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Coping

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Hannibal’s eyes keep gravitating to the hickey visible above the collar of Will’s shirt—the one Will knows is there but has taken absolutely no pains to cover up. He’s not ashamed; he has nothing to hide.

Hannibal uncrosses his legs. He crosses them again.

“How have you been sleeping?” he asks.

Will laughs, a bitter, hollow sound, coins falling into a tin can. “I haven’t. I don’t.”

“More nightmares?” Hannibal asks with polite interest.

“Always. I see echoes behind my eyes. Wounded deer. Sad, dead girls.” His lips pull up into a rictus smile. “I hear their screams. I hold the knife.”

“These dreams upset you.”

Will stands. He sticks his hand in his pockets and traces a slow, meandering line around the edges of the room. He can feel Hannibal watching him. A book catches his eye, and he reaches out to take it, to crack its spine and peer inside at crisp text on faded pages. The words have no meaning—coded symbols that blend together as he lets his focus drift. “Only when I wake up.”

“And how do you cope with these dreams, when you awaken?”

“I go out.”

“Out?”

“Coyness doesn’t suit you, Doctor Lecter.”

Hannibal inclines his head, a concession. “You seek out sexual liaisons.”

The corner of Will’s mouth tips up. “That’s a quaint way to put it.”

He runs his hand along the back of the stag statue standing atop its pedestal. Its cool bronze body feels oily, almost slick beneath his hands. He wonders that he sees deer everywhere, a repeating motif that chases him through his dreams and into the waking world. For the barest of moments he has the feeling of slipping, falling out of time. He takes his hand away and puts them both in his pocket.

“How would you put it?”

Will sucks his teeth, a deliberately crass gesture that sets off the most minute twitch at the corner of Hannibal’s eye. “I get fucked up in bars and screw anyone who’ll have me.”

Will smirks, and Hannibal’s eyes narrow.

* * *

Will goes out hunting that night. How could he not, with Hannibal’s words still rattling unpleasantly in his head? They feel sticky, clinging to his skin, and it makes him antsy. He doesn’t even bother showering before taking off his tie and pulling on a better shirt. He feeds his dogs, brushes his teeth, and heads out, grabbing his keys on his way out the door.

He doesn’t have a favorite haunt. The idea of being a regular anywhere—of being a familiar face with a predictable drink—makes him feel too much like an alcoholic, but if he did have a usual bar, the Kingfish would be it. It’s a repurposed tackle shop with a steeply sloped roof and awful, all-over green paint that somehow manages to be more charming than ramshackle. It must have fit in the neighborhood at some point, but now it’s a misfit, dwarfed by its neighbors to either side.

Will can relate.

It’s a Thursday night, so there isn’t a huge turnout. Something classic rock is playing over the stereo, the words hard to pick out over the din of voices and the clinking of glasses. He prefers it when there are fewer people. He doesn’t care for crowds, hates the sticky press of too many voices, too many cluttered wants butting up against his own.

He orders a bottle of something cheap and domestic and settles into one of the pleather barstools to wait.

The first beer goes quick. He’s hit the bottom before he knows it, the brown bottle turning amber in the light. He orders another and nurses it more slowly, turning to watch the crowd of people around him. There’s a group of college kids playing darts in back, all of them chattering and laughing. A high, bright peal of laughter rings out when someone misses a shot. Across the bar two men are having a heated discussion, brows furrowed, faces animated. One of them gestures with his glass, sloshing something red and sweet onto the floor. Neither of them notice the bartender glaring daggers in their direction before she sighs and turns to take another order with a smile plastered on her face.

Will is still considering her fake smile when a man slides into the vacant stool on his right.

“This seat taken?”

He considers pointing out that they both clearly know it isn’t, but makes an open gesture with his hand instead. “Be my guest.”

Will takes another long pull of his drink before turning to look at the man beside him. He drags his eyes up the other man’s body and doesn’t make any show of hiding it.

The man is good-looking, with a head of thick, dark hair and a body he clearly looks after. When Will meets his eyes, he smiles, warm and open.

He nods toward Will’s beer. “Can I get you another?”

It takes him a split second to make his decision. He drains the last of his beer and sets the empty bottle on the lacquered counter with a clink. “Sure.” He holds out his hand. “I’m Will.”

“Nice to meet you, Will. I’m Gary.”

It takes Gary a few tries to catch the bartender’s eye—not very assertive, Will notes—but he finally does. She leans over the counter, raising her voice to be heard above the din. “What’re you having?”

“Two Budweisers.”

“You don’t have to have what I’m having, you know.” Will nods at the two sweating beers the bartender’s set on the counter in front of them. “C’mon, that’s not your drink.” He looks at the bartender and winks.

She raises and eyebrow and pauses, bottle opener poised over the one beer that remains unopened, apparently entertained enough to indulge his little game.

Gary laughs. “Alright, alright, you caught me.” To the bartender, “Just the one Budweiser and an IPA, please.”

“Sure thing.”

She grabs a pint glass from beneath the bar and turns around, raising her eyebrows at Will in a way that says go get ‘em tiger as soon as her back is to Gary. She comes back with the IPA, and Gary puts it on his tab.

“Cheers,” Gary says, lifting his glass.

“To a good night.” Will clinks the lip of his bottle against it and drinks.

There’s a little bit of foam clinging to the top of Gary’s lip, cream on tan, and for the barest moment Will thinks of licking it off. The moment fizzles into nothingness, and Gary wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. It should be a charming gesture, probably, but it’s off-putting instead. The lack of refinement puts him in mind of Hannibal—more specifically, his absence.

“So the drink—how’d you know?” Gary asks, stealing him from his thoughts.

“Lucky guess.” Will doesn’t want to talk about his work, what he does. That’s not why he came here, not why he goes out. “So Gary,” he uses the man’s name and leans in, flicking his tongue out along his lip, gratified by the way Gary’s eyes track the movement. “What brings you out on a Thursday night?”

He slips into it like an old glove, the easy patter of conversation, the deft bob and weave of flirtation. It’s an old game, one he’s been playing since his college days, and one he knows well. He touches Gary’s wrist lightly and lets himself smile when he sees the way Gary leans into him. He can be someone else for a little while, someone who does this—who talks and smiles, flirts and laughs. Somehow who doesn’t smell the burnt curl of human flesh in his dreams at night.

Gary answers, and Will lets it wash over him.

The time passes quickly. Before long, they’re being ushered out of the bar.

“Alright, boys, closing time,” the bartender says. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

They adjourn to the parking lot, where Will stares up at the stars for one dizzying moment, tipping his head back and letting himself get lost in the vastness. Gary lights up a cigarette, and Will breathes deep, the smell of nicotine blurring together with the sharp scent of petrichor. It rained while they were inside, and everything is covered in a slick, glittering sheen.

He waits until Gary finishes his cigarette, flicking it to the asphalt and crushing it underfoot. Hannibal would hate that. They’re standing close together, faces illuminated by the neon glow of the bar behind them. He runs his hands down Gary’s chest and leans in, closing the distance between them with a soft, insistent press of his lips. The kiss isn’t bad. It’s boozy and tastes like smoke, with just enough tongue. But it isn’t what he wants.

Will isn’t a stranger to men. Contrary to what people assume of him, he isn’t freaked out by the idea that he might be gay. He’s not that kind of Southerner. He swings both ways, has fucked and been fucked by more men than he can count on both hands—but that isn’t what he wants tonight.

Gary’s hands on his back make him think inexplicably of Hannibal, and that’s something Will just isn’t prepared to deal with tonight. He pulls back abruptly. He can see the question in Gary’s eyes, the quiet resignation.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Will says. He is genuinely sorry. “Any other night—” he doesn’t finish that thought. “I can pay you back for the drinks, if you want.”

“Nah,” Gary says, pulling back. He tucks his hands into his pockets and shrugs. “Nah, that’s okay. I had a nice time talking with you, Will. Have a good night.”

“You too.”

Gary walks away into the cool night, melding into the odd sepia-toned landscape of phosphorescent light on pavement. He does a good job of playing at unaffected, at pretending this was no harm, no foul, but Will can’t help noticing the dejected slope of his shoulders, the bitter burn in the back of his throat that’s only partially his own.

He’s about to call it a night and head out too, empty-handed to an empty bed, when he pats his pockets and realizes he’s missing his wallet.

“Fuck.”

He walks back to the bar and tries the door, relieved to find that it’s open. The music is different now. The stereo system plays a punk band he doesn’t recognize, cranked up loud. The stools are all lined up atop tables and counters. The bartender is sweeping with her back to the door, and Will thinks how easy it would be to walk up behind her and snap her neck. He blinks, tired, and drags a hand over his face.

“Excuse me.”

She bops her head to the music, working her broom into the corner of the room, under table legs.

“Excuse me!”

She doesn’t look up, so Will crosses the room and touches her shoulder.

She jumps, whirling around. “Jesus Christ, you scared me.”

“Sorry. I, uh, think I lost my wallet.”

He sees recognition settle over her features. “I’ve got you.” She leans the broom against the nearest table and disappears behind the bar. “Catch,” she says, tossing the wallet his way.

He tries, but four beers have shot his depth perception to hell. The black billfold glances off his fingers and tumbles onto the newly swept floor. Will picks it up and dusts it off, tucking it into his pocket.

“Thanks,” he says. “G’night.”

“Whatever happened to your Casanova? He waiting for you outside?”

Will snorts. “Yeah, uh. Turns out he wasn’t my Casanova after all.”

She whistles, picking up her broom and finishing where she left off. “Tough luck for that guy.”

Will’s mouth pulls into a pinched smile. “Probably dodged a bullet.”

“Someone’s down on himself.”

He laughs softly. “That’s usually the case.”

She pauses her sweeping, leaning against the broom. “Hey. I don’t usually do this, but I’m just going to be a few more minutes. Do you want to come back to my place?”

She’s pretty. She’s young.

Mostly she’s there, and Will just feels so itchy in his skin.

* * *

Thursday turns into Friday, and Will pulls back into his driveway in the wee hours of dawn. The world is softly lit in tones of grey around him, and his breath comes in little puffs of fog where his window is rolled down. Everything is still and quiet, and Will breathes in, savoring the air and letting it sting his nose. He’s always liked being awake when the rest of the world isn’t. His head is throbbing with the promise of a hangover to come, and he has his sights set on a hot shower and a hotter cup of coffee, in that order.

He frowns at the sight of Hannibal’s Bentley parked in his driveway. He checks the digital clock on the console of his car—it’s barely 5 a.m. A prickle of something that might be shame and might be suspicion noses at the edges of his tired mind. He takes a deep breath and steels himself before getting out of the car. The slam of his car door is loud in the silence, setting off an answering string of barks from his dogs inside.

Hannibal is sitting on Will’s porch, reclining in one of Will’s tatty chairs. He’s wearing one of his more sedate suits, and its muted tones blend in with the quiet shadows of early dawn.

“Good morning, Will,” Hannibal says, as though he isn’t a thing out of place.

Will is tired. The feel of someone else on his skin—someone else’s fluids, the echo of someone else’s pleasure—is starting to grow uncomfortable. He just wants a shower. He’s not in the mood for the clever wordplay that marks his relationship with Hannibal.

“Making a house call? I don’t remember calling for a doctor.” He unlocks the front door and steps inside to a frenzy of wagging tails and sniffing noses. His dogs snuffle at his hands, inordinately his crotch, and Will pushes them aside with a foot.

“I thought I’d pay a visit.” Hannibal steps across the threshold, following him in uninvited. He holds out a thermos. “I brought coffee.”

“You thought you’d pay me a visit at 5 in the morning?”

Hannibal inclines his head.

Will nods toward his kitchen. “Mugs are in the top left cabinet. I’m going to take a shower.”

He closes the bathroom door to the sound of Hannibal puttering in his kitchen, the dull thud of a cupboard door and the gentle rattle of porcelain. It’s as comfortingly domestic as it is invasive.

* * *

Will feels like a new man by the time he steps out of the shower, wrapped in clean clothes and still toweling his hair dry as he steps into the kitchen. The smell of coffee hits him as soon as he crosses the threshold, rich and strong. It’s accompanied by the thick, savory scent of meat and the sizzle of a frying pan.

“Making me breakfast, Doctor?”

Hannibal nods from his post at the stove, flipping an egg with a neat flick of his wrist. “I took some liberties with your kitchen. I hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s fine,” Will slides his hands into his pockets and leans against the counter, watching Hannibal work.

“Your coffee is on the table. Why don’t you go sit down? I’m almost finished.”

Will does, tempted by the prospect of coffee. It’s still steaming in his cup, and it tastes like heaven itself, its rich bitterness cut by just enough sugar. Will smiles despite himself. Hannibal Lecter, darling of the Baltimore elite, knows how he takes his coffee.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Hannibal asks, sliding a plate in front of Will.

Two pieces of toast are cut into neat triangles arranged neatly along the edge of the plate, along with an egg and two strips of bacon. It’s a lot of food for someone who usually has coffee for breakfast, if he’s lucky.

Will shakes his head. “It’s nothing.” He notices that Hannibal nurses his own cup of coffee but nothing else. It’s strange to see Hannibal’s long, thin fingers wrapped around one of his mugs. “You’re not eating?”

“I had breakfast before I left home.”

Will nods, taking a bite of his food. He can’t help the small moan that escapes his mouth at the taste of the bacon. It’s crisp and fatty, sugary and salty on his tongue. “This is so good.”

Hannibal smiles, and Will finishes the rest of the bacon in two bites.

“This isn’t my bacon?”

He shakes his head. “I brought it from home, along with the coffee.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Hannibal seems content to let him eat in peace, sipping his own coffee while he watches. It should feel uncomfortable, being so closely observed, but it’s hard to mind it when he understands. He knows this is important to Hannibal—watching people consume the food he prepares, seeing them enjoy it—even without knowing quite how or why.

He feels almost human by the time he rests his fork on an empty plate, sitting back with a full stomach and a slight groan.

“So are we going to talk about the reason you showed up at my house first thing in the morning?”

Hannibal is wearing an expression that Will might call sheepish on anyone else. He speaks slowly, and Will gets the impression that he’s choosing his words with care. “You could say that I’m testing a hypothesis.”

“You wanted to know if I was home,” Will guesses, sounding the thought out as he goes. “You wanted to see if I—”

“Were employing your particular coping mechanism, yes.” Hannibal tilts his head. “You were unsettled after our conversation yesterday.”

“That’s not exactly unusual. Murder tends to be an unsettling topic, Doctor. Showing up at my house—that’s awfully invasive, isn’t it?”

Hannibal spreads his hands, guilty as charged. “Call it concern.”

“As my psychiatrist?” Will raises his eyebrows. “Or something else?”

“I consider you my friend. My concern for you as a friend and as my patient need not be mutually exclusive.”

“I think the ethics committee might disagree.”

“Are you planning to file a complaint?” Hannibal’s tone is amused, as though they’re sharing an inside joke.

Will snorts. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Maybe they are.

Will takes his plate to the sink and washes it, along with their empty mugs. He’s glad for something to do with his hands, for somewhere to look that isn’t directly at Hannibal. The bite of the hot water is grounding. He lets the dishes drip dry on the rack and leaves the frying pan and spatula to soak in the sink.

“So what’s the verdict?” Will asks, drying his hands on a dishtowel and turning to face Hannibal again. “Of your hypothesis.”

Hannibal’s smile is a private, slanting thing. It makes Will think of mongooses scurrying under a house. Of things slithering in the dark. “Perhaps more observation is required.”

He hands Hannibal his clean thermos and shows them both out. They pause as they get back in their respective cars, staring at each other across the vacant lawn. The sun is creeping its way into the sky; he’ll be late for work if he doesn’t leave soon.

“Thanks for breakfast,” Will says, hand poised on the door handle.

“My pleasure,” Hannibal says.