Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
William Butler Yeats
Will sat on the edge of his cot and listened to the soft tap of approaching footsteps. Too even for Chilton, who now walked with a slow, hitching step and a cane. It wasn't time for dinner, and he'd had lunch.
The footsteps stopped outside his cell. Someone's gaze landed on him with a physical weight.
Will almost turned to see, but that wasn't safe. He had to stay still, stay calm.
"I'd like to say you're looking well, but perhaps that's too much to hope for."
Far too much. He looked gray, clothes and skin, eyes and heart.
"Will?" Closer, questioning. The slide of a leather sole against concrete. "Are you listening?"
Time passed in the curious way it had now, both torrential and glacial. Five minutes in an hour, five hours in a second.
"Can you hear me?"
The insanity of others lit up his mind like lights on a Christmas tree, but his own was pressing him down to the ocean floor, into a relentless internal twilight.
"It is 3:54 in the afternoon," Hannibal said. "You are in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and your name is Will Graham."
Will almost flinched. The words belonged to a time when he'd clung to his sense of self as if it were something worth keeping.
The fifth repetition made him grind the heels of his hands against his thighs. At the eleventh, he pushed his toes into the floor and tensed every muscle along his spine to stay still. The seventeenth broke him.
"Stop it," he said, and once he'd fractured his silence, the words fell out of him. "Stop, I know where I am, I know."
The knowledge beat uneasy wings inside his skull. He pressed his hands against his eyes until it settled again.
"Do you know who you are?" Hannibal asked.
"I know my name." Close enough.
"Do you know who I am?"
Will did look at him then. Shadows lay comfortably across Hannibal's face and curled around his hands. His eyes were the brightest thing about him. Like Christmas morning.
Will wondered how he hadn't seen it sooner.
"Will?" Hannibal prompted.
"Yes," he said. "I know who you are."
"Do you?" Hannibal tilted his head very slightly. "Truly?"
"They were never surgical trophies. You were eating them. Feeding them to us. Everyone. Even Jack."
"Why do you say even Jack?"
"He's the one you're at war with."
"He is a minor player. The Agamemnon to your Cassandra, if you will."
"No one believed Cassandra."
"And Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to pursue his cause. It's surprisingly apt."
"Greek myths are cheap metaphors. You might as well use chess."
Hannibal smiled. "That's better."
Hannibal made a disapproving noise. "You mustn't sink to the level of your environment."
"You have to go," Will said. "You can't be here. I can't talk to you." Heat prickled along his spine, and his heart stumbled. "Please. I can't think about this."
"What happens when you think, Will?"
"I can't be here, I can't think about it." He wrapped his arms around himself and gripped his elbows tight.
"Dr. Chilton told me they've had to sedate you twice. Why is that?"
Will shook his head and launched himself to his feet, pacing to the far wall and back as if he could outrun his own soaring heartbeat. He made himself stop and breath, pressed his cheek against cool cement.
He knocked his temple gently against the wall and liked the feel of it: solid, definite. He did it again. And again.
"Will, come here." Hannibal's voice was sharp, and he had one arm between the bars, reaching out.
Will blinked slowly and then went to him. It was easier than thinking about why he shouldn't. Hannibal laid a hand on his forehead and looked into his eyes.
"You're not fevered. They continued your medication once you arrived here?"
"Fully recovered," Will muttered. He stared at the wall over Hannibal's shoulder. "The last pills were…a while ago."
"Do you know how long you have been here?"
"Does it matter?" He leaned into Hannibal's touch. "How many people have you killed?"
"More than Garret Jacob Hobbs, certainly."
"Why didn't you kill me, too?"
"I prefer the world with you in it."
"I don't. Not like this. Can't you do it now?"
"Do you truly want to die, Will?"
Will tilted his head to look at him, and Hannibal brought his hand around to cup Will's cheek. The touch was still grounding, despite everything Hannibal had done to him.
"Did you do this on purpose?" Will asked.
"I don't think I understood the level of distress this place would cause you, no." He paused. "I had hoped to continue our conversations."
Will laughed briefly. "Joke's on you, I guess. No one's perfect. You'd be better off with my brain in a jar. Or sliced and fried. It won't keep in here."
Hannibal watched him. He took a moment to brush Will's hair back from his face. Seconds slid by in silence.
"Where are you?" Hannibal asked, finally.
"Inside my nightmare."
"Tell me about your nightmare."
Will shook his head hard and backed away from the bars. "Can't."
"So I see." Hannibal paused again. The silence was longer this time. "Suppose there were a way to wake up," he said. "Is that something you would want?"
Will glanced at him sideways and rubbed a hand across his mouth. "How?"
"Suppose that I could get you out," Hannibal said, more definite now. "What would you do for me in return?"
"Out of here?" Will took an involuntary step closer to him. "For good?"
"Anything. Anything you want."
Hannibal beckoned him close again, and Will went to him. Hope stirred uncomfortably inside his chest. Hannibal regarded him with a cool curiosity that Will had seen many times. He'd taken it for professional detachment.
"Suppose I asked you to kill Alana Bloom?" Hannibal said.
The words had a physical weight that pushed Will straight down to the floor. His knees hit the concrete with a dull thud. For a second, he let himself picture the knife in his hand, the spray of blood unfurling from her throat. The room wavered around him. "Can't," he choked.
Hannibal stroked the back of his neck with a cool hand. "All right," he said, soothing. "I only wished to make the point. You should take more care in your deals with the Devil."
Will looked up at him. "Please," he said.
"You mustn't think I'll go easy on you because I care for you. You will kill for me. Don't delude yourself about that."
Hannibal pulled into a parking garage and looked over at Will. Asleep or unconscious since he'd fallen into the passenger's seat of the Bentley, his skin shone like pale wax. Hannibal took his pulse. The jump of his heart was too quick, the inside of his wrist clammy and cool.
Hannibal had been willing, even pleased, to watch his singular intelligence deteriorate for a time, to catalogue Will's reactions as his own mind turned against him, but that had been a controlled experiment. What Hannibal had seen in the hospital was the beginning of something more permanent. He found it impossible to regret the decision to remove him, whatever the price proved to be.
He pulled on his gloves and switched license plates with a nearby Cadillac. The Bentley was conspicuous, but a stolen car would be worse. The best course was a quick exit from the city.
Given time, even a week, he might've managed a cleaner method of extraction. As it was, he'd killed only two guards, but that was likely two more than Jack would believe Will capable of on his own, especially given the method of execution.
It was a mercifully short drive to the bus station where he kept an emergency kit in a rented locker. He retrieved it and stopped at a thrift store nearby to buy a blanket for Will, who remained still as death.
Rush hour traffic jammed the streets, and the light was starting to fade by the time he pulled onto I-95 and headed south.
Will twitched in his sleep, finally, gripped by nightmares. Hannibal watched the march of terror and repulsion across his features and wished he could dip into his mind and see the dark wonders at play there. He wondered if Will dreamed of him.
Will woke in darkness, restrained, fighting against his bonds. Panic grew to block his throat. His breath came short. A hard weight pressed down on his chest.
"--must calm yourself-- Will!"
Hannibal's voice. The pressure on his chest was Hannibal's hand. The only restraint was the seat belt.
"I'm here, I'm sorry," Will said. Apologizing for his mind had become a habit. His heart beat so fast he felt sick, and sweat had seeped through his shirt and into the seat.
"There's a blanket in the back," Hannibal said. "You'll be cold in a moment."
Will reached for it and hauled it around him. He could feel the familiar, bone-jarring shakes coming on. He remembered the guard outside his cell, and the snap of bone as Hannibal had twisted his head around in one easy movement. It was the last thing he remembered.
"Have you killed a lot of people like that?"
"How many is a lot?"
"More than twenty."
"Perhaps. Certainly more than ten."
"You killed Franklyn, didn't you? It wasn't Tobias Budge."
"It wasn't Tobias Budge."
"It's so clean," Will said quietly. "Will you kill me like that?"
"I told you, I have no desire to kill you."
"If you suddenly get the urge, and you feel like taking my preferences into account, that's how I'd like to go."
"I shall certainly keep that in mind," Hannibal said.
"Where are we going?"
"That's up to you. You are the escaped prisoner. I am merely your hostage."
His eyes ached. He rubbed his hands over his face and spoke through them. "It's not like I've done this before. I wouldn't mind some advice."
"You are intelligent and highly adaptable. You don't need my help."
Will tried to think. He'd need to get out of the country. Beyond that, he had no idea. "Do you have any money?" he asked.
"Five thousand dollars in cash."
Will turned to stare at him. "Seriously?"
"I have an emergency kit."
"You are…well prepared for emergencies."
Hannibal's laugh was soft and warm. Will wanted to crawl inside it and live there. That was bad.
He cleared his throat and looked away. "Take the next exit," he said.
They turned off and found a Walmart perched on a hill overlooking the highway. Hannibal parked at the far edge of the lot. Headlights streamed by below, and the green-gold interior lights of the building shone on the other side.
"I need your pants," Will said. He plucked at his jumpsuit. "Shirt too."
Hannibal gave him a graceful half-bow and started to undress. Will looked away, down the dark hill.
"I'll get you something else to wear. Is there anything you'll eat in there?"
"Perhaps the staff."
Will's whipped his head around and caught Hannibal pushing his pants down over his hips.
"Was that a joke? Or are you trying to shock me?"
"How would I shock you, Will? You know me better than anyone."
Hannibal handed him shirt, pants, and tie. Will discarded the tie and peeled off his prison clothes with far less grace than Hannibal had managed.
"You switched license plates back in town. You must've, or we'd have already been picked up."
"Do it again while I'm in there." He buttoned the shirt and rolled up the sleeves. The cloth was still warm. He pulled the belt tight.
He got out of the car and walked toward the building without looking back. When he ducked his head, he caught Hannibal's scent on the shirt, already fading.
The after-work Walmart shoppers slid along the aisles like ghosts, seemingly unaware of each other, maybe equally unaware of themselves. The lights hurt Will's eyes, and distorted versions of himself watched him from a thousand reflective surfaces.
He bought clothes for both of them, water, snacks. Every aisle was packed with blenders or bedclothes, microwaves or breakfast cereal. At the best of times, large stores made Will question his state of consciousness. He dropped a hunting knife on top of the beef jerky and potato chips and thought he might very well be dreaming.
When he got back to the car, they had a Kentucky plate. Will handed over jeans, a white cotton t-shirt, and a black henley. He couldn't picture what Hannibal would look like until it was all on, and when he saw it, he couldn't make the visual fit with his mental construct of the man at all. 'Cannibal serial killer' had slipped neatly onto that construct like gilding on the pages of a book.
Will couldn't stop staring.
"Do I look that different?" Hannibal asked.
"You look like someone else."
"You look just the same."
Will sighed. "Yeah. Irony's a bitch. Pick a fast food place."
They went to McDonald's. Will had zero appetite, couldn't actually remember anymore the last time he'd wanted to eat, but he forced himself through a cheeseburger, fries, and most of a milkshake over the course of the next few miles. It was stone cold by the time he was done, but it stayed down.
Hannibal ate with a similar unenthused precision and considerably more obvious distaste.
"Sorry it's not up to your standards," Will said. It was only half sarcasm. That was bad, too.
"I have endured worse hardships than substandard beef. Although not recently. Where are we going?"
"North Carolina. I can drive if you want. I think I'm better now." The food had helped. He no longer felt as if he might pass out or float away at any second. The world still felt unreal, and he wasn't completely convinced he was awake, but neither of those things were likely to affect his driving.
"I will drive. You talk. Tell me about your nightmare."
"Isn't there a rule about not paying the ferryman until you get to the other side?"
"Charon has no motivation to keep the souls in his care intact."
"Neither do you."
"Of course I do. We're friends, aren't we?"
Will looked down at his hands, clenched in the too-loose fabric of Hannibal's pants. "You're not my friend, Hannibal. You destroyed my life," he said.
"You would have destroyed mine. You would have caught me eventually. Some would consider it self-defense."
"You had other options."
"I didn't want to kill you. I still don't."
"You could have stopped. You could have let the Ripper disappear."
"Most serial killers feel an unavoidable compulsion--"
"You don't," Will said quietly. "I defined you as a psychopath and a sadist, but that's not right, is it? You don't take pleasure from other people's pain. You just think people are more interesting when they're in pain. You think I'm interesting when I'm in pain."
"You are always interesting. I find you beautiful in extremis. There is a difference."
Will heard his own pulse, road noise, the occasional tick of a bug hitting the windshield.
"Okay," he said, carefully, after a gulf of silence. "But my point is that you don't kill because you're compelled. You kill because you find the world dull and banal, and it offends you. You kill the way someone else might paint or play an instrument. It's not compulsion. It's self-expression. It's art."
"Would you ask a musician to give up his instrument?"
"If the only alternative were my death or insanity, and if the musician considered himself my friend, I might. Yeah. I might at least hope he'd play where I couldn't hear him."
Another yawning silence that felt like it might swallow them both for good. The car ahead of them took an exit. Its tail lights curved away, and darkness settled in ahead of them.
"Do you think I'm a monster, Will?" Hannibal asked.
Will angled his head to look up at the stars. "You're just human, Hannibal. All of us, all of them, Garret Jacob Hobbs and Alana and Jack and Abigail and you and me, and even Freddie Lounds. We're all just human. Sorry if that's a disappointment."
Hannibal tapped his ring finger against the stitching on the steering wheel. Even among those who hunted monsters for a living, the Chesapeake Ripper had become something of a monster under the bed. It was astonishing that Will could think of him as anything else, though perhaps it shouldn't be.
"You're not afraid of me," he observed.
"My survival instincts are kind of fucked up. Plus I'm not really sure I'm awake."
"It has been a very long time since I thought of myself as human."
"It's easier not to. If we're something else, then it's okay to be the way we are."
"What makes you think there's something wrong with the way you are?"
Streetlight after streetlight streamed across the windshield. The road sloped up, and Hannibal passed a laboring semi-truck. Will shifted and plucked at his seat belt, as if it lay too tightly across his chest.
"You know how something happens when you're a kid, something your mind isn't ready for? And it stays with you. It gets inside you when you're still growing, and you grow around it, like a tree can grow right through an iron fence. You always know it's there, even when you're an adult. You know you're not right inside."
"I know. Yes."
"Sometimes it's big. I guess yours was. Sometimes it's tiny, and you feel stupid that this completely mundane thing has shaped you from the inside out. When I was seven, I went to school for a while in Erie, Pennsylvania. My teacher used to be a nurse at a mental hospital. They were shutting the place down, and she asked if she could take her class on a tour."
"An odd choice for a field trip."
"It was educational. I guess." Will rubbed at the back of his neck. "It wasn't a bad place. I can see that now. If you had to be in a mental hospital in the eighties, it was probably a decent one to be in."
"But it didn't seem that way at the time."
"No. She showed us the room where they kept the equipment for electro-convulsive therapy. She showed us the beds with the restraints. And it was this huge, echoing place full of… It was my first crime scene. It was so easy to reconstruct what happened to the people that I couldn't not do it."
"A lot for a child to take in."
"It was too much. Just the restraints were too much. I felt like it was me tied down, and I couldn't even turn my head, I couldn't see what was in the room, I couldn't see what was coming for me. I had nightmares afterward for months where the rest of the class was gone and I'd been left behind."
"It sounds frightening," Hannibal said. He could see the child Will must have been, always raw, skin scraped over nerves and no one to calm him. He wondered what might have changed if they had met then, what each of them might have become.
"It was terrifying. But that wasn't the bad part. On the way out, I asked what those people had done to be locked up there. She said they hadn't done anything wrong, that the doctors were trying to help them. They weren't bad people, they were just different."
"And you already knew that you were different."
Will covered his face with his hands and laughed, a short, hard burst of sound. "Always. Before I knew two plus two was four. Before I could tie my shoes. I always knew. And after that, I knew where people went when they were different."
"You never told anyone?"
"Of course not. If I told anyone, they'd know."
"And so a childhood fear evolved into an adult phobia."
"Except it's not irrational. It never was. Not for me. I told you once that I knew what kind of crazy I was. I never claimed to be sane."
"And at the end of it all, the nightmare came true."
"Aren't you going to ask me how that felt, Dr. Lecter?"
Hannibal could feel Will's eyes on him. He couldn't shake the thought that if he looked over, he would find them glowing, like something vengeful out of the fairy stories of his childhood.
"Do you want to tell me?"
"Sometimes I want to show you," Will said, voice low and very quiet. "But I don't think you're afraid of anything."
"Everyone's afraid of something."
If he hadn't before, he had Will's full attention now. The scrutiny made his skin prickle.
"I killed someone in North Carolina," Hannibal said. It was either a clumsy attempt at deflection or quite an effective attempt to fix the idea in Will's mind. He honestly wasn't sure of his motivation.
Will cut a hand through the air, a sharply annoyed gesture. "I'm sure you did the full fifty state tour."
"In an abandoned mental hospital."
"No," Will said immediately.
"No, we're not going there. You're not going to show me your crime scene. I'm not going to let you strap me down to a bed and…" He trailed off and pulled the blanket closer around him.
"You don't believe it would prove cathartic? Exploring one's fears in a safe environment--"
"A safe environment?"
"Do you truly believe I would allow you to come to harm?"
"You already did," Will said flatly.
"I made a mistake," Hannibal said. "I did not understand how deeply it would affect you." It was the closest he'd come to a sincere apology in at least two decades. "I did get you out."
"You got me out for your own reasons. You want to take me to this place for your own reasons."
"I could force you."
"You could, but you won't. You want me to walk in there freely. You want to watch my fear grow. You want to watch me try to control it. You want to be there when I fail."
"Yes," Hannibal said, with no attempt to disguise the raw desire in his voice. "But I also honestly believe it might prove beneficial. Unorthodox is not the same as ineffective."
"You're making it really difficult for me to believe you see me as anything but a source of renewable suffering."
"I am astonished you're trying to believe anything else."
"I like you," Will said, so softly that the words were almost masked by the roar of the road. "I still like you. That's probably really bad."
"Probably," Hannibal agreed. He even meant it, but the words warmed him against his will.
He was focused more on Will than on the mostly empty road. He caught a flash of movement, but that was all.
"Stop the car," Will said. And then, when they didn't come to an immediate halt, he grabbed Hannibal's arm, still looking back into the darkness. "Come on, pull over!"
Hannibal did, and then was obliged to back slowly along the roadside, all the while aware of Will's hand clenched tight on his sleeve. That Will would touch him at all, let alone with such unconscious ease, seemed almost unbelievable.
When they reached the correct stretch of road, Will opened the door and tumbled out of the car, blanket still clutched around him. Hannibal got out as well and watched him, arms crossed on the car roof. When Will disappeared entirely into the low scrub, Hannibal pursed his lips in irritation and went after him.
It was with an utter lack of surprise that he found Will coaxing an astonishingly filthy stray dog toward him with a piece of beef jerky.
"I'm not sure you're in the best position to take on pets, Will."
The dog finally edged close enough to take the meat. It was keeping its weight off its left foreleg, and there was dried blood in its fur. Will fed it another piece, and the dog lay down with a whine and rested its head on Will's knee. Will probed the bloody area. The dog shifted and growled, but didn't try to bite.
Will looked up at Hannibal. "Can't you help him?"
"I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian," Hannibal said, but he was already kneeling to look.
They had done this so often that he felt as if they were reading off a script, or involved in some quasi-religious call and response. Will asked for help, and Hannibal provided. The more Hannibal provided, the more dependent Will became on him. It was a simple and successful manipulation, but somewhere in the last two months Hannibal had felt its simplicity start to blur.
As much as it was now habit for Will to turn to Hannibal first, it was habit for Hannibal to give him what he needed. And, as of this moment, he suspected that the manipulation was no longer entirely one-sided. Will's expression was too perfect a replica of the one he'd worn in his cell, looking up at Hannibal from his knees. Conscious or not, it had worked then, and it was going to work now.
"It's not so bad," Hannibal said, pushing the matted fur to one side.
"Did something bite him?"
"No. The wound is jagged, but it's a single line. Barbed wire, I suspect. I'll need water and my medical bag. In the trunk."
Will went to fetch them, and Hannibal looked at the dog. He was tempted to kill it and tell Will it had run off. It was coated in mud, burs, and probably fleas. Mongrel, old, going by the silver on its muzzle, unlikely to live more than a few years more. Patchy fur. Likely diseased.
Will returned, and Hannibal started washing away the blood so he could get a better look. He tried to see what Will saw in the creature, but he couldn't do it. The failure made him angry, and he was rougher than he meant to be. The creature snapped at him. Will soothed it, stroked over its head and throat and spoke to it gently.
"Why do you bother with them?" He didn't bother to disguise his distaste.
"Haven't you ever needed help and not gotten it?"
"I am still here. Any past unfulfilled need could not have been that great." He spread on a topical anesthetic and started to stitch up the wound.
"It's not all selfless," Will said. "Dogs don't pity you. It makes them useful to have around when you're trying not to pity yourself."
"I don't pity you."
"I know." Will looked at him sideways from under the ragged edge of his hair and gave him a crooked smile. "You can be useful to have around, too."
Hannibal stared hard at the dog's leg and wondered if he'd completely wasted all those months. He was no longer certain he understood Will Graham at all.
"I'll get him in the car," Will said, when Hannibal was done. He gathered up the dog gently in his arms and picked his way back through the matted grass and brambles. Hannibal packed up and got back as Will was settling it into the backseat. He noticed that the dog got to keep the blanket.
Will eased his fingers through the dog's matted fur and leaned down to speak to him quietly. "I don't think I get to keep you, but I'll find you a good place, okay?" The dog's tongue slurped across Will's ear, and he smiled.
He wanted to get him back to Alana somehow. Impossible, obviously. Maybe they could find a no-kill shelter in the next town.
Back on the road again, they split the rest of the beef jerky. He assured Hannibal that it was free from dog slobber.
"Thank you," Will said quietly, after about five minutes of fierce internal debate.
"I have your gratitude for this but not for breaking you out of prison?"
"You did that for yourself. You did this for me."
Hannibal lifted two fingers from the steering wheel in a gesture that managed to be an elegant shrug without involving his shoulders at all. "I wouldn't have you be other than you are. Even if it is occasionally inconvenient."
The offhand words cut unexpectedly deep. "Funny how you're the only one." Will rubbed at his forehead, though for the first time in recent memory he didn't have a headache. "Okay, that sounded more pathetic than I thought it would."
"You're overwrought. Try to get some sleep."
"I can't sleep. I keep thinking. And I'm not overwrought," he added, after too long a pause.
Hannibal was silent for a moment. "Then close your eyes," he said. "And listen. Once upon a time--"
"Are you seriously telling me a bedtime story?"
"Not if you're going to interrupt. Once upon a time, a young woman was bathing in the forest. When she stepped out of the water, she found a serpent coiled in her clothes."
Will didn't close his eyes. He stared in sheer astonishment as Hannibal continued. The girl agreed to give herself in marriage in exchange for the serpent leaving her clothes, which seemed like an incredibly bad deal. Thousands of snakes came to carry her off to the snake king at the bottom of the sea. Her relatives tried to fob them off with livestock, but they weren't having it, and she went with them in the end.
"She was afraid, but when she arrived in the palace, she saw that the King of Serpents was a man like any other and more handsome than most. He was kind, and they were happy together, far away, under the sea."
Something about the cadence of his voice suggested that Hannibal was repeating word for word what someone had told him, once upon a time.
"And they lived happily ever after?"
"Oh, no. She went home for a visit, and her relatives betrayed her and cut her husband to pieces with scythes. She called for him-- If alive, may the sea foam milk. If dead, may the sea foam blood. It foamed blood, and she turned herself and her children into trees in her grief."
"Perhaps not the most restful."
"Who did you hear it from?"
"My grandmother. It's very old. Very well known where I was born."
"Which was where?"
Will had more questions, but Hannibal started to speak again in a language he could only assume was Lithuanian. He had never heard anything quite like it, and it seemed to fit perfectly around Hannibal's tongue in all the ways that English didn't.
It was the same story. Will could tell by the way he told it. Eventually, the unfamiliar words and familiar cadence lulled him, and he slept.
When he woke, the engine was off. They were parked in front of a dark hulk of a building. Will went from dozy to wired in half a second.
"I said no." He wished he didn't sound so shaky already.
"That's not how I remember it," Hannibal said. "I believe you said anything. Anything I want."
He went around to Will's side of the car and opened the door. He held his hand out as if Will might need help, which wasn't out of the realm of possibility. His knees felt decidedly liquid at the thought of taking one step closer to the doors.
He looked down at his hands, rubbed them over his thighs. Over Hannibal's subtly checked pants. They were wool. They felt nice. Comforting. "What's the point of getting me out if you're putting me right back in?" he said.
"The difference is control. No one will keep you there. You can leave whenever you like."
"Whenever you decide I've had enough."
"You were quite right to say that forcing you would obviate the point. I am only asking you to try."
"What if I don't?"
"Then I will be very disappointed."
The building loomed. Its shadow reached out toward the car, as solidly dark as an oil slick. Hannibal was already standing in it, with his endlessly patient expression and his hand outstretched.
Will launched himself from the car and shoved past him, head down, hands jammed into his pockets, panic already winding around his throat. He stopped short when he reached the doors, and it took Hannibal's light touch on his back to get him across the threshold.
Shadows clung to the high ceiling like spiders. Hannibal's flashlight picked out only the cracked tiles directly in front of them and the peeling, mouldering walls on either side. A wheelchair stood in the hall, one shoe, a scattering of pages torn from a book.
Will's pulse throbbed in his ears. The silence pressed in on him.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"To the room where I killed him."
"I don't want to see your crime scene."
"Of course you do. You've never exercised your talent with someone standing by to confirm or deny your impressions. You can't help being curious."
"It's too old. I need them fresh."
"You insist you're reading evidence and not psychic impressions. All the evidence you need is still there."
Will glanced over at him, caught despite himself and grateful for the distraction. "The body?"
"It will be little more than a skeleton by now."
"Not a lot to go on." But he wanted to try. He didn't want to want to, but he did.
"I suppose we'll see," Hannibal said. "In here."
The beam of the flashlight cut across the sagging ceiling tiles, the floral wallpaper that curled downward like wilted petals, the body on the floor near the window. Moonlight filtered through thick fir branches and touched the pale curve of its ribs.
Will shoved his shaking hands into his pockets and tried to concentrate on the scene and not the location. "This isn't like you."
"You could've picked any room you wanted, each with its own significance and symbolism, but he's just stuck in some waiting room. Which I guess is symbolic all on its own, but it's not the kind of grand gesture you usually go for. Laid out on the floor, no furniture, no framing, no fanfare." He paced around the body, unable to stop moving. His steps felt jerky, and he half-expected the hot breath of the stag on his neck. "What did he do?"
"What do you mean?"
"You wouldn't choose them at random and you're not choosing by physical type or age or socioeconomic class. They're all across the board. The only common denominator is you. You've met them all, and they all gave you some reason to kill them. I've always wondered what it was."
"He spilled his cheap vodka on my suit."
Will rubbed at the building ache in his temples that drummed in time with his heart. It had pounded like this during the ride to the Baltimore State Hospital, too, shackled and dosed with Valium that had only clouded his mind to the point where he couldn't think of anything but where he was going.
He looked down at the man's bare skull and tried to focus on the familiarity of death.
"What was his name?"
Staller wasn't a difficult sight. All the blood had long since dried to a crust or seeped into the floorboards. Scraps of skin that nothing had yet eaten clung to the bones. Only patches of bleached straw hair remained, and his clothing was falling to rags around him. Will had seen much worse.
He squatted down beside the body. "This could've been me, you know. I've spilled a few drinks on people in my life. I don't know if they were vodka, but they were definitely cheap."
"If you're trying to get me to sympathize with him--"
"Just an observation. There's something different about this one. Besides the lack of presentation. What did you take from him?"
"The heart, liver, and lungs."
"What did you take from the one before him?"
"Only the heart."
Will propped his elbows on his knees and his chin on his fist. "Why did you want me to see him?"
Hannibal's face might as well have been made of stone. Will sighed, unsurprised. He turned his attention back to the body. The location and circumstances said Hannibal had been practicing, but he clearly didn't need the practice. Not in killing. Maybe in something else. Why had he taken three organs from this man and only the heart from the one before?
He glanced up at Hannibal, who was now pacing from one side of the room to the other. He didn't look at Will or at the body. His steps were slow and measured, but it was still the closest Will had ever seen him come to a physical manifestation of emotion.
Will closed his eyes and felt his way back into the past. His heart slowed, and his fear ebbed. Hannibal had known this place, had chosen it for its seclusion, its timeless quality. To him, it was only an old building, beautiful in places, sad in others, but never frightening.
"I bring him here, half conscious. I want to take my time, but I'm too excited. It's not him. It's what I'm going to do with him. It goes quickly. He suffers, but not as much as he should. I take the meat, wrap it carefully, get it into the cooler."
He looked up at Hannibal again. Hannibal had stopped his pacing and looked as if he might be holding his breath.
"I leave the body. I take the organs home. I'm having guests for dinner, and I need time to prepare." He met Hannibal's eyes. "It's the first time I have invited others to share my feast, the culmination of my work. It's not mockery, or it's not only mockery. I'm reaching out to these people. I want some kind of connection. I do it this way because it's safe, because I know how fast and how far they would run if they knew what I had given them. I will never allow myself the luxury of illusion."
"I dine with people I don't care for." Hannibal spoke carefully. He was frozen by the window.
"Now you do. Not that night."
"No. Not that night."
Will rolled to his feet as if pulled and crossed the room. Leaf shadows fell across Hannibal's face. For once, he was avoiding Will's eyes.
"Tell me about it?" Will said.
"There isn't much to tell. I am a good host and an excellent cook. It was a successful evening."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"To an extent."
"Not the extent you were hoping for."
"I wasn't hoping for anything," he said, tone sharper now.
"Hope is like cockroaches. It gets in everywhere, no matter how hard you try to keep it out."
He didn't see Hannibal move. He only felt the grip on his shirt, the impact as his back hit the wall, and the bar of Hannibal's arm across his throat.
"You should be more careful," Hannibal said. His eyes burned. Part of it was rage, but that wasn't all.
Will had never been more inappropriately aroused in his life. All he wanted to do was push more, push harder, push until Hannibal snapped.
"You should be more frightening," he said.
"If you want to be frightened, I can arrange that."
The pressure on Will's throat increased. The world faded at the edges, and the darkness surged inward until he felt his body go limp in Hannibal's grip. The last thing he knew was Hannibal's arms around him. It felt good.
There a really lovely animation of the story Hannibal tells here if you want to see it.
Will couldn't turn his head. He jolted into consciousness, twisted and thrashed, but his wrists and ankles were bound tight and his head was strapped flush to the filthy bed beneath him. All he could see was a splash of light that wavered against the ceiling. The flashlight must be on the floor, pointing upward.
He worked his wrists forward and back, but the most he managed to do was touch the straps with his fingertips. They were leather, probably starting to rot from the damp. He yanked again, but they held firm.
His heart felt hot inside his chest, swollen and distended. His rib cage was too small, pressing in, slowly crushing his lungs. He wanted to gasp for air, but he forced himself to a normal rate and depth.
The room was empty. He was alone. He told himself that Hannibal was nearby, watching, listening. He wasn't entirely sure he believed it.
It didn't matter. He only needed to stay focused. The leather was old, the bed frame was old, probably rusty. He could get out of this. He wasn't going to lie here, trapped, until the skittering things he heard in the walls got brave enough to find out how he tasted.
The flashlight tipped over with a dead thud. Light streamed across the blank wall. Will thought he saw shapes there, shadows, something casting its image. He strained to turn enough to see the source, but even when he managed to jerk his head to the right, he couldn't see the door.
The flashlight rolled to a stop, and the shadows settled back into place, thicker now. Will was left with nothing but his own panicked breathing. He tried to slow it again, tried for some kind of control, but his body went on sucking in lungfuls of air like each would be its last.
His muscles coiled so tight it felt like they would snap his bones. He put all his effort into freeing his right hand, yanking at the strap over and over while skin grated away from his wrist. He told himself it would give eventually, it had to give, he'd be all right. And Hannibal was there, had to be there, watching, or there was no point to this. If (when) it got really bad, Hannibal would get him out.
The internal litany was working, almost, and then he heard an engine start. He heard the crunch of gravel under tires as the car pulled away. His mind twisted it into the roar of the school bus engine, fading voices as he was left behind, where he belonged.
Everything inside him stopped. Even his heart stuttered. Ice crept into his limbs. All his words left him. Without them, there was only the room, and the bed, and his fear.
His throat felt raw. He might be making some sound, but he heard nothing. Some small part of him watched, still aware, still him, but the riptide of unreason was carrying it further and further away.
Time stretched, and he couldn't tell if seconds or hours had passed when he heard the echo of an opening door and quick footsteps approaching.
The shadows moved on the wall again, and he tried to shrink away. Impossible. Something loomed toward him, reached for him, and he twisted and jerked violently at his right hand until something gave.
He lashed out, but his wrist was caught and held. Hannibal leaned over him and pressed two fingers to the pulse point on his neck briefly before he freed his other wrist. There was color in his cheeks and sweat at his hairline. Will could feel his breath, hot and quick.
Hannibal unbuckled the restraints at his head and ankles and lifted him. He didn't set him down until he'd crossed half the room. Even then he kept his body between Will and the bed.
Will leaned against his chest. It was that or fall. Hannibal took Will's face between his hands and tipped it up. His thumb stroked over Will's cheek.
"I thought this was what you wanted," Will said. His voice was a wreck. It hurt to talk.
Hannibal opened his mouth to reply and closed it again. He took Will's pulse once more, index and middle finger pressed under his chin. With his other hand, he smoothed Will's hair back from his forehead in a faintly unsteady sweep.
"It was. Up to a point," he said, at last.
Will took stock of himself and stepped back. His legs held him, barely. Enough. He turned half away from Hannibal and bent low, like he was catching his breath. He straightened and turned back in one movement that drove his fist upward into Hannibal's mouth.
Hannibal just stood there and took it.
Will pressed his thumb hard against the split in Hannibal's lip and watched blood well up around it. Hannibal didn't flinch. Will was deep into his personal space now, almost chest to chest. Hannibal scanned Will's face over and over, eyes always in motion, seeking contact that Will wouldn't give him.
"Tell me you're sorry," Will said.
"Good. You are not fucking forgiven. But good."
Will stepped forward, and Hannibal stepped back. Will liked that. He took another step and another, and Hannibal gave way before him until his back hit the wall.
"We should go," Hannibal said, but he didn't move.
Will put his hands on the grimy wall, on either side of Hannibal's head. He caught Hannibal's lower lip between his and sucked. The taste of blood crept into his mouth, and Hannibal's hands tightened convulsively at his waist. Apart from that, Hannibal stayed completely still, even when Will pressed one leg between his and deepened the kiss.
Will licked into his mouth. Hannibal made a low sound, and Will swallowed it whole. He chased the bright note of Hannibal's blood and pinned him to the wall with his whole weight as Hannibal's cock started to harden against his thigh. He wasn't far from being in the same state himself when he stepped back.
"At least I know I'm awake. I've never had a nightmare that bad. Although I'm sure I will now. So, thanks for that."
Hannibal stayed flat against the wall. One hand, dislodged from Will's waist, reached after him for a moment. He pulled it back and pressed his palms against the faded wallpaper.
Hannibal was always magnetic, but now, disheveled, breathless, he was almost impossible to resist. Will stepped in again, into his heat, and ran both hands down his chest.
"As much as I don't want you to stop, we must go," Hannibal said.
Will frowned. "Guards? Is this place patrolled?"
"That is not the issue." Hannibal peeled himself off the wall and moved to the doorway. He picked up the flashlight and paused, waiting for Will.
"What is the issue?" Will asked.
"I own the property."
"You…bought the building that contains your intact crime scene?"
"I'm aware it wasn't my best decision. Once it was done, selling it would only have drawn more attention."
They walked out through the same dim halls. Will waited for his panic to rev up again, but he was left only with a feeling of numb distance, chill, and aching exhaustion as the adrenaline receded.
He waited until they were in the car again and back on the road. "Jack won't expect you to be helping me. He has no reason to look at your financial records. Or to think you'd bring me here even if he did. Or does he?"
"Perhaps I am being overly cautious. But even so I will feel better when we are some distance from this place. There is a town in a few miles." He glanced significantly toward the dog asleep in the backseat.
"The shelter will be closed this late."
"For the best. Unwise for either of us to show our faces. It's not a cold night. We can tie him up outside, and they'll find him in the morning."
Will didn't like it, but he knew it was probably the best they could do. Fifteen minutes later, Hannibal pulled over on the grassy shoulder. A side road split off to the east. Looking down it, Will could see the glow of lights through trees.
"It's not far," Hannibal said. "A man walking a dog will draw less attention than two men in a car. I'll be back soon. You should change. And have some water."
"I'm fine. I'm not a goddamn--" The word that came most readily to mind was teacup, and it made him even angrier. Sometimes it seemed like there was no part of his brain that Hannibal hadn't gotten his hands all over. "I'm fine," he repeated.
"You've had a shock."
Will stared at him for a second and then got carefully out of the car. He slammed the door, thought about opening it just so he could slam it again, and waded into the long dry grass to find something to kick.
Hannibal followed. He looked almost wary. "Will--"
Will rounded on him and flung his arms out wide to the night. "Yes, I have! And whose fault is that?"
It was his father's phrase. He even heard a hint of his father's Louisiana drawl in his voice, and it tore a sharp bubble of laughter out of him. If he were doomed to be composed entirely of other people, his father and Hannibal were the last two he would pick.
"Mine," Hannibal said.
The admission brought Will down from the crumbling peak of emotion he'd been climbing. "Yeah," he said. "Look, just go, okay? Don't be here right now."
Hannibal collected the dog from the backseat without a word.
"Take the blanket for him," Will said.
Hannibal did. He used his silk paisley tie for a leash. The dog was still limping. Will watched and worried, until Hannibal glanced back at him and then picked the dog up.
"What is its name?" Hannibal called back.
"You've named it, haven't you?"
"Charlie," he said, because he had, in the back of his head, while trying not to get too attached.
"I'll leave them a note," Hannibal said, and kept walking.
Hannibal shifted his grip on the dog. Its head drooped over his arm. The town had no animal shelter. He was headed for the police station.
He stopped when he was out of Will's sight and not yet close enough to town to be easily seen. On the back of one of his business cards he wrote: Charlie, for Beverly Katz, FBI.
He turned the card over and hesitated, but the damage was mostly done. He'd known that since he killed the guards - in the exact manner his own patient had been killed in his office. It would make Jack curious, and once Jack started, he didn't stop. The asylum was the least of what he would find.
He underlined his own name and added: check freezer.
The words were a fair imitation of Will's handwriting: cramped and square. Beverly Katz had the correct combination of intelligence, necessary skills, loyalty to Will, and willingness to bend the rules. She'd work it out, one way or another. Hannibal needed to be far away by then.
He tied the dog outside the dark police station. It lay down on the blanket, and Hannibal attached the card to the tie with his tie pin. He wiped his hands on the damp grass and walked away.
It would be at least eight in the morning before anyone found the dog. A few hours more before the local police got someone at the FBI to take them seriously. Call it noon before anyone from the BSU got hold of the note. The timeline after that was too variable to make a solid guess, but it didn't matter. That was time enough.
When he got back to the car, he found Will stretched out on the hood. He had changed into khakis, a plaid flannel shirt, and a blue cardigan that reached down over his hands almost to the fingertips. Faint, pale moonlight caught the lines of his face and neck.
"Come over here," Will said, without opening his eyes.
Hannibal closed the remaining distance between them and eased onto the hood. It was still warm.
"Do you know anything about the stars?" Will asked.
"I know the obvious constellations. Orion, Pegasus, Andromeda. A few others."
"Celestial navigation. One of my dad's friends tried to teach me when I was eight or nine. When I got older, I started thinking about it again. You can find your way anywhere in the world just by looking at the sky."
"And did you learn?"
"Yeah. I worked on a lobster boat in Maine when I was fourteen. The owner was an old Navy guy, and he dragged out all his charts and log books for me. His kids didn't care. It's all electronic now."
"There is a certain elegance in the concept."
"It's reliable. The stars don't need batteries."
"They may be hidden for days at a time."
"I can wait for the sky to clear." He smiled. "He taught me the constellations, too. Said it would impress the girls."
"Did it work?"
"Yeah, surprisingly. Being the new guy in school had its advantages. None of the girls remembered me pouring orange juice on their head when I was seven or whatever."
"You were something new and mysterious."
"Are you going to tell me about the stars?"
"I don't know. Would it impress you?"
"It would be difficult to impress me more than you already have."
Will turned toward him and rolled onto his side. He propped himself up on one elbow and leaned over him. Hannibal felt hemmed in, as he had in the asylum when Will kissed him. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling. Will's thumb skirted the edge of his lower lip, so softly he barely felt it.
"Tell me you love me," Will said. His expression was as good a mask as any Hannibal had ever worn.
"I want to know what you look like when you're lying."
"I am aiming to deceive, then?"
"Yeah. Give me your best shot."
Hannibal looked down and away. He focused on the pale blur of Will's hand and hunted through his mind for something Will might believe. He found it more easily than he expected to.
"I don't believe in love, but if I did, I might use that word to describe my feelings for you."
Will leaned close and tapped a finger on his cheek. "You're cheating," he said.
"You wanted my best effort."
"I guess I got it. Did you kill Abigail Hobbs?"
"Extracted with her consent. The pattern of arterial spray wasn't difficult to replicate."
"You cut her ear off."
"Also with her consent?"
"More or less. I gave her a choice. She has a new life now, money, freedom from public scrutiny."
Will sighed and dropped his head. "If an ear were all it cost, I might take that deal too."
"Are you so sure you would know if I were lying?"
"Right now, about this, yeah. I'm sure."
"I didn't kill Cassie Boyle either. It truly was her brother."
"What makes you so certain?"
"The presentation was way out of his league. That wasn't some kid's first kill, that was art."
"Is that the only reason?"
"No." Will took a deep breath. "You did it for me, didn't you? You killed her so I'd see what I was missing."
"Yes. To see if you would understand."
"And I did," Will said quietly. "It was so clear, I didn't understand how anyone could miss it. Abigail figured you out, didn't she?"
"She dined with me on several occasions. I believe she recognized the flavor of the meat."
"Doesn't taste like chicken, huh?"
"You would know."
"To be honest, I never noticed much of a difference."
"Given the wreck you've undoubtedly made of your palate with vending machine fare and canned pasta, I'm not surprised." He paused. "I expected the thought to upset you more."
"It does. Sort of. I've done a lot of reading for the job. You're not the only one out there who eats them afterward. The shock value of any taboo wears off eventually. Intellectually, I know it's just meat."
"Yeah. So. I'm not ecstatic about it. But I have less of a problem with you eating them than I do with the part where you torture and kill them first."
His voice was perfectly steady. Hannibal had imagined this conversation a thousand times with at least a hundred different people. It was never like this.
He said as much, and Will asked how it went when he imagined it.
"More screaming. Perhaps vomiting."
"You should've picked someone who doesn't study the world's most creative crime scenes for a living. You're not the worst I've seen."
"I think I'm offended."
"You shouldn't be. You're not the worst, but you are the best. Clean, efficient, careful. Meticulous. Dramatic. I should've known Cassie Boyle was one of yours. It's so obvious in retrospect."
"Will you kiss me?" It wasn't what he'd meant to say at all.
"No," Will said, though he leaned so close that their lips nearly touched. "I'm too busy wondering why you felt the need to rip out her lungs while she was still alive."
Hannibal shifted and felt the smooth metal beneath him, Will's warmth above him. "Would it make you feel better if I said she was already dead?"
"Yeah, actually. But I wouldn't believe you, so don't bother."
"Her perfume was appalling."
"Worse than my aftershave?"
"You keep comparing yourself to my victims."
"I am your victims. The odds are pretty good that everyone you've killed had someone who felt for them what you feel for me."
"And what do I feel for you?"
"I don't know. But whatever it is, there's a lot of it."
And then Will did kiss him. It was gentle and almost sweet, utterly unlike the first time. Far less anger, far less violence. Hannibal wouldn't have thought he'd like that as much. He liked it better.
Will shifted closer and reached over him to brace a hand against the hood. He imagined a much younger Will making the same move with a girl his age, another Mall-of-America brunette. The position would press his arm and part of his chest against her breasts. He would be hard, as Hannibal was becoming hard.
Will's lips moved against his, tongue barely dipping into his mouth. Hannibal gripped his hips and then slid one hand around to the small of his back to press them together. He felt metal and stopped. It was a knife, shoved down the back of Will's pants.
"What's this for?" he asked.
"I was thinking about hurting you if you'd killed Abigail."
"Hurting or killing?"
"Hadn't decided yet." Will's shoulders hunched, more of a defensive posture than a shrug. "I probably couldn't do it."
Just knowing that Hannibal had brought him to the point of considering it was arousing. Hannibal leaned up to kiss him again but Will rolled away and off the car.
"We'd better get going."
Will drove this time. They hadn't been on the road five minutes before he asked about Marissa Schurr.
"Such an impolite young woman. You saw how she behaved with her mother. But she and Cassie Boyle were mainly targets of convenience, of course. It was pure luck that Miss Schurr met Hobbs' criteria as well as mine."
Will asked him about the man on the bus and about the other two in that set, or sounder, as Will put it. Hannibal hadn't thought of them that way before, but it was a good term.
"How did it feel?" Will asked, and Hannibal could not tell if it was prurient interest or something more.
"You know how it feels to kill."
"I panicked. It's not the same." Will looked as pale as he had kneeling over Abigail in her father's kitchen. "I got stabbed when I worked homicide in New Orleans. I had my gun out. Couldn't pull the trigger."
"Do you regret that?"
"No. I never did. That's why I left."
"You liked killing Garret Jacob Hobbs."
"It felt right. It felt just. Is that how you feel when you kill?"
It was a secret he had kept for so long that, for a moment, he thought he might be physically unable to share it. His mouth was dry, and his tongue felt thick. He took a pull from the water bottle, recapped it neatly, and spoke.
"It feels ecstatic, in the Dionysian sense of the word. The physical aspects use my body's full capacity. It engages my entire mind the way surgery sometimes did, or talking with you does. It is the most singularly fulfilling experience of my life."
Laid out so simply, it felt like an unacceptable reduction of the truth, but perhaps that was the price for trying to put it into words.
"Did you just compare killing people to talking to me?"
"I regret if the comparison offends you."
"No, it's… It's okay." Will took off his glasses to clean them. He looked more flustered than upset. "Do you know why I'm asking you all this?"
"Curiosity, I suppose. It is a unique opportunity."
"That's part of it. Not all." Will put his glasses back on and pushed them up his nose. He shoved his hair back out of his face. "You're not going to like me in a minute."
"I find that unlikely."
"You know what I remember most about killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs? It's not shooting him. It's not trying to keep Abigail from bleeding to death. It's not even what he said after he died."
"It's you, telling me that God felt powerful when he dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his followers. It's you. And when you think about the people you've killed, the thing you'll remember most won't be how good it felt. It'll be me."
He was right. Hannibal could see it, feel it, immediately. "If you think that will make me stop--"
"I don't. I just want to be as far into your head as you are into mine."
Hannibal didn't know if the feeling boiling up inside him was anger or lust, but there was too much of it to contain. "I don't think you do. I imagine you killing, you know. Often. I imagine you slitting open someone's abdomen and plunging your hands inside until you are slick and red to the elbows. I fantasize about licking blood off your fingers. You don't want to be in my head."
Will was quiet, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel.
"Are you ready to scream now?" Hannibal asked.
"You make me want to kill for you." Will's voice was hoarse and low. He never took his eyes off the road.
Hannibal didn't know if it were true, or more manipulation, or both. He did know he'd remember this moment, Will's hands, the dark interior of the car and its smell of beef jerky and cola, the road ahead bleached by the headlights, in vivid and precise detail for the rest of his life.
Will turned off I-95 toward the coast.
"Where are we going?" Hannibal asked.
Hannibal tapped one finger against his knee for a few seconds. "When are we going?"
"Better. About thirty years ago."
"A friend of your father?"
"Not a friend. Just someone he knew."
"Not a friend, but you have kept track of him all these years?"
"When I was eleven, my dad and I helped him bury a body."
They'd been north then, wintering in a patchwork house near Lake Michigan. The spray off the freezing lake was constant. In Will's memory of that time, everything and everyone wore a skim of dirty ice. He sealed their windows with shrink film and a hair dryer, but even so he wore sweaters and sweatpants and two pairs of socks to bed.
During the day, Will's father fixed boat motors and space heaters and microwaves in fingerless gloves and a blue down vest that Will kept for years after he died. At night, he went to bars.
One bitter Tuesday, he came home with his left eye swollen shut and his knuckles bruised and scraped. Will got him ice and washed his hand. They went to bed.
His father shook him awake an hour later.
"Get up, Willy. Answer the door. If it's the police, tell them I'm gone."
Will could hear the pounding. He looked through the peephole, but it wasn't the police. It was one man, visible only as a strip of skin and eyes between Navy watch cap and dark brown scarf.
"It's Mr. Huxley," Will told his father.
His father frowned, but motioned Will to let him in. Mr. Huxley shoved Will's shoulder so hard he stumbled, told him to "Get," and pulled his father to the far side of the room. Will went into the bedroom and closed the door, but the walls were thin.
He didn't hear the whole conversation, but he heard enough: that man you hit at Lundy's, parking lot, got after me with a knife, knocked him down, head all stove in. It's you who was in a fight with him, not me, you with your hands bashed up and his blood on your shirt, not me. Finally, the threat: You better help.
He exchanged sweatpants for jeans, left his sweaters on, and found his shoes. When he opened the door, his father and Mr. Huxley stared at him.
"Get back in that room, boy," Mr. Huxley said. "You're dreaming. You remember that, or I'll remind you."
"The ground's frozen," Will said. "But I know where you can put him."
The abandoned house stood at the terminus of a dead end street like a final punctuation mark. It canted forward, leaning its roof against the oak in the front yard. Will had climbed from the top branches into the attic nearly every day after school for weeks. When the sun shone, it was almost warm, and there were boxes of things to read, everything from comic books to French philosophy.
He pointed. "That's where I got in, but if you go round the back, the storm doors to the basement are only held shut with chain."
He'd told his father to bring the bolt cutters. The chain gave with a screech and a pop, but there were no neighbors near enough to hear. The cellar floor was dirt: cold, but not frozen.
"As far as I know he's still there," Will said. "Someone renovated the house about ten years ago and poured a concrete floor."
"Pretty bad. If anyone had looked for him, we would've been in trouble. But no one ever did. I took the clothes Dad wore to the bar that night and dumped them in the lake. Even the boots. I got in trouble for that."
"He should have thanked you."
"They were good boots."
Hannibal made a noise that bordered on skeptical. "You expect this Huxley to help you?"
"I expect him to have a boat that he'll sell for cash and no questions."
Will shook his head. The entire day and now the night was one long nightmare sequence, lacking only the hot breath of the feathered stag on his neck. He couldn't imagine how it might end.
The road went from two lanes to one, from asphalt to gravel, from gravel to dirt. The salt scent of the ocean crept in past the car's air filtration system. Cords in Will's neck that had been wound tight for the past six months eased. He could almost hear them, coiled springs made from the iron in his blood.
Huxley's trailer stood alone at the end of the road. Filth and time and lack of care had stained the white paint sickly yellow. The flaming skull painted on the side was now gray and baby pink instead of red and black. A faded blue Oldsmobile and a Ford pickup truck, vintage mid-80s, sat on the grass. Weeds had grown up around them, into the wheel wells, over the grills.
Will got out of the car and listened to the hum of insects and the surge of the ocean. They curled around him like a second, better fitting skin.
Huxley slammed open the trailer door and caught it on the rebound against the barrel of his shotgun. "Get out," he said. "Don't say you don't know this is private property. I got signs posted a mile in any direction. I don't want trouble, but if you start it, I'll finish it."
A cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. Smoke and phlegm had grated his voice raw. He wore a plaid shirt, much like Will's own, but stretched tight across his swollen stomach.
"I saw the signs, Mr. Huxley," Will said.
"I know you, boy?" Huxley said, shotgun dipping slightly.
"You knew my father. Beau Graham." Will hadn't said his father's name out loud since the funeral.
Huxley lurched from the open doorway to the middle step. It groaned under his weight. "Willy?" he said. The shotgun drooped further and then jerked back up. "I heard you're a cop now."
"I was. Not anymore."
"What do you want then?"
"I want a boat. I need to get away for a while."
Huxley's face relaxed, and he tipped the shotgun back over his shoulder as he came down the stairs. "Well. Shoulda said so. Everyone's got problems they need to get clear of sometimes. You got cash?"
"Two grand. I need something with a cabin."
"Be serious, boy. Five at least, for anything halfway pretty."
"I don't need it to be pretty. I just need it tonight."
Huxley smiled slowly. "In a hurry, huh? Fucked the wrong girl?" He spared a glance for Hannibal, who had slid from the car like a shadow and now stood with his hands clasped behind his back. "Or sucked the wrong dick, maybe."
Hannibal shifted his weight in a way that struck Will's subconscious with a hammer blow of danger. Will stepped forward to put himself between them. "Killed the wrong man," he said.
Just behind him, he heard Hannibal's soft, amused breath. Huxley looked skeptical.
Will couldn't think beyond the present moment, but he knew he'd need money, wherever he ended up. Huxley would screw him out every cent he could now that he knew Will was desperate. The only thing that would change that was fear.
Will inspired pity more often than fear, but he didn't have to be himself tonight. He had other options, a hundred crime scenes' worth of options.
He unfolded his spine and shoulders from their defensive stoop and let Hannibal's cold, slow smile stretch his mouth. In the back of his mind, Garret Jacob Hobbs whispered: See? See? Will could almost say yes.
Fear leached out of him, and the smile sat more comfortably on his face. He stepped forward, and Huxley stepped back.
"That's your own business," Huxley said. His heel caught on a rock in the dirt. He stopped short, but Will kept coming.
Will took the shotgun from his hand and tossed it away. Huxley didn't protest. "Show me what you've got."
Huxley rubbed a hand across his mouth and looked at his shotgun where it lay in the wet grass. "Me? There's a lot more options in town. I can hook you up with someone."
"No. Show me."
Will and Huxley walked side-by-side to the dock, and Hannibal trailed behind. When will glanced back at him, Hannibal's face was a mirror of his own, or, rather, the original to his mirror.
The three boats tethered to the dock bobbed and swayed. Black water spread out in ripples around them, and each ripple was crested with pale blue from the light bolted to a piling. Will dismissed the row boat immediately, which left him a fishing boat in slightly better shape than the trailer and a C&C 25 footer with rotting rigging and sails crumpled on the deck.
The sailboat's dirty, faded green paint had peeled back in places to reveal a substrata of white. Every time the water dipped, Will could see the thick crust of barnacles on her bottom. The outboard motor's paint job still had its shine, but a thick layer of grime covered everything but the propeller. She was a floating wreck. Will felt an immediate kinship.
"Sailboat," he said. "Fifteen hundred."
"Oh, come on!" Huxley yelped. "She's worth at least twice that!"
Will waited for the silence of the night to close over his words like a collapsing wake. "She's barely keeping her head above water," he murmured, and turned, slowly, to Huxley, who nearly stepped backward off his own dock. "Twelve hundred. And I'll be gone in twenty minutes."
Huxley steadied himself and nodded sharply.
"Money's in the car," Will said. Huxley's fear felt like sunshine, like the removal of dead weight from his chest. It was a relief, such a relief not to be prey that his eyes stung with it.
Their little parade marched back along the same track. Hannibal's steps quickened, and he pressed a hand over Will's ribs, lips brushing his ear. "I find you extraordinarily attractive right now. I thought you'd want to know," he said, and fell back again.
"Narcissist," Will muttered back to him, and then nearly walked into a low-hanging tree branch while he tried to ignore the way that touch made his skin tingle. Later, he'd wonder if Hannibal had meant to distract him as they reached the clearing by the trailer. Whether he'd wanted it or not, Will was distracted.
Huxley made a dive for the shotgun. He came up with it, puffing and red faced. Will hesitated, expecting him to level it at both of them, but Huxley charged past him, shoved him aside with the butt, and grabbed Hannibal.
Hannibal pursed his lips as the barrel jammed in under his jaw and turned away as Huxley's harsh breaths stirred his hair. Will could see the slight shift and coil in Hannibal's posture, gathering tension ready to be released.
"Hannibal, don't," he said.
"Why not? He is unnecessary. He smells intolerable. He has been abominably rude. You dislike him and have done since you were a child. What possible objection can you have?"
Will rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "You can't just kill people."
"My experience suggests otherwise."
"You-- Both of you, shut it!" Huxley yelled.
Hannibal gave Will a look of profound and dignified suffering.
"What do you want, Mr. Huxley?" Will asked.
"I want you two freaks out of here! I knew you weren't right when you were a kid, always watching me. Those fucking dead eyes."
"Dilated pupils with a blue-white haze?" Hannibal asked.
Huxley's anger was put on hold as his face creased in confusion. "What?"
"The cornea clouds after death," Will said automatically. "Takes about three hours."
"You know that…because you were a cop?" Huxley said. His voice cracked on the last word, and his eyes shifted quickly side to side.
"He knows that because he has looked into the eyes of a great many dead men," Hannibal said, like the hiss of steel through skin.
Will could see the precise moment when Huxley panicked. Hannibal must have been pushing for it, but the butt of the shotgun caught him under the chin all the same. He dropped to his knees.
Huxley swung the barrel around to Hannibal with obvious intent, face twisted in fear and rage. Hannibal's lips were parted, bleeding, his eyes dull. Will's entire world narrowed to that image, and he didn't know he'd moved until he felt the knife in his hand.
The first arterial spray drenched his wrist and dripped down his fingers as Huxley's body fell to the side. It felt exactly as it had in his dream months ago: hot, heavy, and viscous, the slice across Huxley's neck so clean and pure.
Illuminated only by the floodlights clamped to the trailer, it looked as if he had dipped his hand in oil. Even when he angled it to catch the light, he saw only a hint of red. It gathered along the creases in his palm and pooled in the hollow of his hand.
Hannibal swayed on his knees, eyes fixed on Will, tongue flicking out to wet his lips. Will stretched out his bloodied hand to him. Hannibal reached for it and stopped just short of touching.
"It's okay," Will said. "One of us might as well get what he wants."
Hannibal closed his eyes as he drew Will's hand toward his mouth. He licked a broad, hot stripe across Will's palm. At first, Will felt only the blood, but it gave way to the sensation of live, agile muscle cleaning him, dipping between his fingers, bumping over his knuckles.
Hannibal's eyes fluttered open and caught Will's before he could look away. His hair fell across his forehead. His jeans were stretched by the open, inviting angle of his knees and by the bulge of his obvious erection. A light flush stained his cheeks, and red-black smears stained his mouth.
Will brushed Hannibal's hair back with his clean hand. Hannibal drew in a shaking breath and took three of Will's fingers into his mouth. Will had to shut his eyes against the heat and suction and, most of all, the sight of Hannibal's mouth stretched wide around his own flesh. He opened them again just as quickly when sharp teeth bit at the last joint and scraped hard over the knuckle. Some skin came away. A low, guttural noise rumbled up from Hannibal's chest as he licked hard at the wound.
Will's legs went nerveless and liquid, and he was abruptly, head-swimmingly hard. His hand tightened in Hannibal's hair, and he shoved his bloody fingers deeper into Hannibal's mouth.
Hannibal swayed toward him, and Will pulled his head back until the ecstatic arch of his back bared his throat. It shone in the pale light. Will bent down to press a soft kiss at the base, in the little hollow where he could feel the vibration of Hannibal's breath.
Hannibal let Will's fingers slide from his mouth with one last lick. "Will. Please."
"Not here. The boat."
As if desire were some new form of brain fever, Will would later have no memory of how they reached the tiny cabin and its narrow bed. Faded blue and green flowers patterned the bare mattress. A blanket lay at the foot, one last remnant of the previous owners. Hannibal spread it over the bed and bore Will down underneath him.
They lay together, Hannibal propped on his elbows over Will, their bodies pressed together, chests heaving. Hannibal still had blood on his lips. Will wiped at it with his thumb, but Hannibal caught his wrist and pulled his hand away.
"No," he said. "As I am."
Will held his shoulders, drew him down, and brought their lips together. The taste wasn't as strong as he'd thought it would be, or as unpleasant. He'd had it thicker in his mouth sucking on a cut finger in his own kitchen.
"I wish it weren't his," Will said, into the tiny, warm space between them. He felt Hannibal's amused puff of breath against his jaw.
"Whose would you prefer?" Hannibal asked.
"Yours," Will said, and leaned in again to bite down slowly on Hannibal's lower lip. No blood would be ideal, but he'd rather Hannibal's than Huxley's. Than anyone's. It was only half a lie, and it got him the reaction he wanted.
Hannibal clutched at his hip and his hair, spread his legs and rubbed down shamelessly against Will's thigh. Will stopped short of breaking skin. He didn't need to. The rough treatment had reopened the split from the earlier blow, and Will pushed his tongue against the line of raw skin until Hannibal's hold on him was so tight that bruises were a certainty.
Will backed off, and Hannibal dropped his head to rest in the hollow of Will's neck and shoulder. They were both panting. Will ran a hand down Hannibal's spine. He felt more powerful than he ever had in his life.
He pulled at Hannibal's shirt and t-shirt and peeled them off together. Hannibal merely pushed his up under his arms and touched, everywhere, stomach, chest, under Will's arms, his sides, his waist. Every inch of skin.
"I don't think there's going to be a test later," Will mumbled.
"I prefer to be thorough," Hannibal said, and kissed the back of Will's hand where he'd scraped away skin with his teeth.
"We don't have time to be thorough. I want to be out of here by dawn."
"Wise," Hannibal agreed, but he didn't stop touching.
Will looked over his shoulder, down the broad expanse of his back. Every muscle that stretched and contracted was clearly visible just under the skin. Will laid his hand over one shoulder blade and dug his nails in along the edge of the bone.
Hannibal's next breath was a short hiss, and he ground his cock down against Will's thigh. Will shoved a hand between them and cupped the hard outline of it. Heat and rough denim pushed against his palm, and he'd had enough. He popped the button of Hannibal's jeans, yanked down the zipper, and shoved his hand inside.
Hannibal's cock pulsed in his grip, already wet at the head. Hannibal thrust viciously into Will's hand and bent to speak into his ear.
"I want to suck you," he said. "I want to hold you in my mouth while you think about what I am and what I've done. I want you to trust me. Do you trust me, Will?"
"I trust you to be exactly what you are," Will told him.
Hannibal grinned like something feral and bit down on the ball of Will's shoulder, right over the joint. The pain flashed hot and sharp, and Will cried out. Hannibal was already moving down his body, unfastening his pants, freeing his cock.
"Remember how that feels," Hannibal said, and then his mouth was on Will's cock, just as hot as the wound that now throbbed on Will's shoulder. He hadn't broken the skin, but the threat was there. His teeth could've gone straight to the bone.
He wouldn't, but he might, and that was the essence of every moment they spent together. Hannibal wasn't safe, had never been safe, despite serving as Will's rudder and storm anchor while he drowned by inches.
Teeth brushed the length of his cock. Will shuddered and grabbed at the blanket. He knotted his hands into scratchy, grey wool and stared down at the top of Hannibal's head. Hannibal was on all fours, bent low, jeans sagging down his hips. Will felt braced as if for an attack, but Hannibal only took him deep and sucked until Will had to touch the hollows of his cheeks with shaky fingers and fight not to thrust.
Hannibal's mouth was hot and slick, and the abrupt swallow when Will's cock hit the back of his throat made Will gasp, but he couldn't stop analyzing -- noting the fall of Hannibal's hair, the arch of his cheekbones, the angle of his neck, the wet sounds as he sucked.
Eventually, Hannibal pulled back. His lips were flushed and swollen, and a string of saliva ran from his mouth to Will's cock. The sight made Will's brain stutter to a stop, but only for a second.
"What is it?" Hannibal asked.
"I can't-- It's hard to stop thinking. It's always hard." Every partner Will had ever been with had come first. It wasn't politeness. Release, of any sort, was difficult for him.
"How I wish you'd mentioned this in therapy," Hannibal said with a small smile. "We could have had such fun."
"You could've had such fun."
"I think you would've come to enjoy it as well."
Will had a vivid mental image of himself spread out on Hannibal's desk, Hannibal finger-fucking him for the entire hour while he clutched the wood and writhed. He had no doubt Hannibal could've made him think it was his idea, even made him ask for it. He shook his head, heat crawling up his neck.
Hannibal's smile was wide and smug as he bent to lick new fluid from the head of Will's cock. "I believe I can help," he said.
Hannibal flipped them over and hauled Will up his body until he was kneeling over him. His cock lay along Hannibal's cheek, and Will couldn't look away.
"Is masturbation a problem?" Hannibal asked.
It was the same even tone he'd always used during their conversations. Will shifted, self-conscious, and felt Hannibal's warm skin all along the insides of his thighs.
"Do you really have to psychoanalyze me right now?"
"I enjoy making you uncomfortable."
Will swallowed hard and tried not to squirm. Of all things, that shouldn't be a turn on, but Hannibal's occasional bouts of naked honesty were what had hooked him in the first place. He shook his head quickly. "No, it's not-- There's no problem."
"You usually close your eyes, yes?"
"Elimination of external stimuli so you can concentrate on your own needs. Which I imagine is a rare activity for you. So. You are going to close your eyes and fuck my mouth. My gag reflex is minimal and I have an extraordinarily high tolerance for discomfort, so you don't need to concern yourself about that."
Will's toes curled at that clinical little speech, and he could feel sweat break out along his spine. "But. Why-- You--"
One corner of Hannibal's mouth turned up. "You seemed to like it a great deal when I was on my knees before. Is this better? You have me trapped now, to do with as you like."
Will ducked his head and turned away, but he couldn't hide the jerk his cock gave against Hannibal's cheek.
"You like having power over me," Hannibal said. "Somewhat to my surprise, I like it, too. You respond well to pain, I imagine as a focusing mechanism. I am perhaps uniquely equipped to provide what you need in that area. I don't believe we'll have a problem."
Will swallowed and swallowed again before he could speak. "If I'm…using your mouth…what are you getting out of this?"
Hannibal smiled and slid a hand along his thigh. "Dear Will. For the opportunity to see you truly lose yourself, I think I would give you a knife and let you cut out my heart."
He sounded so completely sincere that it was almost over for Will right there. He bit his lip hard and cut short the inadvertent rock of his hips. "I don't want that. I don't."
"I know. But you begin to see my point of view. Beauty in extremis."
Will nodded, guilty and aroused and ashamed. Sex wasn't like this for him, but he looked at Hannibal's mouth and wanted, for once, to simply take.
"What are you waiting for?" Hannibal asked. He wet his lips and parted them.
Will took his cock in shaky hands and slid it inside. The first few seconds nearly overwhelmed him. It felt a world away from having Hannibal on top of him. He could do what he liked, had Hannibal's permission and encouragement to do exactly what he liked. He closed his eyes and wove his fingers through Hannibal's hair.
His first thrust was careful, tentative, testing. Hannibal's large, strong hands came to rest at his waist. The second thrust was deeper, the third and fourth harder, more careless. He squeezed his eyes hard, shutting out even a hint of light.
"It's not right," he said, but he was well aware that if Hannibal wanted him to stop, Hannibal could stop him. Easily. Perhaps in response, Hannibal dug his nails hard into Will's back, just below his shoulder blades. The long drag down to the base of his spine was tortuously slow and deep. There would be welts if not outright blood.
"It's not--" he said, but he arched back into the sting of it and lost track of his words. The next set of scratches started by his shoulders and ran inward, toward his spine. Will shuddered, balanced on the edge of something, still conscious of his own gasping breaths, the water against the hull, distant thunder.
Hannibal sunk his nails into the tender skin over Will's ribs and closed his teeth ever so lightly near the base of Will's cock.
Will stopped moving, stopped breathing. He gripped Hannibal's hair tight in his fists. "Oh god, oh god, oh please…"
When the threat of Hannibal's teeth retreated, Will fell. He braced one hand over Hannibal's head and thrust into his mouth like he might his own hand. It was better, freer, and the way Hannibal's tongue and lips and throat moved around him forced sounds from him that he couldn't even hear. He could feel them in his chest, in his mouth as they left him for the open air. Feeling seemed to be the only sense left to him.
Hannibal's lips were tight, and his throat was tighter, and Will rutted into him for an eternity of seconds, reaching, almost there. Hannibal's thumbnails dug into the sensitive hollows of Will's hips and jabbed into him hard with the next thrust. Will felt as if he were impaling himself, and he came with a spasm, head thrown back, eyes fixed blindly on nothing.
Seconds ticked past, and he was still caught in the throes of it, racked and wracked by sensations that he could no longer sort into pain or pleasure. His hips stuttered to a stop only when Hannibal held him and drew him back. He moved as Hannibal's even voice told him to and settled beside him. It was the only thing he could hear over the white fizz in his head.
Hannibal was petting him like Will might pet one of his dogs. Will lay, boneless, against his chest. Twitching so much as a finger seemed impossible. He wasn't sure he remembered how his eyelids worked.
"Perfect," Hannibal murmured. The word sounded thick in his mouth, accent heavier than usual and eating at the edges of his speech. "There's not a thought in your head right now, is there?"
Will might have shaken his head, but there was at least as good a chance that he hadn't moved at all. His body felt far away. His heartbeat was in another country; his fingertips might as well be on Mars.
Hannibal tipped his head up and kissed him. Will felt the sticky-slick push of Hannibal's cock against his stomach. It hurt where he rubbed over the scratches his thumbnails had left, but not enough to pull Will out of the little pocket of peace he'd found.
Hannibal pulled back to look him in the eyes, and for once Will let him look as long as he liked. "No one home," he heard himself say, slurring one word into another. "Must be like looking in a mirror."
Hannibal's smile was made entirely of teeth. "Both less and more than you might think," he said.
His hips moved faster. The head of his cock caught against the welts on Will's stomach, and Hannibal stared into Will's eyes all the more avidly. At last he took himself in hand and finished in a hot spurt across Will's skin. His breath came through his teeth as he rubbed it in.
At the sting of that, Will did finally flinch and look away. He pushed at Hannibal's hand, and Hannibal let him, only to draw him close again. Will shifted over until his heart lined up over Hannibal's and he could feel them both, slightly out of sync. His own was starting to slow. Hannibal's was not.
"You're afraid," Will said.
There was a long pause. "In a manner of speaking. Perhaps that is the word for it. Do you still mean to use it against me?"
"I think I already am. We're terrible for each other, aren't we? I mean. We are."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. My patients have taught me not to judge any situation too quickly, no matter how clear it seems on the surface. Even the most ordinary mind may produce unexpected gems on occasion, and yours is very far from ordinary."
"If I'd figured you out sooner, you would've ended up in that cell instead of me."
"Mm. And would you still have come to me with your cases, come to me for your therapy and let me wander about inside your head?"
Will shifted uncomfortably, ducked his head so he could have this conversation with Hannibal's chest. "Eventually. Probably. I would've… I miss you. I miss who I thought you were."
"I am the same person."
"I thought you were on my side. That was kind of a big thing for me." He heard the wistful, lost tone in his own voice and hated himself for speaking at all. "Sometimes I wish I were like you. Life would be so much easier."
Hannibal's hand cradled the back of Will's head gently. "Don't say such things."
"It's true. I bet you never wish you were like me."
Hannibal's fingers curled into his hair and rubbed lightly at his scalp. "I don't know if I could bear it. You are very brave, Will. Very strong."
Will wrenched himself away and sat back against the wall, knees folded up to his chest. "Don't. Don't feed me lines like that. Not now. It's cruel."
"I am cruel. Please don't forget that. But it is also true. There is no one who knows your strength better than I do. I spent more than six months trying to break your mind and bend it to my design. Even with the aid of physical disease, I failed."
"Did you ever truly believe you committed those crimes?"
"Sometimes. When things were bad. The fever didn't help. Usually I knew I hadn't."
Will swayed with the motion of the water. He pressed one hand behind him to feel the slap of it against the hull.
Hannibal sat up and folded his hands in his lap. "The impulse to comfort is so long unfamiliar to me as to seem alien. An invasion of my mind by urges and feelings not my own. Something with which I believe you have some experience."
Will smiled a little. "It doesn't get better. It only gets worse."
"And that is what I am afraid of."
Hannibal held out his hand, and Will went to him. He knelt, straddling Hannibal's thighs, hands at his waist.
Hannibal braced his hands at Will's jaw and the back of his neck, as he had the guards at the hospital. All it would take was one quick twist. "I think my life would become much easier if I killed you right now," he said.
"It would. You might regret it for a while, but you'd get over it."
"Not entirely, I think."
"Yes. Probably." But he drew Will's head down to his shoulder and held him, fingers rubbing gently at the base of his skull. "You regret killing Huxley."
"He was going to kill you," Will said, carefully. "I don't regret the fact that you're alive."
"But his death bothers you. Why?"
It sounded like a sincere question. Will knocked his head against Hannibal's shoulder a couple of times in case it jarred an answer loose. It didn't help. "I don't know if I can explain this."
"To me. Because of what I am."
"To anyone. Because of what I am." Will sat back and rubbed at his face. "Okay. Let's try this. I didn't like my father. I guess I loved him when I was little, I don't really remember. I understood him too well, and he didn't understand me at all. We put up with each other until I was old enough to leave, and then I didn't see him again for ten years. Until he died."
"I was a wreck. I didn't go back to work for two months. I didn't tell them I was going, I just disappeared. They filed a missing persons report. I don't remember most of what I did. Water. Fishing. Fixing things. I wasn't grieving. I didn't miss him. It was like I was trying to replace part of myself. The part that was made out of him."
"I have heard many people describe the grieving process in similar terms."
"They didn't mean it literally."
"You said you liked killing Hobbs. You also called it the ugliest thing in the world."
"It's both. It's cutting into my own brain and taking chunks out of it. Even if I didn't want them there in the first place, it's a hell of a thing to do."
"It can't be that way with everyone, surely. Not every death you hear about or read of in the newspaper. You wouldn't survive it."
"No. But everyone I know. Or get to know after they've died."
Hannibal looked past him, one finger tracing the scratches on his side. "The people I have killed."
"Yes. All of them."
"All of them whom you know about," Hannibal said, absently.
Will rolled his eyes. "Sorry, didn't mean to downplay your body count."
"The guards at the hospital."
Will felt his shoulders hunch as if he could hide from their ghosts. "They're worse. Like Hobbs. Because they're my fault."
"I killed them."
"I begged you to get me out of there. I begged you on my knees. I knew what was going to happen."
"Mm. I would argue the point, but I can see it would be fruitless. Will you make me a promise?"
"Depends what it is."
"Whatever you hear of me in the coming weeks, you must remember what I am, that I am selfish, that I am cruel. You must remind yourself and harbor no illusions about me. Can you do that?"
"You're making generalizations. No one's selfish and cruel all the time." Hannibal just looked at him. "Fine, yes. I'll do my best not to harbor illusions. I really don't think I'm likely to forget anything about you."
"Oh?" Hannibal said, sounding pleased and smug in equal measure.
"Shut up," Will muttered, and ducked forward to hide his face against Hannibal's chest. It felt good, in a way that touching people seldom did to Will. Hannibal's hand on the back of his neck was a steady, comforting weight. Maybe Hannibal had been right to warn him. It would be so easy to imagine this was exactly what it felt like.
"I'll remember," he said. "I promise."
Will felt Hannibal kiss the top of his head -- and then the sting of a needle at his neck. The world started to tip sideways, and he clutched at Hannibal with nerveless fingers.
"You'll understand when you wake up. Try not to worry. I need some time."
"Time for…" His lips felt cold. His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth.
"To learn to play a different instrument."
The last thing he felt was Hannibal's arms around him, still holding him close.
Soft cloth bound Will's wrists. The chair beneath him had some give. Lawn chair, nylon webbing. His arms lay along the aluminum tubing of the chair arms. Dull sound washed around him. Waves. Thunder. Voices. It didn't seem important.
Some time must have passed because now his wrists were loose. In order for things to happen, time had to slide along, one second after the next. He knew that, though it didn't feel that way right now.
One of the noises became more insistent, right in his ear, the same sharp syllable repeated. It was too much trouble to turn his head away.
A dog barked. Will frowned. It was a happy sound, and familiar. None of his dogs could be here. He worked to get his eyes open, and then he had a lapful of slightly damp, enthusiastic, large dog, and Charlie was licking his face.
Will blinked at him and brought a wavering hand up to stroke his head. "Hey, boy," he whispered. "Where did you come from? You didn't walk all the way here, did you?"
"He came with us."
Will looked down and saw Beverly kneeling beside his chair. Behind her, Jack talked on his cell phone. A pair of local guys stood next to a police cruiser, its lights illuminating the clearing in red and blue.
"There's an ambulance coming," Beverly said.
"M'fine." Will double-checked his wrists for handcuffs. "Aren't I under arrest?"
"We got your note," she said. "The…meat. In his freezer. Blood types and missing parts line up with the Chesapeake Ripper's last victim. We're still checking the rest of it and waiting for DNA. I guess you're still sort of under arrest, but Jack said no handcuffs. Anyway, you obviously need a hospital, a body hospital, not a mental-- I'll just stop talking now."
Will looked down at himself, the part of himself he could see around Charlie. Hannibal's scratches covered him from neck to waist. The lines were fine and touched with red. They curved over the contours of his body, flowed into each other without ever crossing, like Hannibal had tattooed a maze or a topo map into his skin.
"It's just a scratch," he said, with an unfortunate little giggle.
"Uh huh. And your knuckles, and it looks like someone scraped all the skin off your right wrist."
Will looked at it. Memories of the asylum rushed back to him, and he swallowed. "I guess it does."
"And the bite." Beverly's hand hovered over his shoulder for a second, but didn't touch.
"It's okay. Didn't even break the skin."
Charlie curled up in his lap and lay down with a flop, most of him hanging off over the arms of the chair.
"Should I get him off of you?"
"No," Will said. He sunk his hands into Charlie's mangy fur. "I don't remember sending you a note," he said, after a moment of debate. He already had a history of dissociative episodes. He might as well put them to good use. "I don't remember a lot."
"The local cops found Charlie outside their station with Dr. Lecter's business card pinned to what we assume is Dr. Lecter's tie. It said he belonged to 'Beverly Katz, FBI', so eventually we heard about it, not any too goddamn soon, and on the back, well, it looked like your handwriting. You'd underlined Lecter's name, and it just said 'check freezer'."
"And you did?"
"Jack already thought something was wrong. It was the way the prison guards were killed, just like Lecter's patient. Snap, bang, dead. Why do I get the dog?"
Probably because she was the only one apart from Alana with enough backbone to argue with Jack if it'd been necessary, and Jack wouldn't listen to Alana about Will anymore.
"I don't remember," he said. "But Alana already has all of mine. And Bella's allergic. And Hannibal's…a serial killer. So. I don't know that many people."
"Will..." She said his name like it was something very sad.
"I'm okay." He tried to smile at her, but it didn't work very well.
Jack wanted him somewhere he could get at him without going through Chilton, so Will got a private room at Johns Hopkins with a uniformed officer on the door.
Will closed his eyes around eight that night and slept for the next fourteen hours. It was the first uninterrupted night he'd had in six months.
He dreamed of the feathered stag. Hannibal led it by a golden string around its neck, and they both bent down to drink from a pool of black water. Will stood on the other side. When they looked at him, he saw their mouths were stained red.
A knock woke him, left him confused and flailing at the thin sheets. The cop on his door waited until he he was at least nominally in control of his limbs.
"They're moving you to Sutton Pierce," she said.
Will stared at her chin and tried to force the words to make sense. Sutton Pierce was one of the most expensive psychiatric hospitals in the country. "Who's footing the bill for that?"
"Fucked if I know. Baltimore PD wouldn't be putting me up there, I know that." She paused. "Is it true what they say about you?"
Once, from a stall in the men's room, he'd overheard one agent tell another that he jerked off at crime scenes and that's why he wanted everyone out of the room while he worked. He put his foot down hard on the bubbling sewage of rage that question always inspired in him. It would be useful to know what they were saying about him now.
Hannibal would smile at her, and so Will smiled, and tried not to wonder why his most reliable source of inner calm was a man who had on one occasion literally ripped a human being apart.
"They say a lot of things about me. Could you be more specific?"
"TattleCrime said Lecter was going to cut you up like all his other vics and you talked him out of it, like you got into his head and made him crazy and that's why he's killing all those people down south."
"What? Killing who?"
"Nobody told you? Three just last night. I mean, I guess it could be someone else, but the first one was just five miles from where they found you, so." She shrugged.
Will swallowed and sat up. "What else?" he asked.
"It said he cut all those lines into you because you wouldn't tell him how you figured him out while the rest of the Bureau was busy scratching its ass," she added. "There were pictures."
"Yeah. From the scene. Sorry, man." She paused. "Do you want some water? Or I could get a nurse? You look bad."
He tried to pour himself a cup of water, but the brown plastic pitcher seemed unaccountably heavy, and his hand shook. She had to do it for him.
He was gulping it down when Beverly shoved the door open and strode into the room. "Where the hell--" she started, and then saw the cop standing by Will's bed. "You're supposed to be outside," she said.
"My fault." Will held up his plastic cup in a hand that still shook. "Almost dropped the pitcher. I'll call a nurse next time."
The display of weakness would've pushed Jack over from sympathy into pity and disgust. Beverly just nodded. She dismissed the cop and tossed a pair of blue scrubs onto Will's bed.
"I'm springing you," she said. "Do you need help getting dressed?"
"God, I hope not."
Beverly laughed and turned her back to look out the window. "I'll be here if you change your mind."
Will struggled out of the hospital gown and sat on the edge of the bed to pull on the pants. "So, Sutton Pierce?" he said.
Beverly turned all the way back to him at that, and Will was glad he'd started with the pants. "She told you that?"
"Yeah. She wasn't supposed to?"
"She wasn't supposed to know. No one was."
Will pulled the shirt on over his head. "Bad news, then. She got most of her information from TattleCrime."
Will nodded. "Do I get shoes?"
"Sorry. Socks are the best I can do for now. All your stuff is evidence or in storage boxes."
She tossed him the socks. He pulled them on and stood up, sliding his feet on the smooth tile. "Are these yours?"
"Your feet are twice the size of mine. They're Jack's."
"Is Jack loaning his clothes out to any old murderer these days, or am I just special?"
"Will…what were we supposed to think?"
"What do you think now?"
"I think you've got a good case even if they don't drop the charges."
"That's not what I asked."
She looked at the floor and then back up at him. "I don't know what to think. You puked up her ear."
Will ducked his head and held onto his elbows, like he could hold himself together. His entire diaphragm had seized up, and his lungs were made of lead. He could smell bile and stomach acid, feel the shape of it, the fold of cartilage and skin in his throat, in his mouth.
"--sorry, hey, can you hear me? Will?" Beverly had him by the arms, fingers digging into his biceps.
He tried to smile. "Sorry. It wasn't the highlight of my life, either."
"The rest of them, I get how he could've made it look like it was you. Easy. But…"
"I don't know how it… How I…" He put a hand over his mouth until he was sure nothing more than words would be coming out of it. "I'm missing about eight hours from that day."
"Were you taking anything?"
"Nothing prescription. Just aspirin."
"We found traces of alprazolam in...what was left in the sink. He could've dosed you up and..."
Will closed his eyes. "Shoved it down my throat," he said, remembering Hannibal's arms around him, his warmth, the comfort of his touch.
At least Abigail was still alive. Alive, a killer, bait and accomplice to her father's eight murders.
Beverly looked up at him and gave him a little shake. "Stop. Whatever you're thinking, it's not doing you any good. Everything is going to be fine."
"Because you say so?"
"Yeah, because I say so. Come on, let's get out of here."
In the elevator, she pressed the button for the basement. "Going out the back way?" Will asked.
"It's a circus out front. We've been lucky to keep the press away from you this long."
"Wouldn't have thought I was that interesting."
She gave him a flat look. "One of the deadliest serial killers in history framed you for murder, broke you out of a secure mental facility, took you on a road trip and apparently picked up a stray dog? And then confessed to his crimes, more or less exonerated you, and let you go. Literally every reporter on the planet wants to talk to you, and at least half of them are outside the hospital."
"I'm not really-- Wait, confessed?"
"Yeah, that note you don't remember writing? That's because you didn't write it. We sent it to handwriting analysis. They're pretty sure it was Lecter."
Will had hoped they wouldn't bother with handwriting analysis. It was much easier to explain why he might not remember writing the note than to explain Hannibal's motives. He didn't really understand them himself.
They walked past the boiler room, past a bank of cleaning supplies, down a corridor lined with dripping pipes, and up a short flight of stairs to emerge into an alley. A black FBI-issue sedan waited at one end. Freddie Lounds waited on its trunk.
"Fuck," Will muttered.
At the same moment, Beverly said, "Shoot," in a tone that ought to have peeled paint off the wall. She caught his look. "I babysit my nieces a lot. Don't judge me."
"Didn't say a word."
"It's not what you say, it's how you say it. And don't say anything to her. Don't let her get to you."
They approached the car, Beverly striding confidently, Will wishing he could hide in the hospital basement for the next year or so. Freddie slid off the trunk and got out her recorder.
"How nice to see you back in town, Mr. Graham."
"Sorry I can't say the same, Ms. Lounds."
He tried to walk past her, but she stepped into his path so quickly that he nearly ran into her. He glared at the tip of her nose, entire body canted toward her. His skin itched all over as if she were contaminating the air.
Her mouth curved up. Someone less wary might have called it a smile. The color of her lips precisely matched the red of Hannibal's after he'd sucked blood off Will's fingers.
"Would you care to comment on the string of new Chesapeake Ripper murders in the south? Specifically the fact all the mutilation has been done post-mortem?"
Will froze. "What?"
"He's not ripping them up till after they're dead. Why?"
"Oh, god," Will heard himself say. His voice sounded a mile distant, and it echoed inside his head. He caught a flash of confusion on Lounds' face, and then Beverly was steering him toward the passenger's door and stuffing him inside.
"I know Jack has something on you," she said to Lounds. "Lay off, or I'll make sure he uses it."
She got into the car and pulled out onto the street.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?" Will said.
"You've barely been conscious five minutes, Graham. Chill. What's wrong?" She stopped for a red light and looked at him more closely. "Are you okay? You looked better last night."
"Is it true?"
"He cut them up post-mortem, yeah. Is that bad? At least they didn't suffer."
He couldn't speak. He shook his head and found he couldn't stop, felt his brain sloshing inside his skull with each turn, awash with unsaid words.
Beverly punched him in the arm.
"Talk," she said.
"It's me, it's because of me. It's-- God. I asked why he had to take Cassie Boyle's lungs out while she was still alive and he said would it be better-- No, would it make me feel better if she'd been dead and I said yes, and now he's--" He slammed a hand over his mouth.
Beverly bit her lip. "Whatever he's doing, it's not your fault."
"He's tying me up in it. These murders aren't just about him anymore. He's making them about me."
"But they're not, you know they're not. You can't let him get to you."
Will laughed, and it felt like he was choking. "That's what Jack always said. Don't let them get to you. If I could stop them getting to me, I wouldn't be any good to him."
She squeezed his shoulder. "Okay. But maybe it's not about you. Maybe it was easier, or quicker that way. He's in a hurry."
"Maybe," Will said, but he remembered Hannibal making him promise to remember what he was, to remember he was cruel. This was a very particular mix of cruelty and kindness that Will recognized from every hour they'd spent together. It never failed to crack Will open and leave him exposed and raw until Hannibal put him back together.
The building that housed Sutton Pierce Psychiatric Hospital dated from the mid-1800s. Gargoyles ogled its patients from atop grey stone turrets. The manicured lawns, stately oaks, and little burbling fountains seemed, to Will, almost sinisterly welcoming.
Inside, a young man with very white teeth explained that he'd show Will to his room and familiarize him with the rules and procedures, and also that he'd need to help him unpack to make sure he hadn't brought any contraband items in his luggage.
"I don't have any luggage."
"Are you having it sent along later?" said the young man, apparently ignoring the fact that Will didn't even have shoes.
"No," Will said flatly. "Everything I own was put into storage or seized as evidence when I was incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane."
The young man's smile froze onto his face.
Beverly elbowed Will in the side. "We'll get him some clothes. You can come up with toiletries, right? This place looks enough like a hotel to have a stash of tiny shampoo bottles."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sure we can find something for him."
When Beverly and the young man with the now-permanent nervous smile left Will in his room, he found it already stocked. The glittering granite and glass bathroom contained shampoo, conditioner, soap that smelled like wet earth after rain, an electric razor, and aftershave even Hannibal would've approved of.
The mirrored closet door slid open silently on well greased tracks. Will touched the wall of fabric inside and found nearly all of it uniformly sleek and soft. He took out a dark blue suit with a subtle black pinstripe pattern. A pale blue shirt lay under the jacket on the same hanger, along with a purple tie. He put it back carefully.
He was on the verge of calling Beverly and telling her Hannibal had found a way to break into his room and leave him a wardrobe when someone knocked on his door.
It opened before Will got halfway across the room. An older woman was arguing with Will's earlier acquaintance. "Just one moment of his time, darling, I assure you I won't be any trouble--"
"Ma'am, please, visitors are restricted--"
"I paid for the room," she bellowed, with more volume than Will would've thought someone that small could produce. "If anything, he is the visitor." She slammed the door in the young man's face.
"What a dreadful person," she said. "The room's all right, I suppose. What do you think?"
"It's better than the last secure mental facility they locked me up in," Will said, since it had gotten him left in peace so quickly before.
"What's better, locks on the doors that you can't open, or no locks so anyone can get in?"
Will blinked at her and sat down slowly on the edge of the bed. "No locks. But not by much."
She was about five feet tall, iron grey hair, somewhere between sixty and eighty. Will suspected a face lift, but an expertly done one. She flicked on his bedside lamp and surveyed the open closet.
"I hope it all fits," she said, and then turned to him. "Hannibal introduced us once. I was arriving for one of his dinner parties as you were leaving. His dear friend Will Graham, he said. I never heard him refer to anyone as his dear anything before. To be honest, I thought the two of you were having an affair."
Will swallowed and wished like hell for a minibar. "I don't remember you."
"I'm not surprised. You looked desperate to leave. Did you know?"
"Did you know we'd all be eating human flesh for dinner?"
"No. God." Will shook his head. "I didn't know."
"Did he ever feed it to you?"
"Probably every meal I ate with him. Pretty sure."
She gave him a sharp look. Her eyes were the same grey as her hair. "You're in good company. Everyone in the Blue Book dined with him at least once. The more disreputable newspapers are calling us the Cannibal Club. I rather like it." She stuck out her hand. "Elise Brownfield. You may call me Mrs. Brownfield."
Will shook it automatically. "Yes, ma'am," he said, and winced.
She patted his hand. "I was brought up to ma'am and sir my elders, too. Your parents must have been the product of a more polite time."
"Thought I'd dropped the habit," he muttered. He had dropped it, excepting the occasional moment when Jack was being horrifyingly paternal, and even then he kept it behind his teeth. "Blue Book?"
"It's properly called the Baltimore Society Visiting List. I'm surprised you've never heard of it." She looked him over, in his scruff and hospital scrubs and thick wool socks. "Or perhaps I'm not."
It took a lot to make Will self-conscious about his appearance, but he was getting there. His last shower had been almost three days ago.
"Mrs. Brownfield, not that I'm ungrateful, but what am I doing here?"
She sat down in the leather armchair by the window. The light fell slantwise across the surface of her face. It highlighted the creases in her skin and washed out the color. Her spine was straight and her jaw was set hard, but she seemed suddenly much older.
"Hannibal was my friend," she said. "As much as he had friends. I want to know what happened, and I think you're the only one who can tell me."
Will didn't even know where to begin. He was almost relieved when Jack shoved the door open so hard it rebounded off the wall, though he couldn't hide the start it gave him.
Jack had a stack of folders and an expression like threatening weather at sea. Alana followed him in with her usual poise and a kind smile for everyone but Jack.
"You can't do this," she said, definitely not for the first time, as they walked into the room. "The kind of trauma he's just been through--"
"Who else am I going to ask!" Jack roared.
There was a pause. Alana looked almost shocked. Even Mrs. Brownfield raised one thin eyebrow.
"I'm sorry," Jack said, which was like another small thunderclap in itself. Will couldn't remember ever hearing Jack apologize.
"If it's that bad, you'd better just show me," Will said.
Jack eyed him. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Will shrugged. "I don't have a fever, I'm not hallucinating, and both hemispheres of my brain are the same size, so I'm better than I was the last time I solved a case for you."
Jack took a visible breath to respond to that, probably at high volume, but he glanced between Alana and Mrs. Brownfield and let it out again.
"All right. Ma'am," he started, clearly intending to throw Mrs. Brownfield out as politely as possible, but she held out her hand to Alana like a queen inviting her subject closer.
"Alana, my dear child, how are you?" she said.
Alana took her hand and kissed her cheek. "I'm…probably still in shock. How are you? Did you set all this up for Will?"
"With a bit of help from my friends. It took a few calls to get cooperation from the FBI." She gave Jack a disapproving glance. "I didn't know you knew him, or I would have insisted on lunch ages ago. Hannibal seemed intent on keeping young Mr. Graham to himself."
"I'm not the best in social situations," Will said. "He was probably just trying to spare everyone the awkwardness of…" He trailed off. Everyone in the room was staring at him. Oh, yeah. Don't defend the serial killer. He twisted his hands together and looked down at the Gordian knot they made.
Alana squeezed his shoulder. She smelled good, which made Will doubly aware that he probably smelled terrible. He tried to remember the last time he'd brushed his teeth and then he tried not to breathe on her.
"It'll take all of us some time to adjust," Alana said. "We were all close to him. It's hard to believe he…" She stopped and looked down, blinking rapidly.
"You didn't find it that hard to believe when it was me," Will said, and then swallowed hard, like he could swallow the words back down inside him. His brain-to-mouth filter wasn't reliable on the best days, and this was not his best day. "Sorry."
"You had a right to expect better from us," Jack said quietly. "Zeller and Price are going over the forensics again, and Katz is tracing Lecter's movements. We already know he was in Minnesota when Abigail Hobbs disappeared."
"I know it looked bad," Will said.
"We should've looked harder. We are now." Jack paused. "I'm sorry, Will."
Will managed a small smile. "Twice in one day, Jack? Don't hurt yourself."
Jack acknowledged the point with a twist of his mouth, but then his expression sobered. "We do need your help though. There was another one today. Counting the guards at the hospital and Leonard Huxley, that's six in just over twenty-four hours. I need to be sure these new killings are really him." He glanced at Mrs. Brownfield. "Ma'am, if you could--"
"I will stay."
Jack had once compared himself to bedrock, but right now, to Will, bedrock looked like an old woman sitting in a chair in the sunlight, waiting to find out what had made her friend a killer. He didn't think even Jack could budge her.
"We can look at the files in the bathroom," Will said.
Jack didn't like it, but that was what they did. Will opened the top file. The pictures inside showed a young man strung up between two trees. Most of his internal organs lay on the ground at his feet. His rib cage had been broken and spread wide.
"Are they all like this?" Will asked.
"They're all different. Is it him?"
Will went through the files one by one. He looked at every photograph. Each draped him more fully in his familiar shroud of misery and distance. He hadn't missed it. By the end, he felt as tired as if he hadn't slept for a week.
Jack pounded his fist against the wall. "The Ripper isn't a spree killer. What's going on here?"
"He's bingeing. He's on a bender."
Will shrugged and flipped the last file closed. "What do addicts do before they try to quit?"
"What in the hell about this says to you that he has any interest in stopping?"
"His other crimes, he had all the time in the world. He picked his victims months or even years in advance. Now, he's rushing. He's set himself a time limit, and the clock is ticking down. These scenes are almost sloppy, for him. Look at the way the ribs are broken. They're all uneven. He did that with his hands."
"He knows we're looking for him. Of course he's in a hurry."
"No. He could disappear, start fresh, build another life and another reputation. Another legacy. But he's not going to, so now he's running out of time. He has to make sure no one will forget him."
Jack was looking at him intently. "Did he tell you all this?"
"He told me not to forget what he was. He told me I shouldn't have any illusions about him." Will glanced at himself in the mirror and looked quickly away. "I didn't get it at the time. There's no one who knows what he is better than I do. He knew I'd realize he planned to stop and he didn't want me to mistake his reasons."
"So what are his reasons?"
Will looked down at the pile of folders. He tapped at the edge of one gory photo until it retreated back inside. "I only know what he's doing. I don't know why."
"I want you to come and look at the crime scenes."
"You already know who you're looking for."
"You might see something we're missing."
They walked out of the bathroom together, Will shaking his head. "There's nothing else I can give you."
"You always know why. That's what we need you for."
"The Chesapeake Ripper was always hard for me. I only saw his edges."
"I need you to see the whole picture. This is the best chance we've ever had to stop him. If you're right, it'll be our last chance."
"You needing things doesn't magically make them happen, Jack. This is completely different, like he's starting a new body of work. He doesn't even have anyone to feed them to, so--"
Will stopped short. In the background, he was remotely aware of Jack's face clouding over and the distant thunder of his temper. For once, it didn't seem important.
"He doesn't have anyone to feed them to," he said, more slowly. "They're not for eating." He ran through the pictures in his mind, the spread ribs, the empty abdomen, the man holding the top of his skull in his hands. "They're vessels. They're dishes. Containers."
"Containers for what?"
He turned to Mrs. Brownfield. "Do you remember a dinner party Hannibal hosted? It would've been a long time ago, maybe more than a decade. It might not have been the first, but it would be the first everyone remembered."
"Yes, of course. I was there. So was Alana."
"It was the first time, wasn't it?" Alana asked. Her voice was a wire under too much tension, thin and tight and ready to break. "The first time he fed us...."
"Yeah, his name was Jeremy Staller."
"Excuse me?" Jack said.
"He took me to an abandoned mental hospital in North Carolina. Staller's body is still there."
"And why is this the first time I'm hearing about it?"
"Because everyone's had better things to do than take a statement from me?"
Jack gave him a warning look. "He told you about this dinner party?"
"He didn't have to tell me. He wanted me to read his crime scene."
"All right," Jack said, after a pause that seemed specifically designed to highlight how crazy that sounded. "And you think this dinner party is important?"
The smell of damp and rotting wood crept back to him, and he saw Hannibal's drawn face, pale in the flashlight beam. He suddenly wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Telling Jack felt like a betrayal. But he couldn't let them shut him out of the investigation. He had to keep going.
"I think he's recreating it," Will said.
"Should we be worried about the guests?" Alana asked. Her voice was steady, but she was pale right down to her lips. It occurred to Will that telling her the name of the guy she'd eaten hadn't been the most tactful thing he'd ever done.
"No. Sorry. No, he wouldn't hurt them. You. It's not about that. We could look for physical parallels. That'd probably appeal to him, symmetry, but he might not have time. He'll have to work with what he can find. The number though, that's important. Do either of you remember how many people were there that night?"
"Six guests including the two of us," Mrs. Brownfield said promptly. "I have the guest list and menu recorded in my social diary if that would help."
Will successfully repressed the urge to ask if she had an antisocial diary as well. "Yeah, it would," he said. "If you can write down who sat where, that would help, too. Jack, I need access to his house. The dining room and kitchen."
"You've seen them. You won't find anything new there. No, I want you on a plane with me. We're going down to South Carolina to see those bodies."
Will was mentally gearing up for a prolonged argument on that point when Jack's phone rang. Jack didn't say more than five words, and when he hung up, he rubbed at his eyes and then his neck before he spoke.
"Make that Georgia," he said. "They found two more bodies."
"That's five," Alana said quietly. "You really think he'll stop at six?"
"I think I need to see his dining room. Jack. Please. You're looking at the wrong crime scenes. These are just shadows. I need the real thing."
"You've seen his house. We've all seen his house. We've all eaten with him. What do you think you're going to see that you didn't see before?"
If he was wrong, Jack would probably never listen to him again. He put a hand against the wall as if steadying himself physically might steady his mind as well. He'd just have to get it right.
"I'm going to see him," Will said. "All of him. You have to let me try."
Half an hour later, Will and Alana sat in the back of an FBI SUV, on the way to Hannibal's house. Will had showered and was wearing clothes that fit perfectly and still managed to make him feel deeply uncomfortable. Mrs. Brownfield had gone home to get her social diary, and Jack was on his way to Georgia. Will had orders to report over the phone if he found anything useful.
"Jack shouldn't have involved you in this," Alana said quietly. "Not after what you've been through."
"You always say that."
"I always am. Eventually."
"I think Jack's behaving irresponsibly and I told him so."
"It's not his fault."
"How can you say that?"
"I know it looks like the work doesn't get to him, but it does. Jack is a man digging himself out of a hole. He can't stop or he'll suffocate. He has to use any tool he's got, and I'm a good tool."
Alana was quiet for the time it took the stop light to turn from red to green. "It must be hard to stay angry at people when you understand them that well," she said.
Will let out a breath of laughter. "One of the many reasons I try not to know that many people."
"You don't have to be Jack's tool."
"I save lives." His standard line.
"I wish you'd save yourself instead."
"Hannibal said that to me once. 'I don't care about the lives you save, I care about your life'."
Another moment of silence. "I had a dream about you once."
Will turned to look at her. "I hope my performance was up to expectations."
She smiled and shook her head. "Not that kind of dream. You were a wishing well, and people kept throwing pennies into you until you were all filled up."
"No room for yours, huh?"
"My subconscious isn't very subtle."
"Neither is mine. I know what's in my head, and it's not pennies." He laughed, and it came out short and ugly. "I'm not a wishing well. I'm a charnel house. I'm a graveyard."
"People need to stop saying my name like it's a Shakespearean tragedy. I'm okay. It's just the way it is. At least I'm useful."
"What if you weren't useful? Would something bad happen?"
"Are you taking over as my therapist now?"
She looked down at her hands. "Point. All right. I'll just tell you, as a friend, nothing bad would happen. You don't have to be useful. You don't have to do things that hurt you."
"I don't know how to do anything else."
"You could learn."
Hannibal said he needed time to learn to play a different instrument. If he could do it, maybe Will could too.
"I'll think about it," he said. But not now. Not until this was over.
The SUV pulled up outside Hannibal's house and stopped. Will got out and then stopped so quickly that Alana, just behind him, ended up grabbing his shoulder for balance, one foot still in the car. She followed his line of sight.
"It's Mrs. Brownfield's. Look again, Will. Hers is dark blue."
Sun glinted off the fender of the Bentley, undoubtedly midnight blue and not black. Just for a moment, he'd seen what he wanted to see, what he'd seen here so many times before: Hannibal's car parked in the drive, the lights inside warm and inviting, Hannibal waiting for him.
Alana tucked her hand through his arm as they went in, and he pressed it close against his side. A sea of forensic technicians and police photographers parted for them.
In the kitchen, Will touched each surface gently, wary of wiping the memories away. The night before Will went after Tobias Budge, he and Hannibal had eaten bread pudding standing up in the kitchen. Hannibal had talked about the one correct way, according to him, to whip cream. Will had told him his pomegranate sauce looked like blood. The warmth and dim light had spread over the raw places in Will's mind. He'd slept well that night.
Mrs Brownfield clicked into the room on low, sensible heels. Beverly followed her, looking harassed, but brightening at the sight of Will and Alana.
"Dr. Bloom! You two know each other, right? Jack said she was just dropping off a book, but--"
"But in fact she is staying for the fireworks," Mrs. Brownfield said.
Alana threw Will a nervous glance. "We can wait in the kitchen while Will's working."
"I'll clear the dining room," Beverly said. She disappeared through the doorway and was presumably responsible for the deafening whistle that made Will, Alana, and two nearby agents jump. "Everybody out," she called. "Find something else to do for ten minutes and don't listen at the door, it's tacky."
"I have no intention of waiting anywhere," Mrs Brownfield said. "I want to watch you do whatever it is you do."
"I do what I do alone."
Easier to concentrate. His other standard line. That was only half of it, and he was sick of lying. "I scare people. There are trainees at the Academy who won't take my classes because of what they've heard about me, and some of those things are true."
"You'll need to work harder than that to drive me off, Mr. Graham."
He held out his hand. "Let me see the book." She passed it over, and he gestured toward the dining room. "Go sit, both of you. Sit where you were that night. Don't talk."
They went. He glanced through the marked pages and committed the seating chart and menu to memory. He splashed water on his face and caught the drips down his neck with Hannibal's kitchen towel.
This one was plain white, but somewhere in the kitchen was one Will had bought for him. He'd left it on the counter to avoid the awkwardness of acknowledgement and explanation. Hannibal hadn't said a word, but it had moved into the rotation: dark grey with a slender knife printed on it in white ink.
Will pulled himself upright and aligned his shirt cuffs with the sleeves of his suit jacket. It was a gesture he had seen Hannibal make many times, as close to an unconscious movement as he ever came. The suit began to feel more natural, as if Hannibal were filling it from the inside out, or filling him.
He moved his lips and tongue silently around the dishes listed on the pages of Mrs. Brownfield's diary. He knew a little French, enough to make out sauce vierge on Jeremy Staller, enough to translate the the appetizer as scallops with something and butter.
The phantom scent of cooking filled his nose. He balanced the plates, one on his palm, one resting on his upturned forearm, the third in his other hand. He could serve the whole table in three trips, two for his guests and one for himself.
His mouth curved in a cordial smile that he had tested in the mirror a hundred times. He let it grow wider as he moved into the dining room and, as he set each plate down, he let it grow teeth.
Every man and woman at the table looked to him as worshippers to a priest, as informed audience to a virtuoso. Mrs. Brownfield -- Elise -- and Alana seemed only slightly more solid than the rest.
"Everything here has meaning. I offer you my secrets openly, though you are not equipped to see them. It pleases me to be the arbiter of taste and metaphor."
He walked around the table and set down plate after plate. "I fill white roses with a deep red port syrup, and the sweet blood leaks from their hearts. I know you can't afford to see me as I am and yet I wonder how you can remain so blind."
A ghost from the present whispered, "How could he know--" It died away as he sat down at the head of his table.
"Each one of you is here for a reason. I see facets of myself in you and so I am drawn to you. Isn't that the definition of friendship? A recognition of shared similarities, a refusal to be parted by the more numerous differences?"
He picked up his fork and held it as Hannibal would have held it, tines down. Unthreatening.
"I set you a test I know you cannot pass and yet my contempt grows with every moment you ruminate over my gift to you. You deserve it. It is the best of what I am and it is damnation for your ignorance."
Dishes ran through his head, over his tongue, until one caught and tugged at him. Dessert. Blood ice cream flavored with white chocolate and star anise, topped with a cloud of milk. If alive, may the sea foam milk. If dead, may the sea foam blood.
"The blood," he said, slowly. "I didn't take blood from Jeremy Staller. I am literally giving of myself. A pointless offering designed to highlight my own folly. The connection of a lover or a family member, and the stamp and seal on my isolation. This is my design."
His palms pressed against warm wood. He could smell Hannibal's aftershave. In the warm dark behind his eyes, he could almost feel Hannibal's touch. He didn't want to come back.
"What…" Mrs Brownfield's voice wavered. She cleared her throat and started again. "What did you-- did he see of himself in me?"
Will opened his eyes slowly, still far away, though not far enough. "Cunning. Intelligence. Willingness to wield power for your own ends."
She nodded once. "I suppose that's fair enough."
Alana shifted in her chair, but said nothing. Will turned to look at her and waited. It seemed like too much effort to shape his face into something comforting or conciliatory, or even recognizable as human. His skin hung on him like a mask.
"All right," she said, finally. "It'll kill me later if I don't ask."
"Anger. Alienation. Distance." He frowned. It seemed wrong, but he'd actively avoided winding himself up in Alana's mind. "I can't tell you if he's right, only what he thought."
She smiled faintly at Hannibal's herb garden on the opposite wall. "I guess I'll go with fair enough, too."
Beverly hovered in the doorway. "Done?" she asked. "Got anything?"
He winced, and the world came rushing back. "A headache. I need to think. Somewhere that's not here."
"I'm just about done. I can give you a ride."
Mrs Brownfield stood. "And Alana will come along with me. Some lunch and the space to reassemble our public faces would do us both good. Mr. Graham, on the subject of wielding power, I am in your debt. If you have any legal difficulties, please call me. I shall be upset if you don't."
Her card was printed with only her name and telephone number and felt like it had a higher thread count than some sheets Will had slept on.
"Are you okay?" Beverly asked, when they were gone. "You look like you might puke."
"It's a possibility I'm exploring."
He let Beverly lead him outside into Hannibal's neat backyard. His prowling memories stayed indoors. Little green buds dotted the lilac hedge, waiting for warmth. Stripes on the grass showed the recent passage of a lawnmower.
"Tell me about your nieces," he said.
"Since when do you care about anyone's personal life?"
He jerked off the suit jacket and slung it over the limb of a small apple tree. "I just need to be somewhere that isn't him. Please."
"They know about the seven dogs and the house way out in the sticks. Pretty sure that's their definition of heaven. They were really after me to meet you for a while, so I told them you turned into an ogre and ate puppies."
"Joking, Graham. I told them you were too busy."
"It's okay, I mean, if I ever get the house back…"
"You don't really want to. You never want to meet people."
"Kids aren't as bad."
"You don't owe me anything."
"I owe you a lot."
She leaned against the apple tree. "Do you feel like you owe Lecter?"
"I think we're just about even at this point."
"Do you know what's going on with him?"
"I know he's killing them in effigy. He's hollowing out the spaces that he sees himself as occupying. Removing himself. He's cut back on the theater. These are personal."
"You still think he'll stop with six?"
"No. There'll be one more. One to represent him. That will be the big one." He paused. "It should be me. It would make sense. I'm the closest analogue he has to himself."
The lilac hedge rustled, and Freddie Lounds slipped through a slender gap between two bushes. "Would you care to comment on the similarities between yourself and Hannibal Lecter?"
"What the hell are you doing here? Did you follow me?"
"Just looking for the truth, Mr. Graham. Don't you think people deserve to know the truth about you?"
"I think you deserve--"
Beverly slapped her hand over his mouth. "Whoa, okay. Time out, everyone back to their corners. Ms. Lounds, this property is a federal crime scene. You can leave, or I can have you removed. Pick one."
"Are you sure you don't want to clarify what you and Mr. Graham were discussing? It might be taken the wrong way out of context."
Beverly waved an agent over and gave instructions for her to be ejected from the scene. Will let her get to the garden gate before he called to her.
"I worked out his victim profile if you're interested."
She looked back at him, wary, but reaching for her pen all the same. "And you're willing to share that information?"
"It's their interactions with him. He targets people he's found to be discourteous. Lacking in manners and proper behavior."
Her fingers tightened around her pen. They paled at the tips.
Will smiled Hannibal's smile. "Have a good day, Ms. Lounds."
"That was creepy and not very nice," Beverly said, when Lounds had been escorted back to her car.
"I'm creepy and not very nice. Ask my students."
"It would be really inappropriate to high-five you at a crime scene. And also kind of mid-nineties. I'll buy you lunch instead."
Will stretched and picked up his suit jacket. "Yeah, okay."
Beverly paused. "Do you really think she's on his hit list?"
"No. I can't imagine him using her as a substitute for any of his guests. Much less himself. He really doesn't like her."
"He told you that?"
"His face does a thing when he talks about her."
"I've met him, remember? His face doesn't do a thing. Ever."
"He's good at controlling his expressions, but stuff gets through. If you watch."
They walked out to Beverly's car, and she maneuvered them out of Hannibal's neighborhood before she spoke again. "You guys were pretty tight, huh?"
"I think he's the only person I've ever really been honest with."
"You could try it with someone else." She paused. "It's not likely to go worse."
It surprised a snort of laughter out of him. "I used to wonder how he coped with all the shit I threw at him. He never even looked surprised." He rubbed his hands over the dark wool of his pants. "At least I don't have to feel guilty anymore."
Her phone rang as they pulled up outside a tiny Indian restaurant. She answered and listened for a few seconds. "Yeah, okay." She put her hand over the speaker. "It's Jack. They found number six."
"Southern Georgia, almost to the Florida border."
"He's leading them away, hoping to get them focused on the wrong place. Tell Jack the last one will be here. Near home."
Will considered surgical theaters, actual theaters, and the Lyric Opera House, but seven o'clock found him pacing Jack's office, still uncertain.
Jack had flown home from Georgia. He sat behind his desk, rubbing slowly at his forehead. He hadn't spoken for almost ten minutes.
"What is this? The silent treatment?" Will tried to smile, but it didn't sit right on his face.
"Trying to let you concentrate. For once."
"Don't. Sometimes you push me farther than I can get on my own."
"Seems to me, I pushed you farther than I should."
"I'm not Miriam Lass, and I don't have time for your guilt right now." He planted his hands on Jack's desk. "Come on, Jack. I'm the best tool you've got. Use me."
Jack passed a hand over his mouth. "I think Lecter got to you. I think your judgment is compromised."
Alarm shot through Will like a hot wire. He could taste it in his mouth, metal and ozone and the acid burn of fear. He couldn't let Jack shut him out.
"Maybe, but so is his," he said. "I can do this."
"Freddie Lounds blames this killing spree on something you said to him. She seems to think you got into his head somehow. Is that a fair assessment?"
"You're trusting the gutter press over me now?"
"I'm asking you if she's right. She's not the only one saying it."
"I didn't do anything worse to him than he did to me," Will snapped.
Jack's face shut down. "Get some rest. We'll talk again in the morning. I need you to be objective about this, Will."
Will took a breath instead of swearing, nodded like objectivity was even a remote possibility where Hannibal was concerned, and left. The agent Jack had assigned to him followed him down the hall, but not into the men's room.
Will filled one of the sinks with cold water and stuck his face in it. His anger felt so hot that it should've boiled on contact. His lungs stung with the need for air, and he came up with a gasp, calmer, if not any more objective. He drained the sink and stepped out into the hall with water still running down into his collar.
"What's your name?" he asked his shadow.
"Am I under protection or am I in custody?"
Cade shifted his weight and clasped his hands behind him. He must have been nearly fresh out of the Academy, smooth face, bright eyes, squeaky clean. Everything about him argued in favor of protection over custody, so at least Jack hadn't lost all faith.
"I'm not sure anyone knows, sir. Agent Crawford just told me to keep an eye on you and make sure you didn't get in trouble."
"Yeah, okay. You have a car?"
Cade drove Will back to Sutton Pierce in silence and parked himself outside Will's room.
Will stripped off his clothes and dug deeper into the closet. Surely, even Mrs. Brownfield had to realize that people couldn't spend every second of life in a designer suit. He found jeans that he'd missed before because they were the same deep indigo as the suit next to them. They hung smooth, no faded patches or signs of wear.
Will had stopped buying his clothes at thrift stores when he got his first raise in rank and pay in the New Orleans PD. He knew in theory that every pair of jeans he owned had been new at some point, but none of them had seemed so relentlessly new as these did. He pulled them on and looked at himself in the mirrored bathroom door: hair too long, shadows under his eyes, scratches scabbed over and fading on his torso. Belly hollow from living on coffee and aspirin for months. He looked like he had at fifteen when he was growing faster than his father could feed him.
The scratches felt like Morse code under his fingers: disconnected dots and dashes of broken skin. He peeled away a strip of scab along his ribs and watched fresh blood bead up. Hannibal was still carrying around traces of Will's body, deep under his nails. His cock stirred at the thought, and his chest flushed with a prickling heat.
He leaned in until his forehead rested against the mirror and his breath fogged the cool glass. He wanted Hannibal like he was unused to wanting anything but solitude, wanted him in a way that logic couldn't touch. He wanted Hannibal on his knees, mouth stretched around his cock again. Or just here. Just watching.
Cheek pressed to the glass, too close for clarity, it was easy to see Hannibal's blurred reflection in the mirror instead of his own, his larger frame, more solid, more real than Will ever felt himself to be. He could almost hear him.
Will unzipped and shoved jeans and boxers down around his thighs. He gripped his cock in a tight fist and pumped it angrily. He felt Hannibal's breath on his neck.
Hannibal would watch him with that flat, curious expression, would say-- what?
You are not used to doing this in company, in the light. Do you hide from yourself under the covers? Or perhaps it only seems an acceptable risk in the shower, glasses off, hot water to wash away the loss of control.
Will shook his head, started jerking himself in earnest. Even in his fantasies, Hannibal enjoyed making him uncomfortable. More to the point, even in his fantasies, he enjoyed it when Hannibal made him uncomfortable.
You fear that in release, you will let yourself go too far. You always worry that you will go too far, say too much. You worry others will see what you are.
Will panted, bumped his fist and his dick against the glass. Fluid smeared across it. He'd already shown too much of himself to Hannibal.
In the past twelve hours, he'd shown too much of himself to everyone. Jack didn't trust his judgement. Alana still clearly thought he was unstable. Even Beverly could see how close he and Hannibal had been, and how long would it be until people started wondering if they still were? If Will had killed with him. Or for him. The Chesapeake Ripper went on a killing spree, and Jack wanted to know what Will had done to him.
His hand stuttered to a stop, and he pounded his fist against the glass. Everything was slipping away from him. Even his dick was going soft, like that was one more aspect of his life tangled inextricably with Hannibal.
Even if they dropped the charges, even if his life reverted to dogs and teaching and tying flies, none of it would help. He needed an end.
He jerked his jeans back up and fastened them. In the closet, he found a plain white shirt and pulled it on. Hannibal was close. Will would find him. By morning, one of them would be dead, or Hannibal would be in prison, or -- some other ending that Will couldn't see and didn't dare examine too closely.
The list of possible locations was crumpled in the pocket of the suit jacket. He took it out and smoothed it down on the bedspread. They were all wrong. They were Chesapeake Ripper locations, full of drama and outward significance and contempt for the world.
He needed somewhere closer to home, but Hannibal's house was just a house. Important to him, but not vital. He remembered telling Hannibal about his own house, about the way it looked, lit up like a boat on the sea. His thoughts slowed, careful not to jar anything. Frosted grass brushed his thighs. The stars overhead pricked the sky with a million tiny wounds. Blood mixed with the mud churned up by his boots, and he knew.
Still careful, still cautious, he put on shoes and socks and walked to the door. Cade sat in a chair outside, reading a book on bloodstain pattern analysis.
"I'm going for a walk. I guess you have to come with me."
"Yes, sir. Sorry."
"It's fine, just stay back. I need to think."
Outdoor lights hid in fountains and clusters of rocks. A low, even glow covered most of the lawn. Will headed for the pools of shadow near the high, iron fence. Cade followed at a respectful distance until Will disappeared into one of them. He jogged a few steps to catch up.
"Still here," Will said. "Don't worry."
Will leaned against the fence. "Did you piss somebody off to get this job?"
Cade smiled a little. "I asked for it. I was signed up for your class. Finally. It kept filling up and it took me forever to get in and then…"
"Yeah, class canceled. You're still a trainee?"
"I graduated last month."
Will felt distantly bad for what he was about to do, but it would probably be a better lesson than anything Cade would've gotten in his class. He pointed at the night sky through a gap between two oak trees. "You see that?"
"The constellation. Cassiopeia. It's not a popular one. She was Andromeda's mother. You see the W the stars make there?"
Cade stepped forward for a better look. Will slipped behind him and kicked the back of his right knee. As he went down, Will got him in a sleeper hold. Cade struggled, but it was over in less than thirty seconds.
Will searched him, grabbed his phone and called him an ambulance just in case, searched him again -- no car keys. He must've left them upstairs with his blood pattern book. Will could hear sirens already, and they were getting closer. Cade was starting to stir. Will cursed and ran for the gate.
He could get a taxi, maybe. He looked like he had the money for it, even if he didn't. He glanced up and down the empty street, and his eyes caught on a silver Nissan. He'd seen it earlier today at Hannibal's house. Freddie Lounds was still following him.
He yanked the door open and got in just before the ambulance arrived. "You should really keep your doors locked."
Her face was stark white, her eyes just a shade too wide. Her hand crept down beside her seat.
"Unarmed," he said, and showed her his hands. "You really do think I'm a killer. It wasn't just for page views."
She showed him the Taser now gripped tight in her left hand. "What did you do to your guard?"
"He's fine. The ambulance was for him, but he was already coming around when I left. Which means the police will be here soon. You should start driving."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because you want this story more than you value your personal safety. Bad choice, but it's the choice you always make."
"What are you offering?"
"If I'm right, exclusive access to the Chesapeake Ripper's last crime scene."
She studied his face for half a second and then pulled smoothly out onto the road. The Taser nestled on the seat next to her left thigh. "Where are we going?"
"Wolf Trap, Virginia."
The first few minutes of the ride passed in silence. Will leaned back against the headrest and watched the dark sidewalks rush by. He waited. She pulled onto I-95 and shifted from third to fourth gear.
"I hope you'll believe me when I say that I have the utmost sympathy for your situation, Mr. Graham. I'd like to help you."
"Why do you drive a stick shift?"
She glanced at him, just for a second. It was the first time he had seen her look genuinely surprised. "Is there any reason I shouldn't?"
"I would've thought you'd want that hand free. Phone, digital recorder. Taser."
"I like the control. And better gas mileage."
"Who taught you?"
"What did he do to you?"
Her eyes flickered toward him and stopped halfway. There was a pause before she answered. "Nothing."
"You're thinking you could tell me, as a trust building exercise. You're thinking you could tell me to fuck off because it's none of my business and you're obviously still angry about it. Mostly you're wondering how I knew he did anything. I'll tell you if you tell me."
Silence. It reminded Will of the drive with Hannibal. They were even on the same road.
"He killed himself," she said, voice flat.
"You found the body."
"He knew you were coming over, so either he didn't care or he forgot."
She was silent.
"Nobody likes being manipulated for information, Ms. Lounds. You'll have to do a lot better than having the utmost sympathy for my situation."
One hand flexed on the gear shift. "Fine. I still want to know how you knew."
"I could say that holding onto a standard transmission when an automatic would be more convenient for your job implies emotional significance. I could say that your voice was tight when you told me who taught you how to drive it. A dozen tiny details about your face and body language. I could say a lot of things, but they would all be explanation after the fact. You said it, and I knew. That's it."
"Okay," she said, and he could almost hear her brain slide into a higher gear. "How did you know to ask about the stick shift?"
Will shrugged. "It seemed like you'd have something to say about it. I just needed a place to start."
She gave him a charming and utterly false smile. "I can see I'll need to be on my guard around you."
He sighed and closed his eyes. "Or we could just cut the bullshit. Don't poke me, and I won't poke you."
He got about half an hour of silence out of it, but if she could stop poking people, she wouldn't be running one of the most successful crime blogs on the internet.
"Why do you think he'll be in Wolf Trap?" she asked.
"Do you ever wonder if your compulsion to keep after people until you draw blood is anything like the compulsion a serial killer feels to go after his next victim?"
Her thumbnail dug hard into the gearshift and her mouth tightened. "Do you wonder if it's anything like your compulsion to dig around inside people's heads uninvited?"
"All the time," he said, and waited, remembering a particular conversation in Hannibal's office, about Abigail, about obligation, the way Hannibal's blunt honesty had prompted him to respond in kind. Lounds wasn't as naïve as he had been. There was a long silence before her careful answer.
"I have a certain need to understand things."
"There was a serial killer in the early nineteen hundreds in Missouri. His name was Simon Goddard. He vivisected eleven people because he needed to understand how they worked."
Her fingers drummed once on the steering wheel and then stilled. "Now who's poking who?" she said.
"You started it."
"I only asked you a question. It wasn't even a complicated one. I know how people behave when they have something to hide."
"So do I. Just a bunch of psychos helping each other out, right?"
"Are we playing this game again? I'm pretty sure I won the last round."
"I know what you think about me, Ms. Lounds. It's what you think about yourself that I find interesting."
"You really don't want to answer my question, do you?"
Something that wasn't a smile pulled at his lips. "You're a lot better at this than I was," he said.
He could almost hear her pity in the pause that followed. It probably constituted a new low point in his life.
"You're not my therapist," she said. "I have no reason to trust you."
It was as close to a truce as they were likely to get. He tried to find a way to say it that wouldn't hurt, but there wasn't one. He said it quickly, like ripping off a band-aid.
"I told him once that I stand out in the fields and look back at my house with all the lights on, like a boat on the ocean. I told him it's the only time I ever really feel safe."
"You think he wants to violate that sense of safety."
He could practically hear her writing the article in her head, choosing the font size for his quote. He nodded. "That's why we're going to Wolf Trap. He wants to convince me he's a bad person."
"You don't already think he's a bad person?"
"The things people do are good or bad, not the people who do them."
"Love the sinner but hate the sin? Really?"
"You'd be surprised how hard it is to hate someone when you understand them. Dislike is easy. I dislike nearly everyone I meet. But hate takes a lot of effort." He paused. "I'm still managing it with you."
"It's mutual. Can I ask you another question without you excavating anymore childhood trauma or calling me a psychopath?"
"Why didn't you just call Agent Crawford when you figured it out?"
Will was quiet for a long time, debating what he should tell her, if he should tell her anything. "I might be wrong," he said, finally.
"What if you're not?"
"Just stay in the car. Keep the doors locked. You should be fine."
"What happened to exclusive access?"
"If he's already been and gone, I'll come get you."
"You're hoping he'll still be there."
"I'm hoping whoever he's got is still alive."
She stared at him long enough to start drifting into the other lane. "You're going to offer him a trade. You're going to offer to be his last victim."
"No comment." He might, if he thought it would work. He just needed to see Hannibal again, or, failing that, whatever Hannibal had left for him.
"You're insane," she said flatly.
"Probably. No moral qualms, right? You could get a bestseller out of this, especially if he kills me."
Wind swept over the car. Dogs barked as they passed a darkened house.
"It's your funeral," she said, at last.
It would be someone's, whatever happened.
Another twenty minutes found them crunching over the gravel in Will's driveway. Every window in the house shone with golden light. Will's stomach clenched. Knowing he was right was a world away from seeing the evidence.
He paused with his hand on the door handle. "Stay here. If anything happens or if I don't come back, leave and call Crawford."
"I'm serious. Don't do anything stupid."
"Take your own advice."
Too late for that. He got out of the car and waited until she locked the doors before he set off into the fields.
Long grass stems lashed at his legs and left wet streaks on his jeans. He moved out from the house in expanding arcs. A waxing moon faded from pale yellow to bone white as it passed the heavy band of ground level atmosphere. Italian shoes didn't mix well with spring fields, and he landed on his knees in the cold mud.
A dull red glow lit the grass, right down near the earth. He lurched to his feet, ran a few steps, and then gave in to the inevitable slog as the ground sucked at his shoes. One step after another, he drew closer.
A red-gelled flashlight illuminated the scene. The body lay in a flattened circle. Its head was turned sharply to the left, neck likely broken, face covered in a mash of mud and grass. It was naked and probably male, going by the hands and legs. Everything from the pubis bone to the chin had been cut out and scooped away. The empty torso looked like a red glazed bowl with pale limbs attached.
A bloody foam filled the abdominal cavity and the hollowed out chest. Where it had collapsed and pooled, Will could see pale hints of the spine. He stood, stricken, in the moonlight. For a moment, he forgot to breathe.
A soft rustle made Will look up. Hannibal stood at the body's feet. Will took a step toward him and stopped. The air felt heavy in his lungs, and his heartbeat quickened.
"I thought you were already gone," he said.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming. I've been waiting for over an hour."
"It took me a while to figure it out."
"I would have thought it was obvious."
"Nothing about you is obvious." Will looked down at the body. "I thought I knew what this was about, but now that I see it, it looks like a gift."
Hannibal said nothing. He still wore the clothes Will had bought for him. He was stubbled, presumably unwashed, but astonishingly clean for having committed six bloody murders in less than two days. Will wanted to touch him, to breathe him in, to stand close enough to feel his body heat.
"Is that what this is?" Will asked. "Is it for me?"
Hannibal turned away, and Will took a step closer, five feet from him and then three, almost close enough to touch.
"I'm not perfect," Will said. "I'm not infallible. Especially with you. I'm afraid of seeing what I want to see. Maybe I go too far in the other direction."
"Have you read Santayana?" Hannibal asked.
"I've heard of him. Philosopher, right?"
"Yes. He wrote on the connection between morality and aesthetics. 'The absence of aesthetic good is a moral evil. A beauty to which all men are forever indifferent is a contradiction in terms.' Do you believe that to be true?"
Will edged closer. The ground seemed uncertain and insubstantial beneath him, as if he were feeling his way along the edge of an invisible cliff.
"I believe you mean for this to be your last kill, but that doesn't mean it's the last beautiful thing you'll ever make."
"Do you find it beautiful?"
"Yes. Your work always had elegance, but this is from the heart."
"And what a heart it is."
"I'm not saying I'm glad you did it, or that I'm not wondering if his family knows he's missing, or how he felt when he knew he was going to die. I'm not going to tell you I don't mind, because I do. I hate it. But I also think it's beautiful."
"You truly believe I mean to stop?"
"Why would I do that?"
"I don't know. I try to understand, but the only thing I can think about is that you're doing it for me. I hope I'm wrong."
"Is that such a terrible reason?"
"It's the worst reason. It makes it my responsibility, like the way you're waiting till they're dead to mutilate them. I don't want any part of this."
A smile ghosted over Hannibal's lips. "How fortunate, then, that it's not for you. Although it might be fair to say it is because of you."
"I'm not sure that's better."
"If one reads a book and acts on his own interpretation of the text, the author cannot be blamed. Let us say that you have shown me a wider range of possibilities than I previously believed were open to me."
"That's…good. I think. What are you going to do?"
"At the moment, that depends on the actions of others."
Will frowned and was about to ask what that was supposed to mean when he saw a flash of red hair and Freddie Lounds came at Hannibal from behind, Taser sparking.
Hannibal had clearly known she was there. He caught her wrist and twisted it at an angle. She dropped the Taser and fell to her knees, silent, but teeth gritted in pain.
"I thought you'd have the sense to come alone," Hannibal said to Will.
"I was a little short on transportation options. I thought she'd have the sense to stay in the car." He eyed the pale bend of her wrist with a sense of doom lapping like cold water around his ankles.
"I can't say I'm entirely displeased to see you, Ms. Lounds. We have unfinished business."
"Oh, god," Will said. He shook his head hopelessly. "No. Hannibal, please."
Hannibal shot him an irritated glance. "You dislike her even more than you did Huxley."
"That is not the point! We've had this conversation."
"Perhaps you would feel differently if you knew what she did. Ms. Lounds?"
He bent her wrist back another fraction of an inch, and Will heard the hiss of her breath.
She shifted to relieve the pressure, but Hannibal followed the movement. "I…recorded one of your therapy sessions."
For a moment, Will could see nothing but blood on her face, on his hands. He could see the knife sliding home between her ribs. He was shaking with rage, spring-loaded, ready to uncoil.
"I never did anything with it," she said quickly.
"Only because I forced her to erase it."
Will's vision cleared gradually. Hannibal's expression was mild curiosity. Freddie Lounds, understandably, watched Will like he held her life in his hands. He took breath after breath. It felt like hours before he could speak.
"Which one? What did I-- What did I say?"
"You said he should reconsider your psych eval," she said. "He called Hobbs your victim and asked if it was harder imagining the thrill someone else felt killing since you'd done it yourself."
Will choked out a laugh and rubbed violently at his face. A sick twist of violation settled in his stomach. He backed away from both of them. No one was supposed to hear him say those things except Hannibal. No one.
"I could do it quickly," Hannibal said. "Although that would not be my preference. You could do it yourself. Don't you think the world would be a cleaner place without her?"
Will took a few more careful breaths. He looked back at his house, golden in the distance, and felt his heart slow. Behind him, he heard Lounds make a small noise of pain as Hannibal shifted his grip. Will turned back to them, searching for the right words.
He nodded to the body on the ground. "That's how you want to be remembered, isn't it? Your masterpiece? He was supposed to be your last."
"No one would have to find her body."
"They'd know you did it."
"I believe you are underestimating the depth of my dislike for her. Her behavior has been truly appalling."
Will stepped closer. "You were waiting for me. You must want something. Let her go, and we'll talk."
"Let us both go," Freddie said. "You can't possibly hope to get away with this. They're already out looking for Graham."
Will winced and shot her a look that he hoped conveyed the idea she was not helping and should please, for the love of god, shut up.
Hannibal snapped her wrist. She swayed, and her other hand flew to her mouth, but she didn't make a sound. Hannibal watched her with a small smile.
"I was going to offer to be your last," Will said. "If I got here before you killed him."
That got Hannibal's full attention. "As a representation of myself," he said.
"Yeah. Seemed appropriate."
"Perhaps. But they are also vessels. You do not contain me."
"Are you sure? Let her go, Hannibal. Please."
A flash of irritation passed over his face. He released her wrist and kicked her sharply in the back of head. She fell into the mud with a soft splat.
"That was entirely for you," Hannibal said, as close to peevish as Will had ever heard him. He bent to check her pulse and wiped his hands on his jeans as he straightened. "She's fine. Now, I believe I was offered a bargain. Her life for my desire."
"What do you want?"
Will knew already. He was stepping forward as Hannibal held out his hand, and Will took it without a thought. Hannibal reeled him in close. One hand pressed into the center of Will's back, and the other slid into his hair. Hannibal angled Will's face to catch the moonlight and looked at him with wide, dark eyes.
When their lips met, it was infinitely careful. No tongue, no teeth, only warmth and breath. Will clung to the back of Hannibal's shirt like one of them might vanish and leaned into Hannibal's body until they were touching from the knees up. He turned his face into Hannibal's neck and breathed there.
"You're going to have to hurt me," he said.
Hannibal's arms tightened around him. "They still suspect you?"
"I don't know anymore. Jack said my judgement is compromised. I think he might be right. Don't want to take any chances."
There was a pause. Hannibal pulled at the back of his shirt and laid his warm palm against the bare skin of Will's back.
"What would you have me do?"
"I'd rather not pick, to be honest. I guess it would look bad if I got off lighter than Lounds. And we should get her inside, shouldn't we?"
He made an insincere effort to back off, but Hannibal wasn't letting go. Will subsided against his chest with guilty relief.
"I don't wish to hurt you," Hannibal said. "Broken bones and concussions are so crude."
"Doesn't have to be that." A dark thought bloomed in the back of his brain. "You've got a knife, don't you? You could give me something to remember you by."
Hannibal went very still for a moment. His nails pressed into Will's back. "You may regret making that offer," he said quietly.
They carried Freddie Lounds into the house. Hannibal tied her to a chair and then bent Will over his kitchen table and bound his wrists to the legs. Will was shivering by the time Hannibal slit his shirt up the back, a mixture of night chill and nerves.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"It won't be as elaborate as I'd prefer. Our time is limited, and most of my knowledge regarding scars relates to methods of avoiding or minimizing them. I wouldn't want it to heal poorly."
He wiped a cold cloth over Will's back. The smell of alcohol filled the space around them. Will clenched his hands around the table legs.
"But what are you going to do?"
"You'll see when it's done."
Will shifted. His shoulders strained against the bonds. There was no way to pull free, no escape. His breath came faster.
Hannibal laid something cold and metal on Will's shoulder blade and laughed softly as his muscles twitched and tensed.
"Scalpel?" Will asked.
"Yes." Hannibal picked it up. "I must ask you to hold still now."
Will sat across from Jack, careful not to lean back against the chair. He'd bled through his shirt earlier. When he checked the blotches in the men's room mirror, he'd looked like a gory Rorschach. Fortunately, his suit jacket was black.
"The US Attorney's Office is declining to prosecute you," Jack said. "It'll take some time to clear up the legalities, but you're free to go."
"Just like that?"
"If they've had as many calls about you as I have from as many people who I'd rather not get calls from, I'm not surprised. You seem to have acquired some powerful friends."
"The article probably helped."
Lounds had printed what Will had said about his house word for word, made a big deal out of Hannibal violating his only refuge from the cruel, harsh world. Presumably she thought it made a better story. She'd flipped him from villain to hero without even acknowledging the crap she'd written about him before.
"Or the pictures," Jack said.
She'd come round at some point after Hannibal was gone, got to her phone, and called for help. She'd also taken about a dozen snapshots of Will's bloodied back and sold them to every major newspaper in the country. It looked like he'd been flayed.
"It wasn't that bad once they cleaned it up."
Jack gave him a skeptical look, but didn't comment. "You're still at Sutton Pierce?"
"Not if I have a choice. I'll go back to Wolf Trap."
"Are you sure?"
"It's my home."
Jack pushed an envelope across the desk to him. "I had Chilton send this over. Your personal effects, including keys."
"Thanks." Will slid the envelope toward him and balanced it across his legs. "You should be prosecuting me for assault on a federal officer."
"Agent Cade says he's barely bruised. He was in here ten minutes ago begging me not to make trouble for you."
"What did you tell him?"
"That I thought you'd had enough trouble. I'm more inclined to make trouble for him."
"He didn't do anything wrong."
"He was escorting a federal prisoner."
"No, he wasn't. He was 'keeping an eye', direct quote from you, on someone whose class he was suppose to take a few months ago. He looks like he's barely old enough to drink. You gave him no reason to be on his guard."
"He knew the circumstances. He shouldn't have needed a warning."
Will touched the envelope in his lap. He could feel his house keys through the paper. "What is this actually about, Jack? I don't like where this conversation is going."
"He's a good kid. I'd hate to see his career damaged over this."
"Why don't you just tell me what you want, and I'll decide if I feel bad enough for him to do it."
"He's very bright. Sensitive. Good instincts. He reminds me of Miriam, but he lacks ambition."
"Good. He'll last longer."
"He needs guidance."
Will pushed the chair back and stood abruptly. "No. Bad idea."
"He's all for it. Jumped at the chance. He really admires you."
"Then he doesn't need guidance, he needs therapy."
"It'd be good for you too. Let him do the looking. He can come to you for help with interpretation."
"It doesn't work like that. I have to be there."
"You didn't have to be there with Lecter. You sat in his dining room and pulled the time and location of his next crime out of thin air."
"That's different. You know it's different. Lecter's…a special case. And not a case I should be on." Will held the envelope to his chest. His grip crushed its edges. "You were right. About my judgement. It's not going to get any less compromised where he's concerned."
"Unless and until he kills again, I'm not asking you to get involved. I'm talking about the kind of cases we had you on before."
"This seems like a good time to tell you I'm thinking seriously about leaving the Bureau."
Jack sighed and sat back in his chair. "I can't say I'm surprised. Or that I blame you. All I'm asking for is a trial period. Give it a month, two at the outside. You don't know it won't work until you try."
He could and he did, but he was nodding anyway. He would've agreed to worse to get out of there, to get home, finally.
Outside the building, he sat on a bench and emptied the contents of the envelope into his lap: cell phone; wallet with sixty two dollars in cash, ID, and two credit cards that he thought he remembered canceling; small coil of copper wire; two short screws; pocket knife; house keys. No car keys. Someone had offered to get the car put into storage. Maybe he could get a taxi.
The keys dropped into his lap, and he jumped.
"I heard you're officially sprung," Beverly said, and then frowned. "Okay, that sounded wrong. Free to go. Released into the wild. Anyway, thought you might want these. The car's gassed up and in the parking garage."
"Thank you." He looked up at her. "Really, this is… Thanks."
"Are you going to be upset if I hug you?"
He shook his head, and she tugged him to his feet. She hugged him tight around his waist, squeezing until he felt warm and slightly breathless.
"I like you and I'm really glad you're not a murderer," she said.
He laughed and hugged her back.
He stopped at Sutton Pierce, bundled his ridiculous new clothes into the car, and drove away while several polite, smiling people insisted that he needed to check out first and sign things and he hadn't been released, and and and. Will did the adult thing and didn't flip them off.
The electricity was still on at the house, so probably the water was too. Definitely not the phone. He plugged his cell into the car charger and went to the grocery store.
Bread, eggs, bacon, coffee, butter, milk. People, echoing spaces, high ceilings, bright lights. He added Cheerios to his basket and left as quickly as possible. Everything else could wait until tomorrow.
The crime scene clean-up crew had been and gone. The kitchen table and floor had been scrubbed clean of his blood. He switched on the lights and put his food away. The day outside waned from golden evening to gray dusk.
He stripped down to boxers and undershirt and wrapped himself in a blanket. He sat on the porch and ate Cheerios, dry, from the box. Wind swept over the grass. A dust devil caught up a few dry leaves and danced them down the middle of the road. Will shuffled inside, stretched out on the couch, and closed his eyes.
Bright sun and an insistent thumping woke him. He took the thumping for the familiar pounding of his head and reached automatically for his aspirin bottle. His groping hand encountered nothing but bare floor and, once he pried his eyes open, he realized it wasn't his head at all.
Someone was at the front door.
He jerked it open and caught Cade with his hand still raised. "What?" Will said.
"Sorry, sir. Agent Crawford sent me. He said you weren't answering your phone."
Will frowned and looked around vaguely, as if it might be hovering nearby. "It's still in the car," he said, finally. "I didn't think anyone would want me. What time is it?"
He headed for the kitchen to make coffee, and Cade followed him in. "Almost nine. Sir, your back…"
"They said it'd be fine."
Even the instant stuff he'd picked up smelled like heaven. Hannibal would be appalled. He put a pot of water on the stove and lit the burner.
"You bled through your shirt. Didn't they give you a bandage for it?"
They had. He'd forgotten to clean it up last night, and the bandage had been a pain to get on by himself. He'd given up without much of an effort. He made a noncommittal noise.
"You should let me take a look at it."
Cade started toward him with purpose, and Will backed himself into the corner next to the stove. He could feel his quickened pulse in his head, in his throat, and he hated it. He was acting like a trapped animal. One hand was flat on the counter where he'd kept his knife block before they took it for evidence.
"I'm sorry, sir," Cade said, carefully. He'd stopped at the threshold of the kitchen. "I was a Navy hospital corpsman. Two tours with the Marines in Afghanistan. I can help if you want me to, but if you don't, I won't come any closer."
The water came to a boil. Will made his stiff limbs unfreeze and fixed them each a cup of coffee before he tried to speak.
"You want milk? I don't have sugar."
They drank their coffee. Objectively, it was pretty terrible, but Will had started drinking his father's instant when he was twelve. When he thought of coffee, he thought of this vague, brown taste, thin and acid. His shirt stuck to his back. When he reached back to touch it, the patches of dried blood seemed larger.
"Okay," he said. "I left the bandages in the bathroom."
Cade soaked the undershirt free of the scabs underneath, and Will peeled it off. He twisted his hands in it.
"It's not bad," Cade said, in the same brisk tone the paramedics had used.
Will hadn't liked them touching it either. He felt absurdly protective of it, and Cade was probably taking it as trauma. Maybe it was that, too.
"Will it scar?" He hadn't been able to ask when the paramedics were cleaning him up. He'd had enough trouble responding to basic questions.
"Hard to say. Everyone scars differently. What'd he use, a scalpel?"
"The cuts are really fine. Probably not much. Do you want it to?"
Will stiffened. "Why would I want that?"
"Some people do. They go through stuff, they want it to show on the outside." He pressed the last strip of tape into place. "There."
Will kept his eyes on the tiled interior of the shower. "What if I did? Want it to."
"If you let it get stuck to your shirt like that and bits pull off and others don't, the pattern won't heal clean. It's a sextant, isn't it?"
"Yeah. They still teach celestial navigation in the Navy?"
"They stopped about ten years before I joined up. Probably a good thing. Sounds like more math than I'd be happy about."
"It's not that hard." He shifted his shoulders and felt the tape pull against his skin. "What does Jack want?"
There was a pause. Will glanced over his shoulder.
"I'm not supposed to know," Cade said.
"It's a letter. From Lecter. For you. I heard him and Dr. Bloom talking about it before I knocked."
"And Jack was worried about your lack of ambition."
Cade stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He looked young and deeply uncomfortable.
"Don't worry. I'll keep your secrets if you keep mine." The words weren't his, and neither was the smile. He could almost hear Hannibal speaking in his ear, feeding him lines.
It worked. Cade smiled and said, "Yes, sir," like Will had been joking, and left him to get dressed.
Will didn't get to hold the letter in his hands, of course. It was sealed inside an evidence bag. Even so, he could feel the weight of the paper, the faintly uneven texture of something handmade. It wasn't white or even cream, but a mottled light brown. The writing was Hannibal's casually elegant script:
My dear Will,
We have an anniversary approaching. I'll see you in your nightmares.
With all my heart,
Will read it over twice before he set it back on Jack's desk. In your nightmares was obviously a reference to the abandoned asylum, but if Hannibal was trying to set up a meeting, he could've been less opaque about the rest of it.
"We don't have an anniversary. I haven't even known him a year."
"Maybe not a literal anniversary?" Alana said. "Six months? What day did you meet?"
"He uses language precisely. He wouldn't say anniversary if he didn't mean it."
"I don't care what he means," Jack said. "I care what he's going to do. Is this a threat? Do we need to assign you protection?"
"It's not a threat." Will picked up the letter again. Something about the paper bothered him. "What's this written on?"
Jack and Alana looked at each other.
"It's human skin, isn't it," Cade said. He'd stood silently behind Will's chair up to this point, making Will vaguely uneasy. Will glanced up at him. He looked more confused than upset, like he couldn't imagine why anyone would write on human skin. If that was true, his imagination needed a lot of work.
"It's skin," Jack said. "We don't know what kind yet."
"It's Alfred Renner," Will said. "He was the first Chesapeake Ripper case I looked at. Five years ago next month. He had the skin flayed off his thighs."
Jack sighed. "We'll look for a DNA match. You're sure this isn't a threat?"
"He won't hurt me."
"He's already hurt you," Alana said gently. "He's hurt you in ways that many people wouldn't be able to recover from."
"So for once it's a good thing I'm not like normal people." He waved off the protest he could see forming. "He won't kill me. He's had plenty of opportunities."
"It seems straightforward enough to me," Jack said. "He's out of the picture, but he still wants a grip on you so he comes up with this." He pointed at Will. "Don't give him what he wants."
"He's always going to have a grip on me, Jack. I know my memory's iffy sometimes, but I do remember telling you I shouldn't be on this case."
"You're not. You won't be. I have something else I'd like you to look at."
"Already?" Will's stomach dropped. He'd been buying dog food in his head, picking them up from Alana's house, taking them out for a ramble through the fields.
"It won't take long," Jack said, in what was supposed to be a soothing tone. "Let Agent Cade take a look at it. You're just along for the ride, like we discussed."
"Is it close?"
"Less than two hours away."
Will rubbed at his eyes. He hadn't been tired when he woke up, but right now he felt like he hadn't slept at all. "Yeah, okay."
Light filtered down into the clearing through young, green leaves. In the center, a charred circle surrounded a pyre of brush and branches. The smell of roasted meat made Will's mouth water. Judging by the expressions of covert dismay worn by various agents and local police, he wasn't the only one.
The body lay in the center of the pyre, mainly covered by brush. The limbs extended out, coated in a thick, white substance. Cade was staring at it like it might wake up and talk to him. Will leaned against a tree and ignored them both.
Renner's skin had to be a blind, something Hannibal had included so Will would have a story to tell Jack. Anyone could pull up the date he'd requested the Renner file. It would be something more personal.
The sextant was personal. It was used for navigation, for working out the angles between two objects. Or two people. But he already knew the location. He needed a time.
"Graham! Hey, over here!"
He looked to the left and saw Freddie Lounds at the edge of the tape barrier. Her wrist was in a bright blue cast that matched her skirt. He went over, curious despite himself.
She nodded to Cade. "Isn't that the kid you knocked out to escape the mental hospital?"
Will rolled his eyes and said nothing.
"I hear the US Attorney's Office won't be prosecuting you. Do you think they're making the right decision? Should our legal system be influenced by social status?"
He kept his mouth shut, though it was more difficult this time.
She didn't seem to expect an answer. "I'm writing a book," she said. "I'd like your contribution."
He been expecting it. She'd write it with or without him. "Fifty percent. Pay it to the families of the guards from the hospital."
"Fifty! I'll be doing all the work!"
"Do you think my name on the cover will be worth it in sales?"
She stared at him hard. "Do you really think I'm a psychopath?" she asked.
"Do you really care what I think?"
"No. Fine. Fifty percent."
"And the phrase 'Hannibal the cannibal' appears nowhere in the book."
"That was going to be the title!"
She pressed her lips together. "Fine."
Will almost saw her ears perk up as Cade came over to them.
"Sir, they think it's clay--"
Will held up a hand. "This is Ms. Lounds from TattleCrime."
Lounds gave him a winning smile and held out her hand. "Daniel Cade, right? Pleasure to meet you. How does it feel to be working with the man who assaulted you?"
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Are you here to thank Agent Graham? I hear he saved your life."
"Is he serious?" she asked Will.
"Wow. Gosh, aren't you cute. I'm going to leave now." She saluted them both with her cast and turned to go. A few steps away, she paused. "Graham, any thoughts on why the sextant was set at twenty degrees?"
"Was it?" Will said, face blank.
"You used to be a lot more fun."
She flipped her hair back as she walked off toward the road. Cade watched her go.
"Please tell me you're not checking out Freddie Lounds's ass," Will said. "Lie if you have to."
"Absolutely not, sir."
Cade told him about the clay. Will tried to listen, but Lounds had started him thinking. Why was it set to twenty degrees?
"So he wrapped her in clay and baked her," Cade said. "Why would anyone do that?"
"Why would you do that?"
Cade frowned and turned back to his staring contest with the dead woman.
An anniversary suggested at least a one year period. Or maybe just one year as a period of time, as a starting place.
"Protection," Cade said, abruptly. "Because clay gets hard when you heat it. So she has a shell around her. Or armor."
"Who do you want to protect?"
"People who can't protect themselves."
"Then you're looking at a really wide victim profile. Narrow it down. Most people are only that protective of the people they love."
Cade sat down on the ground next to the body. He was already collecting the sort of looks that Will was more than familiar with. His choice, Will reminded himself.
When he reached for her hand, Will was only just in time to grab his wrist.
"I'm wearing gloves," Cade said.
"And that clay's probably still hot enough to melt them right into your skin." This close though, Will wanted to touch it himself. There was something familiar about the pure white of it. "Go find Beverly Katz. You know her?"
"Yes, sir. Sorry."
Cade went, and Will resisted poking the body with a stick. He watched it, and though he hadn't meant to do more, he found himself drawn into the scene.
He was brought back to the present by a loud crack. Half the clay covering her head split off and fell to the ground, rocking in two even shards. Halves of a circle. A sextant measured one sixth of a circle, sixty degrees. One sixth of a year was two months. Twenty degrees was one third of sixty degrees. One third of two months -- the two that had just passed -- was eighteen days.
The only date to start from that made any sense was the night Hannibal had put the sextant on him. That put their appointment at the asylum fifteen days away. Will tried not to let his face do anything inappropriate, but it was hard to think of anything else: fifteen days, just over two weeks, and he wanted it to be now. This second.
Cade returned with Beverly, who didn't look pleased. "You're not supposed to be doing this," she said.
"I didn't. Much. It's kaolin clay, I think. They sold it as snack food in a gas station I worked at in Georgia. It's supposed to be good for you. He was trying to heal her, to make her a new body. He would've taken her from a hospital, or hospice care. She might've already been dead when he did this."
"Can you dig that stuff up around here?"
"I don't think so."
"Good. A guy who just ordered this much of it off the internet should be easy to find." She paused. "Snack food?"
"The label said Georgia White Dirt. It was next to the Mars bars."
"Huh. Okay. Are you taking off now?"
He nodded, and, after a few more details, he was on his way. Cade sat silently in the passenger's seat next to him.
Fifteen days. Will started making lists in his head, ways to occupy himself so that he could pass that amount of time in relative sanity. He had to get dog food, pick up the dogs from Alana, probably two trips for that, more groceries, start getting things out of storage. Clothes first. His dishes were still in the house. Where were his sheets?
"I'm sorry, sir," Cade said.
Will had almost forgotten he was there. "For what?"
"I wasn't much good back there."
The words faded, as all words did. Silence filled up the car. Will could let it settle in for the hour and a half drive back to DC. The perceived failure would cement itself in Cade's mind and make it that much easier for Will to brush him off at the end of Jack's trial period. Some part of Will still felt that it would be the right choice, that they'd both be better off for it in the end.
Something new and more curious made him ask: "Why did you join the Navy?"
"Because I didn't know what I wanted to do, and my dad said I should do something that would help other people."
"And why the FBI?"
"I want to understand why people hurt each other," Cade said, with a certainty that had been missing in every exchange they'd had up to this point.
It would be a difficult ambition to brush off. He'd end up in Jack's department regardless of what Will did.
Will rubbed his thumb against the smooth spot on his steering wheel where his hand habitually rested. Maybe Alana had been right, and it wouldn't hurt to try something new. At least, it might hurt less.
"Everyone has different reasons," he said. "You can only understand them one at a time. "
For the next two weeks, Will reassembled his life. He got his dogs back, minus two. Radar and Oscar were so obviously attached to Alana, and she to them, that they stayed behind. It gave Will an odd feeling of accomplishment. He knew he gave his dogs a good home, but there was still a sense of having rehabilitated these two back into the real world, as if his entire life were some sort of halfway house.
He got his clothes out of storage and retired Mrs. Brownfield's wardrobe to the back of his closet. He'd almost taken them to Goodwill, but a small, treacherous thought reminded him that Hannibal would like them. He told himself that he wasn't thinking seriously about dressing up for the trip to the asylum. It was only that it wouldn't hurt to keep them.
When the day came, he spread them on the bed: the suit, the jeans, the shirts. He couldn't do it. It was too intimate, too presumptuous. He wore his own jeans, his own sweater. The unsettled feeling in his stomach only got worse, as if, in acknowledging the uncertainty of the situation, he'd doomed himself to the worst possible outcome.
During the drive, he completely failed to settle on what that might be. He'd been dreaming of Hannibal almost every night. He awoke covered in sweat, heart pounding, but only about a third of them were nightmares.
He drank coffee and drove through the sunset, aiming to arrive after dark. The FBI was done with the place, but it was guarded now. Unless Hannibal had done something about that.
The road shifted from light grey to reflective black as the rain started. The windshield wipers threw great waves to either side. The world outside melted into amorphous color and light. Somewhere in the blurred landscape, he saw a future where he left with Hannibal, tonight, and never came back. The thought racked him between choking terror and a sense of freedom that was almost as frightening.
When he got close, he parked out of sight of the entrance and sat as the rain poured over the roof of the car in a clatter that echoed his heart. He was drenched the moment he left the car.
A chain link fence surrounded the asylum now. He slipped easily past the security service car and through a gap cut in the fence, either by Hannibal or local kids looking for a thrill.
Inside, it had the same smell of damp rot. The same fear hovered in the air around him, waiting for him to loosen his control even for a second so it could wrap around his brain stem and bite down.
He checked the room where Hannibal had shown him Staller's body. Empty. Even the floorboards where it had decomposed had been removed for analysis. There was only one other place to look.
Will wrapped his arms around himself as he walked. His soaked clothes clung to him. The air held a deep, damp chill, like an old basement. He started to shiver. His hair dripped in his eyes, and he pushed it back flat against his skull. He wanted Hannibal's touch and heat in a way that couldn't be entirely sane.
The door to the room stood open. The bed would still be in there. The FBI had no reason to remove it, or even to come in here beyond a cursory check for possible squatters. Will hadn't told anyone about what Hannibal had done to him.
He braced a hand on the door frame. "Hello?" His voice was hoarse and too quiet to carry more than a few feet. No answer.
Will flexed his toes inside his wet shoes and forced himself to step inside. He scanned the peeling walls, the bare floor, the bed with one wrist restraint broken and hanging loose.
No Hannibal. He'd got the time wrong, or the day, or the meaning of the riddle, or-- His eyes caught on a patch of white on the bed: an envelope. He tore it open with fingers that were numb and clumsy from cold or nerves.
The single sheet of paper inside confirmed a reservation in his name for a flight from Dulles to Marseilles on the 21st of March, 2014.
His field of vision narrowed until it included only that date. Next year. All of this, the riddle, the wait, Hannibal's mark carved into Will's flesh, and all he got in the end was this, as if a year were nothing, as if two weeks hadn't almost killed him. He ripped the paper into quarters and crushed the pieces in his fist.
His nails dug into his own hand. He wanted blood, wanted Hannibal's blood with a silent rage that frightened him, but his nails wouldn't go deep enough, wouldn't puncture the skin, and he couldn't feel it, not like he'd felt Hannibal's knife in him.
He slammed his fist into the wall once, twice, once more. Skin peeled off his knuckles and a sharp, deep pain bloomed in the side of his hand. He upended the bed and kicked it across the room.
He should've told Jack that night. Hannibal would be locked up, there any time Will wanted him. But not to touch. Never to touch. He bared his teeth at the silent room, at the shreds of paper in a hand that was swelling as he watched.
The room swam gently around him. He leaned against the wall and then slid down it to the floor. He took out his phone and stared at the blank screen. He thought he should call someone, had a distant sense that he might be in serious trouble, but he didn't know who to call. The only person he wanted to talk to was Hannibal.
When it rang, it startled him so badly that he dropped it and had to grope after it in the dim light.
There was a pause on the other end. "Jesus, you sound like shit, Graham."
Will squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. "Lounds? Is that you?"
"Uh, caller ID?"
"I didn't look. It's past midnight." He checked his watch. It was almost three. It hadn't been much past one when he got here.
"You weren't asleep."
He couldn't disagree, and so he said nothing. He could hear the faint sound of her breathing. As he listened, he became aware of his own, ragged and shaking. He was shivering. He looked at the red bruises on his knuckles and the distended swell of skin on the side of his hand. He needed to be somewhere warm. Probably a hospital.
He stood and started unsteadily toward the door.
"Do you dream about him?" Lounds said, finally.
"Almost every night." He made his way back down the long corridor toward the front door. He frowned. "Did you just have a nightmare and call…me?"
"Did you know we're the only two people to be face to face with him, knowing what he is, and survive? Ever?"
"So I'm your support group now? Hold on." The rain was still coming down. He made a run for it. Back in his car, he cranked the heat up and pulled off his wet jacket. "You still there?"
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"Going to a hospital."
"Why? What happened?"
"Punched the wall. Hand's broken."
"Were you… Because of him?"
He wasn't about to answer that, on the grounds that it would almost certainly end up on her blog. "Tell me about your nightmare," he said. It took him a second to realize why the words sounded so familiar, and then he had to bite his lip hard so he wouldn't laugh. The laughter wouldn't be good right now. It would turn into something shrill, and he'd start hitting things again. He pulled onto the road and headed back toward the nearest town.
"I'm on his dining room table and he's eating parts of me while I watch," she said.
The tone convinced Will she wasn't lying to get something out of him. It was completely matter-of-fact, almost bored.
"Organs. I don't know which ones, but I'm holding them all."
"Like Chilton. Nice. Did he manage to find your heart?"
She laughed, the faintest puff of air down the line. "You should've been a therapist."
He cruised through the town. No hospital. No sign of life anywhere. "Are you near a computer?"
"I'm always near a computer."
"Look up the nearest hospital to Fullard, North Carolina."
"You're at that asylum! I tried to get access. Can you--"
"But I need pictures! You outside that place--"
"The publicity for the book--"
"Just look up the hospital!"
"God, fine," she said, put upon and almost sulky.
She gave him directions. It was at least half an hour's drive, and his hand was throbbing now.
"What do you dream about?" she asked.
"They're all sex dreams," he said, flatly.
There was a long pause. "You're joking. Are you?"
"You have to be. You wouldn't have told me if it were true."
"Point." Not all of them. Only about half.
"I could still quote you," she said.
"You won't. Bad publicity."
"You should have them check your sense of humor while you're at the hospital. There's something seriously wrong with it."
"I'll do that."
A few seconds passed in silence. The adrenaline was starting to fade, and Will felt so tired he didn't know how he'd get out of the car once he got there.
"You did save my life," she said abruptly. "I know that."
"Don't worry about it. It wasn't personal. For the record, what did you think you were doing sneaking up on him with a Taser? Moral qualms?"
There was another pause before she answered. "It would've made a better story if it ended with him in prison."
"Fuck off. Are you there yet?"
She stayed on the phone with him until he was walking into the ER. The rest of the night was a blur of warmed blankets, dry clothes, X-rays, and terrible coffee. People asked repeatedly if he had a psychiatrist. He tried not to take it personally. Eventually, he gave them Alana's name.
She was there when he woke up. She smiled at him, and he thought she was the most beautiful person he'd ever seen. It wasn't the first time he'd thought it.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," he croaked.
"I hear I'm your therapist now."
"They kept asking me. Couldn't tell them the truth."
"What's the truth, Will?"
"My therapist's a serial killer." She touched his hand, the one not in a splint, and he looked away, throat tight. "I miss him," he whispered.
"I know." Alana squeezed his hand. "I miss him too."
He sat up slowly and bent his neck to either side, wincing at the stiffness. His body felt like it had been converted to lead in his sleep.
"I should get dressed," he said. "Sorry to drag you down here. I told them I was fine to drive home, but no one believed me."
She looked down, lips pressed into a thin line. "I'm going to say something."
"I know I'm not actually your therapist, but this is a professional opinion. You can ignore it if you want to, but I feel obligated to tell you that I think you should consider voluntary admission to a mental facility. Just for a few weeks."
He looked where she was looking, at their joined hands. His eyes felt hot. "That bad, huh?"
"Jack already has another case he wants you to look at, and I know you'll say yes. I'm really worried about you, Will. I'd say take a vacation, but I know you won't. You don't have to do the therapy. Just rest. I called Green Oaks, and they said they'd find a room for you. I have friends on staff there. It's a good place. Just think about it, please."
Her hand had been tightening on his all the time she spoke. He could feel his pulse in his fingertips. He squeezed back hard and tried to smile at her.
"You just want my dogs back."
She laughed a little and wiped at her eyes. "Two are enough for me."
The anger he'd felt last night still hovered like a dark fog at the edges of his vision. He thought he had it under control, but he'd thought that last night, right up until he'd kicked the bed across the room. He couldn't afford to lose it like that at a crime scene. And he was so tired. The thought of looking at another body right now, and Jack would want it to be right now, left him pathetically close to tears.
"Okay," he said.
"You'll think about it?"
"I'll do it. No drugs, no therapy."
"I promise. Just a break." She smiled. "No outside phone calls. I'll come by and tell you how much that's making Jack fume if you want."
"Will you? Come and visit?"
"Every day if you want me to."
Will moved like a ghost through Green Oaks, no medication schedule, no art therapy, group therapy, one on one psychiatric counseling, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, which he hadn't even heard of until he arrived. Alana must have had some pull at the place. He was left almost entirely to himself.
The sun angled through thin curtains and turned his room into a lightbox every morning. He seldom managed to sleep past six. In the early light, he walked and watched his breath fog the air. The days grew longer, but the mornings were still crisp and clean.
Alana came to visit him every few days. She brought him books and told him how the world was getting on without him. Beverly came every Saturday. They ate pizza together outside on the grass and said very little. She fell asleep once or twice, and Will suspected she needed the rest almost as much as he did.
Mostly, he was alone. He walked around the grounds and into the forest behind them. He sat by the lake. His back healed. Sometimes, he wrote awkwardly with his left hand, long letters to Hannibal which he burned in the common room fireplace. No one even looked at him oddly for doing it.
Two weeks turned into four and then into six. No one suggested that he leave. At eight weeks, the splint came off his hand. He started mentally composing PowerPoint presentations for his next class. He missed his dogs.
He left Green Oaks in early July and set up his life all over again. It was easier this time. His house was waiting for him. His dogs were there when he arrived, and Beverly had gone to the store for him. He could tell it was her and not Alana because Alana would never have bought that much frozen French bread pizza.
On the 4th of July, he walked out into the summer-gold grass and looked back at his house, lit up like the fireworks he could hear in distance. He took the travel itinerary, now taped back together, from his pocket and looked it over. A lot could happen in nine months. It wasn't something he could think about every day, not without losing himself again.
He'd memorized its contents the first time he looked at it. He thought about burning it now, but his life really didn't need any more drama than it already contained. He took it inside and ran it through the paper shredder to mix with utility bills and credit card offers.
Will's next class started on September 14th. The night before, he dreamed.
Will cast his lure into a lake surrounded by mountains. Sun sparked off water the cold pale blue of glacier melt. His arms were tired. He'd been fishing a long time when he got his first bite.
The rod bent almost double. Will reeled out some slack, but not enough. Whatever he had caught gave a jerk at the line and almost pulled him down. More slack, and it turned left in a streak of ripples. He reeled it in, just a few inches. They moved back and forth, in and out, but he was winning. The fish grew gradually closer, lost its fight.
He was ready to reach for the net when Hannibal erupted from the water in front of him. His chest was heaving, and Will's hook stuck through his cheek. Blood ran down his jaw and neck.
Will wiped it away and eased the hook from his mouth. They looked at each other, Hannibal grave and silent, Will drowning in the need to touch him. Hannibal's blood dripped down his body into the water.
Will dropped his rod into the red cloud that swirled around their knees. He pressed his hands to Hannibal's sides. Gills gaped in the interstices of his ribs, and he shuddered when Will touched them.
When their bodies met, Will was already naked, cold in the icy water, but warming himself with Hannibal's heat. Hannibal's hands spread out over his skin and then sank into it, through it, until he was touching Will from the inside out.
The faint tang of blood filled Will's mouth when they kissed, and even in the dream it seemed strange that he'd never kissed Hannibal without opening or reopening a wound. Will's hands skated over the gasping flare of his gills. Their bodies rubbed together, slippery and slick as scales, and Will came with a cry that woke him.
Morning light tapped at his windows. He panted, still hard, and shoved his hand into his boxers. He curled beneath the blankets, pulled them up over his head and let himself say Hannibal's name out loud, let himself beg into the dark warmth: Please, please, Hannibal, I need it, I need you, please.
His spine arched hard as he came, and he shoved back the blankets like a swimmer reaching the surface after a long dive into deep water.
His alarm went off. He slammed his hand down on the snooze button and looked up at the ceiling. Class in three hours.
He arrived half an hour early to set up and stopped short inside the door to the classroom. Nearly every seat was filled. He glanced at his watch.
"Did I get the time wrong?" he asked. A ripple of laughter passed through the room. "I'm serious. What are you all doing here?"
"We heard you were going to talk about Hannibal Lecter," someone called from the anonymity of the back row.
Will blinked slowly at the eager faces and then looked away. "Not for half an hour yet." And then, because he was feeling reckless: "Might go faster if someone gets me coffee."
Three people got him coffee. By the time he'd gotten his laptop communicating successfully with the projector, the seats were filled and so were the steps between the seats. People stood along the walls.
"I know you're not all signed up for this," he said. "Am I going to have to take roll?"
Another nervous wave of laughter, although he honestly wasn't trying to be funny, and then Jack leaned forward from behind a clump of trainees and said: "Maybe you could let it slide just this once."
Will looked around once more at the packed room and shrugged. "Okay. Sure."
The number of people didn't matter. He liked giving lectures. As long as he was talking, no one talked to him, which was generally when his trouble started.
He'd given himself only two criteria for this presentation: objectivity toward Hannibal and brutality toward his own choices and failures. If nothing else, he could be an object lesson.
The first slide was Freddie Lounds's photograph of him tied down to his kitchen table, blood dripping down his sides. It had the required impact. The room fell into a dead silence that lasted for an hour and a half.
They applauded at the end, which only proved they'd missed the entire point. The applause stuttered and died as he walked out on them.
Alana jogged after him and caught him up at the end of the hall. He hadn't seen her in there.
"Do you think any of them heard a word of that?" he asked.
"Applause is a sign of appreciation. It doesn't mean they weren't listening."
"Inappropriate," he muttered. Inconceivably inappropriate, and stupid.
"It was a dramatic presentation."
"I wanted to make a point."
"The point being 'Don't be like Will Graham'?"
She looked amused. "I'm afraid that may not have been the point you actually conveyed."
"I told them everything I did wrong. I laid it all out from the start."
"Thereby increasing your audience's sympathy with you."
"They're not an audience, they're students. They're supposed to be here to learn."
She squeezed his shoulder. "They will. Just not today. Today, they're a little caught up in the story, but they'll think about it more clearly later, and they'll remember it when they need to. That's the best you can hope for."
"I'll make you a bet."
He glanced at her, wary. "What?"
"Bet you fifty bucks Jack asks you to give that talk to someone other than your students within the next month."
He didn't take the bet, but he did give the talk five times over the next six months. Jack said he was enhancing the FBI's reputation with the general public. Will steeled himself to expect applause at the end. It was at least marginally less absurd coming from people who weren't in training to be agents and who could only see his story as a story.
In between classes and excoriating himself for the entertainment of strangers, he worked on cases for Jack, taught Cade as much as he could, had more meetings with Freddie Lounds about the book than he would've preferred, and taught the elder of Beverly's nieces how to fish.
He'd never had or wanted much to do with children, but there was a certain feeling of pride when Erika ran up to Beverly and thrust a raw fish into her hands with the words: "I gutted it myself!"
The holidays rolled past. Winter eased into the beginning of spring. Will announced his trip to France with what he thought was admirable calm, considering that he felt like he was going to shake apart whenever he thought about it for more than five minutes together.
The ticket was one-way. He didn't know what that meant, or even what he wanted it to mean. As a precaution, he found homes for the rest of his dogs, all of them except Winston. Winston would stay with Alana until Will got back. If he got back.
He packed two days beforehand, mostly his old clothes, but a few things from Mrs. Brownfield's wardrobe had made it into daily use now, usually when he forgot to do the laundry. For the plane, he laid out the dark blue suit, tie and all, careful not to think too hard about either his motives or Hannibal's reaction.
The morning of the flight, he woke in a panic from a nightmare of amorphous shadows and red eyes that watched him from the bottom of a lake. The sensation of cold hands grasping at his ankles followed him all day.
He boarded the plane after three hours spent pacing Dulles. The air smelled unnatural. On the plane, it smelled worse. Bodies hemmed him in on every side. Every surface reflected his own uncertainty.
Almost twenty-four hours later, he stood in baggage claim and watched other people's suitcases scroll past. He clutched his one bag in his hand and scanned the crowd.
"Mr. Graham?" said a voice at his elbow.
Will turned. An older, balding man held up a sign with his name on it and smiled.
"Uh, yes," Will said.
"These are for you," the man said. He handed over car keys and an envelope, and then he walked away.
The envelope contained instructions on where in the parking lot to find the silver Aston Martin DB9 that went with the keys. The car, when he found it, contained bottled water, sunglasses, and printed directions.
Will left the airport and passed with surprising rapidity from busy roads to country lanes. The fields on either side waved with some low, green crop. Trees arched over the road and spread mottled sunlight across his hands and lap. He didn't know or particularly care what the speed limit was, and the engine soared without protest to speeds that would've made his Volvo whine.
The light was sliding from late afternoon into evening when he turned down a long driveway lined with the tall spires of cypress trees. At the end, a low, white building sprawled in front of a reflecting pool. Modern lines and glass mixed with stucco. A hedge out front had been carved into the shape of a snake eating its tail.
A note was attached to the front door with tape. Will unfolded it.
My dear Will,
Your room is the first on the right at the top of the stairs. Please take your things up and shower if you wish. Dress for dinner. It will be ready by 20:00.
Will scanned it and then read it again with attention to each word, as if on closer examination they might say something rational. He left his bags in the car, let the note flutter to the ground, and stomped inside across black and white tile.
He paused just outside the kitchen. The smell of seared meat and herbs, the sizzle of oil and the scrape of a pan against the metal range grate took him momentarily back to Hannibal's house in Baltimore. He never would've considered doing there what he was about to do here.
Hannibal turned halfway from the stove and greeted him with a faint frown. "Did you not see my note?"
"I saw it." Will crossed the room and circled around the island, closer, closer.
"You're weary from your journey. This isn't the best time--"
Will reached past him and turned off the burner.
"It will be ruined if it goes cold now," Hannibal said, but he didn't move to turn it back on.
"A year," Will said. He took two handfuls of Hannibal's white shirt and dragged him, step by step, away from the range, walked him backward until he hit the counter. Will pressed their bodies together and closed his eyes, breathing.
Hannibal cupped his hands around Will's elbows. "I had plans for this evening."
"All right," Hannibal said softly. He was leaning in as he spoke, eyes on Will's mouth. "All right."
Will kissed him carefully, and then harder, and then slid his hands up into Hannibal's hair to disarrange it.
Hannibal shifted his weight forward, encouragement for Will to move, but not insistence. "Upstairs."
"Because you both taste and smell like you've been traveling for too long, and you are going to shower before we go any further."
Will frowned and held him tighter. "You, too, then."
Concrete slabs jutted out from the wall in place of stairs, seemingly unsupported. Will went first and kept a tight grip on Hannibal's arm. He dumped his suit on the floor of the bathroom and pressed a hand between Hannibal's shoulder blades while he adjusted the water.
"Get in," Hannibal said. "I'll join you in a moment."
"Don't want to wait," Will said. He took Hannibal's wrist as he stepped under the water. After a moment, Hannibal followed him in, white shirt and dark trousers plastered down to his skin in seconds.
Will couldn't stop smiling at him. He leaned in and licked water from Hannibal's neck while he worked buttons through wet cloth.
Hannibal soaped up his hands and ran them over Will's skin. "It would've been simpler to let me undress."
"You smell good." Will pressed his face to the curve of Hannibal's neck and grinned like a madman.
"I fear I can't say the same at the moment."
"You're lucky I'm not easily offended. Anyway, it can't be as bad as that night in the boat."
"Worse. You smell of other people."
"Other people who smell bad, or are you just that possessive?"
Hannibal washed him with efficiency and an almost impersonal touch. Everything from chest to cock and balls and between his cheeks got the same brisk sweep of his hands. He only paused once, to trace over the scar on Will's back .
"It's faded," he said.
"You can do it again."
Hannibal bit his shoulder gently. "I'll do more than that," he said.
Will turned toward him to struggle with the smaller buttons of his shirt cuffs and then peeled the shirt off him. It landed with a splat on the shower floor. He pulled the belt buckle open and worked on the trouser button.
When Hannibal started working shampoo into his hair, he gave up entirely and just leaned against him. "Mmph," he said.
Hannibal was laughing at him, almost silently. Will could feel it in the faint movement of his chest. It seemed doubly important to have him naked if he was going to laugh at him, but Hannibal's fingers rubbed over his scalp, and Will couldn't force himself to move until he was done.
Hannibal turned them so the water cascaded down Will's body and rinsed him clean. Will blinked at him through the spray while Hannibal shed the rest of his clothes.
He'd acquired a tan, but otherwise he was unchanged: broad shoulders, muscles tight under his skin, faintly greying chest hair, lean stomach. Heat gathered in Will's chest as he looked lower. Hannibal's cock was half hard against his thigh, curved slightly to the right.
"What do you want?" Hannibal asked.
Will just shook his head. They'd already gone further than he'd allowed himself to imagine.
"Come, then," Hannibal said. He shut off the water and handed Will a towel. When they were both dry, he led Will into the bedroom and pressed him onto the bed, face down, braced on his knees and forearms.
Hannibal put a hand between his shoulder blades and pushed until Will's chest almost touched the mattress. It left his ass in the air, legs spread, cock growing harder as he burned under Hannibal's scrutiny. He swallowed and shifted as Hannibal climbed onto the bed behind him. Hands parted his cheeks, and Hannibal leaned in and licked between them, a broad, wet stripe of heat.
Will gripped the sheets and felt some strangled noise break out of him.
"Good?" Hannibal asked, warm and amused.
"Do it again."
Hannibal's tongue pressed against Will's hole, and Will hid his face in one hand. He bit at his palm. It didn't come close to muffling the noises he made every time Hannibal licked at him, flicked his tongue over sensitive skin, pulled back to blow cool air over him until Will was squirming helplessly from an overload of unfamiliar sensation. Hannibal nudged his knees wider and trailed spit-slick fingers along his cock.
"Please," Will said. He let his shoulders drop lower, arched his back, offered himself.
Hannibal kissed the base of his spine. "What do you want, Will? Do you want me to fuck you?"
"I… You can if you want to."
"That's not an answer. What do you want?"
Will twisted round to look at him. His lips and chin were wet, and it made Will want to kiss him, to bite him. "I want to fuck you," he said, sudden and fierce.
"Yes." Hannibal reached over his back to the bedside table and tossed a bottle on the bed. He paused. "May I assume that we are well past insisting on condoms at this point?"
Will wanted to laugh, though he knew he shouldn't. Maybe the concept of safe sex with Hannibal Lecter was inherently laughable. He shook his head, hit with the feeling that half the blood in his body must belong to Hannibal by now.
Hannibal knelt next to him. "Have you done this before?"
Hannibal picked up the bottle and held it loosely between his hands. "Do you want me to do this part?"
Will took the bottle from him. "No. Just tell me if I get it wrong. Or if I'm going too fast."
"I want you to go too fast. I don't mind if you hurt me."
Will had to look away for a second. His cock ached, and his face felt too hot. "You can't say things like that."
"Of course I can. Whom can you hurt, if not me? Who deserves it more?"
The bed shifted, and when he looked back, Hannibal was lying back against the pillows, knees bent, feet on the bed. His legs were spread wide, and his cock lay thick against his stomach.
"It is part of the attraction, is it not? What I am, what I have done. You know you cannot shock me. You guard the parts of yourself that you fear might poison others, but with me there is no need."
Will couldn't take his eyes off Hannibal's body, the hard planes and angles of him, the pale, vulnerable skin of his inner thighs, his cock, his mouth.
"You're already poison," Will said.
Hannibal's smile was slow and pleased. "Yes," he said.
Will crawled up the bed to kneel between his legs. He squeezed out slick, cool fluid, and it warmed quickly as he rubbed it over his thumb and first two fingers.
"I really don't want to hurt you," he said.
"It would certainly be accurate to say I don't want to hurt you by accident, yes."
Hannibal chuckled and eased an inch further down against the pillows. "Very well. We can discuss it later."
Will took a moment just to look at him, the reality of him, here in the same room with Will, the same bed. He put his hand on Hannibal's knee. The muscles above his hand flexed, and Will bent to kiss the shifting skin there without thought.
The sound Hannibal made came from the back of his throat, a sub-vocalized, close-mouthed little thing. Will bent lower and kissed his thigh. Hannibal's stomach muscles were tensed, his hands in loose fists at his sides. His right hand curled tighter at the second kiss and then spread flat on the mattress.
Will pushed cautiously against his hole with two slippery fingers. He could feel the give of the muscle, kept pushing, and watched them slide into Hannibal's body. He couldn't look away, couldn't resist pulling back out to his fingertips and stroking in again. He was touching Hannibal from the inside out.
His breath came too fast, and he felt dizzy just from this. His cock was so hard that he had to press a hand against it to relieve some of the ache. He pushed his fingers in again, past the first knuckle, past the second. He twisted his hand from the wrist, eyes locked to the point where his fingers moved in Hannibal's body.
"Will," Hannibal said. He sounded breathless.
"Is it all right?"
He glanced up in time to see Hannibal's teeth scrape over his lower lip. Hannibal watched him with avid, fevered attention.
"It's enough," Hannibal said. "Enough preparation. I would like very much to feel you inside me."
"I am inside you," Will said softly. He flexed his fingers against smooth heat and watched Hannibal's throat work.
"Not far enough," Hannibal said.
Will wasn't sure he could take more, but he withdrew his fingers and shifted closer, spread lube over his cock and held it so that the head pressed where his fingers had been.
"You're sure?" he said.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to make me beg."
Just the idea of it made Will's pulse stutter, but he put it aside to smolder in the back of his mind. Not now. He didn't have enough control. He was more than half ready to beg himself.
He watched Hannibal's face for any sign of discomfort as he pressed in, but it was blank and smooth, eyes closed, lips just barely parted. He looked almost as if he were asleep. He would be as unflinching if Will were carving into his skin with a scalpel.
Will leaned in, carefully, awkwardly, and kissed the hollow notch at the base of his throat. When he looked up, Hannibal's eyes were open again. Will met his gaze and held it as he pressed in and in. Hannibal spread his hand out across Will's jaw and neck, closed the little space between them, and kissed him roughly.
His teeth closed over Will's lower lip, but he didn't bite. Will caught his breath and held onto Hannibal's shoulders as he settled deep inside him. They breathed together, Hannibal's chest rising as Will exhaled, as their bodies adjusted to one another.
Will pulled his head back slowly. His lip slipped from between Hannibal's teeth. Will kissed the corner of his mouth and nosed along his jaw line. He shifted his weight, thighs tense, and withdrew just enough to push in again. Hannibal reached for him, fingers digging into the soft skin above his right hip bone.
"I don't want to move," Will murmured. "I want to stay like this."
Hannibal's body squeezed down around his cock, and Will clutched at him, hissing against his neck. Hannibal rocked his hips up, took him deeper.
"Do you want to just do this yourself?" Will said, voice unsteady now, holding Hannibal too tightly.
"Not at all. I trust I've made my point."
He had. Will still wanted to stay where he was, stay inside, but it was becoming untenable as his arousal grew. Next time he could make it last longer. Next time, he'd use his fingers for longer. He'd been able to concentrate when it was just his fingers, when he hadn't felt they were merging, sliding, one into the other.
He sat back and pulled at Hannibal's hips until he was lying flat, until Will could loop an arm under one knee and push it back toward his chest. He looked down at the join of their bodies, and his hips jerked forward. He wanted to fuck, to rut, to own.
They were both silent as he started to move, save for increasingly audible breath, the slide of skin against skin, and the wet sounds when Will penetrated Hannibal's body.
"Do you--" Will had to break for air. "How do you want--"
"I want you to take what you want."
Will swallowed around the vivid memory of fucking Hannibal's mouth. He moved faster, desperation a thick taste on his tongue. He reached for Hannibal's cock, but Hannibal caught his wrist, brought Will's fingers to his mouth and sucked.
That hot mouth undid Will completely, and he thrust into Hannibal's body with abandon. He fucked and fucked and forgot himself, bending to press kisses to Hannibal's neck and shoulders, hungry for his taste and smell. He wanted to hear him as well and changed the angle of his thrusts until he caught the small, sharp inhale.
He aimed for the same spot again and again, and must've hit it. Hannibal's hands curled into his hair, and they were straining toward each other, kissing between panted breaths. Will came with an almost panicked clutch at Hannibal's shoulders, and his nails dug in as he went still.
Pleasure forced its way up his spine to blind and deafen him. For a few seconds, it was all he felt, and then he became aware of Hannibal stealing kisses, stealing his breath, pressing him over and down and licking hard into his mouth.
"What do you, can I," Will mumbled, but Hannibal wouldn't stop kissing him long enough for him to ask. He reached again for Hannibal's cock, but Hannibal pinned his wrist to the bed.
Hannibal stretched out over him, knees and elbows taking just enough of his weight so that Will could breathe. The trade-off didn't seem worth it. Will closed his eyes and reveled in the feel of Hannibal's thighs, his chest, his cock rubbing against Will's stomach. He stroked the curve of Hannibal's shoulders and followed the lines of muscle definition with one finger. Hannibal licked under his jaw and bit gently over the pulsing artery in Will's neck. Will liked the feel of his tongue there, flat against Will's flesh as if he could taste blood through skin.
Will wanted to offer him something, but all the words that came to him were too crude, and Hannibal wouldn't let him touch. Instead, he cupped Hannibal's cheek and tipped his face up, kissed his cheeks and the bridge of his nose until Hannibal's eyes closed and he went still.
His lips were so warm, almost sweet. Will flicked his tongue light along the curve of his lower lip and pressed his mouth just under it, and then to his chin, and then up to his cheek and the corner of his eye. He stroked his thumb over the faint creases there.
"Will…" Hannibal's voice was harsh and strained.
"What do you want?" Will asked him.
Hannibal shook his head, eyes still closed. "I want to live inside your skin. I want your taste always in my mouth. I want to feel your heart beating in my hand."
Will frowned as he got it, felt he should've seen it immediately. "You didn't think I was coming," he said.
"Not until you walked into my kitchen."
"You had everything planned."
"One must always plan for the desired outcome."
"What's the desired outcome right now?"
"I'm afraid I couldn't say."
That wasn't the same as not knowing. He still held himself up. Their bodies touched, but did not mesh. Will pulled him sharply and pushed one elbow out, until Hannibal's full weight was on him. He hooked one leg over Hannibal's and stroked down his back.
"A year for me to come to my senses? If that's what you were hoping for, I think your timeframe was overly optimistic."
"People have been waiting for me to come to my senses my whole life. I don't know what difference you thought a year would make. I'm staying, by the way."
Hannibal's eyes flew open. He watched Will's face with unreadable intensity.
"I hate your house, especially that topiary outside. It's pretentious as hell to use the ouroboros as lawn art. But I'm staying. I talked to Jack about leaving the Bureau. He offered me long distance contract work. I've had a couple of calls from Interpol too."
Hannibal swallowed. "It's a rental," he said. "The house. There is one for sale that I'd like to show you."
"Good. We can do that tomorrow. And if you leave me hanging like that again, I will hunt you down. If I have to use FBI resources, I will, and if it ends with you in prison, then that's how it ends, but I will find you. I'm not going through another year like that. If you want to get rid of me, just kill me. It'll be easier on both of us."
He only saw the beginnings of a smile before Hannibal was kissing him again. He slid a hand down to his ass and felt the shift of muscle as his hips rocked down.
"I didn't know if you'd want me," Will said. "I couldn't think about it."
"I want you," Hannibal said. "I want every part of you."
Will pressed three fingers against Hannibal's lips, the same three Hannibal had sucked Huxley's blood off of. Hannibal let them slide deep and moaned around them, a low, rough sound that made Will's stomach twist with heat. He pushed until they rolled onto their sides and he could get a hand between them.
Hannibal's cock was hot and hard against his palm, and Hannibal didn't try to stop him this time. He sucked hard at Will's fingers and watched him with the same expression he'd worn that night, eyes bright and fixed as the north star.
Will stroked him with measured care. He pushed his fingers rhythmically into Hannibal's mouth at the end of every stroke, just as his thumb rubbed under the head. He watched Hannibal, and Hannibal didn't try to hide it when he started to come apart. A light flush of color spread up his neck, and his breathing grew more labored. Will could feel it on his palm.
His hips jerked toward Will's touch, and he wrapped both hands around Will's wrist, taking his fingers deeper. They muffled the noises he made now with every stroke. Will pressed him onto his back and kissed him as well as he could, tongue tracing his lips.
Hannibal bit down on Will's fingers as he came, but even that was comparatively gentle: no blood, no broken skin. He reached for Will afterward, and they curled together, Will's leg between Hannibal's, arms wrapped around him, Hannibal's face pressed just below his collarbone.
Will stroked through his hair until the ends went from damp to dry and fluffy. He wound bits of it around his fingers and tugged gently. Hannibal made an irritable sound and swatted at his hand. Will chuckled.
"Are we still dressing for dinner, or are you just going to sleep? It's not even eight. I'm supposed to be the one with jet lag."
Hannibal let out a small breath and pushed himself up. "I must at least clean the pan. Are you hungry?"
"I could eat." Will paused, tasting his next sentence, unsure if he wanted to let it out.
Hannibal glanced at him. "The meat was not human."
"Not what I was going to ask." He took a breath. "If I didn't show up here, what would you have done?"
"I had planned to do nothing. I believe my discipline would've held. It nearly always does."
"I feel like there's a but in that sentence."
Hannibal stood and took his dressing gown from the inside of his closet door. "There are limits to what I can tolerate. Even from you. If you regret the loss of a potential idyll of marriage and children, I must say that it was never a possibility for you. Not from the day we met."
Will grinned at him. He couldn't help it. "That long, huh?"
Hannibal paused in the act of tying the dressing gown closed. "You don't believe me?"
"I absolutely believe you would've slaughtered my fictional family, yes."
"And this delights you?"
"No, but it doesn't surprise me. What delights me is the part where you've apparently been courting me since you brought me breakfast that morning."
Hannibal tightened the knot of his dressing gown with slightly more force than was called for. "I object to that characterization of my actions."
"Is it inaccurate?"
"Some things are easier to see when they're reduced to their base components."
"And some things are base enough, even in their complexity, that they should not be reduced."
"Beauty isn't that transient. If it's there in a complex structure, it's there on a granular level. You just have to look harder."
Hannibal paused for a moment with his mouth open, and then turned quickly away.
"I'll make us something simple," he said. "Come down when you're ready."
Will sat on the bed after he left, hands pressed to his face as if he needed to physically contain the absurdly giddy feeling rising up inside him. He went through Hannibal's drawers with a grin that made his cheeks hurt. The navy blue cotton pajamas he found matched the dressing gown Hannibal was wearing. He washed his hands and jogged downstairs, feet slapping on the concrete.
Hannibal was in the kitchen, doing something with cold duck and oranges.
"Can I help?" Will asked.
The knife in Hannibal's hand slowed as he looked Will over. "Are your things still in the car?" he asked.
"Why, you want me to change?"
"You know very well I don't. Come here."
Will came around the island, and Hannibal put a hand on his waist to pull him close. His nose brushed the side of Will's neck as he breathed him in. Will sidled closer. Hannibal wrapped an arm around his middle and kept chopping herbs.
Will leaned back against his chest and closed his eyes. He felt safe. Foolish, but undeniable. He wondered how he would sleep here, if there would be fewer nightmares.
"Baby arugula with duck, walnuts, and blood oranges," Hannibal said. "There is a lamb stew with preserved lemon in the refrigerator as well if you're still hungry afterward."
"I may be asleep afterward. Do you still want me in the guest room?"
"I think it will be better for you to feel you have your own space. In that vein, the registration for the Aston Martin is in your name. You will find it in the glove compartment."
"You didn't want me to feel trapped."
"I have a certain amount of disagreement with myself over that. But on the whole, no, I do not want you to feel trapped."
"I am dangerously close to harboring illusions about you right now."
Hannibal swept up the herbs between his knife and palm and scattered them over the salads. He paused, fingers skimming the back of Will's hand. "Keep them for the moment. Recompense for a wasted year."
He stepped back and picked up the plates, one in his hand, one balanced on his forearm, just as Will had held them in his dining room. "We can eat on the terrace," he said. "If you would bring the wine?"
They watched the sun set over a crumbling balustrade and a field dyed red by the waning light.
"I don't need them, you know," Will said. "Illusions."
"I understand they can be pleasant things to have."
"Not always. They can blind you to reality."
"I think it would be understandable if there were aspects of my past you did not wish to dwell upon."
"There's aspects of my past I don't want to dwell on. Doesn't mean I wish they hadn't happened."
Hannibal looked out over the fields. His eyes were distant. "I find that difficult to believe," he said.
"I may not be a better person when I'm with you, but I'm better at being a person. You make me feel almost human."
Hannibal raised his wineglass and swirled the liquid inside once, gently, before he took a sip. His hand came up to rest on the back of Will's neck. He still looked straight ahead, but his mouth curved in a faint smile.
"Perhaps we understand each other better than I had thought," he said.
The next morning, Will steered the Aston Martin through a tangle of remote roads while Hannibal navigated.
"I've never been out of the country before," Will said. "I haven't even been to Canada."
"I'll take you to Paris once you've settled in. And Florence. Venice for Carnival. Anywhere you like."
"Let's just try living together for a while and see if we both survive."
Hannibal gave him an amused look. "Optimistic, aren't you?"
"I haven't lived with anyone since my father. I slept in a bus station for two months in New Orleans because I couldn't stand having a roommate and I couldn't afford a place by myself. Don't underestimate my ability to be a complete asshole when I want to be left alone."
"I never underestimate you."
Will glanced at him. "No. But sometimes you think more of me than you should, and that's just as bad."
"Perhaps. The house will be large enough that we should be able to stay out of each other's way when necessary."
"You're going to keep insisting on separate rooms, aren't you."
Hannibal laughed. "You've just finished telling me how much you value your own space."
"It's probably a good idea anyway." Better for both of them if he didn't sweat through Hannibal's sheets or jab him in the side with an elbow during a nightmare.
Hannibal reached over and rested his hand on the back of Will's neck. "You are always welcome in my bed, for whatever reason."
"You don't have to say that."
"If you can trust me in no other area, please trust that I will be honest with you."
Will felt some of his tension fall away. He did, despite everything. "I left Winston with Alana, but I'm going to ask her to send him over here. I did the paperwork before I left, just in case."
"About two and a half feet tall, hairy ears, sheds a lot?"
"Ah. We were never formally introduced. Only Winston?"
"Did you think I was going to bring all of them?"
"I was prepared for it."
Will stared at the dusty road and tried not to let his mouth hang open. "That's… Really?"
"I don't particularly care for them, but I understand that they are a part of you. I have grown used to worse things." He paused. "You'll keep it out of my room."
"Him. Not it."
Hannibal inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Why Winston?"
"I found him right when all this started. He's followed me out sleepwalking a few times, tried to wake me up. I couldn't leave him behind."
"I shall do my best to coexist peacefully with him."
"You thank me for the oddest things."
"It's important. He's important to me."
"I know. And I imagine there will be more. France has its share of stray dogs as well. I only meant that I did buy you a car, and not one word of gratitude."
"I'm not thanking you for the car. Waste of money. Too flashy."
"You like the engine."
Will tried to hide his grin as he stepped on the accelerator. "Maybe a little," he said.
"The turning is up here, on the left."
Will left the main road, which was small enough, and turned onto a rutted gravel drive. Tall grass and lavender waved as they passed. They crested a hill, and Will saw the house on the other side, about a quarter mile off: old, pale stone, set low to the ground, wooden beams, tile roof falling to pieces.
"That one?" Will said.
"It's a wreck."
"You like things you can fix."
Will had stopped the car to stare, half in love already, and he started up again now, rumbling slowly over the pitted road. The closer they got, the worse it looked: a hole in the wall the size of his head, another in the roof, peeling paint, missing mortar. Nothing he couldn't repair or replace, but it would take months just to make it livable.
"I'm not that great at plumbing," he said.
"We can hire someone for that. For anything you like. Do only as much as you care to do."
He wanted to do all of it. Maybe the pipes wouldn't be too bad.
"Have you seen the inside?"
They found the door not just unlocked, but standing partly open. A goat snorted at them and wandered off under the kitchen table and into the next room. Cracks split a few of the floor tiles, but most were intact. Will tried the faucet, and the water ran clear.
"You really want this place?"
"Do you?" Hannibal asked.
Will nodded. It had a feeling of neglect, of longing to be put right. His house in Wolf Trap had felt like that when he'd found it, thought it hadn't been nearly this much of a mess. The fields around it stretched out in the same way, empty, but full of life. By August, the grass would be the same pale gold as the paint peeling off the front door.
"We can sign the papers today. With the stipulation that I get final say over everything in the kitchen and dining room."
Will pushed him against the wall and kissed him, hands spread out over his face and neck, deep and wet, no end in sight. Hannibal made a faint noise of surprise and pressed closer. He held on to Will's hips.
They parted, minutes later, both of them breathing hard. Will leaned his forehead against Hannibal's.
"I think this is the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me."
"You realize it's partly to keep you occupied? This could easily turn into a disaster with both of us at loose ends."
Will smiled. "I know. I don't mind. I was wondering what I'd do with myself."
"I'm glad it meets with your approval."
"What about you?" Will leaned back a few inches to look at him. "How's the second instrument coming along?"
"Giving up the first has proved more daunting than expected. But I have a few things in mind."
Will eyed him.
"I don't plan to kill anyone," Hannibal said.
"If fresh bodies start disappearing from the morgue, people will ask questions."
"Please, Will. I'm not a thief."
"You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"Not at the moment. Nothing illegal, except in so far as my continued freedom may be said to be illegal."
"Mine too, probably. Now."
"Yes." Hannibal paused. "You should go home when Ms. Lounds's book is published, at least for a month or so."
"So people can ask me stupid questions I've already answered a hundred times?"
"So they don't come to find you here in order to ask you stupid questions."
"No one's going to fly to France to talk to me."
"I think you underestimate both the level of publicity the book will garner and your own place in this story. Do you ever read your own press?"
"Not unless Jack shoves it in front of my nose and asks what the hell I was thinking when I said that."
Hannibal smiled. "I can imagine. You will have to trust me, then, that you've become something of a romantic figure, in both the older and more modern senses of the word. It wouldn't surprise me if you started getting fan mail when the book comes out."
"That…may have already happened? Lounds forwarded me some stuff a couple months ago. I told her I didn't want to see it."
Hannibal closed his eyes for a second, laughing silently. "Of course you did. Go home for the book launch. Your friends will be glad to see you."
Will sighed. "Fine. It's coming out in September. I should be able to do something with this place by then."
"We can keep the other and its offensive topiary as long as necessary."
Will angled his head until their noses brushed and kissed him once more. He tugged Hannibal's hand off his hip and laced their fingers together. They walked through the house, room by room, and opened the shutters to let in the sun.
You can check out my original writing here if you're interested.
That's it, people. Thanks for sticking with me; you are all lovely, and I deeply appreciate all the support. Peace out, girl scouts.
Update: there's an ebook of the whole series now, which you can find here.