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Black Rock Mountain

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The air was thick and hot and the cicadas were buzzing around like a festival of white noise. Will grimaced and rubbed a grubby plaid sleeve over his forehead. He regretted wearing the clothes he had, but it wasn’t as though he had expected anything else during the Georgia summer. It was his own damned fault for not bothering to pick up some new clothes once his trip led him here. He had decided to rot in the fall-wear he’d stuffed in his bag back in Vermont and now he had to live with the decision. The fact that any of his clothes had survived the trip was a miracle in and of itself, considering how things had ended with the last ride he’d hitched.

He chuckled bitterly and shook his head. Yeah, he was lucky he had any of his possessions at all.

Will took a deep breath that got caught halfway in his throat from the heaviness of the air. Groaning, he tossed his rucksack by the side of the road and pulled the crumpled pack of Benson and Hedges from his pocket to light up. The brand tasted like ass after a long night, but he couldn’t afford to be picky. Wasn’t a station around for miles, by the look of it. He didn’t have much choice.

He let out a puff of smoke into the air, thin and long, as he looked around. Trees, dirt, mountains up over the distance, and he could smell fish and lake water somewhere nearby. The times he’d spent with his father all those years ago had left an innate sense of the scent ingrained in his subconscious. He could catch a whiff of a lake miles away like a bloodhound tracking game. He frowned and took another drag.

For all the good a lake would do. He had no fishing equipment. He would have to figure something out in the next day or so. Hadn’t eaten in about thirty hours, which wasn’t bad all things considered, but it could get a lot worse very quickly if he wasn’t careful.

He let the cigarette hang between his lips and chewed on the filter as he hefted the strap of the bag back up and over his shoulder. The sun was already starting to set and the sky was orange now. The cicadas were getting louder too, their cacophony summoned by the night.

How long had he been walking now? A few hours, maybe. It didn’t really matter. Eventually some unlucky son of a bitch would drive by and Will could get back on track—recover from the disaster of whatever the hell had happened back in Knoxville. He shook his head and decided to stop kicking himself for it. Shit happened. His dad had beaten that into him.

Shit happens, son. Ain’t nothing to be done. Just move on and stop pissin’ in the wind over it.

“Yeah, alright, alright,” Will grumbled, cig pinched between his teeth.

Grudgingly, he began the trek down the shoulder of the road. The crunching of the gravel was drowned out by the bugs and buzzing heat and Will felt sweat sliding down the grime on his face. The taste of the cigarette was staving off the hunger for now. At least he had that. It would do just fine until he found himself another option.

At that thought, he glanced back over his shoulder down the road. Empty. It had been a risky move coming this way. State parks were a hit or miss during the best of times, but it was starting to feel like this time was a surefire miss. No one had driven by in hours. It was the time of year, he supposed. The heat was at its peak and no one wanted to go hiking when their skin was boiling off. With how he felt right then, Will didn’t blame them.

It wasn’t the end of the world if no one came by. If it came down to it, Will would find a cabin somewhere up the trail and break in. They wouldn’t be stocked with food, but there’d be a bed and a shower and he could get a night’s sleep outside the cab of a semi and that sounded alright by him. The food part could be handled. He had his knives. There was plenty of game roaming around. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d eaten a squirrel and they tasted decent enough by survival standards.

Point being, he could take care of himself, whether or not a score happened on by.

Will hissed when a bug slapped him in the side of the face as it tried to zoom by. It stung like the pellets from his old buddy’s air rifle and he cursed. “Fucking Georgia. God damn. Why’d I have to pick Georgia?”

He moved to scrub his hand over his beard but caught himself. His hands were filthy and the last thing he needed was a coating of it all over his face. A shower was starting to sound like just about the best thing in the world. That and getting back at the bastard who had left him high and dry back in Knoxville, but there he was pissing in the wind again. He needed to let it go.

He squinted up the road in the fading light, looking for a sign or any indication that he was coming up on the camping grounds. He hadn’t seen so much as a park ranger yet, so either he was very lucky, wasn’t close at all, or he was walking in the wrong direction entirely. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the cigarette burning itself to the quick until the chemical taste of burning filter slicked over his tongue and he coughed, spitting the butt to the ground.

For the briefest moment, he let his rage get the better of him and he kicked the steel toe of his boot into the gravel. Now his mouth tasted like burnt rubber to compliment how his stomach was shrunk up like a pea and his skin was slimed over with sweat and the oil from sleeping out back of the rest stop the night prior. He’d attempted to nick some snacks from the back shelves when the attendant was watching some Spanish gameshow that cranked up and echoed over the linoleum in aggravating high pitches, but then a late night beat cop had wandered in and Will had wandered himself right back on out, cursing his luck. He’d thought about dumpster diving, but there was never anything edible left over at gas stations. It was all candy bar wrappers and foam coffee cups.

Will took a deep breath and calmed down. It would be a waste of energy to lose it now. Lord knew how much longer he would have to trudge up the mountain before he found anything useful. He wasn’t even sure he was going the right way. He was tired and the sting of his gut was making everything fuzzy. Smoking hadn’t been the best idea to keep his mind straight and focused, but the nicotine was doing good and well on calming his frayed nerves and so he felt like it was a win.

Another bug buzzed so close to his ear that he could hear its wings and he slapped the side of his head even though he knew it wasn’t there. It reminded him of his childhood; sitting on the porch with his dad and pretending like he wasn’t drinking the man’s beer while his father fell asleep in an overworked stupor.

Will blinked past the sweat in his eyes and the mist of humidity and sought out the source of the lake smell. This place seemed to be bringing things back to him and he wasn’t sure if he liked that or not. Memories didn’t serve much purpose nowadays. Excepting how they served to remind him of all the shit he should regret but couldn’t be bothered to. He had bigger fish to fry.

Will snorted at his own thoughts. Looking for a lake and thinking about fish metaphors. He really was losing his wits. His hand slipped on the strap of his rucksack and he wiped the sweat off on his jeans, sucking in a sharp breath when he grazed the gash on his thigh. He looked down and sighed. He’d changed the jeans—couldn’t very well wander around blood-soaked—and wrapped the leg up with one of his last clean socks. He knew he would have to clean it sooner rather than later, but it was just another thing to add to the list of why he needed to get his ass to a cabin.

He rolled his eyes and kept walking. He still couldn’t believe that man had gotten the jump on him. Will was always so careful. He had been so sure that the man was asleep, but it turned out he was just drunk and he had the knife out of Will’s hands faster than you could say “fuck you kindly”. It had been a foolish miscalculation on Will’s part, but he had gotten impatient from the trucker’s constant stories about all the women he’d landed back in New Orleans when he was young and disgusting. Will had heard enough graphic renditions of “that bitch was so tight” that he couldn’t take it anymore.

When they had pulled into some old lot for the night in Knoxville, Will had pushed that man so full of the bottle of whiskey hidden under the dash that he would have been surprised if his blood wasn’t saturated with it by the time he was out cold. But the trucker was also a good three hundred pounds dry and Will had been too focused on getting shit done and moving on to consider how a mass like that can soak up booze like a sponge.

When Will had pulled over the curtain of the semi’s cabin and snatched a switchblade from his bag, he’d figured a few good cuts max to bypass the muscle and keep the reflexive resistance to a minimum. He only got the blade an inch into the sternum before thick fingers were pushing down just to the side of his windpipe. Will would have laughed at the inexpert quality of the strangulation if he wasn’t so taken aback by the movement; and even if he wasn’t quite being strangled, it still hurt. He stabbed up and under the man’s arm, aiming for the axillary artery, but the trucker threw his weight and will lost the blade as he tried to brace himself. Next thing he knew, his own damned switchblade was buried in his leg and he was scrambling to grab for his rucksack as the beast of a man hauled Will out of the cab like a sack of flour.

And just like that, Will was thrown out of the truck on his back with a knife in his leg and his pack clutched to his chest as the man drove away in a drunken screech of eighteen wheels and panic.

For the life of him, he had no idea why the man hadn’t killed him, but he supposed not everyone had the nerve for such things—even three hundred-pound drunken truckers.

Will shook away the reverie, focusing again on what was in front of him. His eyes widened when he caught sight of polished wood offset by the tree line and he made his way towards it. It was made in typical forester style with the letters burned into the wood, dark and black. The light from the setting sun was almost gone at this point, but Will managed to make it out by way of the moon and his own half-decent night vision.

Black Rock Mountain State Park

2 Miles

Well, at least he was going the right way.

Ignoring the twinge of pain in his leg, Will rounded the sign and started up the road again. It was beginning to incline just enough for his calves to start burning and he knew when he finally got to stop it would feel like the best night’s rest he’d ever had. It always felt that way after days on end. Every night was the best night’s sleep when you were always tired.

That’s when he heard it. It was a sound he had trained himself to pick up years ago. His ears practically twitched at it.

Tires on the gravel.

Will kept walking. He kept his shoulders sagged and unimposing. He faced down and away and he listened close. Sedan from the sound of it. Too light to be a truck or an SUV, so the chance it was a ranger was slim. They were driving slow, too, like they didn’t know where they were going or were taking in the sights. A first time camper, then?

Will figured he had about thirty seconds before the car rounded the trees and spotted him, so he kept his pace slow and measured. He left just enough exhaustion in his posture to induce pity without making himself seem like an imposition and schooled his face into the worried and friendly “I seem to be up shit creek, oh dear” look that people always tended to go for. When the car rounded the corner, he would wait a few seconds and then turn like he just noticed the car—let that glimmer of hope flicker onto his face—and hold out his thumb.

As long as the person wasn’t an asshole, it would work. Half the time it even worked on assholes.

When Will turned, he didn’t need to fake the surprise that pushed his lips open in a gap. “Damn,” he muttered to himself. It was one hell of a nice car. Too dark to be sure, but it looked like a Benz. Who the hell drives a Benz up to campgrounds? That poor beauty was bound to get filthy. Letting the surprise morph into hope, he hesitantly held his thumb out.

Though the hesitance was an easy feign, he had already begun to lose confidence that this person would give him the time of day. The richer they were, the less likely they were to stop. Folks with nice cars and nice things didn’t give a rat’s ass about some poor SOB standing by the side of the road, and even if they did, god forbid they get the leather interior dirty. But, to Will’s enduring consternation, the car flashed its headlights and pulled to a stop right next to him.

He let his arm drop to his side, not believing his luck, and leaned down just enough to look in as the passenger window rolled down. He was met with a set of endlessly dark eyes.

“Not exactly a comfortable night to be walking in the forest,” the driver said amiably. He looked to be older than Will and much more well-kept. He was wearing a ridiculously elaborate three piece and his hair was combed until there wasn’t a strand out of place, but what really caught Will’s attention was the man’s accent. It was thick and rolling. It sounded eastern European if Will were to hazard a guess, but he was by no means an expert on that sort of thing.

Will pushed off an embarrassed laugh and scratched the back of his head. He was starting to feel eager. This man obviously had money. He could get one hell of a score from this if he played his cards right. Not to mention it would be fun as all hell to take apart someone who prided looking so collected. All in all, he couldn’t envision a better presentation of game. “Yeah, no kidding.” He smiled. “It’s hot as all hell out here. Not gonna lie.”

The man grinned back in response and Will’s eyes twitched as they fought not to narrow. That grin was false. He knew a false grin when he saw one, but damn this guy was good. Will had almost believed it. He chalked it up to the rehearsed politeness of class and shrugged it off, listening to what the man had to say. “Are you headed towards the park? Do you have a camp there?”

Will rubbed his arms awkwardly and shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t. I’ve found myself in a bad way the past few days and I just sort of…” He looked up the road. “Wandered this way. Looking for a place to crash, maybe. A place to get my head back on straight.” It wasn’t a lie. Not entirely.

The driver hummed in understanding. “Nature is of great benefit to the psyche. It does wonders for clarity of thought.” He spoke in an academic sort of way when he said this and Will wondered what the man did for a living.

“Yeah, I won’t argue that.” He made a show of wiping the sweat off his brow and leaning forward, trying to move things along. “You have a camp up there, I’m guessing?”

There was that same fake smile again and Will was struggling to figure out why it seemed so familiar. “I do.”

Will blinked when no more words came. “I see.” He glanced pointedly up the road again, knowing better than to push for a ride that wasn’t offered with people like this. They didn’t enjoy presumption.

Finally, the man seemed to take pity. “I’m afraid I wasn’t exactly prepared for guests,” the man said apologetically, but just as Will opened his mouth to accept defeat, he continued. “But I never turn down an opportunity for interesting company.” He reached over and opened the passenger door, beckoning Will inside.

Will chuckled and set his bag at on the floor before sliding into glorious air conditioning. “I’m not sure you’ll find me very interesting.”

The driver smiled and put the car back in drive. “I’m sure I will.”

Will nodded and made an attempt at polite conversation. It wouldn’t do him any good if he offended the man before they even got to wherever they were going and he was too tired to risk being thrown out on his ass again. “What’s your name?”

“Forgive me, I’d shake your hand, but,” the driver gestured to the wheel and smirked. “I am Hannibal.”

“Hannibal?”

A nod.

“That’s an interesting name.” The only response was another nod and smirk and so Will continued. “My name’s Will.”

“It’s very good to meet you, Will,” Hannibal replied. And it sounded like he meant it.

Will had to do a double take on the man’s expression. He wasn’t easy to read and Will hated that. He could read everyone, but this man was an enigma wrapped in a riddle and it was setting his teeth on edge. “And you, Hannibal.”

“You’re not from Georgia.” It wasn’t spoken as a question, but Will answered it anyway.

“No. How did you know?” Whenever Will went south, most people couldn’t tell he wasn’t from wherever he sat his boots at the time. He had an easy southern drawl lilting in his voice and it was just soft enough that it could be mistaken for any number of origins. It was surprising that Hannibal had picked up on it enough to distinguish anything substantial.

“Your accent tells me Louisiana,” Hannibal offered. “And your nomadic appearance tells me this is likely not even the first state you have been in this month, let alone your entire life.”

Observant fucker, this one. Will had to be careful here. “Impressive. I was born and raised in Louisiana and left once I was old enough to do it. Been wandering around ever since, you could say.”

“No profession?”

“Is vagrant a profession?” To his surprise, Hannibal laughed at the joke.

“I suppose that all depends on who you ask. Vagrancy can be its own manner of work, from a certain perspective.” Hannibal made a turn down a more winding road up the mountain and Will glimpsed a red and white sign dictating that they were finally entering the heart of the park. “I admire someone who does not require a home or the reassurance of stable employment. It takes a much more confident soul than I.”

If anyone else would have said it, it would have sounded like a jab, but Hannibal’s tone had twisted in just the right way to make it sound entirely complimentary. This man would have made a fantastic politician, Will thought. “Are you a politician?” He blurted it out without meaning to, but there were worse things he could have said so he didn’t feel too bad about it.

Hannibal shot him a surprised raise of his eyebrows. “Not at all. I’m a psychiatrist.”

“Ah.”

“Ah?”

Will waved a hand. “Sorry. It just makes sense. The way you talk. You’re obviously educated.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, then.”

“I won’t fault you.”

“Many people feel threatened when they learn my occupation.” Hannibal flicked on the high beams when they entered a particularly dense section of the forest. A humid mist was starting to haze over the air. “As though they believe I will do nothing but analyze them from that point on.”

Will quirked a brow. “You mean to say you won’t?”

The smile on Hannibal’s face was indulgent. “I will admit that analyzing the mind is instinctual on my part, but it is no more threatening than a mechanic admiring a car.”

“I’m tempted to disagree.”

“Don’t be tempted. Simply disagree.”

With a snort, Will stared out the passenger window, stereopsis going haywire as the light was sucked from the area. He wondered if he’d start seeing that stag again, like he had back when he had been diagnosed with encephalitis. Sometimes he still felt the heady ache of the disease on his mind even though it was long gone. “The mind is more precious than a car, isn’t it? It’s our private self. It can be abused and manipulated. I’m sure that’s the basis of their mistrust.” Will saw Hannibal glance at him from the corner of his eye and he felt a slight victory. He’d caught the man’s interest now. He knew it.

“And you do not share this fear of theirs?”

“No,” Will murmured. “Not really.”

“Is this because you feel you have complete control over your mind? Or because you feel there is nothing of value within it to conquer?”

Will rolled his tongue in his mouth and considered his words carefully. He hadn’t planned on this. Usually people he hitched rides with would go through a chunk of laborious small-talk and then awkwardly pretend he wasn’t there. The more exhausting ones would try to crack jokes or play road games with him. But this? This was something else and Will was smart enough to know that he had to be careful. He was by no means an open book, but he had a feeling this guy would flip through his pages anyway if given the chance. “Value is down to opinion,” he acquiesced at last. “I won’t claim to have more valuable thoughts than anyone else.”

“For what reason?” Hannibal seemed truly curious. “If your mind is of greater worth than those around you, it seems only right to regard it with higher esteem.”

“And how would you judge that worth?”

“That is the real question, isn’t it?”

Will watched the older man through his peripheral vision, searching for indications of intention or motive. He found nothing. He could hear hints of egocentricity bleeding through the words, but little else revealed itself to his wandering gaze. “You aren’t from Georgia yourself, obviously.” He changed the subject. Best to keep the conversation on the straight and narrow for now until he had a better grip on what kind of man he was dealing with.

With a chuckle, Hannibal nodded. “Just as observant as I, it seems. I am from Lithuania, but have not been there in many years.”

Will felt a measure of pride at having successfully guessed the general accent of his companion. One to mark in the acumen column, he supposed. “Why Georgia?”

“A medical convention brought me this way a few years back and I found I liked this particular park. The views are pleasant and the visitors spread thin.”

“Don’t like having to speak to the neighbors?”

“Why else would I be here when it’s as sweltering as it is now?” Hannibal had just the right hint of humor in his voice—the perfect level of inflection—and Will found himself marveling at the calculated charisma such subtleties required. Whoever this man was, he was good at playing the part he did.

Will found himself wanting to discover what was underneath the mask and he didn’t much care how he went about it. Either the man would reveal it himself or Will would flay him and take a peek inside. In the end, it didn’t make much difference. Either way, he would get to see the inner workings. It made sense to him. If the clock’s face wasn’t telling the proper time, open it up and check the gears.

He allowed his lips to quirk just so, playing it off as amusement towards Hannibal’s own tone. His blood was beginning to stir now. He hadn’t felt this level of anticipation before a score in a very long time. “Can’t imagine much of anyone is up here this month,” Will observed. “The heat is a damning thing.”

Hannibal made a sound of assent and Will noticed they were pulling up to a large cabin. There were no other buildings in sight; only trees and dirt. “It allows me to walk undisturbed.”

Will was about to reply when he noticed the lights of the cabin were on. “Are you here with family? I don’t want to intrude.” He didn’t do families. It wasn’t his deal. Disappointment was filtering into his gut.

Hannibal followed Will’s gaze and shook his head. “Oh, not at all. I’m afraid you’ve got only me to contend with.” He said the words with a flash of smiles and teeth, but there was a lingering insinuation just beneath the surface that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “I’ve already been here. I was simply making a trip to the shop in the town nearby for some supplies for supper. I regret that I was less prepared for my trip than I should have been. Although my lack of preparation did bring about a guest to join me for my meal.”

Will’s stomach grumbled as though to spite him and Hannibal laughed as he turned off the ignition. Will blanched. “Yeah, not gonna lie. I’m starved.” Might as well get a meal out of the guy before he got to work. There was no rush. It was late and Hannibal was interesting. Will may as well get the most out of it. “You cook?”

“I dabble,” Hannibal teased. He got out of the car and Will followed suit, keeping his rucksack close at hand. “I’ve found that cooking is far more rewarding when there is someone with whom I can share the meal. I would be very pleased to have you join me for dinner, Will.”

Will grinned. Not like he was going to turn down a free meal. “That would be great. Thank you, Hannibal. You’re a generous guy.”

Hannibal waved a dismissive hand and fished his keys from his pocket as he snatched some bags from the backseat of the car. “Simply appreciative of unexpectedly pleasant company.”

God damn, this man was like something out of an Austen novel, the way he talked. Will darn near cackled at the thought but wisely restrained himself. He had a hard time believing Hannibal was even real. No one was that proper and well-spoken. Not where Will came from, anyway. Rather than risk blurting out something that could be seen as a stab towards Hannibal’s propriety, he chose to silently follow the other man into the cabin.

Cabin didn’t seem to be the right word for it. “Shit, this is cushy.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Hannibal’s voice echoed somewhere from Will’s right, but Will was far too focused on drinking in the plush furnishings of the cabin to pay him much attention.

The foyer bled into a comfortable living area, complete with a fur throw rug and couches that looked so soft Will was afraid he’d sink into another dimension if he sat on them. A fire was already crackling under the hearth and Will couldn’t help but admire Hannibal’s confidence at leaving the cabin while a fire was going. Not smart, no, but definitely bold.

The existence of a fire in the first place threw him for a loop, but he quickly realized the cabin had air conditioning and the fire was more for environmental effect than anything. What kind of man lit up a fire just to make the place look pretty?

Will inhaled deep and soaked in the scent of cedar. The walls, the floors, the ceiling—all bright and creamy wood polished to a gleam. He glanced right and saw an open doorway leading to a kitchen and dining room and heard the clatter of pots and cutlery. Hannibal had left him to his own devices, a curious display of trust or arrogance or maybe both. Will decided to utilize the freedom. He peered left and saw a hall that led to three closed doors and saw a similar hall straight ahead. All the doors were closed. He would have to determine which one was Hannibal’s bedroom later. People always kept their valuables in their bedrooms as though there was some sort of protective barrier surrounding their bed. It was stupid, but it made it easier for Will to find the good stuff once the messier business was done with.

He thought about taking his shoes off to avoid rudely tracking dirt all over the floor, but the idea of not being able to run if he needed to made his spine stiffen. After the way his last score went, it was best to be prepared for the worst. Hannibal likely wouldn’t take offense. After all, they were in the middle of the woods. It wasn’t ridiculous to keep on the boots.

Will knew he was being overcautious, but he couldn’t quite help himself. He wanted to believe it was a reactionary result from his last hitch going awry. That wasn’t the whole truth. Something about Hannibal was telling Will to stay focused; to keep alert. He hadn’t quite put a finger on it yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Will never had too much trouble getting a feel on what people were made of. In fact, it was one of the reasons Will was so good at what he did. He knew people. Hannibal would be no different. He may have been more difficult to pin to the board, sure, but Will would have no problem sticking a needle through those wings eventually.

Yet another to add to his collection.

The cleanliness of the cabin reminded Will just how filthy he actually was and he had the decency to feel slightly abashed by it. Schooling his face back into an awkward submission, he wandered over to the kitchen to see Hannibal busy at the cutting board. For a moment, Will watched.

Hannibal’s movements were brisk and precise. Practiced as a seasoned chef, he diced up the onion and tossed it into a sizzling pan with a flick of his wrist. The knife was like an extension of his arm and he moved with complete ease. There was no effort being made here. It was all muscle memory and skill. Will felt that flutter of curiosity at the base of his skull again and cleared his throat.

Hannibal smiled in welcome and calmly continued preparing their meal. He didn’t look up. “Dinner should be done soon. I simply need to finish cooking the meat.”

A cursory perusal of the counter showed Will the meat was nowhere to be found, but he could smell it now. Something was cooking—savory and filling his body with a desire to consume. “Been a long time since I’ve had good food.” He didn’t say it to be kind. He could already tell Hannibal could cook.

“’One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’,” Hannibal responded idly.

Will’s brows and lips twitched in interest. “Virginia Woolf.”

Briefly, Hannibal’s hands ceased their movements and he looked up, meeting Will’s eyes. The air was thick and tense and Will had forgotten to breathe as they stared at one another. Then, it was over and Hannibal was cooking once more. “Yes,” he said. And he sounded infinitely pleased. “Well read for a self-titled vagrant.”

“Vagrancy allows for a lot of excess time.”

“An exceedingly useful benefit, I’d imagine.”

“Can be.” Will rubbed at the side of his nose and stepped further into the room. “Listen, I’m pretty nasty at this point. Been walking for a couple days now.” He held his arms out as though to demonstrate his own state of decay. “Got a bathroom so I don’t have to force you to eat with a guy who’s got a layer of dirt a mile long on him?”

Hannibal used the knife to gesture out of the room and down the closest hall. “First door on your left. Feel free to make use of any toiletries.”

Will blinked at the use of the word “toiletries”, once again wondering if this man was for real. “Uh, thanks. I won’t be long.”

He heard Hannibal call “Take your time” after him as he made his way into the indicated hallway. The temptation to check the other rooms was eating at his subconscious, but he held it at bay. It would have to wait. He tucked himself into the bathroom, which was just as spotless as the rest of the cabin, and flipped open the latches on his bag. He tugged out a shirt that was moderately cleaner than the one he had on and tossed it onto the toilet seat. Out of habit, he shifted his things around until he saw the blades at the bottom of his bag. Running his fingers over each one in turn, he felt comforted by their presence. Checking for his knives was almost ritualistic now. It made him feel at ease. He was naked without them.

If that trucker back in Knoxville had driven off with them still in the cab, Will very well might have gone running after the damned rig just to get them back.

He sighed and tossed the bag onto the floor so he could get a good look at himself in the mirror. What he saw almost made him laugh outright. It was a wonder Hannibal had allowed Will into his car, looking as he did. His beard was scraggly and rough and his hair was in greasy and dull clumps flopping about on his head. His face was smeared with grease and dirt and he looked like he’d been sweating for days and hadn’t slept in even longer, if the darkness under his eyes was any indication.

His clothes were even worse for wear. The shirt was practically a new color with the layers of shit that had accumulated from wandering around at the mercy of Georgia’s summer weather. Will gaped at himself and once again counted his lucky stars. The fact that Hannibal had let someone who looked as haggard as him into his car and seemed more pleased by it than put off was just another reason to add the list of why his host was obviously a figment of some novelist’s imagination.

Will shook his head and switched on the shower, watching the water drain over the granite for a moment before stripping off his clothes and tossing them into a careless heap on the floor. If he was going to have dinner with a man wearing a three piece suit in a fancy cabin, he might as well shower first. He peeled the crusted sock from the tie around his leg and sniffed in displeasure at the cut. It was scabbed over and dense and surprisingly uninfected. The muscle around the wound was firm and swollen and he knew it was going to keep hurting like a bitch for a few more days, but it wasn’t all that bad. He’d had plenty worse.

The water was amazing. As soon as it hit Will’s skin, he groaned at the feel of it. It seemed like it had been a lifetime since he’d last been able to do this. Will had never been afraid of dirt. He had lived half outside practically his entire life, but even he enjoyed first world comforts every now and then. He snatched up a bottle of what looked like overpriced shampoo and lathered up his hair, watching as the water colored brown and flooded away the grime. The soap smelled nice; like pine and lavender. He was almost certain Hannibal had chosen it to compliment the location. He seemed like the type who coordinated everything down to the most minute detail. Normally, Will would have found that annoying, but Hannibal made it seem almost charming.

Will scowled and rinsed out his hair. It wouldn’t do him any good to start liking the man. That never led to anything useful. It never stopped him, either, but it definitely took some of the enjoyment out of it. If you liked someone it wasn’t nearly as fun to remake them.

Will paused and allowed himself to consider his design for Hannibal. The man was so pristine and elegant. It would feel like a sin to half-ass this one. No, the very least he could do in return for a good dinner and interesting conversation was make sure his design was something to remember. It had to be… Will pursed his lips and scrubbed the shampoo onto his body. Soap was soap. Made no difference. His design had to be…

He chewed on his cheek and thought.

Graceful. It had to be graceful.

Yeah, that fit right. Will nodded resolutely as though it had all been decided and shut the water off. He would have liked to stay in there for hours on end, but he could smell the food wafting in past the door and it was beckoning him like an invisible thread tugging him back towards Hannibal. Hungry was quickly transforming into ravenous.

He added a pair of fresh boxers and worn jeans to the clean shirt and tugged the clothes on, flattening his palms over his chest in an effort to smooth out some wrinkles. This was as presentable as he was going to get. He shrugged. Not like Hannibal was expecting him to flounce out of the bathroom in a tux. After a second of debate, Will reached into his pack and took out the switchblade that had found itself hilt-deep in his thigh just days ago. His nose twitched. No point in being bitter at a blade.

He stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans and snapped the latches of his pack shut. He ran a hand through his hair and endeavored to comb it into something less chaotic. Deciding it was good enough, Will shouldered open the door and was met with a wave of olfactory welcome wafting out from the kitchen. He shut his eyes and his mouth watered. Damned if that wasn’t the smell of heaven. He dropped the bag by one of the couches and wandered back into the kitchen.

Hannibal’s jacket was off now, hanging neatly on the back of a stool, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. Will’s eyes flicked over the exposed skin. This man was fit for a psychologist. That wasn’t exactly usual. Will would have to keep his guard up. This guy might be able to put up a halfway decent fight. He wasn’t about to underestimate someone for the second time in a month. His mouth immediately snapped into a grin when he noticed Hannibal look up at him.

“You clean up rather well, Will,” Hannibal observed. His eyes had a light in the back of them and it made Will’s hair stand on end in a way that he couldn’t decide if he enjoyed or not.

“Did my best.” He stepped further into the kitchen, boots thudding on tile, and looked at the covered dishes on the island. “It all smells amazing.”

Hannibal’s chest puffed a bit at the praise but he gave no other indication of his stroked ego. He bowed his head softly and continued gathering up the dishes; the distinguished appearance of humility and confidence in unison. “It was a hasty meal, but I feel it turned out well. The table is just there.” He nodded his head towards the dining room and a tuft of hair fell over his forehead in a smooth sweep. “Please, sit and I will bring the food.”

“I could help—“

“Nonsense.” Hannibal shut the offer down before it even had time to draw breath. “I am the host. You are my guest, Will. Let me serve you.”

A flush was burgeoning at Will’s collar and he turned away so it wouldn’t be seen. Deciding there was no point in arguing and not really wanting to help anyway, he made his way to the table and admired the intricacy of the setting. Did Hannibal do this for all of his random guests? The china was fine, the wine glasses were crystal clear, and there was even a damn centerpiece pulling it all together with a bunch of flowers Will had never even seen before. If he didn’t know better, he would say this guy was trying to pull one over on him.

Will thought on it as he sat and weighed his options. It wasn’t as though he found Hannibal unattractive. Far from it, but that just wasn’t why he was here. Will wasn’t the type of man who mixed his pleasures. When he wanted someone, it was for one reason or another, but never a combination. As intriguing as the prospect of interpreting this dinner as an advance was, Will was more interested in the disassembly of the man who seemed so put together it was almost mechanical.

Will always had a penchant for mechanics.

He started when suddenly Hannibal was leaning over his shoulder and placing a full plate in front of him. Will hadn’t even heard him move. Had he really been so lost in thought that he had allowed someone to sneak up on him? That was unusual. Will could have sworn he hadn’t been that far gone. He kicked himself and decided to admire the plate, Hannibal’s paisley tie shimmering in the corner of his eye. The food was art. Seemed almost a sin to consider eating it with a presentation like this.

“Shit, I thought you were a psychologist, not a chef.”

Hannibal gracefully reached past Will to take his glass and pour in a golden wine. “Cooking is a hobby of mine. When I left my career as a surgeon, I discovered that I felt rather useless without having something to do with my hands.”

Will accepted the offered wine with a grateful nod and took a sip. He was no connoisseur, but he knew this was no twenty dollar bottle. “You used to be a surgeon?”

Hannibal continued to mill about the table as though he had done so a thousand times. Will could easily picture him serving an endless line of guests in much fancier dress than Will himself was. It was gratifying knowing he was getting this kind of treatment regardless of how downright ragged he looked. He almost didn’t catch Hannibal’s reply.

“Yes. I was a surgeon for some time, but ultimately found the exploration of the mind far more rewarding.” The older man settled down into the seat across from Will and raised his wine glass in toast. “And the exploration of culinary pursuits. I find both to be worthy of my time.”

Will tilted his glass and took another swallow. “’Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.’”

Hannibal’s smile showed teeth and the spark in his eyes was back tenfold as he stared at Will from over the top of his glass. “Voltaire.”

Will found a natural grin sliding onto his face in response and he decided to allow it. “You caught me.”

“Please, eat.” Hannibal gestured towards their plates and picked up his own fork. “So, tell me about yourself, Will.”

Will followed Hannibal’s lead and looked down at his plate. Red meat, bright vegetables, a sauce he didn’t recognize. It looked like something he would pay a hundred dollars for at some high-end restaurant that he wouldn’t be caught dead in. He speared what looked like a carrot on his fork. “Is this the part where I start telling you about my feelings? List all the ways my childhood veered off course?”

“If you like,” Hannibal replied with a hint of playfulness. “Do you feel that your childhood veered?”

“Besides my mother stepping out, not really,” Will answered with a casual roll of his shoulders. He bit into the carrot and sweet Jesus that was amazing. He let his eyes roll shut for a moment. Swallowing, he opened them to meet Hannibal’s gaze again. “Dad worked a lot. I worked a lot. Fished and hunted. It was good and simple.”

“But you didn’t feel content,” Hannibal suggested, cutting into his steak with perfect posture. “Why else, then, would you leave?”

Will hummed and continued on the vegetables. Each bite was perfect. “You should open up a restaurant.” He chewed slowly. “And I suppose the monotony of it got to me. Needed a change once my dad died. Needed something to do.”

“Thank you for the compliment.” Hannibal was chewing just as slowly, matching Will’s pace. “And have you found something to do?”

Will smiled inwardly and nodded, picking up the steak knife. “Sometimes I do. Depends on who I meet.” He watched as Hannibal continued to eat his food with a steady ease and cut into his own steak, bringing it to his lips. “And what about you?”

Hannibal quirked a brow. “Of my childhood or something less specific?”

“Either.”

Hannibal spun his fork tines noiselessly on his plate and pondered over the question. “My childhood was a long time ago,” he said vaguely. “But I do recall the years I spent in Italy as a youth with great fondness.”

“You were in Italy? That must’ve been nice.” Will finally bit into the meat and flavor burst out over his tongue. It was such an exact mix of tang and life that Hannibal must have gotten the recipe down to a science. He chewed appreciatively. But then.

Then.

Against all better judgment, Will froze, staring down at his plate. He knew that taste. Oh, he knew that taste.

“Something wrong?”

Will’s eyes slowly rose, cerulean meeting amber. He began to chew again, forcing his shoulders to relax. “No. Goddamn, sorry. I was in my own bit of heaven.” His father used to say that about food. Will figured it would work just fine. “This is just about the best damn steak I’ve had in a long time. Been living off of gas station junk for weeks.”

Whatever look that had been etched into Hannibal’s countenance earlier faded, but Will saw it lingering in the background. Suspicion. But it was abated, for now. “Then all the more reason for me to have made you dinner. A man needs a good meal.”

To ease the gaze of his host, Will cut off another chunk and popped it into his mouth. “And I appreciate it. Truly.”

Hannibal nodded, but Will knew full well he had screwed himself by freezing like that. The damage was done.

But hell if this night hadn’t just gotten a lot more interesting.

He knew this meat. He knew it well. This was no cow. Not in the strict sense of the word, anyway. Will let his eyes rove over Hannibal as the other man continued to focus on his food. Will had known from the start that there was something off kilter here. His gut had been ringing out warnings from the get go, but this? No, he hadn’t expected this. He took another bite and washed it down with some wine.

He was going to have to rethink his design now. That much was obvious. The hand had been dealt again and the cards were all face. This was high stakes. There was danger here. Will was realizing he wasn’t the only predator in the room and that changed things.

And shit, it was exciting.

He could feel his pulse throbbing in his throat. Adrenaline was trickling into his bloodstream like the steady drip of morphine. Hannibal’s eyes eased upwards again and Will couldn’t find enough sense not to meet him head on. That glint was there again, glowing in the deep red of Hannibal’s irises, only this time Will recognized the glint. It was the same one he had flashing in his own mind.

As they stared at each other, Will knew he wasn’t the only one in the room who had sensed the change in the tide. He licked his lips and took another bite of the meat, not looking away for a second. An open challenge. The ball was in Hannibal’s court until Will decided to take his turn.

A smirk began to leisurely creep its way to Hannibal’s lips, a stark contrast to the feigned politeness from before. He leaned casually back in his chair and picked up his wine to swirl it around in the glass. “In your travels, have you come across many who interested you enough to entertain?”

More bold than Will had expected, but he could continue to play this game. He leaned back in a mirror of Hannibal’s position, snatching his own wine. “I’ve met enough,” he murmured. “And how many interesting people have you met, Hannibal?”

The smirk was still there and it was heady and inviting of chaos. “Enough,” he echoed. “Though none quite as interesting as you, Will.”

“I’m beginning to feel I can say the same,” Will conceded after a long pull of wine. “Unexpected, not gonna lie.”

There was hardly enough pretense layered over the conversation now to even be called a sheen. The veil was fluttering just over the surface. One verbal misstep—one missed cue—and the waltz would end.

“The question now lies in what we intend to make of this epiphany.” Hannibal inhaled deeply of his wine. He looked entirely at ease and Will wondered just how far down the rabbit hole he had gone in coming here.

Will shifted his head to the side in observation. He rolled his words around on his tongue and clicked them against the back of his teeth. “We could play it by ear.”

Hannibal pursed his lips as though he was giving the suggestion genuine consideration. “It is one option.”

“And the other?”

“The night is young. There is no need to put all our eggs into one basket.”

“Hm.” Will grunted and set his glass back on the table. He felt his switchblade nearly burning a hole in his jeans. Every ounce of its weight was heavy against his skin. “I can defer to your expertise. After all, can’t say I’ve ever ended up in a pickle like this one.”

“It would be a lie to say that I have,” Hannibal replied with a tilt of his head. “It seems we have both trampled carelessly into uncharted territory.” His eyes were thinned just so and Will knew the look. He was being sussed out. Hannibal was planning; creating his own design.

Will couldn’t help but wonder what the design was. “Only choice is to map it out, then.”

Hannibal blinked slowly. Now that the fallacy of his mask was beginning to slip away, Will was finding it harder and harder to read him. Hannibal put his own glass aside. “I couldn’t agree more.” He seemed to scrutinize his own thoughts, then, before speaking again. “If you’ll allow me to clean up, I will meet you by the fire. I would offer you a drink.”

Curious where Hannibal was going to go with this, Will nodded in assent. Neither of them had finished their meals, but the thought of food had left both of their minds and neither of them appeared to be overly concerned by it. Hannibal rose to begin clearing the table and then proceeded into the kitchen. Will watched with an admiring amusement. Hannibal was so aggravatingly sure of himself, turning his back to Will without so much as a twitch.

Will wondered how well that avarice had been earned. He had a feeling trial by combat wouldn’t be an inappropriate assumption.

He pushed away from the table as he heard Hannibal call to him from the kitchen above the clatter of pans and plates. “I will only be a few minutes. Can’t allow all of this to sit out unchecked.” Will rolled his eyes. Even now, after discovering another carnivore in his midst, Hannibal was more concerned about maintaining his immaculate nature than worrying over Will’s intentions. It was entirely apropos of the definition Will’s mind was creating of his host.

He made his way out into the living room and trailed his hand over the leather of the couch. It was soft and supple and warmed by the fire. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Hannibal that this situation was entirely foreign to him. Not once had Will found himself facing a mirror of his own darkness. Throughout his life, there had been a constant barrage of sameness. The same faces, the same minds, the same plain and predictable people. The very idea that there was someone out there that had the potential to challenge that repetition was causing him to salivate.

Will knew from his work as a cop that he was not the only one of his kind. He was not the only killer. He was no brilliant star shining amidst total darkness. He was not perfectly and inescapably original. And yet, for all those years cleaning up after killers who lacked caution and vision, Will had always felt himself distinctly separate from those with whom empathy would come easily. He could slip into their minds and feel the death at their fingertips. He would taste their joy, vibrate with their rage, and tremble at their catharsis, but none of those moments belonged to him. They were devoid of the beauty he sought. They were insipid and empty.

He had left the force after he had lain awake one night and had the thought occur to him. The thought had changed every aspect of his life—made him abandon his career and his house and all of his so-called friends.

This is not my design.

It was then that he had resolved to pursue the rectification of that thought. No longer would he allow the miserable minds of impulsive and arrogant fools to cloud his own. Putting them away in prison was unsatisfying and dull. Witnessing their crimes secondhand was mind-numbingly bland. He could be more than them. He knew he could. And so he left and had not stopped moving since. Place to place, city to city, person to person. He had perfected his design body by body with no haste or impatience. He had taken his time and enjoyed the sights just as much as he enjoyed the warmth of blood on his palms.

It was rewarding, in its own right. He met folk and heard stories, saw the states as they bled from one season into another, and when he had his fill of one person or place, he would leave his mark with a stain of red and an image that would make the papers as sure as the day was long.

Will wasn’t sure why he had taken to eating them. It wasn’t a habit, per se. It had been born of necessity one cold night in the winter of Michigan. His jacket had been torn from a fall and he was far too deep into the abandons of the great lakes to find any suitable shelter. A man had happened by. Will had decided to happen right back. But the lakes had been frozen and the game were all hidden in their caves to avoid the freeze and there was this man, bloodied and dead and right there. Will wasn’t about to decline the offer. That night, with a shitty fire and his temples pounding in curiosity and hunger, Will had made a sacrificial lamb of the hiker that had fallen at his feet.

He hadn’t been disappointed. It wasn’t something he did with every kill—or even half of them—but every now and then he would look down at his work while the blood was still  pumping and his mind was still hazy from the hunt and he would think “Why the hell not?”, and his meal would be of a different kind that day.

It never occurred to him to wonder if this had always been a part of his design or if it had evolved that way over time. He knew it was unusual and that most men of his caliber did not partake of that acquired taste, but he figured it was a far cry better than the sick bastards who shoved their dick into someone after they had run cold. He would never understand that. Sex wasn’t a motivator for him and he made a point not to let himself slip into the mind of anyone who felt differently. Those minds were the only things that made him feel downright dirty; like a thick of oil that he couldn’t wash off his skin.

Will frowned and glanced back towards the kitchen. The water was running and the sounds of things being moved echoed back at him.

Even though his occasional consumption had never become habitual, Will had done it enough to know the difference between steak au poivre and steak au human. It was distinctively subtle, but the subtleties had no success in eliminating the fact that it was distinct.

When Will had recognized that flavor in Hannibal’s dish, the world had spun around on its axis. He had never met someone else who ate the other other white meat. As much as he knew that there were killers and villains abound, the thought that there was someone else in this day and age who had acted on the same corrupting urge hadn’t even occurred to him. He laughed quietly to himself. That sort of thing just didn’t happen. People just didn’t do that; not in civilized society.

He shook his head, the irony of his own thoughts not lost on him, but those thoughts were cut blessedly short when he heard a thud that didn’t come from anywhere near the kitchen. Confused, he turned towards the noise. It had come from behind one of the closed doors down the hall. Will narrowed his eyes and looked back in Hannibal’s direction again. The water was still running.

It was completely possible that he had imagined the sound, but Will had also never been one to heed the warning of “curiosity killed the cat”. He was a dog person, so he figured it didn’t count. He knew snooping was a risky move, especially considering recent developments, but this may very well have been his only chance to take a look before the night took turns he couldn’t come back from. So, ears set keenly on the sound of water in the kitchen, Will silently crept down the hallway towards the room the sound had come from.

He bit his lip and looked back once more. No one. He turned the handle and sighed with relief when the hinges made no sound. The sigh caught halfway out and hovered in the air as his eyes widened a fraction at the sight before him. Will decided right then, looking into the room, that he really should stop having expectations on how the night was going to play out. Obviously he was so far off the mark that the bullseye was backwards a full one-eighty.

There, huddled against the wall and roped to a support beam, was a man.

He was in pajamas and had his mouth duct taped shut, but his eyes met Will’s with fear and confusion that was so palpable Will was forced to shut his mind off completely and avert his gaze. The man’s expression turned to one of cautious hope, misinterpreting Will’s shift as sympathy. He made an aborted sound behind the tape and tugged at his restraints.

Will let his eyes quickly rove over the man and assessed. Save for a trickle of blood down his cheek from an obvious head wound, the man was unharmed. It was obvious Hannibal was saving him for something. What? Will had no idea. He hadn’t gotten his thumb that far pressed into Hannibal’s buttons yet. His grip on the persona was still weak and Hannibal’s mind had become no less of a maze to him even after the revelation at the dinner table.

The man tugged at his bindings again and Will looked up. There must have been something in his face that spoke of calculation rather than compassion, because the man’s body sagged and stiffened as he curled in upon himself. Rage grew dark and wretched in his eyes and Will tilted his head at the sight. The rage was curious. It had potential.

He froze when he heard the water shut off and in a moment of whimsy, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the switchblade. Without much thought, he tossed the knife onto the floor just out of the man’s reach. If he was determined enough, he would find a way to get to it.

Then, he shut the door and returned briskly to the sitting room.

By the time Hannibal was walking out into the living room, suit jacket donned once more, Will was seated comfortably at the far end of a sofa and staring into the flickering of the fireplace.

“Apologies,” Hannibal said smoothly, walking over to a cabinet and pulling out a bottle of scotch. He tucked two glasses between his fingers and joined Will on the couch, pouring each of them a copious amount of the liquor. “My inability to leave food to spoil or a dish unwashed can be a bit of a hindrance.”

“Especially when so much work was put into the food,” came Will’s facetious reply. He nodded as he took the drink and wondered which one of them Hannibal was trying to get drunk. Was he stabilizing himself or intent on destabilizing Will? Will could hold his booze, either way. He tossed it back in one go and nearly groaned at the sweetness accompanying the burn. “Hot damn, this is quality.”

Hannibal raised a brow in bemusement but poured another two fingers for Will. “So tell me, Will.” He tamely sipped at his own scotch and licked his lips. “Can we be candid with one another?”

Will leaned back and considered the question, elbow bracing up over the back of the couch so he could face Hannibal more directly. “Candor isn’t something I practice,” he admitted. “Not sure I know how to do it.”

Hannibal’s lips twitched in what was either amusement or agreement. He leaned back and mirrored Will’s posture, which seemed to be a quickly developing habit of theirs. “Then we are at an equal disadvantage. I am no more accustomed to it than you.”

“Then why attempt it with me?” Will was being gentle with his drink now and pacing himself. “What do you stand to gain?”

“What makes you think I stand to gain anything?”

Will simply stared.

Hannibal held up a palm in defeat and chuckled. “Very well. Perhaps it is the sheer intrigue of the situation that has seduced me. You must admit that such a circumstance is inconceivably surprising.”

With a snort, Will tapped his fingers on the side of his glass. “I’ll say.”

“As I am not one inclined to pass such a rare opportunity by, I will ask you again.” Hannibal levelled the younger man with a placid stare. “Shall we be candid with one another?”

Will blinked back at him, hesitant in letting the eye contact remain so static. Normally he would be swimming in someone else’s mind by now, but with Hannibal there was no such tidal wave of emotion and distraction. Will found that he could look at him endlessly and feel no less himself. No mind was absorbed into his own to saturate it with superfluous data. Hannibal was the tabula rasa and that made him the first in an endless line of debris that did not serve to clutter Will’s psyche. He swallowed. “Alright. Candid. I can try that.”

“I appreciate the effort,” Hannibal answered politely. Will wondered how the hell Hannibal could still be so polite even now. “How long have you consumed your fellow man, Will?”

Even though the intention of probity had been laid out on the table, Will still found his heart skipping to a thud at the question. Never in all his life had anyone even known about what he did, let alone had the gall to ask about it outright. No one lived long enough to ask such a question. Half of him expected an FBI official to burst through the door at any moment, but he reminded himself that Hannibal had eaten the food just as he did and entrapment only went so far. He ground his teeth together and looked away towards the fire. “That depends on what you consider a fellow.”

When Hannibal said nothing, Will chanced a look. What he received was an expression that encompassed the entire spectrum of fascination.

He cleared his throat and continued. “I started out of necessity and curiosity. I kept on because I could. Been a few years now.”

Hannibal hummed. “And that’s the only reason you continue? Because you can?”

“Well what’s your reason, then?”

Hannibal rubbed his thumb over his chin and finished the rest of his drink. “Have you heard of the Wendigo?”

“A bit.” Will shrugged. “Men who become beasts after cannibalizing. They become monsters. Along those lines.”

“The Algonquian peoples believed in vicious and powerful spirits like the Wendigo,” Hannibal stated after a moment. “A creature so feared and despised, yet respected in the same breath for the veracity of its strength. There are many conceptions about how a man becomes a Wendigo. Some believe he transforms into the very beast itself upon the consumption of human flesh. Others believe he is overcome by a spirit and therefore gains its power as a result.”

Will pressed his lips together and picked up the scotch himself this time to pour into both of their tumblers. “So you eat people so you can become powerful. By absorbing them into yourself? Or by claiming their lives entirely as a part of you?”

Hannibal seemed to ponder over this for a time, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. “Those I consume do not tend have the merit of worth.”

“So you eat those who are lesser than you.”

“On average. Whenever you have the chance, you must always endeavor to eat the rude.”

Will let out a bark of a laugh. “Some people believe cannibalism is a form of sacrament or of honoring the deceased. Personally, I’ve never felt like I was honoring anyone, but I’ve never felt like I was gaining the power of a mythical spirit either.”

Hannibal nodded introspectively and crossed his legs in an elegant line. “Only once have my actions been a form of eulogy, but I must admit that neither is it power I gain from the act. Like you, I feel no whispers of the Wendigo within me. Though the prospect is not an entirely unpleasant one.”

Will smirked. “Fancy yourself a god among men?”

The smirk was returned. “Gods are unimpressive creatures in the end—created by man and envisioned by weak minds in need of hope and solace. It is those who rise above godhood that stand to challenge the fabric of nature.”

Will’s smirk was a full on grin now and the fire was glinting off his teeth. “At least I know you don’t have any illusions of grandeur.”

“Grandeur is simply another thread in the tapestry that weaves who powerful men know themselves to be.”

Will shook his head. “Oh man.” Tease as he might, the words were ringing in his ears. They were catching his interest and Hannibal knew it. The gleam in the crimson flecks of his eyes showed he knew it and Will cursed himself for being so obvious. “The eating doesn’t make me feel powerful. The killing does.”

“As it should. A man capable of recognizing the beauty in taking a life should value the worth of his own power.” Hannibal set down his tumbler and clasped his hands over his knees. “’The measure of a man is what he does with power.’ For a man such as yourself, your power manifests in the contesting of death itself and the role which you play in its occurrence. It is unfortunate that most people find power to be of negative influence. It bears an unnecessary stigma within our close-minded society.”

“If you’re going to start rattling Plato off to me I’ll have to up my game,” Will murmured. “Should I go with Rand? ‘Power-lust is a weed that grows only in the vacant lots of an abandoned mind.’”

Hannibal nodded in regard and leaned his head back. “So your claim is that we lack sanity. Surely we must be insane to be as we are and not simply the honest versions of ourselves.”

“Sane men don’t kill and eat people, Hannibal.”

“And yet, according to Aristotle, ‘No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.’ So, in such an argument, we can lay claim to being of a better kind by embracing our madness rather than fighting against it as others do.” Hannibal searched Will’s face for something and Will wondered what he was looking for. After a brief pause, Hannibal continued. “Men spend their lives with conflicting conscience. They allow societies and gods to dictate infinite ways with which to deny their nature. They suffocate what is the very foundation of their place in nature. Such men are surely no more worthy of continuing to move freely than cattle.”

“So you consider yourself at the top of the food chain?” Will sucked his lower lip into his mouth and stared into his glass. “Men who have not achieved your perspective are the sheep ready to be eaten alive by the wolves. Are you a wolf, Hannibal?”

Hannibal looked at him, countenance blank and unreadable. “And what of you, Will? We have already established that you are no sheep, but are you the wolf?” He was searching Will’s face again for something known only to the darkest corners of his mind. “Or do you fancy yourself the shepherd?”

Will frowned. “What makes you ask that?”

“You’ve got a peculiar level of empathy, do you not?” Hannibal inflected it as though it was a question, but the rhetorical nature was obvious. “I’ve seen you seeking out my secrets in my eyes as though grabbing at the tendrils of my thoughts would come as naturally to you as breathing. How many minds have you entered? How many minds barricade your own?”

Will felt a chill of nervousness thrill at his spine. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in years. Hannibal’s skills at observation were unprecedented in Will’s range of experience. Will felt as though he had met his match and then some. He was beginning to wonder which one of them was in over their head and he felt the odds shifting out of his favor. Careful would not begin to describe how lightly he must tread here. “So you think because I can empathize with them that my actions are done out of some misplaced urge to guide them down a better path? That would imply I envision myself some kind of savior. I don’t see what I do as heroic.”

“But you don’t see it as wrong either.”

Will’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat and his pulse twitched. “I know it’s wrong.”

Hannibal’s smile was the tiniest sort of micro expression, but Will had been staring at his face long enough to notice it. “And yet that is not what I said, is it?”

Will’s neck was sore and stiff from how tense he was holding every muscle of his body. He loosened his grip on the tumbler in his hand as his mind irrationally wondered if his grip could break it. “No,” he muttered. “It’s not.”

Hannibal looked ready to speak again, but as all interruptions tend to come, this one came inconveniently mid-attempt.

A crisp knock at the door sent them both into silence. Will gave Hannibal a questioning look but the other man looked entirely unphased as he rose from the couch. As he walked towards the door, Will came to his senses. It didn’t matter who it was. If anyone saw Will here, all bets were off.

Quickly, he made his way into the kitchen, not bothering to check Hannibal’s opinion of his flighty escape. If someone saw his face and Hannibal disappeared, the first suspect would be Will. He would find a sketch artist’s rendition of himself plastered all over the papers and sent out in a finest message.

There was an unidentified man matching this description at the missing man’s cabin on the night of his disappearance. Any information leading to his capture…

Will pinned his back to the kitchen wall. He had yet to determine how this night was going to go. Things were definitely shifting. He wouldn’t deny that, but there was still an unforgiving possibility of blood from either side. They were simply sizing each other up, appreciating mutual mentalities, deciding what this battle was worth.

Will was no fool. There had not been some imaginary accord reached. They were still very much two predators among men and if Will’s own thoughts were anything to go by, the hunt had not been called off by any means. It had simply been made more compelling.

He listened acutely for a voice as Hannibal opened the door and greeted whomever stood beyond the threshold.

“Is there something wrong?”

Will frowned when he heard a man’s voice reply. “Pardon my intrusion, sir. I am the park ranger on duty tonight. Ferril’s the name.”

Hannibal’s voice was as mild as it was gentlemanly. “And what can I do for you, Ranger Ferril?”

“I don’t want to cause any alarm, but it’s my duty to inform every visitor of the park that there has been an incident.”

“An incident?”

“One of our guests has gone missing, I’m afraid. His son had gone to meet him earlier tonight and found him gone. There are unfortunately signs of a struggle and we fear what has happened.”

“That’s terrible!” Will wanted to laugh at the sound of sympathy dripping from Hannibal’s tongue. He could hear the feign from a mile away. He had used the same false tones a thousand times, but Ranger Ferril seemed none the wiser.

“It is. As I said, I don’t want to cause concern, but have you seen any suspicious characters in the park today? Anyone who seemed to be behaving oddly or out of place?”

There was a pause and Will knew Hannibal was pretending to consider the question. He had no doubt at this point that the man tied to the beam in the room down the hall was the man who had been ripped from his cabin earlier that evening. “I can’t recall seeing anyone of that description, but there are shockingly few people to see this time of month.”

As the ranger started to mutter his apologies and farewells, Will’s shoulders began to relax.

And then.

“But wait. I have a friend here. Perhaps he saw something.”

Will’s eyes shot wide open. That crafty fucking bastard.

“Will! Could you come out here for a moment?”

Will grit his teeth together so hard he thought they would crack. He should have known. He should have known Hannibal would take this opportunity. If this ranger saw Will’s face, it would be almost impossible for Will to kill Hannibal without casting suspicion directly at him. Hannibal’s mind had apparently gone to the same place Will’s had. He knew what he was doing. He was tying Will’s hands in the most maliciously metaphorical sense. And there was nothing Will could do about it.

Steeling himself and carefully placing his practiced mask of indifferent amusement, Will rounded the corner of the kitchen. He frowned, looking confused. “Is everything alright, Hannibal?” He met Hannibal’s eyes for the briefest of moments, issuing a vicious challenge, before turning a softened gaze to the man in the doorway.

Hannibal smiled warmly and gestured towards the intruder of their night. “This is a park ranger. There was an incident with some other guests and he wanted to know if either of us had seen anyone strange. I haven’t been out much today, but you were out walking earlier. Did you happen to come upon anyone?”

Will stuck out his lips and looked up at the ceiling as though searching for a memory. He crossed his arms over his chest and grimaced, sending an apologetic look towards the ranger. “No, not to my recollection. Day was too hot for anyone other than my crazy self to be out there. I didn’t see a soul.”

Ranger Ferril sighed and ran a hand through his greying hair. “Well I suppose that’s a good thing. For you two anyways.” He smiled weakly. “I’d recommend keeping your doors locked tonight, gentlemen. Just in case.” He tipped his hat and Will and Hannibal both nodded back as he turned and trudged back to his jeep.

Hannibal shut the door calmly and turned to regard Will with a nonchalant stare.

Will couldn’t find it in himself to frown. Hannibal deserved this small victory. “Well played.”

Hannibal smiled and it was an ominous thing. “A man must make every effort to tilt the tables when he can.”

Will swiped a thumb at the side of his nose and crossed his arms again. “Well consider them tilted.”

Hannibal moved to return to the couch. “Now, now. Don’t be like that, Will.  All is fair in love and war.”

“This isn’t either of those things.”

“Isn’t it?”

Will didn’t know what to say to that, so he just sat down again as Hannibal did the same.

Hannibal looked entertained. “Honestly, Will. You didn’t expect me to simply allow you to kill me. Not when we were having such a nice conversation.”

“Conversations end.”

“They don’t have to.”

That time, Will did frown. “What are you getting at?”

Hannibal reached for the scotch again, evidently displeased by the lack of alcohol contributing to the discussion. “I was under the impression that we were weighing our options,” he said as he filled the tumblers once more. Will took the offered glass against his better judgment. “Is this not the case?”

“I suppose it depends on what you’re considering.”

“And which considerations appeal to you?”

Will drank half of the liquid down and leaned on his knees. “I’m finding I don’t quite know the answer to that, Hannibal.”

“Hm.” Hannibal tilted back his own glass and they were silent for a stretch of time. “Do you wish to kill me, Will?”

Will looked at him and deliberated. “In part, yeah. Absolutely.” He saw no point in bullshitting. If he knew anything of the man sitting next to him, he knew Hannibal would sure as hell see right through the falsity anyway. “You want to kill me?”

A smile. “It is certainly tempting.”

Will felt his body relax slightly at that. It was impossible not to be soothed by such sheer and brutal honesty. “How would you do it? What is your design?”

“My design?” Hannibal apparently enjoyed Will’s choice of words. He sat back and looked Will up and down like an architect would assess a building. “I would most likely make a feast of you. Out of respect for our mutual tastes, I would make use of everything, I should think.”

“Consume me entirely,” Will whispered half to himself. “You make it sound dangerously close to honoring me, you know.”

“If you wish to see it that way.” Hannibal lifted his glass to Will in a gesture for reciprocation. “And how would you kill me?”

Will let some scotch swish around in his mouth until his eyes watered and then he swallowed it down. “I thought about it earlier; my design for you. I figured it would need to be graceful. You’ve got a particular elegance, don’t you? You strive for it. It’s only fair I maintain it.”

Hannibal bowed his head. “I appreciate your consideration of my aesthetic.”

Will stared long and hard until the look on his face was damn near a glare. “But you’re not telling the truth. Not really.”

“No?”

“You don’t want to kill me.”

“What makes you say that?”

Will finished his third drink and quietly set it on the table. “Your words. Your inflection. Your eyes.”

Hannibal’s eyes flashed. “Learning how to read me, Will?”

“Maybe.” Will met the other man’s scrutiny unflinchingly. “But even if I’m not, I’m not wrong.”

A pause. “No, you’re not wrong. I will kill you if I must, but I don’t currently have an overwhelming desire to do so.”

“Why the hell not?” Will was thrown and perplexed. His own thoughts were practically cacographic and he couldn’t begin to comprehend Hannibal’s intentions. The freedom of being within his own mind was beginning to prove something of a difficulty. He wanted Hannibal’s exterior to crack. He wanted to read him.

The way Hannibal shifted then was completely serene. He looked as though he had all the time in the world and not a single earthly concern. “Because as of yet, save for a few forgivably churlish remarks, you have proven to be entirely pleasant company and decidedly lacking of the characteristics that usually mark my prey.”

“Knowing what you are doesn’t place that mark on me?”

“And do you intend to run to the closest police station to inform them that the man you intended to murder in cold blood had intended the same in return?”

Will said nothing.

“No, Will. I believe I can toy with the consideration that you can, in fact, be an exception.”

“That seems awfully generous.”

“I believe we already established that it’s not as though I’m receiving no personal enjoyment from this.”

“Enough to warrant risk?”

Hannibal quirked a fine brow. “Are you trying to convince me to kill you?”

Will started to laugh and slapped his own knee. “Shit, it sounds like I am, doesn’t it?”

Will’s laugh was met with a benign smile. “But the issue does remain that you still desire my death.”

The laughter tapered down. “I want to see how you work,” Will replied bluntly.

“From the inside out.”

“From every angle.”

“I could tell you.”

“Or I could just look for myself.”

The beast clawing at Will’s ribcage was spilling out through his mouth and into the room, the smoke of it mixing and mingling with the steady breaths of Hannibal’s own inner monster. Will almost thought he saw the stag from times long faded walk past the dining room. When he looked, it was gone.

Hannibal looked positively enthralled. “My, what a stunning creature you are.”

Will, entirely taken aback by the praise, shifted backwards. The flush was creeping up his collar again and once more the question of Hannibal’s true intentions began to niggle at the back of his mind. “A guy could take that in a lot of ways, you know.”

“Could he?”

As though having the sole purpose of preventing the conversation from going any further, there was a slam and a crash. Hannibal was to his feet so quickly that Will barely even had time to register the movement. Will twisted around on the couch just as the door at the end of the hall slammed open and the man who had been tied up stumbled out, sweaty and bloodied and with Will’s knife gripped tightly in his palm.

Everything happened fast from there.

Hannibal was around the couch with the grace of a panther, body coiled and ready for anything. Will stayed rooted to the couch, watching. He expected Hannibal to say something to the man—who had wild eyes filled with panic and venom and flooded over with fight or flight—but the remarkably reserved man simply stood in wait, allowing the hunted to make the first move.

The man shot a look to Will, who stared blankly back at him, before letting out a cry and running at Hannibal with all the strength his shaking legs had. Will sighed. It had been his first mistake. Charging like a rage-blind bull would be as useful as throwing water at a rock. Just as he predicted, Hannibal easily sidestepped the attack and shoved him away. He toyed with the man’s haphazard flailing like that for a while, dodging and shifting just enough to let the man wear himself out. At one point one of the man’s more wild slashes earned him a cut across Hannibal’s shoulder.

That’s when it happened. Will watched, entranced, as the change he had only ever felt inside himself took place on another’s face. The creature emerged like horns from a devil’s head. Hannibal’s eyes went dark, his face went cold, and his muscles bound and tense. Will knew the fight was over long before the man with his knife did.

When the man charged again, Hannibal grabbed him by the wrist and flung him around, jerking him upwards in a terrifyingly powerful grip. He brought the knife to a taut throat as he thrashed, still gripped tight in the hand of the man himself. Will watched with a detached sort of attentiveness as Hannibal forced the man to slowly slit his own throat. At first, there was shouting and garbled cries of struggle, but as the steady drag of the blade—guided by Hannibal’s hand—continued on its path, the cries became gargles and gasps.

Then the artery gave.

Will flinched as some of the arterial spray hit his face and wiped it away from his eyes. It went everywhere. The wall, the shelves, the floor, Hannibal. After the first violent gush it slowed to spurts and then a stream, coating Hannibal’s hands in crimson as he let the man fall to the floor in a heap. His suit was ruined and stained. His hands were red. His face was dark and luring as he stared down at the body at his feet.

Will realized then that this was the first time in his life he had watched someone else kill a person. The thought made him groan as his fingers dug into the couch cushions.

Hannibal’s eyes shot up to meet Will’s and the look they shared was intense and savage.

Will had killed his fair share of people. He had seen the aftermath of what others had done. But never had he watched as another hand took a life.

It was beautiful.

Hannibal broke the gaze and stooped low, plucking the bloodied switchblade from the felled victim’s hand. After a moment of inspection, his sight was once more restored to Will. “Is it safe to assume this is yours?”

Will stood as slowly as he could without revealing the adrenaline and excitement rushing through every inch of his body. He was aching to do something; anything. He needed to move. He needed to tear something apart with his bare hands. He brushed off the front of his clothes to feign indifference and shrugged. “It’s a distinct possibility.”

“Clever boy,” Hannibal crooned. “And is this what you planned?”

Will’s eyes shifted around over the blood spattering the room before settling on Hannibal. “No plan. I just wanted to see what would happen.”

Hannibal nodded and Will noticed he wasn’t setting the blade aside. The handle was in his fist now and he was still watching Will with a blasé detachment.

Will felt his back go stiff and the silence hung in the room. He could hear bouncing echoes of the dead man’s screams ghosting like memories. The lurching gurgles of his last breaths whispered up from the puddle of blood soaking into the floorboards, hinting at what was to come. Will’s eyes flicked downwards, seeking out his rucksack. It was behind the couch somewhere but he couldn’t see it. Until Will could get to it, Hannibal was at a blatant advantage.

“I can see the blood in your eyes, Will,” Hannibal said softly. He turned the switchblade over in his palm, considering. “Do you crave death?”

Will scowled and slowly started rounding the couch—careful and measured. “I don’t crave anything.”

“Of course,” Hannibal corrected himself, but to Will it sounded rather caustic. “You are in control of your demons.”

Will felt the claws of his mind scratching at the inside of his skull, roaring to get out so they could tear Hannibal to shreds. He forced them back and petulantly held his ground. “It’s not something I need.” He didn’t know why he was defending himself. He and Hannibal both knew that Will could practically taste the blood in the air. “I want. I told you, Hannibal.” He was at the side of the couch now and he could see the bag. It was next to the other man’s feet. Fuck. “I want to see how you work.”

Hannibal had a smug smile. Stepping sideway, he hooked his heel into Will’s bag and kicked it backwards across the floor. “And this demonstration simply served to whet your appetite, I see.”

Accepting his disadvantage as he watched the bag slide away and his knives along with it, Will allowed his posture to sag backwards and he laced his thumbs into his belt loops. He gave Hannibal a lazy grin that spoke of recklessness. “You didn’t disappoint.”

“You said that you had no expectations.”

“I had curiosities.”

Hannibal made a thoughtful sound and brought the blade more steadily to his side. As calm as he appeared on the surface, it was apparent to anyone who knew where to look that he was ready to pounce when given the opportunity. “And what can I do to further sate your curiosity?”

Will chewed on his lip and set his feet further apart. This was the type of tango he lived for. Step for step, they were circling one another like devils around a fire, each waiting for the other to lunge. “And what if my curiosity finds no satiation in anything you’re willing to give?”

“Then I suppose you shall have to fight for your satisfaction,” Hannibal replied blithely.

Will hated and loved how much the other man seemed to be enjoying himself; as though this was all a comical sort of play and he was merely spectating. He tried to match the lackadaisical nature Hannibal portrayed, but it proved to be more difficult than he would have thought.  Will had never envisioned himself to be a man without control—at least not since he had left the precinct—but Hannibal was in another league entirely. Will wondered softly to himself if it truly was an impressive measure of control or if Hannibal was the psychopath that Will had never quite managed to be. Either way was a possibility. Perhaps both.

Rather than speak to the challenge, Will let his fingers slide slowly from his belt loops and focused on creating the space inside his mind made only for death. It was a space he would grasp from thin air like strands of mist and the wreckage of his past life, shoving it into a cluster of violence and disconnect. He found a sort of solace from his empathy there. It was an escape as much as it was an awakening. He would leave himself and know himself for it—the eternal catch twenty-two of his own brain.

Hannibal’s canine was glimpsed just barely past the seam of his lips as a dark smile swept over him.

And then they both moved.

This did not happen quickly like the escape of Hannibal’s unfortunate camper. This was in slow motion like the moment was caught in a pit of tar. The seconds became minutes and both of them saw every moment of it as only apex predators could.

Hannibal was fast. Will hadn’t realized quite how fast until that very moment because suddenly the other man’s hand was shoving at his chest as the other reared back to drive the knife forward. Will’s back hit the wall and he had less than a breath to use his momentum to slide down to the floor as the knife stabbed into the wall in the place where his face had been only moments before. With little else he could do from the angle, Will aimed a kick upwards towards Hannibal’s groin, but it was easily dodged and an answering kick went straight to Will’s ribcage.

Will gasped and rolled with the assault, throwing his palms into the floor to propel himself away. He dove back to the front of the couch, stumbling into the table and knocking the scotch onto the floor. He found himself unreasonably relieved that the bottle hadn’t shattered and the expensive alcohol was still secured inside, but the thought was quickly sheared from his focus as Hannibal swiftly followed him.

This time, Will used the environment to his advantage. He clipped his toe around the leg of the coffee table and dragged it over, grateful it wasn’t made of heavy glass partitions, and then kicked it into Hannibal’s shins. The taller man fell forward with a grunt, knife falling from his hand as he stopped his face from slamming into the wood. Will took the opportunity to run to the other side and snatch his bag up off the floor.

He had barely popped one of the latches before the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he lurched forward on instinct and felt a rush of air at the back of his head. Turning around, he saw that Hannibal had swung the switchblade at him. If Will hadn’t moved, the back of his neck would have been sliced open to the bone right about then.

No time to root through his bag, Will hastily slung it around his shoulder and jolted to his right, aiming to jump over the body and make it out of the cabin. Hannibal was overcoming him and Will needed to gain his bearings. He would have the advantage in nature. If he could make it to the trees, Hannibal didn’t stand a chance.

Just as he thought he had cleared the crumpled body on the floor, his boot slipped in the blood that covered it. He let out a loud curse and readied himself to hit the ground that never came. Hannibal had grabbed the back of Will’s shirt and pulled, throwing him back onto the floor with a strength that was just short of inhuman. For the briefest of moments, Will stared up at the abyssal eyes of the man above him, wondering if this was truly the night he would meet his end.

But he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He took a risk and swung his tactics over to the offensive, pushing up off the floor and tackling Hannibal around the abdomen. Hannibal, not expecting the change, did his best to buckle his body with the blow. Will admired how Hannibal managed to concave himself to rearrange his center of gravity and prevent their fall. In spite of the force behind Will’s attack, they were somehow still standing, but Will still had the benefit of his opponent’s surprise. He used it.

Ducking left, he sunk his teeth mercilessly into the wrist of the hand holding his knife. The only sound indicating Hannibal’s pain was a sharp hiss as his hand reflexively opened and the blade clattered to the floor. Not bothering to go for it, Will dug his nails into the first thing he could find, Hannibal’s neck, and clawed him sideways like an animal. He felt the skin rip underneath his nails and jammed his shoulder into the body next to him.

Hannibal fell away from him, hand going to his neck, and Will made a break for the door.

He burst through the threshold and took off down the gravel of the driveway, veering left and darting into the thick of the woods. He slowed when he noticed he could hear no footsteps behind him, risking a glance over his shoulder to confirm that Hannibal was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. Will frowned and slowed further, sinking into a crouch as he let his instincts take over.

He crept over the brush and twigs, moving the way his father had taught him when they had gone hunting together. Not a sound. Not a breath. Don’t let them know you’re there. The night was filled with nothing but still air and cicadas and Will allowed the crisp shrieks of the insects to hone his hearing into a fine tune. He slunk further into the trees and kept his eyes trained back towards the cabin—now out of sight.

Will wasn’t new to this game. He knew damn well Hannibal hadn’t given up on him. A lesser man would have assumed he was free and clear when the other hadn’t followed straight away, but Will knew better. He had seen the hollow cavity of Hannibal’s mind in the moments before his withdrawal. It was a void and voids stopped for nothing until they were filled. Hannibal would suck Will in like a black hole. No force as feeble as challenge or gravity would halt his pursuit.

If anything, the challenge Will presented would spur him on. Will knew that was how he felt, so he could imagine Hannibal felt the same. His head rattled back to his conversations with Hannibal and the pretentious humor of the quotes they had thrown at one another. He couldn’t help but pluck another one from the air and grin to himself.

The most dangerous moment comes with victory.

“Napoleon Bonaparte,” he whispered underneath the hum of the cicadas as he crouched low into a bush. Finally, he let the rucksack drop from his shoulder and he dug around inside, finding one of his hunting knives and pulling it from the sheath.

The blade gleamed in the moonlight that patched through the trees and he held it low, not wanting to draw attention to himself. The wind was starting to pick up and he was beginning to regret taking a shower. The scent of Hannibal’s shampoo wasn’t weak and if it caught the perfect breeze it could bring his scent right to him. If Hannibal was half the hunter Will thought he was, it could mean the difference between Will making it out of this alive or in pieces.

Now that he’d had a moment to breathe, Will calmed his heartbeat to a more reasonable pace. It was only a matter of time before Hannibal ventured this way. Will needed to be focused—needed to be ready—so he could time his moves just so.

He shut his eyes and let the pendulum swing. It had been a long time since he’d been required to do this; utilize his imagination. It was refreshing and stimulating. All the rides he had hitched over the years had ultimately amounted to no more than child’s play. Save for the few mistakes he made along the way, it had been easy. It had been so easy sometimes it practically wasn’t even worth doing.

Hannibal was giving him an opportunity. He was giving him a chance to flex his muscles and use his skills. Will had no desire to squander the gift.

He could see it in his mind’s eye.

Hannibal would come through the trees, silent as the air he crept through and blade in hand. His jacket and vest would be discarded, sleeves rolled up to allow for movement. His clothes would be stained with the blood from the wound in his shoulder and the arterial spray of the camper and it would be enough that Will could taste the metal in the air if he came close.

Will would keep low and sheltered by the dense brush, fingers gripping hard around the handle of his hunting knife. He would round the tree as Hannibal passed, staying downwind and waiting for Hannibal to turn his back. When Hannibal finally turned, Will would jump out and sink the knife into Hannibal’s thigh to bring him down. Just the right twist and he would miss the femoral and do just enough damage that the muscle would tear and make walking an agony.

Hannibal would rear back and jam the switchblade into Will’s shoulder. Will would take the blow and shove his bodyweight back so his own flesh would pull the knife from Hannibal’s grip. Then, he’d yank the hunting knife back out and pull Hannibal’s head back by that pompously over-combed hair of his and all it would take was one quick slice under the jawline. Hannibal would hiss and wheeze and slowly his body would sink into Will’s as the life faded from it.

And as the body fell back, blood gleaming black in the moonlight, Will would watch those fathomless eyes drift until there was nothing left. He would hang the body from the cliff ridge nearby to look out over the rivers that spanned the wilderness. Hannibal would glow in the night and loom as a gargoyle over nature. The blood would drain over the face of the stone in spidering strips. Even the cicadas would silence their crowing to admire the view.

This is my design.

Will’s eyes opened once more and he chewed at the inside of his cheek. The vision was clear and blooming behind his eyelids.

There was a rustle so faint that Will would have dismissed it entirely if he hadn’t been so still. He tensed and white-knuckled the knife, edging closer to the tree. He heard it again and focused everything on the direction of the noise. Sure enough, Hannibal appeared from the darkness just as Will had imagined he would.

His jacket and vest were gone, sleeves rolled, tie discarded, blood beginning to dry, but the knife in his hand was no switchblade. Apparently he had retrieved one of the butcher knives from the kitchen.

Will swallowed. That changed things, but not much. He wouldn’t be able to take a stab from that and walk away. He would have to reevaluate his plan.

Hannibal was impressively silent in the debris of the forest. Without so much as looking down to watch his steps, he managed to keep the sound of his feet over twigs and leaves to barely more than a gentle shudder of sound. If it weren’t for the marred white of his shirt, he would be almost invisible in the darkness. The shadow of his monster had consumed him from head to toe and it made him melt into the night like he was born from it.

Will could barely make out the other man’s face from the distance, but he could still see his eyes. They were glinting and predatory and Will found himself riveted by them. Those eyes were like none he’d ever seen. For a moment, he allowed himself to simply stare into them as Hannibal crept closer—seeking.

Then, unexpectedly, Hannibal paused and shut his eyes, taking a deep breath. His shoulders relaxed and a thin smile crept onto his face.

Will’s blood ran cold. Hannibal had smelled him. But how? No man could scent that well. Even Will would have required a strong upwind and closer proximity than this. For the umpteenth time that night, Will wondered if Hannibal was real—if he was even human.

It didn’t matter. Hannibal knew he was close and had slowed his pace, scanning the trees and brush in search. Will half expected a jeering call from him or a mockery of how he knew Will was there, but Hannibal said nothing and the halcyon quiet of him was far more intimidating than any uttered threat could manage to be. Reflecting back, Will felt idiotic for expecting anything else. Hannibal’s behavior was nowhere near so juvenile.

Will felt his pulse jump and hitch as Hannibal came closer, obviously trying to hone in on whatever he had picked up from the air. A few more steps—an investigative turn in another direction—and Will would have his chance. Hannibal’s awareness of him changed nothing. The larger knife changed nothing. Will was still in his element and he refused to lose.

The moment came after a couple more minutes of Hannibal’s menacing exploration. The older man had stopped two feet short of Will’s location and froze, obviously catching the smell of his own shampoo and whatever scent was distinctly composed of Will and he narrowed his eyes in expectation. Will watched as every muscle in Hannibal’s body coiled for action and he carefully scanned his surroundings. Luckily for the man hiding down towards the ground, Hannibal chose to look the wrong way first.

Will was off the ground and on the other man faster than he had ever moved in his life. Adrenaline and thrill fueled him and his body was alight with firing neurons. He could feel the air, the breeze, the thick heat of summer. He could smell the blood and sweat. He could hear Hannibal’s sharp intake of breath when he realized his own mistake.

The stab of Will’s blade was unforgiving. He let it dive into Hannibal’s thigh just as he had planned, but was forced to jerk it back out and fall away as the butcher knife swung back towards his shoulder. The sharp sound of metal slicing air saw the knife catching the skin of Will’s collarbone, but the scratch was superficial and Will hardly felt it. Hannibal, on the other hand, was struggling to stay on both feet as his blood soaked through his trousers in a rush.

He whirled on Will, teeth bared, and came at him. Will flipped his own knife and jammed the handle into Hannibal’s wounded shoulder in a quick jab. Hannibal grunted in pain and kicked out as he reeled back. His heel kicked Will squarely in the stomach and before Will knew what had happened, he was on his back with the wind knocked out of him.

Hannibal was on him in seconds, knife to Will’s throat and feral grin splitting his face. “Is your curiosity sated, Will?” He was breathing heavily and Will took pride in being able to make the other man work for his kill.

Will returned the grin and licked his lips through his reply. “Not yet.” And he pushed the arm holding the knife to his throat down at the same time as he dug his fingers into the wound in Hannibal’s thigh. He felt his fingers coat in blood and Hannibal growled, the slice intended for the smaller man’s throat going viciously across a heaving chest. Will cried out as his pectoral muscle gave way to the blade and he dug his fingers deeper into Hannibal’s leg, clawing at flesh.

Eventually, Hannibal gave into the agony and reared back to clutch at his leg in an attempt to stop the blood flow.

Will scrambled away until his back hit a tree and he looked down at his chest. His shirt was torn open and the front of it was doused in red. Even with all the adrenaline rushing through his veins, it hurt like a motherfucker. He looked up just as Hannibal did the same and their eyes met. They stayed that way for the longest time, each breathing in their own labored breaths and trying to staunch their wounds. Their stare never broke. The thoughts were flying through Will’s head too quickly for him to latch successfully onto any single one. His mind was a rush of sound and stimulation. Hannibal blinked and continued to look at him mutely, lips parted in gasping breaths that were steadily starting to wane.

There was a clatter of branches and leaves to the left and Will startled up and ducked back behind the trees in a matter of seconds. Hannibal made no such retreat, getting unwaveringly to his feet and turning to face the source of the sound.

Will crouched low, hand to his bleeding chest, and watched once more from the bushes as the shaky form of the ranger from earlier stepped out from the trees. He had his gun in his hands and was holding it at half-mast, terrified and confused.

The ranger looked Hannibal up and down, taking in his dilapidated appearance, and gave an unsure lift of his gun. Will watched as Hannibal stared the other man down expressionlessly, knife hanging lazily at his side and face speaking of complete and utter apathy.

“Hello, Ranger Ferril.” Hannibal’s voice was as emotive as his face. If Will had been anyone else, it would have petrified him.

Ferril looked petrified enough for the both of them. Shaky and cautious, he stepped further into the scene. Will’s brain began to fire succinct calculations as he realized Ferril’s back was turning towards him. Hannibal made no effort to glance Will’s way, but there was no doubt that he was aware of the situation.

Ferril looked around, trying to find whoever Hannibal had been fighting with. “D-doctor Lecter,” he stammered. “What’s goin’ on?”

Hannibal tilted his head so gently it could barely be called a movement, as though the question intrigued him. “What do you think is going on, mister Ferril?”

The ranger was making an effort to hold the gun more firmly now, starting to recognize that Hannibal truly was the threat. “Sir…” he trailed off, clearly torn between keeping up the pretense of politeness or resorting to throwing out his authority. He settled on the former, likely due to the intimidating look Hannibal was sending his way. “I came back ‘round to your cabin, doctor. I’ve been patrolling all night, you see. Your door was open and I got concerned. Went inside and there was a body, Lecter. That man missin’ from earlier? He’s on your floor. Why is he on your floor?”

Another mocking tilt of the head and Hannibal pointedly glanced down at his knife. “I think you know the answer to that, ranger Ferril.”

Will stayed where he was. He wasn’t sure what to do. Ferril had a gun. No matter how skilled Hannibal was, he was at a strategic disadvantage for the first time that night. One wrong move and Ferril could panic and fire a shot and then everything would be over.

But did Will want it to be over?

He chewed his lip and debated with himself as Ferril spoke up again.

“You looked scared.” Hannibal took a step forward but stopped immediately when the frantic man jerked the gun in his direction in warning. “Is everything alright?”

“Don’t you play that!” Ferril shouted. His voice cracked and pitched. The law enforcement side of Will damn near took pity. This man had obviously never been in a life or death situation before. How could he have been when all he did was patrol a forest packed with hikers and kayakers? “I-I’ve gotta take you in, Lecter. I’ve gotta call this in, you understand? Don’t make any moves.”

Hannibal flexed his fingers over the handle of his knife. “You haven’t called this in.” He didn’t need to say it as a question.

Ferril realized his own tragic error quickly enough if the drop in his posture was anything to go by. He took a wobbly step back and unknowingly closer to Will.

Will was starting to get frustrated with himself. Time was growing short. He had to make a decision. If he let Ferril shoot Hannibal, Will would be free. He could sneak off in the chaos and no one would know any better. No one would look for him because Hannibal had all but outed himself as the murderer and Ferril would likely only mention Will’s existence in passing. If Will let this play out, he would be free and clear and still have his life.

But that just didn’t sit right with him. Something about that option screamed all the way down his spine and sat unpleasant and foul in his gut. He grit his teeth and stared past Ferril’s hip to Hannibal. The older man was doing his best to stand upright and not show his weakness. He must have lost a pint of blood by now and his leg had to be on fire, but Hannibal was a man who knew the value of intimidation and he was using it for as long as he was able.

Ferril stomped his boot into the dirt and held the gun up again, pointed hard and determined at Hannibal. “Listen, I’ll say this again, Lecter. Drop your knife and don’t make moves. You’ll go to prison for this murder. Don’t make it harder.”

Hannibal smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not fond of the idea of being confined to a cage.”

“Drop the knife!” Ferril hollered, voice hoarse.

Will rose quietly and focused all his efforts into maintaining his stealth. It was then that Hannibal spared him a glance. When their eyes met, Will had made his decision.

“Sorry, ranger,” Will muttered. Ferril started and made to turn, but Will was already on him with an arm around his throat in a chokehold. Without skipping a beat, he brought the hunting knife around and tugged the man closer to his own body before bringing it in towards them both and digging hard and fast into Ferril’s gut.

The ranger screamed out in fright and pain and shock all at once and the bang of a gunshot cracked through the trees like thunder. Will looked up to see Hannibal fall to the side and he growled, jerking his arm harder around Ferril’s throat and cutting off his air completely. The man dropped his gun and clawed helplessly at Will’s arm. He choked out a pathetic sound as Will dropped his shoulder and wrenched the blade up. Pelvis to sternum, he split Ferril in two. The smell of blood was so intense that Will’s tongue felt thick with it. The resistance was beginning to dim, Ferril’s pulls at his arm becoming weaker as he lost control of his abdominal muscles and strained to breathe beyond the unforgiving trap of Will’s arm.

Will looked up again, seeking Hannibal, and he found him on the ground. Alive. The relief took the breath from his lungs and flabbergasted him. He had no understanding of why he felt such solace in the discovery that the gunshot had done no more than graze the other man’s cheek. By all rights, he shouldn’t have cared either way if Hannibal lived or died by the end of this night. After all, Will himself had been trying to kill him for the past hour.

But Hannibal was alive and watching him with a rapt attention and Will felt relieved.

Eyes locked with Hannibal’s, Will dropped the knife and without hesitation he shoved his hand into the dying man’s stomach. Ferril’s weak gasp could be heard rattling out over the sound of squelching viscera. Will gripped hard at the slippery bits of what felt like intestine and pulled, disemboweling the man where he stood and throwing the innards to the ground with a wet slap.

Ferril lost consciousness quickly after that and Will couldn’t support the dead weight so he let him fall to the ground. Within moments, the shaky breaths of the ranger slowed to a stop and Will could have sworn he felt the life leave him at the very moment it slipped from the plane.

He looked down at his own hand. It was dripping from Ferril’s insides. He looked up to find that Hannibal was still watching him; only he was standing now.

Hannibal seemed completely unperturbed by the body on the ground. His sole focus was Will. “You truly are a magnificent creature, Will,” he breathed.

Will snorted and wiped his hand on his jeans. “You can’t just say shit like that.”

“And yet I have.”

“Yet you have,” Will agreed slowly. He looked for the blade on the ground and found it only a foot away. He could get to it just fine with Hannibal’s leg as messed as it was.

Hannibal caught the look. “Yet to be sated, Will?”

Will frowned and stayed where he was. “He was just a delay. You and I aren’t done.”

Hannibal hummed and leaned heavily on his uninjured leg. The glint, somehow, was still there in the cardinal hue of his eyes. “No, I don’t believe we are.” It sounded more like a promise than a threat.

Will stood there with the smell of the ranger’s blood permeating the air and heaved a deep sigh. Bending down, he picked up his knife and wiped it off on the ranger’s coat.

Hannibal chuckled and nodded, taking his own knife and using it to cut one of the sleeves of his shirt off. Will was halfway to saying how nice a shirt it was when he remembered the thing was covered in blood anyway, so who gave a damn. He waited as Hannibal took the sleeve and tied it above the gash on his leg in a makeshift tourniquet. It had to hurt, but Hannibal barely twitched an eyelash. Then, he looked up at Will expectantly.

“Shall we continue?”

Will rolled his eyes and looked away, tapping his foot. Trust this guy to make it sound like they were about to have a medieval duel. “Should I walk ten paces?” he snapped sarcastically.

Hannibal raised an eyebrow. “If you like.”

Will rolled his eyes again and he started to feel like they were rolling around of their own accord. He pinched the bridge of his nose and cursed under his breath. “Nah. You’re all busted up.” He nodded towards Hannibal’s leg and shoulder. “Going to be too easy for me now.” He tried to make it sound teasing, but it was half true.

“You aren’t doing so well yourself.” Hannibal gestured towards the seeping wound on Will’s chest. “What do you suggest?”

Biting his lip, Will made another in a series of impulsive decisions. Following impulse had made the night interesting so far. Might as well keep the pattern. “Even it out,” he said, and he tossed his knife back to the ground, giving Hannibal a look that impressed upon him to do the same.

Hannibal gave Will a regarding look and eventually nodded, dropping his own blade. “Very well.”

Will wanted to laugh at how ludicrous the situation was turning out to be. He couldn’t fathom why Hannibal was playing along so easily. His only wager would be to the fact that Hannibal was enjoying this as much as he was.

The din of the cicadas hollowed out the air between them as they stared each other down.

Will took a breath.

And he ran.

He sprinted down the slope between the trees and tried to veer around in the direction of the cabin. As good of a tracker as he was, Will had never been here before and if he ventured too far out there was a strong chance he would get completely turned around. On any other day that wouldn’t be all that bad. On a day where he’s got a chest wound the length of a ruler and might very well be close to getting a few more, it was a good idea to stay close to civilization in case he needed to get the hell out of Dodge.

Will was startled by how quickly Hannibal managed to jolt after him. It seemed that despite the awful damage to his leg, the tourniquet had done the trick to dull just enough of the pain to make Hannibal formidable again. He could hear the heavy footsteps of the larger man behind him—he wasn’t bothering to stay quiet anymore—and he nearly tripped over a log in his distraction.

“Fuck dammit!” Will snarled and caught himself, but it was too late.

Hannibal tackled him so hard he saw stars when they hit the ground. They tumbled over twice and Will wheezed when his back slammed into the large rock that halted his descent. He had about two seconds to gather his wits before Hannibal was hauling him to his feet by his shirt collar with the same strength he had used to throw Will back at the cabin. It was like Will weighed practically nothing.

Will swung out to knock the grip off his shirt but a fist came back the next moment to connect with his jaw and Will fell back down, momentarily stunned by the stamina Hannibal had regained. His mind began to race with the possibilities of Hannibal’s renewed vigor. Had he really been as injured as he had seemed before or was he just playing it up so Will would drop his guard?

It couldn’t be. Hannibal’s leg was a nasty piece of work at this point. There was no way it wasn’t as bad as it looked. No, this man was just a beast. He was a demon and now Will was learning just what that meant. He was as awed as he was apprehensive.

Will tried to get up before Hannibal could manage to keep him pinned down, but the other man was too fast. Hannibal was on him before he could get far, knees slamming his shoulders down and hands on his throat. Will choked and his mind flit back to the truck driver who had attempted to strangle him back in Knoxville. The man hadn’t even known he wasn’t on Will’s windpipe. It had been the saddest attempt Will had ever seen.

This wasn’t like that.

Hannibal knew just where to press and just how hard. Will’s vision was going fuzzy around the edges in seconds and he gasped soundlessly as he struggled to throw the other man’s weight off of him. Hannibal’s eyes were feral in the darkness and Will felt smothered by them. Will’s heart was pounding when he brought his knee up hard into Hannibal’s back. The blow forced the pressure on his neck to increase, but it got Hannibal to move enough that Will was able to throw up his torso and set them off balance.

With a harsh twist that made the gash in his chest rip open even wider, Will tossed Hannibal to the side and reversed the roles. His hands were on a neck just as fast and now he was the one who knew just how to take a man’s life with nothing but hands and determination.

Hannibal’s face was red and flushed and Will made sure to sit on his legs so the same move couldn’t be pulled on him. But then, astoundingly, Hannibal managed to smile even though the air was currently being choked out of him and Will felt hands on his shirt.

Bewildered, Will looked down just as Hannibal ripped the tattered remains of his shirt open, sending buttons flying. Will shot a stupefied look back up to the face below him and he breathed out a weak laugh.

“I fucking knew it.” His fingers loosened just enough to stave off death. “A man can only take the things you said so many ways.” The manic laugh escaped Will’s lips again. It was cut short when he felt fingers digging into his sides just below his ribs, dragging down along his skin and leaving red trails in their wake. Just like that, Will’s pulse was throbbing somewhere else and he sat up fast.

Hannibal was ready for the withdrawal and he followed like a reflection, forcing Will back onto the ground and hovering over him. “There are plenty of deaths to offer a person, Will.”

Will shivered and made to bite out a retort. Instead, he let out a hoarse groan when the abrupt sensation of a tongue smoothing over the cut on his chest hit him full force. It hurt like nothing else and sent a chill through every inch of his skin. Hannibal bit just to the right of the wound and it shocked Will into motion again. He kneed Hannibal in the kidney and darted up off the ground.

He had no idea where he was running anymore. He could only hope it was the direction of the cabin. His blood was rushing like white noise in his ears and he was harder than he’d ever been in his life. Part of him wanted to stop and accept whatever fate Hannibal had decided for them both, but the rush of the fight and the death and the blood was still hot inside him and it was making his legs move and every part of him struggle.

He had never felt this kind of rush. This was no hunt. This was a feast and every piece of him was gorging itself in a gluttonous heap of violence and a thousand other things he didn’t want to put a finger on. As he ran, he realized that it wasn’t the death or the excitement that was bringing it out in him. It wasn’t the lure of the forest or the feel of the ranger’s life in his hands. They were all just side notes in the chapter. Unimportant highlights that had nothing to do with the real story.

No, what had his blood pumping and his mind racing and his heart pounding so hard it might break itself was simple. It was Hannibal.

Will couldn’t help but wonder how he had lived his life without this feeling. He felt alive and awake. He had never known this feeling before.

Then he was slammed face first into a tree and the bark was fucking up the side of his face like paper mache. Will yelped at the burn and tried to push away before his chest hit the tree too, but he was blocked by the full weight of Hannibal’s body pitting itself against his.

Hannibal leaned forward and brushed his lips over Will’s ear as he whispered. “How long do you plan to keep this up, Will?”

Will fought back the urge to collapse even as he tilted his head involuntarily. “How long can you keep going?” he taunted. He felt Hannibal smile against his skin in response and then a mouth was on his neck, sucking hard.

Will almost lost it. For a moment, his body ignored every command he threw at it. Move. Run. Go. Fight. It didn’t care. All it cared about was that mouth on his neck—a mouth that he had little doubt had the ability to do some very terrible things. Hannibal’s hands were on his hips and he thrust forward against Will’s ass, solidifying how much the situation had changed.

Will bit his lip so hard it bled and he let himself have three seconds of enjoyment. Just enough to run his fingers through Hannibal’s hair before he was yanking it ruthlessly and shoving the man away and he was off again. His mouth was hanging open in heavy pants and his legs were shaking, but he kept going until his lungs burned and he nearly whooped with relief when he saw the cabin at the tree line.

With one last push of energy, he pulled out of the forest and to the side of the cabin, but there wasn’t the sound of running behind him anymore and he turned to see why. What he saw made his blood run hot and cold all at the same time. Hannibal wasn’t running, no. He was stalking right for him in slow and purposeful strides. His eyes were blown black and his lips were wet and parted. Will flushed when he remembered it was because those same lips had been on his neck moments before.

And then he understood. Hannibal wasn’t running because he was giving him a chance. He was giving him enough time to run away—out of reach—and never look back. Hannibal was giving him the chance to say no.

Will stayed put.

This time, when Hannibal shoved him back into the wall, Will didn’t fight it.

Hannibal didn’t start slow. There was no teasing or polite questing. His body was flush against Will’s from the moment they touched, hand roughly yanking Will’s leg up so he could slot their hips together in just the right way while the other fisted in unruly dark curls and forced their lips together in a crashing of teeth and tongues and heady moans.

Will was gone and he knew it. Hannibal kissed as well as he killed and Will felt like he was being eaten alive. He clutched at Hannibal’s shirt and returned the earlier favor, paying him back for the destruction of his own as he ripped it open and pressed their skin together. It gave him a dark satisfaction to know his blood was on Hannibal now; marking him like some kind of animal.

Hannibal’s hips were brutal in their grind and both men groaned when Will fought to take over the kiss. Without warning, Hannibal pulled away and grabbed Will by the shoulders to spin him around. Once more, Will found himself slamming face first into harsh wood. Only this time, Hannibal’s hands were on his jeans, practically tearing open the button and shoving them down in an unceremonious heap. Will had a reckless excitement at the thought that Hannibal would take him then and there. If anything, it would go hand in hand with the pain every other part of his body felt, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Will’s legs gave a tremulous shudder when he felt Hannibal sink to his knees behind him.

“Oh fuck,” he gasped, eyes pinching shut as he tried to understand how he had gotten here. “Oh fuck, you’re gonna...”

Hannibal’s hands were heavy and warm on Will’s ass and he held the younger man up by that grip alone. “I am,” was all he said. And then his mouth was there.

The sound that left Will’s mouth wasn’t human. If Hannibal hadn’t been propping him up, he would have been on the ground so fast it would have been a world record. His hands slapped the paneling of the cabin and his nails dug into the wood as he fought to maintain any semblance of composure. His chest was pressed hard into the boards and it hurt so bad it brought tears to his eyes, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was the fact that Hannibal’s tongue was doing things that were making his vision go dark and spotty and it was—“Oh fuck, Hannibal,” Will moaned when that tongue pressed in.

Hannibal made a sound like he was the one being touched and pressed harder, fingernails digging so hard into Will’s skin they were bound to add to the innumerable marks already covering Will’s body from the night. When he slid a finger in alongside his tongue, Will slammed a fist into the wall and turned his head to catch his breath. Sweat was pouring down his face now and he blinked it out of his eyes, vision focusing on the ranger’s car parked just barely in sight around the corner of the cabin.

Soon enough, another finger joined the first and Will was a shaking mess in spite of himself. He pushed his hips back and hit the side of the cabin again. “I can’t. Just—“

But he didn’t need to finish. Hannibal understood. Withdrawing his mouth and fingers, he shifted a bit and grabbed Will by the hips to yank him to the ground. Will fell to his knees with a grunt, barely stopping himself from slamming his forehead into the siding. The hands tugged him back and then he felt it—the warm, hard press of Hannibal against him.

Hannibal didn’t make him beg or plead or talk at all. A bit of maneuvering and he was pushing in. Will choked on his air and realized Hannibal must have spit on his cock because there was no way it would be going this smooth if he hadn’t. Even with, it was far from an easy ride. The hasty prep had made it just shy of excruciating and Will’s breath was catching in his throat as he grit his teeth and let Hannibal pull him down. When he was all the way in, Hannibal paused, leaning his forehead against Will’s shoulder and breathing heavily.

Will strained to adjust. Hannibal wasn’t a small guy and Will’s muscles were clenching convulsively as they fought against him. He kept one hand braced on the wall and brought the other back to grab at the older man’s hips. Just as he was starting to adjust, Hannibal pushed at his shoulders and brought them up to their knees, pulling out slowly and then slamming back in.

Will shouted out, voice going raw and frantic as Hannibal set a wicked pace. Pain bled into pleasure and all the frayed lines in between and Will was pushing back just as hard. It was depraved and wanton and so stupidly fantastic that Will thought he might be losing his mind. That was, until Hannibal angled just right and Will did lose his mind. The noise Will made then echoed into the air so loud he was sure he had scared even the cicadas off, but all he knew was how the cry had made Hannibal moan throatily and flatten a hand across Will’s belly to hold him even closer.

Will felt Hannibal’s leg starting to give out and he pushed at the wall in a hint. Hannibal took the cue and pulled them back, stumbling them both to the ground. Will moaned as Hannibal covered his back and he braced himself on his elbows as the thrusts became slow and measured. The change in speed wasn’t for lack of trying. The blood loss was getting to both of them and Hannibal’s leg had to be about an inch away from failing entirely and it was all they could do to keep moving.

The adjustment had inadvertently brought about a level of intimacy that was stunning both of them into silence. Their bodies rolled together and fit perfectly with every connect. The pleasure was a slow and building burn that was sticking their hair to their foreheads and making their skin slide. Their noises were becoming less and less restrained, Hannibal still holding Will around the stomach and forcing them so close Will wasn’t quite sure if they were starting to just melt into each other like hot glue.

Will felt lips on the back of his neck, on the side of it, on his jaw, on his shoulder. He collapsed all his weight onto one arm so he could reach back and tangle his fingers in Hannibal’s hair again. “It’s good. It’s so good,” he murmured. The rest of his words came out in an unintelligible mash of syllables and he gave up.

Hannibal nipped at his neck and rolled his hips. “Will you come?”

It wasn’t a question, but a request, and Will felt himself shiver at the tone of it. “Yes, I’m close. I’m fucking close.”

That was all Hannibal appeared to need because he was picking up the pace again, jerking Will’s hips up and driving into him with the last rush of stamina he had.

Will was incoherent. It was seconds—only seconds—and he was coming harder than he had in years, untouched and aching all over. Hannibal didn’t ease up. He kept going through Will’s orgasm and his thrusts were even more brutal than before. It wasn’t until Will was shaking and exhausted and was getting so oversensitive he thought he was going to die that Hannibal’s movements became erratic and he let out a long and deep groan that resonated from the depth of his chest.

They collapsed, careless of dignity or dirt. Hannibal pulled out and rolled onto his side, tucking himself back into his ruined trousers as Will pulled up his jeans. They lay there together, on their backs and staring into the sky, as they both came back to themselves. Will noticed the sound of the cicadas again and was curious if they had ever actually stopped or if he had just been so far gone that the world had ceased to exist. Logic pointed towards the latter.

Will didn’t look over at Hannibal. They weren’t touching; just close enough to feel body heat.

“Planning this the whole time?”

Hannibal’s exhale sounded like a laugh, but it could have been anything. “Not the entire time, no.”

Will laughed for both of them. “Got a funny way of courtship.”

“Undeniably,” Hannibal acquiesced. “However, my unconventional methods seems to have yielded perfectly acceptable results.”

Will forced his head to turn and discovered Hannibal was already looking at him. “We’re both lying in the dirt covered in blood and…” He looked down. “Other things. And there are two dead bodies within a few yards either way. This is your version of an acceptable night?”

Hannibal smiled. “No. This is my version of a night that is nearly perfect.”

Will’s eyebrows furrowed. “Nearly?”

Hannibal pursed his lips and pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I would have liked to have finished dinner.”

Will sat up with him, gawking. “You’ve got to be joking. That’s the only issue you have?”

Hannibal looked nonplussed. “I put effort into my cooking, Will. I prefer to savor it.”

“You can’t be a real person.”

“It is a topic up for debate.”

Will rubbed his palms over his face and regarded the man next to him. Much to his own surprise, he didn’t flinch when Hannibal reached out and stroked over his cheek. The affection didn’t feel out of place or strange. In fact, the utter normalcy of it was what set Will off balance. “I’m not the only one, right?” he asked.

Hannibal frowned. “I’m afraid you’ll need to be more specific.”

Will sighed and looked up at the stars. He hurt all over. “Whatever is going on with you and me is ten types of crazy and unexplainable. I’m not the only one who thinks that, right?”

“I find the crazy and unexplainable to be the only things worth spending any extended period of time on,” Hannibal replied. He followed Will’s gaze to the stars. “Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for.”

“You think our meeting was serendipitous?”

“You do not?”

“I don’t like believing in chance or fate.” Will pulled the tatters of his shirt around him. The blood was starting to chill and dry against his skin, making the cut stretch uncomfortably. “Takes away control.”

Hannibal looked away from the sky and back at the younger man. “Amor fati.” His eyes scanned over Will’s features in the same probing way he had done earlier. “Love your fate.”

“Which is in fact your life,” Will finished for him. “Nietzsche. We’re back to quotes?”

“They have their uses.”

“Are you always so philosophical after sex?”

Hannibal smirked and stood, offering Will a hand. The offer turned to Will supporting the taller man as his leg finally gave way and they limped slowly back to the cabin. “We have to do something about that.” Will nodded towards Ferril’s jeep.

Hannibal waved it off. “There are more than a few things that need to be dealt with by morning, yes, but I would very much enjoy a change of clothes beforehand and a proper wrap to my leg.”

“Oh right, you were a doctor before.”

“I was.”

Will didn’t ask to be patched up. He knew Hannibal would do it without him having to ask. He didn’t know why he knew. He just did. As they hobbled through the door of the cabin, Will risked the question nagging at his thoughts. “Should I be finding my way gone by daybreak?”

Hannibal stopped them in their tracks and looked down at Will with a bemused expression. “Whatever for?”

Will’s mouth flapped like a landed fish. The reason for his question had been obvious. They were nothing to one another. Just two men who had wanted to kill each other and made one hell of a night out of it. Will had no right to expect anything and he wasn’t sure why he was expecting anything to begin with. He was fine with being alone. Always had been and could keep going on like that just fine. “Figure it’s time for me to move on.”

Hannibal shook his head and pulled away, walking over to a bureau and pulling out a first aid kit. He gestured for Will to go into the bathroom and followed in after him. “I would find your departure to be terribly counterproductive,” he said as he set the case on the counter.

Will sat down on the toilet lid and tossed the remains of his shirt aside. “Why’s that?”

Hannibal grabbed a washcloth and ran it under the tap. “Neither of us achieved our goal. We are both still alive.”

Will narrowed his eyes and hissed as Hannibal gently brought the cloth to his chest, wiping away the blood. He didn’t ask why the man was tending to him first. He was sure he wouldn’t get a straight answer. “It was more difficult than I thought it would be.”

Hannibal made a sound of agreement and continued about his task. “It may take some practice before either of us finds success.”

Will was beginning to catch on. “Practice takes time,” he said slowly.

Hannibal stopped for a moment and met his eyes. “It can take a great deal of time. I think it only appropriate that we see to this situation properly, no matter how much time that may entail.”

Will grinned wryly. “It’s the practical way to look at it.”

Hannibal smiled back. “That’s precisely the way I see it. A matter of practicality.” He began cleaning Will up once more. “And if that practicality involves spending an extended period of time with one another—“

“—perhaps practicing together,” Will continued.

Hannibal’s free hand was sliding over Will’s neck to his hairline. “Then so be it.”

“Yeah.” Will shut his eyes and let Hannibal finish patching him up. “So be it.”

After all, it’s not like he had something else planned.