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“Hello."

"Hello."

"This is Will.”

“Hello, Will. How can I help you?”

“Shit, sorry. Let me start again. Hello. Hi. My name is Will and I’m calling in regard to the ad.”

“My ad.”

“Yes, your ad. You have a dog?”

“Yes.”

“For adoption, I mean. The ad.”

“Yes, my ad. I have a dog.”

“For adoption.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, good. I mean, not good that you have to adopt it out, but - well, I guess let’s start there. Male or female?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your dog.”

“The dog, yes. She is female.”

“Why?”

“One assumes she was born that way.”

“No, I mean - let me start again. I’m sorry that you have to adopt her out. That must be difficult.”

“You are my first caller, so it’s proving more difficult than expected.”

“Why?”

“Because you are my first caller.”

“Sorry. I mean, why are you looking for someone to adopt her?”

“She cannot stay here.”

“Why?”

“I have no need.”

“For your dog?”

“For the dog, yes.”

“Can I start again?”

“You have before, I don’t see why now should be different.”

“Okay. Hello, my name is Will and I’m calling in regard to your ad about the dog that you’re looking to have adopted.”

“Better.”

“Thanks. Can I see her?”

“I should hope so.”

“Now you’re just fucking with me”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should start again this time.”

“Hello, Will. I have a dog that needs to be adopted. Since she cannot live here, would you like to come and meet her?”

“Better.”

"Thank you."

---

Unseasonable warmth draws Will’s shirt sticking to his skin by the time he circumnavigates the park. Spring has sprung, blossoms unfurled and falling to make way for the rampant greenery bursting from every tree stretched grasping. In his insomniac dissonance, Will had wondered if he had already missed the cherry trees in bloom, DC’s clarion call announcing the retreat of winter.

He is pleased to see that he has not.

Following the pathways, jacket shrugged up over his shoulders, military surplus in dull olive drab, and his hands in his pockets, he winds his way through walkers and runners, baby carriages and dogs on leashes pulling in the same direction he heads.

It’s nice, in an overwhelming way, to see so many people out on the first truly nice day following months of slushy winter. Will lifts his attention to the trees overhead instead to watch the sun shine verdant against the veined ceiling of leaves overhead, pale petals falling against the sidewalk.

“Fuck, sorry.”

A hushed exclamation, when Will collides with the low black iron fence that surrounds the dog run. A dozen or so dogs inside, kicking up gravel in chase. He lifts a hand, deferring with a quick apology to the woman who had attempted to leave through the gate where he stopped, and he steps to the side.

“Hello, Will,” comes a familiar voice, curled with an unfamiliar accent, almost lulling warmth. “I recognize your apology.”

“Sorry,” Will responds, and then rubs a hand across his eyes, sighing a curt laugh behind his palm. “Not sorry. Hello. Will Graham.”

He offers out his hand, and finally takes in the source of dry amusement regarding him at length. A tall man, ashy blonde hair with bits of grey and the beginnings of wrinkles etching into aristocratic features, an elegant erosion that - where they gather in the corners of his eyes - betrays his entertainment.

“Hannibal Lecter,” he responds, canting his head just so, a nod just at the depth to seem old-fashioned.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Lecter,” Will responds.

“Doctor,” comes the quiet correction, polite, with a faint but encouraging smile.

“Doctor Lecter,” sighs Will. “Thanks for setting this up. Now I can be as uncomfortable in person as I am on the phone.” He shrugs deeper into his coat, as though somehow it might save him from the curious observation he feels emanating from the doctor. “Which one is she? Your dog.”

“The dog.”

“The dog,” Will smirks, accepting the correction.

Hannibal motions towards a band of pups in the distance. “Just there. The one atop the bench.”

Indeed, above the rest of her newfound pack, stands a precariously small dog, long fur hiding a tiny body, a chihuahua or some mix with that in it, Will guesses. She holds court over the other dogs almost imperiously, as they circle, claws in the gravel, beneath her, following when she hops down to proceed through the run.

“So what’s the story?”

Hannibal regards Will at some length, before turning back to watch the puppy promenade. “I found her.”

“So she’s not yours.”

“No.”

“Where?”

“Downtown,” the doctor responds vaguely, an errant wave of his hand accompanying the dismissal of words. “She followed me, and would not be dismissed.”

“So she likes you,” Will responds readily, but his attention catches on the quick gesture, aware enough of its distraction to know that it is intended to distract. He recovers by glancing back to the dog run, filing away the curiosity. “You said you can’t keep her?”

“No,” Hannibal responds, rather quickly. “I’m afraid not. I’m gone a great deal - conferences, other obligations that require more immediate attention - and it would be unfair.”

Will makes an agreeable sound, waiting for the dogs to circle back on their rounds, and leaning over the low fencing to offer her his hand.

“How long have you had her?”

“Just over a week.”

“And she found you out of everyone,” Will muses, giving her a scratch behind the ears. “Must be the plaid.”

Hannibal’s brows lift, attention dropping to the suit he’s chosen for today, browns and blacks and stripes of sharp scarlet.

“Check.”

“Sorry?”

“It’s checkered,” Hannibal responds mildly. “Plaid is a different pattern entirely.”

The look Will gives him is a long one, blinking wide, before he finally laughs. It’s quick, just a breath really, but entirely genuine.

“Check then.”

“Yes.”

“Sorry,” Will grins, finally hoisting the little dog out of the run. She scrabbles mid-air until he cradles her close, and murmurs conspiratorially into a fluffy ear. “You wanted to cover all that check - not plaid - in fur, didn’t you? That’s what I would do.”

Hannibal averts his attention briefly to divest himself of the amusement this brings, eyeing the patrol that swarms near them, behind the fence, with wagging tails and eager tongues.

“You have dogs.”

“Yeah,” Will laughs suddenly, dryer than before. “Yeah. I do.”

Hannibal lifts a brow. “You have many dogs.”

“Seven.”

Disbelief, now, in the doctor's tone. “Seven.”

“Yes.”

“You have seven dogs.”

Will nods, giving him an equally dubious look. “I like them. It’s just me, so, they keep me company, I take care of them.”

“And you need another?” Hannibal muses. “Are you so starved for company?”

The mirth dies where it bloomed, withering across Will’s lips into something tighter, closer to a grimace than a grin.

“Let me start again,” offers the doctor, head tilting with a gentle smile. “You have the room, the means for so many in your care?”

“Yes,” Will responds, accepting the restart as intended. “I live out in the country. Acres of field and woods. She’d fit right in. In a very small way,” he adds, humored by himself, for a moment.

Hannibal hums in acceptance of this.

“What do you do, Mister Graham?”

“Will,” he insists, shaking his head. “Please, just Will.”

“Will.”

“Yes.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a professor. I teach,” he says, as though it clarifies, lifting his hand to wave away the words. Hannibal’s attention drops to the gesture, and returns.

“What do you teach?”

“Forensics. Profiling.”

A pause, tone lifting when Hannibal speaks again. “You are an agent.”

“No,” interjects Will. “Not an agent, no. Special investigator, sometimes. I was homicide a long time ago but.” A shrug, a roll of his shoulder, interrupts his words. “Mostly I teach. That’s it.”

Hannibal leans, shoulders forward, in a gracious sort of nod, every movement bearing in it a particular elegance. “An entirely admirable profession, although less dangerous, one hopes.”

He glances back at the doctor, returning a faint smiles, as careful fingers unintrusively feel out the health of the dog still in his arms. His brows furrow for just an instant before he releases the tension by force. She’s not only well-fed, she’s a bit fat. An ongoing overfeeding - spoiled, perhaps, by treats or handouts. Silky fur with little shed despite his jokes earlier. Trimmed nails.

“How long have you had her?” Will asks again.

“A week ago yesterday,” Hannibal responds, vastly less interested in the dogs clambering up the fence behind him than he is in watching Will, and the pup in his arms.

Will’s expression goes a bit distant, pensive, and he resists the urge to shake his head to clear the sudden movement of his thoughts.

“You’ve had dogs before.”

“No.”

“You’ve cared for dogs before?”

“No,” Hannibal responds again, with a pluck of intrigue. “Why do you ask?”

“Her nails are trimmed.”

Silence, as Hannibal steps closer, enough to extend a hand to the wet nose that greets it. He doesn’t appear certain whether he wishes to react with charm or dismay to it.

“Did you - “

“No.”

“But they’re trimmed.”

“If you say so.”

“She’s in really good shape.”

“Perhaps. Yes.”

Will sighs, and sets her back into the pen to play.

“That doesn’t sound like a problem,” Hannibal suggests, and adds a slight smile to it. “But I have not cared for dogs before.”

“No.”

“No,” Hannibal echoes.

“It just means,” Will sighs, a fluttering movement of his hand to carry the sound, some distant echo of the rustle of leaves overhead, the petals drifting unsteadily downward to rest against the earth. “It means she belonged to someone. You should change the ad.”

“My ad.”

“Yes.”

“You do not wish to take her then.”

Will laughs, softly, and rubs a hand over his face. Exhaustion, aching through every part of him. He doesn’t know how long it’s been since he’s slept more than a half hour at a time before waking to work off any rest that might have been afforded him in that brief period.

“I would,” he admits. “She’s great. Gets along with other dogs, friendly with me, seems really healthy. But she’s not mine to take. Not really yours to give.”

“The nature of ownership, when the matter of living creatures is concerned in particular, is a difficult ethical ground to navigate.”

“Not really,” Will blinks. “No.”

“So ought I have left her, then? In hopes that her owner would find her again? That she would find her way back to him?”

A beat, just long enough to register between them both, before Will moves quickly past the curiosity that sharpens at the doctor's choice of words.

“I mean that it might not hurt to put out another ad. I can take her if you can’t, but you should try to reach out to her owner, post something about ‘long-haired chihuahua found near’ wherever.”

“And then?”

“And then hopefully whomever was taking care of her so well gets in touch with you - or me, I don’t care - and we can get her back to them.”

Hannibal draws in a long breath, holds it, eyes turning briefly skyward as the wind rustles against the cherry trees.

“Do you think that’s wise, Will?”

“Sorry?”

“Do you think that’s wise,” Hannibal reiterates, observing Will with interest.

“She’s not yours to give away.”

“And yet here she is,” responds the doctor. “Here we are, in fact, two people with a vested interest in her well-being. I see no one else who is. And so if we are the ones who will care for her, should we not do so to the best of our ability? Who is to say she was not neglected before?”

“She wasn’t,” Will says, his certainty of this - at least - transparent.

“And yet here we are.”

Another huff of laughter, as Will shakes his head. “Here we are.”

“She is lacking a caregiver, and you are volunteering to be that. I don't see any need to make it more morally complex than that, although I would certainly enjoy a less pressing discussion of such topics in the future if you would care to continue,” he suggests, amusement in his voice again.

“Let me start again,” insists Will. “What if she just snuck out the door when someone was bringing in the groceries?”

“Then they should have been more mindful. At any rate, it makes no difference. She needs you, or someone like you.”

“You seem convinced that no one’s missing her right now, and I’m saying that’s really fucking unlikely. Have you tried?”

“I put out an ad,” Hannibal agrees.

“Your ad.”

“Yes.”

“‘Dog for adoption to good home. Small. Please call’,” Will recites, brow lifting and lips parting with a wry expression.

“The truth of it,” agrees the doctor, “if not the truth in its entirety.” He leans against the fence, arms folded over the black iron, next to Will. “You still have not told me why you need an eighth.”

“I don’t need an eighth. I just saw the ad.”

“My ad.”

“Yes. For your dog. The dog,” he corrects himself.

Hannibal hums acknowledgment.

“Look,” responds Will, and as soon as he says it he realizes he has nothing to add to that. Nothing to tell this stranger about his job, that burns images into his retinas that no amount of booze can erase. Nothing to tell him about the sleepless nights spent pacing with no more company than the scrabble of paws beside him. Nothing to tell him about how he’s not sure that he’s going to be able to pull himself out of this tailspin, this time, and that when the day comes that he can’t come back out of it all, she’ll just be back in the same spot as she is now.

Hannibal waits, listening to the lack of words and the sound of leaves that fills the silence.

“Would you like to start over, Will?” he offers.

“No. Thanks.”

A nod, polite acknowledgement to allow Will his moment before he speaks up again.

“You don’t have to give her to me,” Will shrugs. “I’ve got others, so she wouldn’t ever be alone. All well-socialized, friendly, well-behaved. Lots of space - too much space - and good food that I make for them myself, more often than not. But if you think I’m ill-equipped then I’m sure you’ll be able to find her a great home.”

A comfortable apathy settling in about the entire peculiar situation, about the curious little dog’s origins, the details that shouldn't be there spoken by someone who claims to be entirely incidental to the moment, about the strange man who regards him now with an almost-affection.

He wonders what kind of doctor Hannibal is. He doesn’t ask.

“Just change the ad to say that she’s a long-haired chihuahua,” says Will. “People love them, you’ll find her someone capable in no time. And put out a ‘found’ notice, just to cover your bases.”

“There has been no ‘lost’ notice with which to respond with a 'found',” Hannibal answers, and at this Will lifts a brow. “I fear that perhaps her owner is disinterested or unwilling to come forward. Departed, perhaps.” A pause, long enough for Will's brows to furrow before Hannibal adds, “Vacation, travel, any number of reasons.”

Will sighs.

“If you will make her comfortable, then I will make an effort to connect with the potential owner in the meantime,” Hannibal offers, stepping a little closer to Will, even as Will shifts, uncomfortable, with the nearness. “You would be doing us both a favor.”

“Do you have a - a leash, or -“

“Yes.”

“Good. Okay.”

“So you will?”

“Yes.”

“And I will as well.”

“Yes,” Will agrees, clicking his tongue softly to bring her near again. It works a treat - trained, then, as well. He doesn’t mention this, but studies Hannibal’s card as it’s handed to him.

“To stay in touch,” the doctor suggests with an easy smile. “We have bonded, I fear.”

“Have we?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Sorry?”

Hannibal's lips quirk. “She. And I.”

“Oh. Yes.”

Hannibal tilts his head a little, perplexed and pleased both, as he takes the card and pockets it. “I would be interested in following her progress. If you call me there, I can take your number down as well, should the owner make an unexpected reappearance.”

“So wait, sorry,” Will stammers, accepting the thin leash from Hannibal to hook it to the little dog’s collar. “I don’t have a card.”

“You will call me.”

Will blinks, and finally, another genuine smile, there and gone as quickly as the blossoms overhead. “Yes.”

"And then perhaps we'll start again."