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There hadn’t been a concrete moment in time when Will decided to be an artist. It’s a calling that chose him.

That’s what he tells reporters that come looking for an interview, anyway. They want something shiny and inspiring and just a little pretentious to fill the Arts & Culture sections of their newspapers, and Will doesn’t actually want to tell them anything about him. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement of bullshit.

The real answer is adjacent but a lot less interesting—Will became an artist mostly by accident.

There weren’t a lot of options for the son of a poor boat mechanic from a backwater town. His mom died when he was too young to remember, and his dad was too tired to focus on anything beyond the basics. He made sure Will went to school and didn’t die of starvation, and the rest was up to Will. While his friends were talking about their plans after high school, which colleges they hoped they’d get into, Will just shrugged.

He figured he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps, find blue collar work to pay the bills and keep food on the table. He wasn’t the artist type. He’d spent too many nights lying awake unable to sleep for the gnawing pain in his empty stomach to think starving artist sounded romantic. From an early age, Will didn’t figure the world had much for him.

He was good with his hands—got it from his dad and a lifetime of odd jobs for neighbors—and he made sculptures in his free time. Just little nothings he put together in his spare time from metal scrap he found around the boatyard and bones he found in the marsh. His high school art teacher entered one in a statewide contest, and it won. She convinced him to put together a portfolio, and he found himself with a full ride to an art school in San Francisco.

His plans to join the local police academy went up in smoke when he’d flunked the psych eval not once but twice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Art school was fucking bullshit.

He hated the general air of pretension that clung to the place. Everyone smoked clove cigarettes and talked about their art like it was actually doing something. If he had to hear that someone’s art was raising awareness for something one more goddamn time, he was going to scream, but as much as he hated the people, Will found he loved the work more.

He’d never heard of performance art growing up. No one in the bayous of Louisiana was a performance artist, and his dad wouldn’t even know what it was if he mentioned it, so he doesn’t mention it during their rare phone calls.

But Will Graham was introduced to performance art, and he took to it like a fish to water. He loves it in a way he’s loved little else. It feels nothing like making little nothing sculptures with wire and twine. It feels vital and alive.

His first performance art piece was, in retrospect, ham-fisted and mawkish. But it had taught him the way he could capture the eyes and imaginations of everyone in a room, the way he could take command of their vision and show them his design. The feeling was electric, and he chased it.

Luckily for everyone, him most especially, it turns out that he’s good at it.

If pressed to pinpoint the moment that his career truly began, Will would point to that instant in a chilly classroom with bored, pretentious art students watching him perform. It’s the moment Will would say he arrived.

* * *

Fast forward years later, and he’s putting on his newest performance, Rhythm 0.   

It is this: Him, standing alone in a room. A table scattered with objects. A rose, a gun, a knife and a feather. 72 objects of sensation and destruction, and a plaque instructing visitors to do as they please.

It starts off slow. People trickle in, and they keep a wary distance from him at first. They whisper to their companions, and Will keeps his eyes fixed ahead. 

There’s one man who catches his eye, though. He stands along the far wall behind the rest of the crowd and watches Will intently. He’s there alone, no compatriot to whisper to. Will pegs him as an art critic immediately. They always seem very slightly out of place—people whose life’s work is to criticize and deconstruct others’. 

He’s tall and solidly built, with hair slicked back above an angular face. He looks more like someone who belongs on Wall Street than someone who belongs in an art gallery, but then Will supposes he’s one to talk. His last girlfriend had somewhat-affectionately referred to his style of clothing as “lumberjack fisherman chic.”

Will expected the critic to stay for a little while—just long enough to scavenge his work for soundbites to bring back to his office—and leave. The man does no such thing. He stays for hours, through the entire show, although he never comes any closer.

He never approaches Will, not to pick up an object or even to take a closer look. Others do.

The visitors in the gallery grow bold. One of them approaches Will and gives him a kiss on the lips. Another picks his arms up and raises them above his head.

One of them cuts him with a knife—a shallow cut along his collarbone as he slices Will’s shirt off. Will doesn’t react. Doesn’t look at him or flinch. They grow bolder still when they see what they can get away with. They pinch and prod and caress and cut. One man points the gun at his head.

The man… doesn’t. He simply watches with a slightly cocked head and an unreadable expression on his face. He’s standing just as still as Will, but where Will’s stillness is passivity, a focal point, the critic’s is nothing of the sort. It’s the coiled tension of a predator in the room. He draws stillness around him like a cloak. Where everyone looks at Will, they treat this man as though he’s invisible.

He isn’t invisible to Will. His eyes are so distracting.

* * *

The show ends exactly six hours after it begins. Will comes to life then, blinking tired eyes that strain to focus after remaining fixed for so long. He shrugs on a robe to cover himself—the rest of his clothes had been cut off three hours ago—and in the meantime most of the people in the room scatter. Afraid to face him after what they’ve done, probably. A few stay to shake his hand and offer some quiet words of congratulation.

This is his least favorite part of his job and probably the most necessary. If Will wants to make his art and still keep the lights on, he has to make nice with patrons, smile and clasp hands and answer terribly uninteresting questions for fans.

He’s exhausted and drained the way he always is after a performance, but he shakes the appropriate hands and tries to arrange his face into a reasonable facsimile of a smile.

Less is required of him in recent years. He’s well known now, and people will forgive a certain amount of taciturn eccentricity on the part of their artists; to a certain extent, they even expect it, but Will’s manager impressed on him the importance of making an appearance after this show. 

He’d been informed that a prestigious art critic from the New York Times would here, and that Will is expected to make a good impression. After staring at Mr. Slicked Hair for six hours, Will would put money on knowing exactly who the Times critic is. 

He keeps his eye on the critic even as he makes it through the small crowd of well-wishers. He grits his teeth and smiles, even though what he really wants is to go home and take a shower, drink some whiskey, and bleach the feeling of strangers’ hands out of his head. The feeling of dried blood on his skin is itchy, and his stomach burns where one visitor had stuck the rose thorns in. There’s honey and spittle along the back of his neck, and it sticks and pulls when he moves.

Will had honestly expected the man to come up to him after the performance, but he does no such thing. Instead, he seems to be engaged in the process of slipping out the door unnoticed—invisible to everyone but Will, just as he’d remained throughout the entirety of the show. Maybe it’s something mean-spirited in Will, kept under lock but never quite extinguished, that makes him go up to the man and offer a big, false smile and hand extended to shake.

It’s to the critic’s credit that he doesn’t hesitate before grabbing Will’s hand in a firm, cool grip. He doesn’t bat an eye at the flakes of blood crackling off Will’s skin, and Will adjusts his assessment of the man slightly upward.

“Will Graham,” he offers, fishing for a name.

“Hannibal Lecter.”

“Did you enjoy the performance?” Will asks.

“I’m afraid I don’t discuss my reviews until they’re published. You’ll have to wait until Sunday like everyone else.”

The first thing Will notices is the accent. It’s heavy, but understandable, and nothing he can place. Eastern European, if Will had to guess with a gun to his head. The second thing Will notices is this guy is a complete asshole.

Most people at these things are, but they usually hide it better. Although on the upside, Hannibal is at least a little interesting. There’s something different about him, something Will can’t put his finger on, but no matter. He’s used to leading with his intuition. He’s always been comfortable making leaps his conscious brain can’t explain. 

Whatever it is about Hannibal, it’s enough that Will takes the opportunity to read him. It’s something he hasn’t done since he was a kid. What was a cute trick for his dad’s buddies got his ass beat in high school—more than once—until he’d learned people didn’t appreciate their private business being dragged out into the open.

Everybody just has so many secrets.

“You don’t enjoy your job. You find it tedious and find most of the art mawkish or banal.” He looks Hannibal up and down—expensive three piece suit, old money carriage. “You don’t do this for the money. You don’t need the money. You do this primarily because you’re constantly hoping to find something that moves you, that inspires you, but you never do. This is the first time you’ve stuck through an entire performance art piece for years. At first I thought you make a habit of this, but you don’t, do you?”

Hannibal sneers. “Been reading my bio, Mr. Graham?”

“No. I don’t find you that interesting. But you do. You’re in love with your own mind, your own opinions—that’s the second reason you do this. You’ve amassed quite a coterie of followers in your years on the scene. They hang on your every word, and you enjoy it as much as you despise them for their blatant bootlicking.” He tilts his head. “You find me fascinating as well, maybe because I’m not a bootlicker. I don’t need to wait for the review to know that.”

He’s showing off a little. They both know it. He’s curious if Hannibal will call him on it. Hannibal is perceptive—maybe not like Will, but more than he lets on. That’s something else he can tell already.

He doesn’t expect Hannibal to hit him—he’s not the type to start a brawl in an art gallery, and anyway Will didn’t say anything that offensive (this time)—and he’s right, but he did expect more of a reaction. He expected something. Snide words, for Hannibal to dress Will down, maybe. At the very least, a denial of all that Will’s said.

He gets nothing. Nothing more than a brief flicker of some unnamed expression across Hannibal’s face.

“Have a good evening, Mr. Graham,” Hannibal says before he turns on his heel.

Will puzzles out the interaction for a few more minutes after he’s gone. There’s something about Hannibal Lecter, something niggling at the edges of his thoughts, but he lets the issue drop soon enough. He’s got a room full of shit to clean up, and he really wants to go home.

* * *

Will actually doesn’t think of Hannibal at all until Sunday when someone decides to blow up his phone. He’s lying in bed with the blackout curtains drawn, trying to do his best impression of a dead man when the ringing starts. He lets the first two calls and all the texts go to voicemail and only picks up when it becomes crystal clear the universe isn’t going to allow him to get any more sleep today.

“Nngh. What?”

“Jeez, I always forget how cranky you are in the mornings.”

“Bev.” Will sighs as he gropes around for his glasses. If it’s Beverly, he’s definitely not getting back to sleep. She’ll keep calling until he talks to her, even if he hangs up on her now. “What is it that couldn’t wait until a normal human hour?”

“Buddy, it’s 10:30. This is a human hour. You forget we’re not all vampire bats like you. Have you seen the Times yet?”

“We’ve just established that you woke me up. How would I have seen the Times?”

Bev ignores his ill-tempered snark. She’s very good at it. It’s one of the reasons they’re friends. “Just check it. You’re going to want to see this.” She pauses. “Take some aspirin first. It’s not going to make your headache any better.”

It does not make his headache any better. In fact, it makes it a lot worse, although the stale whiskey left unfinished in his glass last night helps. Will doesn’t usually go in for day drinking. The deck is already stacked against him, genetically speaking, and he doesn’t particularly care to end up like Bill Graham Sr. halfway in the bottle, but desperate times.

Hannibal’s review is terrible, and terrible is an understatement. It’s absolutely scathing.

He calls Beverly back.

“‘Graham’s performance, while high on melodrama, leaves much to be desired,’” he quotes. “‘It boasts shock factor and cheap thrills, but it’s desperately lacking in sincerity. One has to wonder if this is the work of an artist or simply the cry for help of a troubled man who no longer wishes to reside on this mortal coil.’ What the fuck?”

“It goes on for several paragraphs,” Beverly helpfully supplies. “You should see what he says about your childhood at the end.”

“He called me fucking suicidal! He called me insincere.”

Will fumes about it for days. He’s a walking black cloud, even worse than usual, to the point that even his manager gives him a wide berth and tells Will to give him a call when he’s ready to stop acting like a lunatic. He’s livid, and nothing will soothe him until he comes up with the perfect solution. Beverly tries her best to talk him out of it, but Will won’t be deterred.

Dr. Lecter, he writes in an email. I’d like to invite you to a private showing of Rhythm 0.

He doesn’t actually expect Hannibal to respond. He’d written the email in a fit of pique, and even he had to see Beverly’s point when he finally calmed down. Hannibal Lecter is the principal art critic in the eastern United States. There’s no way he was ever going to respond to Will’s frankly unprofessional invitation. He probably hears from disgruntled artists all the time. Since the review came out, Will has looked into Hannibal Lecter—he’s a retired psychiatrist who rose to fame alarmingly quickly in the art community, and he’s earned himself the nickname the Chesapeake Ripper for both his start in Baltimore and his habit of murdering art careers.

But a few days later, Will’s phone pings, and he has an email in his inbox from Hannibal.

I accept your gracious invitation. I’d like to offer my private residence as a venue, if that’s acceptable to you.

It’s weird, but then this whole thing is weird.

That’s fine, Will responds. Pick a date and time.

* * *

So that’s how Will finds himself standing in Hannibal’s large, gothic dining room totally still, with 72 instruments of sensation and harm laid out before him.

Hannibal had been perfectly polite from the start, answering the door with a pleasant, if vacant, smile and taking Will’s coat like a gentleman. He asked Will if there was anything he required and if he’d like a beverage—tea, wine, coffee—and Will had declined. There was nothing he needed. Nothing he wanted but this, a chance to prove himself and clear the stain from his name.

Hannibal shows him into a rather large dining room that has been cleared of its chairs. There's nothing here save the long, elegant table waiting for Will’s things.

They don’t talk, save for words of absolute necessity.

Hannibal says, “I trust this is sufficient?”

And Will says, “Perfect.”

Will takes his things out of the box one by one, lays them out on the table gently, reverently. This, too, is part of it. With every tool that comes out of the box, he sinks deeper and deeper into himself, reaching that place inside him where everything is still and everything is quiet. By the time the box is empty, he is too.

“Shall we say an hour for this private showing?” Hannibal asks, surprising Will. He assumed their accord of silence was mutual.

It feels like he’s speaking from somewhere far away when he answers, “Only an hour? I don’t mind doing the whole thing.”

Hannibal shakes his head once. “An hour can be a very long time.”

“Suit yourself.” He lapses back into silence, and Hannibal does as well. This time nothing breaks their mutual quiet, and Hannibal doesn’t speak again.

He regards Will for a time, circling him. Will thinks once again of a predator—a shark, maybe, circumnavigating its prey in the water. He stops behind Will, and Will feels him there, his presence and warmth. He leans in close and breathes at the juncture of Will’s neck, inhaling audibly until Will has to tamp down the shiver that tries to rise in him.

He walks back around to the front, and Will breathes a sigh of relief. He’d rather have Hannibal where he can see him. Hannibal trails his hands over the instruments laid out over the table, lingering over the medical equipment. When he picks up the trauma shears, they fit in his hand as though they belong there.

He’s a retired psychiatrist, but the easy familiarity with surgical instruments makes Will wonder if Hannibal isn’t a medical doctor too.

“I was a surgeon in the ER,” Hannibal says, breaking the silence and speaking directly to Will’s thoughts. “In another life.” He keeps talking as he runs the trauma shears down the exact middle of Will’s good shirt, neatly parting the fabric in two without fussing with the buttons at all. “I quit because the unavoidable loss of life bothered me.”

Will says nothing, and yet something must give him away because Hannibal looks up at him with a wry expression on his face. “You look as though you might combust from all your observations with no release valve. Speak, if you care to. Tell me what you’re thinking.” Hannibal moves the shears to the side, cuts Will’s pants along the outer seams, splitting them from hip to toe. They fall neatly to the ground, and Will’s underwear goes with them. 

Will swallows. He considers remaining silent, but this iteration of Rhythm is different from the other anyway. Different venue, different time constraints—different audience. And Hannibal is right: he’s dying to say what’s on his mind.

“You weren’t sad about the patients who died. That’s what everyone assumes when you use that line, which suits you just fine, but it isn’t what you mean. You couldn’t be sad—you’re not that type of person.”

Hannibal cocks his head. “That type of person?”

“Empathetic. Given to spontaneous demonstrations of care for others.”

“Are you calling me a psychopath?” Most people would be offended. Will is incredibly good at offending people, almost as good as he is at creating art, but Hannibal doesn’t sound put out, merely curious. Interested.

The honest, strange curiosity emboldens Will. If he wasn’t obligated to hold still for the duration of his performance, he would have shrugged.

“I’m not not calling you a psychopath. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The idea that everyone with a psychopathic personality is a serial killer is a common misconception, and a stupid one. Psychopathy is found in first responders and surgeons at elevated rates because it’s useful to them. The ability to keep a clear head and stable hands despite human pain and upset are assets.” He watches Hannibal as Hannibal watches him. “You’re not lying—if I had to guess, I would say you don’t like to lie, but that would just be a guess. You were bothered by the patients who died under your care, but only because it struck you as an insult. A personal loss against death itself. Against God, maybe.”

“I couldn’t save them all, for all my skill,” Hannibal muses, and it sounds like someone worrying at an old wound long healed over. “A losing proposition. I don’t like playing games that are unwinnable and fixed from the start.” He’s gone somewhere in his mind, but now he shakes it off and turns his attention back to Will, back to the present. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re very observant?”

Will huffs a quiet laugh. “Once or twice.”

Hannibal sees something on him, something true. “Ah, I see. Your knack for perceiving others hasn’t led them to be particularly kind to you.”

Will chooses to remain silent. Being stripped nude is one thing. He refuses to assist Hannibal in laying bare his mind simultaneously. Will’s not quite sure how Hannibal managed to turn the tables so deftly, but he already feels as though he’s lost control of the situation.

Hannibal persists, undaunted. “Is that why you were drawn to a career in the arts? It’s a field where the unusual are tolerated, even celebrated.”

“Is that why you did it? It’s quite a jump from respected psychiatrist to local art critic. Quite a drop in pay, too, I’d suspect.”

Hannibal makes a mild disapproving noise. “Heavy-handed, Will. It doesn’t suit you. You were right the first time when you correctly guessed I enjoy my vocation for reasons beyond the financial.”

“I didn’t guess. I intuited.”

Hannibal nods, acquiescing to Will’s distinction in terminology. “Do you do that often?”

“Oh, constantly.”

Hannibal picks up an ice cube from a small bowl that was full of them when they started. By now it’s half melted, and the remaining ice floats like little glaciers. He presses it to Will’s neck without preamble, and Will doesn’t bother to hide his flinch when it touches his skin. He’s intuited—correctly, it seems—that Hannibal prefers his honest reactions.

He traces the ice down Will’s neck, along the shelf of his collarbone. He wants to move away from the feeling, so jarring in the warm room.

“The heat,” Will says.

“What about it?”

“I’m comfortable standing here naked, so you must be incredibly hot in a three piece suit. You turned the heat up for me.”

“I did.”

“Planning ahead?”

“Constantly,” Hannibal says in an echo of Will’s own words. There’s a faint smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

He drags the ice lower, circles one of Will’s nipples slowly, making Will’s stomach clench in anticipation of the sting of cold that never comes. He has rivulets of ice water dripping down his chest, an irritating creep that feels like the tiny patter of insects. He’d rub his hands over the droplets to catch them and wipe them away if he could, but of course he can’t. That’s not part of the performance.

Hannibal picks up a length of silk next, and Will expects him to drag it across his skin—that’s usually a crowd favorite, something safe, approachable, suitably nonthreatening—but Hannibal doesn’t do the expected. He stands directly in Will’s line of sight and folds the cloth end over end until it’s a long, thin strip. He holds it up to Will’s face, telegraphing his intentions, giving Will every opportunity to back out. To turn his head, to say no, before he blindfolds him.

Of course Will does no such thing.

“Can you see anything?” Hannibal asks once the silk is firmly in place.

“No,” Will says. And then because he has the perverse impulse to be unflinchingly honest, “Shapes. Lights. I can tell where you are and where you aren’t. Movement. I can’t see what your face looks like. I can’t tell what you’re holding or what you’re doing.”

Hannibal’s voice sounds farther away when he says, “Good.”

There’s a rustle and a clatter, things being moved around on the table.

“You aren’t this indecisive,” Will says.

“Oh?”

“You’re distracting me. You don’t want me to know what you’re picking up.”

Hannibal hums his approval. “If your memory is as good as I suspect it is, I expect you know where every one of your instruments is on this table.” He’s silent, and Will realizes he’s waiting for an answer. He nods, and Hannibal continues. “I find surprise makes things more interesting.”

“I don’t like surprises,” Will says, recklessly honest.

“I know. You give people the illusion of control with this performance. They, the malicious actors. You, the passive object who is acted upon. You carefully orchestrate every second of your show. You choose the instruments. You know what they’ll do with them, given the chance.”

“Human nature is predictable.”

“Am I?” Hannibal asks.

Will’s mouth feels dry when he sounds out the thought that’s been nagging at the edges of his mind. “You don’t want the illusion of control. You want the real thing.”

“Yes.”

Hannibal gives Will a moment to digest that, but in the end, he doesn’t object.

In the time they’ve been talking, Hannibal has selected his instrument. Will knew what he was doing, knew the conversation was a distraction even as it unfolded, but for all that, it served its purpose. He has no idea what Hannibal is dragging across his skin when the first touch tickles along the back of his arm.

It’s cold, hard, and thin, and Will tenses up all over.

“What do you think this is?” Hannibal asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Take a guess.”

Will swallows. “Give me more data points. I can’t take a guess with nothing to go on.”

“You can,” Hannibal says, but Will notices he does as he asked anyway.

He drags the thing over Will’s chest, scoring parallel lines across his pectoral muscles. The lines burn with cold, and he can feel something dripping.

It could be the butter knife, dipped in the bath of ice water until it’s so cold it feels like it’s slicing through skin. Will’s used that trick on an ex-girlfriend or two who liked a thrill. It could be.

It isn’t, though.

“The hunting knife,” Will says.

Hannibal runs the knife lower, drawing a stinging line down his middle from clavicle to groin.

“Do you think I’m cutting you?”

The answer feels important. Will thinks of Hannibal, the ex-surgeon who plays games with God, the polite host who showed him in, the art critic who ruins careers with a flick of his pen.

“Yes,” Will answers, and he feels sure it’s true.

“Why?” Curiosity again. That same blank, open curiosity that Will’s now certain covers something worse.

“You’re an artist too,” Will breathes. “This is your medium. This is your canvas. Pain—”

“Will,” Hannibal interrupts him gently, voice very close to his ear. Will feels the touch of something hard and thin at his front of his neck. If he’s right, it’s a knife. If he’s wrong, it’s something harmless. “I invite you to consider your next words very carefully.”

Nothing about Hannibal is harmless.

“Human flesh,” Will says. “It’s your favorite canvas,” and he pushes himself forward onto the blade. He’s rewarded by the warm trickle of blood down his throat and chest, the searing sting of pain.

He’s rewarded with Hannibal’s indrawn gasp of breath, so quiet he would have missed it had the room been anything but silent as the grave.

He hears the clatter of the knife against the table, and then a large warm hand is planted squarely between his shoulder blades.

“Take three steps toward the table and brace yourself on your hands so you can lean forward.”

Will sucks a breath in. He isn’t sure this is still part of the performance. This is something new, he can feel it. But Hannibal leads him with the hand on his back, and Will sticks his arms out before him and places his hands palms-down on the table.

Hannibal hasn’t cleared a place for him. The dining table is still cluttered with the instruments of Will’s design, and he traps them under his hands. There’s soft silk beneath one palm and something sharp as needles under the other. He can practically feel Hannibal waiting to see what he’ll do.

He doesn’t readjust his grip. If Hannibal wants to see sincere, he’ll show him sincere. He presses his hand down and lets it bear his weight, even as the sharp points puncture his skin. He can’t help but cry out at the feeling.

“Lovely,” Hannibal murmurs. He trails his hand softly down Will’s spine and lower, lower. “So lovely. Don’t move.”

Will hears the rustle of cloth as Hannibal lowers himself to the ground. A strong grip spreads his cheeks open, and he barely has time to register the fact that he should be embarrassed before there’s a warm, slithering wet heat pressing against his hole. He groans aloud when he realizes what it is, and then Hannibal is devouring him.

Will’s knees nearly buckle, and he’s forced to grip the table tighter, forcing whatever sharp thing is beneath his palm deeper into his skin. He whimpers, pinned between the dual sensations, bright pleasure and pain sparking along nerve endings and fighting for supremacy.

“Oh, fuck. Fuck.”

Hannibal laps at him until he’s incoherent and begging, and he keens when Hannibal pushes a thumb into his spit-slick entrance. He drags it in and out, stretching the opening on every outstroke. The dry burn of friction, of skin on skin is delicious, and just when it’s starting to be too much—when it’s starting to edge into the wrong sort of pain, his tongue is back, sliding in alongside the digit and making Will feel positively oceanic.

Will can feel saliva dripping down his crack, down his balls and probably onto the floor. He must look a frightful mess, but he can’t bring himself to care because Hannibal is doing that, eating Will like he’s starving, and it’s all he can do to hold on for the ride.

It goes on for so long, and Will is so insensate with pleasure that he hardly notices when Hannibal stops. He feels drunk and drugged, would wonder if Hannibal had slipped something into the wine if he’d actually accepted any, and he’s just about to turn around when he feels a warm weight holding him down.

“Bend forward,” Hannibal says, and Will obeys.

He hopes to God there’s nothing particularly sharp under his face, nothing that’s going to put out an eye, but he’s strapped in for this mad ride now.

It feels like a high stakes game of chicken, and Will isn’t going to be the one to lose. Whatever he rests his head on is hard and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t seem hazardous. He wonders if Hannibal intended it that way, or if it was an accident. He wonders if Hannibal would have stopped him from slicing his face up, or if he would have just watched.

The thought sends a shiver right through him.

Hannibal’s hands disappear from his body for a moment, and Will feels illogically, nonsensically bereft, and then they return, one rubbing soothing circles down his flank and the other pressing against his hole, slicker now than before.

“I didn’t bring lube with me,” Will says. His voice sounds rough and foreign to his own ears.

“Fortunately for you, I did. Unless you would have preferred to try your luck with blood.”

He can’t help the groan that escapes him at that, loud and deep and sounding out his worst-kept secrets.

Hannibal chuckles, and Will can feel his cheeks heating. “Or maybe you really would have liked that. Next time, then.”

Will’s stomach lurches at the mention of a next time. He’s about to say something—to bite out something cutting and sarcastic, to call Hannibal on his presumption, to beg yes please, fuck yes, but his words are stolen as something blunt and huge presses into him.

He hisses at the intrusion. The slide is slow and unrelenting and almost too much, and by the time Hannibal’s hips are seated flush to his, Will can’t tell if he wants more or less. He feels full and exposed, humiliated and burning hot under his skin.

What falls out of his mouth is, “Are you wearing a condom?”

“No,” Hannibal says.

Will sucks in a breath. “You don’t know me. I don’t know you. For all you know, I have something.”

“And you’re not worried about me?”

Will shakes his head. Hannibal’s started moving his hips in maddeningly tiny, controlled thrusts. Will bites his lip, but a stuttering moan escapes anyway. “Three piece suits and a kitchen so clean you could perform surgery in it, and your body is as immaculately kept as either of those. You’re not careless. You don’t have anything.”

There’s a nipping bite to his ear, and then Hannibal’s sucking on the lobe to soothe the sting. “And yet you said my favorite canvas is flesh. How do you know I haven’t caught something bloodborne?”

Will shakes his head again. “I don’t.”

Hannibal pulls back so far he’s almost gone, leaving Will empty before snapping his hips forward. He’s so deep Will can feel it in his throat. “Do you want me to stop?”

Teasing. Smug. He knows Will wants no such thing. He just wants to hear him say it. Will is happy to oblige.

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Hannibal fucks into Will just like he wants it, hard and fast and full of screaming brutality. It goes on and on until all his nerve endings are singing.

Hannibal leans forward so that Will can feel his breath in his ear. It sends tingles straight down to his toes. Hannibal’s keeping a steady rhythm that’s driving Will out of his head, cock dragging against his prostate on every stroke. He’s so close. If he could just move his hands, wrap one around his own cock and pull—

“Will,” Hannibal whispers in his ear, gentle as a lover’s caress. “Did you know that’s a gun beneath your head?”

Will’s breath catches in his throat.

“I took the safety off after I blindfolded you. Do you know how close you are to having your brain spattered all over my wall? I’d never get you out of the floorboards. I’d have to repaint.”

Hannibal uses his free hand to shove Will’s head down, to grind his cheek into what he now knows is the cold metal of a firearm. He clenches tight around Hannibal in fear and lust, and he swears he tastes lead when he comes.

* * *

“I was right, you know,” Hannibal says after. They’ve made it to a bed, and he’s twined around Will. His chin rests on Will’s shoulder. His voice is low and seductive in Will’s ear, and even now Will can feel his cock giving it the old college try. He won’t get hard again, though. Not tonight, not after all that.

“Right about what?”

“Your performance in the gallery. It was insincere.”

Will groans. “Talking about work in bed, Hannibal? Is this a habit with you? Something I’m going to have to watch out for?”

“I prefer to mix work and pleasure whenever possible.”

“You’re a menace,” Will says, but he snuggles deeper into Hannibal’s chest.

“Fire your agent,” Hannibal says suddenly.

It’s such a non sequitur that Will gets mental whiplash trying to follow the sudden change in direction. “What?”

“Fire him,” Hannibal says. “He doesn’t understand your work. He can’t. You should have never performed that piece for an audience of that size. It’s subtle. Intimate. You should have an agent who affords your work the delicacy and respect it deserves.”

“Meaning you.”

“Meaning me.”

Will has no reason to do it. No reason to trust this man and certainly no reason to put his career in the hands of the Chesapeake Ripper, a notorious art critic Will is now pretty sure is also some kind of serial killer.

And yet he wants to, so he does.

There in Hannibal’s bed, at a frightful hour, naked and with one of Hannibal’s arms slung possessively over his hip, he picks up his phone and makes the call.

After all, Will has always been comfortable leading with intuition.