Will cocks a hip in the doorframe, deliberately casual, and her fingers still over the duck she’s preparing. Digging out birdshot. Gut-deep in it. “Hey, you got a minute?”
“Of course,” she says, and washes her hands. This thing between them, in the narrow sun-bright kitchen. Perfumed with train diesel oil and gunpowder, it’s fragile, like bird bones; like blackmail.
“I, uh.” He looks down and puts a hand to the back of his neck. She wants to shake him, tell him that this yes ma’am farm-boy blush is unnecessary with her. She doesn’t have what he wants. “I wanted to ask you if you’ve ever been waxed.”
This is a sharp turn. “Waxed?”
“You know,” he says, tucking his face further into his collarbones, away from her. Now she’s caught the scent, as surely as she knows he’s set the lure, but she and Hannibal both had been raised to be curious, after all. Look what that’s gotten them. He seems to decide something, looks her straight in the eye and puts his hand down to burrow in his pocket. She resents the recital. “I wanted to do something—something nice for Hannibal. And so I wondered if you’ve ever been waxed. As in, hair removal.”
She stares at him for a long minute, torn between laughing and pushing him over the side of the boat. It wasn’t elegant, but it had produced results in the past. She could laugh. If she laughed, then he would laugh too, that crooked slant of a grin, and they could pretend to forget about it. Another crank in the rack. “I see,” she says finally. “And you would like me to assist you in this...gift?”
“Yes. I tried shaving but couldn’t get the angle right. So. I wanted to ask you for your help. For something I couldn’t do myself.”
“Do you have the materials?”
“Yeah, should do. You’ll let me know if I’m missing something, right?”
The lilt at the end, the hopeful note. Hook, line, sinker. He wants to do something nice for Hannibal. Nice. The word sets her teeth against each other like biting into ice. He’s fished from her affection for Hannibal before, and now he’s chumming the waters, with his put-upon little smile, the ironic curl of his lips. He knows she knows. He’s gotten better at restraint, keeping the moves smaller, tighter. A subtler game.
And she hunts big game. They both know that.
“Let me finish the bird,” she says. “Then I’ll meet you in the cabin. Keep Hannibal on the deck. After all,” and here she lets herself inject a small, leery note, “you wouldn’t want to spoil his surprise.”
He blinks at her. Hadn’t expected her to accept, so she had. “All right,” he says. “I’ll just go—go get ready.”
She turns back to the bird, pulling out the rest of the birdshot. Small metal fragments. Discomfiting Will Graham has become one of her greater pleasures, knowing she can still tilt the axis, in her own, limited way. She will never influence him the way Hannibal does, but it pleases her, to see the divots her fingers make in the clay, the mild changes in weather she can effect on his planet. Carefully, she tresses the bird up to hang in the rafters to age out of its bitter adrenaline. Then she washes her hands again, careful to scrub under her nails, and goes to the cabin.
Will is sitting on the large, comfortable bed. Big enough for two. Small enough for two. A towel is folded neatly next to him, along with a pot of wax on one of their portable burners and some popsicle sticks. Light soaks the worn floors, the white sheets, through the windows that peer out onto the ocean. “I washed,” he says, fiddling with the waistband of his shorts.
“Good. Take off your shorts and get on your knees, on the bed.” He looks at her, that old baleful look. “You must remember how.” She can’t help herself. It’s his gift.
It’s too thin to be called a glare, perhaps, a brief narrowing of the eyes, but he spreads the towel on the bed and then slips out of his shorts, leaving them in a heap. Then Will shifts onto his hands and knees, acquiescing when she bats his legs further apart. His shirt rucked up around his waist, soft navy cotton, damp with sweat in a faint stain between his shoulder-blades. The tan lines are stark against his skin; here, he’s still pale. He has a fine dusting of hair around his hole, a bare, irritated patch on the upper left side where he’d obviously tried to shave. She wonders if he did it just to play at this, this facsimile of vulnerability. I need your help. Come closer. This tableau of intimacy that he had designed and of which he was so fond.
“Hold the skin taut,” she says, and he rumbles a sigh of displeasure but does as she says, spreading his cheeks with his hands, chest pressed to the towel.
She stirs a popsicle stick into the wax and tests it on the inside of her wrist. Hannibal would never forgive her if she burned Will. Well, not here, in any case. He might forgive other, rarer burns. It’s perfectly warm. That doesn’t mean she has to warn him. She makes him wait, a long moment where the only sounds are the waves lapping on the sides of the boat and their breathing. Then she takes the stick coated in wax and paints it over his hole, a long, thick stripe.
He flinches, fingers clenching into his flesh. The skin goes white where his nails dig in. His hole spasms beneath the wax. She smiles.
“Is everything all right?” Hannibal calls from the deck.
“Perfect,” Chiyo calls back.
“Just peachy,” Will says, a hysterical note strangling his voice.
“Don’t overdo it,” she says, acerbic in conspiracy. “He’ll suspect, and then where will you be with your gift.”
“You put hot wax on my asshole.”
“You asked me to.”
There’s nothing he can say to that, but he turns his head so he can anticipate how her hands move, taking another stick and painting his hole again so the wax is thick enough. Right down the middle of him.
She remembers this; a day at the aesthetician when she had been much younger. She had been curious, and that had been enough. There was no-one to see, except herself, but living under Hannibal’s gaze she had hardly needed others. The sun was bright enough to light the whole sky, after all. She recalled soft fingers, petting her, but in such a clinical way she flushed with shame. She was just another client, another set of body parts to be serviced and then discarded from memory. The woman had been professional and cautious, asking her if the wax was too hot, explaining each step as she went along. First the wax. Too hot? No? Then the waiting, then the soft tap-tap-tap as the woman made sure it was hard enough, then the pull. White hot. Not like a bullet, but higher, emaciated. We have nothing to guard us but the memory of pain, and in the moment it’s not enough of a shield. We cannot anticipate all our hurts. She had wanted to catalogue this particular hurt so no-one could hurt her again. She made a Rolodex of her own. Over and over again. White hot.
So now she waits, just a little too long, a hair, if you will, just to make it hurt. A little more than it needs to, but there is no such thing as necessary pain. Only inevitable: simple, it either hurts or it doesn’t. Increments are only as important as you let them be. More important still, of course, to the sufferer, the supplicant. And he had asked her.
She slides a fingernail under the edge of the wax, enough to gain purchase with her fingers, then pulls, ripping out the hairs at the root. He makes a low noise against the towel. It almost sounds like pleasure. She knows he can’t tell the difference anymore, mired as he is with Hannibal, drowning together in each other. She suspects Hannibal can’t tell the difference either, especially here, where the skin is pink and new. And now she’s helpless too, giving in to a hurricane whim and laying the flat of her hand down, sharp and hard, just once. He jerks forward, holding a moan in his throat. It’s not for her. None of this was for her.
“Chiyo,” he pants. “What the fuck.” His voice has a killing edge to it.
“Just dislodging some excess,” she says, not bothering to keep cheeriness from her voice. She’s tired of pretending. “I am finished.”
He’s turns back over, sliding on his shorts as she looks at his feet. Observing her with the ravening eye she knows he’s learned to fold into himself, over and over. Even paper can only be folded in half seven times before it reaches its limit. “Thank you,” he says. It sounds like a grudge, but what’s one more between them.
“No,” she says, surprised to find herself sincere. “It was my pleasure.”
“Pleasure,” he says, tongue nestling around the word like an animal settling down to sleep. “To change the shape of me.”
“To help you change your shape. The way you desire him to desire you.”
“Do you desire him?”
Finally, she breathes. It’s easier to understand the danger of the needle when it’s inside you, but it’s still a relief to see its size, its shape.
“I remade myself, too,” she reminds him. “My life has been centered around a cage. I was both inside and out.”
“You enjoyed giving me pain.”
“Only as much as you enjoyed receiving it. You and I, we are not the same, Will. I am flavorless to him. I would also be a cage.”
He takes it in, still sitting, palms down on his knees. She steps close enough to touch. Wax itches beneath her nails. “I know myself without him. My body bears no scars.”
“It isn’t your body I’m worried about. You didn’t answer my question.”
“I desire him to be safe. To be whole. To reach what happiness he can find for himself. That is how I am different from you.” The needle in her hand now. She reaches out to trace the edge of the scar on his face with her waxy finger. His eyes flicker. A dark night, smoke. Whistles in the brisk black air. The smell of countryside and coal. “That is why I do not desire him the way you mean. I have no taste.”
“Thank you,” he says, and puts his hand over hers. He’s telling the truth. She knows he could snap her wrist. She would see it coming but be powerless to stop it.
“I will wash my hands,” she says, retreating. “And then I will prepare your food.”
She curls her fingers into her gun, the cold metal keeping her company, her lone lantern bobbing amber light across the rippling water like a cormorant diving for fish. She keeps watch.