The auditorium is barren.
The featured instrument, built with sturdy form and exquisite craftsmanship, idles center stage. The wood of its fingerboard is polished to a mirror shine; its strings tuned, and taut as wire. The device is dressed in a finely tailored suit, the fabric’s dark palette contrasting against its light undershirt and pallor complexion. Its vocal chords are treated and primed beneath the exposed flesh of its throat: the wooden neck jutting from its gaping mouth is an extension of its own, makeshift maple tongue punctuated with tuning pegs and curling into a scroll, casting its song skyward.
Will brushes the back of his tailcoat behind himself before sliding into the seat, positioning himself behind his instrument. Fingers of one hand are poised gently at the end of a bow; opposite fingers position themselves along the board in a methodical, practiced motion. His back keeps straight, his arms keep loose, his wrists keep pliant.
Will draws it in closer, until the top of the corpse’s head presses against the side of hiss chest. The instrument gazes aimlessly above itself with a face far too familiar, its once perfectly parted dirty-blonde hair tousled, its cheekbones further pronounced beneath the blood-drained grey of his skin. Powder dusts its wounds, oil slicks its throat, and Will wonders if a title in any language could truly capture the essence of his serenade.
Touching the flat of his bow against the vocal strings, Will lets his eyes drift shut.
The auditorium is barren, and he plays Hannibal to his audience of void.
Will wakes with a jolt.
An inhale strikes his lungs with a sharp rush of cool air, and suddenly he’s all too aware of the sweat making the bedding stick to his body. He sits up and hunches over himself, trying not to listen to the music playing against the walls of his skull, trying to minimize how the tightness in his shorts makes his stomach lurch and acid rise to the back of his throat. His hands tremble while he runs them through his dampened hair and waits for his arousal to die down. The bustle of his thoughts aren’t as forgiving as his biology.
He paws around the nightstand for his cell phone in a drowsy haze. Although the glow of the newly-awakened screen makes him wince, he fumbles through his speed dial, and waits on each ring until the line finally clicks.
“Good evening, Will.”
The rush of calm that surges through him makes him feel pathetic.
“Yeah,” he replies mid-swallow. “I’m here, hi.”
“Are you safe?”
“Yeah—no, yeah, I.” Will takes a deep breath and tries to keep his voice from shaking. The phone screen is cool against his skin. “Have you been experiencing any tightness of the throat, lately?”
“What would give you such an impression?”
“Nothing.” He rubs the side of his face. “I don’t know, I. Just needed to hear you. Speak. Sorry if I woke you.”
“You did no such thing. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“More trouble staying asleep.” Will climbs out of bed; his bare feet stick to the floor with every step he takes towards the kitchen. “It’s not like I’ve never had nightmares before, but—” He lowers his voice to avoid disturbing the dogs. “—the anxiousness usually fades after I wake up.”
“Not with these dreams, I’m assuming.”
Will grabs a bottle of Ibuprofen from a drawer, his hands rattling the pills inside as he pops off the childproof lid with practiced ease.
“Instead, I reach this—this ridiculous height of anxiety where I—I can’t think or see straight and it doesn’t really go away until I make sure—” Shaking out some pills on the counter, he stops himself, chuckling bitterly. “I feel infantile. I’m four years old again, asking my mother to check under my bed for boogeymen.”
“If anyone was forced to deal with the boogeymen you do, what lied beneath their bed would be the least of their concerns. In any case, I strongly suggest a change of sleeping environment to help with these dreams.”
He grabs a glass from the counter and holds it beneath the faucet. “Like a different room?”
“A different area altogether. The routine of your dwelling may be triggering unwanted sequences within your mind.”
“Leave my house?” He scoffs a laugh, turning off the tap. “Where am I supposed to go, a hotel? Alana’s? Your office for a late-night pseudo-therapy session, maybe?”
“Should you find yourself needing an exit, my door is always open. I may not be able to host you at the office, but I assure you there are no boogeymen beneath the floorboards of my home.”
“It’s late. I shouldn’t be awake right now, let alone driving an hour in the snow. If it gets any worse, I’ll…I don’t know, take a sleeping bag into the forest and try not to freeze to death.” Will grabs the phone from his shoulder, setting the glass of water on the countertop before the trembling of his hands made him lose his grip. “I’ll be fine. I don’t even know why I called.”
“When events distance ourselves from reality, it’s natural to reach out for an anchor.”
“Yeah, well, this ship’s just passing through.” He holds his forehead and tries to rub the dizziness away. “Goodnight, Doctor Lecter.”
He hangs up, quickly.
Will downs four pills with a water chaser, while the haunting, dulcet tones of his bow against vocal strings scrape the inside of his skull like blades against glass.
Since when had he run to someone after a bad dream?
The pressure built inside his head makes the room pulsate and swell against the borders of his vision.
Since when was his psychiatrist on speed dial?
He presses, presses, presses his hands against the corner of the kitchen counter to stop them from shaking, until red indentations mark the flats of his palms.
Since when had Hannibal become his anchor?
He picks up his phone.
Any port in a storm.
Will retracts his hand from the door of Hannibal’s home. The back of his wrist swipes across his damp forehead before both hands tuck themselves away into his jacket.
The evening sticks to the sides of his neck and makes his clothes feel three sizes too big. He shifts his weight in place upon the doorstep as his fists unclench, clench, unclench inside his pockets. He squeezes his eyes shut and pries them open, trying to free his mind from the remnants of his delusion, trying to shake the burning sensation prickling behind his retinas.
The handle clicks as it turns, and Will’s eyes are immediately drawn to the point of a sharpened pencil, dangling loosely from the corner of Hannibal’s mouth.
Creaseless clothing drapes the other man’s form: a pressed, grey-blue collared shirt beneath a dark, single-breasted waistcoat, a flawless knot atop a patterned silk tie that disappeared beneath the cross of his vest.
Will stares at the pencil between Hannibal’s teeth. “Hungry?”
“Oh.” Hannibal takes the pencil from his mouth. “My apologies. Poor art habit.”
“You? A poor habit?” Will scoffs. “Next you’ll be telling me you don’t spend every minute of your life in suits.”
“We all wear suits of one nature or another, Will, but I could change if that would make you more comfortable.”
“It really wouldn’t.” Will avoids eye contact (hands unclenching, clenching.) He sighs and watches his cloud of breath manifest in the frozen air. “You didn’t need to invite me over.”
“‘Need,’ alone, is an inadequate measure of motivation. There are many things that are not needed of us. It is the unnecessary that makes us who we are.” Hannibal makes way. “Please, come in. May I offer you some coffee, tea?”
“No, thank you, I don’t plan on staying awake very long.” Will enters the foyer, gaze drifting across the ceiling. “I realize it’s late.”
“It’s no matter. Your call sounded urgent.” Hannibal locks the door behind them. He gestures towards his living room. “Please, have a seat. Make yourself at home.”
Circling around the nearest living room chair, Will places both hands on the plush, emerald armrests before taking a look around. Sophistication is written on Hannibal’s walls in the language of fine art, of murals and paintings, of blossoming plants with esoteric messages hidden between every petal. The various, delicate trinkets from worldwide travels, the overpriced furniture with invisible postage markings from thousands of miles away—all nothing more than false warmth folded beneath the wrappings of elegance, of methodical class and strategically-positioned high culture.
Will lowered himself into his seat.
‘Home’ couldn’t have felt further away.
“What brings you here tonight, Will?” Hannibal asks, tugging up the knees of his slacks before taking a seat.
The pencil from earlier is still woven between Hannibal’s fingers.
A sketchbook rests open upon the side-table, but Will can’t make out the picture.
“I’m distracted,” Will says, leaning forward. “Not exactly the most shocking thing to ever happen to me, I know.”
Hannibal touches the eraser of his pencil to his bottom lip. “Depends on what’s been distracting you.”
“Dreams,” he says, shortly. “I mean, I’ve had dreams before, multiple times, with ever-evolving levels of grotesque imagery and homicidal memories that don’t belong to me, but usually, I can—I can make sense of them. Usually, they’re trying to tell me something, trying to show me whatever it is I haven’t realized yet, but…there’s this one recurring dream I’ve been having. I can’t see the message, but I feel comfortable, while I’m there. While I’m there, I’m…home.”
Hannibal sets his pencil atop his sketchbook. “Dreams can carry an inexplicable air of familiarity, meant to bring us comfort by numbing us to the strangeness of our surroundings. There is solace within your mind. Your subconscious has begun to take asylum in your unconscious state.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“There is a technique called lucid dreaming,” he continues, “that trains you to raise your awareness of being within a dream. One of the most vital steps to achieving full ludicity involves the improvement of dream recall through recordkeeping. Your thoughts have plagued your subconscious for some time—bringing them out into the open will help your dream recall. In the future, you may recognize the message within a dream while you are still inside of it.”
Will smirks. “You want me to keep a diary for you?”
“It wouldn’t be for me. It would be for you to look over, personally, until you gain the ability to match the patterns in your dreams to the patterns in your entries.”
“I don’t think that will help.”
“I already see the pattern. It’s the same story, every time, I’m picturing myself as the murderer. I’ve claimed my victim. I’m burying a body, I’m flaying the skin off someone’s back—I’m tearing open a throat, I’m treating the chords, I’m drawing a bow across them and the sound…the sound they make still resonates inside my head. But nothing about this would be out of the ordinary if I…if every time I woke up from it, I didn’t wake up…”
Will’s hands remained pinned to edges of his armrests (fingers clenching, unclenching around plush emerald fabric.)
The word oozes from his mouth, dripping with repulsion.
“Besides,” he rubs a hand over his mouth, palm bristling against his facial hair, “these people I’m killing, they’re not…they’re not the victims from the case files. They’re not the corpses I saw at the crime scenes.”
Hannibal does not break his gaze. “Whose faces do you see?”
“Doctor Lecter, the reason I’m here tonight is because the person I’m killing in my dreams is you.”
As expected, Hannibal does not react. His hands keep folded neatly on his thigh; there’s a small smirk set firmly on the man’s face, as his shoulders bear the unmoving weight of practiced clinical detachment. Their eyes lock, and surprisingly, it is Hannibal who blinks first.
“Do you find enjoyment in your line of work, Will?”
Will’s laugh sounds like a warning.
“Not that kind of enjoyment, no. I do what I do to help people, to save lives—I don’t enjoy playing pretend behind the eyes of deranged maniacs, that’s just part of the job.”
“When it comes to dreams, symbolism manifests itself in many different ways. What you are going through is not necessarily indicative of what you may be thinking.”
“Not necessarily? So there’s still a chance I’m developing into some of kind of sadist who gets off on committing murder?”
“A painting,” Hannibal starts, “cannot be viewed properly by focusing a single brushstroke. As it is only one part of the picture, I suggest we put that aspect of your dream aside for a moment. We must take a step back to appreciate the view. Tell me, Will. What else happens during this dream?”
“Nothing. I realize it’s you and I wake up.”
“If the dream ends with your recognition of me, there may be significance to it.”
“If the dream ends with you, you may be significant.“
“I am your friend. There is significance to that.” Hannibal turns his palms upwards, his gesture offering suggestion. “Death may indicate a fear of loss. Do you fear my loss?”
Will’s sneer makes the white of his teeth glimmer. “I don’t expect you to stay.”
“That was not my question.”
“You were a sleight of hand away from being killed by Tobias Budge last week. Maybe I’m not too keen on the idea of empathizing with your murderer to figure out how you died.”
“Then these dreams represent pervasive negative thoughts. You place yourself in the shoes of murderers, claiming responsibility for the very thing you’ve recently begun to fear.”
“But that’s not the full story, that doesn’t feel like the full story. I’m recreating these scenes explicitly for my own purpose, but why you? What is the significance of you?”
“Do you harbor ill-will towards me? A grudge, perhaps?”
“But you claim you recreate the scenes for a purpose. What else could be your motivation?”
“That’s the point, I shouldn’t have my own motivation. When I see through killers’ eyes, my motivations are the killer’s motivations, but by killing you, I’m not finishing what Garret Jacob Hobbes started. I’m not trying to spread a message, I’m not trying to put on a show.”
“Then let’s find out what it is you are trying to do.”
Nodding, Will leans back into the chair.
“Close your eyes,” Hannibal instructs, voice soft and soothing.
Heaving another heavy sigh, Will straightens his back and returns his hands to the armrests.
“Think carefully, and tell me, Will. What is your design?”
He shuts his eyes in Hannibal’s living room, and opens them in a forest.
His vision is immediately assaulted with shades of leaves and moss. Sunlight illuminates the mushroom-ridden soil beneath his feet as he kneels at the body lain before him. The catatonic corpse was dressed far too well for his presence to be accidental. Pressed, grey-blue collared shirt. Dark, single-breasted waistcoat. Patterned silk tie that disappeared beneath the cross of his vest.
Dead gaze cast skyward.
“There is no art to this exhibition,” Will says aloud. “It matters not how I do it, nor the consequences I face. This is the only way I can stop you.”
And the good doctor’s pale lips, they move.
“Have I done something to wrong you?” they ask.
“There is a truth of you here. A truth no one but you and I can see.” Will prepares the IV drip, unceremoniously handling the needle in his blue latex grasp. “You are…problematic.”
“What is my crime?”
“You know something you shouldn’t.”
“By whose standards?”
Will takes Hannibal’s hand so gently into his own, and jabs the needle into his skin.
Will’s eyes fly open as he snaps from his reverie.
“What secret do you harbor within yourself so horrendous, so shameful, that its protection requires such dire measures?”
Will looks up to find Hannibal has returned to his seat, very much alive.
Will’s hand suddenly feels empty.
“Within myself?” Will repeats. “You think this is my secret?”
“Why would you kill me over a secret I harboured from you? You rid yourself of me, in fear I will find out before you. You would rather see me dead before I saw the truth.”
And it’s those words that sink to the bottom of Will’s stomach like stone.
The first brushstroke in focus becomes the final brushstroke featured.
Pieces of the painting fall into place, and Will steps back to see the portrait of a man far too well put-together.
“And my work is distracting me from this ultimate truth, is that it?” Will says, bitterly. “Something hiding in the dark of my subconscious?”
“Sometimes, searching the darkness within ourselves is the only way to shine light on the shadowed truths.”
“You can’t search for something that’s already beneath the spotlight, Doctor.”
“What’s beneath the spotlight, Will?”
“I think I’m attracted to you.”
And still, Hannibal shows no reaction.
Will’s laughter is laden with disbelief; his teeth tug at the inside of his lip, trying to bite back the words. “Don’t pretend you didn’t figure it out before I did.”
“I am a psychiatrist, it’s my job to realize things about others before they realize it themselves.” He shrugs, playfully. “Maybe you should have killed me when you had the chance.”
“Ha ha, right,” Will breathes. “How long have you known?”
“I’ve carried suspicions, but far be it for me to plant ideas inside your head.” Hannibal hands brush invisible lint from his thighs. “Will, are you familiar with the concept of transference?”
“Do we really want to bring Freud into this discussion?”
“I am a psychoanalyst, I believe he is welcome here. Transference refers to the phenomenon of intense emotions unconsciously retargeting themselves from one person to another. Considering the most recent incident involving Doctor Bloom—”
“Transference,” Will interrupts, grimacing at the name, “doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over longer periods of time, over multiple courses of therapy, of discussion, it—it doesn’t happen overnight.”
“I’m not saying it did.”
“So you are saying this is something I’ve wanted subconsciously for a long time, is that it?”
“Your symptoms resulting from your overactive empathy are intensifying. You are seeking balance so desperately, you are navigating the world with poor foresight and open arms. It would be foolish to ignore that we have discussed your personal issues, your personal concerns, extensively. Emotions may have become muddled in the process.”
“I’m not in control of my own emotions, now?”
“I am saying to deeply question whether or not this is something you want.”
Will’s voice drops to a hazed whisper. “What does it matter whether or not it’s something I want?”
“It matters a great deal. How does this revelation make you feel?”
“Confused…relieved?” Hands close-cupped around his mouth, Will breathes in as he looks away, mumbling behind his fingers. “I didn’t know what was causing those dreams, at least now I have something to show for the worry.”
“Do you believe these unconscious desires of yours are romantic or sexual in nature?”
“Is there a difference?”
“They are different beasts—observed together often, but not incapable of existing apart.”
“I don’t know,” Will huffs, rising to his feet, “I don’t know.”
Hannibal turns his gaze to follow. “When was your last sexual encounter?”
“I avoid social contact whenever physically capable, Doctor Lecter, suffice it to say it’s been a while.”
Hannibal watches Will pace around the room.
Finally, Will stands by the window, one hand leaning against the wooden frame, the other resting on his hip.
“More than a year?”
“I don’t see how this is relevant,” Will snaps.
“Allow me to explain,” Hannibal says, turning in his chair to better face the window. “Your mind has taken recent experiences and melded them with your inner desires. You feel conscious regret over what transpired with Alana. These dreams, featuring unconscious attractions, signify a refusal to face a repeat incident. You therefore bury yourself in your work, in adapting to killers’ minds, in desperate need of a distraction. You bury me, and all possibility of dealing with my finding out, along with it, desperately skirting the realizations of what it is you crave.”
“And what is it I crave, Doctor Lecter?”
“Touch,” he says simply. “Relief. Intimate contact with another human being. With the experience of your recent rejection, and seeing as I am the one who has been the closest to you recently, you believe I can satiate this craving.”
“Are we talking consciously or unconsciously, now?”
“You tell me.”
“Look, I’m…” Will stops to smile, defeated, running a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. This isn’t the path I was expecting this conversation to go down. I came here to figure out what was happening, not force you to entertain spontaneous flights of fancy.”
“Please, do not apologize. Small stretches of the imagination keep the mind limber.”
“Small?” Will laughs. “Like the distance between here and the sun, maybe?”
“Our sun rests just shy of ninety-three million miles from our planet, and yet we still reap the benefits of its warmth. The subconscious does not deal in pointless contrivances. Everything has purpose. Even the most distant thought, when given consideration, may allow you to benefit from its warmth.”
“Or light me on fire.”
“I would not let you burn.”
And it’s those words that make the stones in Will’s gut clamor up his throat to choke him.
“…which team do you bat for, Doctor?”
A small smirk graces Hannibal’s face as he looks away, affording Will the privacy to his own bewildered expression. “I do not wish to cross any boundaries, Will. I have no desire to engage in anything that would make you uncomfortable.”
“That isn’t a rejection.”
“No. It is not.”
“Isn’t it your job to shut me down, tell me I’m being irrational?”
“I am afraid you are being irrational, and I must ask you leave my home at once.”
Will barks his laughter, dragging a hand down his face hard enough for his stubble to leave scratches on his palm.
“Is that what you want me to do?” asks Hannibal.
“What would you like me to do, Will?”
The glass of the window is cold against the underside of Will’s wrist. Hannibal’s pseudo-rhetoric dangles in the space between them; Will continues watching the snow fall as if the ice had answers.
Will does not look back at Hannibal’s expression.
The period of silence that follows is interrupted by the sound of Hannibal leaving his chair.
“You are experiencing a high amount of stress,” he says, walking to stand by Will’s side, “in combination with severe, hallucination-inducing empathy issues you have yet to rein under control.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to trigger an episode.”
“My concern lies within the extent of your capability to provide consent. As you are mentally and emotionally compromised, you lack the rational capacity to do so.”
“Regardless,” he continues, “taking into account the nature of our relationship, from a moral stance, I cannot consider these kinds of relations.”
“And from an immoral stance?”
“From an immoral stance, I have done much more than consider them.”
Will releases the breath he was holding, forming condensation on the window. He imagines punching a hole through the glass and escaping with what remained of his dignity.
And still, Hannibal remains at his side, hands folded behind his back, posture strong, and confident.
Could Hannibal smell the uncertainty on him?
Could he hear his heart beat from here?
“I am not Alana.”
“I’m not asking you to be.”
Will counts the seconds between Hannibal’s blinks to determine the distance of the storm.
Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three.
“What do you want me to say?” Will asks, deliberately, jaw slacking with an incredulous smile.
Hannibal keeps a hand tucked within his pocket as he looks at Will with unwavering intensity. Even from this close, with their own exhales on one another’s breath, Will realizes there is neither hair nor string out of place from Hannibal’s perfected construction.
He smells of fine cologne and pressed fabric.
He reeks of method and composure.
Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven.
The good doctor’s shoulders shift with a short intake of breath.
“‘Please’ might be a good start.”
Will feels fingers slide up the side of his face, his ear nestled between index and middle, his anchor’s hand strong, and confident.
Their lips touch, and thunder claps inside his head.