bamboo board in a familiar, comforting sound. Hannibal reflects briefly on the intimacy of having another person in his kitchen as he finds a small second skillet and toasts the poppyseeds over low heat. He heats the searing pan on another burner, and waits for the oil to grow hot enough to smoke.

The silence between them is tense, though Hannibal is unbothered by it. It’s simply for want of hearing Will’s voice when he asks, “Would you like to talk about it?”

Slice. “I can take care of myself,” Will replies immediately, like the words were waiting, boiling beneath his skin. “Stepping in like that—first of all, is totally illegal, you don’t have my permission, and I should probably turn you in for identity theft—but it’s crossing boundaries, Hannibal.” Will huffs, tosses an irritated glance back over his shoulder to where Hannibal stands attentively at the cooktop. The knife continues to move, growing quicker with the force of Will’s agitation. “I know you probably did it from a place of caring, and I appreciate that, but, like…”

The blade lifts from the board, and Will gestures with it angrily. Hannibal blinks, watching with rapt attention as Will turns his attention back to the cabbage, and the lecture Will directs toward it. “It’s over the top. You can’t just do that. If you had concerns you should have talked to me about it, or, like,” Will stutters, reorients himself, and turns bodily, expression twisting with distress, “for God’s sake, you couldn’t just, like, buy me a sandwich or something? Five thousand dollars. On top of the ten thousand you already spent on that fucking Gala ticket, I just—”

Hannibal huffs and steps forward, catches Will by the wrist with one hand and takes the knife from him with the other. Will snarls, but at least has the good sense to allow Hannibal to do it, rather than resist and run the risk of hurting them both. “I would have bought you lunch if you had come to see me.” He sets the knife on the cutting board. There’s quite enough cabbage already cut; he hands Will the grater instead, and stands still while Will absorbs the change. “But I was trying to respect your request for space. I see that my actions may have been impulsive, but believe me that I would have done it whether or not you had been with me each day.”

Will’s chin tips up. His face is so close, and his lip curls in a subtle sneer. “Don’t bullshit me,” Will says softly, warningly. “I’m pissed because you violated my privacy. You weren’t respecting my request for space, you wanted my attention.”

Clever thing. Hannibal quirks a brow and backs away, returns to the cooktop and shuffles the toasting seeds. “So if I’d handed you a cheque and told you I wished to assist you in your struggles, you would have accepted it?”

No, Will would not have. They both know that perfectly well. Will scowls and sighs and turns around to grate the radishes. “No, because I’m not a charity case, Hannibal. I’m managing just fine.”

“Are you?” Hannibal asks. He sends Will a sidelong glance, and takes in the shape of his body beneath the baggy clothes. “You’ve lost weight.”

“I’m not starving, I’m stressed, ” Will snaps. He inhales slowly, exhales. He breathes again. Shoulders slump. He hangs his head.

Hannibal removes the seeds from the heat and sets them aside to cool. He approaches slowly, and leaves space between them; rests his hip against the counter, but lingers and arm’s length away. He regards Will with some measure of concern—the hollows under his eyes that he is trying to hide with his glasses, the slight tremble of his hands. He doesn’t look well. “I didn’t mean to cause you discomfort, Will,” Hannibal says. It’s not an apology; he has no intention of apologizing, and he isn’t sorry. “But I don’t regard you as a charity case. I wanted to help you.”

“I know,” Will replies with a distressed little moan. His hand clenches around the handle of the grater, knuckles bleached white. “But I’m an adult, Hannibal. You can’t just solve my problems. You have to let me manage them.”

Will’s dedication to his solitary existence would be an admirable thing if Hannibal were not trying so hard to break him of the habit. “No human being on this earth is every truly alone, Will. We are social creatures. Seeing distress in those we care for causes distress.” Hannibal reaches for him, rests his fingertips on the back of Will’s hand and feels him flinch. He tsks quietly, slides his palm over the backs of Will’s knuckles, the polyester splint, and tangles their fingers together. He waits until Will relaxes. It takes time and patience, but when he does, the satisfaction is immense. “I understand the need to feel secure. To provide for yourself, and to know that you can provide for yourself. I don’t doubt that of you. That’s not why I did it.”

Will tips toward him, but does not fully give in to the gravity between their bodies. He’s proud, determined, but starving for reassurance. Hannibal gives it in the form of his thumb traversing the sensitive vee of Will’s ulnar collateral ligament, the join between his fingers and the connective webbing of his palm.

Will wavers, but doesn't collapse. “How did you even get my bank information?”

Hannibal hums in quiet amusement. “I can’t tell you all my secrets. How will I pay your tuition?”

Will turns on a dime, eyes wide and accusing. His lips part in quiet alarm, disbelief, and he searches Hannibal’s face. “You didn’t,” he says, and lets out a far too relieved breath when the glint in Hannibal’s eyes gives away the joke. Will’s brows draw into a heavy frown, irritation making itself known in the exposed points of his teeth, the shrinking of his pupils. “You better not, Hannibal, I mean it.”

Hannibal thinks it would be worth Will’s agitation, though he dares not say so. He smirks to himself and enjoys that it only seems to rile Will more, and brightens to a smile when Will’s eyes flicker toward the kitchen knife. “Have you reconsidered stabbing me?”

“Don’t tempt me,” Will warns. He huffs when Hannibal tugs on his hand, and obligingly goes where he is bid—but doesn’t turn into Hannibal’s embrace, and his shoulder bumps hard against Hannibal’s sternum. He noses roughly at Hannibal’s jaw, but when Hannibal’s lips brush Will’s temple, he turns his face away. “No,” Will says, though it sounds more pouty than angry. “No kiss. I’m still mad.”

Hannibal chuckles against his cheek. Stubborn, so stubborn. He knows very well that Will denying him is denying them both; he can easily see it in the way Will convulsively licks the trace of wine from his lips and leaves them slick and shiny. If Will hopes to hide the desire in his eyes behind his glasses, he is sorely out of luck. Hannibal winds his arm around Will’s waist—the benefit of Will’s ill-fitting clothes means his terrible jeans are slipping down, exposing the pale crest of his hip. Hannibal curls his fingers around the bone and feels Will shiver against his chest. That shiver turns to a full-body shudder when his mouth finds Will’s ear, when he nibbles at the soft scar tissue where the lobe is pierced through and murmurs, “My sincerest apologies, mylimasis. How should I make it up to you?”

Will’s mouth opens on a silent sound that never makes it out of his throat. He swallows it down and sets his jaw, presses his lips together. “Stop that,” he replies breathlessly.

So Hannibal stops. “If you’d like.” Hannibal has no desire to move away, but whether he truly meant it or not, Will has asked him to. He removes himself from Will’s warmth and returns to the kitchen island behind him. Each interaction with Will is a game of give and take, strategic push forward and retreat.

Now, he retreats. The oil on the stovetop is more than hot enough for Hannibal to begin searing the loin, and he’s reluctant to let it sit for much longer anyway. With a snap and sizzle, Hannibal places it into the pan. He can wait patiently until Will returns to him.

It takes less than a minute.

This time, it is Will who comes to Hannibal’s side. His wine glass is abandoned, half-full on the counter—his focus is solely on Hannibal as he cooks. Hannibal bites the inside of his cheek to resist a smug smile. “What’re you making?”

“Dijon and parmesan-crusted loin,” Hannibal replies. If asked, he is prepared to call it pork. Will doesn’t ask. “Cooked in the sous vide while I was on shift, finished on the rangetop.”

“Smells good,” Will says softly. His eyes slip from the pan, up Hannibal’s arm, and it lingers like a caress as his stare locks on Hannibal’s face. Hannibal does not react, but the warmth he feels is pleasant. No matter their subtle maneuvering of one another, Will’s regard is always welcome. Hannibal turns to look at him, meets Will’s gaze. He waits expectantly as the silence between them gains meaning, tension, words yet unspoken.

Will breaks their eye contact. His brow crinkles with frustration, but whatever it is he means to say, he does not seem to know how to say it.

Hannibal takes a step back, offers a small and merciful reprieve. “Here,” he says. “Step in.” Will does exactly that, and takes the grasp of the pan in his splinted hand. Hannibal watches for a moment over his shoulder, reads the silent intent when Will lifts his chin and deliberately relaxes one shoulder, offering the expanse of his neck and a place at his back for Hannibal to fill.

Will sighs when Hannibal’s chest meets his spine. Though their tension has a place and time, Hannibal enjoys this closeness. The indulgence of Will’s trust. He anticipates the day when Will stands with him like this knowing exactly what it is they’re making—dares to dream that day may eventually come, and Will’s acceptance with it. Perhaps, if he is fortunate; if he plays his cards right, and if Will’s supposed obsession with the Ripper as a killer can exist harmoniously with his regard for Hannibal as a man.

“It has to sear on each side,” Hannibal says. “Until it’s fragrant, and the parmesan crisps. Just a few minutes each turn. Not too long, since the meat is already cooked. It would be a different matter if we were finishing it in the oven, but here, we use the high heat to our advantage. There is a marriage of flavor in it being not quite charred, only nearly burned.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, Hannibal touches his lips to Will’s temple. He smooths them in a path over the hard ridges of Will’s scabs, jaw and cheek and back again, and feels the distance between those wounds spread when Will’s mouth opens on a gentle exhale.

“I feel burned,” Will whispers, and his voice is nearly lost over the sound of human flesh sizzling on the stove. “I didn’t actually want you to stop.”

“Nor did I want to,” Hannibal replies. Will’s fingers clench around the handle of the skillet. “But you asked me to. And I will always stop, unless you ask me not to.”

Will licks his lips. The sound of them parting is not unlike a kiss. Hannibal exhales smoothly and touches Will’s side, drags his knuckles down slight inward curve of Will’s waist to feel him shiver and squirm. What he gets in response is even better.

“I missed you.” Will moans it like the words have been ripped out of him. “God, I did. I shouldn’t.”

And just like that, Hannibal is vastly, fiercely interested. Invested, as he always is where Will is concerned. His mouth slips downward. His tongue brushes under the curve of Will’s jawbone, tasting skin, tasting the pounding of Will’s pulse. “No? Why shouldn’t you?”

“It’s too much. Too fast. I—” Will laughs, a broken little sound, that starts and ends with him whispering, “Hannibal.”

Hannibal’s arm slips around him, fingers spreading wide and warm and possessive across Will’s belly. He presses an open-mouthed kiss to Will’s pulse, feels Will’s answering moan shaking against his lungs. Hannibal rubs his mouth against the slick patch of Will’s skin, wets his lips with it, feels each breathless, aborted gasp like a punch to the gut. “Whatever you feel,” Hannibal says, “You are not alone. I’m right beside you.” His hand clenches in the front of Will’s shirt, gently pulls him back until their bodies are fully flush. “The human experience is made to burn bright and fast. Whatever we feel, we are made to feel it with our whole selves, like what you feel for me, and I for you. Don’t be afraid of it, Will.”

Will laughs again. It is wounded. Needing. Punctuated with a gasp. “I’m not afraid of you.”

Will reaches forward and turns the burner off, then pushes the pan across the cooktop, off the direct heat. Hannibal barely has time to absorb the sound of steel against the iron grates before Will has turned and shoved him backward, until his back meets the opposite counter and Will fills the space at his front. Mouth demanding, body insistent, Will drags him down into a kiss that tastes like wine, and bites at his lower lip with small, sharp teeth. The sting of it is exquisite, the edge of pain accentuating desire.

Hannibal has always been a slave to his sensory needs. Will has always managed to fill all of them.

Hannibal snarls at the drag of Will’s blunt fingernails against his scalp, the tug as Will angles his head so their teeth don’t knock in the process of their kissing. Will’s tongue is swift, clever, insistent—Hannibal finds it with his own, coaxes Will into exploration. He wants, yes, and he wants so very much. He wants Will to be his, to never stray, never leave. To spend his hours here in the halls of Hannibal’s home, for them to push each other to greater heights and greater passions. New beginnings.

Hannibal knots his hands in Will’s oversized shirt, drags him closer, to stand between his legs. The weight of Will’s body is somehow more slight than it had been even a few days ago, and Hannibal is determined to see him sated in any way be can manage. Touched, kissed, held, cherished, anything and everything. One palm slips under Will’s knee and draws it up, parts Will’s thighs with hardly a thought and hooks Will’s leg around his hip. Arousal is a given, a constant, and the friction of Will’s other thigh against the hot swell of his cock is indescribable; Hannibal’s breathing stutters as Will’s nails trail down the back of his neck, across the blades of his shoulders, and down, down, raising gooseflesh over each vertebrae of his spine until they flatten on the countertop behind him.

Will breaks away from Hannibal’s mouth, lips red, eyes dark and terribly wild. He tucks his face against Hannibal’s shoulder as they grind. Moans. Whines. Gasps, “Oh fuck, fuck.

Hannibal presses his face into Will’s hair. Inhales the scent of drug-store strawberry shampoo, of skin, of Will, of his. The monster inside him unsheathes its claws and longs to lay claim, and it is with that in mind that Hannibal tucks his chin over Will’s shoulder, wraps his arms around Will’s waist and holds him so close that it nearly hurts. Feels the roll of Will’s hips against his in tight, harsh drags, the abrasive sensation of cloth against skin in the absence of sweat and slickness.

He cups the curve of Will’s ass through his baggy jeans. Hannibal holds, guides his movements into something more controlled, and Will slows—a curious swivel of hips, a shuddering curse snapped against Hannibal’s neck at they rut together. He savors the sensation of Will’s mouth at the base of his neck, sucking until it aches. Hannibal’s gut clenches at the knowledge others will see this mark and know their debauchery. This private moment in Hannibal’s kitchen will follow him into work, into hospital halls and operating rooms. The brand laid upon him by Will Graham, his attention and adoration, is one that will last beyond dripping sweat and pounding hearts.

Hannibal wants him. He wants Will stripped to skin and bone, his to devour and consume. He wants to cut Will out of his terrible clothes with the chef’s knife on the counter. He wants to carry Will upstairs and fuck him in silk sheets, wrench gasps and sobs and screams from his lungs. He wants Will’s back bowed in ecstasy, furrows torn into bedclothes and sensitive skin. He wants slickness and heat and Will’s body clutching around him. He wants to feel Will’s heartbeat from inside. He wants—

Will’s teeth pierce his shoulder, and for one beautiful, terrible moment, those thoughts are gone, and only the monster remains. Hannibal’s mind, his desire, every sense and sensibility goes blank.

He bleeds. Hannibal knows he is bleeding. In the split-second instinct he has to snap Will’s neck, he forces his hands to clench on Will’s hips instead. Hannibal stands still and the world rushes on around him. His ears ring; all sound fades. His mind is at war with itself. One half screams kill him. The other half whispers keep him.

And then Will freezes. When his jaws unlock, Hannibal feels the distinct sensation of teeth leaving his skin, and the barricade of punctured fabric dislodging from his flesh thread by thread. Will bit him through his shirt. Oh, the bite won’t be deep, and it may not even scar, but the fact remains that Will has set his teeth to Hannibal’s skin and tasted his fill of blood, and no one else has ever done that. Hannibal has never been bitten before, truly bitten. Not by a lover, or prey, or anyone.

Like in all things, Will is the first.

Will throws himself back with a gasp and wide, wild eyes. His back meets the opposite counter. His eyes lock on the wet patch on Hannibal’s shoulder, damp with saliva and pinpricks of blood that have soaked through, and Will shakes like a spring fawn. He looks ravenous, and equally frightened by that. Ashamed, as he presses the heel of his hand to his cock and muffles a whimper behind closed lips. Will’s shoulders hunch. His pupils are blown and nearly eclipse his irises, and Hannibal has never seen someone look so simultaneously aroused and terrified.

The more silent seconds that pass, the more the realization sinks in that Will has bitten him. Marked him. That doing so was his primary instinct. That he hasn’t thought or planned, but simply felt and responded. Animal instinct, and Will’s is rooted in teeth. The predator Hannibal had seen in him is closer to the surface than previously believed. It is present and awake, and it wants as badly as he does, howling for a mate.

Will’s eyes are rapt on Hannibal’s shoulder—it burns, but the wound is superficial. Now that the shock of it has passed, he knows physically, it is little more than a scrape. But the truth of it remains: whether he meant to or not, whether he knows it or not, Will has claimed him, Ripper and Hannibal both.

Will looks up. Their eyes lock. In them, Hannibal sees the creature he’s been courting, and here they stand, surrounded by their own territory and no interruptions. Mouth red. Eyes black, with only the barest slivers of blue remaining. Pink cheeks. White teeth. Lit by golden glow and creeping shadow, all rich colors and cheap texture, Will is the most confounding piece of art he has ever seen, and Hannibal wants him enough to kill for it.

“Do you want me to stop?” Hannibal asks, because he must. Whatever Will wants. Whatever he wants, Hannibal will respect it. Hannibal will not force him and would never. Will’s trust is too precious to fracture with something so fickle as unfulfilled physical desire. This is just one moment out of a million.

Will’s mouth opens. His tongue touches his teeth, and his chest heaves with the force of his breath. “I want…” Will’s gaze flickers to the bite and back. He blinks slowly, almost dazed, but his eyes are sharp as blades. “I want, um.” He swallows. Lashes flutter, like he is trying so desperately to get himself to focus. In truth, Hannibal is having difficulty with it himself, but he is locked on Will’s every word. He simply needs an answer, yes or no.

Will takes a step forward on shaking legs. In the back of his mind, Hannibal knows he should be concerned with how they’re healing, but he can’t summon the presence of mind to care. He is waiting on Will, his actions, his decision. His consent is the only tether holding Hannibal to humanity; a thin golden chain that loosens with every step Will takes toward him.

There is a glint in Will’s eyes that is bright like fire, burning, locked on the imprint of his teeth as he draws near. The monster inside Hannibal sees it, recognizes it. It’s the same impulse that drove Will to bite him in the first place. It grows more intense the closer Will gets, until he can slip between the very space he vacated between Hannibal’s legs, until his eyes are rapt upon that place, and Hannibal’s hands are clenched so tightly on the countertop that he feels he could fracture the granite.

When Will leans forward, so very slowly, Hannibal holds still.

Will presses his mouth there, a chaste kiss that morphs into warm breath as his lips part. Ever so gently, Will sets his teeth in the imprints, but does not bite. The hard points of his canines are tangible through linen and silk, pressed against the crest of Hannibal’s shoulder, just shy of his neck, bracketing the tendon. Will could do a great deal of damage if he wanted to. Impact the mobility of his shoulder, surely.

Hannibal reaches up with one hand, fingers aching with the release of tension, and the broad span of his palm spreads around the nape of Will’s neck. He is not entirely certain whether he is holding Will closer or preparing to wrench him away. The ridges of his nails press into Will’s tender skin. There is something about the threat of danger that is unspeakably primal, the uncertainty of whether Will means to hurt or hold, fight or fuck.

Hannibal has never denied his animal side. His instincts are a gift from the ancestors of humanity. What must it be like for Will to cling to the outlines of civility? And what will it take for Hannibal to set him loose into savagery?

Will leans into him and Hannibal’s gut clenches. He bares his teeth, though Will can’t see it. Will is warm, heavy against his straining cock, and Hannibal can scent the beginnings of Will’s sweat, the rich undertones of sex, but none of that is the word yes.

Hands knot in Hannibal’s shirt at his waist and he bites back a growl. His mouth drops open as Will drags them upward, and his lips and teeth follow, a slow, sensual drag to the column of Hannibal’s neck. They linger on his throat. The hot, wet flat of Will’s tongue against his pulse. Palms pushing up and over his pectorals, his shoulders—

Will’s fingers slip into his hair, curled behind his ears, and the pads of his thumbs smooth over Hannibal’s cheeks. It’s assertive. Presumptuous. Affectionate. If anyone has ever dared to touch him like this before Will, Hannibal certainly can’t remember it. Will stares at him, and Hannibal sees himself reflected back in the infinite darkness and danger of Will’s eyes.

“I’m still so fucking mad at you,” Will murmurs, and drags Hannibal down for a bruising kiss.

It is all the permission he needs.

With all the strength he’s managed over the years of moving bodies, moving Will is infinitely more pleasurable. Hannibal slides his hands beneath Will’s thighs and lifts, hauls him up and growls his victory as Will scrambles to lock his legs around his hips. The weight of him drags Will down against his cock. Hannibal exhales hard as Will squirms, moans, clutches at his shoulders and digs his fingers into the bite he left behind, parts his jaws for Hannibal to fuck his tongue inside and take.

Hannibal cracks his eyes open to navigate and sees the hellion staring back at him. He’ll later determine it was the distraction of Will sucking on his tongue that only allowed them to get as far as pinning Will against the fridge, but that’s a worry for another time. Will gasps as his back meets unforgiving stainless steel, cold against the nape of his neck where Hannibal’s fingernails had left indentations of his desire. It doesn’t matter to either of them—the friction is incredible, and Will grips the handle for leverage in his broken hand, and the slow, fevered grind of their bodies needs no location other than with one another.

“Oh,” Will moans, and his voice breaks, drops his head back against the metal door with a hollow thud. “Oh god, oh fuck.

Filthy mouth. Hannibal should have figured. There’s such terrible delight in pulling him apart, tearing him from the clothes of his social graces. Will’s whining exposes the expanse of his throat to Hannibal’s teeth, and, well, turnabout is fair play. He is as gentle with his teeth as he can manage when Will keeps swiveling his hips, keeps one hand knotted in Hannibal’s hair. The frames of his glasses slip down the bridge of his nose when Will drops his head forward; they slip off and clatter somewhere behind Hannibal on the floor. Maybe they’re broken, maybe not.

Hannibal readjusts his grip and gets more fabric in his hands than he does of Will—his jeans are slipping down, slipping off, trapped somewhere around his thighs. Will curses as the excess gets in their way, interrupts the perfect slot and slide of their hips. Will claws at Hannibal’s shoulder, his neck, trails of tension and fire as Will rakes his nails over the fabric. “Off,” he pants. “Off, now.”

It takes a truly surprising amount of manual dexterity to remove Will’s pants without putting him down, but as Will pulls his leg back and out of the oversized denim, it does open Hannibal’s eyes to the possibility of Will’s flexibility. With one leg free, it’s a simple matter to secure it around his waist, anchor Will’s back against the fridge, and peel him out of his jeans. His thighs tremble under Hannibal’s touch, fever-hot, shaved smooth. Will’s body is a complex system of sensory marvels, tailor-made for Hannibal’s desires.

Beneath denim is lace, swollen and stretched by Will’s erection. Hannibal mouths at his neck, glances down between their bodies. The contrast of pale skin and dark fabric is striking; short, dark pubic curls and the pink undertones of Will’s blood peering through. Somewhere in distant corners of Hannibal’s mind, he remembers that he had meant to make dinner. It seems so far away now, so insignificant. Hannibal lifts his head, meets Will’s longing eyes, his permissive nod. Slowly, so slowly, Hannibal lifts his chin and angles his head, slides his tongue over Will’s healing lower lip, and sucks the taste of sweet chianti from his mouth, inhales in the space between their lips and lets the scent of this moment pool on his soft palate.

Hannibal ghosts his fingers across Will’s shaft, from the crux of his hips and up toward his belly; traces the ridge of Will’s cockhead with the pad of his thumb and gathers the wetness on his skin. Their eyes lock, and Will lets out a wounded little sound when Hannibal slips his thumb into his own mouth to taste. Salt and musk burst over his tongue, robust and human. Though the taste might be improved by a well-rounded diet, the natural flavor of Will’s precome is far from unpleasant. Hannibal leans forward, traps Will between his body and metal and teases his mouth open with his tongue, thrusts forward against the softness of Will’s ass over and over, revels in Will’s broken moan as Hannibal traces his teeth.

Will lets go of the fridge and brings the splint to his teeth—there is the ripping sound of velcro as Will pries it open, throws it off to land somewhere on the kitchen floor. The doctor in Hannibal should protest. The monster is thrilled. Free and unbound at last, Will clutches at his neck, his hair. Will strokes Hannibal’s cheek with shaking fingers, the bridge of his nose, the cartilage of his ear; gently scritches at the start of Hannibal’s stubble, rubs his fingertips against it. Hannibal pulls back just enough to breathe, to blink slowly and meet Will’s eyes, and Will clenches his hand in Hannibal’s gaping collar, partially-undone by their roving hands.

“Please,” Will whispers. His voice shakes. When Hannibal leans forward to touch his mouth to Will’s throat, his pulse thunders in hot syncopation under his lips. “Hannibal, touch me, please.”

Hannibal rumbles a sound of amusement and acquiescence, chuckles at how the tables have turned on this situation. “Am I not?” he asks. But he won’t deny Will. Pleasure is the goal of this encounter, and Will’s enjoyment is paramount.

Will weakly slaps at his shoulder with an open palm, scolding and wanting. “You know what I mean, asshole.”

A moment of pause. Yes, he does, but the details are foggy. For a moment, Hannibal’s hands gentle, the slow roll of their bodies stills. Will whines in protest, but falls silent when Hannibal leans forward. Presses their chests together, and rests his cheek against Will’s. For a suspended section of time, there is only the warmth they share. Frantic energy paused, but not stopped, as Will wraps his arms around Hannibal’s neck. Kisses him. Holds him close in a lover’s embrace. Arousal simmers beneath his skin, but so too does affection.

Hannibal noses at Will’s cheekbone. “How far do you want this to go?”

Will blinks slowly. The desperate tension around his eyes goes soft, open, almost innocent. Wondrous. Bitten-red lips, flushed cheeks. Pity the goddess that should look upon Will now. He is beautiful to rival Aphrodite. “I, um.” Will swallows, and Hannibal feels the flutter of his throat like a butterfly’s wings—fragile, breakable as this new stage of their becoming emerges from its cocoon. “I just want you,” Will says softly. “This. Us. We’ll have time for the rest—I hope we will.”

Hannibal holds Will just a little bit tighter, a little more insistently at the suggestion that they’ll be separated. The idea is abhorrent. Unacceptable. And not the first time Will has made the allusion to a limited run of them together. What monsters occupy Will’s mind, Hannibal wonders? Is it solely the Ripper? Or are there others? If there are, Hannibal intends to hunt them down and eat them. “As much time as you desire, Will, I promise.” He rubs at Will’s hip, a soothing motion, tracing the architecture of Will’s pelvic crest with his thumb. “I want you to be comfortable.”

Will’s lips pull at a smile, though there’s a flash of pain in the depths of his eyes that Hannibal senses isn’t physical, but he laughs against Hannibal’s temple. “I’m as comfortable as I can be dry-humping against a fridge that costs more than my car. Oh, god, ohh—”

Hannibal mouths at Will’s neck as he slips his hand beneath the waistband of Will’s panties, lace scratching at the backs of his knuckles, the soft, slick heat of Will’s dripping cock cradled in his fingers. “Mouthy thing,” Hannibal growls against his throat. He nips at the tender flesh of Will’s neck, leaves pale pink imprints that are sure to fade before morning. Tightens his fist, slips his hand up Will’s shaft, adjusts when Will wriggles restlessly in his search for pleasure.

Hannibal,” Will whines, and the sound is impossibly sweet. Hannibal wets his lips, twists his wrist, and Will’s breathy gasp is more intoxicating than the finest Bordeaux. Though he’s content to pleasure Will like this, to rut and grind and fuck against him in an impulsive frenzy, he does so look forward to taking his time. Making Will fall apart under his hands, his mouth. Being able to return the favor of sinking his teeth into Will’s neck, sinking into Will’s body, and feeling Will unleash that feral impulse in earnest.

For now, though, this enjoyment is—

Hannibal’s breath leaves him in a huff as Will reaches between them to shove his hand beneath Hannibal’s lounge pants and boxer-briefs. His hips stutter as Will’s knuckles brush his cock, push lower to gently knead his sac, trail his fingers through the thatch of pubic hair that nests around his erection. Will’s palm is soft, but his fingers are slightly callused; the contrast is new, alien and unfamiliar, but it’s—

Hannibal grits his teeth as Will circles his fingers around the head of his cock, at the quiet, breathless laugh Will murmurs at his ear. “All’s fair,” Will says, and grinds down against him, rhythmically clenches his fingers in a slow, sensual pull that would make a lesser man’s knees give out. “Just don’t drop me, hmm?”

Hannibal pins him to the fridge with the weight of his torso and thighs, brackets Will in so securely that if he falls, Hannibal is surely going down with him. “Menace,” Hannibal breathes in near-silent wonder.

“It’s not that deep. I just know what I like,” Will mutters and laughs and moans when Hannibal takes his advice and turns his technique right around on him. Will shivers and it shakes them both, arches and finds himself unable to move. His pupils fatten, and Hannibal files that away in his mind palace for later, pushed under the rug of this room he’s creating from the memory of wine and the scent of artificial strawberry and sex and Will.

The rock and push of their bodies together is hypnotic; in a strange part of Hannibal’s mind, he is transported to an alternate version of the night they met, time and disorder folding them together this way weeks before it’s actually happened. Will had been so lovely then, and lovelier now. Hannibal wonders if Will even truly realizes that, in this state, he is entirely raw—no makeup, no defenses. Only himself, entirely Hannibal’s.

Hannibal would not change a day of their time together. Were he to go back, he would doom every soul to death on the Beltway all over again.

Will whines, and there is a split-second where Hannibal fears he has said it aloud. But no—Hannibal’s hand speeds, the filthy sound of Will’s own slick around his flesh, the ridges and veins of his pretty cut cock slipping against the lines of Hannibal’s palm. Life line, love line, heartline from Will to him and back again. Hannibal rubs against the slit where wetness beads, and lower, at the seam of glans and frenulum. It pulls a punched-out sound from Will’s lungs, a twitch of his hips, quivering in his bones. Hannibal touches his lips to Will’s pulse and feels it vibrate against his tongue.

Will clutches him close, digs his nails into the nape of Hannibal’s neck. He ducks his head and pants against Hannibal’s shoulder, working his free hand beneath the collar of Hannibal’s stained and sweaty button-down and shoving it out of the way. Will seals his mouth around the bite mark in earnest and sucks. When he keens, it feeds directly into Hannibal’s bones. Will’s hips stutter. Twist. Arch like he’s trying to get away, and Hannibal tightens his grip around each upward stroke, treasures the bitten-off whine that breaks into gasping pants. Will nuzzles frantically against Hannibal’s shoulder with plaintive, pleading whines, huffs frantically for breath—

His hand stalls on Hannibal’s cock, but fortunately the slack softness of his fingers is adequate to rut against. He fucks across the slippery ridges of the inside of Will’s knuckles, the wrinkles of his cupped palm, the soft and supple meat of his thumb. In return, he holds—provides a tight, slick channel between his fingers for Will to cry out and thrust into, to howl his need to ceramic tile and granite counters and Hannibal’s starving sensibilities. Will rides the heel of his hand, whines and whimpers as his legs tighten around Hannibal to the point of pain. Will constricts, holds, tosses his head back against the fridge with such force that Hannibal worries idly about concussion. He comes in helpless little jerks of his hips that jostle him against Hannibal’s throbbing erection. He bites. Hannibal feels the imprint of his teeth like a brand, pulsing in time as light builds behind his eyes and tension in every filament of muscle and he, too, spills between them. His lounge pants will be ruined. Hannibal can not possibly find it within himself to care.

He locks his knees, leans into Will, holds them both up with the combined weight of their bodies. They breathe together. Wait out the trembles and shaky knees, and Will murmurs a moan when Hannibal laps the salt from his neck. Will nurses at the pinpricks of blood on his shoulder, rubs his lips and cheeks and forehead against cooling skin anywhere he can reach. His nails touch Hannibal’s scalp, the crown of his head, trail downward and start over again. It is with a strange sensation in his chest that Hannibal realizes Will is petting him, his hands roving in small, soft motions, never entirely still.

Touch-starved, Hannibal’s mind whispers. Will is utterly alone in the world but for him. Reliant on the stability and comfort he brings. It would be such terrible vindication for the time he’s spent earning Will’s trust if not for the fact that Hannibal enjoys it just as much, and that makes it a liability. Makes it dangerous. And still, Hannibal is determined to keep him.

In time, the shaking stops but shivers start. Sweat coats their skin and does as it is meant to, cooling them to post-exertion temperatures. No amount of primal lick-and-kiss grooming will substitute their shared need for a shower. But that doesn’t stop Will as he lifts his head, blindly searches for Hannibal’s mouth until their lips meet in the middle. The kiss is soft, sucking, slow, and ends in the slackening of Will’s jaw until their tongues simply touch. Taste.

Hannibal could sustain his need for sensory enrichment solely from Will’s body for a very, very long time.

And then Will pulls back. In the bare millimeters between their lips, he murmurs, “Did I ruin dinner?”

Hannibal is stunned. Stricken. He starts to laugh. What else can he do? “No, mylimasis,” he replies. “I think it’s salvageable.”

Will smiles. Nuzzles, but doesn’t reply.

Hannibal does. “Stay,” he says. “Tonight, with me. It’s far too late for you to drive home.”

Stubbornness lights Will’s eyes, but melts away just as quickly. It is a slave to the joys and whims of Will’s body, and right now, Will is sated. So too must be his headstrong streak. “Okay,” Will whispers. Smiles wider. Looks so young, so lovely.

And still, Hannibal must tempt fate. He always does. “Are you still angry with me?”

Will cozies up against Hannibal’s chest, and with a tremulous, contented sigh, closes his eyes. “Ask me again tomorrow.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

If one were to ask Will what his plan was upon storming over to Hannibal’s house in the middle of the night, he might’ve said he didn’t have one. Class was the same frustrating drone it always was, Will had irritably typed up a stormy piece on the oversaturation of media leading to public indifference or conditional outrage, Miriam had promised to call him once she could get details on the Ripper files, and yet another fruitless meeting with his other source had worn Will down into exhaustion. In truth, he was itching for a fight and not much else.

But this, Will thinks as he tucks his head beneath Hannibal’s chin, this is much better.

Morning light and soft sheets, a warm and heavy body at his side. Will never knew he could want something like this. Being solitary always seemed so much safer. But now he is here and it feels so easy to allow himself to want and be wanted, his hair in long loose curls across the pillow, fuzzy from sleep, Hannibal’s arm tucked over his bare waist, around his back, radiant with heat. Will’s legs, freshly bandaged, tangle with Hannibal’s. And when they sleep beside one another, his nightmares somehow seem to subside.

It’s a peace he can’t accept at home, alone in the dark with only Winston for company. He lies awake each night and wonders if it will be the night the Ripper finally comes to him, flays him open with careful hands and deliberate cuts, and makes art of his blood and bones. Elevates the sum of Will’s lonely backwater existence with an understanding only an artist can provide, and makes Will a monument to all that he’s seen. All that he’s written, laid out for others to understand what the Ripper understands. The Ripper makes masterpieces. Will only interprets them.

Will’s first regret is that he won’t live to see what’s made of him. That is, after all, the entire point. Perhaps it’ll be enough to speak to the Ripper in his last moments. To see through his eyes, if he lets Will do so. Will’s second regret is that, when the time comes, is that he will never again have what he has right now: Hannibal, here. Hannibal, his.

But inside this room, the Ripper ceases to exist. It’s a safety and serenity that only Hannibal’s presence can give him. Will glances up and takes in the diffused sunlight on Hannibal’s face, his tousled bangs, the ink-dark spread of his closed lashes and relaxed, angular features, and knows.

He can’t bear to say it, but he knows.

Don’t be afraid of it, Will.

But he is. He is afraid, and also at peace. His life will fade into a bittersweet memory, but Will knows Hannibal will remember him. As for the Ripper—

—the Ripper will consume him, and carry part of Will with him forever.

He can’t walk away. There’s no sense in it. What would his life be if he turned tail and ran, turned himself in as the mind behind Analysis , was put in protective custody and never saw Hannibal again? No school, no little house in Wolf Trap, no Chesapeake Ripper. Death has been the axis of Will’s stability since he was young. Live and thrive, breed and die. The life cycle of fish, of insects, the decomposition of dead things. It was only once he moved here that he realized how beautiful death could be. To see the sum of a life in a display of flesh and old blood.

Walk away? After all of it? What would be the point of that? All Will can do is accept. Walk into the open and waiting arms of the man Hannibal calls his killer, and hope, at least, it doesn’t hurt too much. Hope the the Ripper will be merciful; that Will’s interpretations haven’t caused undue offense, and that when the Ripper takes him apart to see how he works, it won’t be with malice, but rather rapt interest. Will hopes he has earned that much.

It’s the best death Will can imagine, if he must imagine one at all.

For whatever time he has, though, Will likes to imagine he might spend it like this. Warm, comfortable, tucked under Hannibal’s arm and listening to the sound of his sleep-shallow breaths. Will doesn’t dare move—Hannibal’s a light sleeper, and even just being awake in his presence is sure to rouse him eventually. But watching him rest, the play of light over his features, the picture he makes while tangled in deep blue sheets, is a rare opportunity to see him unguarded. A privilege. He knows it the same way he knows that precious few people have ever seen what Will sees right now.

It’s humbling. Endearing. Enchanting. In its own way, soothing.

Will wishes he could trace Hannibal’s features with his fingertip without waking him, but he knows such a thing is an impossibility. Instead, he lets his eyes close, lets himself fall into a drifting doze, wades into a roiling sea of dreams.

 

 

Will lies on the shore near the riverbend behind his home. The trees provide shade; the sun paints swaths of gold across the grass. Like a Renaissance painting, he wears only a sheet of blue silk wrapped around him as a robe, feet bare, hair unbound. He waits.

A figure rises from the current in the shape of a man, his silhouette a shadow that consumes all light. A void. Nothing can exist where he stands. His presence is absolute, eclipses all life around him. He carries himself with the poise and purpose of a god as he steps onto the bank, wearing a diadem of antlers upon his head. He is the divine spirit of animals, king of all manner of predators and beasts. Ruler of all, subject to none.

He walks to Will without hesitation, without pause, knowing exactly what he seeks. When he looks down and their eyes meet, his regard is attentive. Unwavering.

He holds out his hand. A heart rests in his palm. Will knows intrinsically that it is meant to be a gift. He doesn’t ask who it came from—he only knows that it’s for him. Will smiles as his monster places it in his grasp, as one claw trails tenderly across his pink and glowing cheek, over his parted lips, and down his throat.

It is a gift that Will accepts gladly. He bites. The flesh is hot in his mouth, nearly burning; blood bursts across his tongue, cloying and metallic. When his teeth sink into flesh, red overflows. It drips over his mouth, his chin, streams downward until it is a waterfall that pours over Will’s chest—

—his empty chest. Hollow and aching, pulsing and sore.

And still, Will chews and swallows.

When he looks up, the Ripper’s smile is full of fangs, tender and cruel. He rests his broad, burning palm on the crown of Will’s head.

“Do not forget who you belong to,”  he whispers. “You have only ever been, and will always be mine.”

Antlers rip from Will’s skull, and he howls.

 


 

Will has been quiet this morning.

He is no less open to affection—he smiles when their fingers brush as Hannibal hands him a cup of coffee, and leans into the absent (testing) touches Hannibal offers as he finishes making breakfast. Hannibal might think it was a side effect of an emotionally charged evening and subsequent good night’s rest, but there is something wistful in the way Will looks at him. There is something deeper happening that Will has not yet made him privy to.

To say that Hannibal is both curious and impatient to resolve Will’s hesitation would be an understatement.

He ponders on how best to broach the subject as he whisks béchamel and hollandaise both on the rangetop, admiring the slender lines of Will’s back beneath his borrowed button-down. The sleeves are slightly too large, rolled up around his forearms as he cuts thick slices of brioche; his jeans slouch down around his narrow hips, exposing the waistband of his lace panties, which they’d put in the wash the night before.

(Hannibal’s lounge pants were fortunately not as much of a loss as he feared.)

Will’s hair is held up in a spider clip, disheveled and truly attractive. Curls slip loose and his bangs are soft wisps across his angled face, eyes half-lidded with the remnants of sleep. Hip cocked against the countertop, deftly handling a knife without hesitation or concern, Hannibal pauses to absorb this moment. Commit it to his mind.

Will glances over and catches him looking. His cheeks flush sweetly pink, and he averts his eyes. “I’m not going to cut myself. You can stop worrying.”

“I hadn’t even considered it,” Hannibal replies. He tilts his head to the side in silent surveyance; Will’s shoulders tense. He doesn’t deal well with being the center of attention, even in privacy. Does he deflect because he fears criticism, Hannibal wonders? Or perhaps even praise makes him uncomfortable? “I was simply admiring you, mylimasis.”

Will’s face burns red. He sets down the knife and rubs the back of his neck, shoots Hannibal a surreptitious glance like he is searching for truthfulness—blushes further when he realizes Hannibal is still looking. Stricken. Surprised. Pleased. Hannibal reads the flashes of emotion as they cross Will’s face, lovely and underappreciated thing that he is. It seems a terrible shame to let him remain unaware.

“It’s not only your mind I find attractive, Will, surely you must know that.”

Will stares studiously down at the bread. His teeth sink into his lower lip, roll it delicately, careful of the still-healing split. His exhale shudders slightly as he picks up the slices and brings them over, sets them on the work station beside the cooktop. His eyes flicker upward, uncertain—as Hannibal tilts his body toward Will. His attention is demanded by the sauce, and it’s a delicate process that he won’t allow himself to ruin, but he gives as much of himself to Will in this moment as he is able. Will understands; he is not demanding, but simply turns his attention to Hannibal’s hands as he works. Leans against the counter, but now only an arm’s length away, and Hannibal has rarely been so distracted while cooking before.

“I know,” Will murmurs, and the fringe of his lashes brushes his heated cheeks. “I knew when we met. Still surprises me sometimes, though.”

“Why?” Hannibal asks, curious. “You’re careful about your appearance. You have very fine bone structure, classic features. Objectively, Will, whether you present as masculine or feminine, your aesthetic wants for nothing.” Will makes a sound that is painfully embarrassed, though similarly pleased. He seems conflicted by Hannibal’s compliments—though, in  Hannibal’s eyes, they are more akin to sensible observations. Will is a beautiful specimen of humanity, young and fit and in his prime. They are well-suited to each other, in any imaginable sense.

Hannibal whisks the white sauce together until the roux is blended with the cream, then reaches for the nutmeg and grates some in. Another whisk until the sauce is fragrant, and he slides it across the cooktop. Turns his attention to the hollandaise until it is smooth, blends it with lemon and sea salt, and sets it off the heat.

He turns to Will. His arms are wrapped around himself, shoulders pitched and head ducked with embarrassed uncertainty, and Hannibal reels him in. Pulls Will into his arms, ducks to kiss his cheek, and is pleased at the contented sound he receives in return. Will’s skin is warm against his lips, nearly burning, and he smells like Hannibal. His clothes, his home. His. And the things that are his should always be well-cared for, Will first and foremost among them. “Where is this doubt coming from?”

“There’s no doubt,” Will replies softly. Lifts his head and Hannibal obliges him with a kiss, tastes coffee on Will’s mouth. When Will pulls away it’s with reluctance but purpose, and goes to reclaim his coffee cup from the other counter. “I know who I am,” Will adds. “I know objectively when I look good. I know you want me. I don’t doubt any of that. This is just…” Will sighs and picks up the cup, soft-eyed and radiating that sense of distant longing like he didn’t create this space between them himself. He takes a sip. Looks at Hannibal, and his lips lift in a strange little smile. “More than I thought I’d ever get to have.”

Hannibal considers him then. Ponders that statement as he spreads butter over the slices of bread and sets them on the grill pan to toast. “A person who cares about you and makes you breakfast?”

Will hides another smile behind the lip of the cup. “Would it be bad to say yes?”

“It would be sad, I think, but not uncommon to doubt one might ever leave a solitary existence.” Will steps out of reach as Hannibal goes to the fridge to collect the dijon mustard, gruyere, provolone, and fontina. He balances them atop the carton of farm-fresh eggs, and a package of butcher’s paper that contains homemade prosciutto made from the hygienist's well-muscled leg. It’s cured fabulously, if Hannibal does say so himself. He closes the fridge with his shoulder, and catches the sidelong, lingering look Will gives it before his eyes turn back to Hannibal. “I had wondered about the same thing myself.”

Something complicated passes Will’s face—a flash of pain and sudden sadness that Hannibal can’t immediately qualify. He slows as he returns to the rangetop and considers it. What it might mean. If Will has no doubts about Hannibal’s attraction, then Hannibal has no doubts about Will’s in return, nor the intensity of his commitment. He can’t imagine Will would turn his back now.

What is it that he doubts, then? Will has made the allusion to limited time. So if he would not leave of his own volition, what could draw them apart that Will would reasonably fear?

It catches up to Hannibal all at once. Of course it would be no other. Despite Will’s admiration, his supposed obsession, his commendation to the Ripper’s artistry and defense of his intentions, Will is afraid of the Chesapeake Ripper.

Or, in more defined terms, Will is aware of the Ripper’s awareness of him.

Hannibal stills in his work as he absorbs this. If he were any other man, Hannibal could not speak of the reaction he would have to the realization that his partner was more preoccupied with the attention of a killer than a lover. But as that killer, Hannibal is suddenly, undeniably, viscerally pleased. Will has filled a section of himself with awareness of the Ripper’s mindset. It’s a space that he believes that, as a good man, Hannibal does not fit. He is caught between the two, unknowing they are one and the same. And despite it all, despite the fondness they share, Will has prioritized the Ripper over Hannibal.

How far does it go? Would Will intend to use his lover as a sacrifice, or—?

“I’ve been thinking a lot about death,” Will says softly, and interrupts Hannibal’s reverie, “and what would happen if something happened to me.”

Oh.

Oh?

It’s only years of habitual kitchen work that forces him to remove the bread from the griddle before it burns. The words on his tongue sting more than his fingers. There is an absent ache in his skin from the heat, and it echoes somewhere behind his ribs. “Do you expect to die?”

Will’s hands tighten on the cup. It is not a flinch, but it is as good as. “I never expected to do much living,” he says. Deflects. “Graduate, take assignments. Get killed in the field, probably, down the line.”

The last bit is tacked on as an afterthought, but it is not an afterthought at all. The limited time Will spoke of was not for Hannibal, but for Will himself. He has no intention of going to an active war zone or embroiling himself in a political conflict.

Will expects the Ripper to kill him.

And hasn’t mentioned it. Not one bit. No indication that he intends to run, or to fight.

Hannibal reaches for the bread, and spreads a thin layer of mustard over the toast. He operates on autopilot, his brain maintaining several tracks of thought at once: breakfast, conversation, introspection, all. “No thoughts of a happier future? Marriage and family?”

Will goes still and silent. When Hannibal looks at him, Will’s eyes are wide. He is soft-mouthed, slow-blinking, the same gutted look of someone unexpectedly struck by a blade, bleeding. “I…” He swallows hard, looks down into his cup. “I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it. Never expected it.”

Of course he hadn’t. Will didn’t grow up with attentive family, or with happy circumstances. Neither did Hannibal, but he had no need for them, no want for them. Not until now. Now Will being with him seems to be all he can think about. Creating room within his singular lifestyle for another. An equal.

Will’s fingernails click nervously against the glass cup. The overwhelming quiet stretches. Near-whispered, he asks, “What about you?”

“A passing thought,” Hannibal answers. He layers fontina atop the mustard, and prosciutto atop the first layer of cheese. Gruyere follows, then the top layer of toast, and a generous slather of béchamel. Provolone. Hannibal puts the sandwiches on a cooking sheet and feigns poise. “Nothing I’ve ever considered a necessity. Perhaps, given the opportunity, and right set of circumstances; the right place and time.”

The right person goes unsaid. But when Hannibal glances up, he sees it in Will’s expression:

Want. That same thread of longing, vibrating at a tone nearly audible to human ears. It fills the silence between them, broken only by the quiet bubbling of the saucepan waiting on the corner burner, simmering water and vinegar. Time carries on around them, unbroken, uninterrupted. Their event horizon has already come and gone, but another approaches. Hannibal feels it keenly with a strong sense of anticipation.

What they are is set in stone. What they could become is yet to be seen.

Will averts his eyes. Holds his cup close to his mouth, though Hannibal knows it must be nearly empty. Perhaps he hopes to hide some tell; a tremble in his lips, the way he sometimes sinks his teeth into them when he’s deep inside his own head.

“It’s a nice thought,” Will says softly. His words say yes. His quiet melancholy says no, but not for lack of desire—for lack of belief.

“For the future, perhaps,” Hannibal replies. He keeps his tone light, unassuming, and carefully watches the way Will withdraws on himself. Steps out of the way again as Hannibal passes to put the pan into the wall-mounted oven drawer, and manages to avoid touch under the guise of staying out from underfoot.

Clever, lonely little thing. Solitary by habit, but desperate for connection. Another piece of the puzzle unlocked; a clue, a key to the door of the fortress that is Will Graham. “Maybe,” Will says, and once again deflects. “What are you doing today?”

“First and foremost, making you breakfast,” Hannibal answers with a faint smile, and returns to the rangetop. Let Will think him distracted and mislead; in the meantime, Hannibal has quite a lot of thinking to do. “But this afternoon, I’m shadowing Doctor Chilton in the psychology department to learn more about the work they do.”

Will sets his cup on the counter with an alarmingly loud clink. It is empty as expected. His reaction, however, is far from. There is a storm on his face bred anew, silently thundering. “Really,” he says. It’s not a question.

Hannibal bites back a satisfied smirk. Oh, he remembers Will’s private dig at Frederick Chilton in the company of his friend, and remembers the man himself. Selfish to a fault, self-important, eager for oddities. Rather than marveling at the gift of his mentality, Frederick had seen an oddity in Will, where Hannibal had seen a muse. What would Frederick say, knowing Will was the one who got away from his grasping claws, then turned and walked right into Hannibal’s waiting arms?

The vindication is already sweet.

“Yes,” Hannibal answers mildly, and feigns ignorance as he cracks an egg into a waiting ceramic cup, and pours it carefully into the simmering water. He follows it with a second. “If all goes well, I should be starting there in the spring as a resident. I’m touring with another prospective, so I’m not sure how long it’ll take. I should be free by the evening.”

Will’s fingertips thrum on the countertop. He pulls himself away, lip curling with distaste as he goes to retrieve the coffee siphon. “His papers are garbage.”

Hannibal stares at Will’s back. He’s rarely heard Will speak so derisively, aside from his intense dislike of Freddie Lounds. Though Will isn’t wrong—Frederick’s published paper in the recent American Journal of Psychiatry on social exclusion was absolute drivel. Hannibal himself had a rebuttal nearly completed to be looked over by Doctor Du Maurier prior to submission, given the infant stages of his psychiatric career. He is, at least, confident that his understanding of the human condition is fit to exceed Frederick Chilton’s. “I wasn’t aware you read enough journals to have an opinion on such a thing.”

Will shoots a scathing glance over his shoulder. “A peer reviewed process is critical to all fields, Doctor Lecter, as well as impartial, unbiased research. Chilton writes papers only scare-tactic preachers and anti-vaxxing suburban mothers could love. They’re trend pieces, not research.”

Will’s vehemence is… enlightening. Though Hannibal supposes that maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. It does stand to reason that Will’s interest in psychology would extend beyond the Ripper. Especially given that, as memory stands, Will interviewed for, and subsequently turned down a position at Johns Hopkins. How different might their lives have been if he and Will had met as prospective peers?

Perhaps not different at all. Perhaps quite different, indeed.

“Trend pieces,” Hannibal muses. It’s an apt description. “Like Freddie Lounds’ writing is thinly-veiled opinion-based fearmongering disguised as investigative journalism?”

“Yes!” Will exclaims, and turns quickly, eyes wide. “ Exactly like that. That’s exactly—” The change, when it comes over Will, is sudden. His open vehemence shutters. His body falls still, his arms deceptively loose at his sides. “What did she say to you?”

Hannibal knows better to insult Will’s intelligence by feigning ignorance. If anyone is qualified to predict Freddie Lounds’ behavior, it’s Will. “Nothing that bears repeating, or any mind,” Hannibal replies. He sidles by to pull the sandwiches from the oven drawer, crispy and golden. Though Will’s eyes follow the motion as Hannibal returns them to the island for the finishing touches, he is not swayed or distracted by the promise of breakfast. Though Hannibal supposes he wouldn’t be particularly interested in Will if he were so fickle. “I assume she faked an injury to get in through the emergency room. Believe me, Will, I spoke with her only briefly, then reported her to hospital security and had her blacklisted for privacy violations and trespassing.”

Will’s head tips to the side, carefully controlled and performatively placid. It’s a gesture Hannibal recognizes, usually attributed to his own reflection. “I believe that you reported her,” Will says softly. “But not that she didn’t say something.”

He takes one step forward, slow and purposeful. Another follows, and Hannibal is given the strange, prickling sensation of being stalked. Hunted. If this were not his own home, his own domain, he’s sure he would like it a lot less. But as it stands, this is a strange and new phenomenon. Something to be savored.

He plates each of the sandwiches, then scoops the eggs from the simmering water with a spoon and trims the edges of the whites. He carefully sets each atop the bed of béchamel and provolone, mindful of Will’s forward progression as he spoons hollandaise over the lot and garnishes with chopped chives. Food complete and ready for consumption, Hannibal can turn his full attention to Will—

Hannibal’s muscles twitch as Will’s hands find his waist from behind, push and slide forward and around until he’s encircled, and presses his body against Hannibal’s back. The hold is possessive; Will’s mouth finds the crest of his shoulder with chaste, nibbling kisses that warm Hannibal’s skin through his shirt.

“Your affection is welcome, mylimasis,” Hannibal murmurs, and lays his hands over the backs of Will’s. “But your worry is unnecessary. Nothing but the words from your own mouth will change my opinion of you.”

“But you admit she tried.” Will’s lips smooth a path back and forth, over and over. Patient—in theory. But the move speaks of something more animal, more base, as Will noses at the bite mark he’d left the night before.

Hannibal hums quietly in reply. He is not accustomed to being held, as opposed to doing the holding. The presence of someone at his back is enough to raise alarms in his brain, but knowing it is someone trusted is a balm to that frisson of instinctual discontent. This moment, this gesture, holds the same weight as the memory of fingers sliding into his hair, Will leaning up against his side. Possession—companionship. All the same things Hannibal wishes from Will, and that Will wishes from him while they are together. All the things that the threat of Freddie Lounds’ interference in Will’s life brings to the surface.

Someday Hannibal will teach him that even foxes can be made prey if the predator is smart enough. Vulpines are scavengers; he and Will are the apex of their kind.

“She tried,” Hannibal replies, and Will’s arms tighten reflexively around him. “But she went about it in the most inefficient way possible. She plays the part of worried peer well, but anyone who knows you would see through her lies.”

Will stays silent; Hannibal can feel his rabbiting pulse in a dead sprint against his back. He curls his fingers around the backs of Will’s hands, strokes them with his thumbs in an effort to comfort.

“You know me better than most,” Will says softly. And amends, “Than anyone.”

The pleasure of that statement is fierce, prideful. But yes, Hannibal knew that. He has made it his singular goal. He now has the unique opportunity to test the waters of Will’s mind. What better way to do it than to lay out his knowledge as a supposition, and see whether Will denies it?

“She tried to warn me away from you by saying you were more committed to your killer than you are to me.” Will stiffens—truth.

“That you’re using me solely to obtain information upon his whereabouts, and that you plan to ruin me when you have what you need.” Will’s hands clench, and the crescents of his nails dig into the sensitive flesh of Hannibal’s belly. His teeth bare against Hannibal’s shoulder in silent outrage. Ah, then that’s a lie. He knew as much.

“And you date around to acquire information, but don’t care about anyone you see, myself included. No commitments or attachments.” Will’s forehead insistently nudges against his shoulder—hiding his face. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, as well.

Will’s chest swells against Hannibal’s back with the force of his long, low inhale and exhale. It forces them closer together, and Will’s embrace grows tighter. Slowly, patiently, Hannibal frees one of Will’s grasping hands and lifts it to his mouth, kisses the backs of his fingers and lets his mouth linger.

“Didn’t say anything worth mentioning?” Will asks, so soft and low. He sounds furious, but not at Hannibal. Dangerous, but not to him. Flexing his claws, sharpening his teeth, clinging jealously to what’s his. Hannibal is content to be counted among Will’s most treasured possessions.

“I didn’t think so, no,” Hannibal answers. “Unless you think there’s truth to what she’s said to me.”

“No,” Will snaps. Then he is silent. His hand in Hannibal’s shirt softens to a broad palm, searching fingers, slides over linen and buttons until it splays across Hannibal’s stomach. Will echoes his motion, rubbing soothing, instinctual circles with his thumb. It almost tickles, but Hannibal doesn’t laugh. Instead, the warmth of it is stimulating. He can feel the echo of Will’s touch on his skin, the electric spark of his slow, sensual attention. “...well.”

Hannibal waits.

“I have other sources,” Will admits. “But no one who is anything to me like you. We get coffee or drinks. We talk. They’re not dates.”

Hannibal hums quietly. “I believe you,” he says, because of course he does. “But perhaps we can make the same progress as your sources. I think I could be happy with leveling that particular playing field.”

Will frowns against his skin; he makes a confused little sound, and his chin rests atop Hannibal’s shoulder. He turns his head to see the furrow in Will’s brow, the perplexed and puppyish tilt of his head, the mess of his wild curls loosely held by the plastic clip. He is vulnerable, uncertain, and though the angle of his neck is far from comfortable, Hannibal kisses him. Slow, sensual press of lips; a flash of tongue. Will is the one to break it, and rests his temple against Hannibal’s jaw. He frees his hand, and his arm loops around Hannibal’s chest.

“Coffee,” Hannibal clarifies. “Lunch, dinner. Outings together, away from the hospital and our homes. Steps we seem not to have managed ourselves.” He takes Will’s hand and settles it over his heart, a silent implication that skirts the line of reality and possibility. He feels the heat in Will’s cheeks against his own as he receives the silent missive, the slide as Will’s fingers curl into a fist, gripping the front of his shirt. Claiming.

“Oh,” Will murmurs.

“Unless you’re opposed?”

“No, I’m not, I…” Will nuzzles him, his cheek, his jaw, the curve of his throat. “That’d be nice.”

“I agree.” And from there, they can move forward. The thought is satisfying. What he wants with Will is something no one else will ever have. It only makes sense to take each of those steps before they proceed. But in the meantime… “Put your enemies from your mind, Will. It is only us here. Breakfast is ready. I recall you saying you were hungry.”

Will laughs a little. Sighs. Forces his body to relax, to let go. “Starving,” he murmurs. He tucks his face into the crook of Hannibal’s neck, nudges his collar out of the way with his nose, and presses his lips to skin. “What did you make me?”

“French café-faire, in a sense.” Hannibal taps Will’s wrists and he disengages, unwinds himself from Hannibal’s body and tucks himself under his arm. Hip-to-hip, shoulder-to-shoulder, Will looks perfectly at home here. It is exactly where he belongs. “Croque Madame is usually a grilled ham and cheese on peasant bread, topped with a fried egg. I ate it many times when I lived in Paris as a boy. Now, for a richer flavor, I substitute the peasant bread with brioche, the ham with prosciutto, and top with Eggs Benedict and hollandaise.”

Will looks up. He leans his head against Hannibal’s shoulder, content in his embrace, and for a time, he simply looks. That wistful resonance is back, but Hannibal allows Will his time—whatever thoughts occupy Will’s mind, he will eventually flush them out and lay them bare. Lay Will bare, with heated skin and wild hair, free of denim and cheap lace, or even silk and finery. Until it is simply them, stripped to their most basic selves. Until even the layer of Hannibal’s civility is peeled away, and they can simply be.

At long last, Will lifts on his tiptoes and presses his mouth to the apple of Hannibal’s cheek. “Thank you,” he says, and Hannibal knows he is not only talking about breakfast and coffee. Every time he says his thanks, it always sounds like goodbye. And if Hannibal cannot convince Will himself that their time together will not be shortened, then it seems the Ripper will have to be the one to convince him. Slowly. Carefully. Gently coaxing, until the reality of the matter catches up to Will’s worries and snuffs them out with the force of the truth.

Nothing will separate them. Not Freddie Lounds, not Frederick Chilton, not the Chesapeake Ripper, nor Will himself. Hannibal will not allow it to be so.

“My pleasure, mylimasis. Shall we adjourn to the dining room?”

“Yes, please,” Will says. He lifts the plate and inhales; an intrigued animal noise escapes from behind his teeth, instinctively tempted by sight and scent. Will licks his lips. Pauses. Looks back at him and sheepishly smiles. “You’re going to spoil me.”

Plate in one hand, the other settles on Will’s lower back, and in this moment, Hannibal has almost everything he could hope to possess. Almost everything. “I certainly hope so.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Are you going to stand there and watch?” He glances at Hannibal’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, his brush faltering in its path as Will paints foundation onto his face, hair pulled back and bangs clipped away from his forehead. He’d come prepared, fortunately—had a bag packed in the back of his car with a change of clothes (somewhat wrinkled but passable) and his touch up kit. It’s his saving grace today, since Fridays are filming days for the campus news, and without driving all the way back to Wolf Trap, he would have been otherwise unprepared.

It’s not the full extent of his usual setup, but it’ll do. Though Hannibal leaning back against the doorway and watching with sharp eyes and rapt interest is proving to be a distraction.

Hannibal’s hair is still damp from his shower, combed back; his suit is an attractive deep blue with a thin and subtle stripe, well-tailored, with a crisp white shirt beneath. A simple pair of pearl-inlaid cufflinks bind the two together. His tie is eye-catching and borders on horrendous, blue paisley threaded with accents of bright orange. It’s truly unfair, Hannibal’s innate ability to make anything look sleek and debonair. God, the slacks and waistcoat had been bad enough, but this?  

Hannibal tips his head back against the side jamb, his posture relaxed, leonine, nearly regal. He smiles, and his eyes find Will’s in the mirror, rich as cognac. “Does it bother you?”

Will huffs and tears his gaze away. Steadies his hand and blends the streaks out, hides the faint redness of his fresh shave beneath his concealer. He won’t be the only one in makeup today; even his more conventional male classmates use foundation to avoid unflattering face shine in the newsroom. “I don’t usually have an audience.”

Hannibal hums in quiet amusement, satisfaction. “It’s a process like anything else, but I’ll admit it’s not one that I’m familiar with.”

Will switches to his brow pencil. He keeps his brows carefully maintained, but a little definition certainly never hurt anyone, especially when dealing with the cameras. “Never watched your mother put makeup on in the morning?”

“If I did, I don’t recall it. By the time I lived with my aunt and uncle, I was in my teens and thought myself far too important to be concerned with something so mundane.” The way he says it is humored, gently self-deprecating. It’s clear from his attention now that he finds the process anything but mundane—or perhaps it’s just his fascination with Will. It’s impossible to tell.

Hannibal maintains his distance, but his presence is commanding. Will can sense him near, even if he doesn’t touch. Almost wishes he would, so his skin would stop buzzing in anticipation. “I’m honored you find me so interesting,” Will drawls with a faint hint of sarcasm. Caps the pencil and trades it for a small shadow palette, subtly smoky tones of grey and a black tone rich with shimmer. It’s strange to see his makeup spread across the immaculate bathroom counter. Strange to be standing in the halls of Hannibal’s home and painting himself into Wilhelmina’s image under his supervision.

Light colors on the inside corners of his eyes, blended outward into dark. Will is silent with concentration; still, his hands nearly tremble under the force of Hannibal’s regard. He wants to tell him to go. Wants him to stay. Isn’t really sure what he wants, but definitely doesn’t want to do this twice.

“Everything you do is interesting to me, mylimasis. It’s part of who you are. I watch what you do, I learn more about you.”

Will frowns and glances at him in the mirror. “Don’t you ever turn your brain off and live in the moment?”

Hannibal tilts his head. There’s a glint in his eyes, a wry tilt to his lips. “I live in every moment. That requires me to be present.” Then, a flicker of interest. “Do you consider living in the moment to mean feeling and acting without thinking?”

Will groans quietly and averts his gaze. “New rule: no psychoanalyzing before I put my eyeliner on.”

Hannibal chuckles. “Of course, darling, my apologies.”

Will’s cheeks flare pink as he picks up the ink pen. He scowls at his reflection, and takes a steadying breath. Liquid eyeliner is unforgiving. He leans in close to the mirror; tsks at having to do this without magnification, and the lighting is all wrong in here, and it’s not what he’s used to and Hannibal is just being Hannibal, and—

“I can step out if you’d prefer.”

Will takes another breath and exhales slowly. The offer is… reassuring, somehow. Will licks his lips, shakes his head. “It’s just not my usual setup.” He readjusts and sets the felt tip at his lash line, sweeps slowly outward, then traces over it again; darkens the line, the subtle wing tip as he gentles the pressure.

Will glances up; Hannibal blinks slowly at him in the reflection, head tilted as he surveys. His expression is blank, but Will pauses at the fondness he sees there in Hannibal’s eyes. The quiet consideration. Hannibal watches the movement of his hands as intently as he had the night before, watching Will with the knife.

Will swallows. Switches to the other eye, tongue pressed against his teeth. The back of his neck tingles. It is only once Will’s finished that Hannibal speaks again. Will is pleased but unsurprised by the man’s courtesy. “Speaking of mothers—” Will winces, and Hannibal, of course, notices, “—I’m curious as to how you learned these techniques in the absence of one.”

“Like any other girl, I expect,” Will murmurs, and caps the pen. Puts on mascara from the travel-sized tube, almost empty. “Magazines, practice. Now there’s entire YouTube tutorials on the internet, but those weren’t around when I was a kid, and I never really had time to look up anything like that, anyway.”

“Your father was supportive?” Hannibal asks. He doesn’t sound doubtful as one might expect; instead, politely interested.

“Much as he could be,” Will answers. He sets the tube down, rubs the back of his neck. Twists the flyaway curls that have escaped from his bun around his finger. He pulls up the hem of his thigh-length black sweater and pulls a bobby pin from the belt loop of his houndstooth-print pants (another hand-me-down from Margot. Last season, she’d said, and yet Will has seen her wear another pair just like them since then). Secures them, moves on. He’s too pale for most bronzers, so he uses the lightest shade of contour powder he can find in the hollows of his cheeks, at his hairline to round his face, brushes it on the sides of his nose to accent the bridge. Ignores the distant, aching throb in his chest at the memory of his father, the thought of his ruined jacket. “I don’t think he got it, really, but he didn’t argue. Asked questions. But mostly he just cared that I worked hard and respected people, that I could take care of myself and defend myself if I needed. I think even if I’d been a proper daughter, I probably wouldn’t be that different than I am.”

Hannibal is quiet for a moment. Considering. Watches as Will dusts pink blush over his cheekbones, shimmery gold highlighter up toward his temples. “Would you have preferred being a proper daughter, Will?”

Will pauses. Frowns. He turns his back to the reflection to face Hannibal properly. There’s so much weight to that question, and to the answer. Would he prefer to be female? Some days he thinks he might, but others certainly not.

“I don’t know,” he answers. Slides the toe of his sock back and forth across tile, and watches Hannibal watch him. “I don’t hate being born male, and I don’t really have dysphoria about my body most of the time. I just…” Will leans back against the sink, hands curled around the edge of the countertop. “I like the routine. I like the way it makes me feel, but only when I want to do it. I don’t always. And I know it’s societal capitalist bullshit that convinced women that makeup can make them feel empowered for being pretty when they’re basically spending their money to become objectified, but… maybe I’ve been conditioned into believing it’s true. Guess I’m not sure.”

Will shrugs uneasily and Hannibal pushes off the doorway, crosses the small space until they stand close. He slides his knuckle under Will’s chin and tips his face up. Will flushes under the full force of his attention, as Hannibal takes in the detail of Will’s work up close. His thumb skims up Will’s chin, to the only part of him still untouched by pigment. The pad of his thumb brushes over Will’s lips, slick and soft but for the subtle ridge of the scab there. Hannibal touches it with the edge of his nail, his own lips parted in sympathetic response.

Sometimes Will thinks the magnetism between them might be dangerous. Already it’s pulled Will into a world he doesn’t belong in, with the promise of a place to stay and a hand to hold, Hannibal unknowing of the darkness that lingers beneath his skin. But the stronger part of him, the prouder part, bids him to lift his head and preen. Take pride in Hannibal’s fascination with him, and keep him until the very end. Will knows he looks good like this. There’s no sense in acting like he’s unaware when it’s what brought them together, and when Hannibal’s appreciation for fine aesthetics is so prevalent in everything he does.

In the end, Will is selfish. His shoulders relax, and he leans back on his hands against the counter with all the casual ease he’d imagine of Wilhelmina, and meets Hannibal’s eyes without shame or fear. Emboldened, Will asks, “Would you prefer me as a woman?”

Hannibal touches the scab again. Catches the edge of it with a quiet click. It stings, but Will doesn’t wince. Neither does Hannibal pull it free, though there is an almost imperceptible pull between his brows, an intentness to his face that whispers he wants to, he wants to.  Will nearly smiles; Hannibal is a curious man, he seeks what he desires with single-minded focus. The tendency to poke and pick at things, with blood sometimes as a side-effect. They have that in common. “Biological sex is irrelevant. I’m certain I’d be drawn to you regardless. I prefer you, Will, body and mind.”

“Good to know,” Will murmurs against the pressure of his thumb. Lifts his head and leans forward, and catches the pleased expression on Hannibal’s face as Will instigates the touch of their lips. They both have to be going soon, and there’s little time for them to linger, but Will’s hands find his waist on instinct, feel the solidness of his body beneath the wool jacket. The suit is fine, luxurious, so Will treats it gently; doesn’t grip or pull the way he’d like to, but fortunately Hannibal seems willing to crowd Will against the sink without much help.

Hands under his thighs, the sense of zero-gravity, the clatter of glass bottles and tubes tipping into the porcelain basin as Hannibal hoists him onto the counter. Will’s thighs part and Hannibal sinks between them, sinks his tongue between Will’s lips and licks his teeth. Will’s chest flutters when Hannibal smooths his hands over Will’s sweater, hips to waist to chest, up over his shoulders and back down Will’s arms. He hums his approval into Will’s mouth, moans it as Will nips at his lower lip, and the sound makes Will’s belly pulse and flare hot with want.

Hannibal pulls back. His eyes are burning with satisfaction, and with questions. “That’s a very fine garment. Cashmere?”

“Could be,” Will murmurs. Nuzzles Hannibal’s cheek and inhales tasteful aftershave, rubs his lips against a sharp jawline with an almost feline sense of contentment. “It was a gift from a friend, like most of my wardrobe.”

For a second, there is quiet. Then Hannibal makes an alarmingly small, sharp noise. He tips his head away from Will’s affections, wraps his hands around Will’s wrists and pulls his touch away. The rejection stings, and Will is left with curling fingers, touching nothing. Hannibal isn’t rough, doesn’t hurt him, but it’s a denial Will has never faced before, and that more than anything is what hurts.

“What?” Will asks, wounded and uncertain of what exactly he’s done wrong.

Hannibal’s frown is small but deep. “You protest my gifts but accept them from others?”

Is he serious? It takes Will only a moment to realize that yes, he is. Hannibal looks truly upset, but Will can’t help it: he snorts in response, and is faced with an irritable scowl. “Hannibal, stealing my bank information and putting five thousand dollars in my account isn’t a gift, it’s—it’s just—very generous identity theft.” There’s a flicker in his eyes like he’s not quite sure what Will means, doesn’t see the distinction. Of course he doesn’t. Will shakes his head and turns his hands in Hannibal’s grip, touches Hannibal’s hand that keeps him gently, carefully restrained with his fingertips. “Gifts are something you offer, Hannibal. Something given and accepted.”

Hannibal’s frown tempers with understanding and calculation. “So if I were to offer you gifts, you would accept them?”

Will realizes with great reluctance the opening he’s just left. He swallows. Hannibal seems satisfied at this particular turn-around, the smug bastard. He releases his hold on Will’s wrists but maintains eye contact, silent pressure, and in this moment Will wishes Hannibal didn’t understand him quite so well. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Regardless, it’s what I meant,” he replies. “Gifts are a traditional part of a courtship. Would you allow me to give them to you?”

Will balks to hear it laid so simply—courtship. Oh god, he really is serious. Will’s lips part, and Hannibal’s pupils dilate. The space between them is charged as Hannibal dips his head forward, their lips just shy of touching. Will wishes they could just keep kissing and not talk about this sort of thing. Damn him. “I, um.”

“Nothing extravagant,” Hannibal says, though the glint in his eyes says at first. “Tokens, trinkets, things that make me think of you. Would you accept them?”

Will wants to hide his face against Hannibal’s shoulder. The desire wars with the fact that he’d inevitably get makeup on a suit that absolutely costs more than this damn sweater. Spite tells him to do it anyway, but Will resists. Barely. He averts his eyes, sinks his teeth into his lip and worries at the scab there.

The idea of Hannibal spending money on him is so unsettling, uncomfortable, and it makes Will’s skin crawl. He thinks of his father, his childhood, rationing food and funds for gasoline to drive the truck to and from work at the dock; homeschool, scraping for textbooks, but mostly Will self-educating with the use of a dog-eared library card. Thrift stores, hand-me-downs. Will only accepts them from Margot because she assures she’d be donating them anyway, and he knows her well enough to accept that’s true. But gifts

Will curses that he’d even mentioned the word. But Hannibal is tenacious. And, Will realizes with a sigh, he is going to do exactly what he wants, precisely whenever he wants to do it. Will’s bank account is proof of that.

Frustrating, stubborn man.

“Nothing extravagant,” Will warns, and sets his jaw. “And no more surprise deposits, or I swear I’ll change banks. Don’t think I won’t.”

“Oh, I have no doubt,” Hannibal replies. He is so visibly, stupidly pleased, and Will wants to hit him a little. He doesn’t, but he scowls. Hannibal smiles wider for seeing it, leans in for a kiss that Will turns his cheek to deny him. Hannibal chuckles at the snub, in good humor at his decisive, manipulative victory. Asshole. “You’re the only person I’ve met who doesn’t want to be given things.”

“And you still keep trying to give them,” Will complains, well-aware that he’s acting childish and not giving a damn. “Alright, you win, let me down. I need to finish up so I can go to class, and you need to go…” he grimaces, “have your meeting with Chilton.”

Hannibal makes a sound of assent and holds out his hand for Will to take. Though irritated at the smugness that radiates from him, Will obliges as he slips from the counter and into Hannibal’s arms. “I’ll give you some time. Would you like coffee to take with you?”

The thought’s appealing; Hannibal’s coffee is fantastic. Will is reluctantly appeased. “That’d be nice, thanks.”

Hannibal kisses the crown of his head and smooths a hand over Will’s hair, and despite himself, a wave of affection floods Will’s heart. Stupid, overbearing, selfishly generous man. Will’s lucky to have him. Impossibly lucky. “I’ll prepare some for you. Don’t be long.”

From the moment he leaves the room, Will notices his absence. It feels like something inside him is intrinsically missing. Will is almost glad, in that moment, that he’s certain to die before he ever knows what it is to have Hannibal leave him for good.

 


 

Satisfaction is the primary emotion at the forefront of Hannibal’s mind as he passes the kitchen and heads for his study. A battle won in the long war of wills between them, every step forward on their path together is rife with the feeling of success.

Hannibal heads with purpose to his desk and opens the right hand drawer. Among his many carefully organized drawing utensils is a gray felt box. He lifts it out, closes the drawer.

Oh, Will is going to be so angry. And yet, Hannibal can’t seem to think of that fact with anything less than amused and fond anticipation.

The gift is nothing large, but it’s the principle of the thing. Not only because Will is about to have insight to the nature of Hannibal’s demand, but twice as irritated that he’d just given permission and no longer has reason to turn away Hannibal’s offering.

Hannibal returns with it to the kitchen, and sets it on the island while he prepares the travel mug. It will be the first thing Will sees when he enters the room. Whatever reaction he has will be framed in the doorway to the heart of Hannibal’s home, front and center to be locked into his mind palace.

He’s not disappointed.

Will freezes in the threshold, very still—a statue in black cashmere and houndstooth print, curls loose around his shoulders and dripping into his eyes, matte lipstick as red as blood, eyes the color of wild and untamed seas. He is the very picture of indulgence. His gaze lingers on the box. Then his eyes shutter closed. He exhales through his nose, slow and measured but with force, a sound in his throat that is not unlike the echo of a silent scream.

Hannibal is delighted. He says nothing, and waits the long moments while sipping at his own cup for Will to come to the end of his mental and emotional gymnastics.

“You bastard,” Will murmurs, and opens his eyes. “I should have known.”

Hannibal fondly receives Will’s look of utter exasperation and exhaustion, and in the recesses of his mind, a small and insistent voice whispers its want to be on the other end of that look for another decade, another five. Hannibal has rarely found such satisfaction in riling anyone as he does in agitating Will, drawing his most pure and visceral emotions to the gates of his mental fortress.

He doesn’t smile, but it’s a near thing. And still, Will adds, “Quit your grinning, I can see it in your eyes,” as he strides forward and picks up the box. His hand trembles finely, and he hesitates in opening it.

“It’s not so bad as whatever you’re imagining,” Hannibal says, and no longer restrains his smile. He places the cup down on the counter beside the one he prepared for Will, and rounds the kitchen island. Places himself at Will’s back, settles his hands on Will’s hunched shoulders and gently kneads them into submission. He places his lips at Will’s ear. “May as well get it over with, mylimasis. No sense in torturing yourself.”

“I’d settle for torturing you,” Will replies crossly. A flare of fierce pride and pleasure winds around Hannibal’s heart at the thought, and Will opens the box.

The earrings are tasteful, classic. A pair of pearl studs, nested in delicate white-gold filigree—the very edges sparkle and shimmer with diamond chips, accentuating but not overwhelming. Hannibal had been quite pleased with himself at the purchase, prior to coming to the realization that he would have to find both a time and a way to actually gift them. Maneuvering Will proved to be a challenge, but one well worth the reward.

Will’s sigh is soft, shaken but appreciative. It’s enough for Hannibal to know he likes them, whether or not be feels he should accept them. He sets his cheek against Will’s temple and slips his hand around Will’s, holding and supporting. His pearl cufflinks catch the light, and Hannibal smiles. “I thought we might match.”

“They’re beautiful,” Will whispers. Turns just barely to cast Hannibal a sidelong glance. “When did you…?”

“I hoped they might replace the pair you wore last time, when I visited you at school,” Hannibal replies, brushing his lips over Will’s soft earlobe and the raised ridge of scar tissue from the piercing.

Will makes a quiet sound of disbelief. “But that was before we even—”

“Yes it was.” He delights at Will’s shiver, the way he leans into the warmth of Hannibal’s mouth against his skin. “I knew almost immediately after meeting you what I hoped for our future, Will. I am blessed and fortunate that the chips have fallen this way.”

“You’re impossible,” Will says. There is a smile in his voice. “A menace, Hannibal, do you hear me?”

Hannibal laughs under his breath. “Yes, dear.”

“I can’t believe you.”

“And I hope that never changes, so I may continue to surprise you.” He kisses Will’s temple, his shimmery cheek, murmurs his approval when Will turns into it and kisses him once on the lips, deep and lingering.

When Will pulls back, his face is flushed, eyes glimmering beneath thick, dark lashes and the wisps of his curled bangs. He reaches up and tucks his hair behind one ear, and leans into Hannibal when he says, “Help me put them in?”

Head tipped up and to the side, throat exposed, Will waits with quiet expectancy as Hannibal frees one post from the felted box. Watching the blunted wire push through Will’s skin wells a strange, visceral thickness on Hannibal’s tongue. It’s a smooth entry, not unlike a blade or a needle, though Will gives no indication that it hurts. The back of the earring clips onto the post with a satisfying little snap, and Will tilts his head for Hannibal to do the next. His surgeon’s fingers are strong and steady as he secures the other, then brushes them down the sides of Will’s neck and across the graceful curve of his shoulders.

“Beautiful,” Hannibal says, unprompted. And then, with a self-deprecating smile, “How much of your lipstick am I wearing right now?”

Will grins. Leans up and kisses him again, laughs against his mouth, and whatever the amount of red smeared across his skin, he may as well consider it practice, preparation for a different shade of scarlet they may someday share between them—

“None,” Will says through bared white teeth, and snags Hannibal’s lower lip between them. Nips, and darts away, out of his arms, and snatches up the coffee Hannibal prepared for him with eager, childish greed. “Matte liquid lipstick. It’s a brave new world, Doctor Lecter.”

Hannibal feels the loss of him with terrible fondness and growing, gnawing hunger. “It does seem that way.” Will’s eyes flutter closed with satisfied bliss at the coffee on his tongue, a lovely little temptation that Hannibal would gladly catch and carry upstairs if he thought he could get away with it. But the day’s meeting holds too much weight over his future for Hannibal to discount it, even for the sake of indulging in Will. “I’m afraid I have to leave if I’m to make it on time to this meeting.”

Will hums his acknowledgement, eyes slit open and glimmering like jewels over the stainless rim of the travel mug. As promised, his lips leave not so much as a smear on the surface. “Yeah,” he agrees reluctantly, “I should go too.”

There is something Hannibal can’t quantify or describe about standing in his kitchen in finery and socks and kissing Will Graham. It seems like something so far divorced from the life he’s known to this point. It should be alien, unconscionable. But it’s undeniably reality as Will puts the cup down and holds out his hand, draws Hannibal in with a siren’s song and Venus’ divine beauty and kisses him one last time.

“I have to catch up on my work this weekend,” Will murmurs. “For real. So if you miss me, just call me, ok? No more surprises.”

Hannibal hums with amusement. “If you insist.”

They wander hand in hand to the doorway, Will’s belongings already present and ready to be stored away in his car. Hannibal hands off the felt box and watches carefully as Will kneels to tuck it into his messenger bag. His work boots clash terribly with his current outfit, but Will huffs a laugh when he points it out and mumbles something about his heels staying in the back of the car for filming days, not unlike Hannibal’s own go-bag for when he’s on call.

He helps Will into the borrowed coat, slate-colored wool with a belted waist, and contemplates how best to incorporate a wider variety of accessories into Will’s wardrobe. One thing at a time, of course—first and foremost, Will’s father’s coat is safely sequestered at the cleaner’s awaiting the decision on whether or not it can be saved. All things in good time, he tells himself. All things, Will included.

They part in the driveway, travel mugs set atop their respective vehicles for one final goodbye. Will slides his hand into Hannibal’s hair and kisses him, holds him with the confidence and authority that his makeup seems to give him. In his touch, Hannibal feels a self-assurance that he hopes to nurture, to help to grow.

“I’m really glad I came to yell at you,” Will says against his mouth, shining in the cool mid-morning light. “And that money is going into my savings where I am never, ever gonna touch it except to buy all your future birthday gifts with your own money, okay? That’s what you get.”

“Use it however you see fit,” Hannibal answers, warmed by the idea of he and Will together well into the future. He has no care for what Will does with the funds; money is something he has plenty of, between his generous salary and careful investments. The deposit, while to assure his state of mind about Will’s well-being, was primarily to get his attention. It has more than served its purpose. “But do feed yourself and pay your bills, Will.”

“My account should be straightened out by Monday.”

Hannibal makes a droll, amused noise. “Ah, I see. So this is goodbye, and come your fame and fortune unlocked, I will never see you again. I understand.”

Will’s lips part in shock, and he gently punches Hannibal in the shoulder. “Not funny.”

“Is it not?” Hannibal teases, and feels a dark wave of amusement in his chest when he adds, “Perhaps you and the Ripper are in this together.” Will’s blank stare is enough for Hannibal to pick at him further. “Though perhaps his planning isn’t the best, if he can’t anticipate the consequences of placing a victim in such a public location. Perhaps you should be calling the shots.”

“You’re insane,” Will says, and casts Hannibal a wide-eyed glance that’s twisted in with a complicated smile.

“So it’s been said. But I think there’s some wisdom to my theory, don’t you?” Hannibal replies. Steps closer, backs Will up against the rear bumper of his station wagon. Brushes back his hair and takes in the sight of those lovely little earrings and their undiluted aesthetic when combined with Will. “He should be so lucky to have your mind on his side,” Hannibal adds quietly, intently, “but I’ll count myself luckier yet for having you with me.”

“You should count yourself lucky we’re alive at all for you to be making those kinds of jokes,” Will snaps; and then his eyes widen. Immediately, his jaw clicks shut. He stands in silent, petrified stillness. Waits for a negative reaction—one that will never come.

“Jokes, perhaps,” Hannibal replies, and studies Will carefully. “But you are the only thing standing between the Chesapeake Ripper being damned as a demon. Your passionate speech and impersonal analysis.” Hannibal touches Will’s cheek; lets it fall, until his hand slips under the collar of Will’s jacket and his palm rests against Will’s heart. “One might think he would be thankful, Will. If that accident was truly not what he intended, then you have turned the tide of his reputation.”

“Are you defending him?” Will demands, confused and breathless and equally accusatory. He is still with his back against the car, and in his bafflement, does not seem to entirely notice where he is. Consumed, entirely, with seeking his answers.

Hannibal slowly looks up, lifts his brows. “Aren’t you?”

Will is silent.  His eyes fix on Hannibal’s tie, not his eyes. His voice, when it comes, is uncertain. “I don’t deny his crimes. He kills people. He’s still a murderer.”

Hannibal blinks. Will sounds as though he is convincing himself more than Hannibal, and isn’t that just fascinating?

“Yes,” Hannibal replies, ever-patient, “but I see a great deal of artless, meaningless death. As terrible as murder is to the minds of society…” Hannibal carefully considers how to word his thoughts. “I believe there’s a certain lack of grace in those who are hit by cars, or who drown in their swimming pools in their own backyards, compared to those who are hand-chosen for death and made into something more than a bloated corpse in a shallow grave.”

Will swallows with such force Hannibal feels it in his chest. “Not all murder is created equal? I…” Will too hesitates. Laughs once, but without humor. “Most would argue all death holds equal weight, no matter how it comes about. It’s still a loss of life.”

“Life will always be lost. There’s no shame in death, Will. I don’t fear death, and nor should you.” Will’s eyes rise to his, catch and hold as Hannibal curls his fingers in the lapel of Will’s coat. “The tragedy is not to die, but to be wasted. When we are taken before our time and see our potential cut short. But, I think…” Hannibal licks his lips, tastes Will on them. He sees Will’s aching desperation staring at him, keening for reassurance for the fears he’s not yet voiced and never will. “You asked me once if I thought the Ripper would read your articles. And not long before that, you told me you thought he was lonely, and wanted someone to share his kills with. I know it’s a terrifying prospect, mylimasis, but you see him in a way no one else does. Perhaps he’s chosen you.”

Will’s lips part. His brow furrows, head tilts, like a new facet of a discovery has been unveiled to him and he is skeptical of its lustre. “Chosen me?”

“As a witness,” Hannibal clarifies carefully. “Even the most holy of God’s avenging angels are not beautiful, Will. There’s a reason, when they descend from Heaven, the first thing they say to those who behold them is—”

Be not afraid ,” Will whispers.

Hannibal nods.

For a moment, there is silence. Only the sound of distant cars passing, sirens half a mile away, and the steam of Will’s breath in the air. Hannibal takes in the subtle changes of his face—a furrow of his brow, the soundless press and part of his painted lips, the distant other-place stare as he looks through Hannibal’s chest, rather than at it. To watch from the outside the inner workings of Will’s mind is a mechanical marvel, not just a mental one.

Will is shaken.

When he snaps free of his reverie, he reaches for Hannibal’s arms—steadies himself, as though the car at his back is not enough. “What if you’re wrong?” Will says softly, and does not meet Hannibal’s eyes. “What if being seen makes me a threat?”

“I have no doubt you’re threatening to him,” Hannibal replies, and Will hastily looks up at him with raw, unpolished fear. Clumsy, a blunt instrument, not yet refined. Hannibal sighs and touches Will’s hair, and Will leans into him in search of that kindness. “But in his position, I’d imagine many things are a threat to him. As you’ve said, he is a smart but solitary creature. He may seek to test your intentions, Will, but very few in this world can stand to be isolated forever. I think he’s more apt to seek a sympathetic and an empathetic mind.”

Will pushes his cheek into Hannibal’s palm. His pulse flutters so rapidly that Hannibal can see the twitch of his jugular in his neck, quick as the wings of a bird. “Doesn’t that worry you?”

“For your safety, yes. You do seem to be accident-prone,” Hannibal answers, and receives a halfhearted slap to his shoulder that bears no sting. He smiles wryly. “But you told me the night we met about your fascination, Will. You’ve mentioned it often. It seems we both are attracted to curious minds and the marvels of psychology. So long as you stay alive and well, I can’t begrudge you that.”

Will pushes away from his car, steps into Hannibal’s arms. He carefully avoids touching his face to Hannibal’s clothing as he accepts the offered embrace. “So I have your blessing.”

“You don’t need my blessing, Will. Your freedom is your own.” Hannibal slips one hand down his back and is gratified when Will shivers. He turns his head and presses his lips to Will’s ear, feels the chill of the earring brush his cheek. “Promise me something, though.”

Will nods, trusting without even yet hearing what it is he wants. Quiet vindication fills his chest, and doting affection. Trust me above all others, and neither of us will ever be alone.

“Just in case anything should happen,” Hannibal says in a tentative murmur, and Will stiffens, “please keep me apprised of your investigation. If I’m in the dark, I won’t know where to look for you.”

Will backs away slowly, out of his arms. His smile is small and pained, and Hannibal knows what he is thinking: if Will ever disappears at the hands of the Ripper, it’s because he will never again be found alive. And if Hannibal knows what Will knows, then that puts him at risk.

“I promise,” Will lies.

Hannibal nods once, steady and solemn. Yes, he expected as much.

Will takes a breath. He turns to collect his bag from the frozen ground, graceless and uncaring in his fine wardrobe and worn work boots. “Okay,” Will says, and swallows. “We both have to go, for real this time.”

He opens the trunk and tosses things in without care or concern. Hannibal catches sight of sleek, familiar high heels; the underside of the black sole is embossed with a small number 10.5. Will closes the rear of the car and turns, reaches out forcefully and impatiently like he hadn’t been so soft and vulnerable just moments before (and always is where the Ripper is concerned) and snags Hannibal by the sleeve. He tips his chin expectantly for a kiss, and it’s with great amusement that Hannibal obliges him for a swift meeting of lips. A quick peck and nothing more—Hannibal just as suddenly finds himself alone, and Will climbing into the driver’s seat, and the travel mug still atop the roof of his car.

The engine roars. The window opens. Will sticks his head out with a complicated frown, a manic light in his eyes. “Hey,” he says, and Hannibal quirks a brow. “Don’t listen to anything Chilton says about me, okay? He’s a hack. Just. Don’t talk about me at all, ideally.”

Hannibal resists a snort; such a thing would be uncouth. He hums fondly as he plucks the cup from its place and rounds the car, holds it out with an amused tilt of his lips. “You forgot something.”

Will sighs. His frenetic energy seems to cool as he reaches up to accept the forgotten offering; holds Hannibal’s hand in his own as he uses the other to set it in the cup holder. Hannibal watches in interest, in fascination as Will leans against the inside of the car door and lowers his face to Hannibal’s open hand. Presses his forehead against it, his feathery-soft bangs, trails the cold tip of his nose from Hannibal’s palmar arch to his radial artery. With gentle fingers, Will pushes the cuff of his coat sleeve aside—his lips part, scarlet red, and touch the tender inside of Hannibal’s wrist.

Each touch of Will’s mouth and stutter of his breath is a live wire, electricity eagerly received by his own nervous system and amplified. When Will hums against his skin, the sound feeds directly into Hannibal’s belly. Nourishes him, sustains him, and for a moment, every part of Hannibal is still. His breath, his heart, his pulse against Will’s mouth and the exposed points of his teeth. Will inhales gently through his nose. Nuzzles. Kisses again and again, slow and soft presses of lips. It is eroticism and fealty both—succulent want and ruinous need.

“I’d be so lost without you,” Will murmurs. “Thanks.”

Hannibal licks his lips. Blinks in the morning light at this bright and exquisite young thing who depends on him so thoroughly, and who Hannibal is surely halfway to loving. He slowly frees his hand, cups Will’s jaw, and revels in the look of unmoored worship he is given in return, blown pupils and a glossy mouth. Does Will know how intoxicating he is? How unique, how desirous? Judging by that glint of fear and sadness that remains even now, Hannibal has to assume he doesn’t.

“Mylimasis,” he murmurs, and the word tastes different on his tongue. Sweet, savory, strange. New. “I think the Chesapeake Ripper should be absolutely terrified of you, and all that you are capable of.”

Will blinks, slow flutters of inky lashes, and levels Hannibal with an uncomprehending stare and steadily reddening cheeks that flare with heat against his palm. As he withdraws, Hannibal trails his fingertips over Will’s cheekbones, his lips, and fights a current of possessive, terrible want that would gladly push Will into the worn back seat and climb atop him, rip him from his fine clothing until their sole source of heat is one another.

“Go on then,” he says as his hand falls away, and his voice is like gravel, grating against his throat and his aching teeth. “Chase your killer, Will. I’ll be waiting.”

Will is silent. No I’ll call you or see you later because there is simply nothing to be said. His hands shake as he puts the car into reverse and carefully backs out of the driveway, but in the moments before he starts down the road, he looks back.

Will looks back, and finds Hannibal there, and nods his silent understanding, and then he is gone.

Hannibal’s hands twitch at his sides. The room of his memory palace that he’s dedicated to Will is spilling outward, over the threshold and into the halls, filling an entire wing (and indeed, the master bedroom) with his influence. Not only the light places, but also the dark.

It’s only the knowledge that this meeting is unavoidable that keeps him pinned in place. Afterward, he will have days to plan his next move. Perhaps gentle isn’t the best way; what Will needs is a statement. A declaration of his intent. Hannibal will be glad to give it to him—but when the moment comes, and not a second sooner.

Hannibal can be patient.

He gathers his coffee cup and climbs into the Bentley, hears it rumble and purr to life beneath his hands. The threads of fate and circumstance are reaching outward, and Hannibal senses a storm on the horizon. He’s uncertain of its origins, only that he must be wary of it—and warier still of the black SUV with tinted windows and a government plate parked in front of the hospital entrance.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

What Hannibal finds, when he enters, is akin to an impromptu staff meeting—albeit what seems like an involuntary one.

He catches sight of multiple pairs of scrubs disappearing into the break room, and the crowded presence of bodies lingering near the doorway. Though Hannibal thinks he would prefer to keep himself divorced from whatever situation is developing, an informed mind is one better prepared to deal with consequences. He sees the commotion, and he follows.

Harried nurses stay as close to the threshold as they can stand, visibly irritated at being interrupted. While doctors being rounded up would be an almost unnoticed occurrence, the nurses are the foundation of the emergency department. Without their influence, nothing can last for long, and they must be available for any emergency situation.

It makes Hannibal wonder what, exactly, has happened to have them corralled into a small, private room like this, out of the way of patients’ listening ears.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I will keep this quick as I am able,” says an African-American man who makes himself the center of the room—tall, strong features, a charismatic, commanding presence and a booming voice. He wears a visitor’s badge, and in his hand is a set of credentials in a leather case, declaring him an agent of the FBI. He is flanked by the department administrator, a mousy man who looks almost laughably unauthoritative at the agent’s side.

Well. This will be interesting.

“I understand you’re all anxious to get back to your responsibilities. So am I. I’ll tell you what I know and you tell me what you know, and we’ll all get back to work and have a decent day. Sound good to you?”

Murmurs of assent. At least the agent knows better than to waste their time; Hannibal leans against the break room doorway in the throng of his colleagues, and has the passing thought that perhaps it’s surprisingly fortunate he is here. Attendance and compliance are often bedfellows—smoothing over whatever this is about will help cement his already exemplary reputation.

“My name is Agent Jack Crawford, I’m a part of the Behavioral Analysis Unit under SSA Kade Prurnell. I was sent here to talk to you today because of a security breach that we have now traced back to your hospital.” Flickers of discontent—no one likes being accused, and the agent is skirting dangerously close to that line.

Crawford, Crawford. Hannibal knows that name somehow.

“A scan of this report— ” He holds up a printed copy of a medical document, the text much too fine for anyone to read from afar. And yet, in that moment, Hannibal knows exactly why he has come, and his lips press into a thin line. “—ended up on Tattlecrime dot com…”

Strange realization—followed by satisfaction. Oh, his Will is such a clever thing. No scans, no proof of wrongdoing.

“…among others.”

Of course the FBI is aware of Will’s site, given its viral nature and in-depth insights. It’s only natural, though at this point, Freddie’s is likely one of many who boast scans of the autopsy report, if only because so many ripped the file from her site and uploaded it to their own. She, of course, will remain the originator of such data on an official basis. Will only paraphrased the information within the report, which is no proof at all that he stole it.

Hannibal can’t help but be proud.

He glances into the room, at his coworkers and colleagues and catches sight of Abel Gideon across the break area. The man offers a nod at first, subtle and polite—and then a decidedly impolite roll of his eyes at Crawford’s expense. Hannibal does not smile, but his frown fades. Gideon’s eyes glint with satisfaction at the subtle camaraderie. Around them, others look much more affected by the news; deep frowns, shaking heads of disapproval, genuine perplexment. Who would dare to risk their careers at such a prestigious hospital over… over what?

Of course, Hannibal knows.

“And for those of you wondering exactly what the hell I’m going on about, this is the autopsy report of a recent murder victim who was released to your hospital—victim of a killer currently identified as the Chesapeake Ripper, who was responsible for the deaths of 19 people in the Beltway accident earlier this week, the injury of 73 others, and is so far attributed to the deaths of 11 more individual murder victims on top of that. You can see my reason for concern.”

Unsettled whispers. Coworkers suddenly doubting coworkers, and simultaneously believing the best of their friends. Forming silent allegiances without more than a glance at those they know, connecting eyes across a room. Human loyalty at work, with Hannibal its silent witness and participant, its secret subject.

Crawford eyes the crowd. Sharp, observative, a prime hunter in his own right.

“I know no one wants to get anyone in trouble,” Crawford adds. “But whatever you’ve seen, we need to know. An information leak in an open investigation can lead to a lot of problems, or a lot of dead civilians. A tabloid website publishing private medical records threatens the credibility of this institution, and all of your jobs. Now I don’t want to push the old ‘if you see something, say something’ line, but that’s what it’s come to. I need to know of anything suspicious or out of the ordinary you’ve seen in regards to personnel and patients. I’ll be meeting with other shifts as they come available to collect information, so please,” Crawford stares them down, and it is clear he is not asking, “reach out to me while I’m here. We get this taken care of, I can get back to my job, you can get back to yours.

It’s a dismissal, clear as anything. Crawford waits until the first of the nurses hustles to brush past Hannibal and get back to her work before he stills the room again.

“And doctors, nurses, staff—best come to me before I come to you. Whatever you know, I will find out. No one likes a wild card in a murder investigation, especially the FBI.”

This time, they wait. Jack Crawford very nearly smiles, and Hannibal commends the man for his control, his poise, his maneuvering. It’s skillful work, and speaks to an intelligent mind and keen social awareness.

“That’s all,” Crawford says pleasantly. “You’re dismissed.”

Hannibal doesn’t dare to dream the man will let them go so easily. No, he’ll be doing his own interviews, seeking out his own intel, and hunting the source of the information leak. Something tells him that Crawford is skilled at tracking, and a much more stealthy pursuer than his booming voice and charismatic presence would lead one to believe.

Crawford looks up and catches Hannibal’s eye in the doorway—the crinkle of a frown, of seeing Hannibal as a new arrival, and unsure of his welcome. Surely just the manner of his dress will make him memorable, out of place in a fine three-piece suit among exhausted surgeons and nurses in their well-worn scrubs. The agent turns to the administrator, who must make mention of Hannibal’s name, because Crawford’s visible suspicion is smoothed.

Hannibal stands aside for his colleagues to filter out, and receives a smirk from Gideon as he passes. “Hell of a world, Lecter. Not even sure if we can trust our own patients.”

There is an undercurrent of irony in those words—Hannibal suppresses a frown, keeps his expression open and smooth, and quirks a brow in return. “At least we may still be sure of ourselves.”

Gideon’s smirk breaks into a grin. “That we may.” He inclines his head in an exaggerated but genteel gesture, not quite a bow, and Hannibal is given more the sense of attempted camaraderie than mockery. “Doctor.”

Hannibal nods, and allows an answering smile to pull at the edge of his lips. “Doctor.”

Gideon heads back to his shift, seamlessly integrating himself with the nurses, who smile and laugh as he shakes them from their solemn consideration. Gideon is known for his indiscriminate flirting, though to his credit, Hannibal has never seen him cross the line from playful banter into making anyone uncomfortable. They are not so different, in their own ways: Gideon is a force of raw personality and presence, and Hannibal is a pillar of comfort, authority, and sensibility.

And to protect his sensibilities, cautious approaches must be made.

He waits until the last of the nurses have passed to enter, mindful that he has only a little time before he’s due several buildings over in the psychiatric department. The administrator notices Hannibal right away..

“Mr. Merle,” Hannibal says with a pleasant smile, and holds out his hand to shake.

“Doctor Lecter, very good to see you!” Merle’s palm is slightly damp with stress. Hannibal does not wipe his hand on his suit when their shake is done, but it’s a near thing. The man nods at Lecter’s suit and woolen overcoat with a smile and poorly-concealed envy in his eyes.“You must be off today.”

“Meeting with Doctor Chilton momentarily,” Hannibal replies. Jack Crawford’s eyes are steady on Hannibal, and he nods, holds out his hand. Crawford’s palm is broad and strong, though he has no need of hand-squeezing intimidation tactics that other men in his position might employ. His shake is firm and professional, his eye contact steady. Yes, Crawford will indeed be going places, Hannibal thinks as he draws back to a sensible distance. “Agent Crawford, was it?”

“Yes, that’s right. I saw you arrive right as we were about to start.” Jack’s brows raise in polite query. “Couldn’t stay away from the commotion, huh?”

Hannibal’s lips part to expose the points of his teeth. Ah, so it begins. “Well, I do work in the emergency department,” he says in good-natured self-deprecation. “At least for the moment.”

“Oh, I heard,” Merle says mournfully, and pins Hannibal with a conflicted smile. Happy for his progression, but sad to see him go. Crawford inclines his head in interest. “You’re sure we can’t convince you to stay on?”

Hannibal chuckles. “Afraid not. I’m due for a change. I think the hours in psychiatry will be more forgiving to my hobbies and my personal life.”

That draws a rueful smile from Jack. “My wife’s no fan of my schedule, either.”

Hannibal blinks—Crawford, ah, perhaps that’s why the name is familiar. The mental image of a beautiful woman in an elegant dress comes to him, mingling among socialites with a wine glass. “No relation to Phyllis Crawford?” Hannibal asks.

Jack looks pleasantly surprised. “My wife. You know Bella?”

Common ground and shared acquaintances breed trust. The happenstance is fortunate. “I’ve met her briefly at the Baltimore Symphony once or twice. She’s a representative in Washington for NATO, is she not?” At Jack’s nod, Hannibal smiles with satisfaction. “When she mentioned her husband also worked for the government and was away on business, I’ll admit I didn’t think of something so exciting.”

Jack laughs, full-bellied and good-natured. “I think I was in Milwaukee for the last performance. It’s not usually my kind of scene. I’m a simple guy with simple tastes. I think the charity gala will be enough excitement for the whole year.”

Hannibal’s smile widens. “Perhaps we will see each other there, Agent Crawford.”

He nods. “Call me Jack.”

Hannibal nods in reply. “Hannibal, then.” Jack’s brows lift slightly, but his smile doesn’t waver, and Hannibal adds, “Actually, I was wondering if I might speak to you for a moment about an incident that occurred yesterday.”

“Of course. Mr. Merle, please excuse us,” Crawford says.

“Oh, not at all,” Merle says. “I should be getting back to work. Agent, if you have any questions, please let us know.”

“Will do, Mr. Merle, thank you.” The man excuses himself and leaves Hannibal and Crawford more or less alone, only a few stragglers left in the break room attending to their lunches or hurried snacks.

Hannibal rubs his hands together before him in the approximation of warming them, though he is unbothered by the residual chill. Appearing relatable is his most powerful weapon. “I wasn’t aware you’d be coming, otherwise I would have arrived earlier,” Hannibal says, almost an apology. “I’m afraid I only have a few moments, but I heard you mention the website Tattlecrime. I’ve come across the site before.”

Jack nearly growls. “A particular nuisance. Doesn’t seem to matter how many times we tell journalists to let us investigate and that their stirring makes things worse, they just keep at it.”

Hannibal nods in silent sympathy, but without voicing outright agreement. “Because I’m aware of the site, I recognized the name of a young woman who introduced herself to me yesterday as Freddie Lounds. She was trespassing in the lower levels after sneaking out of the emergency room, which she entered under false pretenses.”

Jack’s brows shoot up. His expression is thunderous, but his voice is grim and controlled. “Freddie Lounds was here?”

Hannibal nods again with a frown. “She’s younger than I expected. Red hair, delicate features. Her address listed an apartment in Maryland. I don’t remember it precisely.” Hannibal slowly grimaces, apologetic. “And the staff won’t be able to release private patient documents without a warrant, but it was logged by the security officers with her name, and she’s since been blacklisted.”

Jack nods in reply. “What did she ask you for?”

Hannibal chooses his words carefully. “She mentioned the incident at the Beltway. When I was disinclined to give her what she wanted, she turned to insults and accusations against my character, and my partner’s.” He frowns, deeper this time, and sees Jack take careful notice of the word partner. “I’ve been seeing someone from the University of Maryland who I met through the department. I’ve visited him on campus before to get lunch together.” Hannibal’s frown grows darker, as though just realizing. “She must be a student there, and saw me and followed me.”

“Stalking,” Jack says with a tight shake of his head, a grimace on his face and an irritation directed elsewhere. Hannibal knows he has won Crawford’s allegiance, his sympathy. “And theft of information.”

“She wasn’t able to get anything from me,” Hannibal says with a firm nod, determined. “But who knows who else she’s lied to and manipulated, or how many times she’s used a ruse to gain entry. I hope that reporting the incident will prevent it from happening again, but I worry she may try the same at other institutions.”

Crawford nods; reaches out, and lays his hand upon Hannibal’s shoulder. “Doctor, thank you for stepping forward. This information could go a long way.”

“Happy to help.” Hannibal smiles, inclines his head.

“One more question, before you go.”

Hannibal’s smile freezes in place, polite and unmoving. “Of course.”

Jack’s hand falls away. He glances around the room, then leans slightly forward. A pinch forms between his heavy brows, lines around his eyes that are already starting to wrinkle, despite his similar age. This is a man who carries stress with him always. If he’s not careful, it will mark him for life.

Jack pitches his voice quietly, and looks much more troubled. “Lounds wasn’t the first one to publish this information.”

Hannibal lifts his brows and settles Jack with a look of alarm. “Really, ” he replies.

Jack shakes his head in mute frustration, and for just a moment, his eyes close. Hannibal sees the weight of emotional strain on Jack Crawford’s shoulders, intelligence and frustration constrained by the legal process, and not the ability to run free and shake answers free of anyone he meets. It’s the curse of a curious mind put within such heavy regimentation. Hannibal himself would go mad without the outlet to express himself as he desires. If only Jack knew precisely who he stood beside, with bent heads and conspiratory whispers.

“About fifteen minutes before Lounds posted her article about the killer’s tenth official victim, the first in this new cycle, another blog posted one of their own. All the same information from the report, but we can’t confirm whether someone told them about it, or whether they were able to get possession of it.” Crawford glances at Hannibal, lips pressed together in a thin line. “Tattlecrime was the loudest, at first. Lounds has a loyal reader base that lives for the drama and sensationalism. But this other site is a concern to the Bureau—the conclusions the author has drawn, and how closely and specifically they’ve followed these killings. Toss in the anonymity and the lengths with which they’re going to cover their tracks, and the sudden attention and sensationalism their article drew…” He pauses, looks at Hannibal meaningfully. “And then the escalation, and subsequent denial and defense of that escalation.”

Crawford says nothing more.

The realization, when it hits Hannibal, is almost absurd. “You believe the author of the site is the Chesapeake Ripper?”

“Or associated with him,” Jack agrees. “That’s my personal belief. Not the belief of the Bureau, or they’d be going much harder to the paint chasing this person down than they actually are. Have you seen anything else suspicious in recent weeks—anyone here who stuck out to you, who was asking questions they shouldn’t, who didn’t belong?”

Yes, Crawford is a skilled hunter indeed, with a strong intuition, if a misguided one. He would make a useful ally and a dangerous foe. Hannibal will have to tread lightly. He frowns, allowing himself to be lost in the markers of deep thought. Touches his face, allows his eyes to wander, and slowly shakes his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Even the event with Freddie Lounds was an outlier. Though the number of patients and passerby I interact with as a surgeon is significantly less than the nurses. They may have more answers than I do.”

Crawford sighs, clearly disappointed but unsurprised. “I’ll touch base with them.” He claps his hand on Hannibal’s shoulder. “Thank you for your help, Doctor. I’m fortunate you were here.”

Hannibal smiles. He shows his teeth. Yes, how fortunate he was here, indeed. “All too happy to help.” Hannibal makes to retreat, and pauses. “Jack?” Agent Crawford twitches, looks to him. “I’ll look forward to seeing you at the charity gala next week. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in your search, and if you have any questions, you may reach out to me at any time.”

Jack’s shoulders relax. His replying smile is small, but genuine. “Thank you, Hannibal. Enjoy your meeting.”

Hannibal chuckles at the thought of anyone enjoying a meeting with Frederick Chilton. “I’ll certainly try my best.”

 


 

Hannibal finds precisely what he expects when he enters the Department of Psychiatry, complete with Chilton chattering at Bedelia’s young intern Alana Bloom while she maintains an air of polite attentiveness over thinly-veiled suffering. Hannibal bites back a smirk as he approaches and sees the wave of her relief.

“Doctor Lecter,” Alana says with a smile before Frederick can cut in, and holds out her hand to shake. “Good to see you again.”

Hannibal shakes her hand firmly and inclines his head. She seems a smart young thing, and certainly must be in order to keep up with Doctor Du Maurier’s demands of an assistant, and high expectations of an intern bearing her approval. “Miss Bloom, likewise. Though I expect I’ll be calling you Doctor sooner than later.”

Her cheeks pinken; her smile brightens. “I sure hope so.”

Frederick rolls his shoulders back, lifts his head. “Wonderful of you to join us, Doctor Lecter.”

His tone is pleasant, but Hannibal knows his intent is anything but. Hannibal’s eyes slip to Frederick as Alana winces. Slowly, as to not quite appear rude, Hannibal puts his hands into his pockets. “My apologies for running behind. There was an impromptu staff meeting downstairs with an FBI agent regarding the recent data breach. I came as soon as I was able.”

Frederick perks up at that. “Oh. Interesting. Well, the FBI does love a good manhunt.”

“That they do.” Hannibal inclines his head. “Shall we begin?”

Frederick flusters; he’s younger than Hannibal by a year or two, but full of himself and his position of authority. He’s precisely where Hannibal would be if he had chosen psychiatry for his initial residency—but Hannibal doesn’t regret his choice in the least. He has a fulfilling career and a stellar reputation, the respect and admiration of administrators for his accomplishments. Switching to psychiatry is simply chasing the labor of love, and embraces his desire for a new challenge. There is nothing more challenging and fascinating than the human mind, and all its twisted intricacies.

Frederick’s grimace is gratifying. Oh, he so badly wants to be in control, to have others subjugated to his whims—but most importantly, to be admired. Frederick craves the validation that comes from others recognizing his work. It’s a simple need, and a classic one, and one that Hannibal shares. It’s how they go about that need that differs.

“Yes, yes, let’s begin.”

Frederick details responsibilities of residents—overseeing group and cognitive behavioral therapy, working alongside the fellows in charge of patient medication. Individual therapy with select patients, monitoring their progress, both good and bad. Johns Hopkins’ outpatient facility is on another campus altogether, as it bears the majority of their program—the inpatient program is mostly for extended cases of anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and patients at risk of self-harm that require supervision. There are exceptions, naturally: some with schizophrenia and paranoia, borderline personality disorder, dissociation.

“The hospital here primarily caters to serious cases,” Chilton says cheerfully. “Rather than the more conventional worried well, as they’re called.” He glances over his shoulder, and at seeing Hannibal’s impassive expression and Alana’s glance toward him and back again, he huffs, “You know, the middle class folk who hate their jobs and their spouses, who are scared of the ocean despite agreeing to go on vacation to the Caribbean.”

“Though some patients present more severe symptoms, all are equally worthy of treatment,” Hannibal replies with a faint frown, and is heartily echoed by Alana’s nod. “These so-called worried well are the mothers and fathers and siblings and cousins of those who are egregiously unwell, and may improve their care and station with the right support. New studies show even socially-accepted levels of stress over an extended time can lead to cardiovascular disease and heart attack.”

Chilton grimaces. “Of course. And for those who are more suited to outpatient treatment, we have the Bayview campus with family counseling and the like. Here, we focus on unconventional therapies and research. Electroconvulsive therapy, light therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation. You name it, we’ll give it a go.”

Alana’s brow crinkles. She crosses her arms over her chest and trots to keep up with Chilton’s inconsiderately quick pace, her heels clicking against the floor—pretty but sensible shoes, and her brightly-colored and boldly-patterned dress swishes around her legs. Her expression of femininity is vibrant and unapologetic, suited to her personality. “Those can be dangerous,” she says.

Chilton shrugs. “We make sure to get consent, and they’re informed of the risks. Most of them want to get better.”

His flippancy is irritating. Hannibal’s brows lift slightly, and he glances into one of the ECT labs with equal parts interest and distaste. “So long as one doesn’t promise results they can’t deliver. That would be unethical.”

Chilton bristles. “Ethics and patient safety are of the utmost importance to this department and myself. That’s why any procedures that carry the risk of medical complications are performed here on-site, and we have two certified nurse practitioners on the floor at any given time, as well as a host of RNs and LPNs.” He stops, turns, stares at them with challenge in his eyes. “Interest in the unusual is the reason we’ve all found this profession. The unconventional can sometimes make huge strides in patient recovery, and those discoveries are being made all the time. One must be willing to push the envelope of polite practice, within reason, to broaden the possibilities of psychiatric science.”

“Within reason,” Alana replies before Hannibal can say it himself, and yes, he does now see why Bedelia likes this girl. He sees the same fire of spirit in her that he sees in Will, that same spark of intelligence—but where Will chases darkness, Alana Bloom chases the light of her own faith in the good of the world.

It’s brave of her. Naive, but brave.

“But we can’t risk the wellbeing and ultimately the recovery of patients in the name of making those strides. Not without full disclosure and their complete and informed consent.” She taps her toe impatiently, and pins Chilton with a look that would shatter lesser men. She must have siblings, Hannibal decides. Perhaps the oldest of them, used to wrangling unruly children and maintaining the order her parents set in place. “Our first priority is to them and their health.”

“Our first priority,” Chilton replies, lips curled into a tight smile and eyes blazing, and Hannibal can smell the beginnings of anxious sweat, “is to curing them. Their health will follow.”

If this is how the next four years will go, Hannibal can already anticipate one of them either transferring or resigning out of sheer frustration. He decides to change the subject, lest they be reduced to blows. “Do residents spend more time at this facility, or at Bayview?”

Chilton seems glad for the distraction. Alana, too, for a reason to draw focus back to their tour. “Depends on specialization. Family and child psychology, yes. Abnormal psychology usually stays here, or treatment focused on addiction recovery or eating disorders. For the first year, residents choose a mentor and float between the facilities, pick up shifts on the clinical cycle. Years three and four pin down specialty, and decision on fellowship or transfer, or for some, private practice.”

Chilton grimaces slightly at that, like such an idea is boring and distasteful. Hannibal supposes he prefers the dramatics of being in a more centralized setting, with its thrills and the power it provides over junior staff and patients alike.

He thinks he would prefer private practice, truly. Hand-choosing his clientele, setting his own appointment schedule, doing private research from the comfort of his own home, rather than clinical studies. Time in the evenings to cook and entertain, or to travel when he so desires. The freedom and ability to roam as he would like to roam, kill as he would like to kill. For a solitary life, that sounds like something akin to quiet peace. And with the growing potential of having an equal and companion…

It is a thought that borders on domestic.

Life with Will, in an ideal world and an idyllic set of circumstances. Art, culture, travel, food. The lushness of their senses, of desire and freedom. What would that be like?

Hannibal follows as Chilton herds them around, past the nurse’s station in the center of the ward and back toward the entryway. Alana asks more questions than he does—she seems willing to grit her teeth and deal with Chilton’s fundamentally opposite and selfish personality, so long as she gets the answers she seeks. But Hannibal can see the fury building within her when Chilton defers to Hannibal, both as her senior as a doctor, and as his fellow man. He is wrong to do so, and Hannibal makes his best attempts to include her, but the pull of a sympathetic potential colleague is far outweighed by the potential of an insufferable boss.

By the end of the tour, Alana has surpassed frustration and come full circle back to calm. “Thank you for your insight, Doctor Chilton,” she says, each word precisely placed between her tongue and teeth. “And for the tour. Have a nice day.”

Chilton, oblivious, says, “Of course, Miss Bloom. I hope we’ll see you as part of the program next Fall.”

Alana inclines her head; says nothing. She shares a long and level look with Hannibal before she excuses herself. The nurses buzz her out of the ward, and the click of her heels disappears behind the heavy thud of a leaden door, a barricade between those inside and the outside world.

Hannibal wisely decides not to inform Frederick that he’s just lost himself a resident. He has more pressing matters to attend to, and he can discuss Miss Bloom’s placement later with Bedelia. “Have you had many other prospectives this year?”

“More this year than last year,” Chilton says, preening at being asked questions that defer to his experience and authority. The man really is so simple. He gestures for Hannibal to follow, and Hannibal does—away from the ward entrance, toward what is presumably Chilton’s office. “Bigger graduating class, but we’ve had some travel from the tri-state area. Of course, our program is selective.”

“Of course,” Hannibal agrees. Emergency medicine and the surgery track is just as careful in choosing new residents, if not more so. There is significantly more room for error when one wields a scalpel over a pen. “How do you find the department?”

“Overall, interesting. The research institution is much more open to, shall we say, unconventional modes of therapy. It’s a fine line, as Miss Bloom said—” Derision, clearly heard but not spoken, “—but I’ve found the results to be positive.”

“What do you specialize in?”

“Currently? Abnormal psychology and our more violent patients.” Chilton opens a door and stands aside for Hannibal to enter; it’s a similar sized office to his own, though one decorated with framed covers of published psychiatric journals, gilded and matted self-congratulation. “I hope to eventually end up in the criminal sector. The fringes of society are fascinating to me. They display the most base of all our instincts.”

Chilton rounds his desk and sinks into his seat, high-backed and opulent, well above the hospital’s allowance. It is a throne rather than a desk chair. Hannibal removes his overcoat and folds it over the back of the standard-issue seat across from him, and unbuttons his suit jacket as he sits. No use in wrinkling it.

“Just look at the Beltway killer, the one they’re all calling the Chesapeake Ripper based on an online blog. There are serious psychological things to be unpacked there.” Chilton laughs to himself, incredulous as he rubs a hand over his mouth. “When they catch him, it won’t be because of an anonymous hack’s assessment, it’ll be because of doctors and law enforcement doing their jobs with integrity and experience.”

Hannibal slowly raises his brows. Sits back in the seat. Wonders what Chilton would say if he knew that the supposed anonymous hack was the very prospective student he’d salivated after and lost, as he’s just lost Alana Bloom. Will’s potential remains unchanged, regardless of Chilton’s influence on his life. Hannibal hopes to see him flourish under a more attentive hand.

“Sometimes new ideas can have merit,” Hannibal replies, and blinks slowly at Chilton’s flicker of irritation and concession in quick succession. “Have you read the blog?”

Chilton’s lips purse. “No.”

“I found it illuminating. The author’s insights were not so obtuse as one might assume from an unverified website. They may even be a psychologist from our community—we simply have no way of knowing.” Hannibal touches his mouth thoughtfully, then lowers his hands to his knees. “You must’ve had a number of interesting patients over the years, seen violent offenders come and go. Do you think any of them are capable of that sort of display?”

“My patients?” Chilton scoffs. “No. No, they’ve all been fairly straightforward.” He reclines in his chair, posture deplorable. Laces his hands together before him, and touches the pads of his index fingers together. “Although…”

Hannibal tips his head forward in a sign of intrigue; Chilton catches his eyes, and a somewhat unpleasant grin spreads across his face. “I can’t name names, of course. But a few years ago I had a promising potential student that gave me some very interesting signals. It’s my belief they never sought professional psychiatric care.” He tips his head back against his chair and sighs to the ceiling. “What a shame it was to let them leave.”

He has an idea that he knows exactly who Frederick is talking about. And so long as no names are mentioned, he is technically not violating Will’s request to speak about him. Needlessly, he asks, “Intelligent?”

“Oh, intelligent, charismatic, remorseless, the whole trifecta,” Chilton sighs explosively. He looks like a child who has had a favored toy snatched away, but old enough not to cry about it—rather to stew in begrudgement and dissatisfaction, and scheme to get it back. “Seamlessly blended in among their peers. I thought among the youngest. I didn’t even notice h—they were what they were until, like Miss Bloom, they started asking me questions about the program.” He scowls. “About things well beyond the undergraduate level, if you ask me, even seeking entry to a Master’s program.”

Hannibal blinks. A Master’s program? Will would have been barely eighteen, if even that.

“I still believe they may be some sort of savant, though my searches for their name afterward came up empty. That’s more suspicious, if you ask me.” Chilton harrumphs, sits up straight with a disgruntled expression. “And of course, there were the solo interviews. I’ve never in my years seen a person look like that when they said they wanted to go into behavioral neuroscience and criminal profiling. Smiling at the mention of a murderer—it was downright unsettling. At first I feared they were romanticizing the work, fancied themselves a monster catcher, and were going to be in for a rude awakening when they went up against a man we weren’t even sure existed yet. And do you know what they said?”

Chilton stares. Hannibal arches a brow, mind racing, and Chilton takes it for permission.

“They said, I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking to us, Doctor Chilton.” Chilton’s eyes light with intrigue and frustration at once, and he rubs his palms across the smooth surface of his desk. “Us. And then they got this look, like they knew exactly what they said, and got up and excused themselves from the interview, and never replied to their acceptance to the program.”

Us. Yes, it’s undoubtedly Will, based on what he’s told Hannibal about the concept of timesharing with himself. A slip of the tongue; perhaps even a glimpse into the other so-called self that lives within the cage of Will’s mind. Oh, how Hannibal would love to set it free.

“It sounds like an illuminating experience,” Hannibal says, for what else can he say? Like any other conversation with Will, he’s sure it was full of more subtext than one could fully grasp, especially for a stranger unfamiliar with his quirks. Even Hannibal himself knows comparatively little, and every secret Will reveals about his past has taken unrelenting work to unearth.

Chilton leans back in the chair. Frowns again. “I believe they might be capable of something. What, exactly, it’s not yet clear. And they’re far too young to be this so-called Ripper, but what they may become in the future—well.” He huffs a bitter laugh through his nose. “Needless to say, I’m quite certain I’ll be profiling them after they’ve given themselves reason to be arrested. It’s only a matter of time.”

“Not all with the propensity for violence become offenders,” Hannibal says with an echoing frown of his own, some slight downward tilt of lips; he does not like the way Chilton speaks of Will, while simultaneously delighting in the prospect. “Some become healers, or dedicate themselves to the hunt in the name of the law.”

“Not this one,” Chilton says with a shake of his head. His eyes are distant. “No, not this one. Call me superstitious, Doctor Lecter, but there was something inside him, and not even time will put that fire out.”

Chilton is so lost in his mind, he doesn’t seem to notice his slip. He’s a fool, yes. But he is also a psychiatrist, and despite his flawed opinions, whatever it is he saw in Will when he was young and raw, broken open by the recent death of his father—Hannibal wants to know what it is. He leans forward, and his intrigue is very real. “I hope you kept notes,” he says. “Should they ever need to become evidence, such information could be invaluable insight to the developmental psychology of such a person.”

Frederick puffs up with pride. “Of course. I keep all my notes for prospectives just in case they should ever reapply or ask for references.” There’s a glint in Chilton’s eye that says the obvious—that he’s never considered the value of such notes before. Their intrinsic worth, should Will ever become what Frederick believes of him; should he hatch from the chrysalis of his sensibilities, and become a killer to rival the beauty and brutality of God.

“If your instincts are so strong about this individual, Frederick,” Hannibal says slowly, “then trust them, but be cautious.”

One lightbulb above Frederick’s desk flickers, casting them in a fluttering strobe of fluorescence that enhances the shadows on the walls, the hollows of their eyes. Hannibal sits up straight on the edge of his seat, and when Frederick looks at him, there is a flash of something unsettled.

Perhaps it’s what he felt when he looked at Will.

“Why’s that?” Chilton asks.

Hannibal will have his answers, and those notes. He will know the truth of Will, and all that Frederick Chilton has seen. In time, he’ll peel away each layer of his darling’s defenses, strip him of each layer of his fortresses down to bare skin and bone.

“If their ultimate destiny is decided, but the path and its circumstances remains unclear,” Hannibal says carefully, “one would not want to be the inciting incident to this individual’s madness, lest the instigator be caught in the crossfire.”

Chilton stares at him, uncomprehending. The light sputters and dims, and despite their perfect safety within the shelter of this enclosed office, Chilton freezes like prey. Hannibal, too, is still—but like a predator waiting to strike.

“Men are animals like any other. I’ve seen it many times in the emergency department, on the less savory side of medical science. Being born is a taxing process. It’s the most difficult thing a creature will ever endure.” Hannibal inclines his head, and slowly smiles at the constriction of Chilton’s pupils. If he’s scared, he should be. Any self-respecting animal knows when they’re being watched, even if they’re not sure by who or what.

Somewhere deep in the dark, Hannibal’s beloved is howling, wailing, waiting.

He has no intention of leaving Will alone there for long.

“The youngest among us are the hungriest, Frederick. And their screaming will never stop until they’re fed.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Class drags on. Will is fortunate to only have two today, followed by filming in the late afternoon. It goes slowly; the lights are bright and hot, and though the news outside campus is rife with substance, the news on campus is beyond boring. Student unions, petitions, plans for next semester. Arguments over clubs, sporting events. It’s all lacklustre, and though the student journalists of Merrill tend to be extraordinary, their stage presence does sometimes leave something to be desired.

It’s in the midst of heavy cameras and sweating under spotlights that Will steps off of the news bubble’s stage, hiding where it’s cool until he’s needed again. There shouldn’t be much left, thankfully—once all the bits are filmed, it’s just a matter of creating a reel and piecing it together for the school’s own TV network, the weekly segment awaiting completion and upload.

Then Will feels a tug at the back of his sweater and nearly jumps out of his skin.

He breathes a sigh of relief when he notices Peter, head ducked to avoid Will’s eyes, though no less insistent. Peter is easily one of Will’s favorite people on campus. He’s simple and kind, no hidden motivations. He loves animals, though he now suffers a mobility issue after being kicked in the head by one of the horses in the equestrian club. He’d been too soft-hearted to sue the school for damages, and at the age of nineteen, his parents couldn’t force him to do so. But he remains a gentle heart, a kindred soul. He always smiles at stories about Winston, and that alone is reason enough for Will to like him.

“D-didn’t mean to scare ya,” Peter mumbles.

“Oh, no, that’s okay,” Will breathes, and places a hand on his chest to steady his heart. He’ll be the first to admit that he’s jumpy, what with the recent developments involving the Ripper. “I’ve been twitchy lately. How are you?”

“Good, good.” Peter doesn’t look at him when he speaks, but Will doesn’t take it personally; he knows it’s part of the manifestation of his disorder, and Will has never been hugely fond of eye-contact anyway. The only person he’s comfortable with knowing that much of him is Hannibal, and only because he doesn’t question what he sees there. “Will, uh, you gotta go.”

Will blinks. “What?”

“You gotta go, Will, you gotta…” Petter shuffles in place. “Saw Freddie with a big guy, older. Was carryin’ a badge.”

Badge? Will’s brow creases with a frown. But when it occurs to him what that might mean, he curses under his breath. “Cops?”

“Feds. Um.” Peter shakes his head quietly, tugs the sleeve of Will’s sweater between index finger and thumb, just once. “They were talkin’ about privacy. Her site.”

“Damn it,” Will mutters. “Where? When?”

“Not far, not long,” Peter replies. His shoulders hunch and tense under Will’s laser focus. “She s-said your name. Heard her when I walked by.” He swallows. Nods once, an aborted motion that is not carried all the way through with the force of Peter’s nerves. “Y-you should go.”

Will’s mind springs into action,  but he reaches out slowly, and places his hands on Peter’s shoulders. He doesn’t force eye contact, but gently squeezes as a show of thanks and solidarity. “Thank you, Peter. You’re a really great friend.”

Peter trembles under his touch, unused to such a thing, but Will can tell he’s pleased. “S’ok,” he mutters. “I can finish the reel, get it done. If they come lookin’ I won’t say anythin’.”

“Thank you,” Will says quietly. Squeezes once more, and then lets go. Grabs Hannibal’s coat and shrugs it on with haste, puts his bag over his shoulder, and ducks out. The filming crew can survive without him. What Will can’t survive is standing around like an idiot for the FBI to pull him out of class like a disobedient child, instead of safely somewhere not here that they’ll have to work to find him.

Will knew they would catch up to Freddie, with the scans she posted. Showing your hand and uploading exactly what you have, while also publicizing your identity, is a straight-shot to a charge for impeding an investigation or violating privacy records. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out—but as far as Will knows, Freddie’s never gotten busted before. Maybe it’s a simple case of ignorance, or sheer overconfidence.

But Will knows the things forensics are capable of, both physical and digital.

As he crosses the threshold, Will takes the clip out of his hair and lets his bangs fall into his face. He pulls his phone from his pocket, and surreptitiously glances through his lashes at where he’s walking; he ducks his head in mimicry of someone entirely absorbed with what they’re doing. He is careful, not walking too fast or too slow to trip himself on his heels, as he exits and heads for the commuter lot.

Home is the safest place for him now. If they’re coming for him soon, they’ll need a warrant to cross his threshold. And no matter what Freddie thinks she knows, she’ll never be able to give the FBI more than a nudge in his direction, and certainly nothing that constitutes probable cause.

There’s no evidence to be found that won’t take extensive foreknowledge of his whereabouts at any given time. Hell, he’s given himself alibis by posting via VPN while he was out in public with Margot. All these recent measures he’s taken with multiple devices have been the most extreme of their kind, but certainly not the first. Will has known from the very beginning that nothing is ever truly secret once it’s hosted on a device that’s capable of being breached.

It’s less genius, more common sense. Of course, it figures that Freddie wouldn’t think to take the appropriate precautions, and is vindictive enough to use her own shortcomings as petty vengeance.

The cold air stings the exposed tops of his feet, but fortunately there’s no snow yet to complicate the long walk to his car. It is more fortunate yet that no one stops him, and soon Will is sitting in the driver’s seat of his station wagon wondering what, exactly, he is supposed to do next.

Will’s always known that he runs the risk of being exposed by what he does. He’s just never faced the threat quite so head-on before.

He has his phone in his hand in a moment, finger poised over the dial button before he has the presence of mind to stop. Disgust with his own reliance follows; it’s not up to Hannibal to solve his problems or coach him through tough patches. Will has survived his whole life on his own, and he’s not about to give in to petulant need.

One hand pushes his hair back from his face, and Will laughs within the cold confines of his self-made prison.

Fuck. Fuck.

In his bag, his secondary phone begins to buzz.

Will scrambles for it and sighs in relief as he answers on the fourth ring. “Hi, Miriam?”

“Hey. I managed to get copies of the old files you were looking for. Where’s a good place to pass those along?”

Oh, sweet plausible deniability. Perhaps luck is in Will’s favor, after all. “How far are you from College Park?”

“Not insurmountable. Wait—you want me to hand off stolen files to you at, like, a campus Starbucks in front of a million witnesses? You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Will smiles to himself, faint and wry. “Who says anyone has to see us?”

 


 

It goes like this: Miriam, in her uniform blues, arrives and orders a coffee. She picks out a table in the corner, and slips the file in between the booth and the wall. She finishes the cup, and dutifully does not look at Will waiting in line as she leaves; when Will takes her spot with his refilled travel mug (not nearly as delicious as Hannibal’s coffee, but caffeinated enough to be passable), he takes the file and puts it in his satchel. They never speak, or even come within arm’s reach of one another. Even if the Starbucks did have security cameras, it would have been a photofinish drop.

Will has been sighted on campus in what will be considered a routine coffee run; credit card statements will confirm this. Within half an hour, he’s back in his car and headed for safety and home. Both he and Miriam know better than to contact each other directly for another few days.

In the meantime, Will has a plan.

Home is a half-hour’s drive from campus, but with Will constantly looking in his rearview, it feels more like an hour. He holds his breath as he passes every cop on the Beltway, waiting to be pulled over for something inane and taken in for questioning. Anxiety makes itself present and known at the forefront of his mind as Will drives beneath that damned overpass at the Maryland state line and crosses into Virginia. The evening sun is blinding, barely past 5 o’clock and already sinking below the horizon in melting pools of gold and orange and red across the sky. Come another month or two, it’ll be dark by 4:30; the darkness creeping slowly onward until the midwinter solstice beats it back, the constant push and pull of seasons.

Wolf Trap has a certain quietness about it in the winter. Though the peak of the season hasn’t yet hit in the form of snowfall, the air fogs Will’s breath as he parks his car in the driveway and climbs out. Hannibal’s coat is over-sized around him but holds the warmth better for it; body heat caught in the crevices meant to be filled by broader shoulders, a wider chest. The belt keeps it in place and accentuates Will’s waist, and under the right circumstances, allows him to skirt the line of passing as female.

Now, though, there is no one to care what he looks like as he climbs his porch with his boots held in hand and bag over his shoulder. Will fumbles with the key in the front door. Winston darts out into the yard when it finally swings open, urgently seeking a bathroom break, and Will heads inside.

He kicks off his heels in the doorway, his bare feet cold on the old wooden floors. Will goes through the house turning on lights, and lights a fire in the hearth. He puts the kettle on the old gas range to boil, strips out of Margot’s hand-me-downs, and changes into soft flannel pants, mismatched wool socks, and an old, oil-stained tee shirt. He washes his face free of makeup. Puts his hair up, and pins his bangs back. He becomes the person his father would recognize, and not the facsimile of Margot Verger that he’s made himself since Beau’s death. He keeps moving because he has to, and because the knowledge of what he’s obtained is chewing at the edges of his fraying soul, and it has teeth.

He lets Winston in. In a fit of raw panic and emotion, Will goes down to the floor and lets the old dog knock him over, lay on his chest and lick his face until he’s damp with slobber.

The Chesapeake Ripper’s file sits on the kitchen table. Will sits in his entryway and shivers with the cold until a familiar voice in the back of his mind whispers stand up, so Will does.

The kettle whistles; Will makes himself a cup of peppermint tea with a heaping spoon of honey that’s half-crystallized with age. He can’t remember the last time he drank tea instead of coffee. But for some reason, the smell of it is comforting. Isn’t peppermint supposed to settle the stomach? As Will puts the box of tea bags back into the nearly-empty pantry, he feels pretty damn nauseous.

There are answers before him. Answers that he’s too fucking nervous to look for. They’re right there, and he can’t…

He grabs his cup and leans back against the counter, allowing the heat transfer to warm his hands. Will looks at his kitchen, then at the old fridge and snorts to himself—a grimy old top-freezer affair running on fumes and hope, much like the range. His home is comfortable, but everything within it is dated. There is nothing sleek or minimalist about it; it’s cluttered, filled with old possessions that hold little to no monetary value. Even the mug from which he drinks tea is chipped and faded, nothing like the enamel-coated coffee cup that Hannibal lent him this morning.

Will is much the same—chipped and faded with careless wear and tear. Even now, the good and impossible fortune that brought Hannibal into his life is nearly unbelievable. And yet, here he is, hands shaking and heart racing with anticipation as he looks at a manila folder across the room that he almost doesn’t dare to touch. Anticipatory, not for his lover, but for the man that would gladly see Will cut open and bleeding raw.

Would he?  a voice whispers inside. Would he?

He ignores it. Finally, he moves to the kitchen table and sits down. Places the mug almost out of his reach, and uses the space to spread the pictures out before him. He doesn’t want to read the reports yet. He just needs to see, and read what they said afterward. He sorts them into lines, consecutive photos for each crime scene. Prior to Caldwell, there were nine bodies.

Will now holds the culmination of his killer’s work in the form of film. Still life photography of a much larger scene. Some of the ambiance will be lost, but Will’s imagination can make up for the rest.

He shuffles the first line of photos into a stack. Stares deeply at the film, and allows it to consume him. He pictures The Hanged Man gently swaying from the overpass; Wilhelmina’s dangling feet as she stares down at him and murmurs no one knows him like we do.

The images blur into one form, a pendulum of light. It swings, and Will is taken somewhere else.

 

A headless, limbless torso mounted in the National Gallery of Art, encased in a glass box among masterpieces. The skin and flesh are pale, and the cuts are clean. This is a bust of living marble, an organic sculpture of my own making. My tastes are classic. My art is just as much about appreciating the human form as the old masters, but I have the bravery to make what they did not with the materials that are my right. But this is not about the murder; it’s about me. When law enforcement removes the box, the entire museum’s alarm system will be triggered. Look what I can do. Look at who I am. I have gotten in and out undetected, and I’m smarter than you. Death is my artwork. This is my design.

A woman is bound by the wrists at end of a pier on Kent Island among luxury yachts and extravagant sailboats. I find it amusing to inconvenience the rich, who will doubtlessly be infuriated and nauseated with a show of such violence. They are blind to the realities of the world, and so was she—I have removed her eyes, her ears, her tongue, her nose, and her lips. I have removed her senses from her and hollowed out her insides, and she is half-submerged below the water. Her lower half has been left to be scavenged by the soft-shelled crabs that are in season in the Chesapeake Bay. Let the privileged realize that what they consume is no exotic delicacy, but a creature like any other. It is hungry, and it eats. As they are eaten, so too would they eat anyone else, given the opportunity. I enjoy the irony. I enjoy opening others’ eyes to the cruelties of the world. This is my design.

A man in his Sunday best sits in the Basilica of the Assumption. He is in the first pew; I have made of him a devout follower. His head is bent in supplication, and there is a Bible in his lap. It sits closed between his hands, which have been removed at the wrist beneath pristine white shirt cuffs. Around his ring finger is a pale tan line; his wedding ring sits inside the cage of his teeth, and his tongue is absent. Inside the Bible is his tongue as a place-marker, and highlighted within it is Zephaniah 3:13. They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid. This man is an arrogant boaster to infuriate even the Lord, and he has tried my patience. Look at him. He valued his own self-importance over everything, even the commitments he has made. I have no patience for a man who cannot hear anything but his own voice. This is my design.

A man wearing a truly audacious cowboy hat sits against a concrete wall in an urban alleyway with his stomach torn open—

 

Headlights shine in Will’s eyes as a car pulls into the drive. He sputters, breathing hard, and flattens his hands across the table with force. For a moment, he is lost somewhere between reality and the world of the Ripper’s consciousness. He forgets how to breathe. How to function. How to remember that car lights in a place as remote as Wolf Trap means company, means interruption, means trouble.

Will shoves all the photographs back in the folder in no particular order. He bares his teeth as he stalks into the dark and shaded places of his home, looking for a hiding place, and there— quickly and on autopilot, Will unlocks the gun safe that holds his father’s hunting rifle and pistol and shoves the file inside. He closes the door and spins the lock just as someone knocks on the door.

Will takes a deep breath. His mind races. He is still half-lost to the Ripper’s consciousness, and fights the urge to go to the counter and pull a knife from his drawer.

He thinks of Hannibal, and how upset and disappointed he’d be to find Will in prison. With several deep breaths sucked through his teeth, Will changes tactics. He embraces calm, and picks up his mug of tea.

If the FBI wants him, they will have to work hard for him. Will doesn’t intend to make it easy.

But as he rounds the threshold of kitchen to living room, it’s not a sharply-dressed agent he finds at his door. Will’s mouth drops open as he hastens to unlock his deadbolt.

Margot?”  He exclaims, and takes in her flushed cheeks and million-watt smile. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I told you I was gonna bring these by,” she says, and kicks at a rolling suitcase at her feet—flanked by a second, and a third.

Will blanches. “You never said when.”

“Well, I’m here now,” she says, bright with cheer. “So let me in and get me a drink and we’ll make a night of it. Here, help me carry these—”

They struggle to carry the bags in, for even with wheels, each are weighty and over-full. By the time they lay across Will’s bed, there’s only one chair and kitchen stools to sit on; Margot gleefully takes over the recliner with a whiskey tumbler in her hand, feet kicked up over one arm, hair streaming in a glossy wave over the other.

And then Will notices the red marks around her wrist.

Margot frowns when she notices him looking, and surreptitiously tugs the sleeve of her sweater down over the budding bruise. “It’s nothing; I tripped and Mason helped me up. He’s stronger than he looks.”

Will scowls. He reads the flash of uneasiness in her eyes and calls it out. “Don’t lie to me.”

“Yeah, and what about you? I see those scratches on your face, Will. I don’t take the good doctor for the hitting type, so are we gonna talk about that?” Margot tosses back the whiskey and sets the glass on the side table with a grimace. “We really have to get you better shit, hon.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Will says with an impatient sigh and his heart in his throat, aware that he himself is doing just that.

Margot gestures to the bags. It’s a command for a compromise, so Will yields. He sets his mug of tea off to the side and approaches the first suitcase with wariness. Even though he believes he’s mentally prepared himself, he’s could never be fully prepared for the opulence he finds.

Silk. Satin. Gossamer. Rhinestones. Intricate beading. Pearls. Texture, color, a sensory overload of extravagance stares back at him, and Margot can no more stay seated than Will can bring himself to touch the dresses she’s brought for him. She springs to her feet, all hurts forgotten, and fishes them one by one from the case and hangs them on any horizontal surface she can find. Reds, blues, greens, golds, violets—rainbow and jewel tones, and Will ends up staring with wide eyes and a thrumming heart at what must be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of designer garments. And this is just the first suitcase.

They’re all hand-me-downs, of course. But in Will’s new association with Hannibal, he’s starting to appreciate what the value of even hand-me-downs might mean.

Margot smiles at him with amusement and pity. “You look freaked. I know it’s not about the dresses. Is it about the number of them, or the dollar signs I see screaming inside your pretty little head?”

“Little bit of both,” Will breathes. He swallows hard.

“So I guess I’ll have to distract you,” she replies simply. Margot plucks the first hanger from where she’s miraculously suspended it over Will’s doorway, and holds it up in front of his body with a considering frown. “Tell me about your doctor. How’s it going?”

Will’s heart leaps to his throat. He is immediately and sufficiently distracted.

When he doesn’t answer quickly enough to her standards, Margot looks up. Her eyes, green as sea glass, glimmer in the light. They widen. “Oh my god. You totally fucked.”

“We didn’t,” Will protests weakly. It’s not entirely a lie, but certainly not the truth. His cheeks flare hot, and he glances down at the gown held up to his body; shakes his head once. Gold isn’t his color.

“Will Graham, you’re a lying liar who lies.” Margot carelessly folds the dress over itself and drops it into the open suitcase. Retrieves the next. “Tell me everything.”

Will scowls. “He stole my bank info,” he says unhappily, and takes in the array of ball gowns, the different cuts and silhouettes. Tries to imagine himself wearing any of them and can’t quite picture himself in something so fine.

“I’m sensing a but.

“He put five thousand dollars into my account.”

Margot shoots Will a sidelong glance. She holds a rather stunning lavender piece with a full skirt and ruched bodice and dismisses it just as easily. “Okay, and?”

Will crosses his arms over his chest. His teeth clench. “Are all rich people like this?” He snaps.

Margot rolls her eyes good-naturedly and shakes her head. “If you have a problem with five thousand, I don’t even want to mention how much some of these dresses cost.”

Will’s fists clench. “What he did is different. This is just borrowing.”

Margot squints at him, and turns to face him directly. “Will,” she says patiently. “All these dresses are mine from old events. I can’t wear any of them again, the society section of The Sun would go ballistic. Not to mention Vogue and Bazaar—I’d end up in their column of fashion repeats. Now, Doctor Lecter’s a nice man, and he’s got great taste, but he’s not a go-to fashion icon for the masses. If you wear something of mine, no one will notice outside of how beautiful you look.”

Margot plucks another gown from where it’s draped over his bookcase and strides over. She holds it up in front of him, and when she smiles, her expression is soft and fond. She is the sister he’s never had, his voice of outside reason. But all of this seems so unreasonable, and Will just can’t move past it.

“How do you feel about blue or green?” Margot asks, and looks him over. “They look great with your skin tone and accent your eyes.”

“I—”

“Hang on.” Margot drops the dress. It falls into a pile of satin and silk on the floor, and she steps over it like a woman on a mission. Her eyes are wide, and she bumps up against Will’s chest as she invades his space and reaches for him. Moves a stray curl that has fallen from his bun, and her eyes light up as she touches his earlobe.

Margot’s expression flickers with happiness and melts into pure, raw satisfaction. “These are beautiful, Will. He bought these for you?”

Will’s face goes hot. His heart thumps once with joy at Margot’s approval, and at the memory of Hannibal putting them in for him this morning. Kissing in the kitchen, in the driveway. His affectionate regard, his gently possessive touch. “Yeah, um. Yeah, he did.”

“Oh, I love his taste,” Margot says. Her eyes glitter, and she pats Will’s cheek; holds his face in her hands, and gently guides him down to kiss his forehead. “You deserve it, Will. You deserve someone to look after you all the time when I can’t, who’s gonna take care of you.” She smooths away the pink print of her lipstick with the pad of her thumb, and drags Will forward into a hug.

Will collapses into her like a dying star. He tucks his face into her shoulder, feels her smooth hands and slender arms on the back of his neck and shoulders as she embraces him. The truth inside his ribs pools and rises along his insides, up his throat until it pours out in a waterfall. “I went to yell at him, and I was a mess, and he didn’t even care. He just let me yell, and when I talked he listened, and I…”

Will laughs once, bitterly, pulls himself upright. Margot smiles, ever-indulgent, and her hands find purchase on Will’s shoulders. She sways from side to side, and Will’s palms settle on her hips. They move in slow, simple circles like children at a middle-school dance, rocking along to the beat of nothing but their hearts in Will’s living room.

His cheeks flare red at the memory of being lifted, crowded back against the stainless doors of Hannibal’s refrigerator. Margot’s smile widens at the changes she sees on his face. “Angry sex. You hooked up.”

Will licks his lips. He nods once, and then chuffs out a laugh. “Yeah. Against the fridge. We couldn’t make it anywhere else.”

Margot makes a noise of pride, of intrigue. “Spicy.”

Will snorts. “Stop,”  he begs, though without heat. His mouth opens again, but he finds himself hesitating. “And.”

His teeth sink into his lower lip, and Will glances away.

“And?”  She asks. Margot taps him insistently with her open palm. “Don’t leave me hangin’. I have to live my best gay life vicariously through you.”

“I slept there. In his bed, and he held me,” Will murmurs. Then, it all just… spills. “It wasn’t the first time. And I…”

Margot’s eyes widen. She blinks at him in silent wonder as the cogs turn in her head, her knowledge of Will’s solitude and his mannerisms adding themselves together with the image she holds in her head of Will’s… whatever he is.

Boyfriend, he thinks.

It sounds so juvenile, but that’s what he is, isn’t he? Someone who wants Will around unconditionally, wants to care for him and cook for him and give him gifts. Someone who doesn’t shy away from Will’s fascination with killers (or one in particular). Someone who enjoys his presence and has talked about a future together with him, whether or not it can ever be true.

They’re dating, and Hannibal is his—

Beloved, Wilhelmina whispers.

The revelation is bright and shocking, conducted by the truth of the night like lightning striking water before it forces its way out of him. “Margot, I’m falling in love with him. I can’t stop.”

Their swaying comes to a halt.

Margot blinks. Stares. Her mouth opens silently, unable to speak. Then, the corners of her lips tilt up. “I told you,” she says lovingly, and pats Will’s cheek. “That you were flat on your ass.”

Will swallows hard, and laughs once. He looks around at all the opulent gowns that look so out of place in his ramshackle house, to Winston lying in front of the fire, and down at his own tee-shirt, smeared with the shadows of engine grease that never quite washed out. He wonders how he ever thought this was going to turn out any other way.

“I know it probably won’t work,” Will says, and rubs idly at his eyes with the back of one hand. His lashes are still tacky with the residue of mascara. “I know I’m going to disappoint him somehow, even though he keeps saying I won’t. I’m just not the right type of person for him, but I…” Will sniffs, and forces a smile. “I want to be, even if it’s only for a little while.”

“Oh, fuck that,” Margot says with a smile, and gently shakes him once, twice. “Will. Hon. Listen to me.” She waits until Will meets her eyes before she starts. “This is what we’re gonna do. First, we’re gonna pick out a dress. We’re gonna figure out accessories. We’re gonna make you a twelve out of ten, and if your doctor’s not also already flat on his ass, you’re gonna put him there with a va-va-voom.

She strokes over his shoulder blades with her thumbs, rubs concentric circles like a coach talking up their athlete, and Will would laugh if his insides weren’t twisting themselves into knots.

“Then I’m gonna teach you everything I know about society and put your big, beautiful brain to work. The ins and outs, the faces you should know, etiquette, the whole shebang. By the end of it all, no one will ever know you weren’t a debutante, and your sugar daddy will be ruined for anyone else.”

Will chokes. “Margot.”

“What?” She says with a vivacious wink. “I’m right. Those are Mikimoto pearls, babe. You’re marrying into money and good taste. Proud of you.”

“Marrying—”  Will swallows hard and exhales through his nose. “You know what, I’m just gonna ignore you and get back to looking.”

“Probably wise.” Margot grins as Will pulls away and turns his back on her. He clenches his hands over and again, trying to work feeling back into his limbs after the sheer shock that the word marrying put to his spine. Margot carries on without noticing, or perhaps she simply doesn’t care about his mental upset. “But I was right the first time, you know. I’m gonna be right again.”

“Not listening,” Will says to combat the pleased and panicked thrumming of his heart. “I don’t know if I like any of these.”

“Kay, so let’s try the next batch.” Margot rounds up the dresses and folds them, careless of WIll’s wince at her treatment of the priceless garments. At his look, she shrugs and says, “Wrinkles come out with some dry-cleaning.” She packs them away and zips the first case closed; opens the second.

They stand hip-to-hip, and Will looks down with a contemplative frown, silently weighing colors and cuts until—

“Wait,” he says.

Reaches in, and pulls one out. Holds it carefully at arm’s length, and slowly sighs. Imagines himself at Hannibal’s side, and despite the nervous, frenetic energy that flutters in his chest, he can, and in his mind, it looks right.

“Yeah,” Will murmurs. “This one.”

Margot smiles. “Good choice.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The weekend fades back into the week in a Margot-shaped blur. Will is crammed full of more knowledge about socialites and their entourages than he has ever wanted, but it has the fortunate side-effect of giving him no time for anxiety. Whether a blessing or a curse, the FBI has not yet closed in on Will, nor did they spring from the shadows upon his return to class on Monday, or even Tuesday. Freddie’s glares are far from subtle, but what can she do? She has no proof. And if the FBI has not yet come knocking on his door, then they, too, must know it.

But the distance grates. The time apart is a strain. Though Will calls Hannibal every night, he longs for a kiss or a kind touch. The murmurs in his ear aren’t enough to satisfy, and even Hannibal’s assurances that Will should take the time he needs to get his work done don’t quite hit home.

He doesn’t want to be responsible, or finish his essays, or sit on hold with his bank (though his account being cleared was surely worth the effort it took), or be told one more goddamn time  which fork he’s supposed to use first.

“Margot,” Will says, long-suffering, staring down at her mock-up dinner template on his kitchen table. “You couldn’t have just shown me this stuff on Google?”

“None of the diagrams could agree on the order of the cutlery,” she replies dismissively. Raises her eyes to his, and crosses her arms over her chest. She’s wearing one of Will’s old sweatshirts over jeans that cost close to a thousand dollars. She doesn’t seem to understand why Will finds either of those things absurd. “Repeat it back, left to right. Go.”

Will sighs through his nose, and points to each piece of his own thrift-store dinnerware, made to look like a formal place setting. “Salad fork, fish fork, entree fork. Bread plate, bread knife stationed above them. In the center is the salad plate, underneath is the soup bowl, service plate at the bottom. Then we have the salad knife, then the entree knife, then the fish knife, in that order. Though why the hell they don’t just keep it in order—”

Margot waves her hand vaguely. “Irrelevant. The fish knife looks different, you’ll know it when you see it. Some places keep it in order, you’ll know by the shape of the knife. Go on.”

Will growls under his breath, and brushes his bangs out of his eyes, then pushes the frames of his new glasses up his nose. They’re wire frames, slim and delicate, far from his preferred large-framed lenses—but Margot insisted that these were more classic and suited the shape of his face, and well. There’s really no arguing with Margot Verger. Obviously. “Soup spoon, tea spoon. Seafood fork at the end. Dessert fork and spoon up above.”

“Glasses?”

“Water. The fuller-domed glasses are for red wine, the medium ones are for white. The skinny one is for champagne, and the short one is for sherry or dessert wine. Might be some of them, or none of them. Depends on the course.”

Margot nods once. The corners of her lips curl in approval. “Good, Will. Also, once dinner’s over and we’re on to the performance and the mingling, you’re gonna be sticking with me when you’re not with the good doctor. Don’t worry about tips for restroom attendants or anything, I’ll take care of it. The charity auction is boring; we’re just gonna drink and mingle.”

Will grimaces, and levels her with a glance over his artfully-arranged but modge-podge cutlery. “And mingling is less boring?”

“Rude,” she drawls without missing a beat, and heads for the living room. “O–kay, and now we’re going over waltzing again, so put your heels  and your dress on, hon—”

Will’s phone rings. His heart leaps. He dives for it where it waits on the kitchen table, buzzing, and in his haste, knocks over a plastic martini glass that had taken the place of a champagne flute. It rolls back and forth on the worn wooden surface, but Will pays it no mind as he swipes the slider on the screen to the right and folds himself inside a familiar voice. “Hi.”

“Hello, darling. I hope I’m not interrupting your evening.”

Will smiles, a helpless tug of his lips and a pull at his heart. “No, you’re not interrupting.”

Somewhere behind him, Margot exclaims, “Hey! Thanks a lot!”

He can hear Hannibal’s surprise. “You have company? I can call later if you’re busy.”

“I’m not busy.”

“Will!”

Hannibal huffs quietly, part-amused. “Don’t be rude, my dear.”

Will rolls his eyes at Margot, who for her part, looks far too intrigued and not nearly offended enough. “Is that your doctor? Tell him I say hi.”

He snorts. Chokes, when Hannibal says, “Do I have a reputation among your peers? I’m not sure if I should be intimidated or flattered.”

“Neither,” Will replies with a droll smirk, and smiles at Margot’s mock-offended huff.

“Wow, okay, I’m rescinding my seal of best-friend approval. Obviously he brings out the worst in you.”

Will can hear the smile in Hannibal’s voice when he asks, “Oh? Is that true?”

“You two are never allowed to meet!” Will snaps, though grinning, and when Margot shrugs her passive approval and forgiveness, Will nods his thanks and excuses himself into the living room. He pinches the phone between his cheek and shoulder as he shrugs on the wool coat, seeking the privacy of the outdoor porch.

“Who is this friend of yours?”

“Don’t worry,” Will replies, exasperated and droll, and kicks on his work boots without tying the laces, “you’ll meet her soon.”

“Is this that important friend you so mysteriously warned me of all those days ago?”

“Don’t give her any ideas.” Will smiles through the gripe, and lets himself out onto the deck. He smiles at Margot’s distant sounds of protest as he does so. “How was work?”

“The same. Class?”

“Uneventful.” Will leans against the outside railing with a private smile and indulges in the chilly winter air, and the warmth of wool. Its weight almost feels like arms around his shoulders, though there’s no sensation that could ever adequately replace the sensation of Hannibal’s embrace. He nudges his face up against one of the pillars that suspends the roof above, if only to feel the touch of something on his cheeks, even if it’s cold. “I miss you.”

Hannibal makes a quiet noise that sounds far too pleased, but similarly wanting—a hum of acknowledgement, of humor, of something akin to longing. “And I miss you. But your education is important, and so is time with your friends. Though I admit I would monopolize you jealously if I had the chance.”

“Well, finals are soon,” Will says tentatively. “Winter break until January. And after that, it’s only one more semester until—”  He chokes on the words. Until what?  What exactly does he think is going to happen once he graduates?

Hannibal chuckles. “Well, depending on what sector of work you go into after graduating, that may lend itself to either far more or far less free time.”  There’s a shuffling on the other end of the line, a clink of glass. Hannibal must be in the kitchen. “What will you be doing for your winter break?”

Will turns around when he hears scratching behind him—Winston has pawed open the heavy front door, which was only barely closed over. He’s eager to be let out, and darts into the yard when Will opens the storm door. Will laughs to himself as the old dog zooms into the dark to sniff at trees and disturb whatever critters he can find that aren’t already hibernating. “Well, it’s almost rifle season for deer. Back when my dad was around, we’d go every year and try to get at least one. I’ve got a few acres and I have an agreement with the neighbor, so I might go out for a few days and see what I can get, at least before it’s cold enough for ice fishing. By December, maybe.”

Another sound of intrigue—this one more intent, fiercely interested. “I wasn’t aware you hunted.”

“I’m passable with a gun and a knife,” Will says with a shrug into the dark. “Most of the time, I prefer fishing. But if I manage to bag a deer, assuming you like venison, I can bring you some.”

“It’s rare I have someone else supply food for my table. Should the opportunity arise, I’d be honored to share your kill with you, mylimasis.”

Will snorts softly, but his cheeks heat with pleasure. “Well, alright then.” A thought strikes him. “Do you hunt?”

“Since my early childhood, but only ever for food,”  Hannibal replies. He sounds like he’s smiling. “Though now my schedule is far busier. I patronize a particularly talented butcher instead, though I still appreciate the great skill and patience of hunters. And, of course, fishermen.”

“Flatterer,” Will murmurs. He stares out into the field and, despite his better judgement, imagines Hannibal with him, here at his little house and all its oddities, its staggering lack of opulence. He imagines Hannibal at his side as they stalk into the night under the moonlit shadow of tree cover, two wraiths moving in the pursuit of prey. For a moment, he imagines lying side by side on their bellies, breaths slow and even as Will looks through the sights of his rifle.

Then it changes. Becomes, not passive waiting, but active running. And the deer is not a deer, but the panicked stumblings of a man, and the figure at his side is a creature made of darkness with a crown of antlers. He’s shaped like Hannibal, and he grins at Will with a mouthful of fangs. They are monsters in the prime of their health and joy, and—

Will swallows hard. Shakes himself out of it. He’s not in the woods, he’s on his own porch. Perhaps analyzing the Ripper’s crime scenes has left a hunger for blood in Will’s mind. Certainly the knowledge of the Ripper’s unconventional diet has lingered in the forefront of Will’s thoughts.

What must it be like, consuming their fellow men?

The words slip out. Will barely realizes it’s his voice that says, “Maybe someday we’ll share a hunt, and not just the kill.”

The sound of Hannibal’s breathing on the other line is, for a moment, nearly devastating. Shocking. Will kicks himself, feels panic in his throat, and nearly takes it back, but doesn’t for worry it’ll make this worse. He fears he’s broken something beautiful, or at least battered it with his impulsivity. But then, in a whisper-quiet fizzle of static on the line, Hannibal laughs. “To hunt at your side, Will, would be a fierce pleasure.”

The relief is staggering. Will’s fingers splay over his pounding heart as he sags against the porch bannister and tries to breathe. To play it off. He can do that. He just has to focus on what the hell is coming out of his mouth.

Lighter is better. A distraction is best. “Well, if you’ve been at it since before I was born, you might have to teach me a thing or two, old man.”

“Insolent,”  Hannibal replies in his ear, low and dark and shiveringly intimate. The growl of his voice goes straight to Will’s belly, warms the depths of him and the base of Will’s spine. Hannibal does not seem very distracted at all, and his surprising intrigue clenches at the base of Will’s spine. “I would gladly teach you everything I know.”

Will bites back a moan. He’s always been an eager student, and the thought of Hannibal at his back with his steady surgeon’s hands guiding Will’s knife through the ligaments of a carcass is a powerful one. Frightening, as when he imagines it, Hannibal’s face seems to lose its distinct features, and be consumed by darkness, and bloom bright red eyes from the hollows of an antlered skull. Terrifying, with how ready Will’s mind seems to be to merge the figures of Hannibal and the Ripper together.

They’re not alike. They’re nothing alike. Possessiveness and intellect aside, surgical knowledge and—

No, Will nearly snarls. Stop it. He deserves better than that.

They both do.

In the amphitheatre of Will’s mind, he places himself between the shadow of the Ripper and Hannibal’s silhouette backlit by the moon. With gentle but insistent hands, he pushes them apart, away from one another, until they are distinct and separate. They both stare at him. They both reach for him.

Before they can touch, Will opens his eyes and forces himself into reality. He leans against the railing, and tries desperately to ground himself with the sounds of Margot shuffling in the living room through the thin walls. “And if I said I did want to learn everything you know?”

“It may take some time.”

That, at least, pulls a smile from Will. “I’m a fast learner.”

Hannibal chuckles, a sensual caress. Will’s teeth sink into his lower lip at the sound of it. It stings. “I have no doubt. But a steady hand is best learned with experience.”

Will gets the impression they’re no longer speaking of deer hunting. His chest is warm and fluttery, bursting, and Will would roll himself under the weight of Hannibal’s body if he could. Sequester himself there, and allow himself to be jealously consumed by a beautiful and capricious man whose wish is to bring Will to the highest heights with pleasure and purpose. Remind himself where he is, and who he would gladly be with. Will’s voice drops to an echoing murmur, and despite the fact that he feels foolish for it, he feels… powerful. “Was my hand not steady enough to satisfy you?”

Hannibal purrs, a quiet vibration that Will can nearly feel ghosting in his chest as it rumbles along the line. “Were you here with me, or even alone where you are, I would have no compunctions about telling you how satisfied you made me.”

Will’s hands clench around the porch raining. He feels heat well in his cheeks, his heart. “Hannibal,” he whispers helplessly.

“Will,”  he replies, warm and wanting. “If you’re amenable, when your winter recess arrives, it would please me if you’d stay for a few days. Perhaps around the holidays, if you have no other plans.”

Will’s heart stutters. “Like for Christmas?”

“Yes.”

Will smiles to himself. His mind is bright and vibrant with affection. The stars glow brighter in the night—but, Will realizes, it’s only because the motion light on the porch has gone out with his stillness. How could he ever doubt Hannibal? Whatever it is inside his thoughts that is causing him to doubt, it’s foolish. It’s wrong. This is Hannibal. His Hannibal. “That’s still a ways away.”

“Yes, I know. I thought I’d put in my bid early.”

“Are you sure you’ll still like me by then?”

“The only thing I would ever allow to separate us would be your say-so, Will.”

Will licks his lips. Closes his eyes, and clenches his teeth to keep a set of words inside that it’s not his right to say. Not yet. Not yet. “Then, um.” He swallows hard. “I guess you’d be glad to know I don’t plan on saying so, huh?”

“Very glad.”  The sound rumbles directly into Will’s ear, raises shivers like a hand trailing down over his belly to touch his fluttering abdomen, slip beneath his clothes with the intent to own him. Will presses his thighs together and squirms with such force the automatic porch light turns back on. “I’m afraid wine and distance make me bold to border on rude, mylimasis. I find myself not thinking or caring much how long I’ve kept you from your guest.”

“She can wait,” Will whispers. “Yes, I want—I want to stay with you. I’ll ask my neighbor to watch Winston when the time comes, so I can just…” He takes a breath and slowly exhales. “Be there, with you, and not have to worry about anything else for a little while.”

Hannibal murmurs his approval. “That’s all I could hope for. I’ll have to think of things we can do together in Baltimore.”

“Just being with you would be—” The words, the confession feels awkward. Will nearly chokes on it, but instead he stumbles. “Good.”

To his credit, Hannibal seems to find it endearing, but is not one to pass on a chance to tease Will after being teased so mercilessly for his age. “Just good?”

“Better watch out or I’ll demote you to okay,”  Will retorts. He smiles. Hides his face, though he knows he isn’t seen, and tucks it into the collar of Hannibal’s coat. The scent of him has nearly faded from the wool. Will wants to fix that, desperately and soon. “I’m joking. I miss you,” he admits. “I know I said it already. And I know I’m the reason we’ve been apart this long, but it’s true.”

“I understand, Will. You don’t have to explain. You have responsibilities to attend to. I’ll admit though I find myself keenly noticing your absence, I’m gratified by the thought that my presence is such a distraction to you.”

“Well,” Will replies softly, “what I’m doing now will benefit both of us, I hope.”

A sound of interest. “Really? What makes you say that?”

“Obviously I can’t tell you, or I’ll ruin the surprise.” Will huffs a laugh, then straightens his head, and whistles out into the night. Winston comes crashing through the tall, dead grass, and lands squarely on the porch, tongue lolling and spilling steam into the air, tail wagging. Will clicks his tongue and pushes off the porch; holds the door open, and Winston darts inside. Will is left alone again, but the light inside beckons him back to warmth. He stops when he hears Hannibal’s voice.

“Is it selfish of me to ask when I might see you?”  Hannibal asks. “Before Saturday, I hope.”

Will smiles softly. Nearly nuzzles against the phone with the depth of his fondness and affection, and barely restrains himself from letting a pleased hum slip from his chest. “I’ll see if I can play hooky tomorrow.”

“If your evening is occupied with your mysterious friend, I could take you out to lunch. There are a few places near Capitol Hill that wouldn’t be far from your campus. I recall you have an afternoon recess on Wednesdays.”

Will huffs a laugh. “Yeah, that’s right.” He’s undeniably pleased that Hannibal remembers. “What about you? Don’t you have to work?”

“No, not tomorrow. I traded shifts with Doctor Gideon at his request. I actually go in to work very soon, and I’ll be finished around eleven.”

“You won’t be too tired?”

“To see you?”  Hannibal asks, as though Will’s question is especially ridiculous. “No, Will, definitely not. Though I appreciate your concern.”

“I meant to drive from Baltimore to College Park to DC and back after a twelve-hour shift.” Will leans against the doorway with a small, tight frown. He wants to see Hannibal badly, of course, but the thought of him exhausting himself on Will’s account…

“I’ve endured worse hours for far less of a reward.”  Hannibal sounds amused, and terribly fond. “It’s decided then, mylimasis. I’ll pick you up around noon.”

Will’s heart flutters in his chest. Slowly, he smiles. Barely over half a day until he sees Hannibal again. It’s a damn nice surprise, and certainly something to look forward to. He laughs softly, and his grin grows until it hurts his cheeks. “Okay. Alright. Yeah, that sounds good.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.”  Will can hear his responding smile, his satisfaction. “And you’re to let me take care of everything without fuss. You agreed, remember?”

Will blinks, elation interrupted, and his mouth drops open in near-offense. “I did not.”

“I recall differently. Gifts and excursions fall under the same qualifications. Which means I would like you to allow me to treat you as you deserve, fine aesthetics and all.”

Will snorts softly, bumps his forehead against the doorway in pleased exasperation. He lowers his voice to a whisper so Margot doesn’t overhear. “So you want me to dress up pretty for you and let you parade me around without complaint?”

“Ideally, yes.”  Hannibal’s voice once more settles into that distracting tenor, fed directly into Will’s ear. The muscles encasing Will’s ribs shudder, and his belly clutches hot with want. That intimate, deliberate tone has a direct line to Will’s cock. What Hannibal says only makes it worse. “I like the way you blush when I do something you find ridiculous, that others would pay no mind to. You get this look on your face, like you’d like to fight me about it. The moment you give in and let me have my way is the sweetest surrender—that split-second of submission where you lower your eyes and your shoulders relax, deferring to me for a fraction of an instant. You make me work for you in a way that no one ever has. You would rather die than roll over mindlessly for me, Will, and it makes me appreciate every moment I spend in your company. Treasure your trust. So, yes—I want to see you as ferociously beautiful as I know you to be, and to have an afternoon in which you defer to my whims regarding your care. I want to see that flicker of your doubt melt away into belief, and to see the moment you realize that my sole priority is taking care of you. That every touch is for your pleasure, and my own because of it.”

Will pushes the door closed more firmly than he’d like, and prays he hasn’t drawn Margot’s attention. He returns to the railing with his heart in his throat and swallows hard as he contemplates walking out into the field, if only for privacy. “Hannibal.”

Hannibal hums in self-satisfied inquiry, a sardonic little hm?  that says he knows exactly what he did. Will finds that he doesn’t have the words to finish his thought, if it was ever a complete thought at all.

“Speechless? My, what an accomplishment.”

“Dick,” Will replies swiftly and without heat, though his cheeks are still flushed hot and pink. “I just…” He has no defense. It’s easier to distract, so he does. “It’s just not easy for me to let others take care of me. It’s not how I was raised.”

“I’m quite aware. Fortunately for us both, I don’t doubt your ability to care for yourself, Will, I just want to offset the strain, and to spoil you terribly.”

Will huffs through his nose. “Oh, is that all?”

“No, not nearly, but it’s enough to start, and a sweet enough thought to get me through the evening without you here.”

For a long time Will is silent as those words swim inside him and form a current straight to his heart. It’s strong, unyielding, not quite even, but nor is it entirely random. There’s an intermittent pulsing inside him that he must attribute to the sensation of their hearts synchronizing over the distance between them. A sensation that is warming, bursting, aching with want and desperate with desire to be near.

He nearly says it, but he doesn’t.

“Soon,” Will says instead. He wants to be touched and reassured, so he wraps one arm around himself in the facsimile of an embrace. His reliance is… alarming. But can it really be considered a weakness, after everything Hannibal has done for him? After seeing undeniable proof that Hannibal is willing to accommodate his unconventionality and insipid fears? “After the Gala thing I’ll have more free time again for a little while before finals. Ok?”

“I have no doubt you’ll return to me, mylimasis. Or at the very least, I have confidence in my own persistence.”

“So I guess you’re not bored of me yet.”

“No. Not even a little bit, no.”

“Then I guess I have to work extra hard so I don’t embarrass us on Saturday.”

Another sound of interest. Will wonders where he is in the house, what he’s doing. He finds he doesn’t have the nerve to interrupt and ask. “I’m curious about what you’re up to.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“Oh, I’m aware. Your commitment to keeping your mysteries is one of the most frustrating and intriguing things about you.”

“Glad someone thinks so. Usually I just get yelled at for being a killjoy.”

“Pity the person who has no appreciation for a secret well-kept, or for the loyalty of the secret keeper.”

Will takes a step down, onto the top stair, and stops. He’s being drawn away from the promising glow of his front door, and back out toward the waiting dark. “Maybe I’m only loyal to myself.”

“Then you would have more integrity than most who deny their intrinsic selves, don’t you think?”  Hannibal replies. Will is so stricken by those words that for a moment, he can’t speak or think or do more than feel opened up and hollowed out, trapped in this in-between. “Knowing oneself and being loyal to your own desires and emotions is the most honest way a person can live. If that were true, I would admire you still. But I think we’re both aware that your loyalty is multifaceted. It reflects onto many subjects in infinite beautiful refractions, each decision informed by the marriage of your intellect and your fealty. Some feel the warmth of your regard in that way. Others may linger in the shadows, drawn to your light as something foreign that they have never experienced for themselves. That you are ready and willing to bare pieces of your soul to the monsters in the dark will make you a terrifyingly efficient lure.”

Will stares down at the second step, and the third, and the frostbitten grass. When the confession comes, it’s soft, and nearly an accident. “A lure implies wanting to catch.”

“Do you not?”

Will closes his eyes, and imagines he can feel eyes on him, standing out among the distant trees. Instead, all he can hear is Hannibal’s quiet breathing. A voice comes to his mind unbidden, a sensual purr that says, catch and release.

It frightens him.

Will opens his eyes. Turns his back on the darkness, and toward the light. Steps up onto the porch, toward the front door. He tells himself he’s not running away, and that the return to the light is a return to his home. He’s only half-sure it works. “I really should go. It’s getting late, I need to finish up and go to bed.”

For a moment, Hannibal is quiet. There is a pause in time, a suspended moment of silence. “You may always speak freely to me, Will, without fear of consequence,” he says at long last. “I hope you know that.”

Will’s fingers close around the door handle. Hannibal’s coat feels like a second skin that is large enough for him to grow into, and the night at his back like a cloak of stars. Somewhere down off the porch, where the light fades into shadows, in the dry husks of the tall, dead grass is where Will would rather be right now. To walk out into the dark with no aim and no direction. Only his heart as a compass, with Hannibal’s voice pressed against his ear, murmuring promises into his mind, and the certainty of the Ripper’s silhouette stalking him through the labyrinth of barren trees sinking deep in the depths of his bones.

But inside waits Margot, and her promise to help Will for the betterment of himself. So he can situate himself more firmly into Hannibal’s world. Embracing the wildness inside him will only lead him further away from this person he’s growing to love.

So he returns. He has to.

“I know,” Will lies softly, and follows it with a truth. “I appreciate it more than you know.”

He is stricken with love and guilt in equal measures when Hannibal replies, “I do know, mylimasis. I only wish you believed me.”

What more can he say? Will swallows hard and searches for words, and is mercifully spared when Hannibal takes pity on him.

“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Will. Sleep well.”

Will laughs once. It’s a painful thing, barbed with affection. “Do you think we’ll ever have a normal phone conversation?”

Hannibal’s voice is warm, so warm. “I hope not.”

 


 

The shape of him glitters, glimmers. Margot’s eyes shine with satisfaction, and though Will wears no makeup right now, his cheeks are still pink and hot from the earlier cold. He looks at himself in the age-worn full-length mirror and softly exhales.

“It’s perfect,” Margot says with a smile. She at his side still looks casually lovely in a designer pair of jeans and the ratty old UMD sweatshirt she steals every time she visits. “Are you ready?”

“I think the better question is are you ready,” Will replies with a quiet snort. His heart flutters in his throat. It’s hard to look and process what he sees as him. “It’s your toes in danger.”

“Give yourself more credit. I’ve seen you run in heels a thousand times.”

“Not backwards.”

Margot shakes her head fondly as she reaches over to the table and snatches up her phone. “Well, we’ll start slow. But I think you’ll do better than you realize.”

“I hope so.” Will fidgets in place. The skirt swishes around his legs, and he just hopes like hell he doesn’t trip on it. “I don’t want to embarrass him.”

Margot presses play, then steps up to put her hand at Will’s waist, and her other palm in his. “You won’t. I’m a great teacher,” she says with a wink. “And you’ve always been my best student.”

The music begins. Margot gives him an encouraging smile, and Will takes a steadying breath.

“Then let’s get to work.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There’s a certain comfort that comes in waking up beside someone that Will can’t really explain. He’s always been a solitary creature, the kind of person who has treasured his time alone. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of what the Ripper has planned for him that is making him cherish what little company he has. But as Will turns over and sees Margot curled on her side on the mattress beside him, Winston sprawled across her legs, he’s filled with affection and contentment.

Her hair’s a mess. She barely threw it up into a ponytail before they crashed in the middle of the night. Margot, despite being an heiress, is also a farm girl—she rises with the sun to tend her horses and see to the estate’s affairs, much like a queen overseeing the goings-on in her castle. She’s not one for late nights. Seeing her in Will’s pajamas for lack of anything better, sharing space with Will and his old dog, surrounded by the evidence of her impromptu etiquette lessons standing out so starkly in his home, so strange and out of place—

It’s not the same as waking up beside Hannibal. But it’s with a sudden sureness that Will realizes that he loves her—the sister he has never had, the person who has taught him all he knows, looked out for him and kept him on his feet, even at the sacrifice of her own comfort.

And when he sees the bruise on her wrist that has darkened to angry, livid shades of purple, and a matching one on her corresponding hip, Will realizes that in the interest of protecting him, she’s not been disclosing everything about herself.

Mason. It has to be Mason, because no one else would ever get away with it, and from no one else would Margot… he hesitates to think the word allow, but in a sense, it’s true. From no one else but Mason Verger would Margot allow herself to be treated this way. But it’s so much deeper than that. He’d seen the signs in their adolescence, Margot’s father clearly favoring Mason as his sole male heir, but that dissonance between the care he showed his children had widened into a chasm following the revelation of Margot’s sexuality.

Molson Verger had, at one time, believed Will and Margot were secretly dating. Mason’s so-very-helpful discovery and disclosure of Will’s deviancy had been enough to kill that assumption in its cradle.

And then Molson had offered made Beau an offer, and it had all unravelled from there.

Will rolls out of bed and heads to the kitchen; puts a pot of coffee on that won’t be anything like Hannibal’s, but is passable enough to get him through the day. He makes and doctors Margot’s coffee the way she likes, then brings it back to the living room and sets it on the side table. With a quiet click of his tongue, Winston is up and out the door.

Will lingers in the front doorway and takes in how different his property looks in the light of day. Where last night everything was ominous and equally promising, now he simply sees land, grass, flat fields. He sees his beat-up Volvo, and Margot’s sleek Lexus beside it, faded blue and rich autumnal bronze. The mystery of his home has been washed away by grayish, overcast light. The wonder of it is gone, replaced with familiarity. Perhaps Hannibal’s familiarity, too, will return to him with the light, and chase the Ripper’s influence back to the photos suspended in Will’s mind.

Doubting Hannibal is too close to blasphemy for Will to entertain. He’s never lashed out at Will, has never been anything but perfectly patient and calm. Affectionate. Loving. Generous, gracious, protective, understanding, with steady hands that have healed him more than once, and touched him with reverent fervor.

Hannibal is safety and reason, a solid foundation upon which Will is meant to build himself. The Chesapeake Ripper is fire and smoke: dazzling, unpredictable, and dangerous. If Will takes too much of him into himself, he’ll surely suffocate.

But he’s already suffocating, isn’t he? And last night, God, he was so prepared to burn.

If it weren’t for Margot’s presence to keep him tethered, the Ripper might have had him last night. If he’d been waiting in the dark for Will to wander out alone, Will’s not sure where he would be this morning. Surely not seeing Hannibal in a few hours, or ever again. The thought comes with a reluctant, fluttering ache, torn between bursting anticipation and fearful uncertainty. Will’s heart beats in his throat at the realization of how close he might’ve come to his own imminent disaster.

He’d been so stupid, taken such an unnecessary risk. And for what—a fever dream that the Ripper might want to keep him? He’d let Hannibal’s words and the Ripper’s intentions get messed up in his mind. Let them mix and blend to become something new. Something impossible.

Is it really so strange?  Wilhelmina whispers in the back of his mind. Think. Think.

Will frowns. Stands taller, straighter, almost subconsciously. His chin lifts, and there is a new awareness, a new thread of consideration, a new train of thought that he prepares himself to analyze and follow—

“Hey,” Margot murmurs, nudges his shoulder with hers, and Will startles. “Geez, sorry daydreamer. You’re letting all the cold air in.”

“Shit,” Will mutters. “Sorry. Winston, come!”

No response.

Will sighs, resigned. “Winston! Breakfast!” Margot laughs as Winston barrels onto the porch with his tail wagging and tongue lolling, predictable as ever. “Figures. He’s always been food motivated.”

“As opposed to?”

“Play motivated.” Will reaches down to pick a twig out of Winston’s ruff, and scratches behind his ears.

Margot hums. “I’m play-motivated, I think.” She huffs a laugh and, too, reaches down to pat Winston. Then she turns and looks up at Will. “Which are you?”

Will blinks. Thinks. Shrugs. “Food, probably.”

Margot stares at him for a little while, then smiles. She shakes her head. “Nah. I think you’re play-motivated, too.”

“How do you figure?”

“Because,” she says, and stands up straight. She meets Will’s eyes with a small but knowing smile as she moves back into the house, and makes room for Winston to pass, and for Will to close the door. “Everyone eats. But not everyone hunts.”

 


 

“Oh no you don’t! Not that one.”

“Margot—”

“Hon, remind me to refresh your wardrobe soon. I need to assert my dominance over your sugar daddy in supplying you with nice things.”

“Margot.”

“I’m kidding. Did he say where he was taking you? You should have mentioned this more than ten minutes before we needed to leave, by the way.”

“He didn’t say.”

“Well, he said DC, so we’ll have to play it safe. Fortunately it’s too cold for open-toed shoes so we won’t have to worry much about dress code. God, these are all so last season, I really—wait. Did I give you this? I don’t recognize any of these.”

“Um.”

“You and I are gonna chat about you holding out on me with your good taste. Go put it on. I’ll find shoes.”

“My normal boots are fine!”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”

“I meant the leather ones, not my work boots!”

“I know what you meant. Go on, chop chop. I know I left a pair of Jimmy Choos in here somewhere.”

 


 

Will knows he rides a fine line of masculinity and femininity. No matter that he feels he falls somewhere in the middle of the two, his reputation is all up to outside perception. The routine of makeup is calming, grounding, and he likes the way it makes him feel. He enjoys the control it gives him over his appearance. But makeup is one thing, and clothing is another.

It is, he figures now, probably a good idea to wear a dress in public prior to the gala. To ensure he can handle the scrutiny of the public eye on him, and on his wardrobe.When he was known, he was accepted—at least as the strange fixture in the room, but an unchanging one. His snub of conventional gender roles was overlooked when people could predict his rebellions, but now he’s unpredictable. So Will endures the stares of his classmates with a dull undercurrent of anxiety; it’s not filming day, of course, and they’ve never seen him in a skirt outside those days, let alone anything fancier. When he dresses for filming, he is always business professional, button-down shirts or tasteful blouses and pencil skirts; sweaters and tailored slacks. There’s always been a sense of uncertainty in crossing the line from passably feminine to undeniably feminine, from trading in tight pants and cardigans into stockings and dresses. Even in feminine clothing, he shies away from the hyper-femme. It’s simply not his style—or hasn’t been, before now.

The dress is pretty. Classy, Margot insisted, as she helped him into Hannibal’s gray coat and tied the belt at his waist, tucked pearl hair pins into the casually refined twist she’d made of his curls. Pearls in his hair, his ears, on the accent clasp of the ankle-high boots Margot had unearthed from the abyss of his closet, pebbled black leather lined with soft, plush shearling. Will is comfortably warm, ensconced in lace leggings and wool, but won’t deny the excess attention from his classmates makes his cheeks grow hot and uncomfortable. He wonders if it’s because of the dress, or simply because he’s surrounded by others in sweatpants and sweatshirts while looking like he walked out of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

When the lecture ends, it’s not a moment too soon. Will is packed and ready to bolt before they’re fully dismissed; he heads for Campus Drive and tucks himself beneath a quiet alcove, keeping an eye on the drive for Hannibal’s Bentley. In the meantime, he digs through his bag for his backup cell and searches out his alternate source.

 

<< If you still want to meet, I can make time tonight.

 

The return message takes a minute.

 

>> I was up early and I’ll be working late. Tomorrow works better.

<< I’ll be in DC tomorrow night with a friend.

>> I can make it to DC.

 

Will frowns. He’s not sure he wants to interrupt his evening with Margot for the emotional toils of his source, but—

 

>> I’m surprised you haven’t asked about the staff meeting.

 

Will stares down at the screen. Hannibal hadn’t mentioned a staff meeting, which would imply it wasn’t important, but—

 

>> Since, you know, they were looking for you.

 

His blood runs cold. It has nothing to do with the winter air.

 

<< 9:30, Iron Horse

>> Wouldn’t miss it.

 

Will locks the phone and shoves it in his bag. His jaw clenches. It’s likely his source is trying to rile him—Will knows the man is developing a dependency on his support, and it’ll likely end badly. He fancies them friends instead of associates, which is more of a headache than it’s worth.

But Hannibal never mentioned a meeting of any kind. Certainly not one revolving around Will or his influence—more than likely, regarding the data breach.

Will places a hand over his mouth in silent horror. If Freddie pointed the FBI to Hannibal and the hospital, instead of to Will…

But Hannibal would have told him. Will is sure of it.

His cell buzzes in his pocket. Will scrambles for it, and with a sickening sense of relief and anxiety, sighs when he sees the familiar contact. “Hannibal,” he says breathlessly.

“What’s wrong?”  is the immediate response.

Will shakes his head, huffs a sigh and shivers in the cold. Of course Hannibal can hear his nerves. But what reason does Will have to doubt him? Once Will talks to his source, clarifies his intent and sifts through his amateur word games, Will can ask whatever questions of Hannibal he needs with better information to source them from. Hannibal will answer him, and the anxiety will be pointless. Problem solved.

“Nothing,” Will says with a wry smile, “it’s just kinda cold without pants.”

Hannibal tsks over the line, but when he speaks, he sounds both exasperated and pleased, concern assuaged. “You should have waited inside, stubborn thing. I’ll be there in just a moment, I’m turning onto the campus now.”

“It was crowded, outside was easier,” Will lies mildly as he cranes his neck, searching for the sleek black town car among a sea of junkers and vehicles too old to be modern, but too young to be vintage. When he sees the Bentley, against his better judgement or his own own ability to control otherwise, his heartbeat speeds. “I see you. I’ll be right there,” he says, and hangs up.

He barely restrains himself from jogging. Even then, it’s a near thing—he doesn’t even wait for the car to fully stop, and by the time he’s pulling the passenger door open, his chest is fit to burst. Will tosses his bag in the passenger footwell as he kneels on the seat, doesn’t hesitate at Hannibal’s sound of surprise as his cold hands find Hannibal’s cheeks and pull him into a kiss.

It’s good. It’s so good, and it’s been almost a week, and Will is only realizing just how much he’s missed this man as their tongues slide together and Will moans his relief and a car behind them honks loud enough to startle them apart.

Hannibal’s eyes are wide and dark as Will drops into the seat and pulls the passenger door closed behind them. He licks his lips to chase the taste of Will’s mouth, and his eyes narrow infinitesimally when Will starts to smile, lowers his lashes. “I had planned to pull over,” Hannibal scolds gently, and he contradicts himself by reaching for Will’s hand, twines them together on the center console and pulls back out into traffic.

Will buckles his seatbelt with his single free hand, and loses a valiant fight against his grin, wide enough to ache. “Didn’t wanna wait.” And later, he will blame it on the confidence Margot’s efforts have given him when his fingers find the belt of the jacket and tug, let it slouch around his shoulders, fall open across his chest and his lap and pool around his body. Will’s smile softens into something almost coquettish. He feels quite ridiculous and quite confident in turns when he gazes over at Hannibal and asks, “Is this pretty enough for you?”

Hannibal’s eyes leave the road—hungrily rove the emerald-green wool, the high collar and keyhole neckline, the long sleeves and teardrop-cut cuffs, the classic, high-waisted silhouette and flared skirt that bells around his calves. The journey ends on Will’s pale, exposed throat and his sharply-lined eyes. Hannibal looks as though he would happily eat Will alive, and his fingers tighten around Will’s. “You are exquisite.”

Will smiles; the sight of Hannibal driving one-handed, so casually commanding while lit up with desire makes Will warmer than the heated seats could ever hope to accomplish. Still, he luxuriates while he can—cozies up in the passenger side, turns his body toward Hannibal, and simply watches him. Feeling the weight of Will’s eyes on him, Hannibal smooths his thumb over the backs of Will’s knuckles. The sensation is a comfort and indulgence both after the long days and nights of being apart. “I don’t wear dresses out that often, or really at all,” Will admits. “I thought I should get used to it before this weekend.”

Hannibal’s eyes slide to him in a sidelong glance. His smile lifts the corners of his mouth just barely, though Will knows his pleasure is not a secret, or he wouldn’t bother to show it. “I had wondered what you might be wearing, since you insist on keeping me guessing. Would I be prying too much to at least ask the color?”

“Blue,” Will murmurs, and since he knows Hannibal is sensitive to detail, “Navy. Full-length.” His lips curve in an answering smile. “Don’t worry, I didn’t make the choice alone. I won’t show up in anything too horrible.”

Hannibal hums, considers. Gently takes his hand from Will’s to turn onto the thruway, a controlled descent down the entry ramp. “I’m sure you won’t. Though you make it sound as though I might not be aware until the event itself.”

Will winces, but doesn’t fidget. He had hoped to bring it up later, hope that Hannibal wouldn’t be too angry, but, “My, um, friend wants to help me get ready, and escort me there, since it’s my first real thing.

“The mysterious friend,” Hannibal replies. His emotions are tightly controlled, but Will doesn’t sense anger—maybe some annoyance, but ultimately, calm. “I’ll admit that I hoped to escort you myself. But I can tell from what little I heard her speak to you that she cares for you very much, and she’ll make sure you arrive without incident.”

“Honestly?” Will says, and draws a glance when he huffs, “It’s kind of a publicity stunt. She wants to stick it to her dad by not showing up with the family entourage. And she’s kind of a fashion icon, trendsetter. She said two gorgeous people like us showing up together will get way more attention than an old man and his grown children.” Will smiles at that. “You’ll like her, I think.”

Hannibal makes an amused noise under his breath. “She sounds like quite the personality. I’m curious as to how you met. It sounds as though your friendship is long-lived.”

It’s not a bad attempt, Will has to admit. But of the two of them, he is the more patient fisherman. “You’ll have to wait until we’re together for the stories.”

At least Hannibal is a good sport to Will’s games. He smiles with an edge of self-deprecation, and cedes their sparring of wills. “Very well. I can tell when I’m beaten.”

Will, too, smiles—lets his eyes droop to half-lidded, lazy and satisfied. “As long as you know.”

Hannibal huffs a laugh that exposes the fine points of his teeth, true mirth crinkling around his eyes as he keeps his eyes on the traffic ahead. He reaches for Will’s hand once more, and twines their fingers together. Draws Will’s hand to his mouth, and kisses the backs of his fingers before he returns them to nestle between the seats. “I did miss this,” he says. “You. Your wit.”

“Me too,” Will murmurs, and squeezes his hand. “I know we can’t see each other every day, but I wish we could.”

Hannibal opens his mouth. Closes it. “Someday, perhaps we won’t be so far from one another,” he says finally.

Will wonders what he meant to say, but allows himself to imagine each morning together, each evening. Each meal shared, their free time woven together, stitching Will into the empty spaces Hannibal has left in his life. Will’s chest feels full, near-overflowing when he admits, “I think I’d like that.”

The curve of Hannibal’s lips is a soft, intimate thing. Terribly fond, as his eyes slide over to Will and drink in the sight of him. “Then, when the time is right, we’ll make it so.”

Will can’t bring himself to say how nice that sounds. How perfect. He doesn’t dare to hope for such a peaceful existence when he knows he won’t be able to have it.

 


 

Traffic in DC is terrible, even for the lunch rush. Will frowns as he looks down familiar roads, the traffic backed up for blocks surrounding downtown. With a budding sense of anxiety, he puts his hand on the passenger window, and just as quickly removes it, mindful of the grubby fingerprints he’ll leave behind. “Do you think there was an accident?”

Hannibal, too, frowns. “It could be,” he says. “Or it could be an event, though I didn’t think I noticed anything for today.”

“Hopefully not an incident at the White House,” Will mutters disdainfully. “That always slows everything down for hours with Secret Service and security checkpoints.”

“We might be slightly late for our reservations,” Hannibal muses, but doesn’t sound particularly bothered by it. “But I’m more concerned about getting you back to campus on time if this persists.”

“Missing class isn’t the end of the world.” Will squints down the narrow avenues, flanked by classic brick buildings. “I wonder what’s going on.”

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.” Hannibal makes a quiet noise of satisfaction as traffic starts moving again. “There we are.”

Will is quickly distracted when they reach their destination, a parking garage beside a fine brownstone and hotel entry sign. He sends Hannibal a quizzical look as he shrugs his coat on.

“The restaurant is inside,” Hannibal replies with a faint smile. “Don’t worry, Will, if I had other intentions, you’d know about it.”

It pulls a wry smile from Will, and he rolls his eyes. “Sounds like something someone with other intentions would say.”

Hannibal grins in a bright flash of teeth. Pulls in and pulls over. “I’ll have the valet park the car. Leave your bag.”

Will nods and reaches into his backpack only to tuck his second phone safely into his pocket. Hannibal smiles at this before he climbs out, and Will puts the bag into the backseat. No sense in leaving it out for anyone to see, encrypted laptop or not. He hesitates at grabbing his wallet. A flash of anxiety and bewildered uncertainty overwhelms him. Hannibal had said—but had he meant—

Will twitches as Hannibal opens the door for him; extends an inquiring glance that’s smoothed by gently exasperated understanding. He holds out his hand for Will to take. Huffs through his nose, so soft, and smiles. “Just your phone, mylimasis. And you.”

Will takes his hand and is pulled to his feet, steadied by Hannibal’s hands on his waist as he teeters on the heels. Will doesn’t hesitate again. It’s been long enough. He sinks into Hannibal’s arms and tucks his face against his shoulder carefully, and absorbs the sensation of being held. Lets it sink into his bones, his soul, and nourish him.

Hannibal’s palm carefully cups the nape of Will’s neck, mindful of his updo, and touches his lips to Will’s temple. “Hello, my darling one.” Will makes a sound that is nearly a whine, quietly and unintentionally, and Hannibal’s arms tighten around him. “I know,” he murmurs, and his thumb brushes the side of Will’s throat, his thundering pulse, and pulls a shiver from him. “I know. It’s alright, Will.”

Will nods. Nuzzles. Tips his head up and kisses the sharp underside of Hannibal’s jaw. “Sorry,” Will says softly. “I missed you. It’s really good to see you.”

“Never apologize, Will.” Hannibal turns into the touch of Will’s mouth and brings their lips together, a slow, gentle press that’s so tender it makes his ribs ache. “The longer we know one another, the less damning the distance will feel. You’re not the only one.”

“You never seem to have to run into my arms,” Will grumbles with a self-deprecating smile, growing wider as Hannibal turns and tucks Will under his arm, close to his side.

“You always beat me to it,” Hannibal replies easily. “I’m sure the day will come.”

Personally, Will doubts it. But he likes the thought enough that he doesn’t dare argue.

 


 

The restaurant is glamorous, opulent. It reminds Will of the Verger’s dining room, but much, much larger—white and bright, large glass windows and linen tablecloths and napkins, fresh flowers and sprigs of herbs in small vases on tables. The arrangements alone must cost hundreds per day, but he’s wisely learned over the years to never react to such things. It only makes it more obvious to those whom such indulgences are normal that you don’t truly belong.

The best way to blend in is for them to never know you’re out of place. They only look for oddities when they know they should be looking.

As such, he does not balk at menu prices, and resigns himself to the fact that if he chooses the least expensive of lunch options, Hannibal is sure to notice, and likely to retaliate by ordering for him. Though, in all honesty, everything does look delicious, and choosing for himself grants him enough of a challenge, anyway. He doesn’t miss the approving glint in Hannibal’s eye when Will takes his suggestions to heart and orders a seafood dish—locally sourced, Hannibal assures him, and sustainably farmed or caught. Hand-dived scallops have a better flavor than dredged scallops anyway, he says, and seems surprised when Will launches into an unexpected discussion about commercial fishing. Hannibal is knowledgeable enough to be passable, and asks all the right questions as Will details the difference between commercial-scale trawling and dredging, and the more selective diving and trolling. Fishing on a local scale for a community is one thing, of course. Fishing for a national supply chain is a completely different matter.

But through the discussion, Will is distracted. As it grows further into the lunch hour and the restaurant fills around them, there’s a buzz in the room. Pale faces among the well-dressed, and it’s only upon seeing the twentieth press badge pinned to a lapel by people who clearly know each other—but no one gathering together in the party dining room—that he finds his conversation dying out.

Hannibal doesn’t ask at first. His eyes find Will’s face as Will scans the room, reads the anxious energy like a serpent scenting for prey. The animated movement of Will’s hands becomes a sedate folding of fingers in his lap, clenched around a cloth napkin.

And he waits. Listens, and waits.

“Wouldn’t even let us in—”

“—working from nearby. Not sure how I’m supposed to get anything done—”

“They locked down the whole building!”

“—cops everywhere. They called in the FBI.”

“Jessica from the Times said it was there this morning before they even opened. Not a single alarm.”

“—there’s no security cameras—”

“—yeah, the President is going off. Congress is freaking out, it’s a mess—”

“—don’t know why, it wasn’t like he left the body in the Senate Chamber—”

“Ha, fake news my ass.

“I tell you what,” says the man at the table behind them to his companion, and Will hones in on the unfamiliar voice as he takes a generous drink of dark, fragrant liquor. “This is why I do stocks, not crime. If I was the Analysis guy right now, I’d be pretty damn glad I was anonymous.”

Will doesn’t hear what the man’s companion says in reply.

His ears ring. His vision blurs. Hannibal’s eyes snap to him, and his sharp look of concern is all Will can see as his world fizzes around the edges. “Will?”

In the back of his mind, Wilhelmina paces—a wolf and a huntress born into the same body. Go, she whispers. He left us a gift. He’s waiting. Go.

Will inhales slowly through his nose.

Holds it.

Meets Hannibal’s eyes.

Exhales.

“Well,” he says, “it sounds like traffic will be backed up for a while. We might as well take our time.”

Hannibal’s gaze is inscrutable. His head tips to the side as he surveys Will with his dark eyes, his pursed lips. He looks, not at Will, but through Will, assessing his mental state. Combing his knowledge of Will and all his quirks to see what, exactly, he should expect. How he should respond. Will knows he’s not making it easy.

It isn’t easy. Goddamn it, he wants to give chase. It’s what he’s made for. What he’s trained himself for.

But he can’t.

“If you need to go…” Hannibal says carefully.

“Whatever’s done is done,” Will replies, pitched so only they may hear. It hurts to say it, so he forces a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. His teeth click together with the stress of it. “If you’re not first, you’re last. By his design, this time I wasn’t.” Will swallows. Keeps that smile on. “Now anyone else that needs my attention will have to wait their turn. You’re first in line.”

Hannibal stares, still and silent. Then, like a statue coming to life, he breathes and leans forward, palms flat on the table. His head is angled toward Will with a small but intimate smile; the murmur of a lover passes between his lips. “You want to go.”

Will’s stoicism shatters. His smile aches, and this time he knows it makes it to his face as he, too, leans in, nearly close enough to kiss. “I’m dying to go,” he admits softly. “But I can’t just walk onto a crime scene, and without the scene I need everything else I can get. That takes time. He can wait an hour or two for my attention.” Will’s eyes lower. “I’ve made you wait days for mine.”

Hannibal hums his acknowledgement, his forgiveness. “You know, between he and I, I do still believe I’m the more fortunate.” He reaches over, finds Will’s hand. Curls around it, lifts it, kisses it like a gentleman, like someone who cares for Will so dearly he can hardly stand it. “He may have your thoughts, your concern, may even sometimes walk among the indistinct shapes of your dreams. These are gifts enough to draw his attention. But the best of you, Will—your mind, your wit, your touch, your company and care—you share with me. I pity him.”

Will’s lips part soundlessly. “You pity him?”

“It’s a wretchedness that he likely never knew before he became aware of you. Now, I wonder if he can get it out of his mind at all.”

Will doesn’t understand. His eyes find the condensation that beads on the side of his water glass. He watches it drip, collecting moisture and momentum in a faster and faster descent until it meets the tablecloth, and loses substance entirely. “What do you mean?”

Hannibal squeezes Will’s hand with the utmost affection and patience, and finally, he looks up. Hannibal traces the blunt edge of his thumbnail over and between Will’s fingers. He smiles when Will shivers. “Being alone.”

Will hesitates to say it, but remembers Hannibal’s insistence from the night before. The promise that Will can speak freely. “But he’s not.” Huffs a breath, and doesn’t meet Hannibal’s eyes. “He’s never been. Or—or not as long as I’ve been here. I’ve been listening. Looking. Seeing. ” He swallows hard. “And now, if he…”

“Sees you,” Hannibal says gently.

“If he sees me back. It means…” Will shakes his head slowly. Then again. “I don’t really know what it means for me.”

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” Hannibal murmurs.

Will laughs helplessly. “Maybe I’ve looked too long into the abyss. Is it wrong that part of me is glad that he’s finally looking back?”

“It’s natural to want to be acknowledged,” Hannibal replies. Slides his fingers to Will’s wrist and dips beneath the cuffs, trails his fingertips over the wool and down the sensitive underside of Will’s arm. “He wants to be seen. So, too, do you want to be seen. You have that in common.” Up the outside of his arm, to Will’s shoulder. Over the high collar, the barest touch at his throat. Hannibal’s lashes are lowered, eyes intent on Will’s mouth. “I see you, mylimasis. With time, I hope to see you better, as I hope you’ll see me.”

“Transparency,” Will says with a strained and quiet laugh. “Sounds dangerous.”

Hannibal draws him in, and Will is helpless to resist. In the moments before Hannibal takes the thoughts from Will’s mind, kisses the worries from his lips, the last thing he says is, “We’ll never know until we try.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ten Hours Earlier

 

Maneuvering in Washington is always a challenge. There’s more surveillance, more watchful eyes of the populace, and heightened security from proximity to the White House. The closer he gets, the more careful he must be—and right now, he is very close, indeed.

Hannibal doesn’t care about any of that. Aside from the inconvenience, it’s inconsequential.

He is purposeful as he places the body in the grand ballroom, center stage and forward-facing—places flowers, drapes cloth. The cutting and carving is already done, it’s simply the posturing and small details that remain. He sets the scene exactly as he imagined it to be, and is pleased to find the overall effect better than he’d anticipated. Savors the impending horror of those who will find what he’s left with a sort of snide satisfaction, and is consumed with a terrible desire for one specific pair of eyes to see what he has made.

What Hannibal has created is a King’s Gambit inviting Will to engage. It is the opening move of his endgame. It’s a question and a promise. An offering. An overture.

And he has chosen the venue to suit.

When he is done, he stands back. Surveys, as he imagines Will might. Feels an abject sense of dissatisfaction that Will likely will not see this particular body in person, but there’s nothing else to it. He wants to keep the game between them. It is for others to witness, not to participate in, so he must proceed with caution.

Maybe someday we’ll share a hunt, and not just the kill.

Hannibal wants. Having Will at his side in this moment, staring down at this tableau with his secretive smile and that sharp light in his eyes, would be an incredible joy.

But if Will were here, Hannibal would not have needed to create this scene.

The point is moot. But their time will come.

In the underground garage is a nondescript silver sedan with the proper parking permits, neither new nor old, or in any notable state of disrepair. It will wait in its reserved parking spot, undisturbed, until Hannibal can come to collect it. He’s left no personal belongings inside it; it will have appeared to have driven in last evening and never departed. Perhaps the driver caught a cab, or went home with a friend. Either way, when the FBI inevitably comb all the vehicles in the lot, there will be no reason to find it suspect.

No one ever expects a well-dressed or successful man to be untrustworthy; his acquaintances had let down their guard, had been all too happy to share the details of the building’s comings and goings in casual conversation at the opera weeks ago. With a set of keys in his possession from a subtle and unexpected sleight of hand, Hannibal’s way is clear. He locks up appropriately behind him and returns to the security box, the guard passed out cold from a well-placed dose of Rohypnol into the vat of communal coffee. Hannibal will drain the container before he leaves, but only after he carefully moves the man’s face to rest on the keyboard, no longer concerned that a smash of buttons will trigger an alarm. It doesn’t matter now if it does—only that it seems the man’s carelessness has caused this unfortunate lapse of surveillance.

The man will be out his job in the morning for such a thoughtless mistake, falling asleep on the job in a building where White House Correspondents regularly come and go, and allowing a murderer to wander in. Hannibal cannot find it within himself to care. He’s been generous enough to leave the man with his life. By all accounts, he’s been kind.

Hannibal slips out of the National Press Club and into the adjacent hotel through interconnected staff doors and the shadowy corridors of the parking garage—so-very-conveniently, if not strategically, suffering a breaker failure that has accounted for little to no lighting. It’s early yet; there is only a short while remaining before the restaurants in the building will begin their meal prep, and the Mariott staff begin their rounds, by which time, there will have been enough traffic in and out that Hannibal’s tracks will be well-covered. His plastic suit will account for the rest.

Hannibal strips from the coverall and nondescript clothing in a dark corner, tucks it into a briefcase he’d strategically left hidden in an alcove not more than a day before. He dons the crisp white shirt and black pants that were stowed within: well-made but standard-issue, nothing particularly eye-catching when paired with a plain coat and winter hat. He cuts through the hotel, blends with bleary-eyed corporate-types in the lobby with a paper cup of dismal coffee in hand;  joins the herd as they shuffle on foot toward Union Station, where he will take the red line to Bethesda. There, he will pick up the Bentley and return to Johns Hopkins for the tail-end of an on-call shift with too many doctors, in which Hannibal may sequester himself into his office and complete paperwork until he’s released around lunchtime.

He is as reasonably certain of himself as he has ever been. After all, the efficacy of the FBI on television is only ever fiction. In the real world, things are much more complicated, and the public much more blind. The Ripper is an indistinct nightmare in the minds of so-called decent people. In trying to define him, they will overlook even the shape of his shadow.

And until such a time comes as they can pin him down, Hannibal will continue as he always has—doing exactly as he pleases, and nothing less.

His alibi has been cemented by a remote activation of his home security system, and a call received shortly before leaving the hospital. His keypad will show a deactivation at the time in which Hannibal was in DC—a remote deactivation, but from a burner cell not registered under his name. Hannibal puts the sim card back in his phone when he reaches Johns Hopkins, armed with chain store donuts and a box of coffee purchased just outside the hospital with his credit card. He is a regular, and they will remember him being there, if not exactly what time.

An inconvenient ordeal for poor Doctor Lecter, who has no one at home to check things over on his behalf. How very kind and considerate of him to bring something back for the nurses after a quick run-out to make sure everything was okay with his house. And in a hospital emergency department with no exterior windows, a busy place, what does time matter? He was gone for an hour, perhaps—not really sure, but surely not very long. The nurses will repeat this with a glowing recommendation of his character, and Hannibal’s reputation will be protected, should an investigation come.

With the first dawnings of early morning light, in the aftermath of his most daring tableau yet, Hannibal’s phone buzzes. 

>> Hope your shift is going ok. I’m really glad you called last night. Looking forward to seeing you later.

The typing cursor remains. Stops. Starts again. Patiently, Hannibal looks down at his phone with a sense of fond anticipation, and he waits.

The addition is not what he expects given the length of time Will spent typing, and yet Hannibal is far from disappointed. No—if anything, he is only more certain of what he has done, and all the things he is willing to do for Will Graham.

>> ♥

 


 

All things said, lunch is incredibly pleasant. Will is polite, doesn’t fumble with the multitude of silverware, and openly appreciates the quality of the meal. His conversational intellect is stimulating, and the classic cut of his tasteful dress leaves nothing wanting in terms of aesthetics. Hannibal sees others send him curious glances, both envy and desire from men and women alike. It’s only right; Will is beautiful. If Will were anyone else, he might’ve preened under the attention—but Will is not anyone else. Not only does he not react, he doesn’t seem to notice at all. He remains pointedly fixated on Hannibal, despite the conflicted expression Hannibal reads in his face. Will, as always, denies himself what he truly wants.

After all the effort he has put into becoming Will’s sole sense of stability, Hannibal probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Will would not want to leave his company—even to survey the Ripper’s handiwork. Despite his flicker of annoyance, Will’s logic is sensible. There is not much he can do without clearance to enter a crime scene.

So it’s almost enough to know how badly Will wants to see. Almost.

Perhaps Hannibal expected something different once he and Will are alone in the car. An eagerness, maybe; for Will to dig out his phone and search with that singular, rapt attention for the details of the Ripper’s latest kill.

But he doesn’t.

Hannibal’s hands tighten on the steering wheel as he turns into traffic, as the car creeps along the roadways, and Will does nothing more than stare down the avenues. “You’re very quiet.”

Will says nothing at first. Doesn’t snap out of his daze until Hannibal sends him a sidelong glance, and a slow blink brings Will back to the present. “Thinking,” Will murmurs.

Hannibal decides to test his luck. “About the Ripper?”

Will nods, silent.

Behind his lips, Hannibal’s tongue traces his teeth. The decadence of their meal sits pleasantly in his stomach; this uncertainty, less so. “I had thought you might already go looking for details. You surprise me, Will.”

Quiet. Will is even more halting and hesitant than he normally is, the dark fringe of his lashes sweeping low across his cheeks. His hands are folded in his lap, knuckles tensing as he winds his fingers together. Just shy of wringing his hands, with that same unreadable expression on his face. Voice soft and low, he does not look at Hannibal. “He didn’t choose me for this one. Guess I’m supposed to wait.”

Hannibal’s brows draw together just slightly. He focuses on the cars ahead as they inch toward the interstate. Of course he’d wanted Will to see, but surely Will must understand how being present twice in a row would seem suspicious. Shielding Will for a second time in the aftermath of his tableau would be nigh impossible, what with the additional scrutiny due to proximity to the White House, and the tenacity of the FBI. The National Press Club is just blocks from both; a veritable taunt on the agency’s front doorstep.

“We’re alone now,” Hannibal says, and quite reasonably, if he does say so himself. “The prying eyes you’re wary of in public won’t reach you here.”

Will says nothing. When Hannibal looks over once more, Will’s faded pink lips are pressed together as he stares down at his hands. He picks absently at a hangnail with recently-manicured fingers, a subtle, glossy sheen. How had he not noticed? He certainly does now—and Will’s telling wordlessness.

It’s a strange thing, jealousy. It is all the more terrible when he knows he has brought it upon himself, and has only himself to blame. Only himself to be jealous of. His own choices have brought him to a place where Will doesn’t believe he can confide in him, steeped in uncertainty and fear of Hannibal’s reaction as a good and gentle man. Like Hannibal isn’t starving for the darkness inside Will to break free, to look into his eyes and see.

Hannibal, too, purses his lips. “Unless you wish to be truly alone.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to find,” Will mumbles. “I’m…”

Scared.

Hannibal tenses his jaw. If Will could only see, he would understand. “Perhaps then it’s better to look while you’re in the company of someone who would gladly provide comfort if you should need it.”

“Hannibal, I—” Will’s voice drops to a wretched whisper. “I’m trying not to get you involved.”

Hannibal licks his lips. Feels frustration in his breast. Tries not to lose his temper. And still, he feels such terrible, pitiable affection for his young darling. So very young. Even if Hannibal were the man Will believes him to be, after all they have been through, he would surely still demand to be involved. “Do you think that’s what I want?” He asks, and carefully sharpens his wounds to cut, but not to kill. “To avoid involvement in your life? Is that the impression I’ve given you?”

“No,” Will answers instantly. “But—”

“I have never cared for anyone like I care for you, Will,” Hannibal says. He means it. As such, he nearly snarls when he sees Will flinch at the words. “I’ve seen you in the throes of nightmares, felt your blood on my hands. I’ve seen what proximity to this man can do to you, and I accept that, so long as I’m able to stand at your side. Is that no longer what you want?”

Will’s shoulders hunch. His chin ducks, like a stricken child. “Please don’t be mad at me,” Will whispers.

It’s nearly pitiful.

But when Hannibal steals a glance at Will, he sees the glimmer of bared teeth, hidden by loose strands of Will’s curls. A curled lip. A ferocious expression, concealed by the softness of gentle, pleading words.

Hannibal pauses. “I’m not angry, mylimasis.” He’s not—anymore. “I want to understand. You’ve shown me what you do before. Why is it only now that you’re reluctant?”

“Because Caldwell didn’t mean anything,” Will snaps. “But this—”

Hannibal stills. So does Will. His voice breaks. His hands curl in his lap. “—you heard what that staffer said, at the restaurant. How the Analysis guy  should be glad to be anonymous. So…” Will takes an unsteady breath. “Something’s changed. And that means when I look, I need to be prepared for… for whatever I might find.”

“You take your involvement as a threat against you?”

Will makes a sound of frustration, nearly a growl. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen it, and he’s made sure I’ll never get to!” Will breaks into hard-edged laughter. “So much for choosing me.”

Oh.

It seems he is not the only one who is jealous.

Hannibal exhales. Narrowly avoids smiling; nearly laughs. Dear, darling Will, denying Hannibal his desire to see his mind at work, because he, too, was denied the ability to observe. He’s had just enough time to let his tentative excitement waver into self-doubt. Will is too busy licking his own wounded heart to allow himself to be vulnerable to anyone else.

“I would withhold judgement until you see what he’s left for you,” Hannibal offers gently. Lets his eyes wander to Will, and back to the road again.

This time, Will looks back. Feels his interest. His confusion. “Why?”

“Someone has caught the Ripper’s attention,”  he says, the words as hypnotic and captivating to him now as they’d been on his tablet screen. They burst with truth. Will simply does not yet understand how true. “Now he is waiting to see what they will do, and who they will become.”

Will startles at the sound of his own words mirrored back to him. In Hannibal’s periphery, his jaw tenses. “I could have been wrong.”

“Do you believe you were wrong?” Hannibal asks.

Will doesn’t answer. Not at first. Then, “Does it matter?”

“It does. Because you care, mylimasis. I haven’t known you to jump to conclusions without seeking your evidence first. Your conclusions are based on evidence, are they not?” It’s a rhetorical question. Still, he sees Will tentatively nod. “What evidence do you have but the panicked murmurings of the masses? They don’t know what you know. They don’t see what you see. Where they saw a domestic terrorist, you saw an unfortunate miscalculation. When they didn’t see a man at all, you did. You, and no one else.”

For a time, there is silence. Hannibal twitches when cold fingers brush his wrist. Obligingly, he allows Will to pull his right hand from the steering wheel; to clutch it in his own. Hannibal can feel Will’s heartbeat in the spaces between their fingers.

Will exhales slowly. Inhales. Breathes. Hannibal times his breaths to match, until he feels Will’s heartbeat start to slow and calm.

Will curls in his seat toward Hannibal, an echo of this morning, and draws their hands even closer—nuzzles and kisses at the backs of Hannibal’s knuckles. His lips are damp. Soft. Rubbing tiny back-and-forth paths over Hannibal’s skin, feeling the cliffs and valleys of his bones against a pink and tender mouth.

Will sighs. His breath is warm. He bends his head and touches his cheek to Hannibal’s fingers. Closes his eyes in a flutter of black lashes, and whispers his despair to Hannibal’s starving ears. “Why doesn’t that scare you?”

Hannibal slowly rolls his palm over in Will’s grip, and sighs softly when Will noses against it, finds a home there. “You’ll have to be more specific, my dear.”

“Me, understanding him,” Will says. “More importantly, him seeing me. You’re either insane or overconfident. I just want…” Will shakes his head once. Keeps his eyes closed. Hannibal steals a long look at him when he knows Will won’t see it, and savors the confused, lost little pull between his carefully-shaped brows. “Whatever war he’s waging, I want you to survive it. That’s all I want. And even for someone who sees blood and death every day, even if you have a dark sense of humor—even if you think you can save me, Hannibal, most people would sweat over the idea that their…”

“Partner,” Hannibal suggests.

Will’s eyes don’t open; he breathes out through his nose. “Sure. That their partner gets into the heads of serial killers.”

“Killers, plural?” Hannibal asks, gently amused. “Or one in particular?”

Will purses his lips. They pucker against Hannibal’s skin. “I can empathize with anybody. The Ripper’s just…” A pause. “Different.” A whisper of breath; a flash of blue as Will’s eyes crack open and lock on his like they were already staring at each other. Like he felt Hannibal’s gaze intrinsically, an extension of himself. “You’re different, too.”

There is no concern, no doubt in Will’s gaze—only questions. Were it not for the sincerity he sees there, Hannibal might consider what Will knows, or what he thinks he knows. But there’s no fear when Will looks at him. Not like there is when he talks about the Ripper, even now.

“I’ve never feared death,” Hannibal replies, and turns his eyes on the passing cars. Feels the weight of Will’s gaze on the side of his face. “I’ve always been aware of the transience of life. It’s one of the reasons I decided to study medicine. Pain, too, is ephemeral. Life is temporary. We must find satisfaction in imperfection and the passing minutiae of each moment. You differ from moment to moment, and day to day. It’s one of the many things I enjoy about you.” Will nods against his palm, accepting, and Hannibal chooses his next words carefully. “To some degree, I think your killer, too, must share this philosophy. How can I fear him when I understand him? When I see what he sees? In our eyes, Will, we share a vision of you.”

“Then maybe you are crazy,” Will says.

Hannibal smiles. “So are you, for pursuing him. Perhaps we’re all suited to one another.”

Will huffs softly through his nose. Catlike, he rubs his face fully against Hannibal’s hand. Kisses it. Places it on his own throat. The sight of his fingers wrapped around Will’s fragile trachea is entrancing. To know that, right now, Will’s life is in his hand, and that one well-placed squeeze could kill him. That Will trusts him not to. “That’s a fucked up thing to say, you know. He murdered someone today.”

“Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow,” Hannibal murmurs breathlessly, and looks once more at Will. He sees. He knows. Desires. Feels the pounding of Will’s blood, and longs to taste it. Consume this vibrant, beautiful thing, and swallow him whole. “Death will always be. I’m simply comforted knowing you’re chasing him.”

Chasing is the keyword,” Will replies. Presses Hannibal’s palm steadily harder, so Hannibal can feel the vibrations of Will’s voice against his veins, the undulations of his racing pulse. There is something there in Will’s eyes—perhaps not on the surface, but present. A spark, somewhere deep, somewhere dark, where it is the only flash of light. Will’s head tips back. He looks at Hannibal from beneath his lashes, the shape of submission, the ferocity of a challenge. Careless, in this moment, whether Hannibal’s inattention on the road causes them to live or die. Will is singularly demanding and captivating. “I haven’t caught him yet.”

A lure implies wanting to catch, Will had said. And now he’s fishing—for Hannibal’s reaction, for his expectations. Waiting to see what he will say or do. To see what kind of person Hannibal believes him to be.

Well, if Will seeks to catch something, Hannibal will oblige him. What his darling pulls from beneath the depths is, of course, entirely up to Will.

Hannibal’s fingers curl closed, a thick and wide collar across the expanse of Will’s throat. Gently, so gently, he allows them to tighten. Just enough to feel him gasp, but no further.

Will’s breath hitches. His pupils fatten.

Oh, someday soon, Hannibal will have him.

With sharp teeth and sharper eyes, Hannibal smiles. “You will.”

 


 

If you’re not first, you’re last.

It’s an indisputable rule about many things, but especially journalism. They who break the first story control the public’s narrative. Will learned this well, and early on. He’s known it as an intimate concept for as long as he’s chased the Ripper. He broke the first story on the in-depth psychology of Caldwell’s murder, and subsequently the first story altogether about The Hanged Man.

He’s not the first one to break the story on the Press Club murder. For the first few hours, he oscillates between resignation and fury about that fact. Confusion. A complete and total lack of understanding. Why? Why?  If the Ripper has a message, it’s clear he knows exactly how to find Will. Why not just say something? Send something. Leave a message on his doorstep, or tucked under his pillow, beneath the windshield wiper of his car. There are so many ways. And yet—this. A test?

No. The moment Will reads about the body in a bright, bold headline, he knows. Will knows for certain exactly what he suspected in the middle of that goddamn restaurant surrounded by press correspondents; what he wished he hadn’t known while cocooned in the passenger seat of Hannibal’s car, fighting to protect a man who has no desire to let Will protect him.

His living room is lit like a séance—lightbulbs out, fire burning in the hearth. Winston is sprawled in front of it, body rolling with sighing snores. Will sits cross-legged on his sleeper-sofa mattress, a monolith among a sea of moth-eaten blankets. He bites back a bitter smile, and sends a silent apology to the ghost of his father that he still feels lingering in the master bedroom upstairs; it’s a place Will has never belonged, and has refused to claim for himself. He’s not like his father; he’s never been a good man, and likely never will be. Everything for Will exists in hazy shades of black and gray, interspersed with flares of fire-lit red: death and blood.

The ground floor is where he lives, feet solidly planted, with a view of his property and all its sprawling sides. He is a soldier watching warily for enemy invasion, prepared to close the bulkheads and arm himself readily at the first sign of an intruder.

But tonight, he opens his heart and walks into a separate world. This time, it’s not one that he’s borrowing. It’s one that’s been made exclusively for Will.

Hannibal was right.

This death, this destruction, this tableau—it’s all for him.

There’s an itch beneath his skin that Will can attribute to Wilhelmina’s impatience, her desire to fold herself into the Ripper’s shadow, where she has always happily belonged. She is, after all, the epitome of Will’s instincts; a coalition of his most base thoughts and gut feelings, polished and sharpened until she gleams like a knife.

Tonight, Will opens the door in his mind, and stands aside.

It starts in his chest; a full feeling that spreads swiftly outward, a tingle that makes him shudder. It’s a sudden switch in his brain as she peels out from inside of him, crawls out of the prison of his skeleton and situates herself inside his skin. It’s a sensation, real and true, as she emerges from the depths and settles beside him in his mind. When he opens his eyes, he knows he is not the only one looking. He can feel her purpose in his limbs, the weighty and momentous sweep of her hands as she reaches for the phone on the coverlet. Unlocks it. Goes looking. Finds.

 

  • Chesapeake Ripper Strikes Again: Body Mutilated and Displayed at National Press Club! EXCLUSIVE photos from the scene. FBI’s official statement.
  • National Security Embarrassment — Gruesome Murder at Press HQ  FBI, only two blocks away, says they are “not yet sure” how access was gained to one of Washington’s most secure buildings.
  • A Master of Murder? DC Area Serial Killer Takes Twelfth Victim  The Chesapeake Ripper is also attributed with the massive Beltway pile-up that killed 19, injured 73.
  • Killer Courtship: Chesapeake Ripper Pays Homage to Amateur Crime Blog in Latest Deadly Display   What we know about AbnormalAnalysis.net, and their defense of the Chesapeake Ripper following the Beltway Bridge Murder.

 

They smile. He feels her pride as their lashes lower, as they find the photos, and click past the obligatory Warning: These photos contain graphic content and may not be suitable for some users. Viewer discretion is advised.

The world blurs at the edges as they stare. They take a slow, shaken breath. The Hanged Man swings in their mind.

The pendulum drops.

 

In the center of the Grand Ballroom of the National Press Club, the man kneels. The body is clothed in black from head to toe, but somehow Will knows it’s not in mourning. No, this is something… else. A black veil sits atop his head, flows down the rivers of his body, pools around his knees. It covers him like a widow. Like a supplicant.

The man’s hands are bare, cupped together, palm-up. In them, he offers a single branch, the very end studded with ovular, symmetrical leaves, and nestled with fruit.

Olives. An olive branch.

Will stands before the victim in silence for a stunned moment. Even in this dreamscape, he knows better than to take such an offering just yet. Knows what it would mean.

Instead, he reaches for the veil. Folds it back. Slowly clenches his teeth at the sight of eyes removed, the pale flesh of the empty sockets. Lovingly placed within each vacancy is the blossom of a blue rose.

Complexity. A struggle for attaining the unattainable. New beginnings. And—

No. No.

Will doesn’t try to remove them. He knows the Ripper will have left the stems and thorns attached to better anchor them inside his victim’s skull. Will only wonders if he was still alive when the roses were placed, but there are some things even he can’t intuit from photographs.

Will scans the body’s front. There is nothing more to be learned, so he lowers the veil, and watches the roses disappear behind black gossamer with his heart in his throat.

He rounds the body, and—

“Oh,” he whispers.

The man’s back is split open, ribs broken outward. The skin has been flayed away, leaving an open cavity behind. Lungs, stomach, liver, gall bladder, heart—all absent. With a grim note of amusement, Wilhelmina whispers in his mind that their monster will be well-fed tonight.

Will looks inside the vacant chamber and sees black.

More specifically, a black shape. Rectangular. Placed in the vacant space where the heart should be.

A cell phone.

In this realm of dreams melded with reality, Will has no need to hesitate. He reaches in with his bare hand to close around the device and carefully lift it free. It’s on—and upon being picked up, the screen lights up. Press home to unlock, it says, so he does.

He’s greeted with the sight of his own website. Incident I-495: This Is What Happened in bold at the top of the page. The very same article Hannibal had quoted back at him earlier.

He was right, Wilhelmina purrs. We were right.

Will’s heart thuds quickly, painfully. His ribs ache with psychosomatic pain, an empathetic crack that nearly puts him, too, on his knees. Will swallows hard once, twice, and reaches to put the phone back inside, and the room is blurring around him—

Wrist-deep into the man’s chest cavity, he stops.

A tether of sinew hangs like a pull-cord, arteries attached from the internal chest wall to… something, pushed into the lower esophagus.

The flesh is cold. Slippery. Tough with rigor mortis and old blood. Drenched to his elbows in the mirage of the man’s flayed body, Will pulls it free.

The heart.

The. The fucking heart. In his throat. And—

In the clutch of Will’s fist, the dead heart starts to beat.

Will’s echoes it.

Synchronizes.

 

He opens his eyes.

Stares down at the pictures taken by panicked press correspondents—washed out with flashes, focusing on all the wrong things, but Will sees. He sees. He’s seen enough to know.

Opens a new tab, and types in The Ace of Wands.

The Ace of Wands is indicative of a time in your life where you have a ‘breakthrough moment’ and feel very inspired and motivated about a particular idea or passion. Your eyes have been opened to a whole new world and you are now very excited about the possibilities and the opportunities that are available to you.

You are showing huge potential at this time and are driven by a strong, creative force. It is as if there is a latent talent within that is just bursting to get out and be fully utilised. This is also a perfect time to draw upon your imagination and to make your dreams reality.

Will gasps for breath. Clambers off the bed. Leaves Winston in front of the smoldering embers as he jams his feet into his work boots, tucks in the cuffs of his flannel pajama pants. Struggles with the sleeves of his threadbare shirt as he dons Hannibal’s coat in a hurry, and feels them push up around his elbows inside. He doesn’t spare a thought to the discomfort. Will shoves his keys in one pocket, his phone in the other.

His heart is choking him, pulsing thick behind his teeth as Will scrambles out into the cold, into the night. Elation and overwhelming terror as he crashes through dead brush into the field, so far out that he can barely see the nearly-faded glow through the windows of his little house.

Kneels in the dead grass, with his back to his home. Feels the stalks crunch beneath his hands as he clutches for balance. Is enveloped by the bracing cold.

An olive branch, for peace between them. His article, for understanding.

The Hanged Man, trapped in place, awaiting change. Death, a transformation. The Ace of Wands, a new beginning.

A heart removed, hollow. A heart moved, full.

The Beltway, a declaration. Suspended from an overpass on Persimmon Tree Road, a fruit that represents wisdom, and sweetens with time. The National Press Club—a nation-wide stage with which to place their work at the spotlight. Their work, the Ripper’s, and Will’s.

Look at me. Look at him. Look at us.

Look what we could be.

Blue roses, their meaning impossible. Unmistakable:

Love at first sight.

Will’s eyes burn and drip. He wraps his arms around himself, clutches at his own shoulders. His chest hurts—flayed, like just another victim. But he’s not, is he? The Ripper sees him. Wants to know him.

“Why?” Will snarls. Chokes on his own spit and snot and tears and gasps a sob. His fist impacts the frozen ground and aches, still not fully recovered from the break it suffered so many weeks ago. “Why now? Why?

In a place where the light cannot quite reach him, Will cries. Whimpers. Clutches at the coat, the symbol of Hannibal’s regard, his worry. His affection. His—

I have never cared for anyone like I care for you, Will.

The sound Will makes is wounded, not quite human.

He has been chosen to bear witness—but someday, watching won’t be enough. The Chesapeake Ripper is a jealous god. He’ll stand for no false idols. It’s naive to think the Ripper doesn’t know about Hannibal. More naive yet for Will to believe he’ll be allowed to keep him.

Will forces himself into silence, suppresses his cries until he nearly suffocates. Rubs his own arms. Longs for a kind touch; aches for Hannibal’s embrace. The warmth of him. His soothing voice. The strength of his hands. His well-meaning promises.

He has two choices.

He can accept the Ripper’s offer. God, it would be so easy to set Wilhelmina free, to draw the Ripper near with a sacrifice of blood. Abscond into the darkness, into a world of apex predators, blood and teeth. Perhaps Will wouldn’t even say goodbye—he could just disappear. Leave Hannibal. But leave him safe. Alive.

Or.

If anyone has a chance of taming Will with a conventional life, it’s Hannibal Lecter. Will could do the sane and sensible thing. He could open himself up, search for the festering darkness inside, and cut it out. Excise the growth inside of him—that beating, pulsing second heart that sluggishly weeps blood as black as pitch. Remove it. Destroy it. Fill the absence with extravagant outings and home cooked meals, soft kisses and rough sex, and hope like hell there’s enough of Will left to love Hannibal back.

But that option requires closure. No convenient catch and release for his beloved monster.

The thought of betraying the Ripper now that Will finally has his attention is horrifying. Almost unthinkable. But so too is the thought of betraying Hannibal and willfully leaving him lonely. Things were different when Will expected to be stolen away, to not have a choice, or an inkling of the where or when.

This new tableau is a time bomb. Though third in the Ripper’s usual set of three, Will has no doubt that this body is far from the last. There will be others. Messages left just for him. Deaths that, if Will does nothing, he will be inadvertently responsible for.

Strangers, Wilhelmina whispers. No one we know. No reason to care.

Until it is someone we know, Will thinks, and inhales through the thick inflammation in his sinuses. Until he gets impatient, and it’s Bev or Peter or Margot or.

Will can’t complete the thought. His eyes sting and burn, and he drops his head in defeated silence. Oppressive stillness. Feels torn open at the thought of the Ripper taking out his impatience, his jealousy, his fury, on Hannibal.

He can’t stand it. God, it hurts to even imagine.

Why now?  Why did this have to happen now, and not—fuck, even six months ago?

Why couldn’t this have happened before Hannibal?

“What am I supposed to do?” Will whispers.

He doesn’t get a chance to wonder, nor the darkness a chance to answer—for at that moment, a pair of headlights turns onto Will’s driveway and does not pause or stop to turn around as someone lost might do. The vehicle sounds much too large to be Margot’s car, and he’s not expecting her tonight, anyway. Someone is here, someone is coming, and Will is a damn mess crying alone in a field, and left his fucking front door unlocked.

Will stands and brushes off his freezing, dirty knees with his aching hands. He feels hollow, hopeless, but there is nothing else to be done. There’s a decision that will have to be made, but he can’t do it now, when there’s a stranger to be dealt with.

Will sniffles. Exhales. Inhales smoothly again, and dashes the tears from his eyes. Thanks whatever entities may be that he’s already washed his face tonight, and there’s no mascara left to run down his cheeks. There is only the shapeless bun in his hair and the puffy pinkness of his swollen eyes, his old work boots and worn-out pajama pants, and the fine, warm drape of Hannibal’s wool coat. He tightens the belt around him like armor.

Will turns like a wraith and stalks quietly through the brush.

The headlights turn off. A car door slams—Will squints and makes out the distant outline of a black SUV, and bares his teeth with a flicker of resentment, of fear.

Of course they would come.

But he’s prepared for this.

Inhale. Exhale. Embraces calm. Pulls the bun from his hair and lets his day-worn curls fall down around his shoulders, lets his bangs soften the shape of his angular face. He’s still more than a hundred feet out into the dark where the porch light doesn’t reach, but he’s near enough to observe the broad form of an African-American man on his porch. Suit pants, winter coat. Close-cut hair, beard and goatee. Not very old—maybe Hannibal’s age, somewhere in his mid-to-late 30s.

Loud. He knocks at the front door. “Will Graham?”

Winston starts to bark, the distant echoes carrying out over the empty field and frigid stillness. Will approaches in silence, wonders whether or not he’ll be heard. He isn’t.

The man knocks again. Glances sidelong at Will’s car parked in the driveway. “Will Graham?” he calls again. Receives no answer. Reaches for the unlocked doorknob. His free hand hovers cautiously over his hip.

Will’s teeth clench. He doubts the man has a warrant; any entry would be illegal without his consent—not to mention what Winston might do to a threatening intruder, advanced age or not. Will eyes the gun on the man’s hip speculatively, then steadies himself for the inevitable. He steps out of the brush and into the yard. Pitches his voice soft, but with resonance. “What are you doing here?”

The man startles. As expected, Will swiftly finds himself faced with a gun half-out of his holster. Will raises his hands in silent surrender, and does his best to look equally startled at the man’s presence. To the agent’s credit, he doesn’t point the gun at Will, though he looks ready to. Not a rookie, then. Someone who has practice and experience with firearms. Ex-military, perhaps.

“Jesus,” the man mutters under his breath. Then he frowns. Glances at the number nailed to the front door, and back to Will. Sizes him up, takes in his ruddy cheeks, and replaces his gun in his holster, but keeps his eyes on Will like a hawk. “I’m looking for Will Graham. Does he live here?”

Ah. So it’s clear the man doesn’t recognize him. Doesn’t know who he’s coming for. So he’s here on a rumor, or precious little information. Will touches his chest, as though his heart were still about to burst from surprise and alarm. Sounds faint when he asks, “Who wants to know?”

He knows. The man frowns, but reaches to his belt to remove his credentials, and flashes his badge. “Agent Jack Crawford, FBI.”

“Isn’t it a little late for a house call, Agent Crawford?” Will strides closer, putting his hands in his pockets as he approaches. The man’s lips purse. Brow furrows. His eyes linger on Will’s concealed hands with wary suspicion, which eases when Will only removes his keys.

The agent’s forehead creases again when he looks for another car and doesn’t see one. “He may have pertinent information to a case,” he lies with practiced ease, the kind of voice that says I’m definitely not investigating your loved one, just here for a chat. Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. “The car in the driveway is registered to Graham.”

Will looks over at his Volvo, boxed into the driveway. Frowns, and tilts his head. “Didn’t know the FBI followed up on—what, parking tickets?”

Crawford harrumphs with visible annoyance. “Look, do you know where he is?”

“Yes,” Will replies simply. He crosses his arms over his chest. Inside, Winston keeps barking.  “I’m just trying to think of what investigation I might have pertinent information for, and other than the jackass who got arrested for assaulting me a few months ago, I’m coming up blank.”

Crawford’s brows raise. His stance changes just slightly, and Will is vindicated that he’s thrown the man even slightly off-kilter. “You’re Will Graham?”

Will steps up onto the porch, and Crawford side-steps him as Will raps once on the door. “Winston,” he says scoldingly, loud enough that the barking stops. “Go lie down. Tss.

Winston goes. Will reaches out, puts his key in the door, and locks it. Turns, and places his back against the wood.

Crawford stares at him. He looks wryly amused, but also annoyed. “I guess I know better than to ask if I can come inside.”

Will lifts and drops one shoulder. “Winston doesn’t like strangers.” Will glances down at himself, his less-than-presentable state. “Will this take very long?”

A vein in the man’s temple pulses. “That depends on you, Mr. Graham.”

Will twitches. Can’t help it. Slowly, slowly curls his fingers into fists. “Just Will.”

A look of dawning comprehension. Crawford nods, just once. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to offend.”

“It’s fine.” It’s not fine. Will’s still shaken. He’s going to be up all night, no matter what he does, which is the last thing he should be doing when there’s only a few more days until this damn gala, but—“Am I being detained?”

Jack shakes his head once. “Just have a few questions.”

Will considers his options, then decides to cut his losses. His night’s not gonna get much worse.

No, Wilhelmina whispers. Scratches at the back of his brain with the sharp points of her fingernails. She’s drawing blood, but what’s a little more? Will’s already bleeding. Don’t.

Will shakes his head to clear her voice from his ears. “There’s a truck stop up the road, a 24-hour diner thing. I’m gonna get a coffee. You can follow me over there if you want.”

Crawford quirks a brow. “At ten at night?”

Will shrugs. “Your choice.” He brushes past Crawford on his way to his car. Gestures with his chin at the SUV blocking him in. “You mind?”

Standing on the top step of Will’s porch and watching him with an unreadable expression, Crawford huffs through his nose. “So it’s either get coffee or get lost, is that it?”

Will leans against his driver’s side door. “If it’s any consolation, you don’t have to get a coffee. There’s pancakes and stuff.” Pancakes sound awfully fucking good to Will right now. And when he gets home…

When he gets home, it’ll be time to patch his heart and write his analysis.

“And stuff,” Crawford echoes. Frowns at his SUV. “How do I know you’re not gonna take off?”

Will shrugs again. “I sure as hell wouldn’t have to leave my property if I didn’t want to talk to you. I’m not an idiot, Jack. I know my rights. I’m…” Will rolls the word around in his mouth, the strange taste of it. “Offering.

Crawford’s hand twitches at his side. He levels Will with a piercing stare, and for a cold and silent moment, they size each other up; Will feels it in his spine. He knows what Crawford sees isn’t particularly impressive, but he can use that to his advantage if he has to. Being underestimated is part and parcel to his outward presentation. Will would be a fool to let that go to waste.

Finally, Jack takes a step down. Then another. Will’s chest feels a little less tight when the man is off his porch, walking away from Will’s door and the Chesapeake Ripper files hidden inside that he knows damn well he’s not supposed to have. One small victory.

“Alright, Will,” Jack says. “We’ll do this your way.”

“Good,” Will says. “Move your car and I’ll lead.”

He climbs into his Volvo without waiting for a response. He closes the door. Buckles his seatbelt. Glances at his darkened reflection in the rearview, and huffs through his nose. His eyes still sting. He looks like a fucking mess, but at least Hannibal’s not here to see him tonight.

His heart clenches painfully at the thought.

The flash of Crawford’s headlights interrupts Will’s peripheral vision. He turns. For a long, suspended second, he swears there is a shadow in his passenger seat, and his heart kicks up to double-time, but.

But there’s no one there.

Will shudders. Gently slaps his own cheeks, squeezes his eyes shut. “Get it together,” he whispers. “Come on.”

Silence descends. Will turns on his car, watches the withdrawal of Crawford’s SUV in the rear reflection.

Don’t do this, Wilhelmina warns.

Will shifts into reverse and mutters, “No one asked you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Grimy tile, cold fluorescent light, retro diner booths—Will is far from the only one who’s stopped to eat at this late hour. He is heedless of the curious stares of passing motorists and road-worn truckers. It’s irritating to see their eyes linger on him, of course, but none of them are a threat. Not with the Ripper’s shadow looming over him tonight. Certainly not with Jack Crawford in his company, frowning down at the generic mug of coffee like it’s personally offended him.

“You know,” he says in some long-suffering way, “this is better than the coffee at Headquarters.”

Will shrugs. Cuts off a bite of a pancake and makes the decision to be rude; says through a mouthful of syrup, “Doesn’t surprise me. Coffee’s a hot commodity in places like this. Trucking is a hard job.”

Crawford’s frown deepens. He watches Will with a quiet, understated intelligence that Will can see he is trying to downplay and conceal. Jack sounds far too friendly when he asks, “Sure is." Eyes Will speculatively. "Where are you from?”

Will scoffs. Chews, and swallows. Leans back in the diner booth, and stares at Jack Crawford balefully. He didn’t get pulled from his property in the middle of the night to talk about his raising. “If you didn’t do your research on me, that’s your problem,” Will answers. “I’m not here to chit-chat, Agent Crawford. Ask me what you want to ask, or I’m going home.”

The false friendliness fades. Crawford folds his hands on the tabletop. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to care that his expensive coat is touching the grimy table. Will has no patience for the rich and powerful who consider themselves above the daily ins-and-outs of the average man, truck stop diners included. It’s one of the many things he also likes about Margot.

Then Crawford leans forward, and Will’s wary respect turns into wariness of another sort. “You were born outside New Orleans, and moved around the state for most of your life. Homeschooled. Bright kid, no siblings, blue-collar dad. Graduated early. You were a junior on track for early college graduation before you moved away—changed majors, lost everything but your gen-ed courses, and got bumped back down to sophomore with your admission to UMD. How am I doing so far?”

Will’s lips press together. He sets his fork down. So it’s gonna be like that—Jack asks him questions to see how Will answers, to gauge his character, when he knows the answers himself. Will’s already got one strike against him.

And it’s clear that Crawford knows his history. Will must tread carefully.

Jack’s eyes are piercing. Meeting them sets Will’s teeth on edge, but he does in a flicker, there and down again. Offers a tight, closed-mouthed smile. “Anything else?”

Jack’s smile slowly widens. It’s not cruel-natured, but it’s certainly confident and self-assured. “I think that’s a good place to start. Why don’t we make our lives a whole lot easier and be honest with one another?”

Will reaches for his coffee. Pulls it closer, but doesn’t pick it up. “Honesty can get people in trouble.”

Jack’s eyebrows lift. His smile remains, perfectly placid. “I have no interest in getting you in trouble.”

“And if you wanted to give me that in writing, I might believe it,” Will counters. Narrows his eyes, and takes a sip as Jack’s eyes narrow on him in return. “Look, Agent Crawford, if you know where I come from, then you know that I know how this works. You came to my house in the middle of the night to catch me off guard, but you didn’t have a warrant. You have suspicions about me, but no proof. You hoped I would do the polite thing and invite you inside so you could interrogate me, and in the comfort of my home, I might relax and let something slip. That, or you’d see something to justify probable cause for a warrant in the future. I’ve given you neither. It’s not that you have no interest in getting me in trouble. If you had a way to use it to your advantage,  I’m sure you would. But you don’t.”

There’s frustration in Crawford’s eyes, but his smile widens. “Have you ever thought about applying to the FBI, Will?”

Will replies with a tight, cold smile of his own. “I’m not old enough. Among other things.”

Their stare-down is silent, accompanied by the tinny sound of an oldies radio station playing throughout the store, the sound of forks and knives clinking against chipped plates, the dull drone of the kitchen employees somewhere behind them, out of sight.

Jack Crawford sighs through his nose, slowly but surely. Will reaches for his fork and resumes eating. He tries not to think too hard about the strip of bacon he crunches between his teeth.

“This murder today,” Jack says, as though he expects Will to be familiar with it, “and the website involved in it. I find it awfully suspicious.”

Will says nothing. Glances down to spare a look at his pancakes, and holds Jack’s eyes as he takes another bite. Jack presses his lips together into a thin line.

“I think they’re in it together, personally.”

Will stops chewing.

Jack’s eyes are bright. Confident. Will carefully finishes chewing and swallows hard. Puts down his fork and knife on his plate, and suddenly does not feel hungry. The memory of the last several weeks, dread and fear mashed into terror, sleepless nights thick with worry—they blend together into one acrid taste on the back of his tongue. It runs over his teeth to instinctively chase a taste of sweetness, but finds it gone.

“That seems like a hasty assumption, Jack,” Will says softly. Grimaces, as he pulls his eyes away from Jack Crawford.

But Jack pushes onward. “You don’t think they’ve emboldened each other? They’re escalating. More fame, more attention—”

Will’s lip curls with disdain. “I think you fundamentally misunderstand the concept of anonymity.”

The clever glint in Jack’s gaze is razor-focused on Will. “Is that so?”

Will’s tongue presses against the back of his teeth until it hurts. Until he can feel the impressions in his flesh. He swallows back the creeping wonder at the Ripper’s attention. The intrigue. The appreciation for art made of blood. He closes his eyes and remembers the less-nice feelings, the loneliness. What it is to be isolated, worried sick, and to be the only one who sees the signs.

He remembers being scared. And he allows himself to look like it.

“Agent Crawford,” Will says, and opens his eyes. His shoulders roll inward to make himself small, meek. “I’ll posit a hypothetical situation to you. And you can tell me your thoughts.”

For a moment, Jack says nothing. Takes in the adjusted set of Will’s frame with suspicion, but nods once.

Will inhales the chemical scent of diner syrup, nearly-burned bacon. Grease. The distant tinge of diesel that invades through the automatic sliding doors. Rubber. Engine oil.

Will remembers blood and fire; screams echo inside his skull, and he shivers. Pulls Hannibal’s coat closer around him. Enfolds himself in vulnerability. “Imagine that you noticed something that no one else seemed to notice. Three murders over the span of a month. It’s slow, the first time. They’re elaborate. Nothing like one another. Not in the same place, but you see them all, and you realize there’s a certain workmanship behind them. A certain pathology. So you set up an anonymous blog to air your thoughts, and to put together what little evidence you have. It acts like a diary. Forensics without forensics. Information gathering and guesswork, and you’re good at it—taking what you see and writing it down. And after realizing the world is cruel, that you’re not welcome anywhere you want to be, because of how you are, you decide to take ownership of your talent for yourself. For the first time ever, you let it be a part of you.”

Jack laces his fingers together on the tabletop. He tilts his head just slightly, listening intently, but with suspicion. Watching Will for cues. What does he expect to see?

“Months later, there’s more murders. You start drawing conclusions and assembling them. Patching together potential motivations from the evidence. You spend hours thinking about how he could have done it, and you come up with theories. Assumptions. But no one else is paying attention. No one else is talking about this guy, and you realize you’re the only one who sees him. You realize this could get dangerous. You go further than just being anonymous. Now you hide your tracks, and go back to hide the rest. It’s still a hobby at this point. But then you lose the only person you have that ties you to a normal life. Your hobby becomes a lifeline to sanity.”

Jack’s brows pull together. Will charges on.

“Nothing makes sense. But the murders are starting to make sense, in their own way. So you pay attention to them, and you compile what amounts to be a database. It’s still all personal at this point. No one really stops by the site. You get a few views now and again, but this killer is as anonymous as you are. His kills are only just starting to be linked, since the geographical location is so large. Different jurisdictions. But now he’s gaining attention, or starting to, before he disappears again.”

Will pushes his plate forward. He’s not hungry anymore. Two and a half of his three strips of bacon sit uneaten. The taste of it is cloying and thick in his mouth. Meat. Sinew. Salt. “Imagine he starts again. You scramble for evidence, to collect clues. He’s getting bolder, and closer, and you’re getting better at following him. Seeing him, and understanding his motivations. This time, you get there faster than you have before. You’re able to put together something comprehensive and thorough. And he must have seen it somehow, because he…”

Will stops. Raises his eyes to Jack’s. “Imagine, one day on your morning commute, there’s an accident. And you get out of your car to see what’s going on, and you see a body. For the first time, you see a scene he left, and you see it in person. In context. It makes sense, maybe more than all the other ones did. But below…”

“Is chaos,” Jack answers.

Will nods. “But you know, you know , that’s not what he does. The accident is an accident, but everyone is calling him a domestic terrorist. He’s a murderer, and a serial killer, but he’s not that. ” Will frowns at the absurdity of it. “This is a highly sophisticated offender who bases all his displays on aesthetics and underlying symbolism. If he was going to make a statement like this, it wouldn’t have been so random. So you go online, and you say that, same as you always have. But this time, people notice you. And you start getting death threats. You start getting pretty damn glad you’ve been covering your tracks. And then…”

Will laughs once. It’s a hard sound. It echoes off fractured ceramic and chipped tile.

“And then,” Will says, “one day, you’re minding your own goddamn business, and you find out a murderer put a cell phone with your article inside a murder victim where the heart should be. You are suddenly faced with the realization that he sees you. He’s seen what you’ve written, and he likes it—this thing that started as a personal blog and maybe half a potential thesis about social media’s effect on crime. How the hell would you feel, Agent Crawford?” Will smiles, a tight upward curve of his lips that is not at all humored. Not at all amused. Pained, maybe. “Hypothetically?”

For a moment, Jack says nothing at all. He seems to consider the new information he has been given, the context of Will’s hypothetical-or-not confessions. In a strange way, Will feels defeated. Hollowed out. Caught in a situation he has no desire to be in, giving only half-truths about his motivations to escape scrutiny, and it…

It feels like a betrayal. It feels like a fist clenched around Will’s heart. And part of him hopes the Ripper is watching him right now, seeing this, and that Will won’t have to live with this deception for long.

Because when the Ripper finds out—

Will looks down. His eyes are still stinging from earlier. The fine wool of Hannibal’s coat is slightly blurry in his vision, but it still feels the same on his body, and it keeps Will grounded.

He’s doing this for Hannibal.

Selfish, Wilhelmina snarls.

Yes. He is, and he always has been.

“If you don’t know him,” Jack says slowly, “How did you get your intel?”

“The usual way,” Will says. Looks up, and sees Jack’s nostrils flare with agitation. “I can’t betray my sources. But any of the information I have on his mindset just came from the evidence.” Will shrugs, helpless. “I see what I see. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do.”

Jack frowns, thoughtful. “You can observe anyone in this way?”

“You’re ex-military,” Will replies. His eyes scan Jack up and down, put together pieces of observations. Wedding ring. Nice clothes, but showing signs of wear. Solid nail beds. A little extra weight around the middle, but not much. “Married to a strong woman with a successful job. You’re a social couple; you go out together when you’re home. Good food, good drinks, but you grew up poor—nothing you’re wearing is new, but you have the money to replace it. You take good care of your stuff, you make it last. In the FBI, you’re a brain guy. You don’t do much running and shooting; you analyze behavior.” Will’s brow furrows, and Jack’s draw together. “No kids. You get frustrated when someone challenges your authority. You have good instincts, but you’re impulsive. You read people well, but you make snap decisions, and you’re stubborn when you’re wrong. I bet your boss told you that if you toe the company line, you could head your department one day.”

Jack’s expression gives nothing away. “And if you’re wrong?”

Will’s hands fold in his lap. Tighten into fists. He meets Jack Crawford’s eyes head-on, despite the unsettling sensation of being exposed. “Am I?”

He’s not. He knows he’s not. And when Jack shakes his head, Will exhales in a shuddering sigh, clenches his fists so hard his knuckles pop.

He ducks his head. Starts to laugh, and feels crazy as it builds inside him. Frantic worry. Fear. Crushing sorrow. If it weren’t for Hannibal, Will would submit himself to Wilhelmina’s fury gladly. He would give himself to the Ripper to do with as he pleases, allow himself to be cut open whichever way his monster might desire—to keep and consume whatever he’d like.

In another world, maybe the Ripper could have kept all of Will.

But not in this one.

“I know what you want. I know what you need. I know why you came to my door, and what you’re looking for. On the record, I will neither confirm nor deny what I know, or what I’ve done. But you need the Ripper caught, and I—” Will chokes on his breath. For a moment, he cannot breathe at all. “I’ll help you.”

No, because in this world, Will has betrayed him. Is in the process of doing just that.

“I have demands,” Will says softly.

“Say them.”

Will’s throat is thick. He nods once. Centers himself, but still feels off-kilter. Still slightly to the left, a compass off its pole. “One, I want immunity. No charges for impeding an investigation, data violations, nothing. I’m not going to jail.” Will doesn’t have to imagine what would happen to him if he were to be incarcerated. He’d choose death by the Ripper’s hand every time over the alternative.

Jack inclines his head. Obviously, this seems reasonable to him. Good. 

“Two,” Will says, and Jack’s brows raise. “I need access. I’m missing critical information that could inform what I know. Everything is relevant. Everything has meaning. Whatever you have. Everything you have. I need all of it.”

“Done,” Jack says with a nod.

“Three.” Here, Will’s heartbeat starts to quicken with dread and regret. “You contact me as little as possible. After tonight, you never come to my house again. If you need me at a scene, you text a burner and assure a concealed entrance. If you see me in public, we’re strangers.” Jack frowns. Will laughs once, a hysterical giggle. “If I survive through the night, Jack, it’ll be a miracle. You think he doesn’t know who runs that website?”

Will’s eyes burn. He levels Jack with a tremulous smile, and sees his hesitation, his alarm at the very prospect. “We can protect—”

“You can’t protect me. There’s a chance, a chance, that he’s not aware of what’s happening right now. And it’ll be because he has somewhere he needs to be to maintain appearances, and because he’s waiting for the notification that another article has been posted.” Will rubs a hand over his face, sighs softly into his fingers. His chest flutters at the thought, excitement and sorrow. “You should know something.”

Jack leans forward. His coffee is forgotten. He’s been hunting Will’s monster for a while now. He has the scent, and now a lead to follow. He’s desperate for the scent of blood, and stares expectantly at Will to give it to him.

Will is to be the FBI’s resident expert on The Chesapeake Ripper. The thought is absurd, and equally pleasing. Equally gut-wrenching.

Will smooths his fingers through his bangs, pushes them away from his eyes. Will has no desire to share this secret. It isn’t for anyone else. But he’ll have to use it to his advantage, won’t he? Have to use it to inform his own movements, his decisions going forward. Use himself as a lure.

Will touches the base of his throat. He imagines the Ripper’s hand there, but he can only remember the feeling of Hannibal’s. “He thinks he’s in love with me.”

This startles Jack; he blinks rapidly as the information sets into place, as he perceives Will in a new light, with both wariness and pity. “Well.” Jack clearly doesn’t know what else to say. “That’s.”

“I know.” Will inhales. Exhales. Bites the inside of his cheek until he bleeds, then licks the blood from his teeth. “I’m going to allow him to court me.”

Jack’s jaw clenches. “And in the meantime, more people will die.”

“More people were always gonna die,” Will replies, and pins Jack in place with a quelling look. “There’s no other way.”

Fingernails tap irritably on the table’s surface. “I could bring you into custody. Enrage him, and draw him out.”

“You want to talk about more bodies,” Will scoffs. His heart pounds. “It’ll be more effective if he thinks I’m attached. If he thinks I’m loyal. Until now, I’ve been an observer from the outside. I’ve never gotten personally involved. If you took me in now, he’d have no guarantee of how I’d react if he were to try to assist me. But if he thinks I’m receptive…”

Will has never felt more like a traitor than he does in this moment. Jack merely looks thoughtful. Concerned, but thoughtful.

“Let me do this,” Will says. “I’m the best shot you have.”

Jack’s gaze is sharp, calculating, shrewd. He taps one finger against his lip in consideration, but then—“Let me ask you something, Will,” Jack says. “Why now? All this time of sitting on the sidelines, you must have known there was a possibility he’d notice you and what you were doing. You’re a smart kid. What is it that’s changed your mind?”

Will opens his mouth. Closes it in silence. Crosses one arm over his chest, right hand curling in the left lapel of Hannibal’s coat, anchored over his heart. It seems the first time that Jack notices the disparity in how Will is dressed. Takes in the well-made garment that’s just slightly too large for him, and Will’s attachment to it. An attachment that is eclipsed by the affection he feels for the man who gave it to him.

“I met someone,” Will murmurs. He looks up. Meets Jack’s eyes, and tries to smile, and isn’t sure if he really manages it at first. But as he starts talking, he feels it grow. Feels it build inside him, light him up from inside. “He’s everything I thought I’d never get to have. He looks after me. Takes care of me. He makes me feel…”

Everything. Everything, all at once.

But Jack’s eyes soften with understanding. A little more of that doubt melts away. “Loved,” he offers. “You fell in love, and now you have someone you want to keep safe.”

“I—” Will’s voice dies. He hangs in a suspended moment, mid-sentence, mouth open.

Jack stares at him curiously. His head tips to the side, and the movement is so oddly reminiscent of Hannibal that Will suddenly can’t breathe at all. “Are you okay?” he asks.

Is he? Will’s really not sure. Between Wilhelmina’s restless, furious pacing in the back of his mind, between Will’s fears and newborn hopes, he feels frozen in place. Pinned underneath the weight of Jack Crawford’s careless, offhand words that lay a simple explanation to the pain Will feels, and the doubt.

“I’m in love with him,” Will says dumbly.

Jack starts to smile. Just a little, the very corners of his lips, though his expression is still twisted with amused confusion.

Will sits back against the booth. Just sits, and processes.

There’s no denying it anymore. He’s no longer falling—he’s hit the ground and broken open for the world to see.

He’s in love with Hannibal.

The feeling is complicated. Fierce protectiveness, and the longing to be seen, to be touched. The desire to run home and lock himself in his little house with his tail tucked between his legs. The desire to get into his car and drive, to go to Hannibal right now without asking permission, and turn up on his doorstep at some ridiculous hour. Happiness. The desire for happiness. The sudden, crushing fear of losing the thing he holds most dear, amplified and reflected twofold.

What follows is devastation, pure and simple.

See?  Wilhelmina whispers, betrayed and trapped inside this mind and body that they share, neither wholly independent, nor a figment of imagination. See?

If this is what the Ripper feels—

He doesn’t know me, Will hisses, a wounded predator on the defensive, desperately clinging to the sheep’s wool he wears.

Wilhelmina’s fury is unavoidable. Don’t lie to yourself.

He cannot attest to whether or not she’s right about that. Will only knows what he feels for Hannibal and for the Ripper both:

Everything, all at once.

God, please, no—

Will rubs a shaky hand over his face. His heart pounds in his throat. “I, um. I need to go home.”

Jack Crawford sits across from him, unknowing of the conflict that rages in Will’s chest. “Yeah, that’s how I felt, too,” he replies with a sympathetic smile. It darkens into worry. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? What you said—”

Will waves him off, nauseated, impatient. “Look, Jack, I appreciate it and all, but I’m still alive so far. I’ll be fine.” Will breathes out slowly. “I need to think. Here.” Will snags a napkin and scrawls across it with a ballpoint pen used for signing receipts, tucked inside the basket that holds packets of artificial sweetener. He writes the number for his backup cell. “Text. Don’t call.”

Jack takes the napkin. He frowns as he tucks it into his pocket, and then looks back at Will, but Will is already sliding out of the booth, food unfinished.

“I want a digital copy of that contract by tomorrow,” Will mutters. “Immunity or no deal, Jack. I can either tell you what I know or you can keep chasing ghosts, and mine will be one of them.” Will swallows. “Wait five minutes before you leave.”

Will heads to the register without saying goodbye, pays his bill, and heads out into the night.

He wonders what kind of person would neglect a good man in favor of a serial killer.

Wonders what kind of person is capable of being in love with both.

 


 

When it’s done, Will takes his knife and rifle and heads out into the woods. He elects to be stupid. Leaves his phone on his bed. Takes only his house key and a plastic bag in case he should be fortunate in his search. He hangs up Hannibal’s coat and puts it in the closet. He replaces it with a reflective vest and camo-print outerwear, snug wool socks and his work boots. Puts his hair up tight, and pulls a hat over it. When he catches his reflection in the hallway mirror, he looks like his father’s son.

I heard about the murder today before I saw anything about it. I knew I was involved. I didn’t know how.

It’s nearly pitch-black, overcast. The hours of the night are small. Dawn is still a ways off. But Will doesn’t care.

What I saw was more than I could immediately quantify, or qualify. I had to think about it for a while. But I can’t stay silent about it anymore.

He treks through the trees and the brush with only the sound of his breath as company. Further and further into the woods, until his house is long out of sight. The blackness envelops him.

I know you’re waiting to hear what I have to say.

Will heads toward the stream, the water which is cold enough to kill, but not yet cold enough to freeze. It takes extended frigid weather to cause moving water to ice over. It’s been cold, of course, but it’s not yet the heart of winter. Will can use the sound of the brook to his advantage.

It’s less with expectation, but rather anticipation that I saw what you had to show me. Heard what you had to tell me, in the form of blood and flesh. Sculpted symbolism.

The trees around him are marked with the telltale signs of antler scrapings, bark peeled away. There’s a particular scent to the area markings that he recalls like a long-forgotten memory, shoulder-to-shoulder with his father on mornings such as this. In a way, it’s fortunate that he’s now alone with his thoughts. Will finds dead brush that still clings to its leaves, wide enough to cover a single man. He lowers himself down onto his belly without hesitation.

I’m not sure how I found myself in this place that I’m standing. I’m not sure how I found myself separated from my own life. I’m not sure what to do about it.

When the sun starts to rise, it’s not with any great beauty. It’s with a dull gray glow that makes everything look like squinting through a cotton blindfold, impermanent and indistinct.

But I know that you are standing behind me.

He waits. Waits and waits, and listens. Not sure whether he expects to hear hooves among the fallen leaves… or footsteps.

I can’t pretend to know what you’re thinking. I’m trying to see it and make sense of it. I think I understand. I’m not sure if I do.

When the stag comes, he’s been lying on the frozen ground for so long that he barely realizes he’s breathing anymore. The fog of his breath has long faded with the chill of his lungs. His fingers are stiff around the rifle. He feels half-dead. Maybe he is.

I won’t lie to you. I am scared of what this might mean.

Slowly, so slowly, Will adjusts the rifle against his shoulder. Despite his caution, the stag still hears. Their eyes lock. Will’s heartbeat thrums in his ears, but his hands are steady.

I’m scared I might be wrong.

The stag turns to flee. Will takes aim at his heart.

I’m scared I might be right.

Fires.

 


 

 

There is something visceral about hoisting a body to be processed. It feels instinctual. Somehow forbidden. It’s not even dissimilar in size to his own, and maybe that makes it feel more real. Will works swiftly in the morning light as he hauls the deer up by its rear legs, suspended by achilles tendon and fibula on a jury-rigged deer hoist: nothing better than a stick and a rope.

He stands back. Muscle memory informs him what is yet to be done. He stands before his kill in silent contemplation. Will strips off the heavy camouflage hunting coat. Beneath it, his skin burns with exertion. His body radiates sweat and steam in the cold. In some strange and quiet way that he cannot define, it makes him feel powerful. Unafraid.

He doesn’t mean to do it—

—the pendulum drops.

It is with cold, clinical efficiency that Will opens his eyes. He’s not even sure when they closed. The exhaustion he feels no longer matters. There is only purpose as he extracts the knife from his ankle holster.

He wonders what it would feel like to do this to a person. If the glazed and glassy eyes of the stag were replaced with a shade of blue or green, and the flesh he slices away were furless. He supposes it must not be so different, aside from distribution of meat on the body. The overall joints and musculature would come apart much the same.

Will slices the stag’s throat. Blood pours into the dirt as he travels the circumference of the neck and peels away cartilage. For a while, he stares blankly at the vertebrae that hold head to shoulders. Usually he’d have a saw for this.

I’ll help you.

Today, he doesn’t need one.

Will slips the knife between the bones to slice the vertebral ligaments, several small, precise cuts. His hands close around the exposed spinal column and— crack . It’s not his preferred method, but it’ll do. Will sets the stag’s head aside to be dealt with later, and allows the carcass to drain.

From there, it’s business as usual, and Will readies to gut the thing. Around the colon to separate it from the hide, then through the abdominal flesh. It feels as though another hand guides Will’s as he tilts the blade up and slips through skin. Opens the cavity. Slices through the diaphragm to release it from the inside of the ribs. The stench of the innards is immense, but Will doesn’t wince; gravity guides them out the incision he’s made, suspended by the windpipe. Will reaches inside to cut it free, and lifts out the gut sack in one fell swoop.

Here, he pauses, and is partially startled out of his reverie—would the Ripper consider this a waste? Maybe he would. But it’s been years since Will has eaten venison offal, and he’s not sure if he’s ever processed it himself. Not sure if he wants to start now.

There will be other times.

Will bags the guts to be disposed of at home. Removes his gloves. Dons his coat. Slings the rifle over his back. Grabs the head by one antler and picks it up, a trophy of his conquest. He’ll have to walk back to his barn to get the old four-wheeler. He can only hopes it starts, otherwise it’s only a matter of a few hours until the coyotes will find the meat, and Will can hardly carry it home himself. At least the carcass will stay cold while he’s gone.

Will turns. Stops.

In the gray haze of the morning, the field-dressed stag sways gently on its tether. There is no sound in the small clearing but for the sound of Will’s breath. He feels…

Better.

Yeah. A little bit better. And for a moment, the wild heart inside him is quiet.

“Nothing to say?” he murmurs sardonically to himself. Of course, he’s not surprised when no one answers. Not lonely, no.

It’s only later, when he stares down at the processed meat in his freezer, that he realizes just how little one animal produces once the inedible parts are cleared away. It makes him almost regret disposing of the organs. The stag’s meat will likely keep him a week, maybe two, depending on how Will distributes his meals. It’s not as long as it seems.

The realization is followed by a second one.

If Will assumes the Ripper is eating his victims, not as an infrequent event, but as a dietary staple, then he’s killing more people than he’s displaying. A lot more.

More disappeared bodies means more potential crime scenes. More crime scenes, more evidence.

He should tell Jack.

He should tell anyone.

It's not for them, Wilhelmina whispers. 

Will closes the freezer.

 


 

 

He still doesn’t feel right. That’s the excuse Will gives himself for why he doesn’t return the two missed calls Hannibal left on his phone. It’s not shame for what he’s done. It’s not fear of what he’ll find.

Will doesn’t go to class. Begs out with an email claiming victimization to the campus stomach bug, and attaches his assignments and his apologies. He doesn’t spare guilt to the get well soon wishes that his instructors reply with.

He rinses the sweat from his body and hair, but little else. He sleeps. Doesn’t dream. But when he wakes, he still feels… on edge.

Clears the notifications from the missed text messages and email comments, and gets dressed as evening falls. All black, tonight—his chunky leather boots, black pants, a soft black tee shirt. Will scrubs his fingers over his jaw and knows he should shave, but doesn’t want to let anything sharp so close to his skin when he feels this edgy.

There’s tension in his body, his shoulders, his back. In his thoughts. He feels restless, though he’s well-rested. Will huffs and pulls his hair into a bun, pins his bangs back; doesn’t belt Hannibal’s jacket quite as tight as he normally would. Slips his wallet into his pocket, and foregoes his bag and—

He’s neither the version of himself that echoes Wilhelmina and Margot, nor the version of himself who’d be recognized on the bayou docks as Beau Graham’s boy. He’s someone else tonight. Rough-polished and well dressed, with something prowling beneath his skin. Cheeks without contour, eyes without liner. He’s nearly surprised to find, as he slips his wire-framed glasses onto his face, that he doesn’t need the makeup for the light to strike him favorably.

He’s…

“Hot,” Margot crows as she playfully slaps his shoulder, arm-in-arm as they walk the streets of Washington. She’s beautiful tonight in a red wool coat, flared around her hips like a skirt. It’s not dissimilar from the statement gown she’s just chosen. Some distant part of Will is almost envious of her perfectly-straightened sheet of hair and her willowy figure. Fortunately, he’s not that iteration of himself tonight. “You look hot!”

“Margot,” Will sighs.

“Don’t give me that. The sales girl in there barely let you come into the dressing room and tell me how I looked because she thought I was going to jump you.”

Will’s smile is small but indulgent. “Until you hit on her.”

Margot nods, perfectly proud, perfectly shameless. “Until I hit on her. But she stopped glaring at you, didn’t she?”

Will fondly shakes his head. He is hyper-aware of his location, of the people that pass them. Of the distance between them and Margot’s car. Of where he needs to be going if he’s going to make it on time. “Are you happy with what you got?”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“You should really stop putting off your shopping for events until the week of,” Will chides her gently.

She shrugs. It’s never come back to bite her in the ass before. Will suspects she won’t learn until it does; god forbid she show up to an event in last-season clothing. He smiles privately at the thought of her skipping an event, rolling up to his house in her Lexus for an evening of drinking and playing cards instead of wining and dining with social elites. How she’d sniff offhand that she didn’t want to go anyway. But she’d learn after that, and she’d never make the mistake twice.

Will smiles a little more. What kind of friend would he be to deprive her of a future life lesson?

“All’s well that ends well,” she says with a smile, and needles him in the side. Will chuffs out a laugh. “Speaking of which, you useless UHaul—you’ve barely even mentioned your doctor tonight.”

Will’s smile fades slightly. The epiphany of love and horror are still rolled together in his mind. His want, his desire, his fears. The Ripper’s looming shadow, and the comforting weight of that darkness settled around Will’s body like a cloak. Like Hannibal’s coat.

Will tucks his hands in his pockets and tries to smile. “There’s not much to say. It’s going well. He decided to be a good sport, and we’re gonna meet up there on Saturday night.”

This seems to satisfy Margot. Getting her way always does. “And we’re going to meet beforehand and get ready—”

“At the hotel where they’re throwing the after-party.”

“Awesome, you’re learning.”

They stop in front of the high-end parking garage. Margot wheels herself around in front of him and draws him close for a hug. Will clings to her, her soft warmth. She’s safe. Comfortable. And her manicured nails against the back of his neck feel nice.

“Hey,” she murmurs against his shoulder, “if the dress thing is making you nervous, or if you’re feeling like switching, I’m sure there’s still time to get you a tux. You only have to tell me.”

Fondness squeezes at Will’s heart with weak fingers, a distant sensation inside him that is shifted slightly off-kilter in lieu of his emotional state, but present all the same. He shakes his head with a wry smile. “I like the dress. I just didn’t feel like putting makeup on tonight.”

“Or shaving, obviously,” she says, and scritches her fingers against the starts of Will’s jaw stubble. It tickles, and he snorts; ducks away from her grip.

Margot grins and pulls the Lexus keys from her pocket. The attendant in the front office of the garage eyes them both, ready to direct them wherever needed. It’s almost odd that the girl looks confused when Will backs away, more than an arm’s length between them, and performatively lifts his Volvo keys into his palm. Shakes them at Margot in a friendly goodbye that she echoes with a jingle. “Saturday?”

Margot wiggles her eyebrows and gives an aborted miniature fist-pump. “Night after tomorrow, hon! Get excited!”

Will huffs through his nose. Offers her a private smile. “I’m excited, don’t worry. I’ll see you. Drive safe.”

“Okay, Gloomy Gus, you too. Get some rest and stuff. And keep practicing your waltzing, you’re seriously getting good.”

Will huffs to himself in amusement. Waves one last time. “Goodnight, Margot.”

They depart. Will watches protectively until she disappears into the lit garage with her keys, headed toward the elevator that will safely carry her to her car, supervised by security staff. Nothing but the best for the Verger heiress, but Will would have it no other way. It’s a comfort to him, knowing what he knows about killers, that she is made safest by the spotlight she puts herself in.

Will, however, wanders away from the light.

It’s not more than a few blocks to the bar where he agreed to meet his source—and for once, Will is glad he’s left the makeup and feminine clothing behind. Aside from his boots, which could easily be overlooked as riding boots, the biker bar is not the sort of place where he wants to stand out, but exactly the sort of locale that will be loud enough they won’t be overheard. His fake ID, one of several, will suit him especially well tonight. He rarely gets second glances when he presents himself as his designated gender, man-bun or not.

Life’s a bitch that way, it seems.

It’s not a bad night for a walk, overall. There’s something about the city that Will enjoys—a dark canvas and bright lights, like wading through the stars up-close. He likes the quiet, his little house in the wilds, but there’s an appeal to urban living that he can appreciate.

Cars pass. All sorts, from high-end vehicles (as expected so close to the Capitol) to tired work vans, all clamoring toward the same places, but none of them moving quickly. Will watches with bland, mild interest as they pass him; approaches an intersection and finds himself in a crowd of young people leaving a bar, all packed together and waiting for the light to flash. The proximity makes him itch; Will takes a deep breath and lifts his eyes away from the people around him, searches out the road across, and and drivers waiting for the light to change—

Blinks. Squints.

Casually composed and attentively waiting for the light to turn, Hannibal sits in the driver’s seat of a car across the road. But that’s definitely not his car—some silver sedan with a District of Columbia plate. Will would almost suspect it was a rental if it weren’t for the glimmer of an E-Z Pass and a parking permit in the front window.

What’s he doing in Washington?

But stranger even than that is the disheveled fall of Hannibal’s hair in his face. It’s the kind of thing he usually keeps in check, and even brushes back whenever it falls out of place. Hannibal doesn’t seem bothered by it now, but Will knows it irritates him without fail. It’s the reason he wears that hair product when he’s not working, and yet—

Will tears his eyes away. Frowns at the ground for a moment, the cracks in the sidewalk. There’s really nothing to be suspicious about. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s wearing his glasses, he might even assume he’s mistaken.

Something tells him he’s not.

He could wave. Catch his attention with a smile. See him, after his own withdrawal. Smooth over this strange, roiling roughness inside him with a gentle touch. Center himself. Reassure himself. That he loves Hannibal, and choosing him is the right thing.

He so rarely gets to see Hannibal when he doesn’t know he’s being watched. And there is something about his expression, distant though it may be… there’s something there that seems… different. Not the person Will knows, not quite.

Will slouches among the crowd. Surreptitiously looks up through his lashes, and makes a mental note of the license plate number. Frowns at the insignia on the front of the car—it’s a Chevy, for God’s sake. Will nearly laughs at the mental image of Hannibal, his Hannibal, driving a fucking Chevy Malibu.

The very idea is absurd.

What the hell is going on?

The light turns. In an instant, the cars start to move, and whatever the hell kind of nonsense fever dream Will is seeing is gone. He doesn’t turn to watch as the car passes by. Barely restrains himself. He knows Hannibal; any kind of staring for too long will always catch his attention. Heightened instincts from long hours and quick reactions as a surgeon, he always said. Always aware of what’s going on around him, for the safety of his patients.

And yet, whether because of the unfamiliarity of Will’s presentation or the crowd he found himself in, the unusual locale, or the late hour, Hannibal didn’t notice him.

Will is jostled as the pedestrians around him start to move, so he, too, starts to walk. The questions linger in his mind, heavy and foreign. None of the answers he comes up with have any sensible solutions, but it just leaves Will puzzled.

He gets into the bar without incident. Orders a drink in a slightly-miffed haze, then tips the bartender well for being snappy about it. Will finds a corner booth that’s still being cleaned off and slips in. Waits.

Steels himself with a breath.

Now is not the time to worry about Hannibal. Unusual circumstances or not, he’s clearly just fine.

Will’s concentration must belong to his source. Must clear away the irritated fog in his brain, the pacing shape of a predator under his skin, and make himself what the man needs. A friend. A confidant. Someone to sympathize, empathize, to listen.

Someone who can get some answers about whatever the hell this hospital staff meeting is about, and why the hell Hannibal didn’t mention it before Jack Crawford showed up on his doorstep—

“Well, that’s a new look.”

The man sits across from Will with his cold blue eyes and his shark’s grin—a little too rough, a little too sharp. Like Will, he’s a man teetering on the edge of composure and savagery at any given time. His volatile home life exacerbates that dissonance, whereas for Will, Hannibal is there to temper it.

He’s in a good mood tonight, though. Will can already tell. Makes sense: the man loves when he thinks he knows more than the people around him, and can play with them like feral kittens chasing grasshoppers. Catch, kill, and eat—but smaller than Will is used to. A little less dangerous, though not for lack of trying. Lack of experience, surely.

Will arches a brow, and a small, wry smile twists his lips. For all his concern at his source’s inopportune attachment to the stability he provides, there is true enjoyment to be found here. Worthy, witty banter. Intelligent humor. A certain willfulness for cruelty, hidden beneath the motivation of healing. A solid pathology in which this man almost fits, but not quite. A diamond-shaped peg turned sideways, trying to fit with slanted sides into a square hole. In another life, Will might have considered if this man fit the mantle of the Ripper—at least before he knew his source the way he does now. Knows his thoughts, his concerns, the struggles with his wife.

Considered it, maybe, before Will understood the Ripper’s heart.

“Thought I’d try something different,” Will replies. Lifts his drink in solidarity and welcome, and receives a sly grin for his efforts. The man settles in across from him and makes himself comfortable. “Glad you could make it, Doctor Gideon.”

“Wouldn’t miss it, kid.” Abel Gideon’s smile widens. “So. That pow-wow with the Feebs. You interested?"

WIll’s eyes narrow. He leans forward. "Very.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

<< Sorry if I worried you. I’ve been kept busy with gala prep.

>> Not to worry. I’m glad you have a friend to keep your mind occupied off less pleasant topics.

<< I take it you saw it.

>> Yes, I saw it.

<< No thoughts?

>> I have many. I will admit my curiosity but I was hoping you would come to me when you felt ready to speak of it.

<< I don’t really want to talk about it at all, to be honest.

>> If that’s what you’d prefer. I simply want you to be safe and well.

<< As much as I can hope for, I guess. What are you up to tonight?

>> For once, a quiet night at home. Perhaps more quiet than I would like. And you?

 

Will stands on the corner of 14th and F, and stares up at the darkened silhouette of the National Press Club. He knows he can’t enter, but that’s not the point of coming here.

His hand clenches around his phone. Gideon’s words buzz in his mind, blending with Will’s earlier sighting of Hannibal. No mention of business in DC. But he hadn’t mentioned the FBI and Jack Crawford coming to Johns Hopkins either, had he?

If Will were anyone different, he might doubt what he’d seen, but he knows better. He would know Hannibal anywhere. He knows what he saw. He just doesn’t know why Hannibal would lie about it.

Dishonesty begets dishonesty.

 

<< Homework with a side of homework. I should probably get it finished so I don’t have to feel bad for taking a night off on Saturday.

>> A responsible decision. Your education is important.

<< So I’ve been told. I mostly just want it done. I’ll see you on Saturday.

>> Not before?

<< I have a lot to do first, so probably not. Sorry.

 

Hannibal types and stops. Starts and stops again.

International flags billow over Will’s head, canvas in the breeze. He’s seen he photos of the inside, though it must be back to normal by now. Once, he’d thought he might work here someday. Now, he knows he’ll never be able to see it as anything but the grandstand on which the Ripper confessed his love.

  

>> Will, you know you can come to me with anything.

 

It’s not stated as a question. Affection and worry war in equal measures inside him; the sharp sting of betrayal. Of suspicion. Of sheer confusion. It doesn’t add up. None of this adds up.

But there has to be a reason.

 

<< I know. ♥ Night.

>> Goodnight, mylimasis.

 


 

In the days following the Press Club murder and leading up to the Symphony Gala, Will is especially reserved, and more importantly, absent. It’s maddening, given that what Hannibal craves more than anything is his presence, his insight. Whenever the impatience pushes him near to the breaking point, he rereads Will’s letter to the Ripper. Breathes deeply. Sets down his phone, and reminds himself that in these delicate days, he must not push, lest his house of cards be reduced to shambles before he is well and ready.

But it is a near thing.

He has known Will to be an insular creature, but perhaps never to this degree. Will’s complete and total withdrawal from Hannibal’s company is, in all honesty, not what he expected. Will is fully aware that Hannibal has read his latest post, and Hannibal has been careful to remain neutral in regards to it. He has no desire to give Will the wrong idea, or make him believe that Hannibal is somehow wary of him when the opposite is true. Regardless, Will has retreated into his own home, his own mind—away from the place he is wanted most.

He still won’t accept phone calls. Hannibal hasn’t heard his voice for nearly three days.

Will maintains that he’s not upset, but his behavior is certainly off in a way that, without seeing him, Hannibal cannot define. He would rather have Will nearby to monitor his reactions to the fallout of the Ripper murder, rather than suffer his reactions through a cell phone as proxy. He would especially have preferred to have seen Will before the gala to assure that all was well between them, and so their attempt to settle back into familiarity would not seem stilted to outsiders.

But as Hannibal sits in his study with psychology texts spread before him on his desk, he is left with a much simpler truth:

He misses Will. His voice, his touch, his wit, his singularly unique beauty. It’s so simple to imagine Will reclining on the couch on the other side of the desk, working on one of his many assignments. Through his mind’s eye, Hannibal can picture the firelight illuminating him in shades of gold, as it had so many nights ago. Will pausing to rest his cheek on the back of the couch, staring at Hannibal in that keen and quiet way he does, memorizing the details of a moment. Reaching up and over, across the desk, driven by fascination and the desire to touch. Will slowly sliding their fingers together. A sweet warmth in the glow of his smile. A subtle flutter in Hannibal’s contented heart that knows peace for the first time since he lost Mischa.

They are, the both of them, complex creatures with simple needs. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating that Will won’t allow Hannibal to fill those needs.

The alternative is even more unsettling: as it stands right now, perhaps it is Hannibal’s needs that aren’t being fulfilled.

Hannibal closes the cover of the book. Sighs softly through his nose.

Will was right. Of course he was.

Being alone, especially now that he knows what it is like not to be, comes with a dull ache.

 


 

The anger bubbles inside of him, a slow boil that is thick and dark like sludge. It sticks to his innards and makes him heavy, sluggish with concern and doubt. Moreover than that, it hurts.

Will does not mention what he saw in Washington. He doesn’t mention Jack Crawford. And Hannibal’s texted conversations continue to indicate that he has no knowledge of either, despite Will knowing the opposite is true. And he knows the moment that Hannibal hears his voice, he’ll hear the traces of Will’s mood and try to unravel it. It’s the only reason he’s held out for this long.

But perhaps it needs to be unraveled. It’s no secret to Will that his longing for Hannibal—and yes, for all to be forgiven—is prevalent in his mind. If he were a simpler person, he’d already have let it go; resigned himself to unanswered questions, and not have bothered to think so much.

But there has to be an explanation. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any chance to find out, because before Will knows it, he is standing in a lavish hotel suite and spinning slowly in place, and the person in his reflection is no longer someone he recognizes.

Will inhales slowly and blinks at his reflection in the full-length mirror, false lashes fluttering. He feels satin, the strapless bralette and panties smooth and soft against his skin beneath the lace bodice that scratches his tender belly. The wide neckline of the dress leaves his shoulders and collarbones exposed, as well as the pale column of his throat. The half-sleeves are only semi-opaque from shoulder to elbow; Will’s skin shines through in places where the lace and tulle are thin. In others, the textured cutouts that remind him of butterflies shift restlessly, ready to flee the hems and escape him. The high waist gives him the illusion of full hips, and the sheer skirt flutters like wings around his ankles, layers of tulle that float freely when he moves. The shoes, too, are lace—navy and sheer nude with pointed toes and modest stiletto heels.

Will’s lashes lower, and fierce black eyeliner and indigo glitter lay thick against his lids. Gold shimmer on his cheekbones cohabitates with peach blush and coral lipstick. The pearl earrings Hannibal gave him glimmer subtly in his earlobes. His bangs fall soft and tamed across his forehead. The rest is pinned back in a swell of smooth, elegant curls at the nape of his neck, held with a hair piece that is a cluster of pearls and gems.

He is Wilhelmina. He is Margot. He is some amalgam of the both.

But that means he is not Will Graham.

And if he is not Will Graham, perhaps that means that he doesn’t have to be angry at Hannibal tonight. He can leave that feeling for tomorrow, when the sunlight will illuminate his emotions and lay him bare.

“You look beautiful,” Margot murmurs, and her hand settles on his back. She rubs small, soothing circles there. She is all red lips and black liner, bold color and silhouette, multicolored gems on gold chains that drip from her ears. She glitters with her jewel-encrusted dress that hugs her body from neck to waist, and flares into a truly impressive skirt that is full and shapely around her knees. The bodice is solid red, the remainder a stunning ombre that reaches pink and pale petal white at the hems and the full-length sleeves. It’s a trendsetter piece—Will can honestly admit that it is as beautiful as it is bold, much like Margot herself.

Her updo rises and falls in soft waves, shimmer with her highlights that darken underneath, and a few loose tendrils of curls frame the gentle shape of her face.

If Will is beautiful, she is a bombshell—each of them stunning in different ways, in different palettes.

“We could be sisters,” Margot says with a smile. She laughs quietly. “I’d be lucky. I’d trade Mason for you any day.”

Will exhales slowly. Can’t take his eyes off his reflection, not yet. He doesn’t know himself like this. But he wants to. “I. Margot, tonight…” She waits patiently for him to arrange his thoughts, and gives him an encouraging pat. Will summons his courage. “I don’t feel like me, like this. I don’t think I want to be.”

“So don’t be,” she replies. Reaches for a stray curl and rolls it around her finger to form it, watches attentively as it falls perfectly into place around Will’s face. “Be who you want to be. Do you want me to call you something else?”

Will shakes his head gently.

He stops. Takes a breath.

“Maybe…” Rolls the feel of it around in his painted mouth, between white teeth. “Instead of being he or she, I could just be… someone. Just for tonight.”

“They and them?” Margot asks. She smiles when Will meets her eyes and slowly nods. “Yeah, hon, I can do that. Whatever you want. That’s the easy part.” Without warning, Margot’s expression is all business. “Ok, now the tougher part. Who are you wearing?”

“Tony Ward,” Will replies obediently, voice deliberately and carefully soft. Like this, he skims the line between recognized genders, fingertips tracing ripples on the surface of conventionality; the company he keeps tonight will likely be too polite to ask him to clarify. There’s a certain strange anxiety in that—and excitement. A rare opportunity to become what he so rarely gets to be. “And you’re wearing Michael Cinco.”

“And on the off chance that your sugar daddy doesn’t whisk you away when the evening’s over?”

Will’s cheeks heat and pool with blood. Given the event that he’s about to attend, he can’t even in good conscience correct her. Not knowing the cost of the tickets, of his gown; not knowing the prestige of the company he is about to find himself among—Baltimore’s elite society of blue bloods. Will himself has only ever been blue collar, at least before Hannibal. “Then we come back here.”

“And when he does take you home?” Margot wiggles her eyebrows at him, and Will bursts into anxious, half-hysterical laughter. “Go on, say it.”

“Margot,” he complains.

“You’re going to take him to his bed and claim his body and his entire mortal soul, Will. And you’re doing to do it with the lingerie we got you. You’re gonna own his ass. And he’s gonna own yours. Whatever you’re into, I don’t judge.” Will snorts and shakes with laughter, clutches at the edges of the vanity with his manicured and well-shaped gel fingernails. Margot grins and covers the back of his hand with her own, and meets his gaze in the mirror, beautifully earnest. “I know you’ve had a rough few days, but you’re amazing, hon. You deserve a good night, and you deserve the good guy who loves you.”

Will’s smile fractures, falters; tempers into something smaller and conflicted, and he drops his eyes away from Margot’s.

He doesn’t know that Hannibal loves him. The only one who’s confessed their love to Will is far from a good guy.

“Don’t,” Margot says firmly. “Don’t look like that. You know he’s nuts for you. He’s gonna take one look at you tonight and go out first thing tomorrow and buy a ring.”

“Margot,”  Will protests.

She holds her hands up in smug acquiescence, candy-apple nails gleaming in ferocious, elongated points. “Just sayin.”

“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Will murmurs, though that sentiment doesn’t even begin to cover it. His eyes stay fixed on the detailing of his dress, the wide neckline and the pale glow of his collarbones. Regardless, his lips curl in a soft, complicated smile at the thought. “And we should get going.”

“So you can meet your boyfriend’s eyes across a dark and smoky room…”

Will snorts. “Something tells me this is the wrong era for dark and smoky. I’ll settle for finding him, given how many people are gonna be there.”

“Point.” Margot grabs her clutch, both their phones tucked inside. “If anyone tries to give you a hard time about drinking, just tell them I have your ID. Believe me, they’ll be too scared of pissing me off to actually check it.”

“Noted.” Will huffs. “It’ll be a moot point soon.”

“Little Capricorn.” Margot grins and pinches his cheek, careful of her nails; Will swats her away. “Alright, alright. Let’s get going before we cross the line from fashionably late into actually late.”

Will rounds on Margot, startled. “Are we late?”

Careless in only the way Margot could manage, she shrugs. “Fashionably.”

Will groans.

 


 

 

Champagne fizzes on his tongue, dry and sweet, as Hannibal surreptitiously scans the room in search of Will. Though the event has only just begun some ten or fifteen minutes ago, Hannibal has not yet seen him, and most of the guests have already arrived. CEOs, diplomats, government officials; the high-bred and the self-made sharing drinks and conversation, and, at the moment, equally denied Hannibal’s attention.

The venue is no Florence, but it makes a valiant attempt—marble floors, vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, pillars of stone that frame a truly massive event space. The tables around the edges of the room are covered in white cloths, laid rich with silver flatware and gilded plates, tasteful but elaborate floral centerpieces and hand-lettered seating cards. At the center of the room is a large, open space—room left for dancing both before and after dinner, and the chamber orchestra presiding over them on a raised dais. The most talented of the symphony players, of course, are in attendance tonight, mingling with sponsors with wide smiles and some mixture of genuine and simpering thankfulness.

The marble tile below their feet makes up a design that is not unlike an elegant chessboard. Chess is the game they all play tonight, whether they know it or not—social maneuvering, where alliances can be struck or broken, and battles of wits may be waged. Hannibal is the most mobile and deadly among the rabble, a queen bearing the mantle of a pawn. He hears his secret title in the mouths of the many as he lingers. It seems the Chesapeake Ripper is a popular topic of conversation tonight.

He sips. Impatience sinks its nails into his innards, but he has waited this long for Will, and he’s certain to arrive sooner than later. In the meantime, there is mingling that can be done—

“Ah, Doctor. Fancy seeing you here.”

Hannibal turns, and is brought face-to-face with a tall and smiling brunette man; sharp black tux, deep green eyes. Hannibal smiles in return and holds out his hand for a brisk but firm shake. “James, a pleasure as always.”

“You haven’t called me recently,” the man says with a widening grin. “Starting to think you don’t like me anymore, Doctor Lecter.”

Hannibal huffs an amused laugh. “You and I both know that the less I have need to call you, the better off I’ll be.”

James Deioss tucks one hand in his suit pocket, a casually confident posture that manages not to look pompous. That demeanor, combined with his unparalleled wit, has won him Hannibal’s loyalty as a client: a talented defense lawyer with his own small practice, already making waves on the white collar circuit as a reliable name to call on for representation. “Quite right.” He takes a quick sip of his drink, and similarly scans the crowd. “Elle’s around here somewhere, I’m sure she’ll want to say hi.”

“I assume she’s kept you out of trouble,” Hannibal replies with a quirk of a brow.

James laughs. “She tries. She says I have a big mouth. I tell her it’s made for big bites, and I haven’t had issues chewing anything yet.”

Hannibal chuckles. “My invitation still stands.”

“Don’t even say it,” the man warns, good-natured. “No comfort food until I lose you a case, and my record is perfect. I’m stickin’ to it.”

“It’s often traditional for clients to buy their attorneys a meal or drink after a successful case.” Deioss’ curious refusal of Hannibal’s dinner invitations had first caused subtle alarm in the early days of their acquaintance. Though Hannibal maintains a careful watch on the man, he’s never seen any untoward investigation directed at him, and has thus left the matter active in his mind as a personal quirk, but one to keep an eye on.

“I’m not a traditional lawyer,” James says, and to anyone else, it might sound like boasting; to Hannibal, it is well-earned pride in one’s professional reputation. It is a quality they share.

“No, I suppose not.” Hannibal hides his smile with another slow drink.

“Maybe neither of us are traditional,” Deioss says with a grin, and eyes Hannibal’s outfit before the presumption can make him bristle. “Great tux, by the way. Elle makes me wear the penguin suit. In her defense, I’m not sure if I could pull that look off.”

Hannibal glances down; the body of the jacket is silk brocade, a subtly stitched floral motif in a shade of navy that catches the light when he moves. Conversely, the collar is smooth, with black silk lapels. The floral pattern is echoed in his black bow tie, stitched onto ebony fabric with both black and white thread. The matching blue waistcoat is secured over a smartly-starched black shirt and pants, culminating with aniline leather brogues. The overall effect is both formal and striking, distinct from any solid-color jackets or standard black tuxedos. Fortunately, with company such as this, there tends to be more diversity in wardrobe. Still, Hannibal stands out among them.

“A talented tailor makes any garment exceptional, whether plain or patterned,” Hannibal says with a faint smile. “From there, it’s simply a matter of the wearer’s confidence.”

Deioss laughs uproariously. “Fair enough.”

“Admittedly, I dressed tonight with another’s color palette in mind.” Hannibal huffs softly through his nose, and casts another glance around the room. It is, of course, all the more difficult when he’s not precisely certain what he’s looking for. “Wherever they may be.”

Something lights up in James’ eyes; an intelligent curiosity, a certain analytical aspect that had drawn Hannibal to him in the first place. The ability to file away pertinent information for use at a later date, for better or for worse. “This wouldn’t happen to be in regards to that mysterious potential phone call I never received, would it?”

Hannibal presses his lips together, and wryly takes a sip of his champagne. Sharp, indeed. “Perhaps. Your assistance was rendered unnecessary at the time.”

“I am incredibly curious,” James replies, “about whatever person has caught your eye that you told me to, and I quote, take care of any and all things they should need.”

It had been a phone call made in haste, but Hannibal would do it again. Had things turned out differently on that fateful night, and if Will had needed the support and unparalleled legal counsel Deioss offered, it would have been a boon for Will to have that information. Even now, given the FBI poking around, it is some small comfort to know Will would have a contact if he should need one. “I would ask the same of you now. Perhaps more completely and thoroughly than I did then.”

He is given a searching stare in response. The back of Hannibal’s neck prickles at the scrutiny. “Wow. It’s serious, then.”

Serious doesn’t seem like enough of a word to cover Will’s importance. Hannibal thinks carefully on his response before he makes it, but—

He cannot define what it is that draws his attention. It is not the sensation of eyes on him, but rather some preternatural itch. An awareness. The simple, sudden knowledge that he should look up, and he does.

The room seems to hold its breath.

Will is carrying himself differently. It’s something akin to the way he moved the first time they met, that deliberation and grace in each step, a careful gait that can be attributed to high heels, but a strength that is settled in his core. That is the first thing Hannibal notices; there is undoubtedly something different about Will tonight, and it is not only his demeanor.

Framed in by antiquity and richness, Will is a figure of unparalleled beauty. Want clutches fiercely at his insides, kindled by the smug, prideful knowledge that the sublime creature he sees is entirely his. The color blue against a pale complexion, delicate bones of his shoulders and collarbones exposed, the juxtaposition of bold lace and flowing tulle exposing tantalizing glimpses of skin. Dark, smooth locks, tamed in a way that Hannibal has never seen Will wear before. Tendrils of curls around a fair face, cheekbones and a jaw carved like crystal in stunning, angular facets. Dark, feathered lashes. Soft and smoky black and gray to frame eyes the color of the roiling sea.

As though Hannibal’s attention were akin to calling his name, Will looks up. Across a crowded room, their eyes meet. And somewhere beneath the cliches and the old stories parents tell their children to romanticize simple chemistry, Hannibal is stricken by the knowledge that, no matter what he has learned, this is more than chemicals and neurotransmitters. This is deeper. Joyous. Near-spiritual.

Will’s painted lips softly part. He blinks once, twice, again; a quick flutter of lashes. He breathes in and exhales deeply. And without bothering to turn to the woman in his company and excuse himself, Will seeks to close the distance and indulge this damning draw between them.

Hannibal glances at the man beside him, and is faced with a curious thing—head-tilted, silently assessing, James Deioss is entirely focused on Will. Hannibal is blindsided by the irritation he feels, the protectiveness that has grown fangs inside him. It itches for one wrong word to justify an attack; similarly, to shield Will from his view in entirety. But without a word, James holds out his hand and takes Hannibal’s near-empty champagne glass. Looks at Hannibal, and tilts his head in Will’s direction, a silent nudge.

Hannibal does not need to be told twice. He answers the call.

Chatter fades. Hannibal weaves through the crowd, side-stepping lacklustre dancers with ease, who sway in slow circles in an approximation of the starting waltz. Echoing from the marble floors and vaulted ceilings, rising and falling arpeggios take the place of their footsteps, made sweeter as the both of them find a clear place in the center of it all.

Within arm’s reach, and so Hannibal reaches—hands meet in the middle, fingers wound together. Palms clasped. No words. It is the first time Hannibal can think of that he is not only uncertain of what to say, but absent of it completely. It seems Will is similarly affected.

Wide eyes. Pure intent. Will glitters and shines, and his gaze is drawn skyward at the crooning call of a violin, a siren’s song that captures both of their attentions. Will’s thumbs skim the backs of Hannibal’s hands in venerative, restless paths. Hannibal wants to touch him. All of him. Will’s arms, his legs, his neck, the slim curve of his waist, accentuated by a form-fitting bodice and flowing skirt. Even in stillness, the gown he wears appears as though it is covered in hundreds of butterflies along the hem, all ready to take flight, and Will with them.

Simple good manners would dictate Hannibal greet him, but Will seems no more interested in paltry words than he is right now. Everything is mute wonder, drinking in the sight of one another in formalwear and finery. Hannibal has never had the good fortune before this night to see Will in anything quite so fine. Now, it feels as though he can hardly stop staring. He feasts on the sight of Will here, his presence, his vibrant energy, the sheer aestheticism and singular beauty; the shudder of his breath as Will tugs, insistent, and brings one of Hannibal’s hands to his waist. Steps closer, into the waiting circle of his arms.

Will’s eyes lift again. Hannibal knows this time that he is listening to the interplay of instruments together, echoing as they progress along the same threads of a song. A waltz realized in complementary tones, a shared key with which a melody is unlocked and discovered.

One hand settles just above Will’s hip. Hannibal is fiercely desirous and vindicated at Will’s shiver, the flex of tendons beneath flesh. Shifting. Testing. Pressing into his grip with an air of pleasure and fulfillment, the play of a smile around Will’s mouth. Will’s arm loops around him, a slim hand settled to the side of Hannibal’s spine. Their other hands twine together. Will’s shoulders roll back, chin lifted. He tugs, a silent bid to move, and Hannibal does.

The first steps are cautious; call and answer. He does not expect the ease with which Will moves with him. Does not expect the glint of a challenge met in his eyes. The next set of three is more ambitious with the rising cry of the violin, a spin that Will falls into with cautious grace, but handles beautifully.

To a beat of six, they pause. Breathe. Feel the melody coming upon them, the interplay of a lingering piano chord and a singular drawn-out note from a violin in glorious harmony—nearly as harmonious as them together. Their future fleeting footsteps echoed by the swift notes of a piano.

Their eyes lock. Caught between them, a crackling energy.

A silent question asked by the monster in Hannibal’s bones: Are you ready?

Slowly, the creature behind Will’s eyes sees him staring, and starts to smile. Yes.

Then the music blooms and they are dancing, and around them, meaningless rabble step aside. Will’s footwork is light, and he does not step as much as glide. He allows himself to be led by Hannibal’s inertia, a certain restrained power that lives in deliberate, graceful movements.

It is a waltz, but not a slow one—inside the harmony is passion, adoration, and Hannibal allows it to fill him. To guide them, and take heart in Will’s gracious trust in him. The way he allows himself to be pivoted by experienced hands, the way he leans into each swinging motion that takes them in circles. Hannibal is distantly aware of the lack of obstructions, of the weight of eyes upon them.

He doesn’t care. Let them watch.

They are movement, they are art embodied. Forward and back, in sideways sweeps, Will spins out in a tide of ocean waves and silk, and back in again. Bodies brush and hands touch, holding tightly to one another as though they might fly apart if they’re separated. Perhaps they would. Hannibal cannot say one way or another.

But everything swells. The song lifts, a cry of victory and sweetness and fulfillment, tremulous and joyous both. Will’s lips are gently parted, a flash of teeth and an upward curl of lips, a shine in his fervent gaze. It is a dare, a bid for freedom, and Hannibal answers. Allows. At his gentle nudge, Will breaks free—spiraling curls, a skirt flaring in iridescent layers around smooth legs, Will’s body moving in tight, spinning circles with arms above his head and an absolutely elated smile.

In a hall of stone, surrounded by finery and crystals and light, Will is ascendant, and Hannibal loves him.

Will’s momentum carries him, a graceful lowering of his hands that creates an ephemeral silhouette of his shape within the air. Will slows, searching with his starving eyes, flushed with the exertion and keen pleasure as he reaches out for Hannibal. Finds him waiting. Brings them together again in the middle, falls back into his gravity, and allows himself again to be led.

Hannibal won’t let go of him a second time.

The cresting crash of this moment has already stricken him. They are a wave, slowing as their initial spark catches and becomes a dim but smouldering glow. The descending melody is sweet and warm, a love realized and comprehended. It bubbles inside Hannibal like dry champagne. Will, too, is effervescent as they slow to a stop, and he reaches with intent; cups Hannibal’s cheeks in his palms and draws him down.

Their noses brush, warm exhalations between them. Will touches their foreheads together in stunned and silent reverence, still too breathless to kiss properly. Glimmering. Glittering. Searching for something inside Hannibal’s eyes, and nuzzling ever so softly at what he finds there, as Hannibal tugs him near and holds him close.

His sweet and stunning thing, holding the secrets of such ability inside of him. His Will, come from nothing, outshining every self-important blue blood with years of etiquette and lessons in rhythm, with only what he learned in his living room. More vibrant than every star in the sky.

Hannibal becomes aware of the sound of applause—admiring murmurs, not raucous, but heartfelt. Will is startled apart from him, chest still heaving for breath; his lovely flush darkens, rare-red. Will is most certainly prime enough to suit.

There is embarrassment written into the lines of his face and his body, but there is pleasure in the set of his spine, the gleam of his eyes. His hands fall to broad shoulders and anchor there, thumbs skimming the subtle texture of the brocade jacket. Will huffs a laugh. His curls are just slightly disheveled; his earlobes are studded with the earrings Hannibal bought him. If Hannibal were not so thoroughly folded inside the gentility of his civilized persona, he would surely growl with satisfaction. Instead, he touches one earring with the pad of his thumb, and sees Will light up at the silent approval. He does not search out the eyes of the masses. He looks for Hannibal, only Hannibal.

“Hi,” Will murmurs softly. Then, with a sharp-edged smile that is as intimate as a secret, adds, “Sorry I was so distant. I’ve been practicing.”

“Dear Will, you have no need to apologize,” Hannibal replies.

The anger and irritation of the last few days are gone, dissolved as though they had never been. They are replaced by this feeling. This possession. This desire. This affection.

Love.

It is love—and it is not only serious, but permanent. Hannibal has coveted it, captured it, conditioned it, and will contain it with his own two hands.

Will’s lips tilt upward. That clever thing inside him that stares out at Hannibal is contented, good-humored, and it says with Will’s mouth, in a voice that almost sounds like his, “Forgive me anyway.”

Hannibal can see it now. Whatever has changed, whatever has awakened it, it is closer to the surface than it has ever been, blending with Will’s consciousness. Instilling him with grace and confidence. Radiance. Aiding in his becoming.

They break apart. Hannibal slips one arm around Will’s waist, the facsimile of a gentlemanly gesture; in reality, a possessive tether. He guides Will away from appreciative eyes, from hushed voices, from the sweetness of the music, and toward what Hannibal promised him those many weeks ago—reputation, connection, and prestige. Everything he requires to build a career, to net him information, to assist him in his desire to find the Chesapeake Ripper. Now it’s only a matter of time until Will closes that gap, and it can’t possibly come a moment too soon.

Hannibal leans over, and his lips brush against Will’s hair. Feels his beloved shiver against his mouth, his teeth, when he replies, “You’re already forgiven.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Will maneuvers polite society with an ease Hannibal would not have anticipated or believed if he wasn’t witnessing it himself: polite handshakes offered first, though Hannibal knows Will is uncomfortable being touched by those he doesn’t know; demure smiles, a soft voice that does not betray the vicious, vibrant creature he knows lives inside.

There is something about Will tonight that gives Hannibal pause, reads his differed posture and withdraws from assigning Will pronouns outside his name to the strangers that don’t know him. Though they’ve not had time enough between the two of them to talk about it, he notices the sidelong glances Will sends to him, and thinks he reads appreciation there in the tilt of his painted lips.

Will has never been just male, after all—from the very beginning, he has been transparent regarding the duality of his sense of self, conflicting with the familiarity of singular masculine pronouns. They are easy, automatic, a force of twenty years’ habit. But they have never been entirely right.

There’s pleasure in keeping Will’s self a private thing between them. Instead, strangers will only see the shape of a beautiful young woman with soft hands and bright eyes, an adoring smile all for Hannibal. So tonight, unless Will corrects him, Hannibal has sense enough to follow the path laid down before him. If Will has embraced the feminine, or even the blurred line he often treads, Hannibal will gladly keep his truth in confidence.

Waiters make the rounds with hor d'oeuvres and flutes of champagne; Will handles his with poise and grace—no hesitation in reaching for one with all the assurance of one who drinks and does regularly. No one reacts, and so Hannibal does not, though he silently finds humor in the twitch of Will’s nose at the subtly sparkling carbonation. They sip idly and converse; Hannibal waits until he sees the threads of restlessness in Will’s eyes, and then they move on. Fellow opera-goers and symphony attendees, hospital colleagues, though no one of particular note, until—

“Doctor Lecter,” she says, and when Hannibal turns, he smiles.

“Doctor Du Maurier,” he replies, and inclines his head; reaches for her hand, which she daintily surrenders, and brushes a genteel kiss across the backs of her knuckles. She is lovely in simple striking black, a dress with an asymmetrical geometric neckline, and a corresponding high slit up the other thigh, long sleeves that reach delicate wrists, and sleek black high heels. “Lovely to see you outside the hospital.”

Bedelia smiles, aloof but charmed. “Enchantée.” Her eyes slide to Will at his side, who has gone cautiously still. A slow smile curves her pinkened mouth, though there is something about it that is not quite kind. “I don’t believe I’ve met your companion.”

Will, for his part, does not shrink back; his posture is carefully curated with straight shoulders and lifted chin. He passes the champagne glass into his left hand, though does not yet extend to shake. Hannibal does not offer assurance, nor does Will look to him to be reassured. It widens his smile. “Will is my partner. Will, this is Doctor Bedelia Du Maurier, the Director of the Psychiatric Department at Johns Hopkins.”

Will’s eyes flash, though his smile appears genuine; his opinion of psychologists and psychiatrists is no secret. Hannibal is the exception, not the rule. But still, Will reaches out—and shakes with perhaps more firmness than Doctor Du Maurier expects, though never enough to be rude. Certainly not what she’s expected from what appears to be a young, well-bred woman, and Will is neither. “Very nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” She glances askance, and her expression softens infinitesimally at the sight of the young woman who appears at her side, resplendent with loose curls and a flowing forest-green gown. “Hannibal, you remember my assistant, Alana Bloom.”

“The future Doctor Bloom,” Hannibal replies with a smile, and greets her just the same. Alana flushes prettily at the touch of Hannibal’s lips on the back of her hand, caught somewhere between embarrassment and pleasure at being acknowledged so.

“Nice to see you again, Doctor Lecter.” She turns her eyes to Will, and—

Hannibal pauses. Will’s lips are slightly parted, slow-blinking as he sees her. He sizes Alana up, not with malice, but something akin to… admiration? Attraction?

His brow furrows only slightly. It’s true, he and Will have never spoken about whatever his inclinations may be, and they have never come up between them before. And, of course, now is far from the opportune time to seek clarification of Will’s sexuality. But it picks at Hannibal like debris caught in his fine shoes, just annoying enough to be noticeable, though not enough to stop for.

Will’s lashes lower. He smiles. “This is my first event like this. It’s nice to see people around my age.” Hannibal’s lips press together. They do not purse. That would be untoward. But he cannot deny the creeping unpleasantness as Will’s eyes linger on Alana’s exposed shoulders and the sheer cap sleeves, her trim and belted empress waistline. “I love your dress.” It does not entirely ring true.

Alana’s smile is bright. “Thank you! I won’t lie, I’ve only got, like, one nice thing to wear, and I think this one goes back to my senior prom.”

Will laughs openly, so unlike him. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” He glances down, swivels his hips, and his skirt swishes around his legs. “I’m borrowing this one from a friend. In fact, I think she’s here somewhere…”

The mysterious friend. In all honesty, Hannibal had forgotten. Why hadn’t Will mentioned her? He would have been happy to make a detour for the sake of meeting one of the rare few who have captured Will’s affection.

Will tilts his head to the other side, inclines it toward the crowd. “Come on. We can find you a drink, and maybe we’ll bump into her.” Turns his eyes up to Hannibal with a smile, and nudges his side with his shoulder. “I’ll come back in a minute.”

Hannibal blinks. Huffs softly through his nose. He can’t politely excuse himself from Bedelia without so much as exchanging small talk, and so he is forced to concede. “Perhaps she can accompany you when you return. Our introduction is long overdue.”

“I can try, but no one makes her do anything.” Will grins and tips his chin up, presses his lips to Hannibal’s cheek, an affectionate peck.

It is all Hannibal can do not to turn into the touch and claim his mouth, kiss him deeply and thoroughly as he desires. Instead, he must let Will go. “Don’t be long, mylimasis.”

Will’s eyes soften. He glows from the inside with his happiness. Whatever interest he has in Alana, Hannibal is soothed that it is flickering and fleeting. Temporary, lasting not more than moments. Will belongs to him, and with him. Hannibal is certain he knows it. “Right back,” he says, and rests his hand on Hannibal’s arm. “Promise.”

Will disappears into the crowd, and Alana with him. Hannibal exhales, not quite a sigh, and turns his attention back to Bedelia.

She sips her champagne. She does not ask, and doesn’t have to.

Hannibal lifts his chin, and takes a sip of his own. Doesn’t rise to her challenge. Parries. “So,” he says. “How goes Doctor Chilton’s latest article?”

 


 

The breathless elation lingers beneath Will’s skin after their dance has passed, flickering like fireflies and lighting him from within. His cheeks are stained pink, pleased by Hannibal’s attention, his open affection. The anger drains away until it’s like it’s never been.

He does feel different—strong and graceful, capable. Beautiful, under the weight of Hannibal’s eyes, the arm around his waist. Hannibal, too, is fiercely attractive: the cut of his fine suit accentuates the lines of his body, his hair carefully arranged away from his face. His eyes blaze with pride and satisfaction. It’s a subtle thing; the way he holds on to Will as they make their rounds is an understated brag. In minutes, everyone in attendance knows who Will has accompanied here tonight.

Hannibal commands respect, and Will is afforded that same respect by any who cross their path.

Bedelia Du Maurier is intimidatingly beautiful, the kind of woman that, in a different world, Will might see Hannibal choosing as his companion instead, if not for their own fateful introduction and stumble into intimacy. She is tall, fine bone structure and smooth blonde hair, eyes like frost and an unshakeable countenance. If Will is a creature of fire and passion, Bedelia is solemn ice.

But then there is a suitable distraction in Alana Bloom.

Will has spotted Margot several times throughout the night, a bright and shining princess attracting men like magpies. They, of course, could not be further from her interest. She entertains them with her effortless social graces all the same. But Alana—Alana is just the type of person Margot would be delighted to be interrupted for. Will owes her at least that much and more.

Alana Bloom has a strong personality and a loud, infectious laugh, and though her eyes linger curiously on Will for the telltale signs of his flat chest and his soft, lower-pitched voice, she has enough manners not to ask. She drinks her first flute of champagne in seconds, then picks up a second to carry with her. She grins when Will smiles about it, and tells a story about how her mother always chugged her first glass of anything, from coffee to wine. It’s a trait she inherited, she says. Unapologetic gorging, followed later by savoring the nuance, extended enjoyment.

Will, too, can appreciate that.

He prowls the marble floors, wearing the demure likeness of a person he has never been, and never will be. Finds Margot among the masses, blessedly absent of her father or her brother. There’s no love lost between the Verger men and Will, nor between their opinions and Margot’s self-proclaimed proclivities. When she sees him, her relief is palpable—excuses herself to slip between identical men in black tuxes, the same height, the same haircut, a crowd that flocks to her that she can never turn away in the absence of a companion and a polite excuse.

“Thank god,” she mutters as she attaches herself to Will’s arm. She snags the champagne flute from his hand and knocks it back like an old pro.

At Will’s side, Alana beams. “Huh,” she says, “Guess frat parties just get fancier, but the guys stay the same.”

Margot’s eyes snap to her, wide and glass-bottle green—her lips part, and Will bites back his smile as she straightens up, suddenly at-attention.

Alana’s classically gorgeous, dark barrel curls and Hollywood-red lips. She looks between Will and Margot with a smile, and tips her head to the side. “Are you related?”

Will and Margot blink, then glance to one another. It’s not an unfounded question; they’re of a similar height, weight, and hair color. From the back, one might even mistake them under the right circumstances. They certainly have more in common than Margot and Mason, and the thought is clear on Margot’s face when she unintentionally snorts. Her eyes widen. She covers her mouth in a delicate gesture with one hand, beautifully embarrassed. “Sorry,” she says. “No, we’re not. Wouldn’t mind it, though.” Holds it out to Alana instead, and her eyes gleam. “Hi. I’m Margot.”

Alana’s smile widens. “Alana. Nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

Will huffs a laugh. Margot shoots him the sort of wide-eyed accusatory expression that Will usually attributes to the silent command get lost, and his smile widens. He taps the edge of his empty champagne glass with one manicured nail and excuses himself, at least for a few minutes.

Here, his options expand. He could return to Hannibal, which has its merits, first and foremost among them being Hannibal himself. But Will can’t deny that he’s getting cagey from all the socialization, and the ability to wander freely until he can safely interrupt Margot and Alana’s conversation and herd them back to polite company has appeal.

With pleasantly-warm cheeks and a mindfulness of the location he is about to stray from, Will goes. He weaves through warm bodies, colorful gowns and boring black tuxedos that are none so striking as Hannibal’s. Some individual colors stand out, but not many—a flash of deep purple with black trim, dark satins and silks. Men wear their tuxedos like Hannibal wears plainclothes.

For a moment, Will entertains the wonderings of what sort of thing the Ripper would wear to an event such as this—but only a moment. Will squashes the idea before it can take root, before the figure of a man with a crown of antlers can form from shadows and stalk him through the ballroom on swift and silent feet. Before Wilhelmina can fully rouse from her relaxed observation of Will’s evening, bid him to shed his high-heeled shoes and run barefoot solely for the thrill of being chased.

No, not tonight. Tonight is for Hannibal. And she may sit inside his mind, behind his eyes right alongside Will, but she won’t overtake him. Not now. Not in this. They exist in a state of hesitant cooperation for the sake of their chosen one, their shared heart. Hannibal is worth the strain it takes to rein himself in, worth the empty ache of denying himself the wildness of what he so dearly desires.

He can train himself to want this. Animals can be trained to want anything.

It’s a thought that carries an unpleasant undercurrent, memories of hollow laughter and dead eyes and a snide voice that Will once put himself in front of to protect—

No. It’s not a memory at all.

Will pauses. Tilts his ear to the air and listens, then bites down before he can bare his teeth.

“And father has imported a new breed of boars—they’re fighters, you see. Make richer meat. They’ll eat just about anything. We’re testing to see if we can breed them with common farm pigs; the sows make such a racket when they’re cornered, but good meat is all about good breeding, whether they like it or not…”

Mason Verger’s voice is as grating as it is unavoidable with the volume at which he speaks, no regard for how loud he is; he delights in the discomfort of others, and often hides behind the words of scripture like a believer, but with none of the mercy one would expect from the Son of God he so reveres.

Mason Verger is a blight. A plague descendant upon this place like the locusts fall on Egypt, devouring and destroying all in their path. Will hears him before he sees him, so he turns and retreats. If Mason is near, that means it’s only a matter of time before he seeks out Margot. The memory of that purple bruise around her wrist last week now turns his stomach, lights coals inside him that smoke and glow.

There are many reasons the Verger men don’t like Will Graham. And if he has to, he’ll remind them exactly why.

“Margot,” Will says sharply as he returns, and her head snaps up.

She knows that tone, and she blanches. “Mason?”

Alana frowns. “Huh?”

In an instant, Margot’s smile smooths over. “Oh, nothing really. Just my brother being an idiot.” She laughs, and casually links her arm through Alana’s. That same pretty pink flush stains Alana’s cheeks, and that concerned light in her eyes starts to fade. Margot turns her eyes to Will. “Two birds, one stone? I wanna meet your doctor.”

“Doctor Lecter?” Alana asks, glancing between Will and Margot, laughing when Margot looks suddenly affronted.

“Does everyone get to meet him before I do?” she demands with a haughty sniff.

“Not intentionally,” Alana replies. Her smile widens, and she tugs Margot along. The three of them weave through the crowd, around dancers and minglers. “He toured the psychiatric facility at the same time I did. I’m still… undecided.” Her brows draw together with a subtle crinkle of conflicted displeasure. “Some of the doctors there are… not as gentlemanly as Doctor Lecter, shall we say.”

Will snorts. That’s one way to put it. “Chilton?”

Alana’s eyes snap to him. “You know him?”

His mouth twists in tight displeasure. “There’s a reason I didn’t go to Johns Hopkins for my undergrad.”

The lines constrict around Alana’s eyes. She huffs. “He’s a smug asshole.” Her features smooth as she exhales slowly, glances at Margot. “But Doctor Lecter’s great. He’s really nice.”

“He better be,” Margot replies, and he soothes his worried heart with fondness. “Will’s family.” Will shoots her a small, pleased smile, and Margot returns it with one of her own. “And your daddy would want me to make sure he’s good enough for you.”

Will’s expression twists drastically at the thought of his father meeting Hannibal. Margot cackles, wine-warm and proud of herself as they emerge from the throng—

—to a group that has grown exponentially since they left.

In addition to Hannibal and Bedelia, Will spots familiar faces; that aubergine tuxedo belongs to none other than Abel Gideon, deep violet with black lapels to match the gown of the shockingly blonde woman beside him. She is slender, waifish, with an eggplant-colored satin dress that reflects light from all angles, form-fitting until it flares in mermaid-esque ruffles from the knees. Gideon assumes an expression of polite intrigue at their entry that divorces him from the flow of conversation. His wife shoots him a narrow-eyed glance, none-too-pleased at his lapsed attention.

Will stiffens at the other couple he sees—for comfortably engrossed in conversation with the assortment of doctors is none other than Jack Crawford, in a fine suit of coal-colored wool with a subtle silk trim. At his side, a tremendously beautiful black woman, hair braided tight on one side in an elegantly edgy alternative to a side-shave, the rest let free in tight, glossy ringlets around her shoulders. Her gown, too, is satin; crimson red to match her painted lips, with a high, professional neckline. Though sleeveless, the holes cut for the arms plunge to her waist in a daring but tasteful flash of skin. The front is embellished with fine floral embroidery and delicate crystal beads, gathering at the waist and flowing down the full skirt. She holds herself with poise and stature, and is engrossed in dignified conversation with Bedelia Du Maurier. Jack, for his part, listens attentively. Will can tell from the way he looks at her that she must be his wife.

Still. Stumbling across him here isn’t any better, when Will had certainly hoped to avoid running into him for some time. He stamps down the irritation he feels at Hannibal’s casual proximity to the man. Any sign here will give away what he knows. Will’s gaze flickers away; he’ll maintain what he told Jack, and do it well.

If they see each other in public, they are strangers.

So when Hannibal senses the pause in conversation and turns to see the cause, Will’s eyes are only for him. He takes Hannibal’s offered hand without hesitation and places himself at his side. The calm that brings smoothes over the rougher edges.

“I thought I might’ve lost you,” Hannibal murmurs with a good-humored smile. He squeezes Will’s hand gently, and Will knows his cheeks are warm and pink when he squeezes back.

“I’m a good navigator. Not getting rid of me that easy,” Will replies. Hannibal’s eyes darken with amused possession. Pleasing Hannibal is fulfilling in a way that Will can’t control or deny; his heart flutters as the space between them fills with private fondness. But Hannibal is attentive, and his eyes lift to Margot with curiosity—and then faint surprise. Will bites back a grin. Holds Hannibal’s hand in one, and gestures carefully between them with the other. “Hannibal, this is Margot Verger. Margot, Doctor Hannibal Lecter.”

Margot’s gaze is sharp. Assessing. He sees her scan Hannibal’s outfit and settle on something like satisfaction, but in the moment that she reaches first and confidently for Hannibal’s hand, she is all Verger-business. Her smile is small, a little twisted, but genuine. “I feel like I know you already, Doc.”

Hannibal’s eyebrows lift slightly as he shakes her hand. His surprise blends with amusement, and satisfaction at her strong handshake. “You have me at a disadvantage, then, Miss Verger. This is the first I’ve heard of Will’s relation to your family.”

“Mostly just to me,” Margot replies. She glances to Will, then to Alana at her side. Alana, to her credit, is only slightly wide-eyed at the revelation of Margot’s heritage. “Mr. Graham worked for the Verger Estate before he got sick, and Will used to help him. We’ve been friends ever since.”

When Hannibal’s focus shifts to him, there is curiosity there, new consideration. “I’m glad for your friendship. What little Will has mentioned has always been positive. Though I believe your identity was meant to be something of a surprise.”

Will huffs quietly. Shares an understanding, amused glance with Margot. Senses her tentative approval, and the telltale signs of her watching carefully—and her happiness at seeing Will safe at the side of someone who cares for him. When Will looks to Hannibal, one corner of his mouth lifts in a lopsided grin. “I’m not out of mysteries for you yet.”

Jack’s eyes are heavy on him now. Will ignores him, though he can see a faint flash in Hannibal’s eyes; he, too, is aware of someone waiting for their attention. “I should hope not,” he replies with a warm smile.

“Well, well,” a voice cuts in, and Will and Hannibal seek the source in tandem. Gideon grins, ever-charming. Fortunately, Will knows that Gideon is capable of some subtlety. “Look who’s all healed up.”

Will tips his head to the side. Feigns a lapse of recognition—then smiles. “Doctor Gideon.” His eyes slide to the woman beside him, the infamous wife. He can already sense her derision, her envious gaze, her irritation, despite Will clearly and thoroughly being the companion of someone else. He has no time for that sort of petty jealousy; has never really been able to understand it. But that is only the first on her laundry list of less-than-flattering qualities that Abel has detailed at length. “I never got a chance to thank you.”

“No need, kiddo,” he says, and Will smothers a grimace; huffs when Gideon winks. “It’s all in the job description. Though some go above and beyond.” He inclines his head toward Will and Hannibal’s twined fingers.

Hannibal’s expression becomes an interesting mask of suppressed irritation and feigned contrition. Will presses his tongue against the back of his teeth; doesn’t like the idea of Hannibal having to defend this. Defend them. Defend him. Especially not in front of the woman who may very well become Hannibal’s supervisor.

Gideon is pushing for the fun of it; Will’s not in the mood to play.

Before Hannibal can speak, Will cuts in; leans against Hannibal’s side, just enough to be grounding, but not enough to appear coddled and reliant. “Fortunately, one cast in the ER does not a patient make. Our second first meeting went much better. No one even had to be hospitalized.”

Hannibal’s thumb slides slowly over Will’s knuckles, and he huffs a laugh. “It was a near thing, mylimasis. You were walking very quickly when you ran into me.”

WIll’s cheeks grow hot. Alanna is absolutely charmed, and Margot wryly amused. She’d heard Will’s tirade over the phone that night, stunned and irritated as he’d been after the first tenuous threads of his agreement with Hannibal Lecter . Their heart-to-heart phone call with had come later. Had floored him. Had set them on this irreversible path that has led them to now.

“Yeah, well,” Will murmurs. “Guess I’m lucky you caught me.” He averts his eyes. Scans the others present, and dutifully avoids meeting Jack Crawford’s persistently seeking gaze. Changes the subject. “I’m gone for ten minutes and you manage to amass a whole new group of acquaintances for me to meet.”

“Guilty as charged.” Hannibal’s smile is roguish—keenly interested as he matches Will’s look with one of his own, and lets it roll to the rest. “Doctor Gideon’s wife, Annalise,” who looks irritated that her husband did not first introduce her, “and Agent Jack Crawford, and his wife, who I am newly informed goes by Bella.”

“Jack,”  Bella says with an exasperated smile. She shakes her hand and holds out her hand to both Hannibal and Will. At long last, they separate in the interest of good manners. “Phyllis Crawford. Nice to officially meet you both.”

A slight furrow between Hannibal’s brows, and a curious glance to Will; Will bites the inside of his cheek and remains impassive beyond a friendly smile as he shakes her hand, and then turns to Jack. “Nice to meet you, too.”

Jack inclines his head. “Likewise.”

Whatever tightness Hannibal sees in Will’s face he must take for reluctance and a sudden influx of nerves. It’s true that if he hadn’t already met Jack, this moment would have been fraught with anxiety. Now, it’s full of anxiety of another sort.

“Agent Crawford recently conducted some interviews at the hospital,” Gideon says, and hides a smirk behind his champagne glass. At his side, Annalise looks surprised, then irritated, and nudges him with a fierce and indiscernible flurry of whispers.

Hannibal’s smile is unshakable, if only because it is near-imperceptibly frozen in place. Will scans his countenance, and sees the pieces of Hannibal that are waiting for his anger. And yes, if this was news to Will, it’s likely he’d be blindingly furious. But it’s not news. Not anymore.

Still, Hannibal will expect something from him. And so Will quiets his voice, and slowly straightens his stance. “Oh?”

Jack tucks his hands into the pockets of his suit pants. His eyes slide from Will to Gideon with a shrug. “The primary function of the FBI is to ask questions and seek answers. Turns out it’s not as exciting as it seems.”

“I dunno,” Will replies. His voice is even. Level. A perfect bluff of quiet anger, and as such, he does not look at Hannibal again. “That sounds pretty exciting to me.”

“Were you able to locate what you sought?” Hannibal asks.

And oh, maybe he hopes to gain Will’s ear, his attention. But Will knows the answer already, doesn’t he? Will’s hand slowly curls in the fabric of his skirt. Yes, it seems Jack did—first Freddie, and then Will.

Jack’s face is a mask of pleasant indifference. “I’m not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation.”

Hannibal inclines his head, and the subject is dropped. His fingers brush against Will’s wrist, but Will neither pulls away nor accepts the placation.

Margot notices—of course she does, because she always does. She catches Will’s eyes with a faint frown, then waves him over toward the conversation she has started with Alana and Annalise—subtly at first, then more insistently. “Will,” she says. “I only know horses. You’re my boat person. C’mere.”

Will snorts softly. “Boats,” he says in exasperation. “Margot, your family doesn’t keep boats. You keep yachts.

But he allows himself to be drawn from Hannibal’s side, to accept Margot’s whispered “You okay?” with a single, careful nod. She concedes with one of her own, and effortlessly envelops Will into the chatter.

Alana, it seems, is familiar with sailing, but only smaller vessels. Her eyes light up when Will mentions the Nola, stored safely in his backyard; Will flushes as Margot recounts Will at seventeen, scaling the side of their Sunseeker in cutoff shorts and a tank-top, barefooted and suntanned, to retrieve some forgotten belonging from the cabin. How Will had left dock-dirty footprints on the outside of the hull, and stared blankly at the marina docksman when he hollered at Will for making a mess. How Will blithely informed him that it was, in fact, a boat, and dirt would wash away in the water. How Margot had to bail them out, and Beau had laughed so hard that night that he cracked open a pair of cheap beers and handed them to Will and Margot for their trouble.

It’s one of the brighter memories. In the early days, there had been plenty of those. Going from fishing boats to working maintenance on luxury vessels had been an adjustment. Will had worked for weeks on outgrowing his Louisiana drawl, something his father never bothered with. He smiles, even as Margot transitions her conversation to different iterations of opulence: horseback riding, international travel, exclusive events.

All the while, Hannibal’s eyes are on him. Will lets him wait. He’s too polite to interrupt, and Margot’s stream of chatter is unyielding, and—

Will’s not sure how it happens. He curses himself for not being more aware. But when a man in a vermillion tux comes out of nowhere and his arm wraps tightly around Margot’s shoulders, the stream of their private conversation dies with the emergence of dread in her eyes.

“Mar-got,” Mason drawls, and the lopsided tousle of his hair trembles as he mockingly shakes his head. “Hogging the conversation, I see. You always were such a chatterbox.”

Margot flushes bright pink with humiliation, and Will sees red.

Annalise looks confused. Annoyed. “And you are?”

Mason eyes Annalise up and down in her form-fitting gown; she sneers at his lascivious grin. “I’m Margot’s brother.” He jostles Margot at his side; grips her upper arm tightly and shakes her with it in the approximation of a friendly jibe. “Gotta look out for her. That’s what family’s for. Huh, Margot? Isn’t that right?”

It’s sickening, watching Margot’s vivacious personality die under Mason’s heel. Inside Will’s mind, something shifts.

“Right,” she whispers. The lines around her eyes tighten with pain.

Will’s attention snaps to Mason’s hand—around her bicep, his knuckles are white with the force of his grip.

“Mason,” Will says softly, warningly, and lifts his chin in challenge. “You’re hurting her.”

Mason’s lip curls as he looks at Will—and pauses.

Stares. Takes in his hair, his face. Lingers on his dress. His flat chest. Starts to laugh that terrible, manic laugh that has never been anything but cruel. “I’ll be damned. Will Graham.”

At his back, Will hears the others go quiet.

Will inhales silently through his nose, rolls his shoulders back, and knows that floaty, well-bred thing he was pretending to be is about to die a violent death. At least Will himself will be the one to kill her; better than letting Mason strangle the life from her and get there first.

“Let her go, Mason,” Will warns. One corner of his mouth curls in something that is either a sneer or a grimace. He’s not quite sure. “You wouldn’t want to hurt your baby sister, would you?”

Mason’s eyes are