In another world, Will and Hannibal meet while they’re both still alive. Hannibal tricks Will. Will tricks Hannibal. Blood and guts. A daughter, then no daughter. A swan dive, a cliff. A happy ending, eventually.
In this world, Will is stabbed just a little differently. The universe tries to repeat itself, always, a symphony of perfect order that keeps time by the swirling of the cosmos. It does pretty well, all things considered—it’s difficult to play out the same scenarios as exact replicas, through dimensions, across space and time. Sometimes things wobble, become misaligned, get thrown out of whack. Sometimes what was supposed to be a survivable stabbing becomes less so.
An inch lower, half an inch deeper. Someone nicks an artery, and Will Graham bleeds out on the floor of a very respectable four bedroom house before the ambulance can even arrive.
The world turns on.
When people die they’re supposed to be, well, dead. Except sometimes they don’t actually die. Sometimes their spirit is still howling, screaming and clawing toward life, and the tollman come to ferry their soul toward hell decides they’re just not worth the trouble—
So they stay. And they haunt, and if their name is Will Graham, they try to do it nicely, but in the end people still die.
The years tick on, and well. Death is really the same as life, isn’t it? He forgets the difference. Once he forgets, well. It’s okay that they die.
* * *
Hannibal comes to New Orleans.
Will doesn’t know why he’s there. He doesn’t much care. What matters is that Hannibal is in his house, which makes him Will’s now.
The first thing he notices is Hannibal’s rich, warm accent. His cold, austere beauty. The second thing he notices is—
“You have so much blood on your hands,” Will says, mesmerized. “I can see it.” He shuts his eyes and breathes in. “I can hear their screams when I close my eyes.” He opens them again, curious. “Can you?”
“No,” Hannibal says.
He turns to go—Will’s offended him, maybe. He does that sometimes. Death hasn’t made him any better with people than he was in life, but Will doesn’t want him to go. He tries to take one of Hannibal’s hands, but of course his own passes right through, ghostly and ephemeral.
“You feel cold,” Hannibal says, absently rubbing the back of his wrist, the place where their skin would have touched. “How curious.”
Hannibal starts leaving him presents—thoughtful gifts, considerate ones. Nothing that would frustrate Will due to his inability to touch, but little baubles he can appreciate with his eyes alone. He fills Will’s home with flowers, throws open the curtains so Will can see outside. Will spends hours watching people walking by on the sidewalk below, going about their days having lives and loves and little, solvable problems. It’s a feast for his eyes, but it all makes him so hungry.
Hannibal brings Will a mirror so he can look at himself, and it feels almost like company in the times Hannibal isn’t there.
He’s surprised by how little his face has changed over the years.
“I look so young,” he says, touching his own cheek. He meets Hannibal’s eyes in the mirror. “I don’t feel young.”
“What does it feel like?” Hannibal asks.
Will’s quiet for a long time. He touches the wound in his shoulder, the one that never heals but oozes blood, on and on for eternity. “Like this,” he says, pulling his fingers away wet and red. “It feels like this.”
* * *
He’s starting to enjoy Hannibal’s company too much, and that’s beginning to become a problem.
“I can’t love you in a normal way,” Will whispers.
“I don’t mind,” Hannibal says. “If this is all we can have, I truly don’t mind it.”
He raises his hand and traces it down Will’s cheek. If Hannibal holds his hand very steady and moves it slowly, it almost seems like they’re really touching. Will can feel the shallow hint of sensation when they do this, like a puff of air on his face. It reminds him of warmth and breeze and sunlight, everything he can no longer have.
Hannibal is thinking of other things, Will knows. Normal things. He’s thinking of the way they can’t kiss and touch and fuck, can’t love each other with their bodies.
He’s thinking he’d be happy to spend the rest of his too-short mortal life with Will in this thing they’ve built from half-measures and rotten, festering hope. I would too, Will thinks. I would. For the rest of your life.
“You don’t understand,” Will says instead. “I’m hungry.”
Hannibal looks puzzled. “Do you eat? Let me feed you.”
Will smiles sadly. He’s seen Hannibal’s table laid out for friends, the beautiful banquets he creates. The sight of all that beauty touches something cold inside him, warms it up, and yet there it is, right where it always is—the awful, gnawing hunger that never gets filled except when he’s in Hannibal’s presence. The candle drawing the moth to burn itself up, to batter its wings against the flame.
Will shakes his head and disappears.
That’s the problem, Will says, knowing full well that Hannibal can’t hear him when he’s like this. You already are.
“Will,” Hannibal says. “Will, come back.”
He’s talking to an empty corner, to somewhere that Will most definitely is not, and Will leaves him to it, even though it hurts.
He remembers the difference between alive and dead for the first time in a long time, and he wants Hannibal to be alive.
* * *
Hannibal doesn’t stay away, and in the end neither can he.
He hasn’t let Hannibal see him in weeks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t talk. Or rather, it doesn’t mean that Hannibal doesn’t talk to him, holding one-sided conversations about the state of the herb garden and what he should bring to Mrs. Nakano’s housewarming party next week.
Hannibal keeps talking to him, and he gets it right more often than he should. He talks to Will more often than he talks to empty corners, finding him unerringly as if by memory. They’re becoming attuned to each other, Will thinks with a grim flutter in the pit of his stomach. Hannibal can find Will in any given room, and Will—he’s starting to be able to see into Hannibal’s dreams.
They’re dark, twisted things full of snow and the baying of hounds. Full of cold and exposure. People there speak a language that might be German but certainly isn’t French, at least not as far as Will can tell from his Creole patois. There’s blood and ripping grief and a stabbing hunger that Will feels a kinship to. Hannibal twists and turns in the night, sleeping fitfully, and Will wonders if he even knows he’s doing it. If he wonders why he wakes in the morning feeling poorly rested with shadows underneath his eyes.
Will hates watching. Death hasn’t blunted the sharp edges of his empathy at all. If anything, it’s made it more keen, and so he gives in every time. He folds his body around Hannibal’s in his great cold bed and wonders at the way his touch can still Hannibal’s shivering. Hannibal doesn’t know he’s there, but Will’s essence eats away at his nevertheless. He grows dimmer by the day.
Hannibal stops eating.
The rest of them all did too, eventually, but it disturbs him on Hannibal in a way it never has before. It seems wrong that a man so deeply involved in the process of nourishment, of culling and cultivation, of loving preparation and ingestion would suddenly cease.
If I had a body, Will thinks. If I had a body, I would kill and bring them to you. I would feed you as you feed me.
Will frets, and it shakes the windows in their frames.
“You have to eat,” he coaxes. He tries to pick up a fork to bring it to Hannibal’s mouth, and he could howl in frustration when his hand passes straight through. “Just a little, just for me.”
Hannibal shakes his head, looking so at peace with the world that Will wants to scream. He’s getting too thin. “I’m not hungry, mylimasis. I’ll eat later.”
“The wine, then. Have a little. Drink a toast to me.”
“All right,” Hannibal says, raising his glass. “Just a little. Į sveikatą.”
He drinks, but not as much as Will would like.
It’s not enough. It’s never enough, and that’s just the point, isn’t it? It’s never going to be.
* * *
Hannibal stops sleeping. “Because I can’t find you in my dreams,” he says.
“I’m there,” Will promises. “I’m always there. I watch over you wherever you go.”
Hannibal shakes his head, eyes wide and frightened as a child. “It’s not the same when I can’t find you. I’m afraid, then. I’m scared that I’ll never find you again.”
Will knows that fear because he shares it. Because he fears that Hannibal will be taken from him, pulled into the great black beyond where there’s no pain, but no love. Nothing but neverending fields of contentment that weren’t made for the likes of them.
Hannibal clings to Will’s shirt with bony fingers that put Will in mind of talons. He’s clinging with all his strength, Will knows, but that doesn’t amount to much anymore. It’s no trouble at all to pluck Hannibal’s hands free from the fabric of his uniform, to bring them to his mouth and kiss the fingers one by one.
“That’s the madness talking, my love. You’ll feel better if you sleep.” He presses a kiss to Hannibal’s forehead. “Get under the covers, dear. You’re cold.”
Something tight and frightened unclenches in his chest when the request breaks through the haze. When Hannibal makes a slow trek to the bed, legs wobbling and unsteady, to pull the covers down to where he’s sitting with Will. Will can touch him now, but he still can’t move anything else. He can’t tuck Hannibal in nor bid him eat.
Will breathes a little easier when Hannibal wraps himself in the coverlet—unwashed, smelling like animal fear and illness—before settling himself back against Will.
“You should really leave, you know. Go somewhere far away from me.”
“Just a little longer,” Hannibal says, dreamy and unconcerned, nestling deeper into Will’s lap.
He can touch them when they get like this—the living, all the ones who’ve passed through his door. The closer they get to death, the more solid they feel. It’s thrilling to feel the warmth of life beneath his hands, hot blood running through veins so near to the surface. It makes him feel guilty just how much he likes this part.
“Okay,” Will sighs. “Just a little longer.” He strokes his hands through Hannibal’s hair until he falls back asleep.
In the spare half light of the room, he looks like he’s already dead.
* * *
Hannibal never leaves. Just a little longer stretches further and further until it stretches clean into eternity.
Will didn’t think Hannibal would actually go, but some small part of him had hoped—the part that can still tell the difference between life and death. The part that would rather be hungry forever than take one thing more from the brittle husk of a man dying before him. That part, Will thinks, is probably called love.
But Hannibal dies anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter what he calls it.
His hair comes away in clumps when Will runs his hands through it, and the quiet rattle of his breath smells like sweet rot. Will presses their lips together anyway. He feeds, as if there were any other choice.
There was never another choice. That’s the truth of it, the meaning of hell.
“It’s okay,” he whispers in Hannibal’s ear, not knowing if Hannibal can hear him. “It won’t hurt at all. It’s like crossing a threshold, like stepping through a door. One day this will all seem like a strange, bright dream you can remember forever.” He kisses him again. “Soon you and I can be hungry together always.”