The air within the top is as close and warm as an exhaled breath, and Will Graham is striking a bargain with gravity.
Through all the years he's been doing this, he's picked up enough of the physics involved that he could stand in front of a whiteboard and draw diagrams while talking more or less intelligently about angular momentum, and pivots, and pendulum curves. But that part's easy. That part could be done by anyone with their feet on the ground and a handful of math in their pocket.
He hooks his legs over the side of the platform and bites off a piece of strapping tape. Yesterday's strapping has gone tacky and dirtied in the heat, and is starting to peel away from his wrist. It held up well enough during his swinging practice but his left hand is aching now.
You learn the important parts of aerial work with your body, not with your mind, and Will was a twig of an almost-teenager with hair in his eyes and not nearly enough muscle when someone first wrapped his hands around the metal bar of a flying trapeze. It felt hostile and alive, the tension of the wires already trying to drag him out into space. It still feels that way, every time, though he knows it shouldn't. The idea is that if the training starts early then the fear never grows, like babies in a swimming pool too young to know that they're not supposed to float. And if you come to it later, like Will, if you're old enough for your stomach to lurch when the ground leers up at you from a distance--well, then you do it anyway. Again and again until the fear's burned out of you. That's how it's supposed to work.
Will has no charred-clean gap where fearlessness should live. Repetition has simply encouraged the fear to thin itself out, wrap parts of itself around parts of him like a vine following a frame, nestle in close, and then harden.
Strapping completed, he flexes his hand a few times and stands up. Sweat is sticking his hair to his forehead and trickling down his neck, and he claps rosin onto his slippery palms.
The bargain is made not in the logical brain but in the heart and the sinew, and the bargain is this: Will, who lives so intimately and endlessly close to his own fear, agrees to throw himself out in trust. And gravity agrees, most of the time, to bend around him.
He hauls on the rope to bring the trapeze within reach, letting his exercises play out inside his head. There's no catcher across from him on the rig, no cradle set up, so it's not as though he can do any tricks. Jack would call this practice pointless. But Will likes to remind his body how to move within an existing force instead of creating one from scratch, and remind himself that he can work with others, he knows how to catch and how to be caught.
He truly doesn't know whether he prefers to be on his own, up here in the hot quiet where he could almost reach out and touch the sloping skin of the tent, or if he's so terribly lonely that his heart feels like it's trying to pump sludge. He doesn't know if he wants to exist uninterrupted or if he wants--
Alana, beneath him. The boots on the ends of her long legs faintly scuffing against the ground as she walks across the ring.
He's not so committed that he couldn't let go, climb down the ladder and talk to her face-to-face, but instead he locks his wrists and steps off the platform.
This part always feels like stretching his soul. Like he leaves a bit of himself behind in the heights and it's elastic. It's just a feeling, of course--elasticity would ruin the physics, add extra forces where none should be--but as Will swoops down and prepares to tense his shoulders for the upswing, feeling is what counts.
"That's not very polite," Alana calls.
Will finds himself at the top of his arc and calls back, "I'll be down in a moment," and then he's moving backwards, his hair wild against his ears, the ground opening up as a vista beneath him and the fear a steady flame in his heart. He tucks his legs up to hook them over the trapeze, and by the time the second full swing starts he's unfolding his body, his fingertips outstretched in a catcher's pose, reaching for nobody at all.
He flips untidily off and falls without bothering to get his feet under him, putting in just enough effort to ensure he hits the net at a safe angle. He bounces to a rest, pulse clamouring in his ears, then glances sideways. Alana is looking up at where the trapeze is jerking its way through the death throes of its momentum. It will settle hanging straight down.
"You know that's going to be a pain to retrieve," she says. "Come with me, I want you to meet some people."
"You mean Jack wants me to meet some people." Will crawls to the edge of the net and sits there. His legs are level with the top of Alana's head. "His new arrivals. I'd forgotten they were coming today."
Alana does him the courtesy of ignoring the lie. "Actually, I do mean I want you to meet them. One of them's an old acquaintance of mine--do you remember the name Hannibal Lecter? We worked together in France, for a while."
"No," Will says, thinking about elephants. "Hannibal? Stage name?"
"And his real name, as far as I know," Alana says. "Come and be sociable."
"Yes, that always works out so well for me."
For his troubles he gets a slap on the knee that makes the net bob again.
"Oh, boo hoo," Alana says, the sympathy hiding beneath a few levels of sarcasm. "At least make the effort, Will."
When he first met Alana Bloom she was juggling metal rings atop two stacked rolla bollas, and Will stopped short, hands in his pockets, to watch her. He said, "You're making it look too easy," and Alana didn't look down at him but she smiled, understanding. Dancers are supposed to make things look easy, but circus is not ballet. The audience should live in their own held breath, their hands tight around the crumpled paper program, and they should believe fully in the difficulty of what is being done before their eyes. A circus should be a series of miracles, barely scraped into existence. Applause wells up from the generous release of breath when each disaster fails to happen.
Alana can, when the act calls for it, produce that sort of tension. She can frown up at her circling blades and nod, faking uncertainty, as an assistant offers her another knife to be tossed into the mix. She can have seven clubs in the air and make her feet wobble expertly on the board. She can make the clack of devil sticks sound desperate.
In her everyday life, however, she makes everything easy. Will appreciates that about her. She's easy to talk to, easy to relax with, and Will thinks about kissing her sometimes because he knows that would be easy too. He likes her. He values their friendship. And he's pretty sure he doesn't know anything real or important about her that she doesn't explicitly want him to know.
Will digs his hands into the underside of the net and tips his body over the edge, a single flip, then drops down from his low dangle and follows Alana out of the top. It's not raining outside but the threat of it is there, with heavy clouds and a damp breeze cutting through the day's warmth. Goosebumps creep down Will's bare arms and beneath the strapping tape as he walks over to where Jack and Bella are standing near a car that probably costs more than all of Will's worldly possessions put together.
"Will!" Jack raises an arm. As Will approaches, Jack's face gains a pained expression. "I promise," he says over his shoulder, "I can afford to keep my artists in shoes."
"Perhaps he prefers otherwise," says the person Jack was addressing. The voice is quiet, accented and impeccably polite.
Will shuffles his way into the small circle to stand at Alana's shoulder--sparing a vaguely surprised glance for his own feet, which are indeed bare, and now dirt-stained--and nods at the only people he doesn't recognise.
"Hannibal Lecter, and Abigail Hobbs," says Jack, indicating them in turn.
Hannibal Lecter and Abigail Hobbs are standing with what looks to Will like a deliberate sliver of space between them: not touching, but close. Lecter is wearing the sartorial equivalent of the car, and an expression that Will wants to stare at for a while; it's as polite as his voice, but shuttered. Most performers wear part of their selves as a matter of course, saving the rest to be donned under the lights. Not like a mask. Like an unmasking, a blooming, of what was always there. Lecter is striking because he appears to be keeping almost everything in reserve. He has a sleek sweep of hair that, like water, seems to have taken on the colour of the overcast sky; beneath that are uncooperative eyes and a pair of lips that remind Will of an exquisitely cruel whiteface clown he once saw brought to life in--Canada, perhaps, or Germany--
Alana taps his hand with her little finger and Will becomes aware that he's staring at a complete stranger's mouth with God only knows what sort of quizzical look on his own face. He blinks rapidly back down at his feet--oh, yes, well done, Will, that's so much better.
"Uh, yes. Hi. Welcome."
"And this is Will Graham," Jack says, in the expansive tones of one who has been discussing Will in his absence. Will feels a muscle in his neck flinch.
"I won't shake hands," he says, lifting them.
Hannibal Lecter looks at the white dust on Will's palms and smiles. "An aerialist, I presume."
"Trapeze," Will says. "I've trained in flying, but my act is single swinging."
"And he's just as good on tightrope," says Bella, "but Jack does have to give the rest of us some time in the ring."
"Abigail is an aerialist," Lecter says.
Abigail can't be older than twenty; she has a slash of dark hair, very straight, and watchful eyes. She hasn't said anything yet, but she doesn't appear shy so much as--waiting. When Will looks at her she blinks and her face animates. "Jack says you've got a good rig for corde lisse and aerial silk?"
"I'm sure it would be," Will agrees. "We haven't had anyone do silk before."
"I thought Hannibal would have told me if he'd started adopting stray performers," says Alana. From a different person it might sound insulting.
"My parents were killed," Abigail says. "Almost three years ago. I haven't got a lot of family. There's a cousin of my mother's, in Arizona, but I've never met her. And it would have meant settling in one place," she adds, closing the gap between herself and Lecter in a way that makes her look younger. Will sees her discomfort and understands it, as anyone would who'd spent enough of their life on the move to have a distrust of deep roots. "Hannibal offered to be my guardian, so I could keep performing."
"Only until she has no need of me," Lecter says, putting one arm around Abigail in belated response to her own movement. The two of them share a look that speaks of easy affection. It helps, Will thinks; it's a glimpse of something real.
"That was very admirable," he tells Lecter, meaning it. "And what do you bring to Cirque Dalmau?"
There's a short pause in which Lecter glances at Alana, and then back at Will. "Fortune telling," he says, a hint of self-deprecation in the way he inclines his head. "The occasional sleight of hand."
Will feels the small sway of surprise in Alana's body next to his, and he catches her eye questioningly. But one of the best things about Alana is her respect for other people's secrets, rare in a small and gossip-ridden industry; she just raises her eyebrows and looks back at the newcomers.
Cirque Dalmau is unusual for a modern circus in that it still has a reasonable sideshow component, though of course the days are gone when the word was shorthand for gallery of malformations. The weird and the unloved. Strange things in jars. Monsters grown up and downplaying their humanity, all the better to titillate the crowd.
No: today it's booths and games and character acting, a harmless close-up experience to get the blood moving before the more detached wonders of the big top. Their sideshow has been perfectly orchestrated by Jack to tease the palate and create atmosphere in the mind, priming audience members with the tastes and sounds and shadowed eeriness of carnival, long before they take their seats. It also rakes in an important chunk of income.
Nevertheless. Will has trouble picturing this man, with his tailored suit and his quiet, erect air of intelligence, as nothing more than a sideshow attraction.
"It would take a lot of fortune telling to afford that car," Will says, then winces. "Sorry, that's--it's none of my business. Sorry."
A beat, then Lecter smiles. "Not at all. I have what you would call...independent means. I am here because Abigail is here."
"And we're very happy to have you both," says Bella. She takes her husband's hand in a decided motion, like a prompt.
"Absolutely." Jack smiles. "We'll find you some good seats for tonight's show. You should see what you've signed up for."
Lecter inclines his head again. "I shall prepare myself," he says, "to be amazed."
Will rolls his head slowly back and forth on his neck, then starts on his shoulders. He can feel a tight cord of muscle lurking somewhere below his right shoulder blade--the cost of that lazy dismount earlier in the day--and it's going to pinch during his basket pose unless he works it loose now. He makes slow circles in time to the drumbeat of Bella's music, which is so familiar that he can't help picturing the routine that is taking place beneath the hot lights, on the other side of the draped fabric dividing the ring from this backstage place. On this chord she pulls herself into a lying position, most of her weight on Fiera but with one foot placed carefully in the centre of Tilly's back. And on this run of notes, she extends her free leg upwards and arches her back. When the key changes, the horses will speed up.
Bella performs with her hair a mass of curls and with the lights burnishing her skin, deliberately Amazonian, somehow earthy and otherworldly both at once. The reason her act is so effective, Will suspects, is because Jack's choreographic mind has learned to externalise the way he sees his own wife such that everyone else can see it too, and then elevated that vision to an art form.
Performers that they are, Jack and Bella have the story of how they met down to a similar sort of art: Jack, a technical stagehand hoarding a simmering and detailed dream of the circus he'd build if he had the chance, spent a summer touring Europe with the Cingolani Brothers and fell in love with their youngest stunt rider the moment he set eyes on her.
At this point in the story Bella chimes in to point out that it took the whole summer for her to fall in love with him, thank you very much.
Jack Crawford's wife is the only person Will knows, in the circus world or out of it, with three names--even if nobody ever uses Phyllis, and she's only Hippolyta in the ring.
"She's fearless," says Abigail's voice from nearby, soft and admiring.
Will peeks around and then up at a heap of crates and sees Abigail and Lecter sharing a view of the ring through a high gap in the entrance drapes.
"I thought Jack was finding you seats."
"What better way to watch than this?" Lecter gestures down at the hushed bustle of the preparation area.
"You're not supposed to see all the mess that goes into it," Will says. "Not the first time, at least."
"On the contrary, Will; I'm very interested in process." Lecter looks steadily at Will. In the spillover of golden light from the ring his cheekbones are like etchings, his eyes dark as wet ink. "I feel you can appreciate something even more when you know its secret mechanics."
Will's saved from having to think of an answer to that by the sudden swell of cheers. Tilly trots out through the ring entrance and then pulls to a well-trained halt, awaiting Bella, who emerges on Fiera's back with sweat shining her limbs and a satisfied fire in her face. She spares a grin for Will as she swings her legs to the ground, but doesn't say anything. Carole ducks in and attaches leading reins to the horses, and then Bella makes a soft noise of command in her throat and leads them outside.
"Shit, shit. Hold this. Shit."
A tray full of glass beakers brimming with coloured water is thrust into Will's arms. He manages not to drop it.
"You're lucky I have good reflexes," he says.
"Sure." Beverly, her hands now freed, is winding her hair into a rapid bun. She secures it with elastic and gives her head an experimental shake. The first burst of laughter comes from the audience, signalling that the clowning interlude has already started, and Beverly grabs her tray back. "The next time Zee makes me miss my cue, I'm filling one of these with real acid," she says cheerfully, and then she's gone in a swirl of white lab coat.
This isn't one of their longer routines, just something to fill time while Kiah's crew clears the ring, and a creative way to move Alana's equipment. Zeller puffs his cheeks out and struggles with large boxes while Price stalks him straight-faced around the ring putting obstacles in his path. Beverly makes a big show of ignoring their antics and tipping water from one container to another, mixing colours; from time to time she triggers a puff of smoke or a zip of lightning with a pedal beneath her foot.
Will looks around for Alana and finds her nearby, bouncing on the balls of her feet, eyes closed. People weave around her as though nudged by the bubble of space created by her concentration. Her eyelids are painted the same intense white as the zigzag patterns on her unitard and skirt.
Clowning takes a looser approach to choreography, but Will knows this act, too, step by step. Something bright bubbles through tubes of glass. Zeller sets down the largest box, which contains Alana's rings. Price makes a show of swapping two beakers while Beverly's back is turned--Alana gathers herself and steps towards the entrance--and Beverly lifts and pours one liquid into another, a thin cascade of water caught and furiously glistening between two spotlights--
Will glances up at the crates, where Abigail has been startled back by the blinding flash. He knows how it feels, the first time. Everything has been seared new. It takes a lot of blinking to realise that what you're seeing is not the dancing aftereffect of your own retina but instead the set design: splashes of neon called to life under the blacklight, suggesting that Beverly's liquid has exploded and left a prism's worth of rainbows dripping down every surface.
And in the midst of it all, just as your eyes have begun to adjust, three purple-white balls are flung into the air.
A finger pokes Will's arm.
"Wendy," he says cautiously.
"Don't make that face, honey," Wendy says. A sarcastic pout forms on her pink lips. "I'm not here to suggest anything new. Or, God forbid, exciting. Here."
She holds out two wrist cuffs of supple black suede. If it were anyone else who'd forgotten part of their costume, Wendy would be grabbing them by the arm and dressing them by force, but there's a surprising amount of sensitivity beneath all of that soft hair and sharp exuberance. She knows how much contact Will can tolerate, and when.
"Sorry," Will says, and slips them over his hands.
Wendy makes a tutting sound, licks her finger and dabs at the shoulder of his shirt. A barely noticeable smudge of bronzer becomes even less noticeable.
Wendy flicks up her lashes in a look that says: don't pretend you're above caring about presentation, Will Graham. You're too well trained for that.
He acknowledges her point with half a shrug and she disappears. The tension in Will's back is still there; he closes his eyes and centres himself in his senses, as Alana was doing. It was Alana who taught him this technique when she found him jittery and wild-eyed in rehearsal one day, his mind tangled with anticipation of the hungry wires.
One, two, three, four, five. He can feel the mats under his bare feet and the soft tightness of the paint on his face. He can taste his own dry tongue, and coffee. He can smell dusty fabric, horses, wood and sweat and something sweet like a fresh pear.
Four is sight and is always nothing, because Will can't play this game with his eyes open. He needs the blankness.
Five is a murmur of wonder, spilling and rising like a tide.
Will opens his eyes again.
A performer's sense, one that doesn't fall on the usual list, advises him that he's being watched. He looks at the ground and rises onto his toes and doesn't look at Hannibal Lecter, because he knows that to do so will be do lose the shawl of calm that he's just managed to drape over himself. Secret mechanics. He'd like to be invisible as the paint in the ring, impossible to see until the light is turned upon him and he's forced to glow.
Well, forced is perhaps the wrong--
Stop it. Stop. One two three four eyes closed five.
He feels the moment when his balance should be thrown by the momentary loss of visual cues, and conquers it.
When Alana finishes her act the lights are cut, plunging the ring into a blackout so abrupt that the furious applause falters, as it always does, the audience wondering if something's gone wrong. Jack likes that moment of startlement, serving the same purpose as the lightning flash. We can still surprise you, it tells the audience. You haven't seen everything.
"Ladies and gentlemen," begins Jack's voice, from far away. One spotlight will be focused on him and another on Will's trapeze, dropping slow as honey from the height of the rig.
He tries not to focus on what Jack says. None of it is true, of course, but it makes for beautiful patter. Nobody wants to hear that they are about to see a restless small-town boy who was given the dull name of William Graham and never bothered to shed it, who shipwrecked himself on the welcoming banks of the circus and then was too good to ever be allowed to leave.
Will takes a deep breath and walks out into the darkness.
Even before he intrudes on the spotlight, he's visible as a pale shape, dressed in a simple white t-shirt and black leggings: warm-up clothes. No shimmer, beyond the careful gleam of bronzer along the contours of his face and a rim of black paint to widen his eyes. Simple. Nothing to distract from his actions.
A smattering of anticipatory applause encircles him when he reaches up and grabs the bar with both hands, then lifts his body off the ground. Will balances himself with one leg hanging down and one bent up, foot resting on the trapeze, relaxed, like a small boy perched in a tree. The trapeze begins to rise and the spotlights follow, keeping him suspended in a slash of white light. Higher and higher he goes. Swallowed in the darkness beneath him, the black-clad crew are stretching out the net.
Later, when he swings more widely and the music turns more frantic, the lights will flicker and then settle into a deep, ugly red. Then the paint on his face will carve out shadows, and nothing about him will look simple or white any more. The program calls this piece the Fallen Angel, and Jack swears up and down that it's made people cry.
But then, Jack will swear almost anything, if it makes the show better.
Will lifts himself to his feet, takes hold of the suspension wires, and starts to swing. Each bend of his body pushes the pendulum along its arc. All he can see is the light.
He wonders if Abigail would look at him now, as she looked at Bella, and describe him as fearless. He wonders if she knows how wrong she would be.
The road exists in pieces, like a dream, each short stretch appearing in the headlights as though invented from scratch, and disappearing just as quickly. Will keeps the window wound down halfway just to have the breeze buffeting his face, and plays music that he's never heard before. Beverly makes it her business to keep his motorhome stocked with new mix CDs, even as she rolls her eyes and says she can't believe he hasn't moved into the era of digital music with the rest of them. He focuses on the lyrics, follows them and turns them in his head. If he doesn't know what's coming next, it's harder to tune out.
Everyone's got their tricks.
Will's motorhome rattles at rest and sputters on the move, and the exterior was tree-scraped all to hell during a narrow escape on black ice two winters ago. He likes the familiar noise of it, which fills the gaps between songs. It's the closest thing he has to conversation.
Behind him, visible in flashes in the side mirror whenever the road is straight enough, is Hannibal Lecter's absurd art piece of a car, connected even more absurdly to his trailer. Unscraped. Well-kept. Will pictures Abigail asleep in a narrow bunk, dark hair in her face, sedated by the engine's hum.
The next song starts and Will takes a gulp of lukewarm Coke that fizzes right into his nose. He dreams a new vision of road into existence, lined by the dense shadows of trees.
Like all of those who stay awake on the road, he'll sleep as they raise the top.
"One of you idiots is going to end up with a freeze burn."
"Come on, Kiah," says Zeller. "Science!"
The circus quartermaster is a petite woman with a shock of blonde hair and a piece of sprung metal in place of a left foot, and she acts as something between a stage manager and an engineer. She sends an unimpressed look in Zeller's direction. "Keep it out of my way," she says.
Zeller, inflicted with both a doomed crush on Kiah and a contrary streak as wide as a country meadow, lifts another ladle of liquid nitrogen and lets it spill across the ground in soft, eerie billows. Kiah turns away and goes back to shouting instructions at the crew up in the rig, occasionally conferring with Abigail, who is seated cross-legged on the ring barrier.
"I can't believe Jack finally let us include this," Beverly says. "Zee, mind my toes."
"The trappings of science, played for laughs," says Hannibal Lecter, suddenly at Will's side. He, too, moves one leather shoe back from the drops of nitrogen. "Interesting. Though I will admit, it's not what I expected from Jack Crawford."
"Hey, fuck you, I trained with Dupont," says Zeller.
"Of course," Lecter says. "I meant no disrespect to the long tradition of your art."
Zeller hesitates, clearly not sure if that much politeness can exist outside the realm of sarcasm. Will doesn't blame him. Lecter holds himself as though on display, well arranged, down to the neat drape of his jacket over his arm and the blandly curious angle of his head. But Will remembers what he thought of, when he first saw the man's face: the clown blanc, the manipulator. If he looks long and hard perhaps that shadow will announce itself again.
"Sure, sure, whatever." Zeller says finally. "But don't say anything like that around Jimmy, man, he's got a whole lecture on Grimaldi and the European school of solemn irreverence stored up and I think he's looking for people to inflict it on."
"Come on," says Beverly. "Let's see what we can make this stuff do."
Will backs away to sit on the ring barrier so that they can start playing around. Beverly tries a casual flick with the almost-empty ladle and Zeller looks down at his steaming hoodie with an expression of dismay that tickles the side of Will's mouth, effortlessly funny. Price and Zeller had a classic joey-and-auguste act that was amusing but but mediocre until Jack, with his unerring eye for what people can be made to do, found Beverly and threw her into the mix. Beverly fills a different role, not one that fits into the traditional clowning canon: the responsible adult. Her calm purposefulness in the midst of chaos is somehow more hilarious than all the thrown water and physical farce.
"Do you mind if I join you?" Lecter indicates with his free arm.
Will tries not to be too obvious about watching, with his acrobat's eye, as the man sits down. Lecter moves in a studied manner that would be nothing unusual in a trained performer; but trained for what? Quick talking, improvisation, crystal balls and cards? You don't need balance, for that. You don't need to know where the whole of your body is in space.
Sleight of hand, he'd said.
"You haven't addressed me by name yet, Will," he says. "Or should I take that as an indication that you prefer formality? Mister Graham?"
Will makes a face. "Please don't. No, I--it's silly, I didn't want to assume, and then it was just too awkward to ask. You have to admit, your appearance doesn't exactly suggest informality."
"That is true." He turns his body towards Will's and extends a hand. There's a glint of metal where his watch peeks out from beneath a crisp blue shirt cuff. "Hannibal, please."
It's odd, this private reintroduction, a stepping back and a step forward both at once. Courtesy mingling with intimacy. A feeling like an extra beat of Will's heart when Hannibal's hand closes around his.
"I, um, haven't seen any corde lisse in a while," says Will, taking his hand back.
"Abigail is very accomplished."
"I beg your pardon?"
"It sounded like there was a but attached, that's all."
Will feels a private satisfaction at having caught the iceberg-tip of an expression on Hannibal's face. The silence is the unique silence that arises when neither person cares that long pauses, as a general rule, make conversation uncomfortable.
"Yes, there is," Hannibal says finally.
"I will be interested to see if you notice it."
Will follows his gaze in time to see the rope, dark green and as thick as his own upper arm, unfold to the ground in a sinuous slouch. Abigail is tying back her hair, walking towards where the last few yards of it have pooled in coils in the centre of the ring. She grasps the rope and gives it a firm tug, glancing upwards into the top where the rope's end is attached to the rig. Then the muscles of her shoulders tighten beneath her neck-to-wrist leotard, and she's climbing.
Corde lisse, like any aerial work, is about creatively controlling the tendency of objects to fall to earth. Halfway up the rope Abigail twists, drops her upper body, and is suddenly dangling from a series of loops; her outstretched arms are lazy in extension, drawing the eye. Her thighs are solid, all the force of her own mass counteracted by their grip on the rope.
Will can feel a phantom tension ripple up his own legs as he watches. It's all vertical, all flexible, so much give-and-take. No pendulum swing. No rigid horizontal bar to take your force and reassure you with its own.
But he supposes that the stark space beneath a trapeze might seem just as discomfiting to someone whose equipment reaches all the way down to the ground.
Abigail unfolds herself from another complex tangle until she's dangling from only one hand, her feet pointed and legs like opened scissors, turning in a slow circle. For such a controlled pose it looks--bloodless, graceless, somehow limp. Surrender in the angle of her neck.
Then he blinks and Abigail bends her legs, and the impression is gone.
"I think I know what it is," Will says. "The but."
Another silence. He draws his eyes down to meet Hannibal's, hooded beneath raised eyebrows. Will knows he's right, but he still feels a twinge of nerves as a fifteen-year-old version of himself informs him that he is again under assessment. That version of Will, or some version at least, is anxious to impress. This is unusual enough that Will loses his thought and must fish it clumsily to the surface again.
"She isn't playing to an audience. What she's doing, it's for herself. There's not enough..."
It seems like an unkind word to use, so he stops. Hannibal Lecter says it for him.
"No, not yet. She is still learning." Hannibal's gaze, following his ward as she ascends with quick jerks of her foot in a loop, is clear. "That was well observed. I will forgive you, if you can't tell me why the rope is green."
But even dressed casually and lacking a mature performer's instinct, the way Abigail moves in relation to her equipment--curious, flirtatious, giving it its own life--has already told Will that answer. He wonders that Hannibal should consider it the harder of the two questions.
"The temptation of Eve," he says, without hesitation. "Does she perform with an apple?"
"It seems Jack has an eye for iconography," Hannibal says. Will feels the transfer of his attention like the heat of stage lights. "Did he see the troubled angel in you, Will, or did you have to fall in front of his eyes?"
High, high above them, Abigail winds the serpent of rope around one leg and throws herself head-first towards the ground. Friction keeps her safe.
Will does know a mature performer when he sees one. He's not stupid enough to think that Hannibal, his warm attention burning the blood in Will's face, isn't entirely aware of Abigail's routine. Well timed, indeed.
In his chest, Will's heart is racing. It feels like fear. He doesn't know what to do with this kind of intrusive perception; he isn't going to say, I never fall. With too little effort he could open himself to overload.
"I don't know," he says. "You'd have to ask Jack."
The sun hasn't touched the horizon when the sideshow gates open, which is perhaps the only downside to summer. A show aimed at families can't start too late, and the days are long. All pre-show activities therefore take place in what is almost an inappropriate amount of daylight. Will, wearing his thick-rimmed glasses and no makeup at all, is mingling with his audience as their shadows stretch like taffy in the dusk.
For him, as he suspects it is for most small-town American boys possessed of sullen, prickly imaginations, the inner carnival that colours all others is Bradbury's: music almost unheard, a storm approaching, and a salesman bearing lightning rods and questions. Boy, what's your name?
Will. Is the answer. Is always the answer.
Neon blinks in his periphery like a forgotten headache and he turns away from the shrill, queasy warble of the rides. There's a good smell of grass when he lets his feet tread firmly. He walks past the darts and balloons, the dumb turning mouths of clowns ready to swallow balls, and pauses at the gaping entrance of a small reddish tent. Hannibal Lecter, seemingly unfazed by the number of people walking straight past, is shuffling a pack of cards.
"Good evening, Will. Do come in." He nods at the empty chair on the other side of the folding table.
"I don't think I'm your target audience here."
"Ah, but better a fake audience than no audience at all."
"That's true," Will agrees. He steps inside; the tent is shallow and well-lit, designed so that its goings-on can be observed fully from the outside. "Deal me some cards. I can be your credulous bait."
"Thank you." Hannibal gathers the pack together and cuts it into three piles as Will takes his seat.
"Should we discuss my childhood, then? My romantic prospects, my career goals?"
"We can discuss whatever you wish," Hannibal says smoothly. "But I must ask you to nod."
"When I am speaking--yes. Like that. It suggests, to anyone observing, that I am reading your desires correctly. And so makes them more likely to open their own wallets and approach."
"Will people really do this? Help build your act, if you ask them to?"
"It's surprising what people can be made to do, if you ask them politely." Hannibal lays out six cards, two from every pile. Will watches his competent hands and nods, nods. "But no. I give them mundane, pleasant statements to agree with; nothing to do with my fortune-telling itself. Yes, it is a warm night. Yes, they are looking forward to the show."
"I imagine that only works for the first minute or so."
"The Ace of Cups in this spread represents someone who is quite perceptive, who sees that little bit further than other people might, and when taken with the Eight of Disks in the same line it indicates a use for this perception in your daily life, perhaps your profession, is this making sense to you? Which is not to say that you let everyone know about this talent; in fact, you know when to take a step back and be underestimated."
"Is any of this--"
"Accurate? Not by any measure, even that of traditional tarot symbolism. You'll notice that I am avoiding specifics and in fact bracketing every suggestion with its own opposite, as a caveat. I can also present you with universal themes, simply on the balance of probability. For example: the Star inverted suggests to me that there is potential in you for change, perhaps something you have been considering for a while now, and this could be related to a time in your past when you made a choice about the direction that your life would take, moving on from a fork in the road, as it were. I think since then you have always wondered about that part of yourself that you abandoned, when you chose one of those roads over another."
His voice borders on the hypnotic, dancing from beat to beat and never touching any word too heavily. A kind of ringmaster-patter: the theatricality, not the content, is what matters. But his eyes are keen and Will feels lulled into wanting truth.
"You've stopped nodding, Will."
"Am I no longer reading your desires correctly?"
Will says, "I wouldn't say that," and feels the evening air hold its breath.
Silence. Will looks at the cards, his face hot. The Eight of Disks is a tree that unfurls into feverish flowers against a yellow-summer sky. When his irritation with himself builds to the point that he can look up again, he realises that this is another of those safe, unusual silences. Nobody is laughing.
"I'm," he says, "I'm not earning you any money, sitting here."
Hannibal smiles. It aches with expense.
"I'm not earning Jack any money," Will amends. "Besides, I want to see this in action, now that you've explained it to me."
"I'm afraid it will be lacking in magic. Now that I've explained it to you."
"Oh, I'm very interested in process," says Will.
Hannibal Lecter blinks. He fixes Will with an inscrutable expression as Will stands and lets himself out the slit in the back of the tent, then stands there and lets himself exhale. He'd like something to lean against, but he'd knock the whole thing over if he tried that with one of the tent poles. It's a good thing his phone is safely in the pocket of his jacket, draped over a chair in the dressing room, because he's seized with the ridiculous urge to call Alana and find out whether Hannibal makes everyone feel like a piece of paper tossed by a breeze or if it's just him.
"Come in," says Hannibal's voice from inside the tent.
Will puts his eye to the thin gap he exited from, pleased with the spark of symmetry--that he should be spying on Hannibal's performance this way. A young woman, perhaps a few years older than Abigail, sits down in the chair he just vacated. Two of her friends hover in the entrance, stifling giggles, one of them sucking threads of cotton candy from her fingers. The woman in the chair looks a bit embarrassed, but she's not giggling along. She turns her hands in her lap and looks at Hannibal and something in her face opens, thawed and thirsty, as he speaks.
That dance of his voice creates a warmth, Will thinks, a sense of shared discovery and a genuine wish to help. And he can see it working; he can see the woman's willingness to help Hannibal in return, her nods and her compromises, the scraps of information she unwittingly provides when she confirms or denies an idle query. The way she allows herself to be swept onwards, past anything that could be considered a mistake, by Hannibal's shrugs and his piercing gaze. His fingers, turning the cards.
He's a liar, and a brilliant one. But from where Will's standing there's something more real about this performance than the Hannibal Lecter whose urbane smile, with its hint of self-deprecation, was no more than a mask. This is part of what he was keeping in reserve, the cellared truth of himself: a personality so undiluted that he can draw others in with no effort. A tidal tug. Not necessarily safe, at all. But deep and difficult to resist.
Will thinks, I could be submerged in him.
For now he doesn't take the thought any further, or wait for any of his own emotions to adhere to it.
He shivers, suddenly aware of the dipping sun as its rays strike up circles like tiny planets caught in the net of his eyelashes. Time to go and stretch.
Voices rise and fall behind him, glad and surprised, as he turns to walk back to the top.
He hears, "William," and then something fast and molten in Russian, and a pair of slender hands clap their callouses right over his eyelids.
"Oh. It's you," he says.
"Oh, very nice. Oh, yourself. You can't rustle up even a little bit of enthusiasm, Will? You can't pretend to be happy to see me?"
"I can't see you."
Some more Russian; he's got no idea how authentic it is, but he's pretty sure it's obscene, from the way her voice curls around the syllables. Will grits his teeth and twists away.
"Freddie, get the hell off me."
Freddie Lounds flashes her teeth. "I missed you too," she says. "I thought of you all, stuck on the same old roads, as I was drinking vodka and learning from the best."
"At the same time? It's a wonder you're still alive."
"I brought some back with me," she coaxes. "We should celebrate my safe return."
A high-pitched noise manifests itself as Cirque Dalmau's wardrobe manager, clad in something just as gold and sequined as anything designed to be worn in the ring, and running as fast as her platform heels will allow over the uneven ground.
"Freddie! Honey, I can't believe you didn't--ugh, let me look at you, did you eat a thing in Moscow?"
Freddie's ringlets are tossed into disarray as she finds herself with a violent armful of Wendy, who doesn't really seem interested in looking at her girlfriend so much as trying to shove her tongue straight down her throat. Freddie manages to gurgle out a laugh before reciprocating with just as much enthusiasm.
"Christ," Will says, and rubs his hands over his face.
"Jealous?" sings Freddie, when her mouth is free. "Poor, poor Will Graham, all alone with his genius."
It's not that he hates Freddie, or even actively dislikes her, but there's something about even their briefest interactions that knots up his muscles like he's been sleeping at the wrong angle. She's stressful, she's a floor full of sharp objects lying in wait for bare feet, and she enjoys it.
She's also true to her word when it comes to both drinking and celebrations, and that evening is a theatre dark. Jack gets permission, or maybe he doesn't, to build a bonfire in the middle of the dirt area that's been serving as their parking lot. People park their motorhomes in a wide circle, prop the doors open, and spill their laughter and their drinks from one end of the moon-bright, red-dust ground to another.
Will sits on his steps and rolls the sleeves of his flannel shirt above his elbows, slowly, one and then the other. The snap of the fire sends sparks darting up to melt into the stars and the air is like a warm bath, and he'd like to stay here, on the outskirts, but he knows better. He looks at his hands, girding himself, until a sweating bottle is dropped into them.
"Don't drop it, this is the last of my stash."
He looks up. Alana has her lips around the neck of her own cider bottle, and her eyes are bright and fond.
"Don't throw things, then." He smiles at her and uses the front of his shirt to twist off the metal cap. "We can't all be jugglers."
"I know, I know," he says. "Come and be sociable."
"Hannibal is cooking," she says, like it's an enticement.
Incredulity tugs at Will's lips. "Cooking?"
"Trust me, you don't want to miss it."
Based on two decades of nomadic existence, Will would have sworn that nothing more sophisticated than a decent macaroni cheese could be thrown together in a trailer kitchenette, but the complex smells emerging from Hannibal's are doing their best to prove him wrong. Hannibal must be inside; they're greeted by Abigail, who proffers a tray of honest-to-God canapés, complete with some sort of frond-like garnish.
"What are these?" Will asks, but Abigail just raises her eyebrows, smiles and pushes the tray closer.
"Don't bother asking," Alana says, reaching over Will with her free hand. "Just try them."
He almost drops the first one, surprised by the crisp oily heat, but gets it into his mouth and makes an embarrassing sound of surprise as his teeth sink past the shell and release the flavour. He can taste ginger, and a lot of other things that someone else might be able to put a name to.
"Mm, yes," says Alana, in between licking her fingers. "That's just as good as I remember. You're wasted on us drifters," she calls into the doorway, and Hannibal appears.
"Food is never wasted if it is appreciated by friends," he says with a smile. He's wearing a white chef's apron that's as incongruous next to his clothes as those clothes are in such a setting, though at least he's rolled up his sleeves. He has a fleck of something red, blood or sauce, on the back of one wrist.
"Something over here smells amazing."
Freddie, who never misses a chance for a costume change, appears clad in a blue dress that froths like the sea, with a bag slung over her shoulder. Despite her words she doesn't spare a glance for the tray of food, but looks at Abigail and then at Hannibal with shameless curiosity.
"I heard we gained some new performers while I was away, but nobody told me they were chefs as well."
"And you would be Freddie Lounds," says Hannibal. That flawless politeness is back in his voice.
"Yes, I would."
"Wait," says Abigail. "As in Freddie the Firebird?"
"Well, there's an old name." Freddie reaches up to touch the longest curl of her hair, with a pleased half-smile.
"I saw you--you trained with Cirque du Soleil." Abigail leans forward, wide-eyed. "What are you doing here?"
"With us amateurs and layabouts, you mean?" says Jack's voice.
Abigail's face flickers in response to Jack's intrusion--she doesn't know him well enough yet to recognise the humour lurking behind his frown--but she holds her chin firm. "I mean--no. Sorry."
Freddie laughs. "The pay's better, if you'd believe it. And I got sick of having my acts planned out for me; I like to run my own show."
"My show," Jack says, leaning down to snatch up a handful of canapés from Abigail's tray.
"Absolutely, boss-man." Freddie touches her fingers to her mouth and tilts the kiss in his direction, mocking.
"We were expecting you yesterday," Alana says to Freddie. "I thought you flew back into the country on Saturday."
"My timing was off, I think I had an early version of the tour schedule. I got into the last town a day after the rest of you left it. You missed some excitement, or at least what passes for it in those places."
"Oh?" says Alana.
Shadows curve under the glass-bead glow of Freddie's eyes. "The body of a local woman was found. Probably killed, it sounded pretty grisly."
"Grisly how?" asks Abigail.
"I'm sure we don't need details that would ruin anyone's appetite," says Hannibal. Now he's holding an enormous pot in two oven-mitted hands, and despite the lid, one of the smells has intensified.
Will's midsection gives an urgent gurgle, and he takes a long swig from his bottle to silence it. The cider fizzes down into his empty stomach and his feet feel light.
"I think we are ready to eat," Hannibal says. "Abigail, would you carry the bowls?"
En masse, they move closer to the bonfire, setting up a clump of folded chairs and blankets on the dirt. Beverly sees them and rushes over to claim a warm blanket-spot with a grin and a toss of her hair, then tugs the foil off a plate of chicken skewers. Jack slips away and returns with three trays of blondies studded with chocolate and smelling of warm citrus. Zeller and Price wander up bearing an enormous salad and two cases of beer, bickering casually about microbreweries. Freddie, of course, dips into her bag and emerges with her fingers locked around the necks of four full bottles of vodka.
From his steaming pot Hannibal ladles out a dark casserole that smells rich and enticing. The meat is tender and the first spoonful is so hot that Will must tip his head back and let steam spill out of his mouth. He stays like that, letting the air wash over his tongue, and centres himself in the stars again.
"Well now," says Bella's voice, amused. "What a fancy party this is."
Jack lifts a shot glass to his wife as she approaches, and downs the vodka. Without releasing her grip on her horses' reins, Bella leans down and kisses him, her tongue flicking out in a thoughtful taste.
"Save some of that for me," she says.
"Have a seat," invites Freddie, hoisting the vodka.
"I'll be back presently. These girls and I need to finish our walk."
Abigail leaps to her feet and brushes crumbs from her lap. "Can I--?"
Bella smiles. "Of course."
"I haven't worked with a circus that still uses animals," Abigail says. She reaches out a hesitant hand to the horses. "They were so precise, in the ring."
"The one who's hoping you might have some sugar in that hand is Tilly, and this is Fiera."
"That's a lovely name," says Abigail.
"A less lovely sentiment, in translation," says Hannibal.
Bella laughs and nods, stroking Fiera's nose. "She thinks a lot of herself, this one."
The evening cracks open and releases true night in thin shroud threads. Will's fingers smell of food and his hand is sticky from where he gripped a glass over-full of vodka, which spilled over and then burned him into gasping as it went down. Conversation rises around him and then becomes indistinguishable from the sound of a crowd. He finds himself tense and drunk and restless, Beverly relaxing her head on his thigh, her hair a watery gleam in the firelight. She's telling a story; Will tuned out at the start of it so he's not sure where it's headed, but he smiles anyway, because her delivery is infectious.
The story climbs to a triumphant punchline and Freddie gives a coppery laugh. She's looking much less drunk than Will would have expected for someone who's been uncomplainingly lining her stomach with salad alone, and the vodka bottles are somewhere on the other side of the circle. It makes sense, when he thinks about it: Freddie's a nuisance, but she's also a professional, and she casts glance after thoughtful glance at the bonfire until Jack heaves a sigh.
"Well, Miss Lounds?"
Freddie's most satisfied grin springs onto her face. "Well what, Mr Crawford?"
"If I poach an artist from Cirque du Soleil and then release her from the tour for weeks a time because she tells me she simply must attend an intensive training course on another continent--"
"At the Nikulin, Jack," Freddie protests. "Tsvetnoy Boulevard."
"God, don't rub it in," says Alana dryly.
"--if I do all of that, out of the goodness of my heart, then I think I have to insist on seeing the fruits of my investment with my own eyes."
As Jack speaks, Freddie pulls an elastic off her wrist and wrangles her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck, then leans down and reaches for the bag under her camp seat. When she straightens, the chains of her poi clink and rub in her hands. "I will require," she says, "applause."
Abigail is the first to start clapping, sitting bolt upright on her own seat, and the momentum builds from there. Wendy, beaming and blurred with alcohol, gives a piercing whistle around her fingers. "Go, baby!" she yells.
Freddie spreads her arms wide and gives a dancer's curtsey, one foot tucked behind. Her dress is icy ocean blue beneath the moon as she starts to move her wrists, a gentle and seductive arc, never letting the poi climb higher than her own hands. She turns her back and walks closer to the fire, swish, swish, controlling a pair of symmetrical pendulums. Weight on a wire, like a miniature trapeze.
The next sway of the poi brings the kerosene-soaked wicks into contact with the bonfire, where they snatch up the flame for themselves.
Beverly sits up and settles herself cross-legged in order to see better. The night air, cooling now, slips in against Will where her warmth had been.
The rapid circles of Freddie's wrists have created two golden rings that burn on the eyes and on the darkness. Behind them Freddie tips back her head and crows like the echo of Neverland, like a siren calling across waves.
Will lifts a hand to the skin of his cheek, which is alcohol-numb and too warm, and watches the watching people. Bella leaning back against Jack's chest, eyes heavy-lidded and content. Alana picking a piece of cake apart. Wendy, artlessly smitten. And--
And Hannibal Lecter, looking not at the performance in front of him, but back at Will, the widdershins flicker of the poi creating the illusion of muscles moving beneath his skin. Will licks his lips, which are very dry. He remembers the image of the Star on Hannibal's cards, a woman's hair tumbling like water and the red-glowing disc of the moon.
Meaningless. He knows. He knows better.
Will is the first to blink, and the first to look away.
Freddie sways on her feet, once, twice, and then she's dancing, weaving across the dust, and the slashing gold of the fire spins in her wake.
"I didn't know you thought I was stagnating, Jack."
"That's not what I said."
"Well." Will runs his hands through his hair, chasing the itch of sweat. "Yeah, it is."
"You're comfortable with your routine. I've never seen you miss a beat, when you perform. I'd like to see you push further."
Will glances up into the top. "You'd like me to break my neck."
"Don't be childish."
"No, that's what I'm here for, isn't it? To make people believe in the possibility and the impossibility of my death, both of them at the same time?"
The held breath. The miracle that almost isn't.
"What you're here for?" Jack smiles, incredulous and dry. "Yes, Will. Are you saying you don't want to be here?"
"This isn't a prison. You can walk away any time."
Will feels amusement like a lead weight. His mouth turns up. "I signed a contract, didn't I?"
"People break contracts," Jack says.
"I'm not going anywhere."
The teeth of the trap spring shut. "Then you're still my artist, and I want you to listen to me on this."
"So much for Freddie's glorious idea of self-directed performance," says Will, bitterly.
"Freddie is pushing herself!" snaps Jack with sudden anger. "Freddie changes her routine every other week. She went to Moscow and scorched off half her fingerprints, and she got better."
Better. The flames shooting higher from her mouth, kissing her cracked lips more closely.
"Only a handful of people in the world can do what I do," says Will. "And I've said I'll keep doing it."
Jack deflates, his shoulders lowering, and Will belatedly hears the threat that his own mouth hid in those words.
"And I'm glad you're doing it here," Jack says. "But think about it. Please."
Will thinks about it, walking away from the tent, and gets a good rhythm going between his own irritation and the cooling stretch of his leg muscles, so instead of going back to his motorhome he just keeps walking, out and around a slow perimeter of the circus site. It's late morning and nobody has anywhere to be but everyone has some small thing to do.
Hannibal and Abigail aren't making any noise, so there's nothing to warn Will before he walks behind one of the only permanent buildings on this site--a hunched storage unit of grey wood and metal with a rusted padlock on the only door, well removed from the top and the main cluster of trucks--and comes across the two of them. Hannibal is facing the building at a short distance, sleeves once again rolled up to his elbows, his face like a breath sharply drawn and held with intent. He's holding what Will takes, at first, for a pair of scissors.
Then Will hears Abigail laugh, and in his peripheral vision a small reddish ball falls to the ground. He turns. Abigail crouches down and picks it up, rubs it on her jeans to remove the dirt, and then straightens again. She sets her back to the wooden wall and balances the ball carefully on her head, then spreads her arms out wide.
"Sorry," she says. "I wobbled. Try it now."
"We have company," says Hannibal. When Abigail spies Will her eyes go wide but she doesn't wobble at all.
Now that Will looks closely, it's not a ball. And those--weren't scissors.
The air is tight like an instrument, stringed and poised, awaiting the downbeat of some unseen baton.
"I should," Will says, shifting his weight onto his back foot. "I mean, I can leave."
"No, stay," says Abigail. She flicks her eyes and must find whatever permission she's seeking on Hannibal's face, because she says again, "Stay."
"As you can see, Will, she does perform with an apple. From time to time."
As he speaks, Hannibal plants his feet and lifts a lazy hand. Will has no time to tense himself, to build his anticipation, before Hannibal throws his arm forward and there's a flash--a faintly wet thunk--a throwing knife trembling in the wood above Abigail's head having speared the apple straight through.
"Sleight of hand, is it?" Will says. "Well, that explains..."
It's a long pause before Hannibal says, "Yes?"
The way you move like there's a void beneath you. The sureness of your hands. Some of the danger, but not all of it.
"Your balance," Will says.
Hannibal tilts his head. "Why not?"
"Because you clearly want me to," says Will, who is bristling with the static of invisible storms and not at all in the mood, after Jack's interference, to have his strings pulled. "And. It seems rude. This is clearly a secret of some kind or other, or you wouldn't be hiding."
"Which is the secret?" Hannibal asks. "That I can throw knives, or that I am choosing not to throw them for Jack Crawford?"
"It's all the same thing, with Jack," Will says. "If he thought you were any good, he wouldn't stop until you were doing it in the ring."
"I might not be any good," says Hannibal, with the suggestive neutrality that matches his cold reading. Nod here. Agree here.
"I'm choosing to trust Abigail on that one," says Will. "She wouldn't be standing there, otherwise."
Hannibal turns the two remaining knives in his hands. "No?" he says.
Abigail inhales through parted lips, exhales, and--
--the knives land on either side of Abigail's neck, their silver bracketing the gleam of metallic thread in her gauzy purple scarf. She smiles.
"No," she says.
"I am very good," Hannibal says. "I trained under Bedelia du Maurier. And you are right, Will: it's about knowing who to trust. To stand where Abigail is standing requires trust." A smile like the clipped edge of a fingernail. "The first time, it requires more. It requires faith."
Abigail steps away from the wall and tugs out the knives. She keeps hold of the one that peeks out of the apple, but the other two she tosses back to Hannibal in deliberate, slow spins that he intercepts easily. Will's seen Alana do the same thing, and Freddie with her flaming batons. But there's a gaping distance between reaching to catch the harmless end of something that you yourself put in motion, and holding yourself passive at the mercy of someone else's skill.
Like casting yourself into space with arms extended to be caught. Like flying trapeze, if it weren't for the fact of the net beneath.
The static electricity of Will's anger rises and crackles at his heels until he's walking, turning, until he's grounding the charge in the way the splinters of the wood feel against his palms.
Here you go, Jack. I'm not in my comfort zone now.
"This isn't faith," Hannibal says. An observation; not an objection.
Splinters. Sweat. Will flattens his hands against the wood and his pulse spiders out to thrum in every fingertip. No, it isn't faith. But he's lived with fear for such a long time now that this surge of it is almost like relaxation, even when he fixes his eyes on the glinting points of the knives.
"Will," Abigail says. She squeezes his forearm; the apple is still in her other hand, half-lifted. She might offer him a bite, Will thinks, and surprises himself by smiling.
"It's alright," he says.
Abigail smiles back at him. "I was going to say, don't move."
"That can be part of the act, can't it? Strap them to a wheel and spin it."
"We do that as well," Hannibal says. "It appears to be more risky, but like most things, it's about timing. The danger is in unpredictable motion."
Abigail pats his arm again and steps away. "You'll want to flinch. But don't." She speaks with the easy confidence, one acrobat to another, that he can convince his muscles to do anything or any sort of nothing that might be required of them. That's not faith either, just training.
"Sure," Will says.
Close your eyes, urges the fear, but Will is done being dictated to for today. As long as he's ignoring his other senses, he can face this with his eyes open.
"Arms out to the side," says Hannibal, and Will obeys.
"Fingers splayed, please."
For a moment the world tilts and Will's knees try to take up the slack; he feels like this when he's been most of the day on a tightrope, and then returns to solid ground only to feel seasick with the lack of give beneath his feet.
Will takes a deep breath, searching Hannibal's face for reassurance, but the man's gone opaque again, holding himself with the patience of granite.
Ask me, his eyes mock.
Half of Will's livelihood is his hands.
The tiny rattle of blood in each fingertip intensifies and Will holds Hannibal Lecter's gaze, stubborn, bewildered by the whisper of happiness within him that's trying to unfurl as though coaxed by sunlight. He is faithless and transfixed.
Will smiles. He spreads his fingers as wide as they will go, creating eight triangles of empty space.
"Take a breath, Will. Inhale with me. Then exhale."
Hannibal's free hand rises, directing, and Will fills his lungs. There's barely a pause at the top of the arc before Hannibal lets his hand slowly fall again, and Will concentrates on breathing steadily out. Another breath like this, Will's eyes tracking Hannibal's hand and letting his body relax into its stance. And another, until Will is so tied to this visual cue that he obediently doesn't inhale when the hand doesn't rise again, just stands and waits, and Hannibal lifts his other hand and the fear tries to burn its way out of his chest but there's no fuel for it, no oxygen, clever, Will thinks, and then the knife flies at him.
He feels the shock of impact with the back of his right hand. A ripple in the wood. No pain. But perhaps it wouldn't hurt at first, if it were that fast and that sharp.
He waits. He remembers, when his head spins, to inhale. There is no pain, and no trickle of blood. Snug up against his ring finger is a smooth metal edge.
"Don't you want to look?" Abigail says, grinning.
But he is looking at Hannibal, and can't stop. Will laughs, and something leaves him with the laughter. He is a grounded point and he is warm all over. He keeps his hands exactly where they are.
"Again," he says.
It's laundry day, and Will's laundry days have a predictable pattern to them: he will wash two loads and hang them up to dry on lines that unfold from the roof of his motorhome, and then he will entirely forget the existence of his laundry until darkness falls. In cooler seasons this means his socks end up strewn across every surface inside the motorhome, slowly warming up so that he can tell if they've gone damp again or just cold.
Now, in summer, he walks straight into a dish towel suspended at face height as he returns exhausted to his home after a show, and then hovers with a nose full of clean cloth trying to decide if he's lazy enough to just leave it until tomorrow. Better not.
The act of fetching the basket and unpegging everything wakes him up again, though, and instead of going straight in to bed he leans one arm on the lowest line and gazes out into the clear night, at the faint wash of the Milky Way's limb bisecting the sky. At yellow light in windows, and chattering shadows crossing shadows as the circus winds itself down.
Will bites thoughtfully at one thumb. It would be easy to become one of those social shadows and knock on the door of Hannibal's trailer door, bearing--gifts, wine? Nothing but himself? He's tired enough that his mind is mumbling a quiet second fiddle to his body, which wants to be told how to breathe. It wants Hannibal's hands to hold it like a knife, and it wants the taste of that calm smile. It's been a long time since Will wanted.
Tension vibrates through the clothes lines under his arm as another body collides with it in the dark.
"Hey, Will." He can't see her face, but he can see her hand come up to smooth her hair. "One of your pegs almost took my eye out. Forgot your laundry again?"
"At least it's still dry."
"Are you turning in?"
"Mm, not just yet." He rests his chin on his arm. The line dips under this added weight; too loose for him to walk on, but a slackline artist could do it, if the anchor points held firm. "My mind's decided it's too busy."
"Yeah?" A pale flash of her teeth in a smile. "What's it up to?"
Normally he'd turn evasive, now, brush the question off with an uncomfortable smile and bless the dark that she wouldn't be able to see it. He could try truth; he could do with some perspective, he's not so stupid that he can't see that. But he doesn't have a good answer for her. All he's got at the moment is the memory of his ribcage expanding.
"It's trying to decide what kind of coward I am," he says, and then he blinks a few times and straightens up. "Bev, what do you do when you don't know if what you want from someone is--well, sex--or--or something completely different?"
Beverly reaches out and finds his hair on her second try--the first gets his ear--then gives it a ruffle. "Aw, Will," she says, with laughter in her voice. "I do what normal people do. I drink."
"Oh, I intend to be. I'll get the beer. You go and tell Alana we need her trailer. Unless, wait. Are we talking about Alana?"
"Are we--no! No."
"Pity," Bev says dryly.
Will smiles and tries to hit her arm as she moves away, but he can't see well enough to aim. Beverly takes more energy to be with, more presence of mind, than Alana does; but where he knows only the surface of Alana's life, he knows that Beverly lost her virginity at fifteen to a girl at summer camp, then lost it again at seventeen to a nice but very self-absorbed boy in her chemistry class. He knows that Beverly hated college and lived for the evening classes run by the local improv group, that she had a stutter as a child and it kept trying to stick its head into her comedy career and ruin everything, he knows that she has a sister with Down syndrome and parents whom she adores but needs to live far, far away from. Beverly drinks beer and tequila and tells wickedly filthy jokes when she knows you well enough.
He's half expecting Alana to glance apologetically at the clock and decline the offer of company, but she must see something in his face, lit with the glow spilling out from her doorway, because she looks at him carefully and a bit of a smile appears at the side of her mouth. She nods and waves him inside. Her wet hair dangles down either side of her scrubbed-clean face and drips onto the lapels of her bath robe.
"Beverly's fetching the drinks," Will says.
"That's what I like to hear. I'm going to..."
Alana gestures at herself and disappears into the sleeping area of her trailer, leaving Will in what passes for a living room. Alana avoids clutter but chooses bright colours for her possessions, and the small space manages to seem both roomy and cheerful as a result.
Beverly appears just as Alana emerges again, now wearing yoga pants and a faded T-shirt, and to Will's great relief Beverly leaves it until they're all a long way down their beer bottles before she starts prodding him to talk. By now he's not even sure he wants advice, he's content to be vague at the edges with alcohol and to be in company that isn't his own, even if he can't quite make his thoughts pause at the boundaries of this room; even if they will fly out into the night, seeking and wondering.
He says, "Have either of you heard of a Bedelia du Maurier?"
"Why does that ring a bell?" says Beverly. She starts to fumble in her back pocket for her phone. "Hang on, I'll--how do you spell it, do you know?"
"I know," Alana says. "I mean, who she is." She finishes her drink, though, and pauses before speaking again. "Will, how much do you already know?"
Will glances quickly at Beverly, who's tapping away at her phone. He's given her the name, and there's not a lot more that can be hidden. He still doesn't know the size of this secret, if it is one at all.
"Hannibal said that he trained with her, for his knife-throwing act."
Alana looks at him. "I didn't think he was going to make that public knowledge."
"It isn't, is it?" says Will. "But. He told me."
Skirting round the edges of honesty there. He doesn't want to share the details of that strange, intimate morning; doesn't want to admit that he stumbled into something by accident, and especially doesn't want to talk about Abigail's role. His role. Any way he frames it it sounds deranged. It won't make sense without the way it felt to stand there awaiting the slicing blow of the knife, and that's the part that he most wants to keep for himself.
"Bedelia du Maurier was a knife thrower, yes," Alana says. "One of the best. Hannibal was talented before he met her, by all accounts, but she made him just as extraordinary as she was."
"Was? Is she dead?"
Beverly makes a surprised sound and passes her phone to Will, who squints at the tiny text of the browser. She's found an article online, a semi-hysterical thing about circus tragedies that moves from escaped animals and tent fires to specific deaths of performers, some described in lovingly gruesome detail. Two sentences are dedicated to Bedelia du Maurier and her abrupt retirement from performance after a knife-throwing accident that took place under the eyes of hundreds of audience members and resulted in the death, in hospital, of the other person involved in her act.
"That'd mess you up, alright," Beverly says.
"Did you know about this?" Will asks Alana.
"That's not fair, Will," she says, with reproof. It'd be gentler, but alcohol doesn't gentle Alana; it sharpens her instead.
He leans his head back against the wall. He drinks the last of his beer, which is flat and room-temperature, him-temperature, melting across his tongue with only a small jab of fading fizz.
"I, um." Will looks around at the surfaces of his motorhome, searching for one not so strewn with his belongings that he could offer it as a chair. He doesn't invite people in, as a general rule, and he has the irrational feeling that his stools will be taken as a rumple-inducing insult to Hannibal's clothes, even though he's seen the man seated unconcernedly on a tartan blanket with a waterproof lining gone ragged at the edges.
"The ambiance would be lacking, but--the sideshow is deserted," Hannibal suggests, when Will's mouth fails to produce any invitations.
"Yes," says Will, thankful. "Not all of us are prepared to entertain at a moment's notice, I'm afraid."
Hannibal makes a dismissive motion with the hand holding his tarot pack and steps back so that Will can close the door of the motorhome behind himself. "Entertaining is a hobby of mine. I hardly expect the same from everyone else."
Will looks at the ripped-up ground as they walk. "You seem comprised entirely of hobbies and talents," he says. "So why this? Why not--a restaurant somewhere?"
Hannibal strides on without speaking; when Will glances at him he looks as unruffled and opaque as he did a few minutes ago, when he appeared at Will's door and said, I thought you might like to see what the tarot is when it isn't a lie, as he lifted his cards.
He was right, of course.
"I like performing," Hannibal says eventually.
"That doesn't narrow it down. Feeding people is performing, at least the way that you do it. Playing at fortune-telling is a performance, but throwing knives is as well. That doesn't explain why you're doing one and not the other."
That smile appears again, thin without being false. "Would you believe me," Hannibal says, "if I told you I am not prone to deep analysis of my own desires?"
It could be a rhetorical question, but Will's already learned that Hannibal doesn't ask many of those.
"Probably not." Will doesn't see any point in pretending ignorance, or a lack of curiosity, so he says, "I was going to ask if it had anything to do with Bedelia du Maurier, the fact that you're still throwing knives but not for an audience."
"You were going to ask? Or you were waiting to see if I'd say it?"
Will shrugs. "You didn't. So this is me asking."
"It was very unfortunate, what happened. Bedelia was a great loss to the profession."
"She was good," Will prompts.
"She was sublime," Hannibal says, his gaze on something distant. His voice is warm on the words. Will's quietly greedy desire, the desire he stifled with alcohol and the insistent cheer of Alana's trailer, clamours to know how it feels to attract that warmth of opinion.
It's the desire that clicks something, inside his head.
He says, "She threw--I mean, you were her target, for a while."
"I would hardly have chosen her as a teacher if I didn't trust her skill to that extent," Hannibal says. "And she would never have agreed to teach me, if I didn't know how it feels to be on the other end of the knife."
They've reached the empty sideshow now, and they make their way down the central path dotted here and there with paper cones and wooden sticks, ant-swarmed remnants of the previous evening's snacks.
"Do you think she should have kept performing?"
"Should," Hannibal says, slowly. "That is a presumption of a word, I think. She made the decision that was right for her. Bedelia du Maurier would never do anything for any other reason."
"You didn't answer my original question, about why you're here," Will says. "I did notice."
Hannibal turns to face him and lifts aside the flap of the tent in one motion. "I know," he says.
The tent's fabric is red and thin. Will remembers that it glows invitingly into the dusk when lit from the inside, but the current high daylight passes right through it and washes the interior a shade like watered-down wine.
"You can tell me not to be so nosy," Will says.
He pulls out the chair and sits down. Hannibal lets the flap fall behind them instead of tying it back, preserving the warm redcurrant cave, so it's not like the first time Will was sitting here: nobody can see him nodding along to nonsense. He's not here to play bait.
Hannibal removes his jacket and drapes it neatly over the back of his own chair. He glances at Will as he does so, with a smile that's smaller but more friendly than any he's yet displayed.
"Believe me, Will, I plan to be just as nosy in return."
Sitting enclosed in this small space, just the two of them, makes Will feel more like a character than a person, childishly illicit, a myth infused with the sort of gleeful truancy that belongs to Bradbury's parade of inquisitive boys; not to Will, who was never that sort of child. Misbehaviour never gave him anything more than a sourness in his stomach.
"All right," Will says. "Tell me about the tarot."
"I am not going to tell you your future, Will," Hannibal says. "Although, perhaps, I will show you who you are."
"A more modest claim."
Hannibal doesn't rise to the tease, the bitterness, in Will's words. He leans back in the folding chair and begins to shuffle the deck of cards
"There is no magic here," he says, "nor anywhere else, as you well know. The tarot is no better--and often no worse--than a journalist's interview, or a good therapist. It provides a way for you to look at parts of your life that you may not have considered without its prompting, and to think about the many different priorities and aspects that make up your whole self."
"I don't mesh so well with theories," Will says. "Give me an example."
Hannibal inclines his head and neatens the pack. Before, when he was playing at fortune telling, he had made a show of cutting the cards and turning over one from each pile; now he simply fans them and holds them out, faces down, in Will's direction.
Will pauses, still caught in that mythological feeling, but he was reassured by Hannibal's pragmatic spiel. There is no real significance, and no performance expected; none from him, at least. He can't do this badly.
He pulls two cards together from near Hannibal's left hand, and another from the centre of the fan, and places them face-up on the table between them.
"The Four of Swords, the Prince of Wands, and the Universe."
"Very interesting, I presume?"
"No more interesting than any other combination." Hannibal meets his eyes. "I am not trying to trick you. I'm giving you your example. Do you want to hear it?"
The Four of Swords has a background like sparse origami. Hannibal says, "This is a card for isolation and the avoidance of conflict. Using inertia as an excuse not to address one's dissatisfactions or problems."
"It says Truce."
"It means, cowardice."
There are four sword-tips meeting in the centre of the card. Compared to the other cards Will's seen up until now, the overwhelming impression is of symmetry, balance; something held with great care and neither tipping this way nor that.
Jack saying, You're comfortable.
Will looks at the next card. Fire and spikes, and a golden man who holds the reins of a lion.
"Keep going," he says.
"Where the swords focus on our rational minds, the wands are meant to direct our attention towards our willpower, our purposeful energies. This is a card for taking risks."
Will smiles, cautious. "That seems contradictory."
"To the other? Because it represents inertia?"
"I am not reading a spread for you, Will," says Hannibal. "As with the sideshow act, I am speaking in generalities. As with that act, anyone will hear something that is relevant to their life. The only difference is that there is no pretense. I told you, I am not telling your future. You can draw only your own conclusions, and make your own comparisons."
Will leans forward on the small chair. "You mean I can take the second card as direction, where the first was warning. Take a risk, in order to move forward from your current unchanging state, something like that?"
Hannibal makes a there-you-see? sort of motion with one hand. "And I did not have to say a word. The advice, the insight--it all comes from within."
"You said you would show me who I am."
"You can show yourself." Hannibal taps the last card. "Go ahead. Indulge me. Make a guess."
The Universe is a woman dancing within a circle that looks almost like a woven safety net; a woman with a snake, its coils far longer than she is tall. Will has a sudden flash of Abigail Hobbs, her foot caught in a loop of the corde lisse.
There are stars in the net, and an eye like a watchful audience.
"I can see what you mean about generality," Will says. "I know it's just--I know it's not carrying a message for me, but it seems like it is."
"Guess," Hannibal says again. "Take the card as a whole. Close your eyes and tell me the afterimage."
Will closes his eyes, like he's preparing for a show. He says, "Safety."
"Home," says Hannibal. "A place in the world."
Will opens his eyes again and says, "Ah, but we're circus folk. We don't have a home."
"And now, I think, you are being disingenuous."
"That one made me think of Abigail's act," Will says, taking refuge in honesty.
"There are only so many symbols. The woman and the serpent--that one we find repeated in many systems, and many cultures."
Half of Hannibal's mouth turns up in what looks like honest delight. "Very good. Yes. You see, the tarot is comprised of these symbols designed to hook on your psyche. Like fishing with flies."
"No, not personally. But I do have an idea of how it is done. You tease, at the water, with an echo of what the fish truly wants. And because it is hungry, the fish sees food. The tarot is a lure for our minds and our emotions, and so it requires you to bring your imagination to the table, to a certain extent." Hannibal pauses. "Would you say you have a good imagination, Will?"
Cold water up to his knees, higher, his chattering jaw stroked by the wind. The whip of line in slack, delicate arcs. No need to imagine when you remember.
But always somewhere behind his eyes, he suspects, clear to anyone who could bring themselves to look closely and long enough, is the image of him falling and striking the sawdust-coated ground. The way it might hurt. The angles at which things might--snap. What washes over him when he reaches the height of an arc, feels the trapeze in the crook of his knee, and lets his fear grind its fingers into the skin of his neck.
"I don't think you can be afraid, without imagination," Will says.
"And fear is important?"
A noise intrudes, a voice very far away raised in laughter, landing on the tense surface of Will's mind and sending out ripples which nudge him, remind him: this is not a normal sort of conversation.
"It's certainly useful," he says, dry. "My fear is useful, to Jack, if nobody else. Fear makes me sharp. It keeps my reaction times and my hand-eye coordination as they should be. I suppose it's instinct, fight or flight. The brain is desperate for cues, so it'll notice anything."
"And what happens if you neither fight nor fly?"
A shiver spreads over Will like a breeze, like the brush of a feather. It leaves his skin yearning and alert.
"You die," he says, trying to smile through it.
"Surely, not always. You would not consider appealing to mercy?"
"Mercy." With one fingertip, Will turns the Universe on its side. Then he looks up. "I don't think the evolution of the nervous system ever put much stock in mercy, do you?"
Hannibal smiles. "But we are higher creatures, Will. The swords call to us; we have rational minds. We can think beyond our instincts."
He reaches out and puts one finger of his own, just one, over Will's. Holding him in place.
It's hot in this red tent, in the sunlight, with the entrance pulled shut. The air is still and warm as water on Will's skin and yet the shiver returns, more insistently this time. Will glances at their crossed fingers and the tarot card, woman and serpent, as the shiver prickles its way up his throat. He's flushed, dizzy. He can't remember the last time someone touched him with intent.
"Why do you close your eyes like that?"
"Why do you care?" Will counters.
"Now you're fishing."
"Yes. But you did it first. So let's play fish." Will opens his eyes. "I'm a performer, Hannibal. I know when I'm being auditioned."
Hannibal is still smiling, though the smile has changed. Will's gaze keeps snagging on his mouth. That light on his face is like something Biblical, like the blush of a river as it turns to blood.
"Very well. Shall I tell you what I think?" Hannibal says.
He stands up. Will's knees itch to do the same, but Hannibal is moving around to Will's side of the tiny table, unhurried, and Will exerts the perfection of his authority over his own muscles to stay exactly where he is. Hannibal pulls something out of his pocket and Will's pulse leaps in a novel note of alarm.
"I think you need to control what enters your mind," Hannibal says. "Too much at once, and all of that sharpness is stifled."
In Hannibal's hand is a piece of black fabric and Will thinks wildly of Wendy, bringing him his forgotten wrist cuffs, but this is smoother and longer and sits snugly over Will's eyes. Hannibal ties it in a knot behind Will's head and then keeps his hands in contact, anchoring, gentle and exploratory over Will's cheekbones.
Now Will does stand up. His knees jar the table as he does so; he takes half a step to the side and recovers.
His heart, his heart like the drum of marching feet. Hannibal's fingers are a cool cage on his face and there's no reason he can't have this, no reason at all, except that he knows this feeling: it's the soaring, ice-blooded moment before your hands slip. His body saying danger, danger, and not knowing whether it wants to panic or to hurtle on towards oblivion.
"You need to breathe."
"I'm fine," Will says, "I'm," and it's not Hannibal's mouth that touches his but the man's thumb, instead, a careful pressure against Will's bottom lip.
"Take a breath, Will," Hannibal says. His voice so close that Will can almost feel it.
Will pulls in a breath and the ache of his lungs, which he had barely registered, abates. He can hear his own pulse and the distant sound of a truck engine, the shifting cadence of a conversation on the move, and he can smell the expensive spice of Hannibal's skin and he can see nothing, nothing, nothing.
One two three four five.
He waits for Hannibal's inhalation and then he aims for it, strains against the containing grip, and Hannibal doesn't laugh but there's a curve to his lips when he open's Will's mouth and meets it with his own. Will gulps at him like water. Will finally remembers his own numb hands and reaches out to force a closer contact.
There's something like a grunt of approval that runs down Hannibal's body, starting with a low sound and the way he catches Will's lower lip with his teeth and forces his head back, then thrilling all the way down to his side where Will is yanking his ridiculous expensive shirt up and out of the way in search of skin. Hannibal is kissing him as though trying to find in the cathedral of his mouth the violence of old religions, and Will is flooded with need so hot he's almost nauseated with it. He makes a barely-human sound of desire, thin and sobbing, and can't spare the blood to flush. He can do this, he can be in this moment whatever he wants. He can catch and he can be caught.
Part of him wants to know what expression is on Hannibal's face, wants the chance to tense in anticipation of what might be coming next. Fight or flight or offer up your neck; if he thought the sensation of danger would pass, he was wrong, because the air is racing past his face and he's falling. He's falling. His eyes are open against the smooth blankness of the fabric, no cues for balance.
The muscles of Hannibal's back shift as they sway together, Will's palms burning as though Hannibal's skin is ember hot. Then Hannibal steps backwards, pulls entirely away.
Will hooks his blindfold up with one finger and catches a glimpse of an expression he was probably not supposed to see: something black and razored and intently entranced that's gone almost at once. Hannibal takes a deep breath in and Will, feeling uncertain on every possible level, lets the fabric fall over his eyes again.
The fear gives another throb in Will's exposed neck, and it must be an invitation of some kind because Hannibal--doesn't reach for him again, doesn't kiss him, but there's a shock of a hard bite beneath Will's jaw, teeth and lips and tongue, and then nothing.
It might leave a mark. Will doesn't know the odds of that.
He stands there, blind and balanced, as the air breathes gently onto his stinging skin and the silence in the tent becomes the silence of being alone.
Later he'll look back and see the things he should have been noticing, but that's not usually how life works. Pattern recognition requires hindsight, or at least a widely-tuned mind. It's Will's habit to keep his focus myopic: the next town, the next stretch of road, the next position in his routine. The rope that lies directly in front of his feet.
"Haven't you done this before?" he asks.
Abigail shrugs. "Once or twice, when I was starting out. I wanted to try everything once. But I wasn't trained at a school, so nobody cared if I was well-rounded. I liked the corde and the silks, so I concentrated on them."
The tightrope is about halfway up the rig, less a highwire than just--a wire, with the net stretched reassuringly beneath it. And enough space in between that the fall will teach you a lesson.
Will's never been a great teacher. He can describe the way he does things, but he's never sure if those descriptions are useful to anyone else. Actions speak louder, he figures, and he walks straight out onto the wire as Abigail watches. His body clicks into focus as soon as he leaves the platform. There's no room for casual thought when every tiny movement you make is a correction, a promise to yourself that despite logic and nerves you can balance yourself perfectly around one foot, one thin support.
Halfway across the wire he stops, carefully, and turns around.
"This is the hard part," he says.
"Sure," Abigail says, "that's the hard part."
One of her feet is on the wire now, like someone testing the ocean with a toe.
"It's easier when you're moving."
One of those textbooks on gravity described how orbits form, moons around planets and planets around suns. An orbit is a constant, curving fall towards the centre of another body; eternally falling down, but never striking. Will isn't sure he understands the math of it. But moving across a tightrope is like that: always tipping towards the wire but using your next step to guide you onwards. As long as you keep moving, you're fine. Trying to hold yourself still is the tricky part, because there's no room to fall in any direction.
"Come and take my hands," Abigail says.
"I don't know if that will help," Will warns her, but he makes it back to the stretch of wire in front of the platform and lets her hook her fingertips over his hands.
Abigail bites her lip, wobbles, turns her fingers into bent twigs. Doesn't move.
"I'm going to take you with me," she says. "When I fall."
"Yeah," Will says.
She sighs and lets him go.
"Okay, back off. I'll do it myself."
"You've got the right attitude," Will says. He takes a few swift, backward steps, like a dance, and halts. Showing off, a bit.
"What do you mean?"
"You said when. Not if. When I fall."
"Yeah, well." She taps her foot on the wire a few more times, sending shivers like a message across to Will. "We can't all be prodigies, right?"
Will looks at her and doesn't rise to it.
"You can prepare," he says. "You can practice, you can know the theory. But eventually you have to accept the fact that in order to learn, you will fall. Eventually you just have to set your feet against the wire."
Abigail Hobbs inhales with her eyes closed, and Will feels an ache, an echo. With her brown hair and her brittle vulnerability, he feels like he is gazing into dark water at his own reflection.
An eye for iconography. What does Hannibal Lecter have an eye for, he wonders?
Last night Will stood outside Hannibal's tent listening to him talk fluent nonsense about the tarot, and a woman started crying because her sister had been killed and she was there, Will realised, because she wanted a certainty. She wanted to hear that her sister's soul was alright, or failing that, that she would be. She wanted someone to run a healing finger along the cracks that had appeared in her comfortable world, and tell her that they were an illusion. Her shoulders were bowed down with the guilt of not only surviving but going to a circus the day after her sister's death simply because she'd paid for the tickets weeks ago and didn't want them to go to waste.
(Later, he'll look back and see.)
Abigail opens her eyes, extends her arms in a loose C in front of her, and steps out onto the wire.
She must have been watching him, because she doesn't make the mistake of trying to take it slowly. She steps and steps and steps, fast fast fast, and then her momentum gets caught in the angle of her foot and she overbalances. Will can see the way the tightrope will arc out as she falls; he can see it just before it happens, and he bends his knees and compensates, and so stays on the wire.
Abigail bounces, on her back on the net below, and laughs.
Will gives her time to move to the side, and then shows off some more. No untidy, unsafe tumble this time. He launches into a proper flip of a dismount so that he lands neatly, on bent legs, and bounces twice before settling. Then he throws himself deliberately onto his stomach, landing close to where Abigail is sitting, and props himself up on one elbow to look at her. The net digs roughly into the sliver of skin above his pants, where his shirt is riding up.
Abigail's scarf has loosened almost to the point of unravelling. On the side of her neck closest to Will is a pale line, straight, as though someone has set a ruler to her skin and drawn along it with a piece of Wendy's tailor's chalk.
Will blinks twice and hears in his mind the thunk-thunk of two knives thrown close together and landing.
When he looks up to her face again Abigail is waiting for him, her eyes a challenge. For a moment he is convinced that if he asks the question she'll tell him the truth, and in the next moment he is equally convinced that she'll lie. She and Will are something far less than friends; she and Hannibal, something far more. Will doesn't know what Hannibal has told Abigail about the tent and the tarot and biting kisses that left, in the end, no evidence on Will's flesh at all.
He doesn't say anything. Abigail nods, as though he has, and starts speaking herself.
"When my parents died, I wondered what it would be like to be dead. I wondered it so often that it seemed the next best thing to really being it. Or the next worst thing, I suppose." She kicks her legs like a child on a swingset where they dangle over the edge of the net. "I worked hard. Having something to do with my body was better than sitting still. And sometimes my hands or my legs didn't clench around the corde as fast as they usually would, and I'd fall a lot further and faster before I stopped myself, and I'd never be sure if I'd done it on purpose."
Will runs his tongue around a mouth that feels heavy and dry. Abigail rubs one hand over the scar on her neck as though it's no more than an insect bite or a smudge of paint. Her gaze is cool when it meets his.
"You might not be special in all the ways you think you are, Will," she says.
Most nights find Will too tired to dream. He'll have occasional runs of insomnia, staring at the low ceiling while his body aches gently into the sheets and his mind gnaws over nothing in particular, but once he manages to drop off, that's it: he sleeps straight through and wakes up to the touch of light on his face, refreshed or not.
Sometimes the photo negative of a dream will linger at the front of his mind, hinting at an emotion that has already washed through his sleeping self and left only the dregs of itself. But no more than that.
When he finds himself standing in the ring, the fact that he can't remember how he got there doesn't bother him. The ring is smaller than it should be, though, and a whole-body gag of unreality passes over him.
He thinks, I'm dreaming, once and clearly, with a cold water splash of surprise, and then forgets about it in favour of trying to reach his trapeze. Someone's lowered it in its spotlight, but not lowered it enough. The horizontal bar is out of his reach, evading his fingertips even when he rises onto his toes and stretches his arm up as far as he can.
His music has started. He reaches up, up, sweating in the heat of the light, and--sweat, his hands, that's it, they'd slip on the bar even if he managed to grasp it. He's forgotten the rosin. Once he's coated his hands, the trapeze will drop down all the way and he can begin his act.
The music continues as he looks around the ring for the rosin tub, and he tries to let his routine play out in his mind; the longer this takes, the more of it he'll have to miss. Jack won't be happy. Where is the damn rosin?
He's scuffing sawdust with his bare feet, searching, when a new note cuts through the music: a low tuneless rattle from behind him that's punctuated by a pause, very much like an inhalation, before beginning again.
Will feels wrapped in a strange coldness but mostly he feels annoyance, as he turns slowly around, that someone should have been so careless as to let the lion out of its cage unsupervised.
The dream's integrity dips again, a blink of awareness--but Cirque Dalmau doesn't have a lion-taming act--before the lion's growl centres everything in the coolness of panic. The lion is large with a dark-tipped mane, eyes like black beads, and walks with a noiseless and measured grace.
I don't have a chair for him, Will thinks. That's what you need, isn't it, with lions? A chair.
Will can't hear his music. The growling is getting louder, accompanied by a snarl that bares the lion's sharp, bloodless teeth. A challenge that he has no hope of meeting. The lion has paced into the edge of the spotlight, and light glints as though off metal where claws peek out from the huge furred paws. Will imagines one of those claws slicing through flesh and feels cold anew with the imagining. A single blow could rip open his eye, his cheek. The blood-busy line of his neck.
Some blurred corner of his mind says, stand still, but the fear says, run, and this time it wins.
A ring is a circle, and Will knows the comedic power in a chase scene when the pursuer follows the pursued obediently around the circle's edge, never attempting to cut across the centre. Its fruitlessness is what makes it watchable. All the pursued has to do is refuse to acknowledge the existence of any world outside the ring: no climbing over barriers, no taking the chase into the audience. There's a time and a place for that kind of interaction, but inserting it into a chase breaks the rules. Anything could happen if you let the danger break out of the light.
Will runs around the ring and the lion follows, but it doesn't feel staged. He's not maintaining his lead; the lion's growl gets spine-crawlingly loud behind him and then drops back again, like it's mocking him, and that's a thing cats do, right? Set it free, watch it go, like a wind-up mouse with its clockwork heart fluttering, tick tick tick as fear uncoils into speed. Set it free and give chase. I could catch you any time I wanted.
He grits his teeth and dares to break his path, taking a wild jump up towards the trapeze--is it lower? his fingers scrape across it, then slip down again--and where is the fucking rosin, anyway--and then he keeps running, trying not to look back too often. He tries it again, and then another time; the lion seems content to let him struggle, and each time the metal bar slips through his fingers.
He could just. Well. It wouldn't take long, would it? It wouldn't hurt for long. He could stand there, unmoving, and wait for the first cut. And it would be a relief, to stop running and leaping and never getting anywhere, to give the fear everything it wanted and so remove its power. His gears are slowing, and he's tired. His hands are so slippery.
Will takes two more steps, and trips.
He starts to fall to the ground, hands outstretched to catch himself, there's hot breath on the back of his neck and that hungry noise in his ears, and his eyes fly open to raindropped glass and a sliver of grey sky just visible through the gap in his bunk's curtains.
Will moves his feet, and keeps his eyes on the morning, and tries to prise the dream's fingers away from his mind.
Thunder growls, somewhere in the distance.
The storm is a flirt, a circus wanderer. It settles in for the night and it's gone before noon, but it leaves a chunk of ozone and damp behind, like the flattened circle of grass where a big top used to be. The evening sky is hostile with black clouds and silvery dregs of sunlight. Maybe it'll rain again and maybe it won't. It couldn't be more perfect for the sideshow if Jack Crawford had somehow found a way to seed the sky with the sheer force of his creative vision.
Will walks between trailers and motorhomes letting the coppery smell of the night roll over him. The hairs on his arms itch to stand erect. He feels like he could snap his fingers in this charged air and everything would ignite, creating lightning that starts on the ground and zips upwards to stab at the atmosphere.
He finds Hannibal leaning against someone else's motorhome, right on the edge of the site. It isn't really in Will to be surprised: the storm, the sense of crackling anticipation, the tall man drinking in curiosity like wine. It's got all the trappings of narrative. Perhaps he's waiting here for Will and perhaps he isn't, but it doesn't really matter, does it?
He goes and stands next to Hannibal, resting one of his shoulders against the metal.
Hannibal looks at Will with his rainspatter eyes, and Will feels like a slap the danger of being alone in the half-dark with this man, in a place chosen to be unseen. This man with his strength and his secrets, and his amused implacable mouth that Will has been watching, wanting, since the moment they met.
Will usually knows what to do with his body. Now he is out of step with himself, and when Hannibal lifts his hand Will feels his torso flinch. It makes Hannibal pause, but not draw back. His face is calm.
"Are you afraid of me, Will?"
Will laughs. "I'm always afraid," he says, honesty raw on his tongue. "You know that."
"Fear makes you sharp."
An expression ripples over Will's face. He doesn't know what it is. "Fear makes me sharp." His own voice is heated and dark, unusual. "What are you doing to me?" he whispers, to feel the darkness again, catch the taste of it.
Hannibal smiles and snakes his fingers up Will's forehead and into his hairline and Will feels himself push into Hannibal's hand like a cat, dizzy and sensitive. What are you doing to me. Where did you come from to make me feel like this.
"Impossible boy," Hannibal whispers, "I am showing you who you are."
"I know who I am," Will says.
It seems as though Hannibal kisses him to prove him wrong.
Will leans back against the trailer--is it empty? does he care?--and pulls at Hannibal's expensive shirt, drawing him close, setting his back against this one solid surface and thinking about splinters and knives. Hannibal has a hand at his jaw and seems intent on keeping this kiss slow, for all that Will wants more, wants fast and hard and all-consuming.
Even so. There's a relief, a wonderful soaring sensation, in being handled like this. All Will has to do is keep his mouth pliable, lift his chin, enjoy the stab of fire that borders on smugness. That he should be wanted in this way. That he should come to this--friendship, romance, whatever it is--through conversation and pure attraction rather than the freakish fact of his ability.
"What do you want?" Hannibal says, against his mouth.
Will is loose. Flying. "Does it matter?"
Hannibal is close enough that Will can see the skin around his eyes tighten, despite the dark. The loss of the taste of him, the scrape of his jaw against Will's, makes Will want to stamp his foot like a child.
"I am not entirely uninterested in how this makes you feel, Will," Hannibal says.
Will sighs and parses that. It could be insecurity or caring or greed, behind the question. Instinct tell him to actually consider his answer, though it's difficult when Hannibal--perhaps in reward for the fact that he is considering it--has his hands suddenly at Will's waist, then the front of his jeans. The sound of the zip is low but terribly audible through the sound of their breathing.
Will shudders. It's been so long and he's worked himself into such a knot of desire; this isn't going to take long.
He rolls the darkness over his tongue. "I want to stop overthinking this," he says.
Hannibal laughs, quietly.
Will's chest is heaving, each breath a stab that turns pleasurable at once, faster and faster until he's skating on the edge of hyperventilation and his vision is starting to glow at the edges, heat blossoming behind closed lids. His hands are still gripping Hannibal's shirt and he drops his forehead to Hannibal's shoulder, turning blindly towards the smell of bare skin. He's cramped, clenched, too hot.
"Tell me how you feel," Hannibal says.
No, it doesn't sound like a request for validation. Too curious, too vicious for that.
Hannibal nips the skin of Will's ear between his sharp teeth in a perfect burst of pain. Hannibal takes Will apart with his bare hands and says, "Tell me how you feel," twisting his fingers, tightening them, until Will is gratefully nothing but the heat in his stomach and the friction on his cock and his own voice, ragged in surrender: I feel like a skeleton trapped inside the flesh of a man, I feel like a winged creature in an underwater maze, I want to sleep forever and I want you to wake me up.
I want you, I want you. And Hannibal's merciless mouth drinking his words as he dissolves.
Later he will taste blood and wonder where it came from.
Right now he pulls the pieces of himself together, struggling, and remembers that he has somewhere to be. He feels boneless, but he needs his bones. They've only been there a few minutes but the remnants of daylight have fled even further, and the gaudy lights of the sideshow are bright in the distance.
Will takes a long, deep breath of the air and is pleased to feel that the electric edge is still there, the heady whiff of incipient threat.
Hannibal looks very put together for a man who has just kissed and handled Will into the kind of orgasm that is more than usually little-deathlike. He is sucking thoughtfully at the side of one of his fingers, like a chef about to pass judgement on a sauce, and desire barrels weakly into Will all over again. The taste of him on Hannibal's hands, he thinks, is probably something that fits right into the five-sense picture of tonight: salt and copper, ozone and promise.
"I will see you in the ring," Hannibal says.
He puts a possessive hand at Will's jaw, supremely sure. The tips of his fingers are wet.
Part of Will wants to fall to his knees and rest his head against Hannibal's expensive trousers and sleep until he can think in straight lines again. The rest of him leans in for the parting kiss.
The night air has wrapped its tendrils around everyone, it seems. Kiah is moving from one tent to another, more of a jitter to her uneven stride than usual, and Will can hear the nervous drumstick clack of Alana's devil sticks, faster than he's ever heard before. Will showers, dresses and delivers himself to Wendy's team.
Wendy herself gives him a long, thoughtful look. Her lipstick is an orange-red colour and smudged over the lines of her lips.
"I want to try something different with the makeup today."
"You aren't going to argue with me?"
She hums, and taps one fake fingernail--glittery, royal blue--against the underside of Will's chin. Where Hannibal's hand was, a short while ago.
Will resists the urge to check his reflection in the mirror as Wendy works, but allows himself a single glance once the cuffs are around his wrists. The usual gleam of gold across his cheekbones is a solid slash, today, and it fades into a glittering white lower on his cheeks. His eyes are darker and more strongly defined, and Wendy has done something to his hair so that it springs backward from his forehead in sharp curls like ocean waves frozen in a photograph. He looks otherworldly, inhuman, intensely fae.
Jack doesn't give very many speeches, but tonight he gathers everyone backstage and looks from face to face, slow and inexorable. Will's feet and palms are prickling with impatience. Performers live for nights like this one.
"Make them remember this," Jack says.
Abigail has clearly been making plans of her own, because once the music from the opening settles down, the lights reveal three long columns of fabric hanging from the rig. All three are shades of red: bright and close to orange, a blue-leaning crimson, and a washed-out maroon like old blood being rinsed away.
For the past few weeks she's been performing and polishing her corde lisse routine. Will has never seen her on the silks, but within a minute he can tell that this is her true forte. She twists herself in the fabric with an ease that makes it look liquid and almost alive, like streams of tinted mercury ever-pouring from the top to the ground, and she has a care for positioning that transforms each held pose from athleticism to art.
She looks very small, up there in the light.
An elbow bumps Will's back and he looks around from the crack in the curtains to see Beverly, throwing him a distracted wave of apology as she hurries past. One of her arms is linked through Zeller's and Price is ahead of them, walking backwards. The three of them are whispering, all at once, overlapping each other. Price is making quick gestures as though directing a miniature symphony.
Will can recognise rapid improvisation when he sees it. The tense joy in his stomach flexes its fingers once more as he turns back to watching Abigail.
Abigail is swinging herself on one of the silks, supported only by the loops of it around one her arms, and as soon as her swing brings her close enough she throws her legs up, quickly winding the next silk around one of them, and then lets the first silk unravel from her arm. With perfect timing, she brings her legs together, trapping the fabric and halting her fall before it can begin.
Now she's dangling from the blue-red silk, upside-down, arms held neatly out to the side as she lets the momentum spend itself in a gentle sway. Applause runs through the audience, but turns to a murmur of anticipation as Abigail starts to wrap herself further in all three silks. Before long her body is almost hidden by folds and loops: around her waist, her chest, her slender hips.
And her neck, where the scar is covered up by the high collar of her costume.
If she throws herself down, will that loop--does she know--
Abigail is too far away for Will to be certain of the direction of her gaze. But he would swear that she finds him, hidden as he is, in the held-breath moment before the music crashes into an ending, and that she looks straight at him and smiles.
Of course she knows.
Hannibal Lecter's eye, it seems, is for aerialists who know how to exist dangerously.
Having worked itself to a climax of high notes, loud notes, the music has nowhere to go but down. Abigail Hobbs releases the grip that is keeping her so tightly wound, and follows it.
Down she spins, untangling and tangling herself both at once. The loop around her neck is the only one in the maroon colour, and it doesn't look to be tightening, but it doesn't slip away. It stays where it is.
When the last note has hummed into the air, Abigail hangs limply, a few yards above the ground, still wrapped in three shades of red. Her head is tipped back, her eyes closed.
There's a very uncertain silence.
Will remembers her saying, I was never sure if I'd done it on purpose.
And then it seems as though she's resurrected by applause, like the poisoned fairy in Peter Pan. There's another story that has wormed its way into Will's self, full as it is of boys who soar through the air and darkly smiling men with sharp objects in place of their hands.
Anyway. With a few false starts, the audience begins to clap, and Abigail opens her eyes. Three expert flicks of her legs later and she's fully clear of the silks, standing, presenting, arms wide and chin high.
"That's going to be tough to follow," says Freddie's voice.
Will glances at her. Her makeup is as unreal and unusual as his, and there are some parts to her costume that he can't remember seeing before.
"Nervous?" he says, needling.
Freddie grins, wild and a bit feral, and transfers her poi to one hand so she can use the fingers of the other to prod him in the chest.
"Not even a little, boy genius," she says. "Watch and learn."
Will watches, and watches. He couldn't do anything else.
Freddie the Firebird spits flame from her lips, breathes it along her own body and lights the ring with it; the fire licks down the new panels of her costume and then fades into nothing, leaving her laughing and triumphantly intact. Alana brings out the sharp, broad scimitar knives that she seldom dares herself to use, and has them flying high with a joyful look on her lovely face, her hands snatching them unerringly by the hilts and sending them on their way. The clowns, once they emerge from the huddle of planning, tumble into the ring and set about sabotaging one another with a kind of viciousness that has the audience laughing all the more loudly to cover their unease.
So it goes, on this night, the performance singing in waves of hot energy that pass from performers to audience and back again, growing every time. A storm is coming. We are building it here.
Only Bella looks immortal, standing her ground atop Tilly and Fiera with a fierceness that promises that she, at least, will hold on to life and to light in the face of all the thunder the world might bring.
In the middle of Alana's routine, Will looks over his shoulder and sees Jack standing in one of the shadows, arms crossed. His eyes are lit with satisfaction, the whites of them eerie and corpse-purple under the few rays of the blacklight that manage to infiltrate this space. He'll have to move, soon, if he's to be in the right place for Will's introduction.
Will has been breathing too quickly for what seems like hours. Since Hannibal kissed him. Since the rain rolled away and painted his tongue with lightning.
He crosses to stand in front of Jack and catches his attention.
"Take the net down," Will says.
Jack inhales sharply. But the deadly night air is under his skin, too, Will knows. "Will--"
"Jack. I can do it." Something like a laugh at the front of his mouth. Think of the danger, Jack, think of the story. Think of your audience forgetting to breathe.
Jack's frown exists like grassfire on his face, hot and fast-lived. Then he nods.
"Alright. We'll do it."
Part of Will is expecting the fear to consume him, as the trapeze rises up into the heights of the top and there is a great lack of activity in the darkness below. No net. Nothing to catch him. Here it is, the whisper of death.
But instead of more fear he feels that tiny green vine of happiness, which first poked through the soil of Will's inertia as he stood in the glow of Hannibal's focused gaze, unable to look away from the throwing knife poised in Hannibal's hand.
The spotlight is warm as the summer sun and the vine unfurls beneath it. Will builds up his swing and throws himself over like a diver, rosined hands finding their grip at the last second and body following the arc around--up again--and another flip, entirely free of the trapeze, this one ending with his left knee locked around the bar.
The sound from the audience is one of pain, like five hundred stomachs punched in unison.
Will is the lightning of the building storm, channeled through this metal rod, and he's never enjoyed a performance as he enjoys this one. He doesn't forget that there's nothing below him but hard mats and the snap of bone, but it ceases to matter.
He can hear his music in all of his nerves. He can hear the terrified joy of the people watching him, which rises like columns of hot air to where he spins and soars. He can hear his heart.
He can hear Hannibal's voice: there is no magic here, nor anywhere else.
Liar, Will thinks.
The lights turn red as he pitches forward one last time, trusting in gravity and the angle of his own foot, which catches in the corner of the trapeze and hurts--burns, all the way up his calf--and shakes--and holds.
Will rests his free foot on the inside of his knee. Clasps his hands behind his head. And then, right then is when he tastes blood in his mouth, and he closes his eyes and blurs into the sound of applause.
Later he will think--
Well, later he will be able to take a few good steps backwards and view his life like a diagram on a whiteboard, a story forced over past events by hindsight. Maybe everything's always been hurtling towards revelation. But trajectory can feel a lot like panic, before your hands strike the bar and catch hold.
Time passes, after the night when Will discards his safety net and survives. Cirque Dalmau travels by moonlight, summer shrivels further into fall, and it seems like Hannibal and Abigail have always been there: cooking for everyone, turning over cards. Jack is making plans for Will and Abigail to do a flying trapeze act together, two seasons from now.
There are no plans as far as Hannibal and Will are concerned. Or if there are, Will isn't privy to them, and has no desire to be. To his surprise, he loves this sensation of never knowing. His universe is no larger, but deeper, and he feels arrested in some kind of descent into bitterness. Hannibal is attentive and all-consuming; and, to be honest, an extremely good cook.
"I've never really seen the point of breakfast," says Will, "but this..."
He takes another forkful of steaming scrambled eggs with chorizo, cilantro and something that Hannibal refuses to identify. He chews and swallows before he speaks again; Hannibal, he's learned by now, is a stickler for manners.
"This is amazing. Really."
"It's the most important meal of the day," Abigail says. She puts her own fork in her mouth and smiles around it, widening her eyes. She can be playful, when the mood takes her.
"I'm glad you approve," Hannibal says.
"Where did you even find chorizo? This strikes me as a two-horse town."
Hannibal spears a piece of sausage and lifts it to the light, thoughtful, as though it's a glass of expensive red and he's about to make some comment on the wine's colour.
"You'd be surprised at what even the most modest community will render up," he says.
Later it will be possible to hang up a map of the country and stick in a pin for every death that Cirque Dalmau leaves in its wake, never on the day of arrival and sometimes the day after they leave. Will will never be sure how many were planned, how carefully the victims were chosen.
But he does know--he will be told, eventually--that the murder he himself interrupts is that of a state policeman who's had the bad luck to turn his intelligence towards pattern recognition. The policeman's name is Simon Carlyle. The knife wound that efficiently opens his carotid and jugular both at once could be thought of as somewhere between self defence and tying up a loose end.
Of course, what Will sees at the time is just...blood.
He walks often at the outskirts of the site during the busyness of a pre-show evening. Nobody will force him to be social if he's on the move. In this city they're crammed into a field hugged by two sprawling suburbs, but there's a nature reserve stretching off from one side of it and Will picks his way along the treeline, well hidden from anyone's view by distance and by the bulk of the equipment trailers.
There's no thunk of metal in wood to warn him, and no voices.
And yet déjà vu strikes Will like a slim bolt of lightning: this has happened before. Rounding a corner to find Abigail and Hannibal hidden away, practising an act that Jack doesn't know about. Then, he saw a pair of scissors and a red ball where neither of those things existed.
Now, he sees the red liquid dripping down Hannibal's arms and thinks, strangely, but we had marinara sauce two nights ago.
The man on the ground isn't moving, but he still looks warm and vital, like he could be shaken awake if it weren't for the ghastly grin of a wound across his neck.
Will's mind is blank. Will finds himself putting a hand to his own neck, in sympathy. Thinking about Abigail.
Looking at Abigail; she's standing up from where she has been kneeling next to the body. She has her hands stretched out as though Will is one of Bella's horses, to be soothed with sugar and whispered nothings in Italian.
Hannibal wipes his knife, with an air of relaxed indifference, on the already bloodied front of his expensive shirt.
By the pricking of my thumbs, Will thinks.
Of course he knew.
But that's a lie, for all that it's neat. Before this he knew that there was danger, but didn't know its extent. The way he feels, and this brutal new truth--they exist inside him as though unrelated, as though they apply to two separate Hannibal Lecters.
Now Will feels like a bucket of water, so cold it could burn, has been thrown over him and washed the meat from his bones. No nerves, no blood, no muscles left except one, hiding behind the sternum.
This is the wreckage; this is what remains. Hannibal Lecter is a killer and a liar, his actions are unfathomable and reprehensible, and Will could no more fall back out of this tentative love than he could reach inside his own ribcage and stop the beat of his clockwork heart, wound up tight by this man's murderous hands. And going, and going. This is what remains.
None of them have spoken. None of them are moving.
"We are higher creatures," Will says. His voice breaks but not wetly; dry, like glass. "Really? Is this the height to which you aspire, is this what you--"
Is this what you want for me, he's about to ask, but it doesn't feel right. He has his own heights, his own depths.
Abigail looks at Hannibal, then Will, then back to Hannibal again.
"Well?" she says, uncertain, like she's waiting for instructions.
Will remembers her fingers gripping his hands, both of them wobbling on the tightrope. Remembers an unremarkable rehearsal when she'd looked over at him from where she was stretching her hamstrings at the ring barrier and told him, with something between shyness and slyness, that Hannibal talked about him all the time.
She said, I haven't seen him like this about anyone else.
Like what? Will said.
Abigail took a few beats to respond. Eventually she said, pleased at her own precision, Enraptured.
Now Abigail takes a step over the body of a freshly dead man and for the first time Will's fear seizes on her as a potential source. Like she might rush across the grass and take him down with her bare hands, or choke him with the scarf that's covering her scar. Wrap him in silk and let him tumble.
"Abigail," Hannibal says calmly. "The car."
She nods and changes direction, veering off to the side.
Will thinks: why the hell haven't I called out for help yet? And answers himself: the same reason you can't seem to move your feet. Fight or flight breaks down in the crystal gaze of a predator. Hannibal, wreathed in blood, transfers his knife from one hand to another and looks at Will without changing expression.
Enraptured, what a fucking joke. Will's chest is constricted with horror and the threat of tears.
There is no magic here.
"Are you just going to leave me," he says.
His own voice is so wretched he wants to shudder. There's a thin, twisting fury within him that he has been played for a fool, that Hannibal would leave his fingerprints all over Will and then disappear; that Will has been woken up and must now be abandoned to the ugly dawn, like a sleepwalker who gasps his eyes open and finds himself at the edge of a cliff.
Always his mind tends towards these moments before a plunge.
Abigail makes an impatient movement with her head, but now she's watching them like a good audience watches: with affection, and a willingness to be surprised.
Hannibal smiles. From this distance the curve of his lips looks like a brittle alloy of fondness and triumph. "My dear Will," he says, "I was not intending to just do anything."
There's a moment where Will watches Hannibal lift the knife, controlled and swift, and thinks, the danger is in unpredictable motion.
But what is Hannibal predicting?
And what, exactly, is Hannibal aiming for?
Will's eyes are open and his skin feels tight all over, and he doesn't know if he actually takes the step that angles his body or if he just stumbles with the force of the blade when it hits.
Pain bites at his left arm and he looks down at his hand, trying to move his fingers, and is surprised at the amount of blood. It seems like a lot, it seems--things are turning pale in the centre of his vision--and then the pain gives a great wrench and relocates and Will presses both hands, even the useless one, over the wound that snakes across his abdomen and his left side. His palms find no traction on the soaked fabric and bloody skin, but he applies pressure anyway.
He coughs, once, and it hurts so much that everything goes white and he collapses down onto his knees.
A rumbling in his ears like the threat of a beast. His hands are so slippery.
Will thinks, Yes, and falls.
He dreams flashes of unfamiliar people, his skin heavy and numb like marzipan rolled over a cake. Small stabs of pain, larger pains when he coughs or moves. A delirious smell of bleach, and washed cotton, and flowers wilting in hospital air.
In between all of this there are people holding his hands, and conversations that are probably real, because they're boring. He's had two separate surgeries, been transfused with multiple units of blood. A little deeper, a little higher, a little to the left, and things could have been different. He's lucky.
No, they haven't found Hannibal Lecter.
The police are optimistic.
Will dreams not of lions but of Hannibal by his bedside, his large dry hands a cage for all of Will's hope, holding him around the neck and saying, "Take a breath, Will," while he presses firmly down and keeps the oxygen at bay. Releasing him before the act of arson in his lungs can come fully alight.
A kiss, with the bite of ginger to it.
He wakes to find that a simple arrangement of lilies has joined the modest collection on his table. Early-morning sunlight blinks through the blinds and the white bells of the flowers both.
There's a card attached. No name. Elegant copperplate, in dark green ink.
I hear you almost died.
Was it everything you dreamed it would be?
The rush of blood in his ears subsides into the neutral bip bip bip of a monitor, Will's heart racing away. Fear or desire; as if he's ever been truly able to distinguish them.
On the other side of the card is an address.
He knows this feeling of old. It's narrative, and it's falling. The trick is never to stop, to trace out an orbit with your attraction and to spin endlessly within it.
He untangles himself from the various tubes, and peels sticky things away from his skin until the monitor's beeping turns into an annoyed alarm. His left hand is very weak, and spasms from time to time. He finds clothes in a plastic bag near the head of the hospital bed: not the ones he came in wearing, no, they were probably chopped to urgent rags by the paramedics, and they'd be brown with blood in any case. These are his clothes too, but clean, and folded with more care than he'd ever take himself. Dropped here by someone who plans ahead.
When he's dressed he sits on the edge of the bed and puts his head between his knees for a moment, breathing. The pain in his side is dull, but strong. This would be the moment to make a different choice, if he's looking for such a moment.
Some days all you can do is strike a bargain, cast yourself into space, and see if gravity is feeling kind.
Will Graham steps into his shoes, pulls his fear around him like a coat.
Sets his feet against the wire.