Actions

Work Header

Sugar and Spice ( and nothing nice )

Chapter Text

Sugar and Spice ( and nothing nice )

 

It's all these demons haunting me

It's all these little things trapped inside of me

Releasing me from all my sins

 

( Godsmack, Releasing the Demons )

 

 

 

––

o.1

––

 

On stage, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, made unbearable by a recurring dissonance, a screech where there should have been a pleasant hum, a squawk in place of a tinkling cadence. The majority of the audience probably didn't hear it, as the stray notes were covered up by the wall of sound, but the musicians did: sidewards glances, lowered brows, mouths tightening in displeasure. They knew who among them was the culprit.

 

Hannibal saw him, heard him, too: a balding man in the middle of the ensemble, sweat on his high brow. Ah, yes. Benjamin Murdoch, flute player – and by far the least talented musician to be playing the evening stage. Removing him would greatly improve the orchestra. Hannibal would serve Murdoch's trachea to the members of the Symphony Board, next time the monthly meeting took place at his house, and perhaps the flesh of his bumbling fingers, lightly sautéed, in a white wine sauce.

 

The after–party, taking place in a small concert hall in the back of the Baltimore Theatre, added insult to injury.

 

There were the usual suspects, prone to making an already wasted evening unbearable: Sylvia and Peter Dall, who tended to drag out their marital problems in front of twenty embarrassed spectators, if the champagne flowed too freely, and tonight it flowed. Then, Mindy St. Claire, widow, always eager to draw attention in whatever way possible, as long as it was male attention, regardless of angry wives looking on.

 

Finally, Franklyn Froideveaux, irritation personified. That one, Hannibal blamed on himself. Franklyn was his patient, but half a year into therapy, Hannibal had yet to make headway into the man's mind. Franklyn was abysmal at forming personal connections that went beyond asking his secretary to bring him a cup of coffee. The ones he did make seldom lasted longer than it took the other party to realize they were now the sole focus of a needy big city neurotic with an unfortunate tendency to overlook social clues.

 

Franklyn had joined the Symphony Board three weeks after setting foot in Hannibal's office for the first time. To make friends, he said. To broaden his horizon.

 

And a fine job he was doing of that, across the concert hall, standing by himself next to the buffet table and clutching a flute of champagne. He was watching Hannibal with the kind of hunger a famished man reserved for a banquet, the other board members ignored. Hannibal was used to patients developing a rather intimate relationship with him; he was starting to mind the stalking, though.

 

Perhaps it was time to refer Franklyn to a colleague. Perhaps it was time to kill him.

 

Sylvia Dall's shrill voice rose above the murmur of conversation, slurred with intoxication. Hannibal decided it was time to leave before someone – again – decided he should put his considerable experience as a psychiatrist to good use and solve the Dall's problems over the course of one evening. He was good, but he was not a miracle worker.

 

Franklyn headed him off just as Hannibal was about to open the door that lead to the staff area of the theatre. “Leaving so soon, doctor? It's not even ten yet.”

 

“I have a long day tomorrow.” And frankly, better things to do with the rest of his night than listen to Sylvia Dall sob and scream. He was thinking about a light meal. The Symphony Board meetings always sported a buffet table. Hannibal refused to eat that food, hadn't even looked at the table tonight. Peter Dall, the chairman, was very good at selecting sub–par catering services.

 

Franklyn made an agreeing noise. “See you on Friday, I guess.” He looked down into his half–empty champagne flute and added, with a terribly forced cheerfulness, “I think I'll leave, too. Kind of getting sick of the champagne, you know?”

 

If he was hoping for an invitation to a nightcap at Hannibal's house, he was going to be disappointed. Shrugging into his jacket, Hannibal gave him an encouraging smile. “I'm certain you'll find a bar to your liking.” He took a moment's sadistic pleasure in the way Franklyn's face fell. “Good night, Franklyn.”

 

He stepped through the door and shut it firmly, hoping the action would convey that he didn't care to be followed. Franklyn was turning into a problem he was going to have to deal with, sooner or later. Hannibal couldn't allow someone to have that kind of obsessive focus on his person. It was too much of a risk, especially if Franklyn got it into his head to expand this stalking business to Hannibal's other endeavours.

 

So: referral, or death.

 

On the one hand, Hannibal usually avoided killing anyone closely connected to him. He was no stranger to the police turning up on his doorstep, over the course of investigations concerning his more violent, disturbed patients, or the suicidal ones, when he hadn't been able to talk them back down from the ledge, when the therapy hadn't taken root before their minds overcame them. Attention from law enforcement was something he tried not to actively encourage, however.

 

On the other hand, Franklyn had annoyed him enough to make him want to reconsider his rules.

 

He had almost reached the back exit, at the end of the long corridor leading through the storage and staff areas of the theatre, when Hannibal's contemplations were abruptly interrupted. Unexpectedly, a door opened to his right, catching him painfully on the shoulder. Only a fast sidewards step saved him from the small avalanche of folded cartons landing on the floor as the door rebounded and caught the person carrying them. The sharp smack of wood against skin was followed by a yelp of pain.

 

The man stepping into the corridor shook his hand and flexed his fingers. “Crap.” He caught sight of Hannibal, froze. “Damn. I'm sorry. I didn't expect anyone to be back here this late. Are you hurt?”

 

The staff and storage areas of the theatre were usually off–limits to visitors. The Symphony Board, though, had a long–standing arrangement with the management that granted exclusive rights to use the employee's parking lot, easiest accessed by taking the corridor Hannibal now stood in.

 

“Only my pride. The rest seems to be in working order.” Hannibal glanced at the man's knuckles. Two of them, ring and index finger, were bloodied from their impact with the door and already starting to colour. “You fared worse than I have, I think.”

 

The man glanced at his left hand. “It's nothing.” He shot Hannibal a quick look, avoiding direct eye contact. “Are you sure you're all right?”

 

“Yes. I have a first–aid kit in my car. Let me take care of that.”

 

Clearly embarrassed, the man stood undecided. Finally, he muttered, “All right,” and dropped to one knee, hastily gathering up the scattered cartons. “You work here?”

 

“Symphony Board member. I'm leaving early.” Watching him pile and lift the cartons, Hannibal held open the back exit door. “I was taking the short route to the parking lot. Maybe I shouldn't have.”

 

Rising back to his feet, cartons gripped securely, the man ducked his head and winced. “Again, I'm really sorry.”

 

Hannibal put on a mild smile. “No harm done.” On a whim, he extended his hand. “Hannibal Lecter.”

 

The man liberated his uninjured hand, a little awkward with the cartons still in his arms. “Will Graham.”

 

Still no eye–contact. Will's handshake was firm. His name sounded familiar, his face looked a lot more so, though Hannibal couldn't recall meeting him before. Getting the first–aid kit out of the trunk of his Bentley, Hannibal watched him shuffle the cartons into the back of a beat–up, grey Volvo with a Virginia license plate.

 

Will came over, eyeing the first–aid kit – which was really a doctor's bag – with something approaching trepidation. “That's really not necessary. It's just a few bruised knuckles. They'll heal.”

 

“They'll heal faster with antibiotic salve and a proper bandage.” Getting the impression that Will wasn't someone who liked to ask for help, much less accept it, Hannibal patted the lid of the Bentley's trunk. “I'd rather not be responsible for any infections leading to gangrene and amputation. Hand, please.”

 

“I'm pretty sure bruised knuckles don't lead to gangrene and amputation.”

 

“I used to be an emergency room surgeon. You'd be surprised what even the smallest injury can lead to. I've seen people on the verge of death from a paper cut.”

 

Reluctantly, Will put his hand on the lid of the trunk.

 

As he readied antiseptic wipes, Hannibal once more tried to recall where he'd seen him before, and again came up empty. The longer he was in his presence, the more he noticed that there was something off about Will. He smelled, ever so slightly, of something sweet and heated. Hannibal hadn't noticed it in the corridor, but here, standing closer together, it was unavoidable.

 

Other things were obvious, too. Will's eyes were red–rimmed, more than a spell of sleeplessness would account for. Although his handshake had been firm, his palm and the back of his hand were moist. There was a sheen of sweat on Will's brow and throat. The collar of the t–shirt peaking out from under the flannel shirt he wore was dark with it. His breath came shallowly and slightly faster than was normal. His skin was too warm to the touch.

 

Working quickly, Hannibal disinfected the bruised knuckles and surrounding skin. He pulled on a disposable glove before spreading a thin layer of antibiotic salve over the injuries, then wrapped Will's hand in gauze, all the while debating with himself.

 

To mention that sweet, heated smell, or not? As much as Hannibal lived by certain rules and expected others to at least know that there were such things as universal hospitality and courtesy, he didn't go around trying to solve the world's problems. He had not interest in being everybody's best friend or saviour.

 

Surreptitiously, under the pretence of holding Will's hand still, Hannibal felt for his pulse. Elevated. The sweat could have a perfectly benign explanation, but it was rare that Hannibal smelled something on another person and was wrong about it.

 

He looked up, caught Will's gaze sliding away. Made his decision, spur–of–the–moment: a random act of kindness, to counter–balance the wasted evening.

 

“Thank you,” Will murmured, and attempted to pull his hand back.

 

Hannibal tightened his grip. “Do you have trouble sleeping, Will?” No answer. Just a quick flash of blue–grey eyes, startled, wide. “No? What about sleepwalking, then? Illusions? You don't have to answer me, but if you do have these symptoms...”

 

Will regrouped. “I'd like my hand back. Now.”

 

The sudden steel in Will's voice carried a hint of threat. Hannibal didn't blame him. The circumstances were less than ideal – they barely knew each other, they were standing in a deserted parking lot at the back of the Baltimore Theatre, and it was the middle of the night. It was easy to get the wrong idea. Releasing Will's hand, Hannibal pulled off the disposable glove and began repacking the doctor's bag.

 

He said, “It is none of my business, of course, but I couldn't help noticing your symptoms. You have a fever, among other things. I'd recommend a visit to a doctor. One specializing in neurological diseases.”

 

Will had taken a large step away from the Bentley, was staring at Hannibal from under lowered brows. Staring at Hannibal's chin, rather. “I'll take that under advisement,” he said stiffly. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I've had a long day. Good night.”

 

The grey Volvo didn't tear out of the parking lot, but it was a close thing. Hannibal watched its tail lights disappear, wondering at himself. He'd taken a risk here, tonight. If word got out that he'd physically accosted a man in a deserted parking lot, his reputation could suffer a serious hit, even if nothing came of the accusations.

 

Having the police on his doorstep now and then because of his patients was one thing. It came with the job.

 

Being the focus of an investigation, however...

 

Hannibal tamped down the small voice inside that insisted it would be interesting. Challenging.

 

Being accused of sexual harassment or attempted assault – with no witnesses around, and no camera surveillance in the employee parking lot, Will could spin that story any way he liked, if he wanted – was neither interesting nor challenging.

 

It was a complication Hannibal didn't need.

 

He was playing a dangerous game already, with an institution quite a few steps up higher from the Baltimore Police Department. He was not above recognizing that an overinflated ego, a serious overestimation of his capabilities, could become as crippling to his future as a single mistake during the creation of one of his pieces of art.

 

If only the people who sat on his couch, in his armchairs, knew. Doctor Hannibal Lecter, M.D., psychiatrist...

 

Chesapeake Ripper.

 

*

 

A week later, Hannibal hadn't forgotten about his encounter with Will Graham, but delegated it to the back of his mind. No police officers came knocking at his door. He sat through Friday afternoon's usual ordeal of listening to Franklyn Froideveaux for fifteen minutes, gently but firmly attempted to stir the man toward self–improvement one last time, then told him that he was going to refer him to another psychiatrist.

 

“I knew it,” Franklyn said glumly. He held up both his hands, right pinky folded down. “Nine. Nine times. I can count on two hands the number of times I've been dumped by a psychiatrist.”

 

“I'm sorry, Franklyn. But I think you should see another doctor.”

 

“You're giving me a referral?”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

You were a referral!” Franklyn snapped angrily.

 

“I am also part of the problem. You focus too much on your therapist, and not enough on your therapy.”

 

“Is it because of the, the,” Franklyn gesticulated. “If it bothers you that much that I joined the Symphony Board, I can stop. I'll stop going there.”

 

“This isn't about me,” Hannibal said with as much gentleness as he could muster. “Franklyn, the change in your life must come from within you, not from your association with your therapist. You cannot solve your problems by latching onto someone else. Also, my decision is final.”

 

Franklyn left with slumped shoulders, the card with the telephone number of the psychiatrist Hannibal was referring him to clutched like a lifeline. As glad as he was to be rid of him, Hannibal escorted him to the office door with mixed feelings. He earnestly attempted to help his patients. Franklyn was the first in a long line of cases he was giving up on.

 

There was a man in the waiting room, tall, broad–shouldered, heavy. He watched Franklyn, who slunk away with a mumbled 'good bye, doctor', with slightly raised eyebrows. Then he extended his hand, flashing an ID in his other. “Jack Crawford, FBI. I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.”

 

“Certainly. Come in, please.”

 

Jack Crawford followed Hannibal into the office. He looked around with open curiosity.

 

Hannibal watched him. He knew Crawford. Not personally, but enough to be wary of the reason for his visit.

 

Crawford was the agent–in–charge of the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit.

 

Behavioural and forensic profiling were no longer the voodoo practise of law enforcement, the way it had been when the BAU was established as a reliable way to catch criminals. Crawford, with his broad, round face, his clear, precise way of speaking, his down–to–earth attitude and no–ground–given approach to crime, belonged to the second generation of profilers, established and respected.

 

Two or three times a year, he ended up speaking in front of a crowd of reporters and journalists; sometimes his name was mentioned in newspaper articles covering the FBI's latest endeavour. In decades past, it had been enough for the public to know a perpetrator was caught and behind bars; today, everyone wanted to know why, and how, and isn't there a TV show just like that?

 

Crawford had an excellent track record, according to what information was available. To Hannibal's knowledge, there was only one killer Crawford had never managed to catch, dead or alive. There was only one killer who had eluded captivity for years, who covered his tracks too well, if he left any behind at all. One, who confounded the authorities, who defied categorization, labelling.

 

Hannibal felt a thrill of excitement. Hello, Jack.

 

Out loud, “May I ask what this is about?”

 

“You can ask, but I may have to ask you a few questions, first.” Crawford was smiling jovially. Underneath the easy–going attitude was a core of steel. “You're expecting another patient?”

 

“We're all alone.”

 

“Good.” Turning on his heel, Crawford looked around again. “No secretary?”

 

“She was predisposed to romantic whims. Followed her heart to the United Kingdom. Sad to see her go.”

 

Crawford chuckled. Then his gaze caught on something. “Wow.” He headed for a table in the back of the office, where Hannibal kept a few of his older drawings. Without asking if he was allowed, Crawford lifted the protective sheet and bent over them. “Are these yours, doctor?”

 

“Among the first.” Hannibal stepped up to Crawford's side. He pointed out the topmost drawing. “My boarding school in Paris when I was a boy.”

 

“The amount of detail is incredible.”

 

“I learned very early that a scalpel cuts better points than a pencil sharpener.” To demonstrate – and blatantly, covertly arm himself – Hannibal picked up said scalpel, from where it lay among his other drawing utensils, and a pencil.

 

“And now I understand why your drawings earned you an internship at Johns Hopkins.” Apparently completely unconcerned that Hannibal now held a potentially lethal weapon, Crawford wandered away from the table again.

 

His words, and the implied background check, lingered. “I'm beginning to suspect you are investigating me, Agent Crawford.”

 

“No, no.” Crawford chuckled again. “No, you were referred to me by Alana Bloom, in the psychology department, Georgetown.”

 

Hannibal was on friendly terms with Doctor Alana Bloom. Just last month, he'd spent a pleasant hour conversing with her at a conference. “Most psychology departments are filled with personality deficiency. Doctor Bloom would be the exception.”

 

“Yes, she would. She told me that you mentored her during her residency at Johns Hopkins.”

 

“I learned as much from her as she did from me.”

 

“She also showed me your paper. 'Evolutionary'...ah, 'Evolutionary origins of social exclusion'?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Very interesting, even for a layman.”

 

“A layman. So many learned minds going about in the halls of behavioural science at the FBI, and you consider yourself a layman.”

 

“I do when I'm in your company, doctor.”

 

The attempt at buttering up to him was so obvious, Hannibal let his expression do the talking for him.

 

To his credit, Crawford seemed to sense he'd overdone it, and cut to the chase. “How do you feel about working as a consultant for the FBI, doctor? I got a case that could use a fresh pair of eyes.”

 

The FBI had long–standing agreements with the faculties of the universities of Georgetown and Harvard, to call upon them if needed. Alana, now an established psychology professor, often complained that the FBI monopolized time that would be better spent teaching the coming generations. Crawford could hardly be wanting for professionals. Even if he was, it hardly was normal conduct to knock on the door of the next best psychiatrist and invite them to a case.

 

There was also the fact that Hannibal was the Chesapeake Ripper. He'd been taunting the FBI, and Jack Crawford in particular in his function as the agent–in–charge of the BAU, for years. As hilarious as it was that Crawford had come knocking on the very door of the man he'd probably give his last breath to catch, Hannibal was suspicious. He didn't believe much in coincidences.

 

“As flattered as I am by the offer,” Hannibal said, “I must decline. I have literally no experience with the kind of work the FBI does, and I feel my presence would be a hindrance rather than an asset. That is something I don't wish to subject you, or myself, to.”

 

Crawford's face remained impassive. “Eight girls have gone missing, doctor. I'll take any help I can get, and you do come highly recommended. Not just by Doctor Bloom.” He smirked at Hannibal's expression. “I did my homework before I came knocking. You have a reputation for tackling difficult cases. Patients no other therapist in Baltimore wants to be saddled with, that kind of thing.”

 

That much was true. Even a failure like Franklyn Froideveaux, dismissed by eight other therapists, was just another name on a long list of patients that inevitably ended up as the topic of conversation whenever Baltimore's psychiatric/medical community gathered. Hannibal wasn't exactly famous in the circle of his peers, but he did have a reputation for preferring the not so easily solved mental puzzles – as long as they didn't end up stalking him.

 

“I'm not expecting wonders, doctor.” Crawford pointed out. “Come take a look, that's all I ask. A few hours of your time. Maybe you'll see something the rest of us don't, simply because you have no experience with our 'kind of work'.”

 

The request was tempting. Hannibal considered himself an artist. Now there was a chance to see first–hand what kind of impact his work had on other people, to walk undetected among those who could inarguably be considered his enemies.

 

“I'll take a look. But,” Hannibal lifted a finger, stalling the satisfied smile spreading on Jack's lips, “I have a condition.”

 

“Name it.”

 

“My work here takes precedence. I have a responsibility to my patients, and no interest in being called out of bed at four in the night, to consult on anything, or to close my office for days at a time, to fly all over the country. If I am to help you, I will do it on my own time. I will not be at your beck and call.”

 

The corner of Crawford's mouth twitched. “Doctor Bloom's been complaining about me, I see.” Alana was the kind of person who let others know, right in their faces, if something bothered her. She and Crawford had probably had words before. “I admit I'm a bit of a time hog, but I promise I'll restrain myself. You have a deal, doctor. When may I call on you, then?”

 

Hannibal glanced at his watch. “Now.”

 

“Now?” Crawford looked delighted.

 

“I have nothing planned for the evening. So yes, now would be good.”

 

Jack Crawford waited by the office door while Hannibal put on his jacket and collected his briefcase. On the steps outside the house, Crawford looked him up and down, lips pursed. “By the way, I hope you're not squeamish. The case we're working on...” He trailed off meaningfully.

 

“I'm certain I can handle the physical details,” Hannibal dismissed the concern, amused. “I did work as an emergency surgeon before I became a psychiatrist. But you know that, of course.”

 

Crawford smiled. “Just making sure.”

 

*

 

It was nearly midnight when Hannibal arrived at his house on Chandler Square. He sat in the Bentley, mind abuzz with new impressions, new knowledge, new ideas, and let the last few hours pass before his inner eyes.

 

The case Jack Crawford had invited him to revolved around teenage girls gone missing. Only the eighth, Elise Nichols, had turned back up: dead, found in her childhood bed in her parents' house. Hannibal shared Crawford's opinion that the other seven girls were dead, as well.

 

Elise was special. There was something about her that had compelled the killer to return her, to tuck her into bed. Whatever he had done to the other girls, he hadn't done it to her.

 

An autopsy revealed that the most obvious damage, the one everyone on Crawford's team had been dreading to find, was absent: Elise Nichols had died a virgin. There was no saliva on the body, no foreign hairs, no skin or fibres under her fingernails. There was no indication that the killer had touched Elise with anything but his hands, and even those marks were few – just a ring of bruises around her neck. She had died quickly and comparatively mercifully, by asphyxiation.

 

The post–mortem injuries drew Hannibal's attention. Irregular puncture wounds all over Elise's upper body indicated a stabbing, although the discovery of antler velvet in the wounds lead the forensic team to squabbling over what she'd been stabbed with. There was very little blood left in Elise's body. It wasn't until Brian Zeller, the team's forensic pathologist, pointed out that Elise's liver had been removed from her body and then sewn back inside that Hannibal made the connection.

 

She had been mounted on antlers, like the carcass of a pig hung from a butcher's hook, and bled. Hannibal could see the appeal. It was always easier to bleed someone dry before extracting their organs: less of a mess to clean up later, and less chance of evidence transferral.

 

Hannibal recalled with satisfaction the askance stares he'd received, when he asked Brian Zeller if there was something wrong with 'the meat'.

 

Something was wrong with it. Elise Nichols, at the tender age of seventeen, had liver cancer.

 

Hannibal knew what the killer was doing with these girls. He was eating them. He was a cannibal. The reason why none of the other victims had turned back up was simply because there was likely not enough left of them. The cancer forming pale, visible nodules on Elise's liver had made her an unfit candidate for the dinner table.

 

Hannibal spent twenty minutes introducing Jack and his team to the concept of cannibalism as a form of ownership; whoever these girls represented, the killer wanted to make her his. The likeliest was a daughter, or some other young, female member of the killer's acquaintance.

 

Crawford had looked equal parts revolted and intrigued. He'd clapped Hannibal on the shoulder and thanked him for his insights.

 

Hannibal had left the BAU with an invitation to return or call, if he thought of anything else.

 

Now, sitting in his car, Hannibal knew he was going to take Crawford up on that invitation, when the opportunity presented itself. It was fascinating, to peek behind the curtain, to see first–hand how the FBI went about its business. This wasn't just a chance to observe these people from up close, but also a chance to learn, to perfect his own modus operandi. There was so much the public was unaware of, especially in regards to what a forensic team could do with the littlest bit of evidence.

 

And what better place to hide than in the eye of the storm? What better source of information than the agent–in–charge of the Behavioural Analysis Unit himself, when it came to keeping on top of the Chesapeake Ripper investigation? Given enough time, Hannibal was sure he could gain Crawford's trust, perhaps even his friendship.

 

Could learn what made the other man tick, what got under his skin, and then give it to him.

 

Satisfied with the day's events, Hannibal got out of the Bentley and walked up to his front door, a little spring in his step. He didn't even notice the small package that sat on the welcome foot mat until he was almost upon it.

 

House key in hand, Hannibal hesitated. He hadn't ordered anything, and at any rate, deliveries were usually sent to his office, not his home address. And what postal delivery service left a package sitting on someone's doorstep, in the middle of a busy city, where anyone could steal it?

 

The package was unassuming, plain; brown wrapping paper tied with coarse string. No address, no sender.

 

Unbidden, he thought of Franklyn Froideveaux. The man had already been stalking him. Hannibal wasn't prone to paranoia, but Franklyn and he hadn't parted in the best way, and Franklyn did work as a manager at a local chemical plant.

 

Was this a parting gift? Revenge?

 

No, Franklyn wasn't the type. He was much more likely to complain about his cruel and undeserved treatment to his next therapist, rather than mix together something that would explode in Hannibal's face.

 

Hannibal picked up the package. It wasn't very heavy. He carried it inside. Under the bright light in his kitchen, he saw what he hadn't noticed outside: a folded note, tucked under the string, written on the same brown paper the package was wrapped in.

 

The note read: I'd like to apologize. You were trying to help me. Regards, W. Graham. P.S.: Sorry again for attacking you with that door.

 

Curious, Hannibal unwrapped the package. Inside the plain paper carton, under a protective clear plastic dome, cushioned on a folded dish towel, sat a small chocolate cake.

 

Will Graham had bought him a cake.

 

Lifting the cake out of the package, he looked at it. It was perfectly round, maybe ten inches across and five inches high. The glazing was smooth and smelled tantalizingly of dark chocolate. Hannibal didn't have much of a sweet tooth, but he'd had only a small lunch, and nothing since then. The scent was making his mouth water. It wasn't just chocolate; bending over the cake, nose an inch away from the smooth top, he smelled vanilla and spices.

 

Try? Or trash?

 

On principle, Hannibal avoided store–bought, ready–to–eat food. He had a complicated relationship with food, anyway, preparing most of his meals himself, with carefully selected ingredients. He was a gourmand – a fact most of his acquaintances tended to tease him about, when they weren't salivating over the delicacies he served at his dinner parties.

 

He avoided buffet tables, too, and was a harsh critic of catering services; once, he had even killed a particularly unskilled baker, just to save himself and his fellow Symphony Board members from the man's abysmal concoctions.

 

It would be incredibly rude to not at least taste this cake, however. A sick man had gone to the trouble of buying it, and finding out Hannibal's home address, and perhaps Will Graham had even sat in his grey Volvo for some time, after he rang the door bell and nobody answered him.

 

Hannibal collected knife, fork, and plate, and cut himself a small slice, just enough to taste. His nostrils flared as the full aroma of the cake unfolded. Chocolate, bourbon vanilla, spices, a hint of rum. He ate a forkful, eyes involuntarily slipping shut. The chocolate topping crunched enticingly between his teeth and melted on his tongue. The chocolate was rather more heavy on the cocoa than on the sugar. The cake was moist without being sticky, and the taste was unlike anything Hannibal had ever gotten from something store–bought.

 

Within minutes, he'd polished off the slice and was chasing the crumbs with a wet finger. Dinner was postponed. Taking off his jacket, Hannibal bustled about the kitchen, brewing a cup of strong coffee that would go well with the dark chocolate.

 

As he cut himself a larger piece, he saw there was something written on the paper plate. Carefully, using the knife, Hannibal separated cake and plate.

 

Under smears of chocolate and crumbs, it read in cursive print: Graham's Cakes & Baked Goods. Wolf Trap, Virginia.

 

Chapter Text

 ––

o.2

––

 

The beginning of the new week brought rain and a front page article featuring a picture of Elise Nichols dead in her bed, in the Monday morning newspaper.

 

The article listed details Hannibal was certain Crawford had not sanctioned to be released to the press. Elise's liver cancer was mentioned, as were the wounds caused by the antlers. The cannibalism, wasn't. For some reason, that most salient aspect of the case had been left out. Instead, there was a good half page filled with speculations about the fates of the other missing girls.

 

The article referenced an online crime–watch website as the primary source. Tattlecrime.com featured not just 'the inside scoop' on the Elise Nichols case, but also a great deal of other cases in and around Maryland. The style was attention–grabbing and sensationalistic, filled with barb after barb aimed at the FBI and their failing to catch the killer – dubbed, rather tastelessly, 'Minnesota Shrike' – quickly.

 

Hannibal read the Tattlecrime.com article on Elise Nichols. He was not mentioned. He bookmarked the site, laid his tablet computer and the newspaper aside, and contemplated the delicate pattern border of his breakfast plate, letting his thoughts roll around.

 

The FBI had a leak. The suspect pool was small: Crawford's team, and Hannibal. Hannibal studied the picture of the Tattlecrime.com reporter, a young woman by the name of Freddie Lounds, and wondered who on Crawford's team had gone and talked to her, or what she had in hand against one of them, to make them talk.

 

Crawford could deal with whoever it was, if the culprit ever revealed him– or herself. Hannibal's concern went in another direction entirely.

 

His patients needed to be able to trust him. They needed to be certain that he had their best interests in mind. He was ethically and by the law bound to treat anything they told him as confidential, unless it was to prevent a serious crime. He did not want to find his name mentioned in any newspapers or online, not in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation and a possible FBI leak.

 

The mere suspicion that he wasn't trustworthy could wreak serious havoc on his career and reputation.

 

The thought was troubling, following him through the day. Crawford didn't call.

 

Hannibal decided a distraction was in order.

 

 

*

 

Wolf Trap, Virginia, was a small, sleepy community. The main tourist attractions were scheduled hiking tours and fly–fishing teaching courses held bi–weekly at the community centre. There wasn't much else to see. Following the directions on the map he'd printed out, Hannibal arrived at the edge of town without coming across Graham's Cakes & Baked Goods, wondering if the shop was so small that he'd missed it. The address he'd found on the internet didn't list a street. There wasn't even a website, just an entry in the online Yellow Pages.

 

He was about to turn around and head back into town when he saw the sign at the side of the road. It simply read 'Graham's', and pointed along the concrete band leading north between flat fields heavy with wheat. Hannibal had to drive another fifteen miles, the road becoming worse and worse, before he finally saw a farmhouse rise in the distance, half–hidden behind a couple of tall trees.

 

Long before Hannibal let the Bentley roll to a stop in what he guessed was the parking lot, he saw the dogs running free, romping around in an unfenced yard. They were an eclectic bunch, looking more like they had been randomly collected from the pound than something a breeder would raise. When Hannibal got out of the car, two of them came running up, barking excitedly. He let them sniff his hands while he took a look around.

 

The house was in decent shape, although its white coat of paint showed signs of weather abuse. It was a typical farmstead, with an adjoining, large barn, the usual detritus of farm life – an old plough, a tractor that probably hadn't been moved in years, going by the missing tires and the ivy growing up one side, a feeding trough now serving as a flower pot – littered about. A pair of rain boots with mud caked on the heels stood on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the porch.

 

Directly facing the parking lot was a newer addition to the house, the coat of paint not as weather–worn. A hand–painted sign in faded green and blue, mounted above the entrance, read Graham's Cakes & Baked Goods. The whole set–up was a far cry from the malls and shops Hannibal was used to frequenting in Baltimore, but as he studied the two small tables set outside, complete with wicker chairs, he couldn't help being charmed by the rustic ambience. In the long, hot summers, it had to be a treat to sit here, under the shade of the old trees, far removed from the hectic hustle and bustle of the city.

 

The dogs ran off again. Hannibal followed his nose.

 

The interior of the bakery was more sophisticated than its exterior suggested. Clean, white tiles on the floor, eggshell–coloured walls and small halogen lights in the ceiling created a pleasant atmosphere. The entire space was divided in half by a long, waist–high glass counter, upon which stood a number of square baskets, empty now, still bearing little price tags indicating what goods were usually displayed in them.

 

Mundane fare, there: bagels, doughnuts, cookies.

 

The space behind the glass counter was taken up by a long row of kitchen counters, a large fridge, and three ovens. An open door lead into the house itself. Baking utensils were scattered about, from whisks to spatulas to spoons to cake forms, but also all kinds of electrical equipment. An apple–green apron lay, untidily folded, over a shopping basket filled with oranges.

 

Over it all lingered the scent so typical to bakeries, although there were no cakes on display now, the whisking bowls, spoons and cake forms clean, the ovens dark and empty. Hannibal smelled a trace of vanilla in the air, along with notes of citrus. Bourbon vanilla, too, not that fake, chemical stuff most people thought was real vanilla.

 

It looked as if Will had, indeed, baked the cake he left on Hannibal's doorstep. Hannibal was also beginning to suspect that the night they'd run into each other, Will had been at the theatre in order to deliver some of his 'cakes and baked goods' to the Symphony Board's buffet table – which Hannibal hadn't even looked at, out of habit.

 

Hindsight and all that.

 

“Hello?” Hannibal called out. “Will?”

 

Through the open door in the back came the bark of yet another dog. A moment later, a small, spindly–legged terrier ran into the bakery, claws skidding over tile. The dog performed a welcome dance, tail wagging. Then it turned around and disappeared back into the house.

 

Hannibal had seen Will's grey Volvo parked outside when he arrived. The dogs had, by now, made enough noise that Will should have been alerted to his visitor, even if he hadn't heard the Bentley drive up.

 

The open door in the back was temping. It wasn't odd for people living in rural areas to leave the proverbial back door open, in case a neighbour wanted to drop in for a visit, but to leave a bakery unattended, especially with some rather expensive–looking kitchen equipment standing around, was careless.

 

Slowly, undecided, Hannibal rounded the glass counter. An open door was an open door, and Will had left him that cake as a thank–you gift. That didn't mean he'd appreciate Hannibal's sudden appearance inside his house.

 

At the door, he stopped. “Will? It's Hannibal Lecter. May I come in?”

 

The terrier ran up to him again, barking. It jumped around on the spot, whined, and raced off once more.

 

The room Hannibal walked into was a kitchen. A mug with a chipped handle stood forgotten on a table, the coffee in it still steaming gently. Despite his reluctance, Hannibal took a moment to observe; a lot could be learned about a person by looking at the way they set up their living space.

 

There wasn't a lot to see. The kitchen furniture and appliances looked lived–in and used. A little bare, with more attention to functionality than loving detail. This was not a room Will spent a lot of time in.

 

Pity, that. After seeing the bakery, Hannibal had expected differently.

 

Bordering on the kitchen was the living room. The floorboards here were scratched and worn. The space was cluttered – a long bookshelf covered an entire wall, stuffed to overflowing with books, magazines and knick–knacks. Chew toys lay in the corners, on the edge of a threadbare carpet. Beneath one of the windows stood a long, wooden work bank, sporting an assortment of handyman tools and what appeared to be fishing gear.

 

On a chair in front of the work bench, next to what a second look revealed was an old boat motor, sat Will Graham, motionless, staring at nothing. The terrier lay curled up by Will's foot.

 

Cautiously, Hannibal approached from the side. “Will.”

 

Will didn't react. In the daylight, he looked even worse than he had in the parking lot of the theatre. He was wet with sweat, again. He smelled, overwhelmingly, of sickness; that sweet, heated scent was now amplified, stronger even than the stench of perspiration.

 

Hannibal reached out a hand, intending to shake Will by the shoulder. He barely felt the sweat–soaked cloth of Will's shirt under his fingertips when Will shot to his feet so quickly and violently the chair toppled over, spooking the dog into a fast retreat out of the room. Before Hannibal could react, Will had shoved him away hard, putting space between them.

 

Easily, Hannibal regained his balance. “Calm down.” He held his hands up, palms out. “I'm not a threat.”

 

Half a room away, ducked into a defensive position, Will seemed to come the rest of the way awake. He blinked rapidly, chest heaving. “How the hell did you get in here?”

 

“The door was open, in the bakery. I called your name, several times.” Slowly, so as not to provoke another violent reaction, Hannibal lowered his hands. “I didn't mean to startle you. My apologies.”

 

Will let out a long, shaky breath, throat working convulsively. Now that the adrenaline was fading, he looked as though he was about to keel over from exhaustion. He sagged onto the edge of a worn couch. “I must've dozed off.”

 

“You sat there with your eyes wide open.”

 

“I'm fine.”

 

“No, you're not. And it's only going to get worse.”

 

It was obvious that Will hadn't seen a specialist about his illness. He probably hadn't even gone to a regular doctor. Either he thought that the debilitating fevers and physical deterioration would run their course – and they would, inevitably, run: all the way to a fatal end – or he was deluding himself into the belief that it wasn't as bad as he looked, as bad as he had to feel, sitting there sweat–soaked and shaking.

 

As pitiful as the sight was, Hannibal felt equal parts annoyed and exasperated. Tenacity was something to be recommended as a character trait, but this kind of behaviour bordered on plain stupidity. Despite aspirations to the contrary, humans were squishy.

 

Crossing the room, he put his palm against Will's brow, ignoring the resulting hard flinch, the unpleasant drag of sweaty hair against the back of his hand. Time to take off the verbal kid gloves. If hints didn't do the job, maybe the cold, hard truth would. “You need to be at a hospital. You're literally burning up from the inside.”

 

Will ducked away from him and nearly ended up dropping sideways onto the couch. “It'll pass.”

 

Hannibal still remembered how to use his emergency room voice, the one that sounded like, 'don't argue with me, I do know better'. “It won't. If the infection doesn't kill you, the fever will.”

 

Losing the battle against gravity, Will flopped onto his side with a low groan. His eyes were already glazing over again. If it was encephalitis Will was suffering from, and Hannibal was certain about that, then the illness was progressing at an alarmingly fast rate – or what Hannibal observed in the parking lot hadn't been the beginning stages, but a lucid spell between bouts of fever and delirium.

 

“I'm calling an ambulance.” Will made a faint noise of protest, easily ignored. Placing the call on his cellphone, Hannibal watched him slip back into the empty–eyed silence of before, horizontal this time. “You'll thank me, once you're better.”

 

With an ambulance on the way, estimated time of arrival of fifteen minutes, Hannibal spent the time looking through Will's book collection, as there was nothing more he could do for the man short of driving him to the hospital himself. This was the second time Hannibal was overstepping the self–set boundaries of kindness, where Will was concerned. He had no explanation for his actions. There was nothing spur–of–the–moment about this situation, either, not like dropping hints in the parking lot had been.

 

Hannibal walked back to the couch. Hands in his pockets, he studied Will.

 

Attractive, yes. Hannibal was not immune to physical aesthetics, even though in this case, they came with sweat–tangled hair and sickly pallor, the stench of sweat so thick Hannibal could taste the salt in the air. Under his loose clothes, Will looked fit; Will's meat, should Hannibal want to taste that, would be lean.

 

Hannibal didn't want to eat him.

 

Something else, then, and with it, hand in hand, that niggling certainty that Hannibal knew Will from somewhere. He had already googled him, but that had been a dead end. 'Will Graham' was far too common a name, and adding 'Wolf Trap' to the search didn't lead anywhere interesting at all. Either Will didn't participate in any of what Alana called 'online life–sharing time sucks' like Twitter or Facebook, or he did it under a pseudonym; in any case, Hannibal hadn't found anything except the address.

 

Hannibal was a great believer of exorcizing one's demons. If only to lay that persistent itch to rest – to find out from where he knew him – he needed Will to be alive.

 

*

 

The ambulance came in the company of a police squad car, driven by Wolf Trap's sheriff. While Will was being loaded into the ambulance, the sheriff looked Hannibal up and down. He knocked the side of his shoe against a tire of Hannibal's Bentley. “Long way to drive, from Baltimore.”

 

“I believe Mister Graham's cakes are worth it.”

 

“That, they are. The doughnuts, too.” The sheriff patted his substantial belly and grinned. “Anyway, I'll lock up the house and get someone from the local pound to come and collect the dogs. Graham can get them back once he's out of the hospital. Thanks for staying with him until we got here.”

 

The sheriff headed for the house. Hannibal intercepted the paramedic heading for the driver's side of the ambulance. “Mister Graham may need to be transferred to a centre specializing in neurological diseases, if the local hospital isn't equipped to handle that. I believe he is suffering from advanced encephalitis, and I'd appreciate it if you passed that information along.”

 

The woman squinted at him. “That's a pretty specific diagnosis. You a doctor?”

 

Hannibal nodded. “Yes. I'm Hannibal Lecter.”

 

“I'll keep it in mind. Or you could tell them yourself, at the hospital. I don't think Mister Graham would mind a friend coming along.”

 

Explaining how he'd arrived at the diagnosis of encephalitis would lead to questions Hannibal wasn't willing to answer, and he wasn't Will's friend, either. “I'm expected back in Baltimore, and I believe he is in the best hands.”

 

“All right, then.” With a shrug, the paramedic hopped into the driver's seat.

 

Hannibal watched the ambulance drive off, still annoyed, but also strangely relieved. Encephalitis was treatable. With the right kind of medication and rest, Will would come out of this without lasting neurological damage.

 

*

 

Crawford came to Hannibal's office the next evening, right after the last patient had left. He accepted the glass of wine Hannibal offered, made the appropriate joke – 'Drinking with a patient, doctor?', 'You're not my patient, are you?' – and sank into an armchair with a heavy sigh.

 

Hannibal took the armchair opposite him. “Long day?”

 

“The longest.” Crawford made an appreciative noise at the wine. “Found a piece of metal stuck in Elise Nichol's clothes, a shred from a pipe threader. There are hundreds of construction sites all over Minnesota, but, certain kind of metal, certain kind of pipe, certain kind of pipe coating. We're compiling a list of all the construction sites that use that kind of pipe. Beverly looked ready to brain me, the third time I asked how the list was coming along.”

 

Beverly Katz, the forensic team's fibre specialist, was smart and inquisitive. She had spent half an hour trying to poke holes into Hannibal's theory about the cannibalism, when he presented it to the team. Hannibal smirked. “She would know all about how to hide the evidence, if she did.”

 

Crawford laughed. “Which is why I'm here, hiding in your office.”

 

That wasn't the only reason Crawford was here. Hannibal was sure he was only using it as a ruse; for two days now, Hannibal had been expecting a phone call.

 

He gave Crawford a little, verbal nudge. “You're also here to ask if I leaked information to the press.”

 

Crawford didn't deny it. “Did you?”

 

“Of course not. It would be professional suicide, if it were to become known that I can't keep a secret.”

 

Crawford nodded. “Yeah, I thought so, too. Although I almost wish you had.”

 

“Better for an outsider to be the traitor, so to speak, than for the betrayal to come from within?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Hannibal topped up Crawford's glass. “I'm sorry, Jack. That can't be easy to deal with.”

 

Crawford waved the concern off. “It's not the first time someone either intentionally or inadvertently revealed information to the press. Some of these reporters and journalists can be damn sneaky bastards. I'll handle it.”

 

They sat in silence, wine glasses in hand. There still was something Crawford hadn't said. Hannibal was patient; waiting until someone was ready to talk to him was part of his job. He refilled their wine glasses a second time.

 

Finally, Crawford came out with it. “Ever heard of the Chesapeake Ripper?”

 

Hannibal wanted to laugh. “Is this related to the Minnesota Shrike case?”

 

“I don't think so.” Crawford looked disturbed by the idea. “I hope not. So, heard of him?”

 

“The name does ring a bell, yes. No particulars, though.”

 

Crawford stared down into his glass. “He's a serial killer. Intelligent psychopath. He kills in cycles: victims over a period of a few days, then he lays low for months. Or hides his victims where we can't find them. I've been working on the case for years, but so far, I got nothing.”

 

“What brings that name up, now?”

 

“When you told us that the Minnesota Shrike most likely removed Elise Nichol's liver because he intended to eat it, it struck me. A lot of the Ripper victims were missing organs, sometimes pieces of flesh, or entire limbs.”

 

“You think he's a cannibal, too.”

 

Crawford drew a face. “I hope not, but the evidence says otherwise, if I look at it from that angle. I just never connected it like that. I thought the Ripper was taking trophies, like some serial killers do. I never considered he might be taking pieces of his victims to eat.”

 

Hannibal was rather disappointed; he'd always thought that someone at the FBI had sussed that part out already. “Cannibalism is a very specific and rare pathology, Jack. Are you sure?”

 

“Flesh, liver, spleens, lungs, thymus. An entire brain, once. All parts used in cooking. Many of the victims were missing flesh from their back, about here.” Crawford demonstrated, patting a spot low on his back. “I looked it up. On a chicken, that part of the back supposedly has the best meat.”

 

On a chicken, it was called the 'oysters'; to the left and right of the spine, above the buttocks. Hannibal liked to use that meat as often as possible. It was so very tender. “Are you considering the possibility that the Chesapeake Ripper and the Minnesota Shrike could be the same person?”

 

Crawford shook his head, determined. “If they are, he drastically changed his MO and target group. The Ripper's victims are unique in that they are completely random. We could never tie any of them together, except for the gruesome ways they died and the staging of the bodies afterwards. Different ages, different genders, different races, different socio–economic backgrounds. The Minnesota Shrike, on the other hand, is very particular about his brown–haired, blue–eyed teenage girls.”

 

Crawford's visit was shaping up to be a goldmine of information. No one had figured out the missing pieces of flesh, the limbs, and the organs, until now; no one knew, either, that there was something that tied all the Chesapeake Ripper victims together, that they were not completely random. It wasn't about gender, race or age. Hannibal was above these superficialities.

 

It was about conduct. About ridding the world of pests. About leaving a message, a warning, a hint. It had long since stopped being about rituals, about absorbing the spirits of enemies; it wasn't about learning what the inside looked like. The body had long since given up all its secrets under Hannibal's inquisitive, curious fingers.

 

Hannibal hid his smirk in his wine glass. “Are you going to ask me to take a look at another case, Jack?”

 

“I might. For now, the Shrike takes precedence.” Crawford emptied his glass, then checked his watch. “I should get back to Quantico. Thanks for putting up with me, doctor.”

 

“Any time, Jack.”

 

He would invite Crawford to dinner. Not now, not today, when such an invitation in the wake of the conversation they'd just had would be a little macabre, but soon. Crawford deserved to experience what it tasted like, that thing he seemed to find so disturbing. He wouldn't know, of course, but Hannibal would.

 

After Crawford left, Hannibal, tidied up, readying to leave for the night. Involving himself with the FBI, despite the inconveniences it might bring, had been the right decision. Certainly, Crawford would call on him again, perhaps to talk more about the Chesapeake Ripper, perhaps on a different case. Hannibal couldn't wait to get his hands on the Ripper case files, if he ever got the chance. It would be so very interesting to find out what the FBI had on him – and if they correctly interpreted what they had.

 

His cellphone rang as he was locking up the office. The caller ID read Donald Sutcliffe, a neuroscientist at Noble Hills, a care centre in Baltimore, and a Symphony Board member. Even before he accepted the call, Hannibal had an inkling what this was about. “Good evening, Donald.”

 

“Hannibal. Not interrupting anything, I hope.”

 

“Not at all.”

 

Sutcliffe got right to the point. “We had a patient transferral today, with a curious note clipped to his file. Apparently, someone diagnosed him with encephalitis. The folks in,” rustle of paper, “Wolf Trap, Virginia are under the impression that you are Mister Graham's personal doctor. I must say, they terribly mangled your last name. Caveat lector.”

 

Hannibal ignored the quip. “Mister Graham's status must be worse than I thought, if he was transferred.”

 

“Ah, no, he's all right, as much as someone in his condition can be. The doctors in Wolf Trap just never had a patient with this kind of inflammation of the brain before, so they had him transferred to be on the safe side.” Sutcliffe chuckled. “You know how it is with these tiny country places. Anything worse than a broken leg, they panic.”

 

Hannibal ignored that last part, as well. For all his intelligence and impeccable manners, Sutcliffe tended to put on airs. “So it is encephalitis?”

 

“Yes. Quite the case of it, too. The entire right hemisphere of Mister Graham's brain is inflamed.” Curiosity crept into Sutcliffe's tone of voice. “Tell me, how ever did you diagnose this? Last time we spoke, you were a psychiatrist, not a neurologist.”

 

“I recognized the smell.”

 

“The smell?”

 

“Yes. In combination with the other symptoms, I was fairly certain.”

 

A noticeable beat of silence on the other end of the line. Sutcliffe was far too polite to say anything, but Hannibal could practically hear the doubt and questions. Sutcliffe cleared his throat. “Well, you were right. And I must say, Mister Graham was lucky you came along and...smelled him. He'll make a full recovery, but if he'd gone longer without treatment, I can't say for certain how it would have affected his brain and cognitive functions.”

 

Would Will thank him? Or would he react like so many people did, embarrassed that he'd needed to be rescued? The best case scenario would include the realisation that he owed Hannibal at least a chance to get to know him better, perhaps over dinner.

 

“May I visit him?” Hannibal asked.

 

“Of course. Though you're better off if you wait at least a day or two, he's very tired and weak.”

 

“I see.”

 

They made small talk for a few minutes, discussing the upcoming Symphony Board meeting, until Sutcliffe was called away to a patient.

 

Hannibal checked the time. Almost eight. By the time he made it to Noble Hills, it would be even later, and Sutcliffe was certain to have gone home, to wife and dinner, leaving his patients in the care of the nurses and the junior doctors: none of whom were going to pester Hannibal with questions if he showed up for a late visit.

 

He wasn't going to wait, not even a day. The urge to see Will Graham was paramount; it fell in the same category as the impromptu decision to alert the man to his medical status and the annoying urge to act when he found him barely conscious in his home: Hannibal had to do it. Fate seemed to have decided to throw Will into his path, and who was Hannibal to defy fate, when it was all but putting neon signs up for him to point the way? This wasn't quite divine intervention, but enough of a recurring theme to make Hannibal recognize it for the inevitability it was.

 

Before he visited, though, a trip home was required. Hospital food was so dull.

 

*

 

The Noble Hills Care Centre rubbed shoulders with an international bank and an investment company, in a prestigious part of Baltimore. Only a portion of the massive building was open to patients and visiting friends or family members; research and innovation was one of the main goals of the men and women moving to and fro in the quiet hallways. A couple of years ago, a scandal involving illegal animal tests had dragged Noble Hills before the focal lenses of the press, but nothing came of the affair and today, it was home to some of the best brain surgeons and neurologists of the country.

 

Hannibal acquired Will Graham's room number at the front desk in the lobby. It wasn't his first visit to Noble Hills, so he stopped for a quick chat at the nurse's station on the fifth floor, where a bit of charm gave him access to Will's patient file. Letting the nurse's chatter wash over him while making appropriate noises of agreement, he browsed through the contents of the slim folder.

 

Will had, colloquially put, 'jumped ship' the moment before it sank. When he arrived at Noble Hills this morning, he had been running a fever of 106 F. His body's battle with the viral infection had left him dangerously dehydrated. A scrawled note in Sutcliffe's untidy handwriting listed a battery of tests to be run on the patient, and someone with a cleaner writing style than the good doctor's had jotted down their results.

 

Hannibal learned that Will was not addicted to common drugs, as his blood tests had come back clean. He was a non–smoker and according to the results of liver function tests, not an alcoholic, either. His only vice, medically speaking, was Aspirin; considering the side–effects of encephalitis, it came as no surprise that he had attempted to master the headaches with over–the–counter medicine.

 

Handing the file back to the nurse, Hannibal made a show of checking his watch. “Has Dr. Sutcliffe made his rounds yet? I'd hate to interrupt.”

 

She consulted a chart. “Half an hour ago, Doctor Lecter. Mr. Graham is all yours.”

 

No response to a gentle knock on the door of Will's room, so Hannibal let himself in. Room No. 317 lay half in shadow, as the last of the summer sun was just sinking past the roofs of the nearby buildings. The air smelled of hospital disinfectant, that universal, biting scent, and faintly, of sickness. The room's single occupant lay with his back turned to the door, and judging by his slow, even breaths, was asleep.

 

Hannibal shut the door and set the small carry–all he'd brought on the floor. Silently, he stepped up to the bed. As he had before, in Will's house, he took a moment to simply observe.

 

Will was asleep, though it wasn't peaceful rest. Even with his face buried half into the pillow, Hannibal could see the erratic motion of his eyeballs under their thin lids. His hair was plastered to his skull with sweat, and one of his hands was clenched around a fold of the hospital blanket.

 

Translucent, an intravenous line snaked from the crook of Will's elbow to a medical rack supporting several bags of clear fluid. There was the usual assortment of drugs used in managing a viral infection, as well as a nutrient cocktail to replenish what the dehydration had stolen.

 

A moment of fantasy: how easy it would be, to snatch up one of the syringes left carelessly behind in a small plastic basket on the bedside table, to introduce an air bubble where it didn't belong. Hannibal would be rid of this annoyance, this unfounded desire to care. Caring wasn't a new experience – a great many things were very dear to him – but the strength of the urge was surprising, and he wasn't entirely sure yet if he should welcome it.

 

And if he did, if the other party was receptive.

 

Hannibal retrieved his carry–all and placed it on the table standing at the foot–end of the bed. At the scraping sound of the zipper, Will began to stir. Unhurriedly, Hannibal took out two generously sized earthenware soup containers, setting them on the table and prying off the lids. The scent rising from the still–steaming bowls quickly overpowered the stench of disinfectant and sickness.

 

Looking up from his finished task, he found himself the focus of a decidedly puzzled, small–eyed stare. “Silkie chicken in a broth. A black–boned bird,” he explained, “prized in China for its medicinal value since the 7th century. Wolfberries, ginseng, ginger, red dates, and star anise.”

 

With painstaking slowness, Will rolled onto his back and leaned up on his elbows, wincing as the movement tugged on the IV line. He wore no shirt, allowing Hannibal to catch a glimpse of a star–pattern scar just under his right nipple. A gunshot wound, long–healed from the looks of it. Perhaps later, there would be an occasion to learn how he had acquired it.

 

For a few, long moments, Will just blinked at him. Then, as if a switch was flipped, the haze cleared from his eyes. He sat up completely, looked around. “What are you doing here? Where am I?”

 

“Donald Sutcliffe is a friend of mine.” That was stretching the truth a little, as Hannibal certainly didn't consider Sutcliffe a friend. “When the paramedics arrived at your house, I suggested you should be transferred to a place like this, specialized in neurological ailments. They put down my name in your patient file, apparently believing I am your medical doctor. Donald called me up.”

 

Will was watching every of Hannibal's movements like a hawk. “Who's Donald Sutcliffe? And what paramedics?”

 

Loss of time and gaps in memory weren't uncommon in someone suffering from encephalitis. A different approach was in order. “What is the last thing you remember?”

 

“I was making some coffee...” Will pushed the blanket back, his movement hectic. “I thought – this isn't the Wolf Trap hospital?”

 

Hannibal was at the side of the bed in two long strides, one hand on Will's shoulder. “Calm down. You're in the Noble Hills Care Centre, in Baltimore. According to your patient file, you were admitted this morning. Do you remember that I came to Wolf Trap yesterday, to visit you?”

 

Bewildered, Will stared at him. “I – no, I...my dogs!” He shoved at Hannibal's hand, making to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. “I can't stay here. They'll –”

 

“They are cared for.”

 

There was an edge of panic to Will's voice. “How do you know that?“

 

“Calm down. Please. You can ill afford to get out of bed now.” Hannibal tightened his grip, but made sure not to hold Will down. That, he felt, would be a bad idea. “I will explain, but please stay put.”

 

The calm tone of voice worked, at least for the moment. Will stopped struggling, but he kept darting glances back and forth between Hannibal and the door, as if still on the verge of making a run for it.

 

Hannibal stepped away from the bed so Will wouldn't get the feeling that he was being loomed over on top of it all. “You do remember how we met, yes?”

 

“Theatre. I attacked you with a door.”

 

Hannibal chuckled. “You did. And I told you that it would be in your best interest to seek out medical help, which you didn't. Stupid, by the way, as evidenced by your current whereabouts.”

 

Will took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. “I'm starting to get that.”

 

“You left a cake on my doorstep. I decided to visit, yesterday. I wish now I'd done that sooner.”

 

“How did I get here?”

 

“I'm afraid I must admit to entering your home uninvited. The door from the bakery into the kitchen was open. I called and called, but you didn't answer. I found you in the...I suppose it is your living room. You were barely lucid. I called an ambulance.”

 

Will drew a face. “I keep causing you trouble.”

 

Hannibal waved the implied apology away. “There is nothing to apologize for. Encephalitis is nothing to be trifled with. Anyway, the hospital in Wolf Trap transferred you to Baltimore. And your dogs are in safe hands. The sheriff arrived with the ambulance and told me he'd contact the local animal shelter to collect and care for them until you're back on your feet.”

 

Will fiddled with the blanket, embarrassment plain on his face. “I remember bits and pieces. It's all disjointed.”

 

“It'll come back to you, once you've healed.”

 

Will muttered, “I hope so. God knows what I've been doing.”

 

“Nothing horrible, I believe. Not counting the cake, of course. That was truly horrible.” Hannibal nearly laughed out loud at Will's wide–eyed stare of wounded shock. It made him look about ten years old. “Horribly addicting,” he added, mollifying. “Best cake I've ever tasted, and I do consider myself a gourmand. To that end...” Hannibal made an inviting gesture at the bowls on the table at the foot end of the bed. “One good turn deserves another. I hope you're in the mood for a late snack.”

 

Will eyed the bowls. “It smells delicious.”

 

“And tastes just the same, I assure you.”

 

With the head end of the bed elevated, Will could sit comfortably, the soup bowl nestled into a pillow on his lap. Hannibal carried a chair over to the small table, amusing himself by imagining the reaction of the night nurse staff, were one of them to walk in now. It was well past visiting hours and he was keeping Will from much–needed rest.

 

Will didn't seem to care about the lateness of the hour. He tasted the soup, making a surprised sound. “You made this?”

 

By now the soup was a little cooler than Hannibal liked it. “Yes. I cook my meals myself, unless it can't be avoided. Most of my acquaintances call me a snob, when it comes to food.”

 

Will didn't laugh. “I'm the same with cake. I can't stand the store–bought stuff, either. If you want something good, make it yourself.”

 

One point of commonality between two lives that couldn't have been any more different, put side by side – and such an important point. To Hannibal, cooking encompassed so much more than the simple act of mixing ingredients until something pleasing to palate and eye emerged. It was an art. Will's focus on it was simply narrower than Hannibal's.

 

It wasn't often that he ran – literally, in their case – into someone who shared that point of view. It was a warm feeling, strange. Almost as strange as the compulsion that had made him urge Will to seek medical help, when they first met, and yesterday, to call the ambulance, to not walk away or watch, as he had done before, so many times.

 

He had met a kindred spirit. One he was fairly certain he knew, from somewhere.

 

Hannibal watched Will eat. “You must let me cook for you, some time.”

 

Will looked surprised by the offer. After a long moment, motionless and silent, he smiled. “I'd like that.”

 

*

 

Two days later, the FBI identified Garret Jacob Hobbs as the Minnesota Shrike.

 

Hannibal read about it on Tattlecrime.com, and later got the full story from Crawford. Hobbs had worked as a pipe threader on a construction site, to where the FBI followed the piece of metal from Elise Nichols' clothes. His daughter Abigail matched the description of the missing girls. Unfortunately, a secretary from the construction company, trying to warn Hobbs of what she saw as a violation of personal and union rights, called ahead of the agents rushing to arrest the suspect.

 

When the FBI arrived at the Hobbs residence in Bloomington, Minnesota, Hobbs stood in the blood–soaked kitchen, over the bodies of his wife and daughter. When told to put down the knife he was holding, he attacked. He died then and there, felled by defensive gunfire. The wife and daughter were rushed to the hospital, too late: Fiona and Abigail Hobbs died within an hour from each other.

 

Pity, that.

 

Hannibal would have liked to speak to Garret Jacob Hobbs, and the wife and daughter, who had unknowingly and for months consumed the flesh of the missing girls, pieces of meat Hobbs brought home from hunting trips, telling them it was hare, or deer. Hannibal would have liked to ask them what it felt like, the knowledge that they had eaten the unmentionable, broken one of the greatest social taboos –

 

Hannibal could feed his guests and listen to their praise for the meals he served, but it wasn't the same. No one sat at his dinner table and knew. In that, he was unique and alone. Unseen.

 

Lonely.

 

Chapter Text

 ––

o.3

––

 

For a few weeks, life was routine: patients, patience, paperwork. Hannibal relieved the Baltimore State Orchestra of its untalented flute player, Benjamin Murdoch. He served pieces of Murdoch to a select party of Symphony Board members and friends. The Dalls were, for once, in eerie harmony. Donald Sutcliffe ate enough for two. Alana Bloom, dazzling in sleek black, raised her glass in a toast. At the other end of the table, Jack Crawford and his wife Bella were as pleasant dinner guests as Hannibal had expected.

 

Hannibal picked up the scent of sickness hanging about Bella immediately, the moment he greeted her and Crawford at the door. Her subtle perfume could not cover up the rottenness of the cancer that grew in her. He wondered if Crawford knew.

 

Two days later, on a Thursday, Crawford invited him to another case.

 

Kids playing in the Elk Neck Forest had discovered a body buried in a shallow grave. The police called to the scene discovered eight more. It wasn't the number of bodies that landed the case on Crawford's desk so quickly, but the state they were found in: the killer had used the victims to grow fungus. The bodies were literally covered in them.

 

Hannibal arrived at Quantico in the middle of a friendly argument between Jimmy Price, Brian Zeller, and Beverly Katz. Crawford wasn't there. Hannibal listened to the verbal fisticuffs between the members of the forensic team while he circled the autopsy tables, looking at the bizarre human/fungi chimeras laid out on them.

 

“Don't get too close,” Zeller cautioned him. “That stench tends to linger.”

 

Hannibal looked at the crime scene photos spread out on a desk. “Have you determined the cause of death?”

 

“Kidney failure.” Zeller consulted a clipboard. “All nine of them.”

 

“The killer fed them sugar water,” Price added. “They were also buried in a high–nutrient compost, which enthusiastically encouraged decomposition.”

 

A successful endeavour. Most of the corpses were so heavily decomposed, it was impossible to tell where the human ended and the fungus began.

 

Beverly Katz drew a disgusted face. “Human fertilizer. But that's not what's strange here, really.”

 

Zeller eyed her. “Seeing a mushroom growing in an eye socket isn't strange enough for you?”

 

Katz sent him a death glare. “I'm just saying –”

 

Crawford walked in through the sliding glass doors of the autopsy area. “Children, children. Behave.” He nodded at Hannibal in greeting. “My apologies. The bureaucratic treadmill intervened.”

 

“No apologies necessary. I quite understand.”

 

Crawford turned to his team. “What do you have for me?”

 

“Dextrose in the catheters, dextrose intravenously. Cause of death across the board, kidney failure,” Katz said. “The thing that doesn't make any sense is that they died at all.” Crawford looked sceptic, making a 'continue' motion. “Each victim lay in a shallow grave. They weren't buried deeply enough that they couldn't have dug themselves back out. They weren't even tied down. They could've just sat up and walked away. So far we haven't found anything that explains why they didn't.”

 

Zeller picked up where Katz left off. “No cranial or spinal injuries, and aside from the dextrose, nothing in their blood or tissue that indicates drugs were used. Kidney failure isn't exactly a painless way to die. You wouldn't lie still and just let it happen.”

 

Crawford crossed his arms over his chest. “They just lay there while some lunatic used them as a mushroom garden?”

 

Zeller shrugged. “That's what it looks like.”

 

Crawford turned to Hannibal. “Any insights?”

 

“I don't have much to go on, Jack,” Hannibal said apologetically. “He buried the bodies in a straight line. All the victims' right arms were sticking up through the soil, they were all in the same position, they all faced the same way. From what I've seen on the crime scene photos, he even uprooted a few smaller trees, so he could lay them out like that. That tells me he's orderly and goal oriented, but that's not enough for an accurate profile. I can't even say for certain if it's a compulsion. He may be naturally orderly, or it might have been drilled into him, or the way the victims were laid out serves some other purpose that only means something to the killer.”

 

Lips pursed, Crawford looked at the corpses. “So we got a neatness freak with a penchant for snatching up people to use them as fertilizer.”

 

Hannibal deliberated for a moment. “I will say this: I don't think the goal was to make his victims suffer. As horrifying as all of this looks, nothing about it says 'sadism' to me, sexual or otherwise. The bodies were a means to an end, not the focus.”

 

“We should concentrate on figuring out what he used to keep them subdued,” Price offered. “Just because we haven't found it yet, doesn't mean it isn't there. We've gone through the common stuff, so far.”

 

Zeller chimed in, “If we find what he's using, we may find him. If it doesn't show up on the normal tox screens, there's a chance whatever substance he used is so rare that we can trace it to a specific manufacturer or supplier.”

 

Crawford sighed. “Provided we find anything at all.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Zeller shrugged. “We got nothing else to go on, forensically, until we identified all the victims, and that's going to take a while. Some of them are so badly decomposed and fused with the fungi, we can't even tell if they're male or female.”

 

“All right.” Crawford beckoned to Hannibal to follow. “Keep me updated.”

 

In Crawford's office, Hannibal studied the pictures hung on an evidence board. He recognized the faces of Fiona and Abigail Hobbs, having seen pictures of them in practically every newspaper over the last few weeks. The erstwhile final victims of Garret Jacob Hobbs, his wife and daughter, were now rumoured to have been 'in' on Hobbs' cannibalistic endeavours. The press was having a field day with the theory.

 

Crawford emerged from a small side–room, bearing two cups of steaming coffee. “Ah,” he said, seeing Hannibal standing at the evidence board, “I forgot to take those down.”

 

Hannibal suspected it was rather that Jack kept the pictures of Fiona and Abigail Hobbs up on the board as reminders. “You didn't fail these women, Jack.”

 

“I already had my psych eval, doctor.”

 

“But not by me.”

 

Crawford huffed. He sat down behind his large desk. “And what does your insight tell you about me?”

 

Hannibal took the seat on the other side of the desk. “That you are aware of your shortcomings. You strive to correct them, or at the very least, you try not to ignore them. But you are only human, Jack. We all are. You did everything possible to stop Garret Jacob Hobbs, and you did.”

 

Crawford's jaw clenched. “We speculated Hobbs would rather kill his daughter than lose her.”

 

“But you could not have predicted what the secretary at the construction site would do, and even she only did what she thought was right.” Hannibal tried the coffee. It tasted charred and too strong, the kind of coffee people brewed when they were facing long hours. He put the cup back on the edge of the desk. “Don't let what you perceive as failings become weights that drag you down. You cannot save everyone.”

 

Crawford's face had gone blank. Perhaps it was too soon, for such a dig into his psyche. Being aware of one's shortcomings and flaws didn't go hand in hand with a desire to have either pointed out. On the other hand, Crawford had asked.

 

Crawford just shook his head, his smile begrudging. “You remind me of someone. One of the best criminal profilers I ever worked with. He used to drop the same bombs on me, and it was always stuff I didn't really want to hear.”

 

“But in retrospect?”

 

“Maybe I needed to hear it,” Crawford admitted. On the verge of saying something else, he sighed, reached for his coffee, and drained half the cup in a large gulp. “Enough about me. Let's focus on this mushroom guy.”

 

*

 

At the end of the week, on Friday, a collision occurred in Hannibal's office.

 

Franklyn Froideveaux strode in, just as Hannibal was sitting down from escorting his last patient to the door. Surprised, Hannibal rose back to his feet. He hadn't wasted a single thought on Franklyn after foisting him off on another therapist. “Franklyn.”

 

“It's not working!” Franklyn bellowed. Crossing the office, he slammed a hand down on Hannibal's desk. “You've got to take me back. That – that harpy you referred me to, she's –”

 

“An esteemed colleague of mine,” Hannibal interrupted pointedly, disliking the slight, “and I referred you to Doctor Bartley for a reason.” Mary Bartley was specialized in obsessive behaviours. She would have nipped Franklyn's attempts to 'be her friend' right in the bud, something Hannibal should have done. “I told you my decision was final.”

 

Franklyn performed a child's stomping tantrum, right there in front of the desk. “Unfinalize it! I tried, okay? But it's not working. I don't have the same connection to Doctor Bartley that I had to you, and –”

 

Hannibal rounded the desk, inwardly preparing himself for a physical altercation. He had never pegged Franklyn as prone to violence, but now the man seemed on the verge of a breakdown. “That connection is only in your head. Doctor Bartley can help you. She's –”

 

“I don't want Bartley!” Franklyn shouted. “I want you!”

 

Franklyn had been drinking, Hannibal could smell it. Clearly, he had underestimated the strength of the obsession his former patient had already developed, before he put a stop to it. Referring Franklyn to another therapist must have been the straw that broke the camel's back: the rejection from his object of obsession had finally pushed Franklyn to break away from his usually docile behaviour.

 

One last attempt to make the man see reason. Then it was either a call to the police, or something else. “Go home, Franklyn. Sober up. And when you've done that, I want you to call Doctor Bartley and –”

 

The words fell on deaf ears. “Please,” Franklyn begged, “you've got to see that you and I, we work. You helped me so much, you can't just push me away!”

 

Before Hannibal could answer that he very well could do just that, another voice joined in. “Everything all right here?” Frowning at the scene, Will Graham stood in the open office door, a little cooler in one hand, the other resting on the door handle. He glanced at Hannibal. “Do you need me to call the police?”

 

Franklyn rounded on the intruder like an angry bull, hands balled to fists. “Get out! Or I'll –”

 

Will took a step into the office. “You'll what?”

 

The temperature inside the building seemed to drop by at least thirty degrees. Franklyn's jaw snapped shut with an audible click of teeth. There was always a bigger animal, and somewhere in the lizard parts of Franklyn's brain, in corners that weren't busy with his obsession and addled by alcohol, he realized he'd just run into one. Hannibal watched, fascinated. Will wasn't even acting aggressively, but he put out an aura of menace so potent, it felt like a tangible force moving toward the desk.

 

With exaggerated care, Will set the cooler down, as if he was marking a line in the sand – right between Hannibal and Franklyn. “I believe Doctor Lecter asked you to leave.”

 

Stronger people than Franklyn who would have fled before that icy tone of voice. His hasty exit ended with the slam of the front door and the audible clop of feet running down the side walk.

 

“Well,” Hannibal said, mirthfully, turning to his newest visitor, “thank you for the timely rescue.”

 

“Interesting patients you have.”

 

Hannibal extended his hand. “Very few of them are like that, I assure you. I must admit, the ugly scene you witnessed just now is partially my fault. Mister Froideveaux is a former patient, and he did not like my decision to refer him to another psychiatrist.” They shook hands. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

 

“I was in the area, delivering something.” Will looked around the office, curious. Instead of sweat and sickness, he now smelled of some atrocious aftershave. “Thought I'd drop in. Waiting for the next patient?”

 

“No. If Franklyn hadn't come by, I'd be locking up now.” Returning behind his desk, he finished gathering up his notebooks and planners, putting them back in their respective places. He almost missed the frown crossing Will's face, the quick glance at the door. “That wasn't a request to leave. Do you have plans for the evening? I do believe I extended a dinner invitation to you.”

 

Will turned from inspecting one of the pieces of art on display all over the office, looking caught. “I don't want to intrude.”

 

He wasn't saying no. “You aren't. My doors are always open to friends.”

 

“Is that what we are?” Will came to stand on the other side of the desk. “We hardly know each other.”

 

“If that is an attempt to weasel out of dinner, I'm afraid you must try harder.” Catching the quick smile crossing Will's face, Hannibal continued straightening up the desk. “How are you, by the way? I expected to hear from you sooner.”

 

The nightly visit to Noble Hills had ended with a promise from a sleepy Will that he'd call when he was back on his feet. That had been over a month ago. “Yeah, sorry about that. I had so much to do once I got out of the hospital, I plain forgot about it. Turns out I let a lot of things slide while I was sick.”

 

“Understandable. I imagine running a bakery is hard work.”

 

“Not really. Well, not for me. It's not my job. It's just something I do on the side.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Will took a slow tour through the office. His answer sounded reluctant. “I had a bad accident a couple of years ago. I don't really...work. Not in my old job, anyway.”

 

Now that the encephalitis and its accompanying symptoms were gone, Will looked like he was in the prime of his health, if still a little pale, but that didn't mean he wasn't suffering from some other restriction. Hannibal recalled the star–shaped scar he'd seen on Will's chest when he visited him at Noble Hills. “For something you're just doing on the side, you're very good at it. A hobby, then?”

 

“Something like that, yeah.” By his tone of voice, it was clear Will wasn't comfortable talking about the topic.

 

Overall, Hannibal got the impression that Will was just waiting for a reason to flee out the door. “Will.” He waited until the other man acknowledged him, even if it was just another one of those glances that ended at Hannibal's chin. “I'm naturally curious. Too curious, sometimes. If there is something you'd rather not talk about, tell me. I won't take offence.”

 

“It's not that, I'm just...I don't understand what you're doing.”

 

“'Doing'?”

 

“The dinner invitation. The visit at the hospital. Even the fact that you drove an hour from Baltimore to Wolf Trap, just to thank me for some cake.” Will sighed, looking aggravated. “It's not that I'm not grateful, and I know that if you hadn't found me, I'd probably be dead now, or drooling in some corner. I just don't understand why.”

 

Puzzled, Hannibal tried to work out what Will was aiming at. “I hope you're not implying that I shouldn't have done the things I did. Would you prefer I hadn't found you in your house?”

 

“No. Crap. Look,” Will said, suddenly impatient, “people don't help me. And if they do, they usually want something in return. So, what do you want?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Really.”

 

“Really. What did you think I was going to ask from you?”

 

Visibly frustrated, Will pinched the bridge of his nose, as if the entire conversation was giving him a headache. “The thing in the parking lot. Okay. Coming all the way from Baltimore to Wolf Trap...okay. But the hospital? You brought me chicken soup. You all but fluffed the pillows for me. Put yourself in my shoes for a second, and then tell me what you would think.”

 

Put like that, he had a point. Hannibal had gone from being a stranger in a parking lot to visiting Will at his hospital bedside, all without more than a trade of names between them, and Will hadn't even been fully 'there' for most of their interactions up to today. In fact, taking his own reaction to Franklyn Froideveaux's obsessive focus on him into account, Hannibal should be more understanding of Will's suspicious attitude.

 

Hannibal made an appeasing gesture. “There's no reason to be suspicious or concerned. Your name rang a bell, when we first met. I've since been trying to figure out where I know you from.”

 

Understanding began to dawn on Will's face. Scepticism remained. “So all this was just you trying to shake loose a memory?”

 

“Blame the cake you left on my doorstep. You impressed me. That is not something easily accomplished, and I wanted to meet the man who managed it.” Setting his briefcase on the desk, Hannibal put on his jacket. “The rest followed on its own. I told you I used to be an emergency room surgeon. I did not enter the profession out of a desire to stroke my own ego, nor to extort favours. Helping others is something I do.”

 

Visibly, Will deflated. “I just made a complete ass out of myself, didn't I?”

 

“Yes. But I'm willing to overlook it. Once.” Light as his words were, Hannibal meant them. There were limits to his patience and endurance, and Will had skirted dangerously close to them just a few minutes ago. Hannibal appreciated honesty; rudeness he didn't tolerate at all.

 

“I'm sorry.” Rubbing both hands over his face, Will sighed through his fingers. He wouldn't even look at Hannibal's chin, when he put his hands down. “I'm no good at the personal stuff. I shouldn't have assumed.”

 

He meant it, Hannibal could tell. “You can make it up to me by joining me for dinner. I'm done here.”

 

“I just insulted you, and you still want to cook for me?”

 

“Consider it my payment for helping you.”

 

Still reluctant, Will headed for the cooler. “I get fed, you do all the work – that's what you consider payment?”

 

Hannibal chuckled. “I don't consider cooking 'work'. It'd be my pleasure. And while I have no intention to pry into your personal life, perhaps you can help me exorcize my demons. I do really want to figure out why your name sounds familiar.”

 

For the first time since they'd met, Will held eye contact longer than two or three seconds. There was nothing particular about Will's eyes – blue–grey, fringed by dark lashes – but inexplicably, Hannibal felt that gaze all the way down to the marrow of his bones. It was not an unpleasant sensation. “Do you watch a lot of true crime shows? Medical detectives, that kind of stuff?”

 

That brought Hannibal up short. “No. Are you saying you're an actor?”

 

Will scoffed. “Hardly. It's just that my name keeps popping up in those shows, now and then. If you'd been a crime buff, I figured that's where you could have picked it up. No, I used to work for the FBI.”

 

Hannibal flashed back to the conversation in Crawford's office. Disbelief was spreading in him; it couldn't be Will Crawford had been talking about, could it? “You don't really strike me as a government man.”

 

“What I did has little to do with the government. I used to work as a criminal profiler. Behavioural Analysis Unit.” Will picked up the little cooler. “Ready to go?”

 

*

 

By the time Hannibal directed the Bentley into the parking slot in front of his house on Chandler Square, he'd figured it out. Eight years ago, the greater Maryland area had been hounded by a particularly vicious serial killer, a sexual sadist preying on women and men alike.

 

The case had aroused Hannibal's interest mainly because three of the victims were prominent Baltimore residents, their deaths resulting in a public outcry and a demand that the FBI should put more effort into catching the perpetrator. For weeks, whenever people gathered, the prime topic of conversation was 'The Dissolver', dubbed so for his habit of leavings his victims in large drums of acid, scattered all over the country.

 

Will must have been in his early thirties back then. Now when Hannibal looked for him in the back rooms of his memory palace, the grand structure that housed all, good and bad, dim and bright, he found him: just a fleeting glimpse, a black–and–white picture in the newspaper, of a younger Will Graham amid a crowd of uniformed Baltimore PD officers at a crime scene.

 

He didn't look much different now than he had back then. Still the same unruly hair, the same five–day–scruff, the same style of clothes.

 

Had Will ever worked on the Chesapeake Ripper case? Hannibal had been operating in the Maryland area for nearly twenty years now. The Ripper files were required reading for anyone attempting to join the BAU, quoth Crawford.

 

What was it that had pushed Will into retirement? Again, Hannibal thought of the star–shaped scar on Will's chest. A souvenir from a killer, someone he'd gotten too close to? Will was borderline anti–social, very suspicious of other peoples' motives; things like that usually had a cause.

 

Hannibal was bursting with curiosity.

 

At the same time, the predator in him preached caution. If Will was the profiler Crawford had mentioned, then that brought up a whole slew of possibilities, and not all of them were benign.

 

Had Crawford and Will been friends? Were they still friends? Did they keep in touch?

 

Had the meeting between Hannibal and Will at the theatre really been an accident?

 

House keys in hand, watching Will park his grey Volvo across the street, he weighted the odds. A week after running into Will, Crawford had waltzed into Hannibal's office, inviting him to consult for the FBI. On that very same evening, Will had left the cake on Hannibal's doorstep, thus returning himself to the front of Hannibal's mind.

 

Coincidence?

 

Will joined him, carrying a shopping basket in one hand. “I'd like to borrow a skillet and your oven for a bit.” He shifted from foot to foot, looking mutinous. “I can't just stand around and do nothing. You make dinner and I'll make dessert. Deal?”

 

Hannibal saw a packet of organic flour, apples, various smaller packages in the basket. “I suspect I'll benefit from that admirable character trait. My kitchen is yours.”

 

Will fell in love with said kitchen. Hannibal saw the exact moment it happened. He didn't quite drop the basket and stand there with his mouth gaping open, but it was a close thing.

 

“Feel free to explore,” Hannibal offered, shrugging out of his jacket and tugging off his tie. He was justly proud of his kitchen. To him, it was the most important room in a house, the heart of the home, easily the place he spent the most time in.

 

Will inspected the stove, an import from Switzerland: not one of those newfangled induction types, but fitted with gas burners under a solid black iron grid. “That must have cost a fortune.”

 

“Quite. But it was money well–spent. I like to work with quality, including my hardware, so to speak.” From the fridge, Hannibal collected a shallow, cellophane–wrapped bowl. The long piece of meat in it had been marinating in a mix of French mustard, honey and red wine for two days; it would be perfect now. “Other people invest in expensive cars or jewellery. I invest in kitchenware.”

 

“Right. That's why you drive a Bentley. And correct me if I'm wrong, but that Samurai armour in your foyer doesn't look like it's a cheap replica, either.”

 

Hand to his heart, Hannibal attempted to look suitably hurt. “I am rich. Guilty as charged.”

 

Will wandered up to the counter he was working at. “What are you making?”

 

“Honey–glazed loin on a bed of browned shallots, with rosemary potatoes on the side. Objections?”

 

“None. Anywhere I can wash my hands? I'd like to get started, too.”

 

They worked in companionable silence. Hannibal often employed aides from a trusted company to help prepare the meals when he cooked in large quantities, but this was different. He could count on one hand the number of people who had stood in his kitchen and prepared something without being paid for it.

 

Will worked quickly but not hastily, skilfully cracking eggs and pouring from shell to shell to separate yolk from whites, peeling and coring apples. He mixed flour, brown sugar, and a pinch of salt, stirred an egg into the mix, and kneaded the dough into a ball shape, which he then lifted onto the flour–dusted counter.

 

“Why baking?” Hannibal asked, watching. “I don't mean to insult you, but that's a rather odd career choice for someone who used to work for the FBI, isn't it?”

 

The ball of dough ended up as a flat disk, which was wrapped in cellophane and placed in the fridge. “It was either that or boat motors. I still do repairs, but that really is a hobby, and not one that sustains me through the winter. My father repaired boat motors for a living. We were poor. I followed him from the shipyards of Biloxi and Greenville to lake boats on Eerie. When money was tight, he baked his own bread.”

 

“What about your mother?”

 

“Never knew her.” A clipped answer. “Anyway, I guess I picked up the baking thing from my father. When I got – when I stopped working for the FBI, I had to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life, so I went for what I was familiar with.” He gave a self–deprecating chuckle. “Odd, isn't it?”

 

Hannibal caught the pause in Will's speech. Got, what? Shot? “Do you find it odd that I enjoy cooking?” Will shook his head, hesitantly. Hannibal continued, “Whether it is cooking or baking, or even fixing boat motors, they are at their core acts of creation. I could posit the theory that before, your appearance in other people's lives was connected with destruction, murder, whereas now they, and by proxy you, associate it with rather more pleasant emotions. I know I do.”

 

Will fought a smile and lost. “And what emotions would that be?”

 

“Enjoyment. The act of eating is intricately wired into the pleasure centres of the brain, and we associate it with comfort and safety, unless by some outside influence or distorted body image we have a fractured relationship with food.”

 

Mulling that over for a long moment, Will began to quarter apples. “So you're saying baking reminds me of the happy times of my childhood, and that's why I went for it?”

 

“I'm saying you shouldn't feel bad for doing something you enjoy. Is what you are doing something you enjoy?”

 

An emotion flashed behind Will's eyes, gone too fast for Hannibal to determine what it was. “Oh, yes.”

 

“Then that is all that matters.”

 

Hannibal's dish was prepared in a large pot on the stove, so Will commandeered the oven, pre–heating it. He melted butter in an iron skillet and sprinkled it with more brown sugar, then packed apple slices along the inside edge in a spiral pattern, dusting them liberally with ground cinnamon.

 

“Curious way to bake a cake,” Hannibal commented.

 

“It's Tarte Tatin,” Will explained, putting the skillet on high heat. “The original recipe resulted from an accident in a hotel kitchen in France, middle of the 19th century.” The apple slices bubbled merrily as the sugar and butter caramelized. Carefully, Will turned the slices over with a fork, meticulously arranging them back into a spiral pattern. “They were making apple pie and forgot to put the dough in first. So because they were strapped for time, they tried to save it by putting the dough on top. It turned out to be a hit among guests.”

 

Hannibal set out plates to warm and began tidying up. “It smells divine already.” The meat, stewing in a sweet–spicy sauce, would be ready to eat in twenty minutes. He checked on the potatoes roasting slowly in a pan. “I'll set the dinner table. If you need anything, please call.”

 

Alone in the dining room, Hannibal set out wine glasses and cutlery, then crept on silent feet back to the entrance to the kitchen, peeking around the corner. Will stood where he'd left him, hands in his pockets, watching the skillet, oblivious that he was being watched. As far as Hannibal could tell, he wasn't armed, unless he carried a gun in an ankle holster.

 

Hannibal stepped back into the dining room.

 

FBI agent turned baker.

 

If this was indeed some ingenious plan of the FBI's, if the meeting between Will and Hannibal had not been an accident, and none of the events that followed thereafter, either, then it was a plan worthy of a theatre audience.

 

Crawford wouldn't go to such lengths. Well, he would – but he'd choose a different route, something less long–winded and dependant on chance. If the FBI had anything on the Chesapeake Ripper that tied the killer to Hannibal Lecter, they would have used it already. They would not allow him to walk freely, much less participate in ongoing crime investigations.

 

What to do with Will, then? The obvious answer was, nothing. Nothing harmful, at least. Although he didn't fit in with the rest of Hannibal's acquaintances, his company was pleasant, once you managed to fight your way past the hedgehog exterior. Hannibal was also still curious about the exact circumstances that had ended in his retirement from the FBI.

 

The ding of his cooking timer presented the perfect opportunity to round the corner. Will had retrieved the dough from the fridge and was tucking it on top of the browned apple slices, absorbed in his task. The entire kitchen smelled of apples and caramel, blending in perfectly with the scents of rosemary and honey.

 

Checking the meat, Hannibal waited until Will had placed the skillet in the oven. “Would you like a tour of the house?”

 

Will had no opinion on the hand–picked, expensive furniture, the thick, soft carpets, the sculptures or the art on the walls. Coming from a poor background, much of what Hannibal had accumulated over the years probably was little more than needless clutter to him, or an equally as needless display of riches, or he simply didn't care. If he was jealous, he hid it well. He did stop in the study, gazing at the book collection there with interest, brushing his knuckles over the spines of the leather–bound volumes.

 

Hannibal recalled the overstuffed bookshelf in Will's living room. “You read a lot?”

 

“Some. Very little of what's on the bestseller lists. No crime novels for me, thanks.”

 

“I suppose once you've worked in law enforcement, reading about it becomes a moot point.”

 

Will nodded. “That, and they get so much wrong. It's not all guns and pretty people. Mostly, it's long hours, longer drives, and bad coffee.”

 

“Yes, I'm beginning to see that.”

 

The off–hand comment garnered an odd look. “What do you mean?”

 

“I was approached by the FBI myself, a few weeks ago. Luckily, I set a few ground rules before I accepted the offer.” Not being at Crawford's beck and call had the reverse effect of Crawford popping up in Hannibal's office with clockwork regularity. It was not a bad trade. “They do not employ me, as such, so I get to pick and choose my hours.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Something in the atmosphere shifted, darkened. Hannibal had been banking on causing some kind of reaction by diverging that little titbit of information. It should have been meaningless to Will if he worked for the FBI or not, yet it wasn't; Hannibal saw him reign in a comment or two.

 

“You have an opinion on that?” he prompted.

 

Jaw clenching, Will headed for the door into the hallway. “Yes, but if you don't mind, I'll keep it to myself.”

 

Hannibal caught up to him. “You and your former employer didn't part on the best of terms, I take it?”

 

“That,” Will said succinctly, “would be an understatement.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Understatement of the century.” Standing at the door into the kitchen, he crossed his arms over his chest, almost hugging himself. “I don't want to talk about that.”

 

Sore point. Very sore point, and Hannibal was willing to lay bets the scar on Will's chest had something to do with it. For now, he refrained from digging further, as Will already looked ready to flee again. Hannibal put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I apologize. Observing is what I do. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.”

 

It took a moment, but finally, Will nodded. His shoulder was a solid sheet of tense muscle.

 

*

 

Dinner should have been awkward, after that. Hannibal fully expected Will to wolf down the contents of his plate as quickly as possible, only so he could leave.

 

But after the first forkful passed Will's lips, he lit up, relaxing. “This tastes incredible.”

 

At least in death, Benjamin Murdoch served more of a purpose than he had in life. The long piece of meat, cut from above the buttocks, to the side of the spine, was fragrant with spices and honey and melted on the tongue. With a little more time to prepare, Hannibal would have created something truly impressive – this was a simpler dish than he liked to serve guests, especially ones who had never sat at his table before.

 

The last of the lingering tension faded as conversation sparked. They touched upon politics, discovering quickly they shared a disinterest in the subject. Will knew nothing about music and less about art. Hannibal knew nothing about dogs or fly–fishing. Parties and other social events were a subject of horror to Will; he called Baltimore's elite, always eager to end on the pages of the tabloid press, a 'rat dance', and then looked disbelievingly at Hannibal when told they shared the sentiment.

 

By unspoken agreement, neither of them mentioned anything to do with law enforcement.

 

The ensuing silences were interrupted only by the scrape of fork against plate, little sounds of contentment. One more thing they had in common, Hannibal discovered: neither of them felt the need to fill the void with words.

 

He caught himself watching Will eat, imagining what Benjamin Murdoch's fat would taste like, if he were to lick it off Will's lips, and if such an advance would be welcomed or rebuffed.

 

And if it was welcome, what would come of it.

 

Hannibal doubted Will had left all his skills behind when he retired from the FBI; skills like that couldn't simply be switched off or unlearned. If he really was the criminal profiler Crawford had mentioned, he had to have been very good at his job, for the agent–in–charge of the BAU to call him 'one of the best'.

 

Good enough to see?

 

Will cleared his throat. “Everything all right?”

 

Realizing he had been staring, Hannibal summoned a quick smile. “Of course. Wool–gathering, nothing more.”

 

The tip of Will's tongue darted out between his lips, catching a fleck of rosemary. Hannibal thought about chasing that pink, wet muscle back into Will's mouth.

 

After dinner, Will helped carry the dishes into the kitchen, then pulled the skillet from the oven. The dough had formed a lid over the caramelized apples, golden brown. After loosening it carefully from the edges of the skillet, Will flipped the whole thing over a cake plate, presenting his creation with a little proud flourish Hannibal couldn't help but find endearing. The result, the Tarte Tatin, looked a bit of a mess, truth be told, but it smelled heavenly.

 

“Wine, or coffee?” Hannibal inquired.

 

Will put the hot skillet into the sink. “Espresso, if you have it. No more wine for me tonight, thanks.” His gaze lingered. It was impossible not to notice; Hannibal was so used to Will not looking him in the eyes, any deviation from the norm stood out. “I still got a way to drive home, later.”

 

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps Hannibal hadn't been the only one whose thoughts had taken a certain direction.

 

He went to prepare two cups of espresso.

 

*

 

Dessert in the study: Bach's Air so softly in the background the music was little more than a hint of sound, the notes dancing over rays of sunlight falling through the patio door, golden, the last of the evening sun. The Tarte Tatin rounded up the atmosphere perfectly. It tasted like summer: the tartness of fresh apples, the sweetness of caramel, the crunch of baked crust. Hannibal relished every bite.

 

“Wonderful,” he praised. “You'll make me discover my sweet tooth.”

 

At the other end of the couch, Will ducked his head to hide a smile. “I'll give you my recipe. It's easy to make.”

 

“I'd rather have you in my kitchen again, making it.” The words just slipped out. They were ambiguous enough that Will could interpret them any way he liked. Hannibal watched him closely. “If that is something you want.”

 

Will chased a piece of apple across his plate, his smile fading. He put the plate down on the coffee table, turning to face Hannibal. “I'm not good with social clues. I'm not good with being social. Are we talking about the same thing?”

 

Hannibal just looked at him. “I don't know. Are we?” He set his plate down, as well. “I find you attractive.”

 

“But?”

 

“I also realize that in the wake of the conversation we had in my office, my interest likely only serves to arouse suspicion again.”

 

“What if it doesn't?” Will asked quickly. “What if I've been looking, too?”

 

Hannibal smiled. “Then I'd ask you to lay aside your worries for a moment. How this evening ends is entirely up to you, but I do hope that no matter how it ends, I'll see you again.”

 

Will frowned. “So no strings attached?”

 

Hannibal disliked the term, apt though it could be, in this case. There were always string. Always. “Like I said: entirely up to you.”

 

“Okay,” Will said, and slid closer.

 

Their kiss was a mere brush of lips, Will holding himself awkwardly posed until Hannibal shifted to accommodate him, encouraging him to lean. Will's five–day–scruff tickled. He took Hannibal's lower lip between his teeth and worried it gently, gradually deepening the contact. He tasted of summer, and meat.

 

He drew back, resting his brow against Hannibal's, and swallowed. Hannibal drew him in again, one hand cupping the back of Will's head, the other stroking down the line of Will's spine to curl over his hip. The second kiss was bolder, wetter.

 

Hannibal worked the shirt free from Will's belt, sliding his hand underneath. Will's belly tensed under his palm. He drew away from the kiss again and breathed deeply.

 

“Ticklish?” Hannibal asked.

 

“No. It's just been a while.”

 

“Would you like to take this somewhere more comfortable?”

 

Will surged against him. “Not really.” He bit at the edge of Hannibal's jaw. “I want to suck you.”

 

The admission sparked want, hot and heavy in Hannibal's gut. Will pressed a hand down between his thighs, then slid off the couch to the floor. He pushed Hannibal's legs apart, tugging him to the edge of the seat. The sight of him kneeling there was erotic, wild, a dangerous mix of power, lust and anticipation.

 

Will worked Hannibal's belt open, popped the button of his slacks. He mouthed at the shape of Hannibal's cock under the cloth, pulled open the fly with both hands. He rolled down the waistband of the only item of clothing still in his way, Hannibal's briefs, and licked a long, wet strip all the way from the base of Hannibal's cock to the tip.

 

Tensing, Hannibal watched his lips part. The heat and slippery wetness of Will's tongue were a shock to his senses. Hannibal sank a hand into Will's hair, guiding him down, inch by inch. His other hand clamped around the edge of the seat; the urge to thrust up, to bury himself deeply, was like a driving primal force. He did not give in.

 

Will made encouraging noises, slick and obscene. Sex had stripped him of his reservations. He was watching Hannibal through hooded eyes, heat in his cheeks. This sight, Hannibal decided, was even better: his wet cock slipping in and out between those lips, Will's clever tongue playing over the head, the way Will's nostrils flared, every time he arrived at the base, greedily breathing him in. The way Will stared at him so hungrily.

 

He was on the edge far too quickly. Merciless, Will shoved him over it, pressing two fingers under Hannibal's balls, then hard over Hannibal's hole, a rough, too–dry scrape of calluses. The coiling, liquid, boiling heat in Hannibal's loins burst forth, into his limbs, out his cock, into his eyes, until all he saw grey edged with gold and the only sound left was the wet, thundering drum of his heart.

 

When he came back to his senses, Will was still kneeling between his spread thighs, cheek resting against Hannibal's lower belly. He'd cupped Hannibal's softening cock as though he was trying to shield it from the world. Hannibal's own hand rested atop Will's head, offering benediction, his thumb stroking along Will's temple.

 

Hannibal clasped his free hand over Will's cupped one, carefully prying it loose. “Come up here,” he murmured. Will tucked him deftly back into his briefs, then climbed up into his lap. Hannibal could not begrudge him the smug, self–satisfied grin he wore, only swore to himself that he'd retaliate. Somehow. When he wasn't feeling as though his skeleton was liquefying. “Give me a moment.”

 

“Give me your hand,” Will demanded instead, rough–voiced and impatient. “Just –” He yanked his belt open, fumbling between them. Hannibal kissed him, and let Will show him how he liked it, tight, a little rough. Will fucked Hannibal's hand and came all over his waistcoat, moaning into the kiss, and then clung to Hannibal like a limpet, spent and drowsy.

 

Next time, they were going to do this on a bed. Even the floor would do. Next time, they were going to take time.

 

Next time –

 

Chapter Text

––

o.4

––

 

Movement woke him. Instantly alert, Hannibal lay still and silent. Will was sitting up from his spot at Hannibal's front, disentangling himself gently. Throughout their nap, Hannibal had been instinctively aware of the other man's presence, not so much by the warm weight lying against him but rather by the disturbance Will represented: another living being in spaces usually occupied only by Hannibal.

 

Now that living being was moving slowly and carefully away from the couch. The soft swish of the door's lower edge against carpet let Hannibal know Will was leaving the study. He opened his eyes to slits, just enough to ascertain that it was night, that the golden glow of the late evening summer sun had made way for pale greys and pools of deep shadows in the corners.

 

Will returned. Surer now of his way through the study, he collected the espresso cups and cake plates from the coffee table, striving not to make any noise. His face was a paper–white plane, with dark holes for eyes and a slash for a mouth. He looked like a ghost.

 

And probably intended to make like a ghost, and disappear. Hannibal listened to him carrying the dishes into the kitchen and sat up. He slipped off his shoes and padded into the hallway. Will had turned on the light in the kitchen and was loading the dishwasher. His shopping basket stood on a counter, already packed.

 

Hannibal leaned against the doorway, waiting. Will shut the dishwasher and turned, freezing when he caught sight of him. To his credit, he neither screamed nor jumped, only the widening of his eyes giving away his surprise. Hannibal cocked his head and inquired calmly, “Sneaking away, or overcome by the urge to clean up at midnight?”

 

Will released a deep breath. “Bit of both. I can't leave my dogs alone all night. I've got to go.” He was back to not looking Hannibal in the eyes. “I was going to leave a note. I didn't want to wake you.” When Hannibal didn't answer, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I told you I'm bad at this.”

 

The dogs – and the implied 'I didn't plan for the night to end the way it did' – were a true enough excuse, but also a convenient one. Hannibal had no interest in ending their encounter with shameful squirming on Will's part. “I hope you weren't planning on using lipstick.”

 

Askance, Will looked up at that. “Lipstick?”

 

“For your note.”

 

That startled a laugh out of Will, released the tension from his frame. “I'm more of a pen and paper guy.”

 

Hannibal was neither infatuated nor in love with Will. The curious draw that had pulled him toward the man at the beginning of their acquaintance had made way for the same kind of fondness he felt toward all his more challenging patients – they were puzzles for him to unlock. Now that the mystery regarding where he knew him from had been solved, only the question as to the exact circumstances of Will's retirement from the FBI and the acquisition of the scar on his chest remained.

 

Still, the side–effects of their liaison were pleasant enough, and Hannibal was nothing if not self–indulgent. He could solve the last of Will's secrets at leisure and reap the benefits at the same time. In a way, Hannibal was making the same decision he'd made when he met Crawford, only this time, the stakes were higher, as it literally affected things closer to home.

 

Hannibal had never been one to let danger stop him. It would add a little spice to everything.

 

“Why don't we take this one step at a time?” he offered. “All I ask is, regardless if future encounters include making a mess of our clothes, that you won't feel compelled to sneak out in the middle of the night. It makes me wonder if I've done something wrong.”

 

“No, no,” Will said quickly, “it's not you, it's me. My relationships all ended in catastrophes.”

 

“Once burned, now shunning the fire?”

 

Will snorted. “More like always burned. And I know it wasn't their fault. I'm not easy to be with.”

 

“Neither am I.” Hannibal shrugged. “We're both creatures of habit, I think. Let's see where it takes us?”

 

Will nodded, relaxing further. He smiled wanly. “Okay. I mean, yes. If you're willing to put up with me.”

 

“I am. I quite like what I've seen of you so far.” Stepping into the kitchen, Hannibal closed the distance between them. He gave Will's shoulder a squeeze. “Now then, let me pack something for you to take home. Do you want to go and freshen up, for the drive?”

 

Will ended up with a large travel mug filled with hot coffee, a quarter of the Tarte Tatin, and large portion of their dinner. He was silent, but it was a relieved silence. At the door, he leaned into Hannibal, angling for a kiss. Hannibal steadied him, putting his hands on Will's hips with proprietary surety.

 

“Thanks,” Will said, when they parted. “And, sorry. I know how to behave like an adult, I swear.”

 

“Perhaps you can stay the night, next time. Or, if you prefer, I'll come to Wolf Trap.” Hannibal wasn't too eager for that option. Will's house, the parts he'd seen of it, wasn't exactly up to his standards. Perhaps, given enough time, he could train Will to accept a higher level of material comfort. Living a recluse's life did not mean one had to live in squalor.

 

“I don't think you'd like that much, staying there.” Will sounded amused. He nodded at the open doorway behind him. “I've seen how you live.”

 

“Your kitchen could use an upgrade.” Or a complete overhaul. “At my place, then. Shall we make it a date?”

 

“I have a freer reign over my time than you do, I think. When?”

 

There were still bits and pieces of Benjamin Murdoch left: the head with its sup–par brain, the feet, for which Hannibal had little use in general, and other odds and ends that would never make a whole meal, much less for two. For guests, for someone who at one point in the foreseeable future was going to share his bed, only the best – Hannibal needed to go hunting to replenish his stores.

 

Mondays, he stayed late at the office, to deal with the paperwork. On Tuesday, Peter Dall had called a Symphony Board meeting. That left Wednesday to find someone suitable for the dinner table. “Thursday, if that suits you. Eight o'clock?”

 

“All right.” Will leaned in again, for a quick peck. “Do I need to bring anything?”

 

“Time,” Hannibal said, “and appetite.”

 

*

 

Sunday morning, Hannibal had just sat down to breakfast – Greek yoghurt, home–made peach marmalade, toast, coffee – when the doorbell rang.

 

It was Franklyn. Hunched in on himself, he squinted against the bright morning sunlight. Hannibal's irritation at finding the man on his doorstep wasn't nearly as apparent as the dismay Franklyn displayed, when they stood face to face.

 

“I've come to apologize,” Franklyn mumbled at his shoes. “A friend talked some sense into me.” Behind Franklyn, in the open front yard gate, stood a tall, black man. He acquitted Hannibal's regard with a neutral nod. “I made a fool of myself, and I'm sorry. I won't bother you anymore.”

 

After weeks, months of obsessive focus, Franklyn was seeing the error of his ways? What dozens of therapy sessions hadn't achieved, had suddenly happened over the course of a single weekend? Hannibal didn't believe it. Furthermore, Franklyn's inability to find friends had been a large part of the reason why he'd sought help in the first place, and now he suddenly had one?

 

The man waiting at the gate smiled ever so faintly at Hannibal's renewed scrutiny. Hannibal thought, Good luck with your new limpet. You'll need it.

 

To Franklyn, he said, “I'm glad to hear it. You've taken the first step toward self–improvement.”

 

Cautiously, Franklyn lifted his head. “So you're not angry?”

 

Hannibal wasn't angry. Anger very rarely played a part in his decision–making. At leisure, he would decide which eventual fate should befall Franklyn, for causing such an unnecessary scene, but now was not the time. Whatever punishment he decided fit the crime would happen weeks, if not months from today, when the disappearance of Franklyn Froideveaux wouldn't immediately lead to the discovery that he had only recently, and not on the best terms, stopped seeing Hannibal as a therapist.

 

He smiled encouragingly. “All is forgiven.”

 

Franklyn sagged with relief. “Oh, thank god.” He huffed out a breath, his expression hopeful. “And you won't mind if I keep going to the Symphony Board meetings? With, uh, Tobias?”

 

“I'm an avid opera fan,” the man at the gate called, joining the conversation. He came toward them, hand outstretched. “Tobias Budge. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Doctor Lecter. Franklyn told me so much about you.”

 

Budge's hand was warm, dry and strong, his grip proprietary. His gaze was appraising. Hannibal could tell at a glance that Budge was more refined and surer of himself than Franklyn could ever hope to be. “Only the best, I hope.” Hannibal turned Budge's hand over, palm up. His fingers were hardened with calluses. “Violin, cello, or guitar?”

 

“Oh,” Budge said, looking delighted, “a fellow string musician? Not many would recognize these, just from a handshake. I play the cello. You?”

 

“Harpsichord.”

 

The deadpan delivery dampened Budge's smile just a bit. Franklyn, who had been listening to their conversation like a spectator at a ping–pong match, looking increasingly irritated at being left out, just barely managed to turn his bark of laughter into a cough.

 

“I shouldn't have assumed.” Budge drew his hand back. “There are so many instruments in the world. We can't all play the same.”

 

There was something slick, oily about Budge. He had a smile like a shark, more of a show of teeth than a display of genuine emotion. Between the overenthusiastic greeting and the ambiguity of the words, Hannibal detected a darker, unnamed note. He got the strong sense that Budge was very interested in him.

 

Oblivious to the undercurrents, Franklyn clapped Budge on the shoulder. “I think we've taken up enough of Doctor Lecter's time, don't you?” He turned to leave. “Have a nice Sunday, doctor. And thank you, again.”

 

“You're welcome, Franklyn.”

 

Budge's farewell was a curt nod, his entire demeanour less open than before, sharper. “Doctor Lecter.”

 

Hannibal watched them as they left. Franklyn was doing the talking, animated, eager. At his side, Budge was all stiff lines, hands clasped behind his back. Just before they rounded the corner, he looked back over his shoulder, his gaze unerringly finding Hannibal's.

 

*

 

Monday, Tuesday, nothing out of the ordinary, until Crawford came by the office on Tuesday evening, dropping off a slim folder containing autopsy reports and photos of the victims of the – quoth Freddie Lounds – 'Mushroom Monster'.

 

Hannibal leafed through the pages. “How is the investigation going?”

 

“Badly,” Crawford admitted, not happy. “We still haven't identified all of the victims. You'd think that with all and sundry preaching love and togetherness, people would notice if their neighbours suddenly went missing.” He nodded at the file in Hannibal's hand. “Take a look, when you have the time.”

 

Hannibal set the folder on his desk. “Another case of my untrained eye seeing something you aren't?”

 

“Hopefully. We've been combing the Elk Neck Forest and the surrounding area, but so far, no new mushroom gardens. We're officially stalled.” Crawford had been pacing the office. Now he sat down, eyeing Hannibal over the rim of his wine glass. “You seem different today.” Hannibal's brows rose, in time with the corner of Crawford's mouth. “Who's the lucky lady?”

 

“Am I that transparent?”

 

“You're glowing,” Crawford pointed out, still with that insouciant smirk.

 

Like any animal on the planet, humans reacted to scent. The theory was that the primitive ability to smell potential mates went hand in hand with the ability to smell potential rivals. There was no 'glow'. Subconsciously, Crawford was picking up that Hannibal had recently had sex, and was looking forward to more of the same. It was all part and parcel of nature's rigorous 'survival of the fittest' rule – a rule less rigid today in the Western world, with its medicinal and technical advancements that allowed even the sickly to thrive, but still apt enough generally.

 

“I prefer discretion, but in this case, I'll make an exception.” Hannibal wanted to observe Crawford's reaction when he realized it was his former colleague who was causing the 'glow'. “It's a he, not a she.” Crawford's eyebrows lifted. “Should I stop talking? You look a little...”

 

“Ah, no, no.” Crawford chuckled. “It's not what you think. I've seen people dead in all kinds of horrible ways. My preference is to see them alive. Believe me, I don't give a damn about the rest, as long as it's all consensual and everyone is of the appropriate age.”

 

“A healthy attitude.” Hannibal lifted his glass in a toast.

 

“Thank you.” Crawford raised his in return. “You just didn't ping my, what's the word – gaydar? Strange word, I know. Bella brought it home from work. She had to explain to me what it means. So, who's the lucky guy?”

 

“I believe you know him. Will Graham.”

 

Only because he was observing him closely was Hannibal able to see the minute flinch that went through Crawford. The hand that had been raising the wine glass to his lips stalled, for two seconds or so. He recovered admirably swiftly, inquiring with nonchalance, “From Wolf Trap? Now there's a name I haven't heard in a long time.”

 

Hannibal smirked. “When Will told me he used to work for the FBI, and with the Behavioural Analysis Unit, too, I couldn't help but wonder if he was the colleague you mentioned, a few weeks ago. Remember? The one who –”

 

“– always told me stuff I didn't really want to hear, yes. I remember.” Setting his wine glass on a small side table, Crawford smiled thinly. “Small world, huh? How did the two of you meet?”

 

“Oh, Jack, really. You don't want to hear that. It's a bit of a romantic classic, quite embarrassing.”

 

“I'd love to hear it,” Jack insisted, “please, indulge me.”

 

“Don't say I didn't warn you.”

 

Throughout Hannibal's recounting of the chance meeting at the theatre parking lot, Crawford kept up that smile, that fake, pained, fractured smile. Seeing him like that effectively buried the last of Hannibal's suspicions that the whole thing with Will was a set–up. Crawford looked like he'd just run into a knife, coming at him from a direction he hadn't expected.

 

What would happen if Jack Crawford and Will Graham ended up in the same room? Would it be a meeting of former colleagues, full of respect and friendly handshakes, the communal reliving of their past adventures?

 

Hannibal doubted that.

 

He came to the end of his short tale. He hadn't mentioned the encephalitis; that, he felt, was entirely between him and Will. “And the rest is history, as they say. We're still new. The honeymoon phase, you could call it.” Crawford's eyebrows had drawn more and more together as he listened. Acting obliviously, Hannibal lit up. “I should invite you to dinner, so you and Will can –”

 

Crawford cut right in, harsh. “Bad idea.”

 

Hannibal feigned surprise. “Oh?”

 

“Will and I didn't exactly part on good terms. He wouldn't be happy to see me.”

 

“If you say so.” Hannibal studied him.

 

“I do.” Crawford gulped down the rest of his wine. “And please leave it at that.”

 

They talked about the case for a while. Crawford grew increasingly more restless. Finally, he claimed he had unfinished work he needed to attend to. At the door, hat in hand, he stalled. His gaze flicked to the desk “Do you think there's a chance...”

 

Hannibal knew what Crawford was after. “You want me to ask Will to take a look at the case.”

 

Crawford sighed heavily. “Only if it isn't too much trouble. Quirky stuff used to be right up his alley. We need a break on this case.”

 

Feigning reluctance, Hannibal nodded. “I'll see what I can do. But, Jack, you just told me there's bad blood between you and Will. Do you think he'll be receptive to the idea?”

 

The expression on Crawford's face was indecipherable. “Oh, trust me. Will Graham's never been able to resist a good killer.”

 

*

 

Thursday.

 

Will arrived five minutes to eight, a fine mist of water clinging to his hair. The summer lay in its death throes, with still pleasantly warm days but progressively cooler nights. Today, it had been raining all afternoon, a heavy, torrential downpour that had now slowed down to a mere drizzle.

 

While Will took off his jacket, Hannibal eyed the cooler and backpack he'd brought with him. The cooler bore a faded logo like the one mounted above the entrance to the bakery, in Wolf Trap. Will noticed the pointed look. “Get used to it.” He picked up the cooler, hugging it demonstratively to his chest. “You cook for me, I bake for you. That way, we –”

 

Hannibal sidestepped the barrier of arms and cooler, cupped Will's jaw, and kissed him, just a sweet, slow press of lips against Will's still–open, still–moving mouth. He drew back. “Hello to you, too.”

 

Will huffed out a laugh. “Hello.”

 

Hannibal tugged lightly on Will's earlobe. “When I invite someone, I expect them to sit docilely and let me pamper them.”

 

“And I remember telling you that I'm bad at just standing around.” Will nudged his nose against Hannibal's wrist. “Give in. You're not going to win that one.”

 

“I consider myself soundly beaten.” Hannibal lead the way into the kitchen. Thanks to a patient cancelling the half–past six evening appointment due to urgent family business, he'd arrived home earlier than usual and started in on his preparations already. “Do you need the oven, again?”

 

“Just some butter and a small pan with a lid.”

 

Hannibal retrieved the required items. Will carefully lifted a layered cake out of the cooler, bare of stuffing, icing or decoration. The bottom layer was so dark it was almost black. Each layer that followed was a shade lighter. He rummaged around in the cooler, pulling out a bottle of cream and a whisking bowl, both of which immediately vanished into the fridge. From his backpack, Will set out a bottle of corn syrup, a packet of icing sugar, and a few other things. Lastly followed a cake pan and a matching metal bowl.

 

“You could tell me which ingredients you commonly use. I keep a well–stocked pantry.” Hannibal folded back his cuffs, donned an apron, and set up on the other side of the counter Will was working on. “You wouldn't have to carry so much.”

 

Putting the pan on the smallest burner of the stove, Will measured out water, sugar and corn syrup. He mixed them together, added a few drops of vanilla from a tiny, brown bottle, and put the lid on the pan. “I'll think about it,” he said. Then he startled. He looked at Hannibal with a perplexed look on his face. “Did you just offer me to leave my clothes here?”

 

“I'll leave the interpretation up to you.”

 

Will chuckled. He looked curiously at the bowls and pots on Hannibal's side. “Are you going to tell me what you're making?”

 

“Are you going to tell me what you're making?”

 

“Quid pro quo? Gateau in a cage. Slight variation of the original recipe. Plums instead of strawberries, and I'll leave out the Kirsch that's usually brushed over the bottom layer.”

 

Hannibal had once eaten 'Gateau in a cage' during a trip to Paris. What made it so special, and a challenge for bakers all over the world, wasn't the cake itself, which could be something as simple as sponge cake, but the filigree 'cage' it was presented in. Caramel syrup was drizzled over the bottom and the sides of a metal bowl and left to cool and harden, thus creating the 'dome' of the cage. The process was then repeated with a cake pan an inch or so larger than the one the cake had been baked in, for the cage floor.

 

The hard part was to separate the fragile caramel netting from the bowl and cake pan. Even with a layer of butter underneath so the caramel wouldn't stick to the metal, prying it off required steady hands and patience. Too much pressure and all was ruined.

 

Hannibal pointed out his own ingredients, setting a heavy iron pan on high heat. “Seared beef, served on young arugula. The meat is briefly grilled on a high flame just until a crust forms, so the centre retains its juiciness and rareness. It is then cut very thinly and chilled.”

 

The dish was Spartan in presentation, but made up for it with its taste. Hannibal would serve it with a few drops of sauce, a spicy yoghurt–chilli mix: just enough to tickle the tongue, not to overwhelm the flavour of the meat.

 

“I do hope you like your meat rare. Because this will be very rare.” He waited for an answer. When none came, he looked up. Will's gaze had fastened on a spot by the sink. Hannibal knew what he was looking at. He'd left the folder Crawford had given him in plain sight, together with his day planner and wallet. “Will?”

 

Will blinked. He shot Hannibal a quick smile. “Sorry. And yes, rare meat is fine.”

 

“Everything all right?”

 

“Just distracted for a moment.” Will took the small pan off the burner and lifted the lid. Immediately, the smell of caramel filled the kitchen, reminiscent of the Tarte Tatin. With a cooking spoon, he gently stirred the mixture. Then he nodded at the folder. “Taking work home with you?”

 

“Oh, that. Just some files I'm going to look at, later. Much later.” Hannibal went to the fridge and pulled out the meat. The long piece, cut from the thigh of an investment banker, had been chilling since last night, and was now wonderfully firm.

 

“Patient files?”

 

“FBI files.”

 

“The mushroom guy? It's been on all the news. How's that case going?”

 

Crawford had been right. As much as Will was trying to appear blasé about discovering the folder with its distinct FBI PROPERTY stamp, he was interested. Hannibal carried the meat to the counter, spooned oil into the pan, and said over the resulting crackle, “Not well. I can't tell you more than that.”

 

Will nodded. He made a zipping–his–lips motions. “I understand.”

 

Reaching for the butter and the large metal bowl, Will applied an even coating to the metal. Then, with a tablespoon, he began to drizzle caramel all over the bottom and the sides of the bowl, adding layer after layer until it looked like a hand–woven, chaotic net. He repeated the process with the cake pan, then set both aside, bottoms up, to let the caramel cool and harden.

 

The cake itself was quickly finished. A thin spread of plum jam on each layer was followed by cream, followed by quartered plums. After stacking the layers back together, Will dusted the top with ground cinnamon and a sprinkle of brown sugar, then put the cake in the fridge to let it set.

 

“And now for the fun part.” He started with the bowl. Working his way around, he nudged the edge of the caramel netting, loosening it gently from the metal. After a moment where it looked like it would shatter from the pressure, the whole thing came off smoothly.

 

Hannibal watched the procedure. Although made from simple ingredients, the result looked like spun glass, like a bowl–shaped, golden spider web, balanced on the tips of Will's fingers as he held it aloft. “It's beautiful.”

 

“Yes.” Will looked at his creation, appearing wistful. “Almost a pity I'll have to smash it later.”

 

“Pity has no place at a table.”

 

“No,” Will said softly, “I guess it doesn't.”

 

The cage dome was left on a sideboard, a safe distance away from anything wet or hot. A few minutes of silent, careful nudging and lifting later, the cage floor joined it. Will washed his hands at the kitchen sink and then stood at Hannibal's side, watching him cut paper–thin slices off the seared beef and arrange them artfully on hand–picked arugula leafs.

 

“This needs to be chilled for a short time.” Hannibal covered the plates so the smell of the rare beef wouldn't affect the cake, or vice versa, and set them in the fridge. “I'll go put the finishing touches on the table.”

 

Will twirled an arugula leaf between his fingers. “Do you need help?”

 

“No, thank you. I'll only be a moment.”

 

Hannibal puttered around the dining room for a few minutes, nudging a wine glass half an inch to the left, shifting the table decoration to a more pleasing spot. When he returned to the kitchen, Will stood at the sink, over the open FBI file.

 

Noting Hannibal's look, Will placidly turned a page. “That was way too obvious.” He inspected a picture. “Let me guess: Crawford asked you to ask me to look at this?”

 

“I didn't quite know how to bring it up.” Joining him at the sink, Hannibal put on a contrite expression. “So far, whenever we breached the topic of your affiliation to the FBI, you shut down on me. I didn't want to ruin our evening.” He reached for the file, checking to see what effect his words had. “As much as I'd like to help him, I also told Jack that I doubt you'd be receptive to the idea.”

 

Will looked conflicted, then mutinous. He slid the file out of Hannibal's reach. “What I'm not receptive to,” each word was carefully enunciated, “is Jack Crawford, and the way he handles certain things. We didn't exactly part on good terms.”

 

“He said the same.”

 

Will's eyes darkened. “Anything else he said?”

 

There was resentment there, bitter and old, likely the result of a clash of personalities. In his work environment, Crawford was dominant, hard. He had to be, being in charge of a section of the FBI which contained, as far as Hannibal had experienced, quite the assembly of characters. Crawford's tendency to steamroll, to poke and prod until he get what he wanted, what he needed to get results, made him good at his job.

 

Will was different. He wasn't meek or subservient, and Hannibal had already witnessed that he could be aggressive when needed, but he was not the type of person who filled a room with their mere presence, who got loud. He was someone who could be pushed, to a certain point. It was easily imaginable that when that point had finally been reached, the explosion between him and Crawford must have been nuclear.

 

Hannibal kept his stance open and inviting. “I didn't discuss you with Jack, if that's what you think. Even if you two were best friends, I wouldn't.”

 

Will's gaze softened. “Did he tell you why exactly I left the FBI?”

 

“No, and I didn't ask. I hope that when you're ready, you'll tell me yourself.”

 

“And I will. But not yet.”

 

Hannibal nodded, accepting. He held out his hand. “May I have the file back?”

 

“When I'm done with it.”

 

“Will...”

 

“I've already gone through most of it, anyway, so I might as well finish,” Will pointed out. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Let me do this.” Jutting his chin out, he declared, “Next time Crawford asks, you can tell him to ask me himself. If he wants a piece of my mind, I'll give it to him.”

 

“Verbally, I hope.” Hannibal made an inviting gesture at the file. “Very well.”

 

“What's stalling the case?”

 

“No suspects so far. Also, forensics cannot figure out what the killer used to keep his victims subdued.”

 

Will went back to reading. He looked at each of the photos, flipped back and forth between autopsy reports. Finally, he stood silent, eyes unfocused. Hannibal couldn't help but think that it was all a bit theatrical – and then Will's gaze sharpened, and he said, “Diabetic ketoacidosis. They were in a coma.”

 

Diabetic ketoacidosis was a potentially life–threatening condition particular to people suffering from diabetes. In response to an insulin shortage, the body began to burn fatty acids, which resulted in the production of acidic ketone bodies. The accompanying symptoms were numerous and could by themselves be life–threatening – and they could result in a coma.

 

A coma would explain why none of the victims of the Mushroom Monster hadn't just gotten up and walked away, as Beverly Katz had put it. It would also explain why the forensic team hadn't found any drugs in their tox screens. There were no drugs. The killer had used the victims' own bodies to imprison them.

 

How in the world had Will arrived at that conclusion?

 

Hannibal allowed his scepticism to show. “You're saying all the victims are diabetics?”

 

Will nodded. He snapped the file shut and dropped it on the counter. “The killer manipulated his victims' medication. For that, he needed access to their medical information. So, he's a doctor, or a pharmacist, or he works somewhere in medical services, a caretaker, a nurse.”

 

The theory sounded ridiculous, but the longer Hannibal thought about it, the more it fit the facts. If Will was right, he'd just propelled the investigation forward a large step.

 

Will eyed him and slumped. “Don't look at me like that, please. That's how Crawford – that's how almost everyone used to look at me, when they weren't eagerly following my leads.”

 

Hannibal gathered up the file. “You'll have to forgive me. Jack did say you're one of the best he ever worked with. I didn't take that to imply you'd be able to solve a case in five minutes.”

 

“The case isn't solved yet.”

 

“If you're right –”

 

If I'm right.” Will sucked on his lower lip, pensive. “I'm probably a bit rusty by now.”

 

Hannibal heard the implied, 'I've never been wrong before'. “How did they look at you? Your former colleagues.”

 

“Like I was making things up. I wasn't.”

 

“You made jumps you couldn't explain, like the one just now.”

 

“No, no – the evidence, or absence of evidence, explains.” Will gestured at the file. “Dextrose in the victims' catheters? They were literally pissing sugar water, in the end. It helped the mushrooms grow, but it also kept their bodies producing the very things that put them in a coma. I read 'dextrose' and the next thing I thought of was diabetes. It's not that hard to see.”

 

Ruefully, Hannibal said, “Well, I didn't see it, and I'm a licensed medical doctor. Your medical knowledge is astute, by the way. Not many people know what ketoacidosis even is, or how it presents.”

 

“Very generalized knowledge,” Will rebuffed the compliment, “and more to do with how people die, rather than how to keep them healthy and alive.”

 

“Yes, I've seen evidence of that.” Hannibal winked at him. “What were you trying to do? Outlast the encephalitis by sheer stubbornness?”

 

Will turned away and busied himself with the caramel cage, the tips of his ears flushing. “Kind of. I guess I was hoping it'd just run its course.”

 

Torn between probing more deeply into Will's stand–up profiling skills and letting that topic rest for now, Hannibal put the file back. Until Crawford followed the new lead and something came of it, there was no proof Will was right, but somehow Hannibal knew he would be. Crawford certainly seemed to believe he could be.

 

Will had raised an interesting point: why hadn't Crawford called Will himself, if he thought he could help solve the case? Why use Hannibal as an intermediary? Bad blood aside, Crawford and Will were both adults and men of the law, even if one of them was now retired. Surely, in the interest of catching a serial killer, they could lay aside their controversies for a while.

 

There was more to it than just bad blood.

 

Will went to the fridge, pulling out the layered cake. “I've been meaning to ask you something.” Carefully, he lifted the cake into the cage floor. “Why'd you stop being a surgeon?”

 

“I killed someone.” Expecting the startled look Will shot him, Hannibal explained, “More accurately, I couldn't save someone. But it felt like killing them.”

 

“You were an emergency room surgeon, that has to happen from time to time.”

 

“It happened one time too many. I transferred my passion for anatomy into the culinary arts. I fix minds instead of bodies, and no one's died as a result of my therapy. Now,” Hannibal clapped his hands together, “let us eat. Dinner is ready.”

 

*

 

They ate in the dining room. The table was decorated with a large nest, woven from blackened twigs. In it, on beds of lilies, lay tiny bird skeletons, posed as if they were about to take flight. Will lifted an eyebrow at the admittedly morbid display, but didn't comment. He waited until Hannibal had poured the wine and taken his seat on the other side of the table, then tried the seared beef.

 

Hannibal watched his poker–face expression turn into one of appreciation. He picked up his own fork and sampled a morsel. He'd hung the meat for hours before transferring it to the fridge, and searing it in the pan had vaporized some of the juice. It was still fresh and moist in the centre, wonderfully cool. He rolled the next bite in an arugula leaf. The peppery flavour, paired with the fresh yoghurt–chilli sauce, rounded up the taste experience perfectly, in his opinion.

 

“I've never tried anything this rare.” Will admitted. He had that faraway look in his eyes again. “The meat has an interesting flavour. It doesn't really taste like beef.”

 

“Not a bad taste, I hope.”

 

“No. Just different.” He licked his lips. “I like it.”

 

After the main course, Will brought in the cake. He crushed the caramel cage with a quick flick of a cake–server, sending golden splinters skittering over the polished wood of the table. Hannibal put one of the splinters in his mouth, letting it melt on his tongue. The cake wasn't as cloyingly sweet as he'd suspected, the plums juicy and fresh, and when he bit down, caramel crunched between his teeth. It was like chewing on brittle, thin bones.

 

“I need to be careful,” he told Will, “or you'll turn me into one of those gluttons who can't let a cake pass by. This is criminally good.”

 

Will's smirk was smug, self–satisfied, like the cat that got the canary. He was meticulously crushing the larger caramel splinters on his cake into small pieces before he ate a forkful, out of deference to the sharp ends, which Hannibal had felt poking him in the palate already. “My nefarious plan is working, then.”

 

“To make me hopelessly addicted to cake?”

 

Will's smile was serene. “To fatten you up before I eat you.”

 

Hannibal tutted. “And here I thought you already had a piece of me, last time –”

 

“You're not seriously going there, are you?”

 

“– even if it was just a mouthful.”

 

Will stared at him. He was flushing with amusement, barely able to keep a straight face. “You went there. Oh my god.”

 

Hannibal watched him dissolve into a fit of laughter, feeling the tug at the corners of his own mouth. Despite the tense moment in the kitchen, tonight had been a success. Hannibal could see that Will was beginning to trust him, that it would only be a matter of time until he was ready to disclose everything. When that happened, Hannibal knew he'd have him – hook, line and sinker. With his obvious dislike of Crawford, there might even be another use for Will, should Hannibal ever need a joker in the game he was playing with the FBI; the possibilities there were endless and promising.

 

*

 

Will helped carry the dishes into the kitchen. Then he crowded Hannibal against the sink. Hannibal tugged him even closer. He was amused at himself. Sex normally did not play a great part in his life. He did not crave it like many did; he liked not being a slave to primal urges; when he gave in, it was because he wanted it.

 

He wanted, now. Will undulated against him, eager and uninhibited – being wanted was a heady sensation, almost as powerful as the physical. “Bed,” Hannibal murmured against Will's lips. Last time had been far too rushed, over far too quickly. “My back will thank you.”

 

Will chuckled into his mouth. He'd already popped the first two buttons of Hannibal's shirt, and was dragging his fingertips through the small tufts of greying chest hair that peaked out. “Lead the way.”

 

In the bedroom, Will displayed the same kind of impatient forwardness he'd shown before, until Hannibal slowed him down, held him down. He sucked on the raised scar on Will's chest, delighting in the different texture, the way Will began to wind himself on the sheets, but did nothing to stop him when it became too much. When he switched to the perked nipple next to the scar, Will dug his fingernails into Hannibal's naked shoulders and groaned.

 

Hannibal took his time, refusing to rush. When he finally reached for the bedside table for a condom and lube, Will was a panting, squirming mess, thoroughly teased and tasted. Hannibal rolled him over, laid down on him. Will fought him a little, playfully, just the right amount of resistance to wake the urge to overpower him, to fuck, to claim. Hannibal sank into him. His eyes slipped shut. The tightness was exquisite. Will was gasping under him now, straining against him. Hannibal fucked him slowly until those short gasps turned into needy whines and guttural moans.

 

He wrapped a hand around Will's throat, to feel the vibrations of those sounds.

 

Afterwards, Will mumbled something about the wet spot, in which he squarely lay, and was out like a light.

 

Hannibal disposed of the condom and fetched a towel to wipe himself down. Will made a delectable picture, spread out starfish–like on the dark blue sheets, the lines and curves of his body inviting the observer to linger. Although he felt post–coital fatigue tugging at him with a vengeance, Hannibal stayed awake for a while, taking in the sight. Settling himself at Will's side, he touched all the little marks their vigorous lovemaking had left behind – the faint rings of red around Will's wrists, the shallow tooth marks on the back of his shoulder.

 

They would fade quickly. Just as the ones Will had left on him.

 

Hannibal buried his grin against the nape of Will's neck, curling around him.

 

He could always recreate them.

 

*

 

Movement woke him, again. Will shifted against him, resettling with a snuffle. They'd moved during the night, ending with Hannibal on his back and Will pressed against his side, one arm thrown over Hannibal's middle. Hannibal watched the dance of shadows across the bedroom ceiling, created by the pale morning light creeping through the crowns of the trees in the backyard. It was early enough for Baltimore to be yet quiet, only a faint murmur of cars in the distance announcing the new day.

 

At length, Hannibal carefully disentangled himself from his human octopus. Will was so out of it he slept right through the dip and rise of the mattress, a state of being for which Hannibal smugly took credit. He settled the blanket back around Will's shoulders, collected house coat, pyjama pants and slippers, and quietly moved downstairs.

 

Breakfast would be something simple yet filling, he decided. Eggs, mixed with herbes de Provence, pieces of liver. Fresh toast and orange juice, strong tea and coffee.

 

First though, the kitchen, which was in no fit state to be seen by anyone. While he cleaned up, Hannibal listened for sounds from upstairs, even stood at the bottom of the stairs twice. No indication that Will had rejoined the land of the awake. He was probably used to sleeping as long as he liked, a luxury those with a nine–to–five occupation could not afford. Two and a half hours until Hannibal needed to be at the office, to open his doors for the first patient. With breakfast preparations and showers calculated in, he could afford to let Will sleep a little while longer.

 

What kind of a morning person was he? Alert, refreshed, ready to tackle the day? Or grumpy, monosyllabic until he'd seen the bottom of the first cup of coffee, with pillow lines on his face and bed hair going every which way?

 

Hannibal went outside to collect the newspaper. Thoughts about Will's morning state rushed from his mind as he skimmed the front page. There, in bold, black letters, the headlines CHESAPEAKE RIPPER STRIKES AGAIN! screamed out at him.

Chapter Text

––

o.5

––

 

Chesapeake Ripper strikes again!

 

Standing on the porch, Hannibal read the article.

 

The victim had been discovered on Tolchester Beach across the bay, by a couple of teenagers who had – oh, mankind – taken pictures with their cellphones and uploaded them to several social networking sites before they called the police. The press had gotten a hold of these pictures already. The article was accompanied by one of them, showing Tolchester Beach's famous pier at night, with a fat moon lighting the scene: the naked body of a man, prostrate, arms and legs akimbo. Slaughtered.

 

Thick, black censor squares placed across the picture blocked out the worst of the damage and protected the more sensitive readers from having to stomach such a gruesome sight along with their morning coffee, but the article left very little to the imagination. The victim had been strangled and gutted. The killer had drawn a chalk symbol around the body and left the victim's entrails and organs in buckets, marking the points of a pentacle star.

 

That alone should have told any reporter worth their salt that this wasn't the work of the Chesapeake Ripper. Hannibal scoffed silently, making his way back to the kitchen. He would never stoop to something so crude, so obvious, and he definitely didn't worship Satan or his counterpart, God.

 

This wasn't even the work of a copycat. Nothing about it said 'Chesapeake Ripper'. The press was jumping to conclusions based on evidence that was circumstantial at best.

 

Disgruntled, Hannibal began preparing breakfast. He disliked being lumped in with the rest of the urge–driven, unremarkable, unimaginative killers that haunted Maryland, and Baltimore in particular. To be mistaken for one of them was an insult. The Chesapeake Ripper was one of a kind.

 

*

 

Twenty minutes later, Will shuffled down the steps, into the kitchen, and right into Hannibal. He mumbled something which, with a lot of imagination, could pass for a 'good morning', owl–eyed and yawning. Not a morning person, then, but a sight for sore eyes nevertheless, dressed only in blue boxer shorts.

 

Hannibal felt his mood lift. The suck mark he'd left on Will's chest stood out vividly against his skin, calling to mind pleasant memories, and his scent was...warm. Hannibal found no other way to describe the mix of sex, musk and the distinct smells of his own home that clung to Will.

 

It was something he felt he could get used to.

 

“There is coffee,” Hannibal offered, amused, when Will began to lean. He had been chopping liver, and now held his hands awkwardly out to the side to prevent any of the juices from ending up on the man plastered against his front. “Let me finish breakfast preparations, please. This will only take another few minutes.”

 

Will made a noise that sounded both agreeing and disgruntled. He scrubbed at his eyes, heading for the coffee kept warm in a carafe by the window. “Do you always get up at godawful o'clock?”

 

“I am an early riser. I trust you slept well?”

 

“Like a baby.”

 

Cup in hand, sipping slowly at the hot brew, Will seemed to come more awake. He shivered slightly, making Hannibal make a mental note to leave a second house robe out, next time they did this. It would be a shame to cover up all that lovely skin currently on display, but the well–being of his guests was paramount.

 

He finished chopping the liver, adding the pieces to the scrambled eggs which had been slowly cooking in a pan.

 

“Aww, hell.”

 

Hannibal looked up. Will had discovered the newspaper left on a sideboard, this time without ulterior motives. About to say something to the effect, he saw Will's eyebrows rise as the other man read the article, then fold up the paper with a disgusted sigh.

 

“Amateurs,” Will muttered under his breath and leaned against the counter, stretching slowly.

 

An odd thing to say. “That serial killer has been haunting Maryland for a long time, and he still hasn't been caught. That's not exactly the mark of an amateur.”

 

“I was referring to the press. This isn't the work of the Chesapeake Ripper.” Will tossed the newspaper back down. “Crawford is obsessed with that case. Anyone who's ever worked for the BAU, or thought about working for the BAU, or even comes within shouting distance of the BAU, is made to read everything about the Ripper. I know those cases inside out, I know what to look for.” He drained his cup and went for a refill. “You're telling me Crawford didn't talk about it to you, by now?”

 

“He mentioned it a few times,” Hannibal admitted, “but not so much to give me the impression that he's obsessed with it.” He stirred the eggs. “I'm curious.” He motioned at the newspaper. “What gave it away?”

 

“Everything,” Will said dryly. He leaned against the counter, ankles crossed. “The Chesapeake Ripper is someone who wants to perform. He's an artist. Every brutal choice has elegance. Meaning. This is child's work in comparison.”

 

“And the pentacle? The religious angle is obvious.”

 

Will thought about it for a moment. “Too obvious for my tastes. Ritualistic symbolism is a fairly common element at the crime scenes of many serial killers. They're trying to find someone or something to blame for the things they do, to lessen the burden of their guilt, so they turn to religion. But by definition, God is a positive influence on our lives. That leaves Satan as a scapegoat. I don't think the Ripper needs or wants a scapegoat. He knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't feel guilty about it.”

 

Hannibal was impressed. Finally, someone had gotten it right. At the same time, something inside him sat up, alert, watchful. Crawford had mentioned the Chesapeake Ripper a couple of times, but Will was the first to reveal that the BAU had a working profile on him. Who knew what else the BAU had cooked up in the meantime, since Will left the FBI? Hannibal knew that Crawford had recently started considering the cannibal angle, but not much more.

 

He distributed the eggs and liver on two warmed plates, garnishing with tomatoes and basil. “Do you think they'll ever catch him?”

 

Will stared into his coffee cup. “Not unless he wants to be caught. And I don't see that happening, regardless of what Crawford thinks. The Ripper could be anyone. He could be you, could be me. He could be a woman, for all we know. What I do know is that the Ripper is intelligent, dedicated and meticulous. Those kinds of killers are almost impossible to catch.”

 

Hannibal cocked an eyebrow. “Almost?”

 

Will chuckled. “Everybody makes a mistake, sooner or later. That's what Crawford's hoping for. A hair, a partial fingerprint. Something left behind in a hurry.”

 

Hannibal never left anything behind at his scenes unless it was on purpose. If Crawford was waiting for that, he would be waiting for a long time indeed.

 

He turned off the burner. “Let's hope he does. Now, breakfast is ready.”

 

“Yes, about that...” Will nodded at the plates. “Liver for breakfast?”

 

“Just a little protein scramble to start the day.”

 

*

 

Although breakfast lead to some necking on the couch, and that lead to a shared shower which prompted the need for another shower immediately after, Hannibal arrived at his office with enough time to spare for a call to Crawford. One, he wanted to divulge Will's insight on the Mushroom Monster case, and two, he was curious about the impact of this morning's headlines.

 

Crawford sounded preoccupied and distant until Hannibal told him what Will had said. “Damn it,” Crawford muttered, “always the little things. Thanks. I'll have the forensic team check it out.”

 

No questions, no doubts. Crawford took Will's hunch at face value. “Jack, don't you think that whatever issues are between you and Will could be resolved? Obviously you consider his insights worthy of a follow–up. Is there no way...?”

 

Crawford's laugh sounded forced and dull. “That ship has sailed. I appreciate what you're trying to do, but trust me: if there was any chance of reconciliation between Will and me, it would have happened already. I'm not too proud to admit my mistakes.”

 

So Crawford had been the driving force behind the rift between the two men, or he at least thought he was. Interesting. “Did you read the newspaper this morning?”

 

“Didn't have to.” Crawford sounded even duller now, tired. “They called me when the body was discovered. Anything this bloody, they call me.” Paper rustled across the line, followed by the clink of a spoon against ceramic. A little testily, Crawford asked, “I don't suppose Will spent the night? Did he get a look at the newspaper? Did he have any insights to share about that?”

 

“He did, and yes.”

 

“And?”

 

“He thinks it's not the Chesapeake Ripper.”

 

Crawford's long sigh was a sharp hiss through the receiver. “Did he say why?”

 

“He called it child's work. He also said that the religious symbolism was far too obvious – that whoever killed the man on the pier needed a scapegoat, which the Ripper doesn't require.” Hannibal still glowed with pride at that. Will acknowledged that the Ripper was something more, something better than a simple serial killer. Indirectly, he'd called Hannibal an artist. The flattery was hitting all the right spots, even hours later.

 

Crawford muttered something under his breath. He cleared his throat. “I'll keep that in mind. Listen, sorry to cut this short, but I gotta go and inform forensics about the possible ketoacidosis angle. And I know Will might not want to hear it, but,” Crawford hesitated, “tell him I said thanks.”

 

“I will,” Hannibal promised. “Have a good day, Jack.”

 

*

 

That same Friday, the FBI arrested Eldon Stammets, also known as the Mushroom Monster. Hannibal read all about it on Tattlecrime.com when he returned home in the evening: how Stammets was an employee at a large, national pharmacy chain, and how the SWAT team had descended on him just as he was heaving the body of an unconscious woman into the trunk of his car.

 

Stammets' picture showed a frail–looking, wide–eyed man in his late fifties. He looked harmless, benign. The expression on his face was one of pure despair – caused by the realisation that he wouldn't get to start another mushroom garden, Hannibal suspected. Poor, need–driven creature. Whatever Stammets' goal had been, it was now forever out of his reach. The combined brunt of Crawford and the iron jaws of the American justice system would ensure Stammets would never see the proverbial light of day again.

 

The arrest of the Mushroom Monster meant little to Hannibal. He contemplated something else: Will had been right.

 

Too right; was it normal that a ten–minute–look at a few scant files and pictures should tell one man what the entirety of the BAU hadn't seen for weeks? There were lucky guesses, but Will hadn't sounded as if he was guessing when he stood in Hannibal's kitchen and profiled the Mushroom Monster's modus operandi. He hadn't been guessing about the corpse on Tolchester Beach either.

 

How could Will see all that, and not see Hannibal?

 

The answer lay, of course, in Hannibal's own mastery of his art; really, he should not be disappointed. Rather, he should be congratulating himself, to have perfected the art of hiding in plain sight to the point where a profiler of Will's capability did not see the monster when it looked him in the face – or dined with him, kissed him, shared a bed with him.

 

Logically, Hannibal acknowledged it was better that Will didn't see – that he remained ignorant: someone for Hannibal to enjoy while it lasted. It was good, the way it was.

 

A faint, niggling thread of discontent remained.

 

*

 

A quiet weekend loomed on the horizon. Will and Hannibal had made no plans for their next date. Hannibal didn't mind; as much as he enjoyed the company of others – and lately, the company of a certain retired FBI profiler – he valued time spent by himself just as much. There was cleaning and shopping to be done. There was a corpse in the basement, stored in a locked freezer, which needed to be processed: the useless parts discarded, the good parts prepared for later use.

 

Hannibal's mind palace needed attention as well. Recent events had left several of the rooms less tidy than he liked it. Going through the mental cleaning process was something Hannibal dedicated his utmost concentration to; the palace was his refuge, his sanctuary, the place where he stored all his memories. The grand structure afforded him the ability to recall everything he had ever come into contact with and deemed worth remembering – all he needed was to find the correct room, the niche where a particular part of his past had been installed.

 

Mischa was there, in the oldest, coldest corners. His parents were portraits hung on the walls of a cobwebbed nursery. Will was there too, now, the newspaper clipping from eight years ago given a more prominent spot in one of the newer, less ghost–haunted rooms.

 

*

 

On Saturday, Hannibal had just sat down for lunch when the doorbell rang. The woman standing on the welcome mat wore a crinkled leather jacket and had dark rings around her eyes, which were bloodshot from lack of sleep. Her short, blond hair stood up chaotically. She flashed a badge, identifying herself as a member of Baltimore PD.

 

Behind her, Jack Crawford loomed, grim–faced. “Let's take this inside.”

 

Hannibal let them into the house. “Refreshments?”

 

Detective Lynn Garner tiredly waved a hand. “Nothing for me, thanks.” She exchanged a look with Crawford, who motioned for her to go on. “Sorry to bother you. I just have a few questions, it won't take long.”

 

“You're not bothering me at all. I'm always happy to help Baltimore's finest. This way, please.” Hannibal lead the way into the living room. “Have a seat, please.” Garner sat, looking grateful. Crawford remained standing, taking up a position by the door. “Now, what is this about?”

 

“Doctor Lecter,” Garner pulled out a small notebook along with a pen, “you are the therapist of Mister Franklyn Froideveaux, is that correct?”

 

Hannibal glanced at Jack, whose face gave nothing away. Anything this bloody, they call me. “I was Franklyn's therapist. I referred him to a colleague over a month ago.”

 

Garner jotted down a few words. “When did you last see him?”

 

“Last Sunday. He came here with a friend.”

 

“Patients come to your house?”

 

“Franklyn was no longer my patient at that point.”

 

Garner twiddled the pen between her fingers. “I'll be frank, Doctor Lecter. I spoke to a friend of Mister Froideveaux's this morning. He implied that you and Mister Froideveaux didn't part on the best terms.”

 

Hannibal recalled Tobias Budge's shark–like smile and overall oiliness. “That is correct.”

 

“Details please,” Crawford muttered, “as many as you can give, respecting doctor–patient confidentiality.”

 

Something must have happened to Franklyn. Considering the man's limited social circle, it was only natural that the police would come knocking at the doors of those few he'd had contact with. Strange – there hadn't been anything on the news about another murder, not even on Tattlecrime.com. “I transferred Franklyn to another therapist because he had developed a rather unhealthy obsession with me. It was detrimental to his therapy's progress.”

 

Garner's expression tightened. Crawford asked bluntly, “Was his obsession sexual?”

 

“No.”

 

“Violent?”

 

“Again, no. Franklyn was not a violent person. In fact, the reason he came to my house last Sunday was to apologize – he had realized the errors of his ways, so to speak.” Hannibal put on a guileless expression. “I was looking forward to seeing him at the Baltimore Symphony Board meeting next week.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Crawford began to pace the length of the living room, “he won't be listening to the orchestra anytime soon.”

 

Hannibal looked back and forth between him and Detective Garner. “I hope nothing untoward happened to him?”

 

Garner had put the end of the pen between her teeth. She had nicotine stains on her fingers, indicating that chewing pens wasn't her only bad habit. When Crawford didn't answer, just continued pacing like a caged, angry tiger, she drew a face, visibly gearing up to be the bearer of bad news. “Part of Mister Froideveaux was found at Roosevelt Park, early yesterday morning.”

 

Part of him?”

 

“His head. It was mounted atop a statue,” she explained. “Joggers found it. We're still looking for the rest, as well as the head of the statue.”

 

That explained Crawford's presence. Two violent murders in roughly the same geographical area, committed at roughly the same time, both staged – despite yesterday's phone call, Crawford probably heard his old friend the Chesapeake Ripper come knocking, although said Ripper had most definitely not killed either man. In fact, the Chesapeake Ripper was currently rather miffed that someone had taken the pleasure of killing Franklyn Froideveaux away from him and brought the police right to his doorstep.

 

“I don't know what to say,” Hannibal said.

 

Garner twiddled her pen again. “Were you aware of any run–ins Mister Froideveaux had? Someone who had it in for him? Someone he had it in for?”

 

Franklyn had been the kind of person who believed that 'talking about it' would solve the world's problems. Hannibal couldn't even imagine him getting into a fight with anyone, verbal or physical. The only time he'd ever witnessed Franklyn display something of a temper was when he told him about the referral, and later, when Franklyn appeared in his office, drunk and demanding they continue the sessions.

 

Hannibal's thought process stalled at that. There had been a run–in, that very same day. It had never gotten physical, but the way Will stood there, still and focused, cold...

 

Ridiculous.

 

Decidedly, he shook his head. “I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'll be of no use to you there, detective. The Franklyn I knew was a pacifist to the marrow of his bones. If his propensities changed in the meantime, I wasn't aware of it. Perhaps you should ask his current therapist, she may know more than I do.”

 

Garner leafed through her tiny notebook. “That would be Doctor Mary Bartley?”

 

“Correct.”

 

With a tired sigh, Garner stuffed notebook and pen back into her pocket. “I'll do that. She's next on my list.” She looked disappointed. “Thanks for your time, doctor.”

 

Hannibal rose. “Please call if there is anything else I can help with.”

 

“I will, thanks.” Garner shoot a look at Crawford. “Agent Crawford?”

 

Crawford hadn't moved during the last minutes of the conversation, standing at a window and staring out at the street. “Go ahead, detective. I'll catch up with you at the station.”

 

Hannibal escorted Garner to the door. When he returned, Crawford had taken her seat. “We need to talk.”

 

Hannibal sat back down. “Do you think the Chesapeake –”

 

“This isn't about the Chesapeake Ripper,” Crawford interrupted. “It's about Will. Did Will ever meet Franklyn Froideveaux? Here? Maybe at your office?”

 

Surprised at the turn the conversation was taking, Hannibal hesitated. Crawford could not honestly believe Will had something to do with Franklyn's death?

 

“Hannibal?” Crawford prompted.

 

Lying was out of the question. Someone might have seen Franklyn running from the office. “Once.” Crawford heaved a deep, aggravated sigh. Hannibal scoffed. “Jack, Will saw him for two minutes at the most. They did not lay a hand on each other. What are you implying?”

 

Crawford answered with a question. “Are you sure this Froideveaux wasn't a violent guy? I'm not asking for details. Just tell me you're sure he wasn't secretly a murderer, a serial killer.”

 

Now Hannibal was honestly confused. “I'm very sure.” Crawford sighed again. “What is this about?”

 

Crawford stared at the window. “I didn't want to say anything, but considering the circumstances, I think you should know. None of what I'm about to tell you can leave this room.”

 

Gravely, Hannibal nodded.

 

After a moment of tense silence, Crawford said, “Will was good. Damn good. He had a way of getting into a perp's head that bordered on witchcraft. You could put him in a room with a suspect, and an hour later, he had sussed out motive, method, everything. He was never wrong. Not even once.”

 

The look in his eyes turned distant. “He could assume someone's point of view in a way where he almost became that person. And every time he did, he slipped a little. It was as if the deeper he dug, the more trouble he had digging himself back out. We sent him to psych evals, of course, counselling. They called it an 'empathy disorder'. Gave him some pills to pop. Suggested that maybe we should take him off the active agent roster and send him to Quantico, as a teacher. We should have listened to them.”

 

Outwardly, Hannibal maintained his calm, composed demeanour. Inside, the gears started cycling viciously quickly. He'd known for some time now that the circumstances of Will's departure from the FBI must have been violent or disturbing for the event to still have such a lasting effect on the man. He'd always assumed it was something that happened to Will. The ominous ring to Crawford's little tale suddenly painted a different picture.

 

Unknowingly, Crawford had revealed something even more interesting and far more dangerous.

 

Hannibal had witnessed first–hand just how sharp Will's skills as a profiler still were. He'd put it down to years of experience and intuition, that 'sixth sense' people sometimes developed when they were very good at something.

 

Will was another beast entirely. Empathy could be a powerful weapon in the right hands, and paired with a profiler's skills...

 

Hannibal felt a churning mix of anticipation, worry and curiosity. He could not let on which direction his thoughts were taking, not in front of Crawford, and said what Crawford expected him to say. “You think he killed someone.”

 

“I know he killed someone.” Crawford's hands clenched on his knees. “The only thing I don't have is a body to prove it.” He gave Hannibal a sly look. “Do you know what the last case was that Will worked on?”

 

Hannibal put two and two together. “The Dissolver.” Crawford's narrow–eyed look prompted further explanation. “When I met Will, I was fairly certain I knew him from somewhere. I figured it out when he told me he used to work for the FBI. I remembered the case, it was all over the newspapers eight years ago. The suspect dissolved his victims in acid.”

 

“He sure did. So: no body, no evidence, no conviction.”

 

“How did you arrive at the suspicion that Will killed someone, if there was no body?”

 

Crawford snorted, scornful. “Will helped me find a suspect in that case. His name was Jesse Taylor. But before I could get to him, Taylor vanished. And a week later, a farmer in Virginia found a drum on his field, filled with the sludge of human remains. Forensics got a match to Taylor's DNA. He was put down as another victim of the Dissolver. But miraculously, after Taylor's death, the Dissolver never killed again.”

 

“Taylor could have committed suicide. Someone else could have killed him,” Hannibal pointed out.

 

“The press was hounding us at the time, so we kept a lid on any new information. Only two people knew we were even considering Taylor for a suspect: myself, and Will,” Crawford explained. “Will didn't have an alibi for the time Taylor vanished, and he was barely holding onto himself at the time.”

 

Hannibal licked his lips. “So you think Will killed that killer.”

 

“I think Will became that killer, for a short while. He did to Taylor what Taylor did to all those other people.” Crawford's look turned distant again. “Did he tell you he used to be a Homicide detective, before he joined the BAU? There were rumours about him even back then. They said he's good at catching monsters because he's one of them, that he's like a magnet for those kinds of people.” Meaningfully, he added, “And now one of your patients turned up dead.”

 

There was an obvious flaw in that theory. Hannibal saw it right away. “Franklyn Froideveaux was no killer.”

 

Crawford lifted both eyebrows, expressing incredulity. “You hop in the sack with Will and someone you know turns up dead. That doesn't make you wonder just a little?”

 

Hannibal's entire internal profile of who Will Graham was had been turned on its head. Still, following Crawford's logic, Franklyn would have been the deciding factor in that scenario. Franklyn Froideveaux, a murderer? A killer? Hannibal shook his head. “No.”

 

That wasn't what Crawford wanted to hear, and it showed on his face. “Well, seeing that the two of you are involved, I understand if you want to give Will the benefit of the doubt.”

 

Now Crawford was crossing a line, professional as well as personal. Hannibal didn't appreciate the implication or the paternal tone of voice and gave him a stern look. “I am not.”

 

“No?” Crawford challenged.

 

“No. Franklyn was my patient for a long time.”

 

Crawford eyed him. “This isn't about Franklyn.”

 

“It is, indirectly. If Will is a magnet for killers, as you put it, Franklyn would have to be the iron needle in this case,” Hannibal pointed out. “Franklyn never displayed any violent tendencies, let alone the desire to murder anyone.”

 

Franklyn may have been subconsciously attracted to people capable of violence, in hindsight. He had pursued a friendship with Hannibal with almost single–minded intention; then there was Tobias Budge, in whom Hannibal had sensed the darkness as if it was a living thing. Franklyn had found both of them, without knowing what exactly it was that he'd found.

 

Crawford didn't seem to be willing to give up just yet. “You said Will and Franklyn met at your office. I'm going to assume that you and Will were already on friendly terms back then. Maybe Franklyn didn't like seeing someone moving in on his turf. Maybe he came after Will.”

 

“And in self–defence, Will...what? Dismembered him? Left his head in Roosevelt Park?” Hannibal let his tone of voice speak for itself. “I told you, their entire meeting was over in two minutes. I did not tell Franklyn Will's name, and Will didn't introduce himself, either. Now you're really reaching, Jack.”

 

“That's what Will said, too, eight years ago,” Crawford ground out. “That I'm reaching. That I'm seeing things. That there's no evidence at all.” Bitterly, he snorted. “Just a whole bunch of really suspicious circumstances.”

 

The silence unfolding between them was tense and volatile. Hannibal suddenly wanted Crawford to leave. He had so much to think about, to reconsider. One thing in particular circled like a shark among the other thoughts: what if Will already knew what Hannibal was? The way Crawford put it, Will only needed to spend time with someone to immerse himself in their way of thinking, to empathize with them.

 

“Sorry if I ruined the happy glow,” Crawford muttered, endless minutes later.

 

“You did not ruin anything, Jack.” The revelations of the previous twenty minutes were as exciting as they were dangerous. Hannibal scarcely dared think of the possibilities that suddenly unfolded before him. “I honestly believe this is all a coincidence.”

 

“I hope you're right. I really do.”

 

Another minute passed. Hannibal tapped his chest. “Will has a gunshot scar here. Do you know how he got it?”

 

Crawford looked away. “I gave that to him.”

 

“How?”

 

“Self–defence. He'd slipped so far that time...we argued. He came at me.”

 

“To attack you?”

 

“I don't know,” Crawford admitted. “It was after we found Jesse Taylor in the acid drum. Tempers ran high, he moved a certain way...I can't say for sure now what Will was going to do. What his condition was making him do. We were all on edge. The whole thing was swept under the carpet. Will was paid a hefty sum, in return, he didn't sue. He quit his job and I didn't lose mine. Not one of the FBI's proudest moments. Not one of my proudest moments, either.”

 

Will was probably still living on that money now. It explained how he managed to sustain himself with his baking business, which was as far as Hannibal had gathered not really a full–time occupation at all.

 

“Look, I didn't come here to badmouth Will,” Crawford said. “Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he didn't kill anyone...”

 

“Your gut feeling says otherwise?” Hannibal asked.

 

Crawford nodded. “I got two dead bodies out there. One of them is connected to you. I'm going to look into the other one, see what that turns up.”

 

Yet again, the conversation had taken an unexpected turn. “The corpse found on Tolchester Beach?” Hannibal frowned. “Will was here the night that corpse was discovered. You even asked me if he spent the night.”

 

“I'm still going to look into it,” Crawford said. “Forensics put the time of death of the man on the pier some time in the early evening on Tuesday. When did Will get here?”

 

“He was at my house at eight o'clock.” Hannibal considered the time line. There was another thing to take into account, which Crawford was either overlooking or ignoring: the location. “Tolchester Beach is a tourist attraction. There are people out there until well after sundown. There is no way Will could have killed that man and then staged the body like that without someone seeing him, and I can assure you Will did not leave my house during the night.”

 

A possessive protectiveness was welling up in Hannibal. Whether or not Will had killed anyone didn't matter nearly as much as the other complications Crawford's revelations had brought. If Will was as good as Crawford implied, his gift that powerful, he had to have developed selective blindness to not see the monster right in front of him.

 

Hannibal was certain Will wasn't blind. He had to have a plan – some sort of end game, some goal. Hannibal was going to find out what that was, and he didn't want outside interference from Crawford or anyone else. If Will had managed to weasel his way into Hannibal's good graces – and his kitchen and bed, too – on purpose then he deserved the undivided attention of the Chesapeake Ripper, without any distractions to come between them.

 

Looking mulish, Crawford drew a face. “Even if Will didn't kill that one, there's still Franklyn Froideveaux. If there's even the slightest indication Will was anywhere near Roosevelt Park yesterday night...”

 

Crawford wanted Will to be guilty. He'd been forced to let him go eight years ago, and now saw a chance to close in on him again. That it was Will who had set the investigation into the Mushroom Monster case on the right track apparently didn't figure into Crawford's contemplations at all.

 

No wonder then, that Will's attitude to the mere mention of his former colleague's name was so negative – who knew what other murders Crawford attributed to him. Crawford was so fixated that he didn't even seem to be willing to look in other directions, for other suspects.

 

A blemish on Crawford's character, but not necessarily unwelcome in this situation. That kind of fixation could be useful.

 

Hannibal put on a suitably worried expression. “I don't believe he's capable of something like that.”

 

Crawford stared at the window again. “That's what I used to think, back before Jesse Taylor.”

 

*

 

After Crawford left, Hannibal returned to his now cold lunch. His interest in the food was nil. He was filled with restlessness, his mind brimming with conflicting urges. Patience, he counselled himself, patience. Rushing lead to errors, both in judgement and planning.

 

Crawford had told him that for now, investigations into Will's involvement in the deaths of Franklyn Froideveaux and the man on the pier would proceed quietly, without alerting Will to the fact that he was a suspect. As fixated as Crawford was, he was also good at his job, and he had previous experience to draw from; he could not accuse Will of anything without evidence a second time.

 

Which meant that for now, Hannibal had the upper hand. He knew what Will obviously hadn't wanted him to know. Whether Will wanted to keep the business with Jesse Taylor to himself out of shame, because that meant admitting he'd been a murder suspect once, or out of self–preservation, because it would have revealed the depth of his skill and thus alerted his target, was a different matter entirely.

 

Moving on automatic, Hannibal began to clear the table.

 

He was right back to those early suspicions regarding his and Will's meeting at the theatre, only that Crawford wasn't connected to that in the way he'd assumed. As much as that first meeting may have been coincidence, everything that followed after was now in question.

 

If Will had such a knack for the monsters, when had he recognized the one hiding under Hannibal's suit? At the hospital? When he stepped between Franklyn and Hannibal at the office? When he knelt between Hannibal's spread thighs, eager and aroused?

 

Had he recognized, had he seen at all? Had everything just been an act?

 

Hannibal didn't know, not for certain, and the uncertainty was all that kept his mood from slipping into deadly anger. The suspicious, always watchful part of him insisted Will was playing a game with him, but there were pieces that didn't fit into the picture Crawford had provided the blank canvas for.

 

Franklyn, that was one piece. Hannibal simply could not bring himself to believe Will had killed him. As much as Will was allegedly capable of sniffing out 'the monsters', Hannibal was just as good: what he lacked in empathy he made up for in spades with knowledge, instinct and experience. He knew how to listen, how to observe, how to read between the lines – inevitably, those among his patients whose tastes ran in darker, bloodier directions gave themselves away. Franklyn had not been among them.

 

Another piece – if Will had recognized the Chesapeake Ripper in Hannibal, why keep up the charade? Surely, even Crawford would listen if Will came to him, if it meant he could finally capture the Ripper – Crawford listened to everything else Will said, too, as long as it concerned serial killers. If it was evidence Will was after, there had been plenty. Every meal Hannibal had served him had been evidence. There was evidence in the basement and in the various freezers right now.

 

...which neatly lead to the final, most obvious piece that didn't fit: who sat at a cannibal's table and asked for seconds?

 

Of course, there was the possibility that Will had only seen parts of him and not the entire picture. Again, though, Crawford describing Will's profiling capabilities as something like 'witchcraft' made that very improbable.

 

Standing here and turning those questions over and over in his head would not solve them. Hannibal checked the time: barely gone three, early afternoon. He knew it was irrational to assume that with the knowledge he now had, there'd be anything visibly different about Will, but he wanted to see him. He wanted to see the man who may have managed to fool him.

 

How fortunate then, that he had yet to relay Crawford's gratitude for Will's help with the Mushroom Monster case: the perfect excuse for a surprise visit.

 

*

 

Halfway to Baltimore's city limits, Hannibal noticed he was being followed.

 

The black Jeep followed two cars behind Hannibal's Bentley. At a red light, thanks to the tiny sports car behind him swerving into another lane, Hannibal got a good look at the driver. It was Freddie Lounds. Even with a large pair of sunglasses covering half her face, Hannibal knew it was the Tattlecrime.com reporter; he'd recognize that riot of red curls anywhere.

 

He took a few extra turns before heading in the direction of Wolf Trap, to make sure this wasn't just a coincidence. The black Jeep followed. Miss Lounds probably wasn't expecting her quarry to be on the lookout for pursuers. Other than driving at a moderate distance to the Bentley, she wasn't doing anything to keep herself hidden.

 

Hannibal's mood soured. By the time he drove through Wolf Trap, he was angry. The reporter must have been staking out his house all day, to be able to follow him like that. Crawford had warned him that Freddie Lounds often used urban guerilla tactics to get what she wanted. It had been an oversight on Hannibal's part to assume she would approach him directly.

 

He was going to cure her of the notion that he was an easy target at the earliest opportunity – permanently, if no other solution presented itself.

 

It started to rain when Will's farmstead came into view. The black Jeep was a tiny dot behind him now, still headed in the same direction. Pulling into the parking lot next to Will's grey Volvo, Hannibal observed the house, adjoining bakery and barn. All lights were off. No dogs were romping around. The door to the bakery was shut.

 

Hannibal looked in the rear–view mirror. The black Jeep was gone. He didn't count on the reporter having given up her chase. She had probably parked at the side of the road and was covering the remaining distance on foot, in order to not be too obvious.

 

Taking his umbrella from the back seat, Hannibal got out and went around the house. His hope that Will had left the back door unlocked was dashed as he tried the knob. He knocked. No footsteps from inside, no warning barks. Will wasn't home.

 

His car was here, though, so perhaps he'd just gone for a walk. Hannibal sat down in a rickety garden chair on the porch and waited.

 

Ten minutes later, a bright, female voice intruded on his quiet solitude. “Hello?” Standing on the bottom step of the porch under an umbrella of her own, Freddie Lounds eyed Hannibal with open curiosity, her smile friendly and warm. “Mind if I join you?”

 

“Good afternoon,” Hannibal greeted her. “Not at all.”

 

Freddie joined him on the porch, shaking out her umbrella. “He does that, sometimes.”

 

“Beg pardon?”

 

“Wandering off.” Freddie nodded at the house. “If Will's cakes weren't the best around, I don't think he'd have any customers at all. Terrible business strategies, if you ask me.”

 

She spoke as if she and Will were old friends. Hannibal doubted they were even on a first name basis. Freddie Lounds was the kind of person who'd set your teeth on edge if you had something to hide; Will had a lot to hide. It was likely she had been hounding him for an interview, perhaps to get something about old cases out of him.

 

Freddie took Hannibal's silence as an invitation to continue talking. “Noticed your license plate. You're not local, are you? Long way to drive here, just for some cake.” Boldly, she held out her hand. “Rose Kimball.”

 

Hannibal grasped her hand. “Also known as Freddie Lounds?”

 

Her smile didn't waver. “My reputation precedes me, I see.”

 

Hannibal released her hand. She hadn't even batted an eyelash at being caught in a lie. “I am an avid visitor of your website, Miss Lounds. I recognize you from your picture there.”

 

“Well, then we can skip the whole meet and greet,” Freddie said. “I already know who you are, Doctor Lecter. How fortunate to run across you here. I've been thinking about sitting down for an interview with you for some time now. Jack Crawford sure knows how to pick the interesting ones, for his little team of crime fighters.”

 

Behind Freddie, just at the line of trees bordering on Will's property, movement caught Hannibal's attention for a split second. Will was still a good quarter of a mile away, but even across the distance, Hannibal saw him slow down and gesture sharply. The dogs following in Will's wake settled immediately.

 

Hannibal put on an apologetic expression. “I am not at liberty to discuss the work I do for the FBI.”

 

Freddie's smile turned predatory. “I'm not really interested in the work you do for the FBI, doctor.” With her back turned to the backyard, she didn't notice Will was covering the distance between them in long strides. “You see, I'm writing a book about our mutual friend here. I'd be more than happy to adequately reimburse you for any information you're willing to share about Will Graham.”

 

“A book about Will?” Hannibal raised his eyebrows. “I didn't know there was anything to write about.”

 

She looked at him, her expression turning pensive. There was a gleam in her eyes. “You don't? And here I thought you two were, how shall I put it, romantically linked?”

 

She must have been staking out Hannibal's house longer than just today, to know that. Neither Hannibal nor Will had expressed a desire to keep their relationship hidden – the topic hadn't even come up in conversation – but neither of them was the type to make a public spectacle out of it, either. There had only been chaste welcome and farewell kisses at the front door.

 

“Maybe your little dalliance just hasn't yet reached the stage where it's time for sharing,” Freddie mused. “We could compare notes. Looks like I know more about him than you do.”

 

Before Hannibal could respond to that obvious dig at the state of his relationship with Will, or let Freddie know that she was tiptoeing a dangerous line there, Will reached them. The smile slipped off Freddie's face as she finally heard the approaching footsteps over the hiss of the rain. Turning around, she took a large step away from the man stomping up the three steps onto the porch.

 

Will radiated the same cold, focused fury he'd displayed when facing off against Franklyn, putting a few break lines into Hannibal's stout belief that he hadn't killed the man. He certainly looked capable of murder right now, standing there with the rainwater dripping down his face, his hands in fists at his sides.

 

Freddie attempted to salvage the situation. “Mister Graham! Just the man I was hoping to –”

 

Whereas Hannibal had expected a snarl, perhaps even shouting, Will spoke in a completely even, unemotional tone of voice. “Get the hell off my property or I'll have you arrested.”

 

Freddie opened her eyes dramatically wide. “Arrested? For what?”

 

“Trespassing. I can also add stalking to the list. You keep turning up here uninvited.” Will put a hand in the pocket of the oversized khaki–coloured rain jacket he was wearing. Freddie took another step back, and even Hannibal, who was watching the scene unfold with interest, found himself tensing minutely. However, it was only a cellphone Will pulled out, the plastic cover creaking ominously as he held it in a white–knuckled grip. “If you're not gone in the next minute, I'm calling police.”

 

Freddie dropped the act. “Calm down. Just having a conversation here. Isn't that right, Doctor Lecter?”

 

“Thirty seconds,” Will said.

 

Hannibal rose. If Freddie was hoping he'd come to her aid, she was going to be disappointed. “I believe it's best if you leave, Miss Lounds.” An uninterrupted conversation with her should prove interesting, if there was any truth to her earlier claim of knowing more about Will than he did. At the moment, though, he had to play the part of the considerate lover. “Another time, maybe.”

 

Will and Freddie both shot him hard glances, one full of anger and suspicion, the other pure calculation. With a snippy sigh, Freddie stalked off the porch. She crossed the backyard and headed for the parking lot.

 

Will stared at Hannibal, disbelief clear on his face. “'Another time'? Do you even know who that is?”

 

“I do know. Freddie Lounds.” Hannibal stepped closer. “I think she was here for me, not for you. She followed me from Baltimore and asked for an interview.” Not precisely how their conversation had gone, but he doubted Will and Freddie were going to compare stories. “If I had known she caused you so much trouble, I would have asked her to leave immediately. I am sorry.”

 

Will slumped. He craned his head around, looking to where Hannibal could see Freddie heading down the road away from the farmstead. “You couldn't have known.” The aura of cold menace he'd radiated faded. Will just looked tired and annoyed now. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

 

“Such a warm welcome,” Hannibal chided. “I was waiting for you. Crawford wants me to relay his gratitude to you, for your aid with the Mushroom Monster case. I was in the area, so I decided to drop in. Unfortunately, it did not occur to me to call ahead, to check if you were otherwise engaged. Not that my call would have reached you, seeing that you weren't home.”

 

Will lifted his cellphone. “You could have called this, you know. If it hadn't started to rain, I wouldn't have come home until nightfall.”

 

Despite Will's overall soggy state, Hannibal leaned in and kissed the tip of his nose. “You are worth waiting for.”

 

Will put a hand against Hannibal's chest and gently pushed him away. “Don't. You'll get wet.” He was smiling, though, and dug a keyring out of his pocket. “I'll just call the dogs. Go on inside.”

 

The back door opened directly into the same living room where Hannibal had found Will delirious with fever while his brain slowly cooked inside his skull. The space looked less cluttered now, homelier. Will must have cleaned up, perhaps anticipating that he would entertain a guest here sooner or later. Hannibal took off his jacket and hung it over the back of a chair. From outside, he heard a shrill whistle, followed by distant barks. As much as the dogs were a mismatched pack of strays Will had rescued from ending up as road kill, as he put it, he'd trained them well.

 

Listening to Will talk to his dogs outside, praising them for being such good boys, Hannibal almost overheard the muffled thump coming from somewhere inside the house. Jarred out of his contemplation of the fishing hooks lined up like toy soldiers on the work bench, he listened harder. Not just a thump, but a series of them, irregular and hectic.

 

Another dog? Will tended to talk about his dogs at length if Hannibal didn't steer the conversation at least a little, but he hadn't mentioned any new additions to his pack.

 

The back door opened, admitting Will and said pack. Immediately, the sharp scent of wet dog fur assaulted Hannibal's olfactory senses.

 

“Oh, no, you don't.” Will grabbed the collars of two dogs, who had immediately headed for Hannibal. “Take a seat,” he offered, with a knowing smile. “I'll just be a moment putting this bunch somewhere where they won't drip and shed all over you.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Left to his own devices as Will herded the pack out of the living room, Hannibal took a look at the bookshelves and listened for that odd thumping again. The dogs were making far too much noise to allow him to hear anything but their barks and whines, even if it now sounded as though Will was shooing them all the way to the other side of the house.

 

And then –

 

Thump.

 

Hannibal headed for the doorway. He was not imagining that sound. If it wasn't a dog, it could be something more sinister. A burglar, perhaps, surprised by Hannibal's and then Freddie's arrival outside, now trying to escape through one of the windows. A wild animal could have found its way into the house somehow, not unusual in this corner of the countryside.

 

He moved down the short corridor between living room and kitchen. Wet foot and paw prints on the floor indicated Will had indeed headed for the back of the house. Stopping at the doorway to the kitchen, Hannibal was about to call out to him to alert him to the noise when he saw something in the kitchen that made the words stall on his lips.

 

There on a chair, bound and gagged, sat Tobias Budge.

 

Hannibal stepped into the kitchen. Budge stared at him with dark, angry eyes, sweat on his brow, and jerked forward, causing the chair he sat on to come off its back legs. When the chair came back down, it created the odd thumping sound Hannibal had heard. Tobias wasn't capable of much more movement – he was tied down from ankles to chest, with lengths of rope securing him to his seat.

 

He made a furious, low sound in his throat, staring at Hannibal. His jaws were forced wide open around a large swath of fabric that matched a dish towel hanging from a rack by the stove. The makeshift gag had been tied in place with another length of rope. Tobias jerked forward again, made another, now urgent sound, and pointedly looked down at his bindings, then back up at Hannibal.

 

For perhaps the first time in his life, Hannibal drew a complete blank. What was Tobias Budge doing in Will's house? He took another step into the kitchen and saw Budge's eyes widen. Immediately, he knew he'd made a mistake.

 

Slowly, Hannibal turned around. “Will –”

 

Will stood in the corridor. He was aiming a gun squarely at Hannibal's face. “One wrong move,” he said, cocking the hammer, perfectly calm, “and it's over.”

 

Chapter Text

––

o.6

––

 

“Back up until you're at the counter,” Will ordered, “slowly. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

 

Hannibal complied. He carried a slim folding knife tucked into his sleeve and secured by the band of his watch, but that would be of little use to him at present. A bullet would travel the seven or eight feet of distance between them faster than the knife could even if he threw it, and Will didn't look like he'd give him a chance to try. “Will, please, whatever is going on here -”

 

“Stop,” Will whispered, “just stop. I know what you are. I know who you are.”

 

He wasn't as calm as Hannibal's initial impression had suggested. All the little tell-tale signs were there, from the elevated breathing to the pulse visibly hammering in the side of his throat, to the widened pupils, the erratic gaze. Will was unsettled. Hannibal didn't make the mistake of thinking it was fear. Turning up here at Will's house while he had a guest must have triggered a flight-or-fight response. Will had chosen 'fight'.

 

Hannibal felt unsettled as well. He had been more than ever suspicious of Will's true nature, his intentions, when driving out to Wolf Trap, and still he'd got caught. He should have been on his guard, he should have known better, especially following today's revelations. Finding Tobias Budge in Will's kitchen had thrown him completely off-track.

 

Because really, Budge should not be here. The man was, if not a suspect, at least a person of interest in a murder investigation. Did Will even know about the connection between Budge and Franklyn Froideveaux? Did Will know Franklyn was dead? He must have timed Budge's abduction perfectly, or gotten perfectly lucky; Detective Garner had only just spoken to Budge this morning.

 

Will came into the kitchen, keeping a safe distance between them and taking up a position behind Budge. He was wearing gloves now, Hannibal noticed, black, smooth like a second skin; police gloves, protecting against all kinds of damage. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I already told you. I was in the area. Crawford -”

 

Will made a soft sound. “Stop pretending.”

 

“I assure you -”

 

“Hannibal. Please. I know.”

 

The pleading tone of voice gave Hannibal pause. The emotional anguish was unmistakable. Attempting to keep up the charade could result in snap decisions on Will's part. Hannibal guessed Will hadn't known for long – he would be handling this meeting better if he did; at the very least, he would have set a better trap than letting Hannibal wander into the kitchen and sneaking up behind him with a gun.

 

Which worked perfectly well. Admit it: you wanted to be caught.

 

Hannibal ignored the inner voice. “So do I.” He nodded at Budge. “Was Jesse Taylor your first? Or just the first time you were almost caught?” Watching realisation dawn on Will's face was almost physically painful. Will had always said that he'd tell Hannibal about his past when he was ready; Crawford had taken that choice from him. “Yes, I know. Jack told me today. He came to warn me about you. I didn't believe him. I didn't want to believe him. That's why I'm here.”

 

A muscle in Will's jaw jumped. He smiled, dark and fractured. “To see the crazy that slipped by you?”

 

Hannibal didn't smile back. “To find out if the man who impressed me with cake has been playing me for a fool from the start.”

 

Will laughed, a short, bitter sound. “I wasn't after you when we met. You were supposed to be good.”

 

“I am. Have I done you harm, Will? Have I done anything to deserve this treatment?”

 

“Not yet.” Will's finger tightened around the trigger. The metallic click was abnormally loud. “Consider this a pre-emptive strike.”

 

What a perfectly tangled ball of assumptions, revelations and choices this meeting turned out to be. Will thought Hannibal had been planning to kill him – admittedly not a very far-fetched conclusion. Hannibal had at length considered all the many possibilities to get rid of him, should Will prove himself too dangerous, even prior to this afternoon.

 

Will was dangerous, but Hannibal wasn't interested in getting rid of him any longer. “I would not do that, if I were you. You are not in possession of all the facts.”

 

“What facts? You're here to kill me.”

 

“If I disappear now, you'll be the first person Jack goes after. He already suspects you killed Franklyn Froideveaux.” Will frowned, puzzled. “You met him once, at my office. He was throwing a tantrum at the time.” Hannibal waited a beat. “He was murdered on the night between Thursday and Friday. And though I suspect Tobias here is the culprit, Jack has you in his sights. You should also know that Franklyn and Tobias were friends, and that Baltimore PD interviewed Tobias this morning. His disappearance alone is going to make a lot of people sit up and take notice.”

 

Between them, Budge had gone as still as stone. Will stared down at the man, then back at Hannibal. His eyes were dark. Hannibal saw the doubt, literally saw the gears turn. Irrationally, he wanted to go over and comfort him, tell him it would be all right.

 

It would be. Past the tangled footpaths leading to today's events, Hannibal saw a glimpse of a future he'd scarcely dared imagine now within his reach. Before his inner eye, a teacup lying shattered on the floor, dropped by his own hand, slowly came back together.

 

Patience. It was not fully within his grasp yet.

 

Will lowered the gun a few inches, brought it back up. His fingers flexed around the butt. “Nice story.”

 

“I am doing you a favour, warning you. You should be grateful.”

 

“Should I be grateful for the people you fed me, too?”

 

Budge twitched, staring at Hannibal beseechingly. Hannibal ignored him. The man was dead already, it didn't matter what he heard, what he knew, who he was. If Will didn't kill Budge, Hannibal would – a proper thanks for attempting to send Baltimore's finest on the wrong trail. “They do taste good, don't they?”

 

Silence. The thing Hannibal expected to happen, didn't. Will didn't call him a monster, the devil, sick or depraved. Hannibal hoped it was self-awareness and not speechlessness that kept the words locked behind Will's lips.

 

“Lower the gun,” Hannibal coaxed. “You're trapped, Will. You're welcome to shoot me, of course, and Mister Budge afterwards, if you'd rather try your luck with Crawford than with me. He won't leave any stone unturned, even if you flee to the ends of the earth. He'll find you eventually. No quick exit for the likes of us. They'd want to study you. Observe you. With your history, you'd be sentenced to life in an institution for the criminally insane.”

 

Endless days and nights surrounded by the very same people Will had spent the last eight years, if not more, hunting down. Eventually, the combined brunt of them could overcome whatever safeguards were in place in his mind. He wasn't insane now, but he'd go insane there.

 

Will lowered the gun another inch or so. “Doctor Hannibal Lecter, Chesapeake Ripper. You know what happened when the thought wormed its way into my mind? I thought I was going crazy. You were the first person in a long time that I trusted. For all your odd little habits, you seemed so normal. Safe.”

 

There was an odd undertone in Will's voice. He was teetering on the brink of a decision and could yet fall either way. Hannibal flexed his hand. The handle of the folding knife slid into his palm, the motion hidden by the turn of his body. He kept his hand loosely cupped as he faced Will, keeping the knife ready and hidden from view. “You can still trust me.”

 

Will's gaze hardened. “You want me to dance on the ends of your strings like a puppet. I think I'd rather take my chances with Crawford.”

 

“I don't want to control you.” At least not always. Will was formless now, a diamond in the rough. The beginnings of what he could be were there, requiring careful polishing by an expert to finish. Hannibal expected there would be much resistance along the way, but no masterpiece had ever been completed without the shedding of a few tears or drops of blood. “I am as much trapped in this as you are.”

 

Will scoffed. “Hardly. You hold all the cards.”

 

“Yes.” Hannibal took a slow step forward. If Will didn't relinquish the gun of his own volition, there'd be no other choice but to kill him. Hannibal could work with reluctance, but complete unwillingness contained too many risks. “Let me help you.”

 

For what felt like an age, Will stood undecided. Then he finally lowered the gun. It had not been an easy decision, Hannibal could tell. Leaving his fate in the hands of one of the people Will normally hunted down went against everything he believed set him apart from being one of the monsters, but his survival instinct – or his respect for the lengths Crawford could go to – was stronger.

 

Perhaps there was an element of affection to it, what little remained now that Will knew what Hannibal was. It didn't sound as if 'no strings attached' had worked out very well for him.

 

They could deal with that later. It was more important now to solve the situation at hand so it wouldn't end with Crawford making it his life's mission to make Will a culprit in Franklyn Froideveaux's murder. Hannibal came yet a little closer, until he stood nearly knee to knee with Budge, who remained a living obstacle between them. “Did you kill Franklyn, Tobias?”

 

Budge stared up at him angrily. With the gag in his mouth he could only make muffled sounds, but the sharp nod he gave was confirmation enough. Hannibal looked at him for a moment. He had been curious about Tobias, despite the immediate reserve and dislike that had manifested at their first meeting. He suspected that as far as mindsets went, Tobias and he were more closely matched than Will and he.

 

“I was looking forward to doing that myself.” Hannibal looked at Will. “He's your prize. Do you want to handle him?”

 

Will had taken a step away, frowning. “What are you doing?”

 

“Setting up a scene that will elevate us both beyond doubt. Tobias will come in handy.”

 

“You want to kill him.”

 

“So do you.” Hannibal stepped to Budge's side, resting a heavy hand on his shoulder and ignoring his immediate attempt to lean away, the renewed struggling against the rope. “Jack seems to believe that killing killers is a compulsion for you, or was, in the case of Jesse Taylor. I don't think that's true. Maybe it was in the beginning, before you learned to use your gift instead of letting it use you. You do this,” he patted Budge's shoulder, “because you want it, not because you have to. I'm not going to stop you from doing things you like.”

 

Will took another step back. “Is that how it's going to be? You rooting around inside my head?”

 

“I don't 'root around'. And between the two of us, I'd say you're the expert at getting into someone's head.”

 

“I didn't want to get into yours.”

 

“Then why did you? What made you look?”

 

Will didn't answer. A question for another time, then, although with a mind like Will's it could have been something as simple as 'what if' and not a specific behaviour or incident that gave Hannibal away.

 

“So. You or me?”

 

Will rasped, “You.”

 

Hannibal revealed the knife in his hand. He flicked it around, holding it between two fingers. Will brought the gun back up the moment he saw the knife, cautious. He looked intrigued and worried at the same time. Hannibal felt a small rush of...excitement? The last time he had killed in the presence of someone he didn't plan on killing immediately after lay four decades in the past. It had been an act of revenge and necessary to save a life.

 

Budge began to shout behind the gag, muffled, garbled words; pleas or insults, it didn't matter. Hannibal inspected the rope, pleased to find Will had taken the precaution of applying it over Budge's shirt sleeves and pant legs, not against his skin. There'd be less rope burn to deal with.

 

With a negligent flick of the blade, he cut through Budge's carotid artery. The resulting spurt of blood shot four feet through the air, leaving a large, uneven stain on the kitchen wall. Hannibal inflicted another cut, equally messy, at the base of Budge's throat, where it did little more than flesh damage, and gave him a series of shallow cuts on his forearms and hands.

 

Will had gone a little pale and wide-eyed. “Don't torture him.”

 

Hannibal flicked blood off the blade. “I'm not. I'm simply putting him to good use.” He cut through the rope holding Budge's right arm to the chair, ignoring Will's noise of protest. Budge tried to grab him by the throat, and Hannibal let him. Budge was still strong despite the rapid blood loss. His fingernails dug into Hannibal's throat on either side of his Adam's apple, threatening to crush the delicate cartillage.

 

“Hannibal!” Will shouted.

 

In the enclosed space of the kitchen, the gunshot was deafening. Budge's head jerked to the side. Somewhere a few rooms away, the dogs began to bark frantically, alerted by the noise. For a second, Hannibal thought Will had shot Budge, but a mild rain of plaster from above their heads indicated it had been a warning shot into the ceiling.

 

Out of shock or surprise, Budge's grip had slackened. Hannibal shook him off and quickly stepped away, out of reach of those grasping fingers. Immediately, Budge began to scrabble at the rope keeping his other arm tied to the chair.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Will demanded, furious. “He'll -”

 

Hannibal slid up to him. With a whisper of metal over fabric, the knife slipped into Will's belly. “I told you. I am setting the scene.” He knocked the gun to the side when it came up, grabbing Will by the wrist and twisting brutally. “Sh, now. Just let it happen. It won't hurt long.”

 

Will didn't even scream, just inhaled sharply. With a single, powerful cut, Hannibal opened him up parallel to his belt. The gun clattered to the floor. Will followed after, abdominal muscles no longer in any shape to support him. Hannibal caught him around the middle, pulled the knife free, and guided him down.

 

In those few seconds before shock set in, Will stared up at him, looking so betrayed. He pressed his hands down over the wound and 'went away' – Hannibal could literally see the divorce of mind from body taking place. He leaned down, pressing his lips to Will's temple. “Trust me.”

 

He rose, picking up the gun. It felt foreign, heavy in his hand – guns were not Hannibal's weapon of choice. Too noisy, too easily traced, and much too impersonal. He could understand how for someone like Will, for whom everything was personal after a certain point, a bullet was preferable over a blade.

 

Budge stared at him. He'd nearly managed to free himself; now he sat motionless, tense, sweat rolling down his face, hand pressed over the cut in his throat. Seeing Will go down when it had looked like this would end in Will and Hannibal bonding over his cooling corpse had to be confusing.

 

Hannibal took careful aim at the centre of Budge's brow. “If you had not attempted to indicate me in Franklyn's murder, I might never have come after you. I can be generous, Tobias. I'm not feeling very generous now.”

 

He pulled the trigger. In the back of the house, the dogs started up again.

 

*

 

The ambulances and what looked like all of Wolf Trap's police force arrived in record time. Jack Crawford arrived half an hour later, a tall, imposing figure cutting through the chaos of police officers, paramedics and agitated dogs.

 

Hannibal saw him from where he was sitting on the porch of Will's house, then pretended he hadn't. Two paramedics were fussing over him, inspecting the stab wound in his thigh and the numerous lacerations on his hands and forearms, as well as the dozens of bruises he sported – all of which were self-inflicted except for the ones on his throat, where Budge had grabbed him. Behind Hannibal, in the open back door, stood the very same sheriff who'd arrived with the ambulance the first time Hannibal called them to Will's house, taking notes and coordinating the people swarming around.

 

Crawford stayed on the fringes of the chaos for a while, hands shoved deeply into his pockets, his expression dark. He must have been in the area already to arrive so quickly. Hannibal wasn't worried. Ten feet away from Crawford, coroners were loading Tobias Budge's corpse into the back of a black, unmarked van and with him, any possibility that the story told here would be any other than the one Hannibal wanted to be heard.

 

“You got lucky,” one of the paramedics announced, rising from her crouch by Hannibal's side and stripping off blood-streaked disposable gloves. Incidentally, she was also the same paramedic who had been here the first time. “One inch to the left and the knife would've hit a major artery. You would've bled out before we got here.”

 

Due to the rain, the backyard was too muddy for a gurney. Hannibal let himself be helped up and hobbled off the porch. Halfway to the waiting ambulance, he looked around. “The dogs. Someone -”

 

The sheriff, who had been following them, patted him on the shoulder. “Don't you worry about them. Already called the shelter.”

 

“Thank you.” Hannibal smiled, until his leg went out from under him.

 

“C'mon,” the other paramedic said. “Let's get you somewhere horizontal.”

 

Hannibal actually felt light-headed by the time he sank onto the gurney in the back of the ambulance. He'd lost enough blood to add to Will's and Budge's to make the kitchen look like a slaughterhouse while he moved about and prepared the scene in those few minutes before the cavalry arrived.

 

Crawford slipped into the back of the ambulance just before the female paramedic could close the door, flashing his badge and quelling her muttered protest. He squeezed himself in next to her, looking Hannibal over with narrow-eyed scrutiny. “Tell me what happened.”

 

“Mister Budge attacked us. He was suddenly in the house.” Hannibal gripped the handrail of the gurney as the paramedic cut off his pant leg. “He went for Will first. I didn't even realize what was going on until it was too late. Ah!”

 

The paramedic gave Crawford the evil eye. “Can't this wait?”

 

For the next few minutes, Crawford was a silent, brooding presence. The paramedic laid an IV line, hooking Hannibal up to painkillers. In the process, she discovered a previously overlooked long, bleeding gash hiding under his blood-soaked sleeve. “Christ. That guy really did a number on you. Are you bleeding anywhere else that I should know about?”

 

“I believe this is the worst of it.”

 

Crawford watched her clean the gash with cotton swaps. “Tobias Budge killed Franklyn Froideveaux, tried to make it look as though you're involved in it, and instead of keeping his head down, he comes all the way out here to attack you and Will. Why?”

 

“I don't know.” Hannibal licked at the blood crusting in the corner of his mouth. In addition to the stab wound and the gash to his forearm, as well as several defensive wounds, he'd bruised himself against the door jamb and other pieces of furniture, to give credit to his story of a fight between him and Budge. “I only met Tobias once. I never exchanged more than ten words with him and it was a cordial conversation. He was the friend who accompanied Franklyn to my house.”

 

Crawford's gaze was searching and troubled. “How did he even know where Will lives?”

 

Hannibal shrugged, then hissed as the ambulance went over a pothole, jostling him. “I don't know,” he repeated. “He may have followed me. He may have followed Will. I can only guess at this point, but Tobias may have been jealous of Franklyn's...interest in me. He may have intended to go after Will to punish me, and by chance ran across us both.”

 

“He cut Will open. He stabbed you.”

 

Hannibal swallowed. “Yes.”

 

“You killed him. In self-defence.”

 

“We were fighting. Will was already...he was already on the floor. The next thing I remember is that I was holding the gun.” The ambulance rumbled over another pothole. “Jack, I'm sorry, but we'll have to talk later. I can barely – I'm so worried about Will -”

 

The paramedic was all but staring daggers at Crawford now. He sat back, making room. “Of course.”

 

Hannibal lay back. He stared at nothing for a while. “Human mathematics, Jack. All those ugly variables. Tobias may have simply snapped.”

 

And with Tobias Budge dead, there was no way to prove otherwise.

 

“This doesn't feel simple to me.” Crawford was silent for the rest of the way.

 

*

 

No way to prove otherwise – unless, of course, Will woke up after surgery and ended up getting the completely wrong idea. Making sure that he didn't proved harder than Hannibal had anticipated. The staff at Wolf Trap's hospital were completely immune to his charm and, since at this point everyone thought Will and Hannibal were the survivors of a crazed axe murderer's killing spree, sat on him in a well-meant attempt to make him feel safe.

 

It took Hannibal two days to find out what floor Will was kept on. By that time, hospital security had their hands full keeping inquisitive reporters from trying to sneak into Hannibal's room. Freddie Lounds got the closest. It was Crawford who caught her with her hand literally on the door handle, a camera hidden in the pocket of the nurse's outfit she'd 'borrowed'.

 

“It's not obstruction of justice,” Freddie argued, flanked by two unamused-looking security guards, “and you got no right to do that.”

 

Crawford kept looking through the pictures on Freddie's camera. Hannibal watched him. Whatever Crawford saw made him grind his jaw. “Jack?”

 

Crawford turned the camera so Hannibal could see the small screen on the back. It was a picture of Will, showing him prone in a hospital bed, tubes going everywhere, a thick, white bandage bisecting him.

 

“Get her out of here,” Crawford ordered.

 

“I'd like my camera back!” Freddie said loudly. “It's my private property.”

 

“And this is an invasion of privacy.” Crawford pointed at the door. “Out.” The security guards dragged her out. Freddie kept arguing; Hannibal could hear her even through the closed door. Crawford looked at the camera in his hand. “Think Will wants to sue?”

 

“I'll certainly advise him to.”

 

Crawford shot him a look. “You're angry.”

 

It wasn't anger, it was jealousy. Freddie had managed what Hannibal hadn't, so far: she'd gotten to Will's room. “So would you be, were it your wife in that hospital bed.”

 

“You're not married to Will.” Crawford took a seat. “I was surprised to find you there, at his house.”

 

“Surprised?”

 

“After what we talked about.”

 

“Are you trying to alienate me from Will?”

 

Crawford looked perplexed for a moment, then caught. Then he looked away. “We found some pretty disturbing things in the basement of Budge's music store. Yards and yards of guts. Human guts. There's evidence that suggests he was using it to string his instruments. He sold those instruments. He gave music lessons to children with those instruments.”

 

Creative, Hannibal had to admit. Budge had certainly been a level above all the other unimaginative butchers lining the streets. “So you think this is another case of Will getting too close to a killer. Tobias nearly gutted him. If I hadn't decided to visit when I did, if I'd set out an hour later or gotten stuck in traffic, he would have succeeded, and it is entirely possible that Tobias would have come after me, next.”

 

“I know, I know.” Crawford rubbed a hand over his face, looking tired. “Wolf Trap PD is handling this as an open and shut case.”

 

“And you?”

 

Sinking back into the chair, Crawford shrugged. “We're looking into the angle that it was Budge who killed your patient. I'm keeping myself open to other options.”

 

Which was a roundabout way of stating that although Budge was now the prime suspect in Franklyn's murder, Crawford wasn't going to change his mind about Will. Hannibal hadn't expected him to. He wanted Crawford to stick around, both as a friend to keep the doors of the FBI open to Hannibal, and to keep Will in line. What happened after Will had settled...

 

“I should get going,” Crawford announced, rising. “Got a new case and some people higher up the ladder are getting a bit antsy.”

 

“I'm afraid I won't be of any use to you this time, Jack.”

 

“That's all right. You take it easy.” Crawford put his hat on a little more forcefully than was necessary. Outside the door, Freddie was still arguing. “I'll check in on you later.”

 

*

 

Will's room lay at the end of a corridor on the second floor. Hannibal shuffled up and down said corridor for twenty minutes, blending in with the other patients and the hospital staff, using the crutches he had been given. At a moment when every nurse and doctor on the floor suddenly headed toward a blinking light above a door on the other end of the corridor, he slipped into Will's room.

 

The combined smells of blood, sweat and injury hit before he'd fully closed the door, dispelling déjà vu. This was worse than that Will had smelled like during the height of his encephalitis infection. He was the only occupant of the room, looking small and pale in the massive hospital bed. Blinking monitors surrounded him. Flat on his back, the blanket tucked around his hips, he looked exactly like the picture Freddie had taken.

 

He was asleep.

 

Crutches leaned against the wall, Hannibal slowly sat on the edge of the bed, taking care not to trap or tangle up the urinal and other fluid drains leading from under the blanket to translucent bags. The nurse Hannibal had finally persuaded to share Will's whereabouts had revealed he'd been in the ICU for two days – which probably had more to do with Wolf Trap's tight-knit community wanting to take care of one of their own than the extent of Will's injuries. Hannibal knew how to cut.

 

He took a look at the clipboard containing Will's patient notes nevertheless. Abdominal muscle damage, which they'd repaired. Severe blood loss, dealt with via transfusions. Due to the low placement of the cut, no internal organs had been injured, but they'd had to surgically remove a length of bowel.

 

The overall prognosis was positive. Hannibal had expected nothing less. He leaned down. “Will.” From up close, the smell was visceral and overwhelming. Closing his eyes, he searched for the distinct aroma he'd come to associate with Will, that warm scent, a summation of the scents of his home, cooking and musk. It was almost gone, buried under harsh disinfectants, clinical soap and blood. “Will.”

 

The heart rate monitor spiked. Hannibal sat back up, careful not to jostle the prone man. Will's eyes opened to slits, showing bloodshot whites and lashes crusted with rheum. At first, he watched Hannibal's movement with a sluggishness that suggested he wasn't 'all there' – not surprising in his state. Then his eyes widened and the heart rate monitor spiked again.

 

“You're in the hospital.” Hannibal kept his voice at a low murmur. “Jack thinks Budge came after us both in your house. It would be unwise to make him think otherwise.”

 

Will's heart rate steadied, still faster than it had been, not fast enough to be a cause for concern or for a nurse to come running. “You cut me open.” His voice was weak and breathy but full of ire.

 

As lightly as possible, Hannibal rested his palm over the bandage around Will's middle and watched his hands curl into fists in the blanket. “It was necessary.” He was not going to apologize for that. “How do you feel?”

 

Will glowered at him. “Like this was only the first cut of many.”

 

Hannibal smiled. “You'll heal.” He brushed the backs of his fingers through the curls straggling over Will's brow.

 

Will jerked his head to the side. “Get out.”

 

Not one to overstay his welcome and with his main objective accomplished, Hannibal rose. “Jack is investigating Tobias Budge as we speak. When you're mended, I'd love to hear how you ran across him...how you run across any of them.”

 

Will kept his head turned. “Get out,” he repeated.

 

On his way to the crutches he'd left leaning against the wall, Hannibal patted Will's foot. “Remember, darling, officially we're still in a relationship.”

 

This time, Will's heart rate shot through the roof.

 

*

 

The hospital released Hannibal the following Friday, almost a full week after the 'horrible attack on renowned Baltimore psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and his partner, retired FBI agent Will Graham'. Somehow – not that Hannibal was surprised – Freddie Lounds had found out about the connection between Franklyn Froideveaux and Tobias Budge. Her article on Tattlecrime.com read like a gay bodice ripper novel gone wrong; she dropped hints about Will's past as a criminal profiler and touched on the work Hannibal did for Jack. The story was accompanied by a picture of Will's kitchen, colour-enhanced to bring out the dried blood.

 

Saturday's follow-up article featured pictures of Tobias Budge's basement and made public the fact that Budge had been using human gut to string the instruments he sold and looked after. The result was a slew of frantic customers turning up at the FBI to hand in their cellos and violins.

 

But it was the third article, posted on Monday, that had the greatest public impact. Although Franklyn's head had been found at Roosevelt Park, the rest of him still remained missing. Find Franklyn turned into an overnight obsession that gripped hobby detectives and crime buffs from all over the country. People assumed that because his head had been found in such a prominent location the rest would turn up in a similar fashion, and everyone wanted to be the one who found it.

 

Two days after Freddie posted the article, the police were busier pulling people out of drainpipes and chasing them off of private property than continuing their own search. In death, Franklyn gained more friends and public recognition than he ever had in life. Hannibal believed the posthumous fame would have pleased him.

 

*

 

Five weeks later, Will was released from the hospital.

 

Hannibal almost missed it. If weekly trips to Wolf Trap and a few carefully placed snack plates in the staff lounge hadn't endeared him to the nurses and doctors, he would have. Will was doing his best to ensure that what they'd had was over and that Hannibal knew it: his every-three-days visits over the previous weeks had been marked by dead-end conversations and a dismissive behaviour Hannibal had seen a thousand times before from his patients. Will's mental slamming shut of the hatches was self-preservation in its finest form and exactly the reaction he'd expected.

 

A well-meaning nurse called the office, informing Hannibal that he could take his 'boyfriend' home today. He arrived at the hospital just in time to watch Will finish dressing. The grey morning light did him no favours: Will looked haggard, thinner, sharper somehow, as if the events at his house had ripped off an entire layer and left behind only the bare bones of the man Hannibal had known.

 

Will acquitted Hannibal's arrival with a dark sideways glance. “Here to give me a ride? I was going to call a cab.”

 

A cab that would spit him out at his lonely little farmstead, no doubt. Hannibal took up a position by the door, hands clasped in front. After weeks of starting one-sided conversations, Will's initiative came as a pleasant, if probably short-lived change. “What kind of partner would I be, to leave you to fend for yourself?”

 

“We are not partners. We're not even friends.” Will shoved an arm into his jacket, wincing and reaching for his midsection. Sudden, forceful motions and heavy lifting, the doctors had explained to Hannibal, would be a problem for a foreseeable time. “The light from friendship won't reach us for a million years, that's how far away from friendship we are.”

 

Apparently, the time for silently glowering at the ceiling was over. Hannibal chuckled. “For the sake of both our safety, I suggest you pretend otherwise when we're in public. Jack no longer considers you a suspect in the murder of Franklyn Froideveaux, but he is still very suspicious of you. I doubt that will ever change.”

 

Will scoffed. “Isn't that exactly what you want? Crawford hanging over my head like a dark cloud to make sure I toe the line?”

 

“For a while, yes.”

 

The blunt admission gained Hannibal a disgusted glare. Will grabbed the small plastic bag containing the few personal items that had kept him company throughout his stay at the hospital. “What are you hoping to get out of this? A handy scapegoat for when things go pear-shaped?”

 

“I'm curious about you. I can't very well satisfy that curiosity while you're sitting in a high-security prison somewhere, or while you're rotting away in an asylum, floating on a cloud of mind-altering drugs.”

 

Depending on what sort of therapists he'd ended up with during his FBI days, it was more than likely that Will already had ample experience with medication. It would have been interesting to observe him in such a state, when he had little to no control over his mental faculties.

 

Will stared at him. “You want to study me.” He spit the word out like it was poison.

 

“I want to help you understand who you are.”

 

“I know who I am.”

 

And you could be so much more. Hannibal gestured at the door. “Shall we?”

 

Will pinched the bridge of his nose, shoulders sagging. “Are the reporters still camped out in the lobby?”

 

Hannibal opened the door. “I did not see anyone,” he lied. Although the interest in Tobias Budge and his 'victims' was already waning, a dozen or so die-hards were still camped downstairs, hoping to catch a picture of Will's and Hannibal's first public appearance post-axe-murderer.

 

A few nurses and doctors wished them well as they made their way to the elevators, side by side as everyone expected them to. The silence in the carriage was thick and oppressive, tense.

 

The doors opened on the ground floor. Will stopped dead when he saw the small crowd immediately heading for them. He shot Hannibal a dirty look, then pasted on a smile so fake it bordered on a maniac's grin, slipping his hand into Hannibal's and leaning in. Cameras flashed. Hannibal wasn't that much taller than Will, but he leaned down accommodatingly.

 

“Lead the way, honey,” Will whispered into his ear.

 

The words had a definite ring of 'I'll get you for this' to them.

 

Chapter Text

––

o.7

––

 

Sharks in a feeding frenzy had nothing on a dozen reporters trying to get their scoop. Hannibal and Will didn't even get across half of the lobby before they were surrounded by a wall of bodies armed with microphones and cameras. Questions flew, hard and fast: how did it feel to be released from the hospital? Where were they going to go now? Would Will, as a former FBI agent, pick up his old job for a while and help unravel the mess Tobias Budge had left behind?

 

One reporter, a fit young man with a crew cut, planted himself squarely in their path. “Any comment on the rumours that you two and Budge were in a relationship that went sour?”

 

The blunt question caused a few rolled eyes and groans from the crowd. That particular rumour had run its course a while ago, fizzling out in the wake of Freddie Lounds' article detailing the connection between Tobias Budge and Franklyn Froideveaux. Even the worst of the gossip rags had moved on to Find Franklyn and the ramifications of the contents of Budge's basement.

 

Will stared at the reporter for a moment. His hand had tightened around Hannibal's to the point of grinding bone on bone; now his grip slackened and he sighed tiredly, turning to Hannibal with slumped shoulders. “Let's go home.”

 

Hannibal wrapped an arm around his waist. “Of course.”

 

He was mildly impressed. Recent media coverage depicted Will as a recluse, a burn–out slowly finding his way back into the world with the help and tender, loving care of one of Baltimore's best psychiatrists. There had been several articles detailing the personal horrors profilers carried home from their jobs, how those cases stayed with you and crept into your nightmares. Will was certainly acting the part of the damaged ex–FBI agent now, burrowing into Hannibal's side as if he was looking for protection against the big, bad world. This wasn't the same man who, just minutes ago, had looked at Hannibal as if he was thinking about the best place to hide the body.

 

Reluctantly, slowly, the reporters made way for them. They weren't happy to let their quarry slip away, but Will's beaten–down demeanour had changed the mood of the situation. Even the young man with the crew cut looked embarrassed. It was crowd manipulation at its finest and a testament of Will's ability to act when the situation required it.

 

“You're a good actor,” Hannibal commented once they'd made it to the Bentley and were rolling toward the exit of the parking lot.

 

Will reclined in the seat, eyes shut. He'd buckled himself in but kept a hand between the seatbelt and his belly, and Hannibal was marginally certain that the fatigue on display wasn't another act. “Just drive.”

 

Hannibal turned up the heat and switched on the music, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, Adagietto. Will didn't speak again until they reached Wolf Trap's city limits, when Hannibal signalled a left turn when he should have signalled a right.

 

“This isn't the way to my house.”

 

Smoothly, Hannibal threaded the Bentley into the traffic on the interstate. “Your house is in no state to be accommodating.” No one had gone to clean up. The kitchen still looked like a slaughterhouse, dried and flaking stains on the floor and walls. “You'll stay with me for a few days.”

 

Will didn't ask how Hannibal knew about the state of his house, just fell into silence again. If he suspected that in recent days a new key had found its way into Hannibal's possession, he didn't mention it. He didn't mention his dogs, either, which was perhaps the best indicator of Will's current state of mind and a clear warning sign. He was brooding, discontent with the circumstances Hannibal had forced him into.

 

They arrived in Baltimore just in time to be swept up in the last waves of the midday rush hour. Traffic slowed to a crawl. “I harbour no intentions to harm you, Will.”

 

“You want to keep me. Like a pet.”

 

“No. I meant what I said. I want to help you understand who you are.”

 

“And I meant what I said. I know who I am.”

 

Hannibal could only see a faint hint of Will's reflection in the side window. “You could be more.”

 

“More like you, less like me?” Will rolled his head against the headrest, looking over. He was pale. After weeks of lying around and doing practically nothing while he mended, the confrontation with the reporters and the trip to the car seemed to have exhausted him. “I'd make a poor Chesapeake Ripper.”

 

The Chesapeake Ripper was only a sliver of the whole that was Hannibal Lecter. While it would be relatively easy to guide someone to become a passable imitation, Hannibal had no interest in creating a copy of himself. If he wanted a reflection of that part of his person, all he had to do was look at a mirror.

 

Will had already looked at his own mirror. Whether he'd fallen through the looking glass eight years ago or long before that didn't matter; when he'd sunk too deeply, something behind the glass had lashed out in self–preservation. It was that creature Hannibal wanted. That thing was unalloyed, untainted, free – it didn't care for justice or morality. Hannibal could sense its presence, a tantalizing shadow just on the edge of his awareness.

 

The red light they were waiting at turned green. Hannibal pulled into Chandler Square, noting the cars that didn't belong, the cameras behind car windows, pointed at his house. Baltimore PD patrolled the area regularly now after repeated calls from irate residents about the unwanted press presence. Twice, Hannibal had called the police himself to escort all too curious reporters off of his property. There wouldn't be a repeat scene of a crowd accosting him and Will.

 

Will slowly took off his jacket once they were inside, the plastic bag with his belongings at his feet. “I'm tired.”

 

“I'll set up the guest bedroom. It will only take a few minutes.” Hannibal hung up his coat. “Are you hungry?”

 

“No.”

 

“Is that a general no, or a no specifically aimed at my cooking?”

 

Will toed off his shoes. He stared down at them. The tan leather was marred by dark splotches that had dried to a rusty maroon. “Both.”

 

Hannibal left him to it, marginally certain that Will wouldn't take the next best opportunity to run. Upstairs, he opened the windows in the guest bedroom and turned down the covers. Alerted by a soft footfall, he looked over his shoulder. Will stood in the doorway, watching him with a blank expression, one arm over his belly, plastic bag dangling from his fingers.

 

“This was all just a way to pass the time for you, wasn't it?” Will nodded at the bed, the implication clear. “It was never a matter of if you were going to kill me, but when.”

 

“I don't kill everyone who crosses my path.”

 

“Only the rude ones.”

 

“You were very rude to me on several occasions, and you are alive.” Hannibal fluffed a pillow. “For quite a while, I thought you were trying to set me up. You're still alive.” A crease appeared between Will's eyebrows. Hannibal went around the bed to shut the windows again. “It all fit a little too well. We run into each other. Jack Crawford invites me to consult on FBI cases, and later I learn you are a retired FBI agent – and not just that. A profiler.”

 

“I told you, I wasn't after you when we met.”

 

“I didn't keep my freedom for so long by being careless, Will.”

 

“And yet you agreed to consult for the FBI.” Will cocked his head, the tip of his tongue appearing between his lips. “You like to prove to yourself how clever you are. It's classic narcissistic behaviour. God complex. It gives you a sense of power to surround yourself with people who could figure you out because it's what they do for a living. That's the only reason we ever ended up here. You wanted to see how far you could take it.”

 

“Don't sell yourself short. I am fond of you.” Hannibal lowered the blinds. “Isn't it a little late to profile me now?”

 

“I think my life and sanity depend on it.”

 

“I'd prefer that you keep your sanity. As for your life...I could have easily let you bleed out and later claimed Tobias did it.” Something was niggling at the back of Hannibal's mind. Will seemed to be angry at a specific part of their interactions. It wasn't the cannibalism, which was surprising as Hannibal had expected that to raise the most ire; it wasn't the fact that Hannibal was the Chesapeake Ripper – a serial killer – either.

 

Will shifted from foot to foot. “Why didn't you?”

 

There it was again, that anguish. Hannibal had a sudden epiphany, or rather, confirmation of an earlier suspicion. “I could ask you the same question. Why didn't you pull the trigger if you thought I had come to kill you? You're good, Will. You don't make mistakes. Why engage me in a conversation if you were so sure about who I am and my intentions?”

 

Will only needed a second to control his expression. “Because I was hoping it wasn't true.” He sidestepped, giving Hannibal a wide berth. “And I think we're done with this conversation now.”

 

A topic for later, then. “As you wish.” Stopping in the doorway, Hannibal pulled the key from the lock, displaying it and setting it down on the commode next to the door inside the bedroom. “You're not my prisoner, Will. Please do join me whenever you feel like it. Or don't. The choice is yours.”

 

*

 

Twice during the afternoon and early evening, Hannibal went upstairs on socked feet. Will hadn't shut the door, leaving it open an inch. The second time, Hannibal put his fingertips against it and eased it open. The days were getting noticeably shorter now, but there was still enough light in the room to clearly see the occupant of the bed. Will wasn't sleeping peacefully. He wasn't struggling in the grip of nightmares, either, yet the sheet had come untucked from a lower corner of the mattress and the covers were a tangle around his legs. He hadn't even bothered to undress, only taken off his belt, now a dark roll of leather on the night–stand.

 

From his vantage point, Hannibal could glimpse skin between the waistband of Will's trousers and the combined bottom hems of his frayed sweater and the T–shirt he wore underneath. Only a bit of the scar was visible, a thick dark caterpillar against Will's lower belly.

 

Hannibal eased the door back into its precise position and returned downstairs. He wanted to see all of that scar, touch it. It was his handiwork, his permanent mark. Regardless of what the future brought, Will would carry it for the rest of his life.

 

A satisfying thought.

 

Possessiveness was not a new experience. Hannibal craved and coveted like everyone else – more, perhaps, because he knew what it meant to lose the things that meant the most.

 

*

 

The evening brought snow and a visitor.

 

Hannibal was setting out ingredients for a slightly edited version of Carciofi alla romana when the doorbell rang. Expecting to find Jack on his doorstep, he was pleasantly surprised to see Alana Bloom. She carried a wicker basket covered with paisley–patterned cloth. Snowflakes clung to her dark hair and her cheeks were ruddy from the cold. “Hello, Hannibal.”

 

He ushered her inside, took her coat and shawl and hung them up. “You have excellent timing, as always. I was about to prepare one of my favourite dishes. You're staying for dinner, of course.”

 

Alana smiled. “How could I resist?”

 

There had been some mild flirtations between them during Alana's residency at Johns Hopkins. Nothing had ever come of it. They'd stayed in touch, growing from mentor and pupil into respected colleagues who worked in the same field. She had attended a few of Hannibal's dinner parties over the years and they had recently started talking more often again, following his involvement with Jack Crawford and the FBI.

 

Alana brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Will isn't here?”

 

“He is upstairs, asleep.” Hannibal lead her into the kitchen.

 

She put the basket on a counter and lifted the cloth. A fat pineapple lay tastefully arranged amid star fruit, grapes and a bottle of Hannibal's favourite red wine. “He used to really like grapes. Not sure if he still does.”

 

Will had never been a topic of conversation between them, not even post–Budge. It had never even occurred to Hannibal that Will and Alana would know each other personally. “I didn't know you and Will are friends.”

 

“We're not. We never were.” Alana's sometimes blunt straightforwardness was one of her qualities Hannibal appreciated. “It would be more accurate to say he considered me a mortal enemy for the few weeks that I did know him.” She poked the basket. “This is my peace offering. Eight years too late, but better late than never.”

 

Things clicked into place. Alana had been teaching at Quantico and consulting with the BAU for almost ten years now. She held a doctorate in psychology. She would have been Crawford's first choice of therapist for a mentally unstable profiler.

 

“I'm sure he'll appreciate it.” Hannibal was certain Will wouldn't appreciate it. If they hadn't seen each other in eight years and parted as 'mortal enemies', her appearance now would only seem like another cog in the machinery he perceived Hannibal had set into motion to keep him tethered, tame. “I can't promise he'll attend dinner, though. He wasn't feeling very well earlier.”

 

Alana winced. “I can imagine. Will's release from the hospital was on the afternoon news. I didn't see it, but practically everyone at work was talking about it. I think I would have punched that reporter in the face.”

 

Hannibal donned his apron and selected a knife. “I was considering it.” They laughed. “Oh, forgive me. I've been terribly rude and haven't offered you a drink.”

 

“I appreciate beer more than wine.”

 

“It's not what you appreciate, it's that you appreciate it.” Hannibal opened the fridge and pulled out a dark bottle. “A compromise? Beer brewed in a wine barrel.”

 

Alana sipped her beer. Hannibal spread the fleshy leaves of the artichokes with his fingers until the inner core was revealed, held one to his nose to sample the nutty scent. They were imported, bigger than what could be bought at generic food stores. Expertly, he cut out the choke, then lined the artichokes up in a pressure cooker with water, olive oil and white wine.

 

He chopped garlic and onions, seasoned ground beef with pepper and salt, broke an egg into the mix and kneaded it thoroughly in a large bowl, then added a breadcrumb mixture he'd roasted himself. Conversation mostly revolved around the latest case Alana was working on for Crawford. They were in the middle of a discussion about nature versus nurture – the case involved a group of young boys abducted from their homes returning to annihilate their families – when Will appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.

 

“Will,” Alana greeted him, just a touch of warmth in her voice. “Long time no see.”

 

Owlishly, he stared at her. “Alana.” He didn't look well–rested. His clothes were crumpled and his hair was a mess, flat on one side. “Uh. Hi.”

 

Hannibal cleaned his hands on a dish rag. “Doctor Bloom is joining us for dinner tonight. How are you feeling?”

 

Will crossed the threshold, looking from Alana to Hannibal to the basket on the counter, to the ingredients spread out. “I need a shower. Can you lend me some clothes?”

 

“Of course. Excuse us for a minute, please.”

 

Alana nodded. “I'll keep an eye on the pots. Make sure the artichokes don't run away.”

 

Upstairs in the master bedroom, Hannibal selected a petrol–coloured sweater and matching pants. Will leaned in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. “Crawford sent her.”

 

Hannibal clucked his tongue. “I knew Alana long before I ever made the acquaintance of Jack Crawford. Or yours, for that matter. We're friends and colleagues. Be courteous, please.” Clothes over one arm, he joined Will at the door. “She said you parted as mortal enemies.”

 

Will scrubbed a hand through his hair, down over his face. “She recommended my resignation from active field duty. Two sessions and she wanted me to quit my job.”

 

One of Alana's fields of study was mental trauma. Eight years ago, Will must have raised every red flag possible for her. She was driven and not shy of administering 'tough love' if she thought it benefited her patients. “Was she so wrong?”

 

Will didn't answer.

 

“Give her a chance,” Hannibal suggested. “I doubt Jack sent her – quite frankly, I doubt Alana would allow him to send her anywhere.”

 

“I really have no interest whatsoever in reviving old acquaintances. I cut my ties with these people on purpose.”

 

“Maybe you shouldn't have.”

 

“Meaning what?”

 

“Cutting all ties with your former acquaintances could be constructed as an admission of guilt. Of running.”

 

Will snorted. “Or an indication that I was really, really sick of everyone assuming they knew what's best for me.”

 

Hannibal handed him the clothes. “All I'm saying is, with Jack's revived interest in you, battening down the hatches might be the wrong way to go about bolstering your reputation.”

 

“I don't care about my reputation.”

 

“You should. A good reputation can be a powerful thing, and friends in powerful places are even better.”

 

Will headed for the bathroom. “I have you on my side. Shouldn't that be enough?”

 

Taking the biting sarcasm of that statement in stride, Hannibal returned to the kitchen. “I apologize.”

 

“It's all right.” Alana waved at the pressure cooker. “That little red thing came out, so I took it off the heat.”

 

“Thank you.” Opening the pot, Hannibal lifted out the artichokes and arranged them on a plate. The cooking water would make the base for the sauce. He set a pan on high heat and began to brown the meat.

 

Alana watched him. “Maybe I shouldn't have come. He didn't look very happy to see me.”

 

Distantly, Hannibal could hear the water going through the pipes of his house. “Give him some time.”

 

“I did. Eight years.” She drained her glass, nodding thanks when Hannibal moved to refill it. “I'm glad he's with you now. He needs someone he can trust.”

 

Again. Trust. Hannibal stirred the meat. “I take it he didn't trust you.” Alana looked conflicted. “I don't mean to pry. Doctor–patient confidentiality extends past the duration of therapy.”

 

Alana made a disparaging sound. “I'm not sure there's still anything left for me to be confidential about. Jack told me he told you about the Jesse Taylor case.”

 

“He did.”

 

“He shouldn't have. That was for Will to tell, not for him.”

 

“He did it because I thought I needed to know. He was worried for my safety.”

 

That appeared to anger her. “He's as obsessed with Will as he is with the Chesapeake Ripper, and...” She trailed off, drawing a face.

 

“It affects his judgement?”

 

She nodded.

 

“You don't believe Will killed Jesse Taylor?”

 

Alana picked her words carefully. “I believe Will didn't know when to stop, and having someone like Jack Crawford alternately push and pull you along did him no favours. Jack can be...single–minded when it comes to solving cases. I don't know if Will killed anyone. I do know that the odds were stacked against him.” She hesitated. “They still are.”

 

Hannibal had known Crawford wasn't just going to drop his suspicions. The FBI's forensic team had gone over Will's house and the kitchen in particular with a fine–tooth comb and come to the conclusion Hannibal had been aiming for: bad fight. Crawford wasn't satisfied with that.

 

He set the cooking water to boil so it would reduce. “My main concern now is to make sure Will continues healing, both body and mind.”

 

“You both need to heal. You killed someone, Hannibal.”

 

If only she knew. Hannibal nodded, appearing pensive. “I am dealing with it. Knowing that I saved Will's life doing so helps.”

 

She reached across the counter and squeezed his hand. “If you ever need to talk, you know where to find me.”

 

“Thank you. I appreciate it.”

 

Alana insisted on setting the table while Hannibal finished preparing dinner. He was listening to her bustling about in the dining room when Will re–entered the kitchen, barefoot and clad in the clothes Hannibal had given him. “Still not hungry?”

 

On cue, Will's stomach gurgled angrily. He stopped, slowly closing his eyes while his hands curled into fists. “Where's Alana?”

 

“Setting the table.” Hannibal made an inviting gesture. “Dinner is almost ready. Carciofi. Artichokes, ground beef, marinade.”

 

Reluctantly, Will came closer. “I'm not sure I can stomach that.”

 

Hannibal showed him the empty ground beef packaging. “You could try. Or don't you like artichokes?”

 

With Alana moving about in the next room, they could hardly start a discussion about the meat Hannibal liked to serve his guests. Will huffed, shaking his head. He leaned against the counter next to Hannibal and eyeballed the artichokes now simmering in the sauce. “I like them well enough.”

 

“I'm happy to hear that.”

 

Will slid into the narrow space between Hannibal and the counter. He lowered his voice. “Let's get something out of the way before it turns into an obsession. Touch it.”

 

“Touch –”

 

“The scar. I know you want to.”

 

Hannibal had already lifted a hand to the hem of the sweater before he caught himself doing so. He studied Will closely, trying to gauge his intentions. If this was an attempt at manipulation, there was nothing Will could gain from it. Except –

 

Someone cleared their throat. Alana stood in the doorway, looking slightly embarrassed. “Sorry to interrupt.” She pointed over her shoulder. “I found everything except the napkins. Help?”

 

Will stepped away from Hannibal as though nothing had happened. “I'll show you.”

 

*

 

Conversation during dinner was less stilted than Hannibal expected. Whatever Alana and Will had talked about while looking for the napkins, it had put them both at ease – not to the point where they were acting as if they'd suddenly rediscovered a connection that had never existed between them in the first place. Rather, what Hannibal observed was the careful feeling out of boundaries.

 

Will seemed to have taken Hannibal's advice about his reputation to heart. Alana was well–known and liked in Baltimore's psychiatric community; more importantly, she was known for not mincing her words when it came to telling Jack Crawford he was wrong about something. Having her on their side, within moderation of course, would benefit Hannibal and Will both.

 

Dinner was rounded up by scoops of ice cream garnished with some of the star fruit and pineapple from Alana's gift basket, extra grapes for Will. Finally, Alana made a little sound of regret. “I have a long day tomorrow. I should get going, much as I don't want to. Hannibal, a superb meal, as always.”

 

Will wished her a good night. When Hannibal returned from seeing her to the door, he still sat at the dining table, a distant look in his eyes. Hannibal stacked their plates. “Are you applying yourself to my way of thinking, Will?”

 

“Your way of thinking is...” Will's eyes slipped shut for a moment. “Poison. Do you think you can change me? It won't work. I've had a thousand killers in here already.” He tapped the side of his head. “You're not going to be the one that drags me under.”

 

“I don't intent to.” There was nothing to change, only to perfect.

 

“Previous conversations indicate otherwise. This entire situation indicates otherwise. Do you know what capture bonding is?”

 

Capture bonding was an essential survival tool. Captives bonded with their captors in order to survive, adopted their way of thinking, adapted to the new situation. Based on evolutionary psychology, it was sometimes used to explain Stockholm Syndrome. “Do you think this is what I'm doing?”

 

“Isn't it?” Will challenged.

 

The dishes could wait. Hannibal stood at the head of the table, hand on the back of his chair. “I'm curious. You kill killers. How do you justify your actions?”

 

“The world is a better place without them.”

 

“Then by that logic, you should put the gun to your own head.”

 

Will flinched. “It's not the same.”

 

“Because they are bad people?” Hannibal shrugged. “Who made you judge, jury and executioner? That's a role you picked for yourself. Deep down, you enjoy what you're doing.”

 

“I don't –”

 

“You looked rather excited when I turned the knife on Tobias Budge.”

 

Will rose, pushing the chair back. The abrupt movement visibly hurt him. He hissed out a breath, turning an angry glare on Hannibal. “I'll be just as excited when I finally get to use a knife on you.”

 

“Because by your definition I'm a bad person? I've never killed anyone who didn't deserve it, just like you.” Or when he quickly needed something for the dinner table, but Hannibal wasn't going to start nitpicking now. “Why are you so angry, really? I think it has nothing to do with me being the Chesapeake Ripper. You're good at catching monsters because you are one of them, and you know it. This is about trust.”

 

Will looked as if Hannibal had cut him open all over again.

 

“Trust is difficult for you.” Hannibal reached out, letting his fingertips drag over the soft wool of the sweater, a barely–there touch ghosting along the scar under it. “All those people who turned their backs on you when you finally started following your true calling, all those disappointed, doubting looks, the whispered rumours. Jack even left a scar on you – the ultimate mark of how little he trusted you in the end. Now I've left one, too.”

 

“You're worse than Crawford. You were playing with me,” Will gritted out. “Right from the start.”

 

“So were you, with me. I'm a psychiatrist, Will. Figuring out motives and causes and understanding what drives a person to do the things they do is literally in my job description, as much as it was in yours. Observing is what we do. Don't you think I would have noticed eventually that you were hiding a rather important part of yourself from me?” Hannibal turned his hand, fingertips slipping under the hem of the sweater. “What were your plans, had that occurred?”

 

No answer. Hannibal hadn't expected one. Will's belly caved under the first contact of fingers against skin, muscles dancing against Hannibal's palm. Keeping the touch light, Hannibal catalogued the difference in texture, smooth skin, smoother scar, raised line against flatness. He was incredibly aware of the tension that kept Will rooted to the spot, tight like a coiled spring. Now that they were bared to each other, this felt more intimate than the sex they'd had.

 

He spread his fingers, palm flat against Will's lower belly. “You were right. I did want to feel the scar. But I think you wanted that even more. That's why you didn't pull that trigger – you couldn't. You wanted me to know what you are, just as you finally knew what I am. You're as lonely as I am.”

 

The path to getting what Hannibal wanted lay clear before him – through the middle of Will's heart.

 

So simple.

 

Sucking in a shuddering breath, Will pulled away. He stalked from the room without another word.

 

Hannibal let him. Therapy was never successful when one attempted to tackle all of a patient's problems in one session; this being only the first day of what Hannibal envisioned as a harmonious and fruitful relationship, he felt they'd mastered the first hurdle brilliantly. Now all that was left to do was cure Will of the remaining shreds of self–imposed limits and rebuild the trust between them. Admittedly, that last one would require some work.

 

Hannibal was confident he would be successful in that, too.

 

*

 

A far more everyday–related hurdle presented itself the next morning. Hannibal had to go to work. Standing in the kitchen while the coffee percolated, he contemplated with some amusement that Will wasn't the only one who would have to adjust to their new situation; he had never left anyone alone in his house and found himself hesitant to do so now.

 

Breakfast was on the table when Will made an appearance. During the night, Hannibal hadn't heard him move about, but it was clear that Will had slept poorly again. Wordless, he took a seat, staring blearily at the bread rolls, the little marmalade pots.

 

Hannibal pulled the spare house key from his pocket and laid it next to Will's plate. “Here.”

 

Will barely took notice, helping himself to the coffee.

 

“I'll be back around seven.” Refraining from advising Will to sleep some more, Hannibal finished his breakfast and rose to carry his dishes into the kitchen. “Tomorrow, we could go to your house and start to clean up.”

 

Will found his voice. “I want to do that alone.”

 

“Very well. I'll drive you.”

 

It was time to go. The breakfast items on the table would keep if Will decided not to have anything. Tonight, Hannibal would tempt the man's taste buds with a sophisticated meal containing no people whatsoever; they could get around to working on that particular hang–up of Will's at leisure.

 

*

 

The call came in at half past six in the evening, just after the last patient had left. “Come to Quantico,” Alana said, sounding stressed, “as soon as you can.”

 

She was pacing in the lobby of the BAU when he arrived. After the mandatory security check and the acquisition of a visitor's badge, Hannibal followed her to the elevators. Anxiety was pulling at the walls of his stomach. He hadn't felt that in a long time. “He got here by himself?”

 

“No. Jack had him picked up at your house. No one told me, or I would have called earlier.”

 

They stepped out of the elevator on the floor that housed the forensic labs, morgues and evidence rooms. A couple of white–coated scientists were lingering outside the glass doors that separated the main lab from the rest of the facility, whispering among themselves. At the sight of Hannibal and Alana striding toward them, they quickly dispersed.

 

Inside the lab, Katz, Zeller and Price were huddled together in the corner by the computers, their faces bearing identical expressions of abject fascination. Crawford stood in the middle of the space, surrounded by stainless steel stretchers bearing corpses, his hands in his pockets. He acknowledged Hannibal's and Alana's arrival with a glance that gave away nothing.

 

Will stood on the other side of the lab, as far away from Crawford and the forensic team as possible. Dully staring at the corpse of a young, thin man, he seemed to be lost in a world of his own.

 

Alana pushed the door open. Their entrance caused Katz, Zeller and Price to flinch. Paying them no attention, Hannibal took a beeline across the lab. He was irritated, and he stopped for a moment in front of Crawford, letting him see how much. He had intended the few days before Will would ultimately insist on returning to his house in Wolf Trap as a period of settling in, of acclimatisation. There shouldn't have been any interruptions.

 

Crawford responded with a blank gaze. “Just having a conversation here.”

 

Alana's tone of voice cut like a knife. “With a man who just yesterday was released from hospital after going through a traumatic experience. We're surrounded by corpses, Jack. I want to go on record for saying that this is a very bad idea.”

 

Crawford spread his arms. “He's free to walk out any time he chooses.”

 

“You had him escorted here like a suspect!”

 

“Er,” Price piped up, looking concerned at the rise of tempers, “I think we should all calm down and –”

 

“Whoa,” Katz said, alarmed and pointing with a gloved hand, “hey!”

 

Will had begun to slide down the wall he was leaning against. Everyone, Crawford included, moved in his direction. Hannibal got there first. Between kneeling down and reaching for Will's wrist to measure his pulse and Alana hissing at the others not to crowd like a group of gawkers at an accident site, he caught Will's finally focused gaze.

 

Dark anger there for a fleeting moment, ire. Not panic, not fear, not concern. Will's pulse weak and fluttery under Hannibal's fingertips would have fooled most people into believing he'd just had a breakdown of sorts.

 

“Do we need to call an ambulance?” Katz asked, anxious.

 

Will cleared his throat. “I'm fine.” He didn't sound fine, back to acting the fragile victim.

 

Hannibal helped him to his feet. “This meeting is over. We're going home.”

 

Crawford stepped forward. “Not so fast. What did you see, Will?”

 

Everyone looked at him askance. Hannibal bit back a comment; at the same time, he was intrigued. He'd assumed Crawford had Will brought to the BAU to interview him again about his role in the death of Tobias Budge, or the Tolchester Beach murder. Instead, this was about a new case?

 

Knowing Crawford, it was about both. There was definitely more to this than wanting Will's insight into a case.

 

Will, too, was looking at the corpses. “I see the Ripper, but I don't feel the Ripper.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“The Ripper left a victim in a church pew, using his tongue as a page marker in the bible he was holding. This isn't that. This is a medical student or a trainee or someone trying to make an extra buck in a back–alley surgery, and it went bad.” Will let his head sink against the wall. “Actively bad.”

 

Crawford crossed his arms. “So –”

 

“Enough.” Clumsily, Will grabbed for Hannibal's hand. “I'm done.”

 

“I'll walk you two out,” Alana offered.

 

They left a glowering Crawford behind.

 

In the visitor's parking lot, with Will safely deposited in the passenger seat of the Bentley, Hannibal turned a pensive look on the BAU building rising into the dark sky. “I may reconsider my agreement to work with Jack. I understand his drive to catch the Ripper, but I will not stand by idly while he puts Will's mental health at risk.”

 

Alana nodded. She rubbed her arms, her breath fogging in the cold air. “I'll have a word with him. This can't continue.”

 

“Obsessive focus can be detrimental to one's judgement.”

 

“I know. And sadly, Jack knows that, too.” She looked at the Bentley, a smile breaking through her tight, worried expression. Will's head had sunk against the side window. “I think you should really go now, before Will gets a crick in his neck.”

 

Chuckling, Hannibal headed for the driver's side. “Ah, before we part: I'm hosting a small dinner party next week, on Friday. Friends and esteemed colleagues, good music, excellent food. Can I count on the pleasure of your presence?”

 

“Sure!”

 

Hannibal watched Alana head back into the BAU. A small dinner party, yes...and he was giving serious thought to serving parts of Jack Crawford to the attending guests. Between his on and off consulting for the FBI and Will Graham, Hannibal knew what he'd choose. If Crawford was ready to sacrifice their beginning friendship on the altar on which he planned to crucify Will, he'd soon find out that some sacrificial lambs had wolves to protect them.

 

Hannibal got into the car. “You may stop pretending now.”

 

“This was just the start,” Will muttered, watching him from under lowered lashes. Of course he wasn't asleep. “He's trying to rattle me. He used to be good at that – shaking me awake, poking me to get my head back in the game. And I let him.”

 

“You could have refused to follow his invitation.”

 

“Kind of hard to do when there's four big guys in black suits with identical crew cuts asking you out to dance,” Will said sarcastically. “Your neighbours got something to talk about now. The reporters, too, I suppose.”


“Let them.”

 

Sensing perhaps that Hannibal was in a dangerous mood, Will aimed for a softer tone of voice. “Can we go, please? Crawford's probably sitting at the surveillance cameras right now, watching us talk.”

 

The roads were beginning to glitter with a thin sheen of frost when Hannibal turned the Bentley into Chandler Square, matching the temperature of his thoughts. Next to him, Will had opted for silence. They went their respective ways once inside, Will upstairs, Hannibal into the kitchen and from there into the dining room. The table had been cleared. He moved into the downstairs study, taking off his jacket and tie, and sat at the harpsichord in the corner.

 

There had been a cold, cold winter decades ago that snuffed the fire out of Hannibal's veins. Now there was the possibility of reclaiming that distant flame once more.

 

He valued Crawford as a potential friend.

 

He would kill Crawford if he didn't back down.

 

From the kitchen came the sounds of porcelain against the counter, the fridge opening and closing. Hannibal coaxed a simple tune from the harpsichord, an old children's song. He rose to investigate, finding Will in the kitchen, barefoot again, sleeves rolled up.

 

Will had lined up eggs, flour, milk and sugar around a small mixing bowl. Ignoring Hannibal's entrance, he whisked a few tablespoons of flour with milk and a pinch of sugar, breaking two eggs into the mix. He added baking powder and olive oil.

 

“Jack Crawford,” Will said at last, “is a problem.” From one of the well–sorted spice racks, he selected a seemingly random number of glass bottles, opening them one after the other. “He's my problem at the moment, but if you keep insisting on keeping me around, he will be yours, too. He's been doing his job for a very long time. He may not have my insights, but he's good. There will come a day when he's going to look at both of us and wonder.”

 

That thought had already crossed Hannibal's mind. If it had just been the Tolchester Beach murder, for which no suspect had been found yet, Crawford might have kept himself in the background with his suspicions about Will. Franklyn and Tobias Budge in particular had complicated matters.

 

This new string of murders – Hannibal agreed with Will's assessment of them being back–alley surgeries gone wrong; he would never do such shoddy work – had also put the Chesapeake Ripper back at the front of Crawford's mind. He believed Will was a magnet for killers. It wasn't all that far–fetched to imagine that Crawford would make the mental jump from that to Hannibal being a killer. He'd jumped easily enough from Will to Franklyn Froideveaux to the murder on Tolchester Beach.

 

“The smartest move,” Will continued, “would be to go our separate ways.”

 

No. Absolutely not –

 

“Or to kill him.”

 

Hannibal studied him, amused, unsurprised. “Trying to get rid of that Damocles Sword above your head?”

 

“It's hanging above your head just as much.” Will added a few teaspoons of spices to the mixing bowl and resumed whisking. “I'm just giving you a little nudge to see it.”

 

“I do see it. I also see why you'd be eager for that option.” With Crawford gone, regardless of the feelings Hannibal suspected Will harboured but wasn't ready to face yet, or refused to acknowledge, there'd be nothing that had a hold on him. “I told you, I don't want to change you. I don't want you on a leash, either. We may have damaged each other with our actions, but I believe we can move on and leave the past in the past.”

 

“Move on...adapt. Evolve?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Will stared down into the bowl. “Fetch me two coffee mugs, please. Ones that can go in the oven.”

 

Retrieving the cups, Hannibal wondered if he should take it as a positive sign that Will was baking for two, or if he was doing it just to keep himself busy.

 

After measuring the contents of the bowl into the cups and placing them in the oven, Will washed his hands. He shot Hannibal an indecipherable look, fingers tight on the edge of the sink. His internal conflict was as easy to read as a page from an open book, and it could be so easily solved. He just had to give in to what he wanted.

 

Slowly, Hannibal came up behind him and curved his palms over Will's hips until his fingertips met, keeping the hold loose enough that Will could break out of it any time he wanted. He didn't have to encourage the other man to lean, easily taking the added weight as Will sagged a little.

 

They watched each other's reflection in the dark square of the kitchen window above the sink. The space around them soon began to smell of the little cakes rising in the coffee cups, spicy, warm. Homely - again. 

 

Will sagged a little more. “I want Crawford's head on a stake.”

 

Hannibal made a low, neutral sound.

 

“And I want us to do it together.”

 

Hannibal smiled.

 

 

Chapter Text

––

o.8

––

 

He had him.

 

Not fully, not a hundred percent. There would always be a part of Will Hannibal was never going to be able to predict entirely. The proud hunter in him wanted to wallow in Will's ostensible surrender, take him up on the offer and enjoy the spoils of victory; the wood–wise, seasoned predator sniffed carefully for the trap he knew Will was capable of laying. He had the lion by its tail and the beast was purring with a maw full of sharp teeth, demonstrating that it was tamed for now.

 

Will turned and buried his face in Hannibal's shirt front, arms hovering uncertainly before they wrapped around him. Hannibal curled a protective, possessive hand over the back of Will's neck. He had missed this, and when Will pressed himself closer, sighed and shuddered and settled, he knew Will had missed it, too.

 

More than Hannibal, perhaps; it was Will who nudged his head up under Hannibal's chin, leaned up and softly laid his lips against his jaw. For long moments, they touched like that: rubbing cheeks and noses, stubble against stubble – not a kiss and yet so close, mouths only an inch apart, sharing breath. Will didn't make any moves to progress further, and Hannibal was contend to drink in the scent of him, warm again, known again.

 

Will pulled him down the few inches that separated them in height, touching their brows together. Hannibal kept his eyes open; he didn't want to miss one second of this. He brought his hands down to Will's hips, stroking under the hem of the sweater, thumbs marking both ends of the scar.

 

Will exhaled a puff of warm breath. He kneaded at Hannibal's shoulders, finding a hold. “More.”

 

Easy, then, to drag both hands up Will's sides, over ribs and around, until the sweater was bunched under his arms. Will lifted them. Hannibal stripped the garment off of him carefully, aiming it at the sink, careless if he hit his mark or not. He looked down between them, from the star-shaped scar on Will's chest to the thick line across his lower belly, old-new territory.

 

Will's hands, once again on Hannibal's shoulders, began to apply pressure.

 

Hannibal sank to his knees.

 

Yes. That mark deserved adoration.

 

He studied it, having the opportunity for the first time. It was an almost perfectly straight line, except for a tiny imperfection where he'd pulled the knife out, creating a subtle upward comma. The surgeons who had operated on Will had done a fine job, stitching with care and precision – Hannibal's only regret was that he hadn't been able to perform that surgery himself. Reverently, he kissed the small blemish. Will tensed, relaxed. Hannibal wrapped his arms around the backs of his thighs to steady him, tracing the entire length of the scar with the tip of his tongue, then with the flat of it, beginning to end.

 

Will's breath came faster now, shallow, quick gasps. “How do I taste?”

 

Clean and warm. Hannibal tasted the scar again, gently, right under the shallow dip of Will's navel. Metallic – from the button of the pants Will had worn today, or the ghost residue of the knife still clinging to the skin it had parted, weeks ago. A hint of silver birch and cedars, from Hannibal's imported shower gel. Salt and musk. Hannibal opened his mouth wide, straining forward until Will was arching, heavy against his bracing arms. He sucked and scraped his teeth over the scar, held the raised flesh between them.

 

“God,” Will breathed above him, broken, pained. “I'd let you.”

 

The urge to bite down, to rend and tear, came and went, though it did not go easily. Hannibal's most lasting, most vivid impressions had always been taste and smell, texture; the ultimate form of possession was not entrapment, it was consumption. Will was shaking against him like a leaf in a storm. With a gentle suck, Hannibal released the locked grip of his jaws, nuzzling the flat plane of Will's belly. This one was not for eating.

 

This one was for keeping.

 

He didn't care to count the minutes of how long he knelt there, cheek laid against warm skin, greedily clutching what was his: long past the moment when Will's shaking subsided, when the sounds from above were less of turmoil and more of contentment, when Will stopped clawing at Hannibal's shoulders and started running his fingers through his hair instead, slow, meditative touches. Hannibal nipped at the trail of hair disappearing into the waistband of Will's pants, then again, lower, at the soft-hard jut that had been nestled against his throat.

 

From above came the sound of a hitched breath. “More,” Will said, clutching at his shoulders again. “Give me more.”

 

I'll serve you the world, Hannibal thought, lips parting wide as they had over the scar. He mouthed the growing hardness through the thin material of the pants, licked indulgently until the cloth was wet with his saliva and the shape of Will's cock outlined.

 

The oven buzzer caused them both to jerk with surprise.

 

Reluctantly, Hannibal pulled away and looked up. Will stared back at him, pupils wide. He touched Hannibal's mouth, tracing the contours of his lips. Slipped a finger inside and pressed it down on Hannibal's tongue, on the sharp point of an incisor tooth. “Are you hungry?”

 

Will's finger moving suggestively in and out of his mouth short-circuited politeness and care. What he wanted was right there, staring at him with anticipation, a hint of challenge, and it was finally his. Will pulled his finger away, leaving a wet streak on Hannibal's cheek. Hannibal rose and crushed their mouths together, taking the kiss that had been hovering between them. His only concession to reality was to grab a hold of Will and drag him over to the oven, literally lifting him off his feet, and to slap a palm against the button that turned off the alarm.

 

The cakes could wait. Everything could wait.

 

They collided with a counter, Will's muffled complaint lost between them, meaningless; he was climbing Hannibal as if he was trying to climb inside, hooking his fingers into the gaps between shirt buttons, yanking until cloth gave way. Neither of them cared about the loud crash of the baking utensils hitting the floor after a sweep of Hannibal's arm, the crunch of something under Hannibal's shoe when he pushed Will down, hand splayed on Will's heaving chest to keep him pinned.

 

They stared at each other again, hips slotted together. Will bared his teeth, impatient, dark-eyed. “Touch me. Fucking –”

 

Fucking, yes. They'd get to that. But not here, without lubrication, where Hannibal couldn't curl around him after, safe in the dark. Here was for taking the edge off. Here was for Will pale under the bright kitchen lights, moaning loudly, knees held up and open, pants hanging from one ankle, toes curling. Hannibal leisurely ate him out, sampling the sharper flavours like fine wine until Will was cursing him, breathless and squirming, fist pumping his cock at a brutal pace. He came with a strangled shout, clenching delicately around Hannibal's probing tongue, and then lay there panting, sweat sticking the curls to his brow. Hannibal licked the warm, wet stripes of come from his belly and chest until the tremors subsided.

 

Then he brought their mouths together to share the taste, encouraging Will's legs to wind around his waist.

 

“Bed,” Will slurred.

 

Hannibal lifted him off the counter. He'd thought he'd be satisfied with never touching Will like this again as long as the mental connection was there, but now he realized he'd been wrong.

 

Hannibal had missed this, too.

 

He carried his precious, heavy burden out of the kitchen, finding the way upstairs without having to look where he put his feet. His shoulders and arms felt the strain, but carrying Will was easier than moving a dead body, and infinitely more enjoyable. After settling Will on the bed, Hannibal paused only long enough to leave his clothes in a heap on the floor before he grabbed the jar of lube and a condom from the bedside drawer. His own need was a tidal wave held at bay by the iron grip of control, and that control was failing now.

 

Will roused a little from his blissful sprawl when he heard the crinkle of the foil package. He made an uncoordinated grab for the condom, ended up catching Hannibal's wrist instead. “Leave it.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“None of this would be happening if I wasn't. Leave it.”

 

They had never fucked bare before. Neither had offered, neither had asked; they had never gotten to the stage in the previous incarnation of their relationship where it became an issue. Just the thought of sliding into him without a layer of latex between them curled something hot and violent in Hannibal's loins, appealed to a primal, primitive part of him as he mentally unfolded the layers behind Will's request, teased apart the meaning. He ran his hand down Will's flank, over the curve of his ass, watched those blue-grey eyes flutter shut when he pressed a finger inside where Will was still a little moist and open, watched the flush spread from Will's chest to his cheek when he found what he was looking for.

 

Will rocked back against the one finger, then two fingers, then three, until his breath came in stutters and huffs, spent cock twitching in a valiant effort to rejoin the proceedings. Hannibal knew it was too soon for that, that Will was enjoying the stimulation for pleasure's sake. He'd always been deliciously uninhibited in bed, not shy to ask for what he wanted, to make sure he got what he wanted. Tonight was no different. A second grab did not miss its mark, and the foil square joined Hannibal's clothes on the floor. Will fixed Hannibal with a heated stare, teeth flashing between his lips. “Waiting for an engraved invitation?”

 

Hannibal pulled his fingers free. “On your belly, please.”

 

They fucked, chest pressed to back, Will's groans lost in the tangled sheets. It wasn't the hard, fast fucking Hannibal had been thinking about in the kitchen, but a slow, sensual grind, the sweat building between their bodies until everything was slick and hot. His climax rolled up from his toes, a languid, lazy wave of sensation. He revelled in the aftershocks, thrusting lazily until he was too soft for it, licking and nipping the back of Will's neck, his shoulders, anywhere he could reach.

 

When he pulled away and fell to his back, sated and lax, Will immediately rolled up against him. Hannibal traced the sweat-slick curve of his spine down to his ass, dipping a finger in, inordinately satisfied by the viscous slickness he found. Giving in to one's animal side was a release all of its own, and Hannibal allowed the lizard part of his brain to crow possessive smugness; he had marked Will yet again, inside, and Will had asked for it.

 

After a few minutes, Will made a low noise. Hannibal transferred his touch to a less sensitive area, fingers splayed wide over the small of Will's back. The bedroom smelled of sweat and sex. The sheets were a mess. They were a mess.

 

He wanted to wallow in all of it.

 

Will rubbed his cheek against Hannibal's chest. Sighed. “Who did you lose?”

 

“...please tell me you didn't make that jump just now.”

 

“I've known for a while. I was waiting for the right moment to ask. Who was it?”

 

“My sister. Her name was Mischa.”

 

“She died?”

 

“She was killed. It happened when she was very young.”

 

“I'm not a little girl, Hannibal. If you're looking to replace her, you've got the wrong candidate.”

 

There were a hundred patients in Hannibal's appointment book more suited to be susceptible to the kind of tactics required to completely break a personality and reshape it in the image of someone else: less wilful, less mercurial, less aware than Will. “My sister is dead. I'm not delusional.”

 

Will propped himself up on an elbow. He was frowning, fingers carding absent-mindedly through the hair on Hannibal's chest. “Tell me how she died.”

 

“In winter. In a forest. In my parents' hunting lodge. We were snowed in.” The memories projected themselves onto the bedroom ceiling above Hannibal, shaky and grainy like images from an old black and white film. It had taken him considerable effort to retrieve those memories from where his brain had locked them away after the traumatic experience; he could look at them now with detachment and fondness – fondness not for what had happened, but who it had happened to. “Men came and killed my parents. The snow wouldn't stop. Mischa was ill from hunger and the cold. So was I. But it was her they took outside.”

 

“They killed her.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Will stared at a spot between Hannibal's mouth and nose. “And then they ate her. And made you eat, too.”

 

Hannibal caressed the dips and valleys of Will's back. “Yes.”

 

“How did she taste?”

 

The question slipped between Hannibal's ribs like a sliver of ice. In the back of his mind, he heard the lion growl softly, smugly, but when he looked at Will, the expression he found there wasn't smugness. Will looked lost in thought, brows furrowed.

 

How had Mischa tasted? Hannibal had been half-mad with hunger at the time, when they gave him the bowl with the fatty broth, the uneven chunks of meat and the fragments of bone. Even as everything inside him screamed and shouted at the knowledge of what it was, who it was travelling down his gullet, it was the best meal he had ever had. There were no adequate words to describe it. He had been searching for that taste ever since, in every recipe.

 

He pulled Will down with an arm around his shoulders, entwining their limbs. Will still hadn't come out of the fugue state of looking and Hannibal, holding him close, imagined that Will knew – was tasting Mischa now on the back of his tongue, blood and breath and radiance, stitching the seams between them ever closer.

 

*

 

In the morning, Will leaned in the doorway, watching Hannibal change the sheets. He had been quiet since they woke up, but it was a different silence from the one he'd clung to since his release from the hospital. It felt less volatile, less accusative, more like a contemplation. “I'm going home today.”

 

Hannibal checked his watch. Three hours before he had to open his office. “I'll drive you.”

 

“I was going to call a cab.”

 

The ride from Hannibal's house to Will's would cost a small fortune. “The offer stands. If you change your mind, please tell me within the hour. I would hate to make my patients wait.” He headed for the laundry hamper in the bathroom, sheets slung over one arm, his clothes from yesterday piled on top.

 

Will stopped him with a hand on his chest. “I don't want to see you for a few days.”

 

“Is this a test, Will?”

 

“Of you as much as of me.”

 

Hannibal considered, hiding his reluctance. He didn't like it, but he could see why Will would draw the lines in the sand now, when they'd just reached a new level of understanding. Will needed to know he could trust Hannibal to leave him alone.

 

Will stroked with two fingers inside his collar, up the side of his neck. “I'm looking,” he said, cupping Hannibal's jaw, “and I like what I see. More than I should. More than makes sense. I need this to make sense, and I need to do that alone. I need to know that I want to come back here.”

 

They hadn't yet tackled the fact that Will had a tendency to kill people like Hannibal. They'd only acknowledged that he had tried to kill him before his feelings got in the way, and that said feelings outweighed all morals and Will's vigilante approach. Last night's I'd let you had hammered that point home. The rest was a Gordian knot of personal beliefs and ingrained social limitations Hannibal would have loved to tackle with Will sitting in his office, or snuggled up together in bed. He was good at guiding, at pointing the way.

 

He could also see why this was where Will drew the line. Any attempt at guidance would seem to him like an attempt to influence him, and if there was anything Hannibal had learned about Will since his release from the hospital, it was that he hated it. He'd already plainly said as much during Alana's visit: everyone assuming they knew what's best for me.

 

“I am reluctant to let you go,” Hannibal admitted.

 

Will leaned up, kissing him on the lips. “I know. But I'm still going.”

 

And he went, half an hour later, getting into the cab idling at the curb while Hannibal stood at a window, watching through a gap in the curtains.

 

*

 

Friday went by quickly enough, patients keeping him busy. Hannibal attended a Symphony Board meeting later in the evening, a social activity he'd let slide since making the acquaintance of a certain murderous baker, and enjoyed a perfect performance of Ophelia. The unavoidable questions came later, at the after-party taking place in a small concert hall at the Baltimore Theatre, the same place he'd walked out of months ago to escape the unbearable ennui only to run into fate.

 

Peter Dall sidled up to him first. “I thought you would bring your partner. We're all eager to meet him.”

 

Will would probably rather gnaw off his own limbs than make nice with the upper-crust of Baltimore. “I'll try to convince him you're worth his time.”

 

Peter laughed. “You should both be thanking me. If I hadn't hired him to supply our buffet table, I don't think you two would have met.” He grinned good-naturedly, then added in a stage-whisper, “I almost wish I hadn't. Sylvia's furious with me. She's been trying to set you up with one of her many lady friends for years.”

 

Sylvia Dall, Peter's wife, had indeed been shooting him sour glances all evening. Hannibal accepted a fresh glass of wine from a passing waiter. “Well, in that case...” He raised his glass to the other man. “Accept my heartfelt thanks.” They drank. Hannibal glanced at the buffet table, loaded with the usual catering food. No cakes. The need to know tugged at him. “I'm curious. When did you hire Will?”

 

“Middle of August, right after the soiree at Mindy's house.”

 

Will and he had run into each other at the end of August. Yes. Time to bury that old suspicion for good.

 

Peter slanted him a look over the rim of his wine glass. “You know, you're the second person to ask me that.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yes, that website reporter called me a few days ago, the one who wrote the Find Franklyn article. Freddie something...Freddie Lamb?”

 

“Freddie Lounds.”

 

“That one, yes.”

 

Articles aside, Hannibal hadn't heard from or seen Freddie Lounds since Crawford had caught her attempting to sneak into Hannibal's hospital room.

 

Peter watched him. “Something the matter?”

 

“On the day Will and I were attacked by Tobias Budge, Miss Lounds deliberately trailed me from Baltimore to Wolf Trap.” Hannibal put on a worried expression. “She offered to pay me for information about Will. Now you tell me she called you.”

 

“Oh. Oh dear.” Peter looked worried now, too. “Is she writing about him?”

 

“She mentioned she's writing a book. ”

 

“And your partner...”

 

“Will is not thrilled by the idea. Neither am I, frankly. Miss Lounds entered Will's hospital room while he was fresh out of surgery and took a picture of him without his consent. She then attempted to do the same to me. Luckily, she was caught before it got that far. I worry about her work ethics, or rather, her lack of them. I'm afraid she has very few boundaries and very little respect for privacy.”

 

Peter put a hand on Hannibal's arm. “I assure you, I told her nothing. I don't know more about Will than what's been written in the papers, anyway. If she calls me again, I'll be sure to give her a piece of my mind.”

 

“Thank you, Peter. I appreciate it.”

 

Aside from being the Symphony Board's chairman, Peter Dall was also their small circle's worst gossip, closely followed by his wife. Before the night was over, everyone attending the meeting would know about Freddie Lounds' unethical conduct, and being who they were, they would find it interesting, thrilling, scandalous – but they would also close ranks against her. Everyone had something to hide and gossip was fun only as long as it was someone else at the centre of attention.

 

Hannibal knew it was only a half-measure, a temporary solution to an emerging problem. He wasn't going to tolerate an inquisitive reporter snooping around him and Will, not when there was so much he wanted to show him, so much he wanted to do with him – so much that, observed by the wrong people, could ruin them both.

 

*

 

Saturday, mid-noon, Crawford stood on Hannibal's porch. The gloomy look on his face matched the expression he'd worn when showing up with Detective Garner in tow. Today, he was alone, hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his coat, eyeing Hannibal from under the brim of his hat. A slim, tan folder was tucked under his arm. “Am I still welcome here?”

 

“That depends on what you're here for.”

 

“If I told you I've come to apologize, would you believe me?”

 

“Honestly? No.”

 

“Then I won't tell you that. Am I still welcome?”

 

Hannibal beckoned him inside and shut the door. “I'm preparing lunch. Join me.”

 

Crawford took off his coat and hat, hanging them up. “Will?”

 

“He's in Wolf Trap, taking care of his dogs.” And the old, dried blood in the kitchen, Hannibal supposed. He'd been circling the greater vicinity of the telephone all morning, fully aware that he was doing it. Will had said nothing about not wanting to hear him. Patience. “Would you stay if he was here?”

 

“No.” Crawford's direct gaze was unapologetic.

 

Hannibal led him to the kitchen, where the harvest from this morning's stroll across the fish market was roasting slowly over a low flame. “Wild trout,” he explained, picking up a knife and resuming cutting a lemon into thin slices. “More flavourful than farm fish.”

 

“Smells delicious.”

 

“You're welcome to join me for lunch.”

 

Crawford took up a position on the other side of the counter. “Thank you.” He watched Hannibal slice the lemon. “You used to be a surgeon.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What's your opinion on organ trafficking?”

 

“Is this about a case?”

 

“It might be.”

 

“I was an emergency room surgeon, not a transplant specialist.”

 

“I'd still like to hear your opinion. Even if it's just something you heard through the grapevine. From old colleagues, friends, that sort of thing.”

 

“Jack...” Hannibal laid the knife aside, leaned on the counter. “I'll be honest. I have the utmost respect for the work you do and I admire your tenacity when it comes to solving cases. You're driven and dedicated, both qualities everyone should aspire to. But in light of some of your recent actions, I'm seriously considering giving up my position as a psychiatric advisor to you and your team.”

 

Crawford nodded thoughtfully. “I understand. Conflict of interests and all that.”

 

“'All that' is a person I've grown very much attached to, and who I think was a victim of fate and circumstance,” Hannibal pointed out. “I am fully aware of your concerns and doubts regarding Will, but I do not share those concerns and doubts. I can't help but wonder at your motivations behind coming here.”

 

“I need help on a case.”

 

“You think Will is a killer gifted with the almost magical ability to find other killers.” Hannibal gave him a pointed look. “Do I have to worry that you'll be investigating me next?”

 

Crawford startled. “Of course not!” Seeing Hannibal's doubt, he sighed. “Of course not,” he repeated more gently. “Alana asked if I was going to do that, too.”

 

“And what did you tell her?”

 

“That I might be slightly obsessed with Will Graham.”

 

“Self-awareness is the first step to self-improvement.”

 

“That sounds like something out of a self-help book.”

 

“That doesn't make it any less true. Obsessing over the past isn't good for you.”

 

“I'm working on it,” Jack grumbled.

 

Hannibal doubted that. He also doubted that the reason behind Jack's visit was to make up and make nice. “For your sake, I hope you do. Now, the case. I'm assuming it has something to do with the bodies you had Will look at?”

 

Crawford gave him a brief outline. Seven victims so far, found in hotel rooms and back alleys, all with various organs missing, no other mutilations. The places where the victims had been found were true dump sites with an infuriating lack of evidence other than the bodies.

 

The autopsy photos corroborated what little Hannibal had seen of the bodies already. Shoddy, cruddy work done by someone with only a beginner's training in surgery. No elegance, no meaning. “Butcheries,” he commented, handing the photos back and checking on the roasting trout.

 

“So organ trafficking is out?”

 

“I wouldn't rule it out completely, but if it is a trafficking ring, or even just an individual trying to make quick money, it's drawing far too much attention to be a long-term, successful operation. Most organs in the international black market come from volunteers from poor countries, not murder victims. The majority of deaths that occur are the result of a lack of sterile operating space and post-surgery treatment, rather than killing intent on the part of whoever performs these operations. It's cruel, but it's reality.”

 

Crawford sorted the photos back into the folder, mulling through the information. “So am I looking for an organ harvester who's very bad at his job, or am I looking for a serial killer trying to disguise his work as an organ harvester?”

 

“You won't know until you catch him, but I'm inclined to share Will's assessment.” From a cupboard, Hannibal pulled out a second dinner plate. “The incisions do show a level of skill, though not on par with an experienced surgeon. This killer definitely has anatomical knowledge, but not enough. He literally operated his 'patients' to death.”

 

“So, what Will said: medical student, trainee, something along those lines.”

 

Hannibal distributed the trout on the warmed plates, garnishing with slices of lemon and fresh herbs. “Yes.” He paused, mentally going through the autopsy reports. “Whoever or whatever he is, he needs time and space to do it. Equipment. Good light. Don't look at back alleys and poorly lit basements.”

 

Crawford nodded. “All right. Thank you.”

 

“My pleasure.” Hannibal knew that nothing he'd told the other man just now was something Crawford didn't already know. It was the same Will had told him, only in different words. Hannibal picked up their plates and smiled, heading for the dining room. “Time to eat.”

 

Time to plan.

 

*

 

Ambulance driver Devon Silvestri was arrested on Monday, late in the night. Hannibal only glanced at the article in Tuesday morning's newspaper, catching a few phrases, enough to learn that Silvestri's last victim died in the back of the ambulance the FBI had tracked to Baltimore's outskirts. He looked far longer at the picture accompanying the article, Jack Crawford in profile, proud and unsmiling against a backdrop that showed the entrance to Quantico and the FBI's logo emblazoned on the glass doors.

 

*

 

On Wednesday, a knock interrupted Hannibal's lunch break. Will stood on the other side of the door, hunched into a black coat, his cheeks and the tip of his nose red from the icy wind that had started coming in from the bay during the night. Hannibal's disgruntlement at having his break interrupted fled at the sight. “Come in, please.”

 

Will shed his jacket and shawl, blowing into his hands to warm them. He looked around, discovering Hannibal's lunch on the desk. “Ravioli?”

 

“Home-made. Goat cheese and minced meat, organic flour. Enough for two, if you're hungry.”

 

“No thanks.”

 

Will sauntered through the office, touching books, statues, the back of Hannibal's desk chair. “Can you clear your schedule for tomorrow?” he asked, after he'd circled the desk once. He sat on the edge of it, at ease. “I have something I'd like to give you. You'll have to come to Wolf Trap, though.”

 

“That can be arranged, certainly.” Hannibal stepped up to him, wanting, needing to touch. Will spread his knees further, inviting him closer. Hannibal stroked through the hair above his ear, thumb under the edge of his jaw to tilt his head. The kiss was indulgent and sweet and lasted until Will put a pair of still very cold hands on Hannibal's sides, making his flesh crawl.

 

“Sorry,” Will murmured, when he felt him flinch. He hooked two fingers around Hannibal's belt buckle, dragging him even closer. “Warm me up?”

 

Hannibal pressed his lips to the hair at the top of Will's head. “You came here for sex?”

 

“I came for you.”

 

“I'm glad you're here. I was waiting.”

 

“And if I hadn't come? What if I'd changed my mind?”

 

Eventually – this weekend, at the latest – Hannibal would have gone to Wolf Trap. “I would look for you. I would find you.”

 

“And then?”

 

The world was a far more interesting place with Will in it, but Hannibal wasn't going to lie to either of them; he was possessive, and the thought of Will out there somewhere, not at Hannibal's side, was abstract and tasted bitter.

 

He bent, touching his brow to Will's. “I would kill you.”

 

“You're not exactly inspiring confidence.”

 

“But you're still here. You came.”

 

Will sighed, tucking himself closer. “I did.” His grip on Hannibal's belt tightened until the leather creaked. “I'm walking into this with my eyes wide open.”

 

Hannibal gathered him closer, held him.

 

Will drew back after a few minutes, a little shakier now than when he'd walked through the door. He gave the front of Hannibal's pants a gentle pat, cupping him teasingly with a frown of regret. “I think that's going to have to wait.”

 

Hannibal wasn't in the mood anymore, either, though certain parts of him disagreed. “Next time.” He tousled Will's hair, stepping away to adjust himself discreetly. There would be another opportunity to have Will, here, over the desk, or against the ladder leading to the book gallery.

 

“About tomorrow...” Will glanced at the ravioli steaming on their plate. “I have dessert planned, but I'll leave the main course to you. You'll probably want to bring some hardware.”

 

Cooking anything worthwhile in the sad, little kitchen in Will's house was going to be a challenge. He wondered if he could persuade him to invest in at least the basics; failing that, burning said house down to encourage change in a more drastic way was also an option. As long as he made sure the dogs didn't burn to death, he didn't think Will would protest too strenuously.

 

“I better go,” Will said, hopping off the desk. “Your break's almost over.” He went to put his coat and shawl back on. “See you tomorrow at, hm, six?”

 

“Six works.”

 

Hannibal walked him to the door. There was already a patient in the waiting room, another big city neurotic like Franklyn had been, though thankfully without the obsessive focus on Hannibal. She watched with wide eyes, smart phone forgotten in her lap, as Will pecked him on the lips. “Tomorrow.”

 

“Tomorrow,” Hannibal agreed. “By the way – do I get to know what it is I'll be preparing?”

 

“Pork,” Will answered cheerfully, and walked away.

 

*

 

Hannibal packed with care: two frying pans, two pots, sauce pan, measuring cups, the basic spices, an apron. He dithered over the sharper tools and dug out a set of Damascus steel kitchen knives gifted to him by a former patient, just in case. Depending on what kind of pig Will planned to have him cook tonight – Hannibal's stomach fluttered strangely; would Will partake in the feast, or did he just want to watch, as he'd wanted to watch Tobias Budge? – he wanted knives he knew and trusted.

 

A change of clothes, then, and toiletries in a travel bag, along with two bottles of wine, and Hannibal was on his way to Wolf Trap, Virginia.

 

This time, no one followed him. It was pitch-black outside, the road to Will's farmstead deserted and treacherous under a thin layer of frost, barren fields empty and wide to either side of the road. From a distance, the house looked like a boat on a dark sea, lights in the windows and smoke rising from the chimney. Hannibal heard the bark of the dogs as he rolled into the parking lot.

 

Will walked into the parking lot surrounded by his canine pack, breath steaming in the cold air. He greeted Hannibal with a kiss, leaning up to whisper in his ear, “I'm pretty sure there's someone watching the house. I saw car lights a while ago, about a mile down the road. Thought it was you, at first.”

 

Hannibal hadn't see a car while driving up to the farmstead. He got his bags out of the trunk of the Bentley, covertly scanning the dark line of trees fencing the property while the dogs jumped and ran around them both, tails wagging. “Jack's people?”

 

“Or Freddie Lounds.” Will appeared to be more amused than angry.

 

“Change of plans, then?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Inside the house, it was very warm, smelling very faintly of cleaning products and fresh paint. The dogs settled in front of the fireplace at Will's command. “This time,” he said with a faint smile, “they'll stay here and we'll go to the back. They'll warn us if anyone gets too close to the house.”

 

“Are they that vigilant?”

 

Will looked at the pack with fondness. “They weren't when I found them. They are now. C'mon, let's go.”

 

Hannibal followed him. The walls had new coats of paint, not just in the living room and the hallway to the kitchen, but everywhere. “You were busy.”

 

“I was looking for bugs. Well,” Will huffed a laugh, “and painting over the mess you left behind.”

 

The kitchen was pristinely clean. It was still equipped with the same worn furniture and appliances Hannibal remembered from his visits, but the pools of dried blood were gone from the walls and the floor looked freshly sanded and lacquered. He set his bag with the cooking equipment on a counter. “Do you think Jack would go that far?”

 

“Absolutely.” Will waited by the door to the bakery. “Are you ready?”

 

Hannibal looked around. “For?”

 

“A little fumbling about in the dark.” Will held out his hand and switched off the light in the kitchen as soon as their fingers were entwined.

 

There was still enough light coming through the kitchen door, but as soon as Will opened the door to the bakery and shut it behind them, they were in complete darkness. Hannibal held out his free hand to feel for obstacles, moving carefully in the unfamiliar surroundings.

 

“It's easier during the day,” Will explained. “When I built the bakery, I didn't think I'd have to worry about someone watching me or tracking light sources.”

 

Hannibal heard a mechanic click, followed by a soft scrape and the turn of well-oiled hinges. Now that his eyes were accustoming to the darkness, he saw a big shape moving. It was one of the ovens. Under it was a square of utter blackness. “Clever,” he remarked.

 

“I got it from a movie,” Will admitted with a chuckle. “Careful now. There's a very steep set of wooden stairs right in front of you. Six steps. You first. And watch your head.”

 

The stairs ended in a low tunnel. Hannibal smelled earth, felt the ground give a little under his steps. Heard someone's fast, panicked breaths from further away. Behind him, Will was moving the oven back into place, sealing off the entrance. Then another click, and harsh light surrounded them, coming from a naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling.

 

The tunnel was perhaps ten feet long, ending in a solid steel door outfitted with heavy padlocks and a bar. The door was only leaned shut. Will pushed it open, beckoning Hannibal into the room beyond. Tiles rang hollowly under their feet instead of packed dirt, and the ceiling was higher here, allowing them to stand upright. Small halogen pods overhead cast a cool, clinical light, illuminating every crevice and corner.

 

It was a slaughter room. There was even a drain in the middle of the floor, for easy clean-up.

 

A man lay on a stainless steel table pushed against the far side of the wall. He was dressed in an oil-stained worker's overall, his feet bare. He was young, maybe mid-twenties, fair-skinned, ash-blond. His mouth was duct-taped, his wrists and ankles tied and secured to hooks at the head and the foot-end of the table, keeping him flat on his back and stretched out.

 

He was conscious, watching Will and Hannibal enter with hate-filled, bloodshot eyes.

 

“Who is he?” Hannibal asked.

 

Will rolled his shoulders, exhaled. “The Tolchester Beach killer.”

 

TBC