Will wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here. He knew, of course, how he’d gotten here. A boat, a train, a cab. In hindsight the boat had been ridiculous and unnecessary and he vowed to stay off the open sea for at least a year after that debacle. He really hadn’t thought that through, but there had been more than enough time to simmer over the impulsivity of the dramatic decision while stuck in the middle of the Atlantic for two weeks.
Don’t get it wrong. Will loved himself a good boat trip any day, but being stuck with nothing but ghostly apparitions from his failures and enough self-doubt to capsize the vessel was not exactly the best call he could make. No, next time he made a decision by the seat of his pants to chase after a notorious serial killer, he should probably just take a plane.
It had only gone downhill from there. He’d found Hannibal’s old home—the imposing and shambled mess that it was—and Chiyoh along with it. Chiyoh had been a surprise, but the train had been a nice change. No waves rocking back and forth underneath them, knocking each doubt to seed further and further into Will’s brain. Just the steady thump of the tracks and an understanding that he was closer to Hannibal now. He was closer to answers.
Answers to what, he wasn’t sure, but he could figure that out when he got there.
Then Chiyoh threw him off the damn train like a sack of potatoes. Will should have seen it coming. He really should have. Honestly, with how everything had been going he should have expected her to stab him and then throw him off, cackling as the train disappeared into the darkness, but no. He had been so damned shocked by the whole incident that he had spent a good two minutes face down in the railroad tracks before he managed to force himself to get up and limp away with whatever sliver of dignity he had left.
He would have preferred being stabbed. He had practice with that.
And then time had blurred together like white noise until, finally, he was in Italy. He was staring at Hannibal’s grotesque valentine. He was smelling a whisper of Hannibal’s scent in the catacombs; the spice of his cologne. He was seeing the aftermath of the rage Hannibal had instilled within every aspect of Jack’s psyche. He was observing the warped and distorted caricature Hannibal had inspired Bedelia to become.
During all of this, he was looking. He was seeing glimmers of light sweeping around the corners like a person just stepping out of view. He was tasting the bitter tang of a man just out of reach.
Hannibal was here. In this place.
Will could see the man smearing careless finger paint all over Palermo. He was doing it on purpose. His presence was an open invitation—gaudy and tacky and obvious. It wasn’t until Will had stopped caring that he had figured out where all the signs pointed to.
Seeing Bedelia as she was had been a catalyst of sorts. He had laughed at her. He had turned his nose up. Look at the woman who had dismantled herself to survive the great Hannibal Lecter. After that had followed a sweeping jealousy. She had no scars. No wounds. She wasn’t bleeding out on the floor. She was untouched.
Then, Will was angry.
All of these people—Jack, Bedelia, Alana—they had no idea. They had been struck in a passing blow. Hannibal had glanced by them. He had shaved past them. Their anger and betrayal was nothing compared to Will’s. Will had looked behind the teeth and into the belly of the beast. He had put his head in the lion’s mouth and had it snap shut. He was the only one. The rest of them were collateral damage.
He quashed any associated guilt the moment it tried to whimper in his ear.
He hadn’t even bothered to say anything to Jack when he walked out. Maybe Jack would have tried to stop him, maybe he wouldn’t, but Will didn’t care to find out. He didn’t care at all anymore. Hannibal had shown himself to everyone but him. He had allowed Bedelia to follow him into the oily black of his escape. He had stepped from the shadows to placate Jack’s ire. But for Will?
For Will, he had dodged and ducked around corners like a child playing hide and seek. After everything, he had tossed Will into silence. So Will had resolved himself to stop trying. If Hannibal wanted Will to find him, then he would be found. Obviously that wasn’t the case, so why should he bother trying any longer? Hannibal was still pulling all the strings like the brilliant puppet master he was. Will wasn’t keen to keep being tugged along.
He called a cab and let it drive.
And that was how he got here.
But how? The reason, the motive, the impulse? That was something Will didn’t have an answer to. He had seen the museum out of the corner of his eye and gotten out of the cab without a second thought. It was pulling him in the way that only one thing had pulled him before, and somehow he knew. And damn if that didn’t just piss him off more.
When he’d seen Hannibal sitting before the painting, sketching away as though oblivious to his surroundings, Will had noticed the pause and shift as his scent was caught in the air. His legs had moved on autopilot, bringing him to the bench and sitting down next to his own personal phantom. “No disappearing around corners this time?” he had wanted to ask. He didn’t.
Instead, they had fallen into the same song and dance they had always sauntered into. The bloated metaphors and agonizing avoidance of being straightforward. Hannibal had stared at him with an affection that was discomfiting and Will found himself smiling in spite of himself. It was infuriating. What had been the point of this? What now? Will had come all this way and now here they were, sitting on a bench talking like pretentious poets and avoiding the fact that they had been avoiding each other for months.
Will couldn’t decide if he had expected anything different.
When they were walking out together, side by side, Will hadn’t been entirely sure why he had pulled the knife out of his pocket. Perchance he really was going to stab Hannibal right there in the middle of a crowded square. Maybe he just wanted to hold on to a lifeline to feel like he wasn’t being dragged right back into the spider’s web. He could even argue he was just grasping a physical manifestation of his need to cut the strings between the two of them. Whatever it was, he never found out.
After all, getting shot can be a bit distracting.
Once again, he should have expected it. It wasn’t as though Chiyoh had wandered off into the distance after they “parted ways” on the train. She had known exactly where Will was going and who he was looking for. So, Will should have expected it.
He didn’t expect it.
Will had no idea how he had gotten from the plaza to some apartment, but he was pretty sure Hannibal had all but carried him there. Part of him had wanted to ask why no one had insisted they go to a hospital. The amount of people who must have witnessed the entire ordeal couldn’t have been a small number, but Will didn’t ask. Instead, he focused on the fact that it felt like his shoulder was being ripped in half and he was pretty sure Hannibal found the whole situation amusing beyond belief if the smug look in his eyes was anything to go by.
When he felt the knife in his hands, for one brief and heart-rending moment he thought that was it. Hannibal was going to kill him with a witty one-liner about dropping his forgiveness and that was going to be the end of it. Will had come all this way to be killed by a metaphor. He hadn’t even decided whether or not he was going to use the stupid knife. That just wasn’t fair.
But then Hannibal had dosed him up with god knows what and Will had decided there was no point in arguing with fate anymore. He was tired. He’d lost a lot of blood—again—and Hannibal’s hands were warm and his face was mocking. So Will decided to fall prey to the “come what may” mentality as he began to slip under.
Hannibal had him now. It didn’t matter how he’d gotten here. He was here. So, come what may.
In the darkness of his own mind, as the flickering light of the room faded away, Will saw Abigail’s neck slither open into a viscous red and pour onto the floor. He watched her smile wan. He watched her eyes dull. He could feel the cold and unforgiving tile of Hannibal’s kitchen floor beneath his palms.
The first time he came to, it was in a fog. The world was blurry and askew. He saw Hannibal looming over a table—not noticing him, staring blankly, unmoving, lost in thought. Will tried to hold onto the image and commit it to memory. Hannibal’s visage came so close to exuding uncertainty that Will wanted to grasp at every inch of it to prove such a thing was possible, but he started to slip again and suddenly the world shifted back into black.
He found himself back in his head again. He could hear the rain and feel it hitting his face and plastering his hair to his forehead. He heard a shuddering, gasping breath and looked down to see Alana at his feet. Her mouth was open in silent pain and she choked and swallowed against it. He set his jacket over her broken form, but the gesture felt empty as he walked into the house and left her pain behind him.
The next time he woke, it was to a cacophony of sound. Shouts, bangs, snarls of struggle. The table Hannibal had been looming over before had slammed into Will’s chest and he realized that was what had managed to jar him from his comatose state. He blinked his eyes blearily at the scene, trying to focus. It was impossible to hold onto anything. The lights and colors of the room were slipping in and out like fine silk threads. They slid over his eyes and he couldn’t catch the strands.
He saw figures moving erratically. There was a spray of red—arterial—and Will felt something hot dripping down his cheek. Another shout echoed into the room, but Will was already too far gone. The sound faded away like an echo as he dipped under again.
He was in the observatory now. Jack was stepping away from him and he could feel the depressing dangle of the straight jacket’s straps as they fell from around his body. With each rustle of the fabric, Will felt strangled.
And there was Beverly; the body she’d once been sectioned off like a timestamp. As he walked forward, each separate piece of her jarred him. Each piece was like a moment flashing into the chaotic heat of his mind. He could see them like imprints on his retinas. He could feel them like he was standing right next to Hannibal. Like he was dissecting his own life to put on display. She was the grotesque, picturesque exhibit of Hannibal’s lies.
Of the lies Will told himself.
He may as well have killed her himself. There was no fine line there. There was no distinction. Will had done this to her.
When Will opened his eyes a third time, it was due to vibration. For a brief, delirious moment, he thought he was with Chiyoh. He could feel each jostle of the tracks under the train. He could hear the steady heartbeat of the engine. He could see landscape passing him by.
Then he realized he could make out no distinct details. His eyes were half-mast and determined to stay that way. His arms weren’t responding to his brain. Locked-in syndrome. Trapped in his own body. His breathing began to speed up. His heart was hammering. A shadow moved past his vision and there was a sharp pinch under his arm.
The world faded away.
This time, there were no dreams. His thoughts were disorganized and disordered. He saw a flash of a beast jumping through the window in his home in Wolf Trap. He felt the gun heavy in his hands. He felt bone breaking beneath his knuckles. He saw a man climbing from the belly of a horse. He felt the gun weighing against his fingers. He felt Hannibal’s palm slip over his wrist. He saw the shocked face of Garrett Jacob Hobbs as he riddled him with bullets. The gun was lighter than air. He watched Hannibal gently pry his grasp from Abigail’s convulsing throat.
Will woke with a start, shooting up from where he lay. Immediately, he regretted the movement. His head was filled with nails and his shoulder had been ripped into a thousand pieces. Groaning, he lay back down and closed his eyes, willing the world to stop spinning and his body to stop burning. The pillow under his head was soft, decadently so, and for the longest time he just lay there.
He half expected to fall back under again. He’d gotten used to the lull of it. It was as though life was a dream and he was simply drifting from moment to moment.
But his consciousness was clingy now. It refused to let go. Grudgingly, Will forced his eyes opened and hissed as the light made his pupils contract unpleasantly. The room began to make itself known.
He meant to utter something like “What?” or “Where?” but it came out in a garbled and dry-mouthed “Wenguh?”
Gritting his teeth together so roughly he was sure he’d lose a layer of bone in the act, Will pushed up off the bed again, swinging his legs over the side.
The room he was in was an odd one. Not odd in the sense that it was unusual in some way, but odd in the sense that this was not the sort of place he would usually find himself in even in the most unique of circumstances. It was musty and old. Heavy, embroidered drapes hung across the large window that was currently casting sunlight across the room in dusty streaks. A hideous oriental rug was on the floor. The bed he was in had four posts like something out of a princess novel. There was even a fireplace; stone hearth and all.
Frowning in confusion, Will looked at the bedside table. On it was a sealed bottle of water and an equally sealed bottle of painkillers. He blinked at them. After a moment of debate, he reached for them and screwed them open. Opening the painkillers took more effort than he would ever admit to, but he’d just been shot in the shoulder so it wasn’t as though he didn’t have an excuse.
Shot in the shoulder. Shit. Will shot up off the bed, pills halfway down his throat. The action resulted in a coughing fit that lasted a good three minutes before he was calm enough to hobble over to the window and look outside. What he saw held him there as though the vines crawling up the side of the house had woven their way up his legs.
He knew this house.
This was the Lecter estate.
Self-preservation kicking into his muscle memory, he downed the rest of the water without a thought, staring vacantly out into the overgrown mirage that was the grounds of the estate. It was hauntingly beautiful when he had been here last, covered in mist and mystery. Now it looked a shambles. Nature had stolen this place back for itself, covering the statues in weeds and earth. Somehow, though, it was still beautiful.
He tore his eyes from the sight and turned back to survey the room. His coat and shoes were by an austere chair in the corner of the room. How had he gotten here? The last thing he could remember was being shot. There was a faint image of Hannibal dragging him somewhere. A needle. Hannibal had drugged him. He was sure about that, but why take him here? Or had it been Chiyoh? Had she deemed him unworthy of Hannibal’s help, if that’s what Hannibal really had been offering, and lugged him back to this desolate place?
No, that couldn’t be it. Chiyoh was nothing if not unpredictable. Will had learned that the hard way, but if there was anything he was certain of, it was that the last place that mercurial woman would want to go would be here. This wasn’t the kind of place someone returned to. It was haunted. It was separate from the universe. If you managed to escape it, you didn’t come back.
Why, then, was Will here?
Will looked helplessly at the empty bottle in his hand. It had been sealed, just like the painkillers. The message that gave was a distinctly nonthreatening one. Purposefully so. The only logical explanation—the only one his mind could repeatedly jump to—was that it was Hannibal. This was Hannibal telling Will that the drugs were done. He was awake now. He was free to remain that way.
Tossing the bottle carelessly onto the bed, Will stepped cautiously towards the closed door, grabbing his shoes and tugging them on. Conceivably it would be locked. This freedom was an illusion. Finally, Hannibal had given up on trying to persuade and lure him and now he had simply taken Will captive. Like Miriam Lass. Like Abigail.
Will swallowed against the lump in his throat and reached for the brass handle of the door. Slowly and with no small level of suspicion, he turned it.
The door opened without the slightest hint of resistance. Other than the decay of the heavy wood and the rust of the hinges, it opened with minimal effort. Will let go of it like it burned him and watched it slowly creak open. This was a trick. It had to be. Hannibal wouldn’t go through all of this just to let Will walk out unscathed. And unscathed he would be, despite the wounds checkering his body. Hannibal hadn’t given him any of these marks. The gashes and cuts were from Chiyoh. So was the bullet. For all intents and purposes, Hannibal had merely knocked him out through the worst of the pain.
That didn’t sit right with Will. It didn’t fit the narrative. It wasn’t fluid.
There was no way in all the levels of hell that Hannibal would just patch him up and let him go. Not now. Not after everything.
There was no way.
Will stepped into the hall. The silence of the house hit his eardrums like the pressure of a brutal altitude. He cracked his jaw and tried to get them to pop. God, this house felt smothering with its unknowns and dark corners. Will wanted to walk out and never look back.
Hannibal was nowhere to be seen. There didn’t seem to be a soul anywhere. No lights were on save for the natural glaze of the sun from the unwashed windows. It was cold and dank and as unlived in as he remembered it being from his quick stay when he had come here looking for answers. It seemed like that time had been years ago. He felt like he had found answers then—caught a glimpse into the demon hiding under Hannibal’s skin. Now the estate was only offering him more questions. He felt the ambiguity of the situation crawling on his skin like a spider.
He crept down the stairs and towards the front door. Still nothing. Not a sound. Not a whisper. In a dramatic snap of paranoia, he whirled around, fully expecting Hannibal to be looming over him. There was no one there. Was this really it? He was free to go?
Testing the waters of his own subconscious, Will pushed open the front door and stepped through the threshold. The air was cold and biting on his face and he felt the healing wound on his neck pull uncomfortably. He descended the steps. He walked down the pathway. He was nearly fifty feet away from the house before he realized that he had left his coat back in the room. His muscles felt stiff and abused in the cold.
He was all the way to the wrought iron fence when he stopped and turned around. Still no Hannibal. Nothing. Not even the wind made a sound.
And against all of his logic and reason and sanity, Will felt inexplicably angry.
“That’s it?” he shouted at the house. The exterior stared back at him, unresponsive and apathetic. It towered over him. Somehow, it felt mocking. Will scowled and dug his fingers into the bicep of his bad arm, trying to redirect the pain in his shoulder. His words left him unbidden, raw and loud. “Really? I’m just walking away?” He wasn’t sure if he was yelling at himself, the house, or Hannibal. It didn’t really matter.
When he still received no response, Will heaved out a sigh and let his back slump. He knew in his heart of hearts that this was the point. This was Hannibal’s goal. He knew without a doubt that Hannibal had done this on purpose; just another part of his elaborate, never-ending game.
He had given Will a choice. He was letting him choose.
Because if Will was given a choice, Hannibal was well aware that Will would want to know why the choice was offered in the first place. Will would want to know why too badly to leave. He would want answers. He would want to know why he wasn’t forced to stay. He would want to know why Hannibal was letting him just walk away.
Knowing this, Will was fully capable of recognizing the manipulation—the lack of choice. He could see it easily enough. This was Hannibal forcing his hand. If Will walked away, he would always wonder. He would have come all this way for nothing. Everything would have been pointless.
He couldn’t leave. Not now. Not until he could make sense of the mess his life had become. Not until he could find some method to assuage his pathological need for closure.
After all, hadn’t he decided “come what may”? If he walked away now, where would he go? There was no going back to his life. The life he had made for himself before Hannibal was no longer there. The past was empty space. He hadn’t lied as they sat in front of that painting. Hannibal had asked him flat out where the definitive lines of life lay.
Before you and after you.
Will was in the after now. After Hannibal. After Abigail. After. He was stuck in a limbo that had no foreseeable end or destination. If he left now, it would be a return to purgatory. He would be stuck in between with nowhere to go. Nothing would ever end.
With that knowledge simmering resolutely in his gut, Will steeled himself and strode back into the estate.
The house was barren. It was filled with old furniture and art. The grandiosity of it was floor to ceiling—busts, trophies, books, antiques—but it held an emptiness that was so palpable that it slinked into Will’s bones and made him feel stiff and tense. This place was the physical representation of a Hannibal Will had never known. Hannibal was Will’s before and after. But this house? This house was Hannibal’s before.
It made Will feel distinctly separate and unwelcome. He felt like an intruder.
With each of the innumerable rooms, Will found no one. Door by door, he discovered that he was alone. Doubt began to creep into the back of his mind like a disease, growing with each passing step into the quiet of the house. Had Hannibal left him here? Had he been cast out into the past like an unwanted memory?
Will shook his head and the thoughts away with it. He may have willingly subjected himself to the manipulation of his curiosity, but he would not allow Hannibal to control his self-worth. Not this time.
He wasn’t the weak and shivering mess that Hannibal had found all that time ago. He wasn’t bogged down by the crippling illusions of encephalitis. He wasn’t overcome by the guilt of his own imagination. He was not an extension of Hannibal, no matter how hard the man had tried to make it so. He was, instead, the man who understood the monster—who saw him.
That thought, above all others, gave him the confidence he needed. This hadn’t been what Hannibal had intended. Hannibal, for all his love of the unexpected, had never consciously meant to be seen the way Will had seen him. He had wanted a toy. He had wanted something to wind up and mold into a masterpiece of his choosing. Instead, Will had stared right through Hannibal’s skin and seen the molten rock underneath. He had seen. He hadn’t looked away. He’d stared right at it until he had damn near gone blind, and Hannibal hadn’t expected that.
For all Hannibal’s boasts and goads, Will knew without a second’s hesitation that he had surprised him. He had been unexpected. He had gone outside the intended mold. That gave him confidence. And maybe a slight twinge of narcissism, if he was honest.
Eventually, he found his way into an astoundingly large kitchen. It must have been a thing to behold when this house was alive. Now it was covered in dust and age and decay. Will frowned. If Hannibal was really here, Will would have assumed this would be the first place he cleaned. Maybe Hannibal really had left.
Not willing to follow that train of thought any longer than he needed to, Will sifted through the cupboards and cabinets until he found an old store of wine. The label was faded and Will wasn’t about to pretend in the gloomy solitude of an abandoned kitchen that he knew the first thing about how good it was, but after an inordinate amount of time searching for a corkscrew and a cup, Will found himself slumped into the breakfast nook wiping the cup out with his shirt and pouring a glass.
“I’m supposed to let this breathe,” he muttered sullenly into the wine. He lasted about half a minute before he tossed back a mouthful.
He started coughing immediately. It was acidic and bitter. Grimacing, he examined the bottle. It looked like it had been sealed properly, but there was no way to tell for sure now. He sighed and set the glass down with a thump, staring out the opaque window through the dirt and wondering what his next move should be.
He didn’t know how long he sat there before he heard it. The front door opened and closed and there was the sound of heavy footsteps shifting around in the foyer. Each click of the heel echoed through the empty house. Each staccato beat made his lip twitch and his fingers tighten around his undrunk wine. Even when the footsteps came to a stop and he felt the unmistakable presence of another person in the doorway of the kitchen, Will kept staring blankly out over the canvass of the grounds.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Hannibal broke the silence. “You remain.”
Will blinked. He heard the rustle of a bag and a shift of fabric, but Hannibal didn’t move from the doorway. Sighing and with a bitter smile, he said. “Yeah, seems like it.” If he kept looking out the window, this could all still be a dream. Hannibal’s voice would remain this ethereal thing that seeped into his consciousness like a poison that couldn’t quite take root.
After a long moment, there was more rustling and footsteps further into the kitchen. “I’ve turned on the power. I left to buy us some food, although I see you already found the wine.” Hannibal said it as conversationally as you please, as though they were just roommates catching up on the day.
Will let out a soundless laugh and looked at the glass in his hand. He hadn’t noticed that the power was on. He hadn’t even thought to try the lights. “The wine is awful.”
“Really?” Hannibal’s tone was light and casual. With anyone else it would have seemed forced. With him, it was all just part of the play. Will could hear him putting groceries away. The entire situation was surreal. “Perhaps you would allow me to select the next vintage.”
Will rolled his eyes and shoved the glass away. “Be my guest.”
“On the contrary,” Hannibal rebutted. “You are mine.”
Suddenly, Will remembered where exactly they were and the true weight of it thundered onto his shoulders like a stack of bricks. For the first time in their conversation, he turned around to look at Hannibal. The other man was dressed in a white shirt and slacks, faced away as he placed items in the pantry. A discord of memory swept over Will of Hannibal in Baltimore before everything had fallen apart. It made his heart rend. “Why here, of all places?”
As though sensing that Will was finally looking at him, Hannibal turned around. His eyes were dark and unfathomable as they searched Will’s own. He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms. “Of all the places, Will, I would assume you would recognize the significance of this one.”
“I know the significance. That’s why I’m confused. I didn’t think this was a place you’d ever come back to.”
Hannibal nodded in acquiescence and pursed his lips just slightly. “True, it is not a place I had ever expected to revisit.” He mulled over his words some more, chewing them. “But I found when I decided to change my plans for you in Italy, there were no other suitable places to bring you.”
Will’s eyebrows knit together. “Changed your plans?” His mind supplied images of Hannibal placing the knife in his hand, speaking of forgiveness, dosing him up to his eyeballs with drugs. He saw the muggy specter of Hannibal looming over a table, indecisive and contemplative. It clicked. “You were going to eat me.”
The ghost of a smile hinted at the corners of Hannibal’s eyes. “I was.” He held out his hands in a mock apology, but they quickly fell back to their task of emptying out the bags of food. “I was quite convinced that it was my best option, in fact.”
It was then that Will realized one of Hannibal’s habits. Whenever he was uncomfortable with a topic or was revealing far more honesty than he was used to, he had to busy himself. Like snapshots in a slideshow, Will remembered every time that Hannibal had been truly honest with him. Every single time, the man had begun to occupy himself apropos of nothing. His hands became restless and he would appoint himself a task in order to maintain his nonchalance and excuse himself from eye contact.
Right then, Will felt that he had taken another step forward on the chess board. “What changed your mind? Have I not marinated enough for your tastes?”
Hannibal turned to him in surprise, one brow raised. “Odd. Bedelia said something quite similar to me only days ago.”
Will felt an unwelcome stab of irritation slice low across his belly, dangerously close to the smile adorning his stomach. “You left Bedelia in quite a state.”
“Bedelia is in many states. Often simultaneously.” Will snorted and Hannibal regarded him with a curious glance. “Are you envious?”
“Of Bedelia?” Will cast a hand through the air as though throwing the mere concept to the floor. “Not likely.”
“Similar to the way a wolf does not envy a domesticated dog, I should suspect,” Hannibal commented idly, opening up the fridge to stock some vegetables away.
Will stood and walked over to the counter, leaning onto it with his elbows and watching Hannibal go about his business. The entire event had a hypnagogic quality to it. “This place is a mess.”
Hannibal froze for a moment, looking around as though he had just noticed the state of disrepair the house was in. “I suppose it is. Chiyoh was unlikely to stay in the main house, so I am unsurprised by the status of the estate.”
“She stayed in the guest house.” Will glanced out the window to the grounds, but couldn’t find the building he spoke of. It must have been on the other side. “I came in here, briefly, but she didn’t follow me. I took it for superstition.”
“Poor Chiyoh is afraid of ghosts?” Hannibal mused.
“I think she was paranoid you’d manifest from the walls.”
Hannibal said nothing to that and Will counted it as a win. He ran a finger through the dust on the counter. “Is the water working?”
Will chewed on the inside of his cheek. Cleaning was always something he’d done back at his home in Wolf Trap when he felt unsettled. Maybe it would have the same effect on him here. It seemed Hannibal wasn’t the only one who needed to do something with his hands.
Thankfully, Hannibal didn’t make Will ask, pointing to a bag he had left at the edge of the counter. “That bag will have cleaning supplies.”
Will bit back a smile. Of course Hannibal wouldn’t cook in squalor like this. Will remembered Hannibal’s house back in the states. It had always been pristine. The man’s skin had to practically be crawling in this place. Still, Will wasn’t doing this for Hannibal. He needed to have a task. He needed to feel like he was accomplishing something.
More than anything, he needed to feel like he wasn’t being smothered in the decay of Hannibal’s past. It was starting to make his eyes water and his throat itch. Or maybe that was just mold.
Snatching up the supplies from the bag, Will set about his work. Neither of them spoke for the longest time after that. Once Hannibal was done putting the food away, he picked up his own cloth and began fastidiously scrubbing the inside of the oven until the old thing nearly sparkled. They went on like that until late into the afternoon, stopping briefly for a silent lunch of sandwiches and wine, the simplest food Will had ever seen Hannibal eat, and didn’t stop again until the kitchen looked almost like livable space. Will’s shoulder was beginning to burn again. He hadn’t even realized how well the painkillers had been working until they had started to wear off. Scrubbing down the kitchen for hours on end probably didn’t help.
Once they had completed their mutually distracting undertaking, they had settled down in the breakfast nook with wine in real wine glasses and Hannibal had picked up the thread of conversation as though they had never dropped it in the first place.
“You told me that Chiyoh is the one who killed her tenant,” he said, taking a sip of his wine and glancing out the window towards the trees. “May I ask how, after so many long years, that event finally came to pass?”
Will stared at him for a moment, wondering if Hannibal had been down there—seen the display Will had left for him and never expected him to see. He decided he wasn’t ready to play. “We can’t stay in the kitchen forever. Maybe we should call a maid.”
Hannibal humored him. “Perhaps a live-in butler is in order. One requires help to maintain such an estate, after all.”
Will laughed, short and rough, and winced as his shoulder shifted. “Got any more painkillers that aren’t in a needle? Not that I don’t love your obsession with shooting me up, but I’d rather swallow my fate for a while.”
Hannibal drank his wine and said nothing, regarding Will with an unreadable expression.
Will read it. He was throwing Hannibal off guard. Will had never fallen into Hannibal’s line of polite society and socially acceptable behavior, but this level of candor was never really entertained between them. There was always this effervescent layer of simile and metaphor and implication. A layer that Will was damn tired of skirting over. “I’ll just go grab the bottle from the room. If I can find it again.”
Hannibal waved him off as Will began to stand, standing himself. “Please, Will. You are injured. Allow me.”
With a small frown, Will reluctantly allowed Hannibal to go fetch the pills. It took him mere moments to return and Will suspected that meant he had more than one stash of painkillers at the ready. He couldn’t decide if that was thoughtful or worrying. With a grimace, he took the offered pills and tossed them back with wine. “Probably not supposed to wash these down with this, but bottoms up.”
“Unless you plan on operating any heavy machinery tonight, I think you will be alright.” Hannibal sat the bottle on the windowsill and returned to his own glass. “I must admit, Will, I was not certain you would be here when I returned.”
“I almost left,” Will admitted. “I went all the way to the gate.”
“What changed your mind?”
“The same thing that stopped you from eating me, I guess,” Will replied, catching himself just short of shrugging. “My need for answers outweighed my need for a resolution.”
“Is it answers you seek?” Hannibal’s query maintained an air of innocence, but it was pressing. “Or a progression?”
Will narrowed his eyes at his wine glass and swirled the liquid around. “Whenever we progress I end up bleeding.” And then, before Hannibal could rattle off his end of the rapport, Will decided to have a go at his new tactic. In for a penny, after all. “Is that what you want, Hannibal?” His eyes skittered up to meet the ones staring at him from across the table. “For this to end in me bleeding again?”
To his credit, if Hannibal was surprised by the directness of the question, he didn’t show it. His gaze was a steady one. “That was never how I wished for this to end, Will.”
A bitter liquid rose in Will’s throat. He swallowed it down. “You wished for us to run away together,” he snapped. The next words were heavy on his tongue and he had to force them out. “With Abigail.” He knew he was treading on thin ice here. He wasn’t the only one at that table who was angry. He wasn’t the only one who had felt betrayed.
Hannibal regarded him silently for a dangerous moment. Slowly, he spoke. “Did I mishear you in the catacombs, Will?”
I forgive you.
“I—“ Will’s jaw snapped shut and he closed his eyes. His fingers clenched and unclenched on his thigh. “No, you didn’t. Forgetting, though? You can’t ask that of me. You can’t ever ask that of me.”
“Nor would I. For you to forget all the events that have transpired between us would be to render everything that we have learned from one another a moot point. That is not something I would ever wish upon either of us.” Hannibal’s words were as impassioned as they had the capability of sounding and the intonation made Will open his eyes.
Will licked his lips, searched the blankness of Hannibal’s face, heard the inflection of the older man’s voice echo into the room. “Do you feel like you’ve succeeded?”
“At whatever it is you intended for me. You had plans. I know you did.”
“Our story is far from over.”
Will laughed. “Will it ever be over?”
“All stories have a beginning and an end,” Hannibal responded thoughtfully. He refilled both of their glasses, leaning back into his chair. “I have never been the kind of man who desires to know the ending before its time.”
Once again, Will felt tired of the game. It seemed his patience was wearing thin and he could only take their normal sway of conversation in small doses. He threw out the first sentence that came to mind. “Have you ever been thrown off a train, Hannibal?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
Hannibal tilted his head to the side, inquisitive. “Is this avoidance or misdirection, Will?”
Will jutted his chin out in challenge. “You’re the psychiatrist.”
This time, Hannibal frowned. It looked like Will wasn’t the only one getting impatient. “Such jabs are beneath you.”
“Really? I’ll try harder, then,” Will sniped back quickly. He leaned forward on his elbows. His blood was starting to boil. His body was pulling in two different directions, as though it couldn’t decide whether or not it wanted to fight or give in. “I was never going to stab you in that square.” He didn’t know the truth of his own words until he’d said them. Now there was no taking them back. “You said I forgive how God forgives. If that’s the case, maybe I haven’t been able to forgive you yet.”
“Do you wish to show me your forgiveness, Will?” Hannibal asked. He crossed his legs under the table, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect.
“Jack got to show you his.” The words came out unwillingly and Will hated how petulant he sounded.
Hannibal scanned his eyes over Will’s face. “You feel cheated.”
Will’s eyes rolled and he looked away. “I think it’s safe to say that’s a fairly constant feeling for me at this point.”
“Then how would you resolve this?” Hannibal set his glass down on the table and steepled his fingers together. “Do you wish to kill me? Wound me? Feel my bones break beneath righteous fists?”
Will sighed. “There was a time where I knew the answer to that question. I could see it vividly in my head—in my dreams—but now? I don’t know, Hannibal. I don’t have an answer for you.”
“Then perhaps that is why you turned around at the gate. That is the answer you seek.”
Will shrugged and immediately groaned his regret as his shoulder throbbed viciously. “Can we stop for today? I know maybe you don’t even know how to stop.” He looked at Hannibal and found nothing in his expression to guide his words. “Maybe this is it for you. Talking circles around each other until we’re both blue in the face, but I’m tired, Hannibal. I’m really, truly, excruciatingly tired.”
Hannibal nodded and said nothing. His eyes were dark and enigmatic as he reached for his glass and contemplated the contents. Whether he said nothing out of courtesy to Will’s request or simply because he had nothing to say, there was no way to know for sure.
Will discovered he found the silence unnerving. “Aren’t you tired?”
The analysis of Hannibal’s wine ceased and dark eyes steadily rose to meet Will’s. For the first time that night, Will saw consideration in their depths. Hannibal was weighing his options. He was legitimately choosing what to say. “Perhaps you should get some rest, Will. You have had a long few days.”
Will paled. “Days? How long did you have me under?”
“The trip was not a short one. It has been four days since we reunited,” Hannibal replied, looking unbothered by the confession. “Your wound is unpleasant. I thought it best to let you heal for a day when we arrived.”
His mouth was flopping open like a landed fish, but try as he might, Will couldn’t wipe the surprise off his face. “You kept me unconscious for four days?”
“No, but your periods of lucidity were brief. I am not surprised you don’t remember them.”
“Hannibal, you—“ Will groaned and rubbed a hand over his face, wincing when his fingers caught a cut. It was starting to close up, but it was still tender. “You can’t keep doing these things to me. You can’t treat me like an inanimate object.” He leaned his head on his palm, trying to remember why he had stayed here. Did he have any sanity left? What kind of man willfully remained with the person who had done the things that Hannibal had done? Had Will completely lost his mind?
Startled, Will looked up between his fingers. “What?”
“I will endeavor not to directly influence your coherence again.”
Will was back to landed fish mouth flopping.
Hannibal took pity. “You have displayed to me many times over that you are not a person I can entirely anticipate, Will,” he said. He took a leisurely sip of his wine, rolling it over his tongue before he continued. “I have made considerable efforts to guide you down the paths I wish to see you follow, but each and every time you exceed my expectations in ways that I could never have accounted for. For all my attempts, you have ultimately remained your own creation. Perhaps it is time for me to allow that creation to flourish rather than forcing your hand.”
“Hands off has never been your method, Hannibal.” Will allowed himself to consider this for a moment. Hannibal couldn’t possibly be serious. He was a man who needed control. He needed to dig his fingers deep into the flesh of life—pull at the tendons, twist the bones of it. Hannibal molded the body of the world how he saw fit. For him to offer to step back and release that hold was not only suspicious, but unbelievable. “As much as you preach your love of chaos, I can’t imagine you letting go entirely. Where would your game be then? It could spiral away from you completely. I can’t envision you allowing that.”
“Will.” The way Hannibal said his name was like punctuation, stealing the air from the room and ending all other sound. “The game has already spiraled away from me. I left my life in Baltimore. I can never return to Italy. I am sitting in a place where I had never desired to return, across the table from the only man I could never fully predict. If you are convinced that this has all been part of my master plan, I am sorry that I must disappoint you, but flattered by your apparent opinion of my omniscience.”
Will frowned, untrusting.
A sigh, so light it was barely a sound, found its way between Hannibal’s lips. “This waltz between us has been a fascinating one, my dear Will. For each step I take, you have matched with volatility. I make no claims that I have not enjoyed this dance, nor will I say that I am not curious to see where it leads. I will, however, agree to consider the prospect that perhaps the most interesting of twists that lie ahead of us might come to pass more easily should I ‘release the reigns’, so to speak.”
“So this is an experiment?” Will questioned, leaning towards Hannibal despite himself. He was hanging on this conversation and hated himself for it, but the idea Hannibal was presenting was a tempting one. It was a reimagining of everything they had come to be. Whether Hannibal was simply offering him the illusion of independence to sate him or it was indeed genuine, he couldn’t be sure, but it was tempting regardless. “You want to see what happens if you give me equal footing?”
“I have never seen you as beneath me.”
Will snorted. “You’ve had your foot at my throat from day one.”
A shuttered frown was jarring across Hannibal’s features then and he looked out the window contemplatively. “I had convinced myself otherwise, but perhaps you are right.”
Will knew that he should do more than stare, but he couldn’t help it. That was the most frank thing Hannibal had said all day and it was completely and utterly disorienting. “You’re serious about trying this, aren’t you?”
“’This’ is not so easily defined, but yes,” Hannibal agreed slowly. “For all my efforts, I am willing to recognize that a behavioral change might be necessary. I am capable of growth just as any other man. Were I to remain the same—my attitudes and actions unchanging and stagnant—my very character would become a redundancy.”
“So, what,” Will huffed and leaned back in his chair, raising his eyebrows. “This thing with you and me is making you a better man?”
“The conclusion of better or worse has yet to be seen, but the change is taking place regardless of denial.” Hannibal made a small, dismissive gesture with his hand. “You are a force of nature, Will. As unyielding as the surf, you have been weathering away at the stone facings of my consciousness. It seems only appropriate to see what time will reveal.”
This time, Will’s eye roll was so heavy it practically made sound. “No one talks like that. No one talks like this.”
A small smile ticked at the corner of Hannibal’s mouth. He recognized Will’s jab for what it was; a tease. “I’m afraid you can only ask so many changes of me at once.”
“I didn’t know I could ask for anything at all.”
“You have never tried.”
Will pressed his lips together and considered that. “Very well, what are you offering to try? I know you. You want a game. You want a show. You want to pull my string and watch me go.” His jaw clicked shut with a snap of teeth and he hoped to god that Hannibal wouldn’t notice that had rhymed.
Hannibal chuckled lowly. “I am suggesting a reconsideration of terms. I will cease to press you. I will not lift a finger to sway you. This place, after all, is the perfect location for such a task. There is nothing around for miles. No one is aware of our location.”
“Outside forces aren’t a factor.”
“Precisely. Circumstance has always intervened. Dear uncle Jack, Alana, Mason.” Hannibal’s lip curled in unveiled distaste at the last name. Will couldn’t help but mirror the expression. “Though their influences served to instigate events and tint the dynamic, they also made it impossible to remain uninterrupted.”
“You make it sound as though if you had it your way, you and I would be alone on an island until the end of time.” Will had meant it to come out as a joke, but Hannibal’s ensuing silence made the humor catch in his throat. “That’s never happening, you know.”
Hannibal shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish it. I do not wish to separate you from the world, Will. Merely to see you enter it as you truly are.”
“What I truly am should be for me to define, not you.”
“Then define it. As I said, I will step back and give you full reign to do so.”
“And if you are overcome by the temptation to meddle?”
“I am far more patient than you give me credit for.”
Will wanted to scoff at that. Patience? Was that what Hannibal considered his tantrum back in Baltimore? Had he given Will time, had he not pressed and bullied and insisted on him running away at the drop of a hat, maybe Will would have gone. He had wanted to. Some desperate, disconnected part of himself had wanted nothing more than to run away with Hannibal and straight into whatever world was set aside especially for them. He had wanted it.
But not on Hannibal’s terms. Hannibal’s terms had been unacceptable. It never could have happened that way.
That was when Will had an idea.
“Alright, alright. I might consider this.” Will laced his fingers together and looked Hannibal dead on, making sure he had the other man’s full attention. “But I have terms.”
Hannibal acknowledged him with nothing more than a quirked brow.
Will kicked his heel into the floor under the table. If he was going to do this, he might as well go for it. “You admit to trying to control this too much. That’s all good and fine, but the part of it that you aren’t saying is why that was a problem.” He could see that he had Hannibal’s unreserved attention now and being on the receiving end of that kind of focus was like drowning. Will had to take a deep breath before he continued. “Everything was on your terms. Everything was to your plan, your goals, your design. You say I am my own creation. You spoke of me emerging from a chrysalis, but what emerged was not me. It was only your image of me.”
Hannibal took a long draw of his wine, nodding. He remained silent.
“I’m perfectly capable of recognizing that what you want to do here is whimsy. You’re curious to see what will happen if you try something new and I’m surprisingly amenable to that.” Will shot a bitter half-smile towards his companion. “But that still leaves it on your terms. I’m not a sketch ripped out of your sketchbook. We do this, I speak freely. I act freely. I come and go if I wish and you can’t follow me or stop me from leaving. I can say what I want to say without the veil of pretty words and obscure references and you have to do the same. I know who you are. I know what you are. There’s nothing to hide here, so if I’m going to be here, I’m not going to be here with your image. I’m going to be here with whoever you really are. No more illusions.”
The time it took for Hannibal to digest Will’s words was agonizingly extensive. For what felt like an eternity, he merely sipped his wine and stared off towards the waning sun hovering over the edge of the grounds. When Will was all but convinced that Hannibal was never going to say anything at all, the man spoke.
“No more illusions.”
“None. Open as a book.”
Hannibal’s lips pursed and then fell back into impassivity. “Then you shall do the same. It will be reciprocal.”
Bewildered that Hannibal was even considering agreeing to this, Will nodded. “That’s fair.” If he was honest, he was stunned that he was agreeing to this. A sane man would walk away from here and never look back. A sane man would know that no matter how tempting this was, nothing good could come of it.
This house was a dangerous place. It was separate from society and it made the rest of the world seem inconsequential. Consequences felt improbable here. They felt far away.
Will ignored the intuition kicking around at the base of his skull and barged on. Beyond doubts and reservations, he wanted this. He wanted to see Hannibal without the guise. He wanted to see himself next to that—see what would reflect onto him. Maybe he was just drunk off of wine and painkillers and this would all end in one hell of a hangover.
Hannibal’s glass was empty and he pushed it away. “We remain at this estate for a time.”
“How long of a time?”
“I request that we leave that open to discussion at a later date.”
Request. Hannibal was attempting to make this a mutual decision. This was a taste of the bargain Will was striking with the devil and Will felt himself salivating at the prospect of coming toe to toe with such a damning deal. He was signing his soul away. He knew that, but he couldn’t find it in himself to feel abashed. He had come this far. He had abandoned everything for this. What kind of man would he be if he backed away now? “Alright, but you’ll tell me where the nearest town is and let me go there if I want to.”
“I don’t see why that cannot be arranged.” There was an edge of discomfort to Hannibal that Will wouldn’t have noticed had he not been staring at the man for the past half hour.
“Are you sure you want to stay here, Hannibal?”
Hannibal’s eyes flickered around them. To Will’s face, out the window, to scan the room. “You are not the only man who must eventually overcome his demons. It stands to reason that I should not ask you to do something that I cannot ask of myself.”
“That’s surprisingly self-aware of you.”
“I prefer the past to be left where it is. I focus my attentions on the present.”
Will hummed. “You can’t deny that the past influences the present. Without it, the present wouldn’t exist.”
A nod. “Although my past was not something I consciously desired to revisit, I am not entirely opposed. It did not create me, but it did influence the sequence of events that made up my life and led me to this point. Only a fool would disavow the relevance of this.”
“As long as your demons don’t hunt me in the halls in the middle of the night.” Will wanted to laugh at the image of monsters peeling from the wallpaper. Maybe he really was drunk.
“My demons are long since slain, I assure you,” Hannibal responded. His voice was a gentle wash in the room. “Only their ghosts remain.”
Will made a sound into his glass, finishing off the rest of his wine. “Who you gonna call?” he muttered.
Hannibal didn’t see fit to reply to that.
The silence stretched and Will wondered if that was the end of it, but his own mind got the better of him and he found syllables passing his lips before he could stop them. “I think I always knew about you, subconsciously.” He tipped his gaze up to see Hannibal looking at him. He promptly turned away again. “Before I legitimately knew, I mean. Back when I thought you were my psychiatrist.”
“I was your psychiatrist.”
Will laughed sarcastically and acted like Hannibal hadn’t even spoken. “I remember being unduly cautious around you. I felt like I was walking on hot coals.” He saw Hannibal’s head tilt in his peripherals.
“And yet you did not step away.”
“Maybe I doubted my instinct.”
Hannibal made a sound that sounded almost like disagreement. “Your instinct is something that has always been rather infallible.”
Will lightly tapped his glass and watched it wobble. Half of him wanted it to fall off the table and break. It didn’t. “First off, that’s a crock. My intuition might have a few extra strings attached, but I’ve been wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times.”
“One could argue that the only times you have been wrong is when you disregarded that intuition,” Hannibal countered blithely.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Will sucked his lower lip into his mouth. There was a question niggling at the back of his mind. “If I felt like I was walking on coals in regards to you, what was the reflection of that?”
“Are you asking what I intuited in regards to you?” Hannibal had clasped his hands at his crossed knee. His position was every bit the man he had been sitting in his office, across from Will as they discussed his work with the FBI, his dedication to Jack’s misuse of him, his nightmares. The comparison seemed out of place. That man had never been a reality. It served no purpose to see him that way any longer.
Distracted by his own nostalgia, Will simply nodded.
Hannibal respected the question enough to give it some thought, looking up as though remembering the moment they met. “I suppose that for me, interacting with you was akin to being lost in a forest in the pitch of night.” He let his words ease slowly into the air—let them percolate. “The sound of nature, silence, and vast emptiness cocooned by noise.”
“It sounds contradictory.”
“So I felt the need to run forward to keep from being burned, whereas you felt compelled to stand still in the silence?”
“And the noise,” Hannibal amended gently. “But yes. It has been some time since I have stood still, Will. I appreciated the reprieve.”
Will felt a ridiculous flutter of flattery in his chest and snapped it like a twig before he started preening. He had the sudden and violent urge to slap his wine glass off the table just to watch it shatter and break the moment. Instead, he rose from the chair on legs made unsteady by alcohol and pills and overly revealing conversation. “I think it’s time for me to sleep.”
Hannibal had the sense to recognize when Will needed to be left alone, for once. He nodded and rose from the table himself, collecting their glasses. “You may choose whichever room you like, though the one you were in is one of the few I have had the opportunity to properly clean.”
“It’s fine.” Will didn’t know why he bothered to placate the other man, but it came out involuntarily. He almost opened his mouth to say goodnight or tell him that he would see him in the morning. He thought better of it. It would be too strange for such pleasantries at this juncture. It wasn’t the time. He didn’t know if it would ever be the time. Rather than continuing to flounder in his own indecisive mess, he waved his hands in some indecipherable way and left the room without another word.
As he wandered up the staircase and in the general direction of what he thought might be his room, Hannibal’s words echoed somewhere in the hollow places inside of him. According to Hannibal, Will had been a respite from the chaos. He had been an opportunity to stand still.
Will couldn’t bite back the laugh this time. The irony was too potent—too preposterous. If he had been Hannibal’s calm in the storm, Hannibal had been the complete opposite for him. Hannibal was the beast chasing him in the darkness. He was the shadow creeping from his closet. He was the creature nipping at his heels from deep within the ocean.
In short, Hannibal was the thing that had shocked Will back into movement. Hannibal had found a man who was content to stand in his empty, barren forest of a mind and thrown him onto the coals. Into the fire. He had given Will a reason to cast off his complacency like a dirty suit.
It made Will wonder if they were really that different. If maybe, just maybe, seeing the mirror throw Hannibal’s face back at him in his darkest moments was more than just an illusion offered by sleep deprivation and stress. They were not the same. They were opposites, but in their opposition they somehow made a counterweight for each other.
It made their relationship sound a lot healthier than it was. It made their relationship sound like a relationship. Will wasn’t a fool. He knew better than to look at what was between him and Hannibal through such a conventional lens. If he made the mistake of doing that, he might never recover, if recover was what he truly wanted to do.
Eventually, Will found his room again. It was just as he left it, bedcovers thrown aside in confusion and panic, empty water bottle cast aside, and his jacket slumped forlornly on the stiff chair in the corner. Will grunted when he noticed a paper bag sitting atop the bureau to the side of the room. Cautiously, he snatched the bag and rolled open the top.
“Fuck me.” Will chuckled. It wasn’t an entirely humorous sound. “Jesus.”
Inside the bag was clothing; recently purchased. Hannibal had bought him clothes. He had bought him underwear. For some reason, that was the first time the entire day Will felt genuinely like his boundaries had been overstepped. A normal person would be hung up on the fact that he had been drugged for four days and tucked in faux-captivity away from the world in some dilapidated manor, but Will? No, Will found the most discomfiting fact of the day to be that Hannibal had seen fit to start clothing him like a pet.
He really needed to get his priorities in order.
Shoving aside pride in favor of sleep, Will dumped the bag out on top of the dresser in a heap and plucked some clothes from the pile. They seemed like they were fit to sleep in, but who knew with Hannibal. Everything the man bought was expensive and quality. For all Will knew, this shirt was some sort of hundred dollar casual summer top of some kind. To Will, it looked like a really soft tee shirt. He decided to go with utility over price point, tossing off his clothes and prodding the bandage at his shoulder before slipping the tee over his head.
He wondered if he should change the bandage himself or ask Hannibal to do it. Logic dictated that the trained physician of the two of them should be appointed the task, but pridefulness was still crawling up Will’s spine and he deduced that logic could wait until tomorrow. Right now, he just wanted to succumb to the effects of good wine and better pain pills and just get some damn sleep.
With that in mind, Will lowered himself gingerly onto the bed and let the shadows of the Lecter estate swallow him whole.