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A Pyrrhic Victory

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It is 6:37 p.m. when Will begins to tremble.

The cashier, a small, willowy thing with too-bright eyes and a smile that promises devastation, greets him with the enthusiasm of a small-town grocer. Will looks past her, to the windows at her back, and sees only the Baltimore skyline, stained red and fading in the setting sun.

He returns her smile and knows immediately that he has failed. Knows it is something in the press of his lips or the taut curve of one cheek that flickers her smile and forces her eyes away. Is sure, when her gaze returns fleetingly, that a thing hard and inhuman is leaking from his skin.

And so, he stares at her as she rings through the few items he's placed next to the register.

At first, he stares because she refuses to look back at him and it feels good to stare in only the way insolent defiance can. And then, because he can and knows he is safe to stare.

She is only a child. But the rabbiting pulse at her neck is an insult.

He collects his bags with shaking, tremoring hands to sneer at her. "You know nothing of fear."

* * * * *

By the time he arrives home, the shadows have turned ominous.

Sometimes, when he feels indulgent, he will stare at the dark forest that surrounds the farm and smile as the bare, upturned branches dance for him. They quiver, and he quivers with them, and in those moments, he is sure his smile is real. He can settle himself comfortably against the seat of his car and let his eyes blur to the quaking mass spread before him like an offering. Until his limbs stop trembling and the fog truly, finally clears from his vision. Until the square glass bottle is significantly lighter, drained and hollow from the effort of returning him to himself

Other times, more often than not, he is gripped with a dread that pierces him in place. Eyes wide, mouth open. He feels the elevated force of his heart behind his eyelids as though any hurried movement might allow it to spill from his mouth, his palms. Stilled, shivering, he maintains his dogs in his periphery as they stand on hindlegs to peer at his car, their flanks alive against a house already flooded with light.

In those moments, those moments that happen so much more often than they don't, Will is certain the forest will eat him alive.

When he goes inside, Hannibal is waiting.

Sitting in Will's only armchair, legs crossed at the knee, a glass of red wine in his hand as it always is, he watches Will.

And, as always, Will scans his kitchen for the wine bottle. As always, he never finds it.

Hannibal takes a slow sip of wine and Will sees it stain his tongue, his lips as Hannibal wets them. Sees as the level of the wine remains steady.

Hannibal has sat hours before him, legs crossed, wine in hand, and there is always, forever the same amount of wine in his glass.

"It's been five years," Hannibal says.

Will deposits his grocery bags onto the kitchen counter, inhaling at the sound of a glass bottle hitting cold laminate. "Not tonight, Hannibal."

"It has to be tonight."

Will holds out his hands to Hannibal and they both watch the fine tremor that seizes them. They both sigh as Will pivots back towards the kitchen, feeling a similar, renewed quake at torso and legs.

"Drain your glass," Will says. He is turned away, elsewhere, anywhere to unpack the plastic bags.

"It always makes you so unhappy, Will," Hannibal says. "l wish you would stop asking.

Will says nothing. He finishes placing his groceries into their respective foxholes before turning to Hannibal with his arms crossed over his chest. When Hannibal doesn't move, when his outline flickers, Will sneers.

Hannibal sighs and lifts his glass to lips already stained red. Although his eyes are on Will's, as they always are, Will's are on his Adam's apple as it bobs, languorous with each heavy swallow.

Will watches as Hannibal empties his glass. He sees the final sliver of honied red sucked dry, only for Hannibal to bring his hand to the armchair, the cup full.

"You never buy wine," Hannibal says as Will sighs and pours himself a drink.

* * * * *

It is 5:53 p.m. when Will begins to tremble.

Will is in bed, staring at the ceiling. A tumbler and bottle of whiskey next to him, as they always are so late in the day.

Will, his only emotion is grateful, as muted as it may be. Grateful that he did not need to leave his house, his bed, to stand naked and pretending before the only store in a 20-mile radius that sells liquor. Smiling as though he and he alone does not come there every few days.

Pretending the owner does not know his name.

Will asks for a smaller bottle this time, his pride stuck and wailing in his throat.

"The half-gallon is only 13 dollars more."

And Will, he does not know what that means. But still, he nods and the owner smiles and he leaves with a hand pressed to the ache in his chest and gut that feels like the sea.

That night, Hannibal's outline is unsteady.

Will swallows, unsure. "Are you going to stay," he asks through lips that are numb, turning number, "like that?"

"You know I can't answer that."

Will nods and looks up, away.

"What do you make of Jack's recent musings?" Hannibal asks and his voice is wet, terrible.

Will flinches as he lets his eyes roam the room. They pass over Hannibal with a whisper-quiet touch of terror. He grips the arm of the couch, sure, so sure he will see the marked decline of Hannibal's skull, dampened by the press of the cliff. Sunken, monstrous, as it takes one eye down with it. Certain Hannibal will be torn, ragged under the sweep of water. Bloated and discolored, dripping and hunched grotesquely over ribs pulverized by the touch of falling waves against upturned reaches of cliff.

"I don't want to change anymore than you want me to," Hannibal says and with it, Will looks at him.

It is Hannibal, his Hannibal, erect and proud and clean of unforgiving waters.

"I think it's been five years," Will says and he takes a long swallow from the tumbler cupped between aching palms. "I think you couldn't have stayed away for so long, if you were still alive."

"Or," Hannibal says and with it, he strokes to life Will's nightmares. An existence, so similar to the here and now, but in which Hannibal lives, breathes, somehow, impossibly away from him.

"Or," Will mimics blindly into his empty glass.

He pours himself another drink.

* * * * *

It is 6:12 p.m. when Will begins to tremble.

Hannibal is not there and for that, he is thankful.

His movements are stuttered, frantic. Every light in Will's house is turned on, every curtain and blind closed to the menacing twist and sway of the forest surrounding his house.

Will cannot think.

He sinks to his dogs as they lay near the empty fireplace in his living room. And he pets and coos and nuzzles into the ripe, earthen scent of their fur.

His tumbler is beside him and its presence is like a fortifying shelter against the approaching storm. He sips, cautious, until his vision clears. Until the shiver of arm and leg calms.

Sleep finds him hungry. And Will, he can only still into somnolence once he feels the press of adroit fingers into his hair.

The small, weak noise that escapes his throat infuriates him.

* * * * *

It is 7:23 p.m. when Will begins to tremble.

Hannibal is seated before him, calm and austere in only the way the gods can be.

"Alcohol is a depressant," Hannibal says as though Will doesn't know this.

"Is that what you want to talk about?" Will asks, the whiskey gripped solidly in one hand.

"What would you like to discuss?" Hannibal raises his wine glass to his mouth and Will feels his jaws relax as Hannibal swallows. The exposed stretch of his neck is awash in drunken sin.

"Will you stay the night?"

Hannibal smiles and he is calm, placating. "You tell me."

"I want you to," Will says. He looks at Hannibal's hands, the wall, turns his head toward the ceiling. "But I don't know how to make you."

"Wouldn't it be better if I was willing?"

"I don't care if you want to," Will says, baring his teeth. "I want you to stay anyway."

Hannibal's smile feels like a reward.

* * * * *

It is 3:34 a.m. when Will begins to tremble.

He opens his eyes as panic seizes him. The shadows in his bedroom are high and threatening.

"Leave me alone," he says to press of his pillow against his face.

He cannot breathe. Cannot move.

"Is that truly what you want?"

Hannibal is a lean, flickering presence at the edge of his bed that dissolves when Will's eyes rotate to capture him.

Will turns away. "What good are you to me now?"

Hannibal makes a contemplative noise in the back of his throat, now standing in the shadowy reach between bathroom door and wall. "I see," he says, and his voice is tired, so tired.

And Will, he is tired, too.

* * * * *

It is 12:33 p.m. when Jack finds him, sprawled and unmoving on the floor of his living room.

"I can see you, Will," Jack says, and his words are more of a threat than they are anything else.

"What do you want?" Will calls to the ceiling.

Will hears the sounds of a key being inserted into a lock, turned, and Jack stands above him because of course, of course he has a key to Will's house.

"Is Hannibal here?" Jack asks.

The noise that leaves Will is an ugly thing.

He listens as Jack walks with slow precision across living room, kitchen, den. Hears the shucked thrusting if his pistol as he climbs Will's stairs. He turns his face away from the creaks and groans as Jack pads through each of his rooms.

His eyes on the ceiling, Will can't look at him.

"Another one of your musings?" he asks when Jack returns.

When Jack doesn't respond, Will closes his eyes, his chest anchored to soil and root with the weight of Jack's condemnation.

"You'll call me if he comes?" Jack asks and leaves when Will sighs.

* * * * *

It is 10:23 p.m. when Will stops trembling.

He is already deep, deep into the square glass bottle. Long past when his quivering limbs again became solid and his mind is loosed from the haze, soft and sweet, but with a teetering edge that makes his teeth itch.

The Hannibal that sits across from him, legs crossed, hand empty of a wine glass, is older. The fine lines and wrinkles from his memory, his Hannibal, are struck with shadow. Deeper, cut more roughly into the planes of cheek and mouth.

"Are you ready?" Hannibal asks.

"Am I ready," Will says, mocking. He takes a long, deep pull from his tumbler, gasping as the astringency steals his breath.

Hannibal smiles, a notebook resting open and comfortably on one palm. Will looks at it.

3:04 p.m.

12:23 p.m.

6:37 p.m.

All day.

1:17 a.m.

6:33 p.m.

Onward and forward.

"Where are we going?" Will asks.

"Anywhere you want, my sweet child."

Will winces, turns his head away.

The words are wrong, of course they are, because they are not Hannibal's words. Child is not an adjective Hannibal would use to describe Will, closer as it is condescension than affection. And with the thought, Will can feel Hannibal's outline flicker, recede, taking the air in the room with it. And so, he keeps his eyes closed, holds his breath, until the last of Hannibal fades from his living room.

He pours himself another drink.

* * * * *

It is 1:40 a.m. and Will has been drunk for hours.

"I'm empty," Will says and presses his fingertips to his stomach. The bottle clutched to his chest is heavy and warm and Will knows he still has a long way to go.

When he's like this, crying, spread prone on the couch or, more often, on the floor, Hannibal doesn't come to him. He knows the good doctor is there, lurking with detached menace in shadows grown wide and alive on Will's walls. Sometimes, hidden from sight like he is, Hannibal responds to the more outrageous things Will says aloud.

But it's not really that kind of night.

"Empty," he says again, whispers it, and the ache in his stomach is a hollow, clambering wound against sweaty air.

He rolls his head listlessly on the couch to stare at a shadowy corner of the room. "Please, Hannibal. Please."

Sometime later, Will says, "You're nothing but a petulant child." His tongue is thick behind his teeth.

Later, when Hannibal still refuses to separate from the shadows and Will's desire to see him begins turning him feral, he scoffs, "Texas. Jack said you're in Texas. Like you'd live anywhere you couldn't wear those stupid suits."

Hannibal's chuckle is low and quiet and Will is sure he's imagining it.

* * * * *

It is 2:33 p.m. and Will is on fire.

Hannibal stands before him, no longer an apparition but solid, alive.

"You look like I'd imagined," Will says, because it is the only thing he can think to say. And then, before he can stop himself, he falls to the ground, to his back. His eyes are on the ceiling.

"You've wasted your time," Hannibal says. His voice is unkind.

"You left me."

Hannibal's eyes flash with fury, indignancy, as he turns from the empty bottles clustered around Will's trashcan. "You were set on poisoning yourself."

"Your absence poisoned me," Will spits, and then, softer, "As did your presence, I guess."

The laugh he hears, from a mouth still brimming with derision, is much, much too warm and Will cannot help but flinch.

"Is all forgiven, then?"

"I don't have the dexterity to kill you right now, Hannibal, even if I had the desire," Will says. “It would be a pyrrhic victory anyway." He lifts his hands to encompass the room, himself. "It already was.”

Will finds he has nothing else to say.

"We should go," Hannibal says. "I imagine Jack will be in touch shortly."

Will, his eyes on the ceiling, shakes his head. "Not today. You might be gone in the morning."

Hannibal stills, frowns, looks as though he might protest, but places his jacket onto Will's kitchen counter and sits on the sofa next to where Will lies.

Hannibal nudges one foot closer, until the soft, the steady press of his shoe is resting under Will's ribs.

"Sleep, Will," Hannibal says and Will closes his eyes.

When he awakes, hours later, Hannibal is still seated next to him. Will stares at the plaid pattern arching over gray fabric. He reaches out with one, shaking hand to grip Hannibal’s leg and god but it feels solid, warm under his fingers.

And Will, he begins to tremble.