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Rustic Charm

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1.

Will woke in the dark, unable to ascertain where he was. The pain he felt the moment he achieved consciousness kept him from sitting up, so he had to use whatever clues he could gather while supine, stiff-necked, and essentially blind. His first supposition was that he was on a boat, for he felt the steady rocking sensation of being at sea. The distant but distinctive territorial call of a barred owl dismantled this notion. (Whoo cooks for you, the owl seemed to be calling, whoo cooks for you. This was followed by an answering cry from another bird, wacko, wacko.) But Will did recall something of being on a boat. He remembered the cramped cabin, with its low ceiling and an alcohol stove at the foot of the bunk. He had, however, no recollection of the smell of seawater.

Will’s uncertainty fostered a growing panic. But as his eyes began to adjust to the dark, he picked up more clues. First, the light that peeked in through the curtains was moonlight, pale and soft. No street lamps, no headlights, no porch light. Second, the ceiling was vaulted, the beams exposed. A fleeting belief lapped at the edges of his consciousness, gone as soon as it had arrived, that he was safe with Molly at home. But no, once again, the smell didn’t add up. Different wood, different air.

If he could just get up and out of the bed, he could get his questions answered. Perhaps he could figure out what was going on if he just sat up a bit and had a look around. Really, if he could just turn his head a little further, maybe he would be able to make a determination…

With a slowness that only made the effort more anguished, Will lifted his head off the pillow. The first thing he saw was a presence – substantial, adult and male – in the bed beside him. “Jesus shit,” he cried, and sheer surprise propelled him halfway off the bed. His next cry was that of agony, as he was quickly informed by his own body about which parts of him merely ached from overuse, and which still stung from piercing wounds. His exclamation had failed to rouse his bed partner, but it aggravated his lacerated face and his punctured shoulder. He put his left hand to his collarbone, then his cheek, and felt clean, fresh bandages over them. Around the edge of the surgical tape on his face, he ran his finger gingerly, not caring to press further inward.

Hannibal was bandaged, too. His right side was covered in wide white strips of gauze, all the way from his kidney to his navel. Will struggled to parse this, and it came back to him like the memory of a decades-old incidental detail; to recall the abdominal gunshot wound Hannibal had sustained, the opening act of their shared annihilation of the Red Dragon, landed as lightly on Will as if he’d just remembered, Ah yes, it was salmon that they served at that wedding reception.

But as his eyes rested on the bandage, the thought occurred: it was not two separate bandages, one for the entry and one for the exit. In an effort to extract all detritus, and to repair any perforation of internal organs, Hannibal would have to have made an incision from one wound to the other, exposing the entire path of the bullet. There was no doubt in Will’s mind that Hannibal had performed this procedure himself. Who else would have done it? But for some reason, Will could not, at first, picture it happening in his mind. Instead, he thought of that grainy, unnerving photograph of the Soviet surgeon stationed in Antarctica in the 1960s who, having diagnosed himself with an inflamed appendix, promptly administered a local anesthetic and removed the offending organ himself. The surgeon’s expression in the photo was focused but placid, a perfect symbol of the famous ability of Russians to endure absolutely any hardship.

Slowly, Will was able to place that look of equable determination on Hannibal’s face, in his own mind. It occurred to him that Hannibal was constantly faced with being the most qualified person in the room to perform whatever task was at hand, and whether it was a discourse on classical literature or bowel surgery, he never shrank from his burdens, but shouldered each one with care and pride.

Strange that Will’s shout and violent leap had failed to rouse him. Will would have figured him for the lightest of sleepers…if he required sleep at all. But it could have been that, having defied the efforts of the sea to swallow him, and having hauled an intermittently-conscious Will to this place, wherever it was, and then having sliced himself open and sewn himself shut again, Hannibal may have elected to spoil himself by administering a powerful sedative. If so, Will felt suddenly safer; Hannibal would have never done such a thing if they were less than secure in this place.

Wherever this place was. Finding a little momentum, Will got to his feet and had a look around. He was in a bedroom, in a cabin – for a given definition of “cabin.” Even in the dim light, Will could see that this was a wealthy man’s idea of “rustic charm,” essentially a luxury hotel that was maybe set a little further back from the road than your average McMansion. How many of these five-star bolt-holes did Hannibal have, anyway?

Will shambled through the nearest door, which ended up leading to the bathroom. He closed the door behind him before flicking the light switch, but no light came on. The little frosted-glass window allowed some light in, but not enough for him to examine himself in the mirror, which he badly wanted to do. Unlike the other instances when he had awoken after spending several unconscious hours in Hannibal’s care, Will had been put to bed naked. When he looked down, he could discern bandages but could not differentiate any discoloration from bruises or abrasions. At this he shrugged…which was painful. Then he had a piss, found that the toilet flushed just fine, and wandered back out to see what else there was.

The second door Will opened led to a walk-in closet. A walk-in closet in a cabin. Christ. Finally, Will found a door that opened to a spacious sitting room, its furniture carefully clustered so that one could still feel cozy in it. He walked straight through to the kitchen, and was suddenly starving. At that moment he could not remember having eaten, ever. He opened the refrigerator, but found it empty, and the same temperature inside as the room. Opening the cupboards, he discovered first dishes and cooking utensils, and then a collection of large tins, with their contents labeled in Hannibal’s handwriting: “flour,” “sugar,” and so on. This told him that it had not been long since they’d arrived; Hannibal would surely have procured or made some food if they’d been here for more than the few hours it would have taken to get himself and Will cleaned up and dress their respective wounds. It also told him, unfortunately, that if he wanted to eat anything before Hannibal woke up, he would have to cook it himself from scratch, which at that moment was as likely as a trip to the moon, as far as he was concerned.

Off the main room was a half-bath and a utility room containing a washing machine and dryer, plus a control panel that suggested to Will that this cabin was, or had been, equipped with solar panels, though they likely had been stored in Hannibal’s absence. It was only then that Will began to truly feel the silence of the place. Looking around the living room, he was not inundated by red indicator lights from various electronic devices. No appliances hummed. There was a grandfather clock in one corner, but it did not tick, and its pendulum did not swing.

Will went back to bed. Lying in the dark, wide awake now, he felt like this cabin: he had been quietly empty for a long time, but had been meticulously prepared for an eventual occupation. Soon, very soon, lights would come on, spaces once cold and hollow would be occupied by a pleasant hum, and he would fill with warmth.

 

2.

Hannibal’s default physicality was slow deliberateness, effortless economy of movement, and so sometimes Will forgot that he was as maimed as Will himself was, as fragile and stitched-together. He barely noticed the way Hannibal minimized the simple, repetitive movement of brushing his teeth, as they stood together before the mirror and completed their bedtime ritual together, Will in his boxers and t-shirt, Hannibal in his pajama bottoms. But when Hannibal winced, just from having swung his arm a touch too vigorously, Will remembered that this man, who had spent the last several days dutifully cooking his meals and changing his bandages without commenting on his own condition, was in a delicate state. There was a hitch in Will’s rhythm, as he tried to perceive Hannibal the hunter, Hannibal the cold killer. But he couldn’t feel it. But what he could feel at that moment from Hannibal was something like…satisfaction. Perhaps even a quiet joy.

If Hannibal noticed Will’s jarring moment, he did not acknowledge it. But he did remark, when Will took one aborted step toward the bathroom door still holding his rinsed-off toothbrush, “Everything alright?”

Will scoffed at his own false step. “I did it again.” He put the toothbrush in the porcelain cup on the counter, and moments later Hannibal did the same, though he stayed put, because Will remained between him and the door. Will explained, “I can’t shake it. It’s the feeling I get when I’m in a hotel room. Every time I’m staying in a hotel, and I’m using something like a toothbrush, I habitually think, Is this the last time I’m going to use this before I check out? Should I put it in my bag now, so I don’t forget it later? And here, I still feel like I’ve only just gone out of town for a few days, and any day now I’ll get back, and my normal life will resume. But, I’m not on a trip. I’m home. Aren’t I?”

“I’m sure you have surmised,” Hannibal replied, “that when I purchased this house, it was not with the intention of making it a permanent residence. But I am confident that we will not be found here, and so we can make it a home for as long as you care to stay.”

“But how long would you care to stay?” Will asked. “Sooner or later we’ll need to move on to a country with no extradition. And in the meantime, the hunting is not exactly plentiful in the wilderness of Ontario. There are two hundred and seven people in the nearest town, and I’ll bet they’re all very polite.”

Hannibal seemed hurt by this remark. “Do you think that’s the only thing I care about? How many people I can kill, and how often?”

“The thought crossed my mind,” Will deadpanned.

“I understand that we are in our, I believe the term is ‘honeymoon phase,’ and you must be very excited about our future and all the things we’ll do together. But I’m not as young as I used to be, and I’m afraid these days I need at least a thirty-minute nap between homicides.”

At last, Will cracked a smile, and Hannibal smiled softly in return. He put a hand on Will’s shoulder, which prompted Will to move from the bathroom to the bed. Some nights they went to bed at the same time, and some they didn’t, but regardless, they both behaved as if they were sleeping alone, as if the other were not there. They didn’t talk, they didn’t touch, they only retired silently to bed each night and rose silently in the morning. (Or at least, Hannibal rose silently. Will had a tendency to flop out of bed and shamble to the bathroom with a litany of recalcitrant grunts and much snuffling.) That was what men did, after all, when there was only one bed: a quick “Good night” and then right to sleep, preferably on your side and facing away from the other man, with him extending you the same courtesy.

Thoughts of this convention did not bother Will that evening. He lay on his back, as did Hannibal, and he turned his head to the right, and Hannibal turned his head to the left, and they gazed at each other.

“Also, I don't...have anything here,” Will said. “Nothing here belongs to me. My things are all still in a house somewhere, and sometimes I think I'm going to go back to that house. Not that material possessions mean so much to me, but the fact that they still exist and I'll never have them again...”

“I understand what you mean,” Hannibal said. “And I'm sorry for anything you owned that had sentimental value that you were not able to bring with you into this new life. But anything that can be replaced, anything you desire that would make you feel at home, I will purchase it for you.”

Will hummed in reply, and turned his head so he was staring at the ceiling. Despite his feeling of loss, Hannibal's offer stumped him. What would he like? “Some fishing gear,” he said at last. “There are lots of lakes around here. We could have fish every night.” He would have liked to have some books as well, but which ones? Something new and interesting, or something familiar and comforting? After a long pause, he finished lamely with, “I'll think of more stuff tomorrow.”

The following day, Hannibal took the car, returning several hours later with just the things Will had asked for that could be bought in town, along with a few artificial logs – Hannibal anticipated that by the time winter came and they needed substantial wood, they would both be well enough physically to chop it themselves, but for now the store-bought variety would have to suffice. But the following week, he left and came back with a package that had been delivered to a post office box, and Will got fly-tying gear, some music, and a jigsaw puzzle. Will had seen the slightest expression of disdain pass over Hannibal's face when he'd requested this last item, and tried to justify it as being “meditative.” Hannibal could not imagine why anyone would waste their time on an activity that was not productive in some way, and always preferred to pursue relaxing activities that were also enriching; for example, learning Mandarin. Nevertheless, sometime after Will opened the box and poured the puzzle onto the coffee table, Hannibal found himself seated next to Will, putting together a few pieces of sky here and there.

Using the post office box in town, Hannibal procured everything Will asked for – although some items arrived more quickly than others. For instance, Will noted to Hannibal that he'd like to have some clothes of his own. The clothes that were there when they arrived, Hannibal's clothes, were comfortable, but they were a bit big for him. Hannibal agreed that this was indeed a situation that needed to be remedied, but then Will noticed that these new clothes seemed to take a lot longer to arrive in the mail than his fishing gear or books, and he was compelled to continue swimming in Hannibal's sweaters for another two weeks.

 

3.

To supplement the non-perishables in the kitchen cupboards for making bread and oatmeal, Hannibal brought back a variety of foods from in town, some of them from off the store shelves, others obviously sent for by mail. Some days they ate elaborate dishes that took Hannibal all afternoon to prepare, but other days they ate simply, tearing pieces off a baguette and enjoying them with smoked trout and cheeses. Will was very fond of one particular soft cheese that Hannibal introduced him to; he'd only caught a glimpse of the wrapper before Hannibal had disposed of it: Saint Paul...something. He did not know if that was the brand, or the type of cheese. It was a round loaf with a smooth orange-yellow rind, and it was so creamy and sweet, Will had to consciously restrain himself, after the first bite, from spreading ridiculous amounts onto pieces of baguette and devouring them in a single bite. He took slices as thin as the ones Hannibal took, and chewed carefully.

After they had consumed about a quarter of the little loaf, Hannibal caught Will's expression, and remarked, “Is there any particular reason why you are smirking at the cheese?”

Will pointed at it, making a little circular gesture. “Now it kind of looks like Pac-Man. With that much of it cut out. Have you ever played Pac-Man? Was there ever a time when you did normal things?”

“I've never played Pac-Man, though I am familiar with his appearance, and I agree, it does bear a resemblance.”

A few minutes later, Will looked out the window and noticed a deer, grazing peacefully. He suddenly thought of all the fish they ate, nearly every day, and asked, “Is there a gun in this cabin?”

“I'm afraid not,” Hannibal replied. “I've never fired a gun, actually.”

“Well, would you like to try getting up behind that deer and snapping its neck like you do? It'd be nice to have a little venison.” Will realized then that he was complaining, and he didn't mean to. Hannibal did all the shopping and all the cooking. All Will did was fish. He didn't want to seem ungrateful. “This is good, though,” he said, indicating the food on the table. “The food we have is wonderful. I really like that Pac-Man cheese.”

Hannibal never corrected Will, never told him the actual name of the cheese. The following night, after dinner, Hannibal asked Will if he would like a cheese course before dessert. “There's still some Pac-Man cheese left,” he said off-handedly. And that made Will grin.

 

4.

On the days when Will went fishing, he would rise even before Hannibal did, with only the slightest hint of dawn to illuminate the room. He moved silently, even taking his clothes into the living room to get dressed. It made him feel a twinge of something like romance, though others might see it as merely an inconvenience, tip-toeing around so that someone else could continue to sleep and dream.

It was during one of these fishing trips that Will felt, for the first time since they'd arrived at the cabin, a desire for sex. Not merely the need to get off – he had been taking care of that fairly regularly, sometimes in the shower, sometimes when Hannibal was in town. No, it was the urge to touch and be touched by another person, to be physically close, and to feel the warmth and humidity that was the inevitable side effect of such activities, that Will was overcome by.

Strange that this desire should strike him when he typically would be reveling in his solitude. But that the feeling was so spontaneous was a comfort to him. It didn't come from wine and persuasive words, it didn't generate from a moment of misery or despair, and it was only a whim, not a compulsion. He continued fishing until he had enough for the week – which took quite some time, as without the full use of his right shoulder, he was at a disadvantage, and lost a few bites – and then packed up and returned to the cabin.

Hannibal was in the kitchen, his hands in a mountain of bread dough, when Will walked in. Will decided he'd like to try something, just to see what happened. So as he swept past Hannibal to put the fish on the counter, he gave Hannibal a quick kiss on the cheek, as casual as if he'd done it a thousand times, and said, “Good morning.”

“I'm almost finished here, if you'd like me to clean those,” Hannibal said, The fact that he did not acknowledge what had just occurred made Will feel giddy inside. That was it, that was just going to be a normal thing that they did now.

“I've got it,” Will said as he stood at the counter. “If you don't mind my crowding in here.”

Hannibal replied, “Not at all.”

Later on, they observed their evening ritual of tending to each other’s wounds. They sat on the edge of the bed, and Hannibal gently dabbed at Will's cheek with a cotton ball soaked in hydrogen peroxide, keeping the cut from scabbing over the stitches. Afterward, Hannibal removed his shirt and reclined on the bed so Will could return the favor. Neither of them ever suggested that they could each just do it themselves, with the help of a mirror.

Will took the same care he always did, but he felt differently tonight about Hannibal's body, about his exposed skin, the way his side moved rhythmically when he breathed, and how it twitched when he felt a twinge of pain. Once, after one of these flinches, Will put a hand on Hannibal's chest, as if to steady him. He swiped more slowly with the cotton ball now, directing more of his attention to the warmth of Hannibal's hair and skin beneath his fingers, the soft nipple under his palm.

When he was finished, he sat up, and Hannibal attempted to follow, reflexively surging forward with the intention of capturing Will in his arms and bestowing a deep kiss. How quickly he’d forgotten the stitches in his side, which pulled painfully and forced him to lie back on the bed.

Will's mouth hung open at this curtailed gesture of passion. He was not nearly so frustrated as he was enamored of Hannibal's swift surrender to his present weakened state. Soon enough, he would be back in fighting form, and Will wondered if he would ever see this side of him again.

For now, he flopped down on the bed next to Hannibal, then scooted just slightly, so their shoulders might touch. He said mildly, “We probably should have fucked that night. When we made it to the beach and were too full of adrenaline to feel the pain.”

Hannibal said only, “I don't like it that you call it that.”

“What, fucking?”

“Do you believe that that's what it would be, between us?”

Will chuckled. “Oh, I get it. You're old-fashioned. You'd prefer it if I called it something sweet and romantic...like 'driving the meat bus to Pound Town.'”

Hannibal was so flabbergasted by Will's vulgarity, he actually laughed. His teeth were briefly bared as he was racked by a series of convulsive breaths. But then he winced, and his hand went to his side. “Oh, please don't make me laugh,” he breathed.

Will was struck by the urge to make Hannibal laugh some more, as all humans are when warned by someone else not to try making them laugh, but he didn't dare act on it. He promised himself, though, that as soon as Hannibal was fully recovered, there would be tickling. The feeling still didn't fit perfectly, just being normal with Hannibal. Just being silly and smitten. But it felt right. Will did not want love without laughter.

 

5.

Will always fooled himself into thinking that he could spend an afternoon reading on the sofa, when the reality was that he would doze off after twenty minutes and accomplish nothing. When he woke up, he heard the ticking of the grandfather clock, and then an additional metallic snip, snip. And again, moments later, snip, snip.

He sat up and looked through the doorway to see Hannibal seated in the kitchen, a lamp placed on the table to supplement the daylight streaming in through the west-facing windows. He had a pair of tweezers in his left hand, and was using them to lift the knots of his sutures away from his skin as he cut them one by one with surgical scissors.

“You're next,” he said to Will, not looking up from his task. “It's been plenty of time.”

Without responding, Will sat down next to Hannibal, careful to stay out of his light, and watched patiently while waiting his turn. As the sutures came away from Hannibal's skin, they left a delicate seam of healed flesh, and two rows of perfectly-spaced pink pinpricks.

Will removed his shirt when Hannibal requested he do so. He sat very still as Hannibal tugged at each suture in his shoulder before snipping it, and willed himself to not flinch when Hannibal moved on to the ones in his face. As the stitches came free, Hannibal placed them on a paper towel on the table, and Will watched the bits accumulate.

“I'm afraid this one is a little too high to be disguised by your beard,” Hannibal remarked. “But if it bothers you, we can apply vitamin E, and that will help.”

Will hummed vaguely in response. Hannibal went on, “Your wounds have healed completely, but the skin is still weak and susceptible to reopening.” He tapped gently on Will's cheekbone, above the scar. “So, no vigorous activity for a while longer.”

“You trying to tell me I talk too much?” Will touched the scar, ran his finger along the length of it. “Thank you,” he said.

“Of course,” Hannibal replied cheerily as he cleaned up the table. “While I always find the slow pace of convalescence frustrating, your company has made it much more bearable.”

Will picked up the lamp and returned it to the end table. “Bearable, huh?”

As Hannibal crossed paths with him, he leaned in to give him the tiniest peck on his scar, and corrected himself: “Quite pleasant.”

Still faint praise, to be sure, but Will had to admit, his company had rarely been described by others as “pleasant” at all.

 

6.

As he got into bed that night, Will laid on his back, as he had done every night, until he remembered that he no longer had sutures and bandages to mind. “I realize it's trivial,” he remarked to Hannibal, “but it'll be so nice to be able to sleep on my right side again.”

“I feel the same way,” Hannibal replied. He rolled slowly onto his right side then, away from Will, but Will picked up that it was being done in an inviting manner. He didn't react right away; he got himself under the covers, resting his head on the pillow and pulling the blanket up to his shoulder, as he usually did. But then, he slowly scooted up closer to Hannibal. Not all the way at first, in case he was mistaken about what was going on. But when Hannibal moved back toward him the slightest fraction and closed the distance, Will found the simple contact rapturous. Hannibal was so warm, and when Will reached a tentative arm across his side, Hannibal welcomed it, placing his own hand over Will's.

Will had a silly thought: it was fortuitous that they were going to be doing this now, because winter was closing in, and sharing body heat would help them through the cold darkness. Will pictured a hundred nights like this, snuggled up with each other, rising later and retiring earlier, keeping each other occupied under the blankets when it got too cold even to peek their heads out far enough to read a book before falling asleep.

After indulging in this reverie for several minutes, Will surfaced to find that he had been absently stroking Hannibal's chest hair. But this just made him feel more cozy, and he pressed himself more firmly against Hannibal, who said, with a smile in his voice, “Get any closer, and you might end up in front of me.”

Will was growing hard against Hannibal's hip, and being so close that Will could feel his voice and his heartbeat all through where they were pressed together was doing nothing to discourage it. Hannibal canted his hips just slightly, to show that he was amenable to the situation, and Will responded by reaching down to move his erection so it was lined up with the cleft of Hannibal's ass. It felt good, so good he wanted to just squirm and grind, but it implied taking a rather large step into something he had no practical experience with, and so after a few delicious thrusts, he decided a different direction. He didn't want to give Hannibal a lot of instructions; he wasn't interested in talking at the moment. He hoped to communicate, by the way he started to climb over Hannibal, nudging Hannibal's side with his own front, that he wished for him to roll onto his back, and then lie on top of him.

Interpreting Will's intention was not rocket science, and Hannibal complied; thus, Will felt Hannibal's erection suddenly aligned with his own. He glanced down, under the covers, between their bodies, to get a look at them. God, was there anything more obscene than a hard cock? A stiff, ruddy prick, straining and wet at the tip? And here were two of them, snug against each other. Shocked and delighted at the sight, Will's mouth hung open; he was panting.

Hannibal, having his hands free, employed both to circle their cocks, squeezing them together and then pumping his hips once. The pressure of Hannibal's grip and the slide of smooth, velvety foreskin made Will's stomach flip. He groaned and cursed before managing to attempt a complementary rhythm, sliding forward slightly just as Hannibal was retreating. With both of them moving in time, long thrusts were not necessary; just an inch back and forth was sufficiently intoxicating to make it difficult for Will to keep himself steady. Hannibal slid his hands slightly upwards, neglecting most of the length their shafts in favor of a tighter channel for the slick heads to pop through, shiny and coral.

Will was already so close to coming, which upset him, because he would have preferred to continue doing this indefinitely. He tried to focus on holding himself up, and squeezed his eyes shut, but when he dared to open them for just a moment, he found himself making hard eye contact with Hannibal, whose expression, for once in his life, was not self-satisfied, but beatific. To his utter astonishment, Will saw something shimmering, welling up in Hannibal’s eyes; not enough to produce a trickling tear, but still an astounding expression of Hannibal’s gratitude for this closeness, which was now, Will knew, complete and inextricable.

This, this would be their lives from here on out. Not a tranquil hibernation at all, but blood pumping, sweat pouring, grunts and cries and passion in nearly unbearable bursts. Will thrust into Hannibal's steady grasp, thinking of the way Hannibal had used his strength to hold the Dragon for him, so that he could sink the blade into soft, vulnerable flesh, and make the blood gush over his hands. His orgasm was upon him suddenly, a new fresh moment of raw ecstasy with Hannibal, triggered by the memory of another. Beneath him, Hannibal shuddered, sharing this ecstasy with him, the blissful moment and the priceless memory.

Gasping and wide-eyed, Will collapsed on Hannibal, bewildered to the point of fright by the peculiar intensity of what he had just experienced. He had made his choice weeks ago, to be with Hannibal, in this way, in every way. The cataclysm of emotion that accompanied this choice should have been long over, metabolized by these weeks of quiet domesticity.

But that choice, he realized now, was not part of his past, and it never would be. It would remain with him the way the arrow remained with the wounded animal, its point becoming more deeply embedded with each movement.

When he heaved a great sigh at this thought, he realized, and far too late, that by falling onto Hannibal he had made an even greater mess of them both. But he didn't care. It was sticky and wet, but he liked the smell of it. He opened his mouth, to say something to Hannibal, to acknowledge what he was feeling, but then it occurred to him that he probably didn’t need to.

Nonetheless, his tongue was loosened, and he expressed himself on a far more mundane level: “I don't remember ever coming so hard,” he said, his voice flat with exhaustion. “And that was basically just a hand job. What the hell.”

Hannibal wished to hold Will reassuringly, but his hands were still trapped between their bodies, holding their softening cocks while semen seeped between his fingers. “I choose to interpret your remark as a compliment,” he said without a hint of gravitas in his voice, “and I happily accept it.”