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Blackbird

Chapter Text

Will pressed his palm flat to the window in Hannibal's office. Thunder rattled the glass.

"Sometimes I wish I weren't real," he said.

"What would you be if you weren't real?"

Hannibal sat at his desk, drawing. Every few minutes he picked up the scalpel and honed his pencil to an even finer point.

"Something they could wheel out to look at bodies and stick back in a closet after."

"You feel the rest of your life serves no purpose."

"I wouldn't say that. I just think it would be easier if I didn't have to…"

"Live it?"

He shrugged. "Yeah. Basically. What are you drawing?"

"A street in Paris. The Rue Saint-Denis."

Will drifted over to the desk. Hannibal angled the paper toward him. A crosshatch of shadow covered most of it, with just the bare white streetlights showing through. He pressed his fingertips against the rough edge as if he could absorb answers from it.

"Ask," Hannibal said. "This isn't a crime scene, and I am not a corpse."

"You always draw Paris."

Hannibal smiled and brushed away graphite dust. "How do you know? You haven't seen all of my drawings."

"Do you?"

"Often. Not always."

"Do you draw people?"

"Rarely." Hannibal glanced up at him. "Shall I draw you?"

"The hour's almost over."

"I was going to invite you for dinner in any case. If you are not too hungry, we may take the extra time."

"Why do you—“ Will nearly bit his tongue he cut the sentence off so quickly. Sometimes he forgot himself with Hannibal. He wasn't even sure how he'd meant to finish it. Why do you keep trying, possibly.

"I'm not the only one who enjoys your company, Will. Others watch you rebuff offers of friendship, or more, and are perhaps more wary of impinging on your solitude. You are left with me because I am more persistent and more sure of myself."

"Must be nice."

"You are equally sure of yourself, in your own way. Sit, please, and turn your face toward the light."

Will sat in the leather chair nearest the window and leaned back. "I'm not left with you." He poked at the shape of his next sentence, tested it, and said it anyway. "If anything, I'm right with you."

Hannibal said nothing. Whole minutes passed with only the faint scratch of his pencil over the paper and the tick of the clock. Somehow, the silence failed to be awkward, or to make Will regret his words. He let his eyes close and tipped his head back.

"Yes," Hannibal said, at last, voice an incoming tide on the edge of sleep. "I recognize the sentiment."

Will slitted his eyes open and smiled at the sight of Hannibal bent over his work. His last thought before sleep pulled him down was of dinner, coffee afterward in front of the fire, everything tinged an irrational gold and sliding into the soft focus of fantasy.

He woke with a jerk when something dry and thin settled over his hands. It took him a moment of confused blinking and elevated heart rate to identify it as the paper Hannibal had been drawing on.

"Sorry," he mumbled, and stopped clutching at it before he crumpled the edges. He focused on the drawing and then rubbed his eyes and adjusted his glasses. He'd expected a sketch. This was photographic. The slanted light managed to pick out every sign of wear in his face. His hand hovered over the unhappy tilt of his mouth.

"This must've taken… How long did you let me sleep?"

"About three hours."

"Three hours." Will shook his head and looked down at the paper again. He could see why Hannibal let him sleep. He hadn't expected a particularly flattering picture, but the man staring back at him from the paper looked like shit.

"Come," Hannibal said. "I promised you dinner."

"It's late. It must be almost ten." He stumbled a little as he got up to claim his coat. "I should get home."

"You should come and eat dinner. You can ride with me."

He let himself be pulled along in Hannibal's wake. It was easier. And, truthfully, it was what he wanted.

Hannibal didn't speak during the drive, and Will found himself hovering on the edge of sleep again. The dim interior of the car soothed his eyes, and the rain and road noise nudged his mind into neutral.

"M'not very good company tonight," he said.

"Silence is sometimes the best accompaniment."

Their silence accompanied the rain all the way to Hannibal's house. In the kitchen, Will was given an onion to chop. He washed his hands and picked up the knife. The handle fitted precisely into the curve of his palm. The blade gleamed like a murder waiting to happen.

"Why the Rue Saint-Denis?" he asked.

Hannibal had removed suit jacket, tie, and waistcoat. He rolled up his sleeves, not quite to the elbow, and started peeling tomatoes.

"Because I once patronized a prostitute there, and I was thinking of the incident earlier today."

Will blinked down at the glint of light off the knife blade. "Yeah? How did that go?"

“Oh, poorly. I was beaten and robbed."

"Before or after?"

Hannibal laughed and took the chopped onion from him to scrape it into a hot pan. "After," he said. "Whether that is better or worse, I couldn't say."

"What made you think of it today?"

"The weather. It rained from morning till night that day as well. Cities look more alike in the rain."

"It's not the first time it's rained in Baltimore."

"Someone tried to mug me last night. I suppose that might have some bearing on the resurfacing of the memory, though I have thought of her on rainy days before."

He spoke so calmly that it took Will a few seconds to process the words.

"You— Are you all right? Did you report it?"

"Yes, and no. Nor do I intend to."

"What happened?"

"A man approached me from behind and held a knife to my ribs. I was able to fend him off. It was over in moments. I never saw his face.”

Will's eyes were drawn to Hannibal's ribs, though he didn't even know which side he should be assessing.

"But you're all right?"

"He didn't even damage my coat."

He might've damaged a lot more. Will started to reach out, pulled his hand back, and stuck it in his pocket. "I'm glad," he said.

Hannibal stepped smoothly between Will and the counter. He tugged Will's hand up and placed it low on his side. Will's index finger lay over his lowest rib and a smooth plane of muscle. The heat of his skin seeped into Will's hand even through the shirt.

"You see?" Hannibal said. "I am entirely whole."

Will kept his hand there too long. He didn't even care what Hannibal thought of him. Muggings turned into murders so often it barely made the news. He looked down at his hand on Hannibal's side and swallowed.

"I see," he said.

Hannibal covered his hand with his own and then curled his fingers under Will's palm. He turned to stir the soup, and their hands hung, joined, in the space between them.

"I have no intention of dying prematurely," Hannibal said.

Will flexed his fingers in Hannibal's grip. Hannibal showed no sign of letting go. Will slid his thumb experimentally over his knuckles.

“What's this?" he asked.

"What would you like it to be?"

"I can probably only cope with it being dinner right now," he admitted.

"Then dinner is all it will be."

Hannibal bent over his hand as if he meant to kiss it, but he only came close enough for Will to feel warm breath on his skin before he smiled and released him.

"There is a rye loaf on the counter there. You may cut us a few slices," he said.

"Oh, may I?"

Hannibal gave him an amused glance. "Only if you wish, of course."

Will cut bread and rubbed it with garlic as instructed. The soup went into a food processor to be blended smooth. Hannibal stirred in coconut milk and lime juice and toasted the bread in an iron pan.

It was after ten by the time they settled in Hannibal's study. He had poured the soup into wide, cream colored cups with matching saucers for the bread to sit on. Will had been sent ahead to build a fire, and the warmth from it washed against their knees.

Will closed his eyes when he tried the soup. “It’s good.”

“The veal stock is key,” Hannibal said. “Few people bother to make it themselves.”

"I was thinking about this when I fell asleep."

"Veal stock?"

“This room, the fire. Coffee."

"You've never seen this room before."

"It's almost exactly the way I imagined it."

"Do you spend much time deducing my interior design?"

“First offense, I promise."

"Perhaps I should give you the full tour after dinner." Hannibal's foot nudged his. "If you're going to fall asleep, put the soup down first, please."

Will righted his cup, which had started to droop dangerously. They ate mainly in silence, watching the fire.

"Did you plan for me to stay here tonight?" Will asked.

"I will drive you back to your car if you wish, of course."

"That sounds like a yes."

"I do have a perfectly adequate guest room."

Will had gone home to feed the dogs and let them out before his appointment. He thought of staying here, forgoing the long, cold drive home and the chill of his house when he got there. The furnace was, as had often been said of Will in school, not working up to its potential. He could stay, wake up here, have breakfast with Hannibal.

"All right," he said. "Thanks."

*

His phone woke him just after five. Jack wanted him at Dulles for an early flight, which left him barely enough time to get home, throw some things in a bag, and get to the airport. He pulled on his clothes and tried to be quiet on the stairs. He'd have to call a cab and text Hannibal later to explain.

The smell of coffee stopped him on the way to the door. He found Hannibal in the kitchen, slightly rumpled, in dark red pajamas and a robe. Hannibal slid a cup of coffee across the island toward him.

"I have to go," Will said, already reaching for it.

"Another case?"

"Yeah, someplace in Ohio. I'll be lucky to make it to the airport in time."

"I'll drive you."

Will took a breath to refuse and let it out again. It would be a lot faster than taking a cab to get his car, and time would be tight even if Hannibal did drive him.

"Thanks," he said. “We're going to have to leave…basically now."

"Of course. Drink your coffee. I'll be back in a moment."

Hannibal's coffee warmed him, soothed him, and woke him up all at once. It was so far from what Will made at home that he half-suspected it of not being coffee at all.

Hannibal was back down in five minutes. He got out two travel mugs and filled them while Will tried, unsuccessfully, not to stare at the V of bare skin revealed by his sweater.

He handed one mug to Will. “Shall we?" he said.

Hannibal's car had heated seats. Which it should. Will had looked up the list price once. It had cost more than Will’s house.

He sipped his coffee and bit at his thumbnail. Alana was out of town. There really wasn't anyone else he could ask. "The dogs," he started, and winced. If it'd been anything else, anything for him, he wouldn't have asked at all.

"I'll look after them."

"Thanks. Sorry. I know it’s not your idea of a good time.”

“I’m happy to do it. If you wish to repay me, look after yourself while you're gone."

"I'll be fine."

"I would like you to be more than fine."

"Are you more than fine?"

"I find most days quite satisfactory. Occasionally dull, but I can usually find some way to make the time pass more quickly. I believe I am happy, for the most part."

"You should teach a class," Will muttered.

"Would you enroll if I did?"

"How to be happy in ten easy steps? Are you going to do an audiobook?"

"I was thinking of a more personalized curriculum."

Will glanced at him. He meant to look away, but he was finding it hard this morning. He could still feel Hannibal's hand in his.

"How personal?"

"Oh, one on one, I should think." He smiled. "Perhaps we can discuss it when you return."

*

Lucy Mather hung from a sycamore tree by the edge of a pond. Her face echoed the stark white of the peeling trunk, and her reflection swayed across the dark water.

Will stood alone near the base of the tree. Reeds and blackberry brambles and wild roses lined the bank. A host of redwing blackbirds, scared off by the human traffic that had accompanied the discovery of the body, now flitted back and watched him from the safety of the thorns.

Four people in Fulton, Ohio had been found hanged in their front yards over the course of the last week. Until October 31st had come and gone, they had been taken for Halloween decorations.

Lucy Mather, the fifth found and the freshest body, was miles from home. The pond bordered the land on which the town’s high school stood. Outside the perimeter set up by the local cops, they had an audience of wide-eyed students with a few teachers maintaining the pretense of order while making no move to herd them back inside.

A contingent from the home ec class had set up a lemonade stand and were doing a brisk business, despite the chill.

Will looked up at Lucy Mather and closed his eyes.

She'd been out running (jogging shoes, track pants), and the killer had come up behind her, probably chloroform, put her in the back of his car. More drugs, an injection this time. It was important she be alive when he hanged her.

When he came back to himself, he found Jack standing just behind him. "He's judging them," he said. "He thinks of it as a legal proceeding. The bodies are left up as a warning to others."

"Why Halloween?"

Will shook his head. "I'm not sure. The date has personal significance to the killer, beyond the holiday.”

Price and Zeller wandered past, holding tiny Dixie cups of lemonade with Disney princesses printed on them. Jack watched them for a second and then rubbed his eyes. "The other bodies are already in DC. You can look at them when we head home."

“When will that be?”

“Tomorrow, unless we find something here.”

Jack headed after Zeller and Price. Beverly slid into place by Will's elbow and offered him his own Disney princess Dixie cup. "Support local business," she said. "It's actually pretty good."

Will took a sip and winced involuntarily as sharp, sour lemon flooded his mouth.

"She said it was fresh squeezed," Beverly added.

"I believe her. Did you find anything?"

"I found us a motel, which wasn't easy. There's some kind of rubber goods convention in town. Three rooms. Zeller and Price are together, obviously. You can stay with Jack or you can stay with me."

"You, please," he said quickly.

"Yeah, I've heard him snore. Do you think this is it, or will there be another?”

"He's punishing them for a specific incident. If this is everyone involved, then he's done. Or she. They were keeping secrets."

Jack loomed up behind him once again. "What kind of secrets are we looking for, Will?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. Something…from a long time ago. But not something they would’ve forgotten. He didn’t have to remind them.”

“All right. We can talk to the families tomorrow.” He stalked off again.

Will sighed. All he wanted was a shower and bed. And not to talk to the families tomorrow.

“Need a ride?” Beverly asked.

“Are you leaving?”

“There’s not much more to do until I get back to the lab.”

“So we’re both stuck killing time until we can go home.”

"You could look at it that way, or you could look at it as getting the rest of the day off and then we could go buy pizza and see if there's anything decent on pay-per-view."

He blinked at her. "Pizza sounds good.”

"I rented a convertible. Do you want to drive?"

"They'll reimburse you for that?"

"The rental place was out of compacts because of the—“

“Rubber convention. Right."

"It was cheaper than the SUVs."

They drove along Main Street with the top down and the streetlights flickering to life as the light waned. Will had passed through a hundred small towns like this as a kid. Even then, they'd been emptying out, store fronts gone permanently dark, lawns left to grow high and solid with dandelions.

Will waited in the car while Beverly got a large pizza. “Hope you like pepperoni and pineapple,” she said.

“Isn’t it supposed to be ham and pineapple?”

“Nobody really likes ham on pizza.”

He pulled onto the road again. Overhead, the sky was fading from sunset to deep blue. "Can we drive for a while?"

"You're the one with the keys. I'll be over here eating all the pizza."

He drove them out past the edge of town and down a road that wound between two dark, stubbled corn fields. Venus hung in the sky ahead of them, growing brighter as the light dimmed. He pulled off onto the packed dirt shoulder and leaned his seat back to watch.

Beverly passed him a slice. "You really have no awareness at all of how this looks, do you?" she said.

"What?" He pulled his thoughts away from the past and the stars and added up events in the present: parking on a country road, stargazing, a girl he was going to spend the night with later. "Oh. That kind of thing hasn't been on my radar for a while."

"How long is a while?"

"I'll take the Fifth."

"Is that the way you want it, or is it just something that happened?"

He chewed pepperoni and pineapple for a while. "I just stopped thinking about it as a possibility. Do you ask everyone this many questions?"

"Sure. How else would I find out their darkest secrets?"

"Do they tell you those, too?"

"Price told me he has the boxed set of Alf DVDs. But I don't think he considers that a secret, even though he probably should."

He smiled up at the sky. "Probably."

Will's phone rang. He pulled it out, expecting Jack, but the caller ID said Hannibal.

"Hello?"

"How is Ohio?" Hannibal asked.

"Quiet. Dark. Full of rubber conventioneers." He shifted, too aware of Beverly beside him and her interest.

"I was just preparing dinner. Have you eaten?"

"Pizza. Did you call to check on me?"

"Is my concern unwelcome?"

Will closed his eyes and slid a little lower in the seat. "No. It's fine. So what are you having?"

"Roasted quail with a maitake mushroom stuffing. I found the maitakes near your house when I was out with the dogs."

Will smiled at the image. "How are they?"

"The dogs or the mushrooms?"

"You cooked the mushrooms. I'm sure they're great."

"The dogs are well. I brought them some sausage. I fear I may be spoiling them."

"I'm glad you're getting along with them. Even if you had to bribe them."

"It was a gift of friendship, nothing more."

"Is that what dinner was?"

"Perhaps a little more."

Even in the cool night air, Will could feel the slow crawl of heat up his neck. “I— I should go."

"Should you?"

"Unless you want to go back to talking about mushrooms."

"You're not alone."

"No."

"Very well. Until tomorrow."

"I don't know when we're coming back."

"No, but you do know when I will call again."

"Tomorrow."

"Yes. Goodnight, Will."

"Goodnight."

Will pressed the disconnect button. He could feel Beverly staring at him.

"That was a girlfriend conversation," she said. "Did you meet someone?"

"Off the radar, remember?"

"I'm not sure I believe you anymore."

Will wasn't really listening. He was thinking about the things people left unsaid for fear of who might be listening.

"What kind of things do people keep secret?" he said.

"Things they want to keep safe," she said, after a moment's pause.

"But some secrets aren't safe to keep. Is there a library in town?"

"Closed."

"Police station then. It might be in the police records."

"Probably also closed. No way they staff it all night out here. What are you looking for?"

"I don't know. Something they did. At the high school, maybe. They're all the same age. Are they all from here?"

"Yeah. Lived here all their lives."

"And there can't be more than one high school, so they all went there."

“And that’s where we found the last body. Seems like a good bet. What's her name?"

Will frowned, jarred out of his thoughts. "What? Who?"

"Whoever you met. His name?"

Will stared straight ahead, mind inconveniently empty of excuses and explanations.

"Okay, sorry. I won't pry. I'm happy for you. You looked different on the phone with him. Better."

"There's really not— It's not anything."

"It's sweet he called to check on you. I mean, I'd probably find it annoying and intrusive, but you didn't seem to, so I'm going with sweet."

"No, I— I didn't mind."

"Nice to have someone who cares?"

“Unusual.”

"Well, whoever he is, he's not the only one who cares about you. Do I need to make a sign or something?"

Will smiled a little. "Probably."

"I'll put poster board on my shopping list when we get back. You want to wake someone up and see if we can get into the police station?"

"It can wait until morning. Will you drive back?"

"Sure."

They drove with the radio on, softly, playing the local station: community news and light rock from the early nineties. Will watched the unspooling road ahead and thought about Hannibal meeting him at the airport, driving him home, staying for dinner. Staying after dinner.

He pulled out his phone and sent Hannibal a quick text: thank you.

Beverly opened her mouth, and Will pointed one finger at her in warning. She grinned.

"Okay. I won't say anything. Text away."

Will was about to say he was done, it'd been a one-off, but then he got a reply.

For what?

not being put off by me

Rather the opposite. I have been drawn to you since our first meeting.

Will stared at the words for a few long seconds. He rubbed his thumb over them where they sat innocently on the screen. His stomach twisted, but it wasn't an entirely unpleasant feeling. Frightening, but not unpleasant.

that's not the usual reaction

I'm not surprised. Most people are terribly unobservant.

what did you observe that interested you so much?

Will you think less of me if I admit that I was initially attracted to you for your mind?

Will tried to smother his snort of laughter with one hand. It didn't work very well, but Beverly kindly ignored him.

i'm told it's unique

Not merely the way you apply it at work. Your thought processes and word choice, the way you allow yourself to be led down unconventional conversational paths and turn them to your advantage. I find it thrilling.

Will read that text over again as well, and again, with one hand pressed over his mouth and an unfamiliar feeling in his chest. Thrilling.

Have I said too much?

no, not at all
i don't know what to say
sorry. i'm pretty terrible at this

You're not used to it. And I shouldn't take advantage, no matter how endearing I find your reactions. I'm sorry.

no, don't
i like it

Will took a second to stare at his own words, which seemed almost as unbelievable as anything Hannibal had said. But he did like it. Or at least he didn't want Hannibal to stop.

just maybe wait till i'm not sitting right next to a co-worker

Very well. I'd prefer to see the results in person, anyway. Goodnight, Will.

goodnight hannibal

Will looked uneasily at the last line. Using his first name seemed fine in his head, but irrationally daring when directed at Hannibal himself. Usually, Will tried not to call him anything at all. 'Dr. Lecter' should've been safely formal, but often it tasted too much like flirtation as it left his mouth.

"Done now?" Beverly asked.

"I hope so," Will muttered.

She laughed. "It can't be that bad."

"Just disconcerting."

"I think it's supposed to be disconcerting." She pulled into the motel parking lot, already mostly full of a mixture of pickups and rented sedans, and found a space at the far end. Beverly let them into the room with a real key instead of a key card.

She looked down at the brown carpet. "Makes you not want to take your shoes off till you get in bed, huh?"

"Pretty much." They'd both seen too many crime scenes at motels. Brown was a particularly good color for hiding stains.

"I'm going to check the closets. There was a case. If you laugh, I'll throw something at you."

"I won't laugh. I'll be checking the shower." He still checked his own shower at home some nights. It'd been one of the first murders he'd seen in New Orleans. Bloody handprints all over the bathroom walls, and the expression on the man's face had never really left him, despite far worse things he'd seen later.

They changed for bed and hauled out their laptops almost in sync. It was all surprisingly easy, and made Will wonder if he were doomed to be attracted solely to people who made him feel hopelessly awkward, or if that were a symptom of the attraction.

He only checked his phone three times before they turned out the lights. No new messages.

*

They spent most of the next morning at the local police station, going over files from the mid-nineties related to the local high school, everything from minor vandalism and underage drinking to one young woman who had driven a combine harvester into the side of the school.

"What about accidental death?" Beverly said.

"What does it say?"

"Eugene Long, seventeen, drowned in the pond at the back of the property. He got his foot stuck between some stones underwater. They found him two days after Halloween."

"Let me see it."

She slid the folder across the table to him.

"I always thought there was something wrong with that one," the police chief said. Her name was Cecelia Mallory, probably late forties, hair already mostly iron gray. "The pond was a big party spot. Still is, when they can get away with it. Someone should’ve seen him.”

Will bent over the file and squinted at the autopsy photos. The foot was sloughing skin in a puffy mass. "How long was he down there? That looks like two days at least."

"Yeah, that's about right," Mallory said.

"How did you find him?"

"Corbin found him. He was the police chief here before me."

Will's phone rang before he could ask how. Hannibal.

"Hello?" he said.

"Is this a better time?"

"Uh, sort of. Give me a minute." He slipped outside, pursued by Beverly's smirk, and leaned against the warm brick. "Hi."

"Hello, Will," Hannibal said.

His voice was warm, amused, both deeper and smoother than Will was used to. It pulled at something in his chest and left him a little breathless.

“I still don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said.

“When you do, you must tell me when your flight gets in. I'll take you home."

"That'd be, yeah, thanks." He shook his head, almost had to laugh at himself. "I mean, it would be kind. You don't have to."

"I very much want to."

Will squeezed his eyes shut for a second and took a slow breath. It was the tone more than the words, soft and intimate. "I'm working," he said.

"Of course. Will I shatter the mood irrevocably if I ask whether you ate breakfast this morning?"

"Yeah, but that's probably a good thing. Eggs and sausage. Not as good as yours."

"I should think not."

Will nearly choked himself not laughing. "I'm sure they tried," he said, as seriously as he could manage.

"Mm. Too arrogant?"

"Justified. I've never eaten anything better than the stuff you make."

"You shouldn't feed my ego. It's large enough without your assistance."

"The fact that you have at least one flaw is incredibly reassuring."

"Oh, I have many more than one, Will, I promise you.”

Beverly stuck her head out the door and gestured for him to wrap it up. "I think I have to go."

"Very well. I’ll speak to you later.”

As soon as he'd hung up, Beverly tugged him inside. “The old police chief is Lucy Mather's father," she said.

"There was some bad blood between them,” Mallory said. “She wouldn’t let him see the grandkids anymore. They had some kind of blow up last year. About this time, actually."

Beverly looked at Will. “You think she knew something about the kid who drowned? She and her friends had a party at the lake, everyone’s too stoned to help help him, so they just watch. Years later, she confesses to dad, and he snaps?”

"But her own father?" Mallory said.

Will watched Mallory for a second. That was not the part of Beverly’s theory that struck him as unlikely. "We should at least go and talk to him," he said.

They called Jack and drove out, all three of them in Beverly's rented convertible, Will in the back with his knees jammed against Jack's seat. Mallory drove ahead of them. The house came in sight, pale yellow and cream along a dusty road surrounded by soybean fields.

Oliver Corbin had been hanged from the oak in his front yard. His hands were tied behind his back. The body looked relatively fresh.

“The killer saved him for last,” Will said. “He was to blame, more than the others.”

“Why do you say that?” Mallory asked.

“Because he knew and he did nothing.”

“He should have,” Mallory said. “It was his job.”