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A Gifted Student

Chapter Text

 

 

Will has waited for this.

He traces Dr. Lecter’s most miniscule movements: the scan of his blackcurrant eyes along the paper, the rough pages between his fingers, an errant lock of ash-brown hair falling over his left ear. The way the window light brushes him chiaroscuro. He told himself, long ago, he’d never forget this moment. He told himself he’d etch it in time, scrawl it on the wall of his mind, and leave it there, murallike, a testament to one eon turning over to another. And in this telling, he breathed it life: he will never forget this moment, these images, the echo of it. No matter how hard he may try.

Dr. Lecter sets the pages down on the wide walnut desk and regards Will sitting in the chair. He says, “Your prose is terrible.”

Will blinks. “Eh?”

The office suddenly seems warmer than when he walked in. His palms itch.

Dr. Lecter says, “You’re not hard of hearing, Mr. Graham, and I don’t appreciate repeating myself. On your entrance form for the workshop, you described your writing as based on the world’s minutiae, a global perspective narrowed to the microcosm. But what you’ve turned in is muddled and directionless, a winding road that doubles back on itself. On a sentence level, it’s truly lacking and your insipid characterization leaves a particularly acrid aftertaste. I’m not sure what your classmates will say about it come your critique tomorrow, but if they have one whit of sense among the five of them, it will be something similar.” He pauses, considers the pages again. “And your penmanship is almost simian. Please take this seriously.”

The clock on the wall ticks Will’s life away. 

“Would you like to say anything on the matter?” Dr. Lecter asks.

Will only realizes now he’s been near-silent since entering his professor’s office. He was so caught up in the excitement of the moment, he doubts he even said hey. He looks around mildly, feeling all his clothes touching his skin, well aware that he might be cherry-red, just a face peeking out of his long sleeves, scarf, from behind his lenses. 

Dr. Lecter looks on patiently. “No?”

Will finds his voice: “You’re kidding, right? Like, this is pretty funny.”

“I would never joke about this.”

“My prose is terrible?” He feels it, finally, his anger boiling up, coming to save him from any descending yearning to jump off the nearest bridge. “That’s such bullshit. My prose is great. It’s way better than what Matt turned in last week. Did you even read that? What’d you say to him about it?”

“What I said to Mr. Brown about his poor showing has nothing to do with what I am saying to you about your travesty.”

“Travesty!”

“Can you honestly sit there and defend this?” He motions to the stack of loose-leaf pages. 

Will leans forward. The first rule of Dr. Lecter’s workshop is that everything must be written by hand for the professor’s reading. Copies are to be made and handed to classmates. Will looks at his own handwriting and, sure, maybe he has a point here. It’s not calligraphy. But he stands by the writing. He says so.

“Well, that sounds like a personal failing.” Dr. Lecter sighs and busies himself with straightening the pages. Will’s head swims. He can barely catch his breath. “How are you finding the class? Challenging?”

“N-No! I’m fine. I’m just. I.”

Lost for words. Get it together. Dr. Lecter’s still staring at him, this patient air about him that ratchets up Will’s pulse, and he feels like he could pull out an uzi and take down the whole school, and he feels like he could crawl under the man’s desk and rot.

No.

Get it together.

“I’ll… do better next time,” Will forces himself to say. “Maybe I was nervous.”

“I see.”

“After all, you are someone I’ve looked up to for years.

“Yes.”

“Why I came to this program.”

“Of course.”

Will’s expression grims. He has no shame. Then again, Will never really expected a humble man. From the interviews he’s read and watched over the years, he knew Hannibal Lecter had one of the literary worlds’ lushest egos. And he has an aloof presence in the classroom, but nothing extreme. Nothing like this. Will just didn’t expect—

“If that’s all,” Dr. Lecter says. He gently slides the pages across the desk. Will sets a gloved hand over them.

“I guess so.”

Will is shuffled out of the office, into the Ansin building’s twelfth floor office circle. Students and professors and staff pepper the hall, gliding through, waiting at the nearby twin elevators. The office door shuts heavy behind him and when he looks back, he catches sight of himself, distorted, in the gold nameplate. Distinguished Writer-In-Residence, it says.

Will looks down at his story. Written there, beside the title in a flourish of red ink is: Your prose is terrible.

“More like Distinguished Asshole-In-Residence,” he shouts, startling passersby.

 

*

 

“Wow,” Matt says, accompanied by a low whistle. “That’s a… well, that’s a critique all right.” 

He holds up Will’s paper, looks at it in the soft light of their dorm room. They only have one lamp, and it gives most of its light to Matt’s desk. Will’s is off in shadow.

“Did he say something like that about yours?”

“No way. I mean, he wasn’t nice about it. He said I’ve been reading too much David Foster Wallace and I’m not as good as I think I am, which sounds like high praise compared to this.”

Will was thinking that, too, but he frowns at Matt saying it out loud. He says, “All right, that’s enough. Put it back.”

Matt sighs and goes to set the story on Will’s bed. Will still has his gloves on, but they both know it’s better to be safe than sorry. Will sits at his desk chair, swiveling lightly, fully dressed and hot as hell. Matt looks at him from across the room, at his own desk chair.

“You’re probably overthinking it.”

“Whatever.”

“Maybe he just said it to get a rise out of you.”

“Well, congratulations to him. I’m risen. I can’t fucking believe—” He pauses, gnawing  his underlip. He forces himself to take a deep breath. Take stock. His first pre-critique meeting didn’t go as planned but maybe there is a reason for it. “Do you think he could’ve just been trying to get me to work really hard? Because he sees promise in me? And so if he tears me down, he thinks I’ll flourish?”

“That sounds… not like him.”

Glumness seeps into Will’s tone: “I know.”

“Remember that interview he did once with Harper’s? Where he said, Talent is non manufacturable.” Matt, too, has been studying Dr. Lecter’s trajectory since they were both in middle school. They used to stay up all night with his books, pouring over them, showing each other their favorite lines through the magic of MSN Messenger. The blue light seeping into their brains until their parents yelled at them to go to bed. They’ve been working on character development since before they got their first erections, so why— “And he said if you’re not born with it, you’ll always struggle in creating chemical reactions. Words won’t burn for you, like they do for the talented.”

“Are you saying he’s saying I don’t have talent?”

Is he saying that? I wasn’t there, Will, you were.”

Will thinks it over. Replays their conversation that wasn’t a conversation and more a private lashing. A flogging. A caning. He searches, nitpicking words, lifting up phrases and peering underneath for grubby double-entendres, and then stops. He realizes, all too suddenly, that he doesn’t want to know.

“He never said that,” Will says, slamming a fist in his opposite open hand. “I’m fine. I’ve got talent. Don’t you think?”

Matt shrugs.

“You’re a dick. What’re you gonna say at critique tomorrow?”

“Mmm. I’ll have to read it again. I’ve been working on a write-up.”

“You better say something nice.”

“You weren’t nice about mine!”

“Because it sucked.”

“You suck.”

“Fuck off.” 

Will turns back to his desk and the blank page. There’s a whole world in there.

 

*

 

Will has bad dreams all night. He shows up for Fiction Workshop, buck naked. He’s got his backpack on, for whatever reason, and his gloves. The students all turn towards the door, their eyeballs gone, just deep bloody wormholes gaping at him. And Dr. Lecter, he turns at his desk at the head of the room, and his eyes are there, but when he opens his mouth it’s the very essence of theoretical space and time, wound together and spilling like sludge, reaching for him.

When he dresses for class, awake and heavy with thought, he double-layers.

 

*

 

He’s gone through this every year for a while. The last heat flare of summer is the worst part, when people are asking him constantly, “What’s with the gloves?” and he has to sneer and say, “Ever heard of eczema? Ass.” But it cools down, literally, around early October. The wind’s already kicking up rumor of chill, and frost won’t be far behind.

The shit thing about Boston is the buildings; the way they loom over you and trap heat. Intensify it with their infinity of windows, reflecting the sun’s wink down. Will walks through the Chinatown district away from the T stop, sweat coating the back of his neck. He catches glances of himself in the wide windows and, in all black, looks nothing so much as a 2005-era emo kid, risen from the grave to cut himself and bleed all over everyone. Cliche drips from him and Dr. Lecter’s words—

Your prose is terrible.

—don’t help things. Still, he can’t let it get to him.

When he’s at the Walker building, up to the seventh floor, he manages to calm himself down. He’s looked forward to his first critiqued story at Emerson for months, ever since he got the acceptance letter. He and Matt opened theirs together, virtually. Will sitting on his laptop in Tennessee, Matt in a similar position a thousand miles away in Maine. They’d both been accepted, but only Matt had been awarded a fellowship.

Matt typed: ha ha guess it’s poverty for you, bud

He was right. Will did his duty to his education and racked up an astounding amount of debt in very little time. But he has enough money now to afford his shared dorm room and ramen noodles and a replenishing stock of Red Bull. And when he becomes a great writer and snags an agent and sells his first book for a six-figure advance, he’ll be able to pay back the loans, no sweat. It will all solve itself.

He stands outside room 745, inhales, and shoves himself inside.

Everyone’s already here; he and Matt try not to show up at the same time. They promised to do this separately. In an interview following the release of his last book, 2009 bestseller, Circumstance of Midnight, Hannibal Lecter said, “The writer who depends on other writers is no writer at all.” They both watch that interview for fun on nights when they’re down, when they’ve got nothing else to do. It used to be exciting, seeing Hannibal Lecter turn his smoldering apathy on unsuspecting journalists.

Dr. Lecter says, as the door shuts behind Will, “You’re late for your own workshop, Mr. Graham. Please sit. We’re about to begin.”

The way Dr. Lecter conducts a workshop is different to how Will’s experienced it before. In high school, there was a Fiction Club, and the teacher guiding it had everyone take a turn saying something nice about the piece, before starting in on any carnage. Dr. Lecter likes to tear the jugular, immediately.

He says, “Now, can anyone tell me what is fundamentally wrong with Mr. Graham’s All Along the Aegean?”

Everyone raises their hands.

 

*

 

When the class is ended, Will feels like he’d been set in a ring with world-class heavyweights and wasn’t allowed to block. He’s gotten poor critiques before, despite Matt’s insistence that he’s been spoiled in the lukewarm lap of high school flattery. His skin is not unmarred and has been through tough winter. It’s not that Matt said his narrative hopped from third close to third omni one too many times, or that Alana said maybe he should take on a less portentous subject, or that Freddie wondered if anyone else was lost on page ten, or that Abigail said yes and that she was never found again. Beverly was the only one with anything positive to say, looking across their circled desks to Will who was struck dumb by decorum: “I really enjoyed the main character’s journey and the people he met along the way. In particular, the scene with the one-titted mermaid. Really imaginative.”

The real dig: Dr. Lecter having the nerve to give Will that papercut glance after each stab, like saying, What did I tell you?

Finally, they all pass their hand written critiques to Dr. Lecter, then slide their copies to Will for him to relive the humiliation, privately, in his dorm.

“Ms. Katz,” Dr. Lecter says, “did you bring your story for review next week?”

“Yes, sir,” Beverly says and begins sending them around. It looks hefty, doubly stapled, and Will hopes it’s twice as terrible as his. She’s the last one to go. The week after, they’ll start the rotation over again, and whereas Will has always looked towards his next critique hungrily, greedily, he now can’t think of anything less appetizing. He shoves her story in his backpack.

Dr. Lecter dismisses the class and they all trot out, the girls talking amongst themselves, Matt bringing up the rear. He lingers near the door; they did say they’d go out for drinks after class, but Will doesn’t feel like it anymore. He just wants to go to his cubbyhole and sulk.

“Mr. Graham,” Dr. Lecter says, unmoving at his desk. “Please stay. I’d like to have a chat.”

Will gives what he hopes is a reluctant expression. Dr. Lecter is unswayed. Will gives up and motions for Matt to wait for him outside, which he does, barely hiding his laughter.

The door shuts and Will comes from his chair to stand before the desk. 

“Yeah?”

“How did you find your first critique?”

Will is sweating profusely. He’s hot and angry and embarrassed and it is all this man’s fault. He says, “It was complete bullshit! That’s how I found it!”

“You don’t say.”

“You got them all hyped to slam me from the start,” Will says, balling his gloved fists. It’s a thousand degrees in here. “They were just saying what you wanted them to say. What they thought you wanted to hear.”

“Did you hear anything untrue?”

“What kind of question is that?!”

Dr. Lecter gives him a long look. The sunset through the windows swathes half of him in orange, the other half in shadow. “Mr. Graham, if you find yourself struggling with the harsh criticism, perhaps this is not the class for you. A quick discussion with the department head would see your schedule filled with something less—”

“I’m staying,” Will says, flat.

It’s quiet, for a moment. Just the chatter outside in the hallway, the air conditioner that seems to be doing nothing whirring overhead.

“All right,” Dr. Lecter says softly. Then: “You should be aware, however, that I do not take kindly to insults. If you’re to stay in this class, you will be respectful.”

“What? I didn’t insult you.”

“I did hear, after your departure yesterday, that I am apparently the Distinguished Asshole-In-Residence.”

Will’s stomach slumps into his feet. “Oh,” he says. “I, uh, I was just letting off steam. I didn’t mean for you to hear.”

“You yelled it through my door.”

“Oh,” he says again, willing the classroom to flood with seawater and drown them both. “Sorry about that.”

Dr. Lecter just shakes his head and waves Will towards the door. “Think on what I’ve said, Mr. Graham. We won’t have any more problems, will we?”

“No, Dr. Lecter,” Will says and goes to the door, cringing, itching to tear his own skin off, and because he has followed this man’s career most of his life, he knows that Dr. Lecter is intuitive enough to see they are going to have a lot of fucking problems.

 

 

Chapter Text

“—the ideals expressed are firstly referenced in the foreword, and then again in chapter one—”

Your prose is.

“—winding in back on themselves, made plain by the author — no, the narrator’s—”

Terrible. Terrible.

“—not happening in relation to the, shall we say loose, plot points of the main character’s—”

Terrible.

“Dr. Chilton?”

“ —when we see— ah, yes, Ms. Bloom?”

“Can we go? We’re ten minutes over and I work at the desk, so.”

“Oh. Oh dear,” says Dr. Chilton and he finally looks down at that swanky watch bouncing against his wrist bone. It’s now eleven past four on Monday and Will is sitting in his Novel Narrative class, slowing roasting in his clothes. He’s sure he smells like it too, from the way Alana Bloom switched her seat from beside him to across the circle twenty minutes into the lecture. She’s already packing up; her dark hair sits in a bun atop her head, a Ticonderoga stuck behind her ear. She shoots little furtive glances his way, now and again.

Dr. Chilton continues as everyone rises from the circle: “Please make sure to finish Child of God by next week or we won’t have anything to discuss. I’m sure you all know by now I can speak until half past forever on recursion so don’t tempt me. I mean it!”

They all file out. The other classes that fill Will’s schedule this semester are more populated than Dr. Lecter’s workshop and so there is better chance for Will to hide amongst the crowd.

“Ah, Mr. Graham, would you please stay behind?”

But not today.

Will sighs. He catches Alana’s glance before she exits the room, off to her job. The fellowship students are often corralled into menial tasks for the WLP department like assisting professors or working in the office; she works the front desk in Ansin. Will had passed her by on his way to and from Dr. Lecter’s office. Once: a smile; once: a grimace.

Will stands before Dr. Chilton’s desk and the man himself who only barely meets Will’s eighteen-year-old height. Like many of the other professors, he dresses in a way that makes Will feel underdressed — or inappropriately so. The cufflinks catch the fluorescent light and they may or may not be monogrammed. Will wonders if he would catch that detail if he were writing, wonders if he’d be able to toss it in like second nature. Because his prose is. His prose is.

“Yeah.”

“Mr. Graham, is something the matter?” Dr. Chilton asks. He looks at Will with placid green eyes. “You seemed half wilted in class today. You rarely participated. I wouldn’t say it if you hadn’t shown yourself to be a fervent McCarthy reader in weeks past.”

“Oh.”

The gaze turns shrewd. “Did you read the material?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Dr. Chilton searches him. He sighs. “Maybe it is the Alaskan attire you choose to wear inside. Just looking at you makes me uncomfortable.”

Will sours. “I’m just cold.”

“You’re red all over and alarmingly moist. I have to tell you that the heater is about to kick on next week, and it is building-controlled. If I were you, I would leave the parka and mittens at home, or at least remove them in class.” Dr. Chilton pauses here, and looks slightly ill. “That’s not… I’m not trying to be inappropriate.”

“It’s whatever.”

“Can’t be too careful nowadays.”

Will gives himself over. Maybe that will end this sooner. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll lose some of the layers. Was that all?”

“Yes. That and — just don’t allow Hannibal Lecter’s criticisms under your skin.”

Will’s head snaps up. “What? You heard about it?”

“The whole department heard about it.”

Green. Like the choppiness of the sea, way out nowhere. The whole department? The whole department heard that Guggenheim winner, Hannibal Lecter, thinks his prose is terrible?

“I’ve yet to read any of your work but surely you would not have been accepted into the program if the committee found you without merit. It can’t be as bad as the man says, and keep in mind he’s only here on invitation. It’s a status thing for the school. He is not a normal member of staff.”

Can’t be as bad as he’s saying? As he’s telling everyone?

The sea stirs.

“Mr. Graham!” Dr. Chilton rushes around the side of the desk to catch his slowly sinking student, and Will reels the opposite way, going down, going down, and popping back up, driven by the sight of those hands reaching for him.

“Stop! Don’t touch me, don’t fucking touch me,” Will cries out, wild, louder than he meant. He leans against a desk nearby, arched like a frightened cat. “Stay back!”

Dr. Chilton stands a foot away, hands up in surrender. He blinks widely. Their heavy breathing fills the silent room, covering ambient sounds from the street. The classroom door opens.

Dr. Lecter stands there, mostly obscured by the door. His darkened gaze zeros in on the two of them amidst the emptiness of the room: Will panting like a wild man against a desk and Dr. Chilton standing there like he’s about to be shot. “I heard screaming,” Dr. Lecter says carefully. “Is everything quite all right?”

Dr. Chilton sounds sick: “Hannibal, please don’t say anything about this. It’s all a big mistake.”

Dr. Lecter looks towards Will. “Mr. Graham, what did you do?”

Will hyperventilates on the desk, burning like a past-due star. “Nothing, oh my god!”

 

*

 

“Maybe you just need to tell the office. The school. You know how if someone has a disability, they use that little form and hand it in to the department head? For special desks and extensions. Like that,” Matt says and obviously has no idea how stupid he sounds or he wouldn’t be saying this. Will glares at him from across their room, seated on his bed against the wall.

“So that’s what this is to you. A disability.”

“It’s similar!” And he motions to Will: undressed now, in boxers and a t-shirt and gloves. “Look at you, you’re still red. This is going to kill you when the heat kicks on. You’re gonna get sick.”

“I’ve been enduring it for years.”

“So your big plan is to just… live like this?”

“That’s been the plan from the start.”

 

*

 

When Will first told Matt about the bad touch, they still hadn’t met in person. Their only communication was through MSN Messenger, daily conversations exchanged in little smiley faces and sharing links for interviews of Hannibal Lecter. It happened just after Loose Ends won the National Book Award in 2006 and there were sections of the interviews posted all over Youtube in varying degrees of clarity.

Will typed: i gotta tell you something.

Matt typed: what that you’re gay

Will typed: yeah but something else.

At first, Matt didn’t believe him. Typical, but also not outside the realm of things Will had considered, even at his young age, when he first thought to tell someone. Matt was his only friend. Online didn’t make a difference. He’d seen him in pixelated pictures taken through their shoddy webcams: a little boy with brown hair and thirsty eyes, who shared his love of the great novelist — the only novelist, as far as either of them were concerned. Will brought proof, took a picture with his webcam, sent it, and waited.

Matt typed: what the fuck

 

*

 

Coffee shops litter Chinatown. Mostly Starbucks, but a few indies dot the outline of the Common and then, farther back along Boylston where Emerson’s limits nestle, there are actual Chinese and Korean bakeries and that’s where Will travels to read Beverly Katz’ story. These places are quiet and when he’s lucky, no one is speaking English. Every interaction at the front is like live static, which makes it easier to concentrate. He takes off his coat, scarf, but keeps the gloves on because he can be loose but not a madman.

He picks up his red pen and is excited to hate it.

The first page passes. Then the second. By the time he’s past the halfway point, he realizes he’s used his red pen twice on miniscule and uninvited commas. He looks at his coffee cup, sitting lukewarm with one sip taken. He’d barely been aware enough to tend to it. He feels sick anyway and caffeine isn’t going to help.

Will sits there in the back of the bakery, staring at the Xeroxed pages. Her cursive is bubbly, fitting neatly between the lines.

Your penmanship is almost simian.

He tries not to panic.

Please take this seriously.

He tries to get it together. He knew, from the start, there would be other talented kids at the program. The Emerson BFA for Creative Writing sources great young talents not only from America but faraway lands. Beverly Katz, however, is from Atlanta, Georgia. She said so on their first day, when they’d all introduced themselves: name, place of origin, self-described writing style, and a favorite author. Back then, both Matt and Will had said Hannibal Lecter, in front of the man, as if that wasn’t the world’s most embarrassing answer. Dr. Lecter took the praise without comment, like he didn’t hear it, like it wasn’t him.

Will doesn’t realize he’s been releasing slow, soft mewling sounds until a staff member comes to his table, soliciting him with a worried expression.

He’s got to get out of there, so he does. The patchy wind hits him right, freezes his wet eyes so that any threat of undignified emotion is whisked away. Boston sidewalks are gummed up with people and trash, interchangeable. He steps over a bum laying legs akimbo in front of a CVS — tries to think of good things, positive things. A comment from an English teacher years ago that said he was apt. His last Fiction Club’s well-wishing card for him that told him to go out and “write the world down”. Even Beverly’s line edits last week made him smile, when one character spoke to another and she wrote in blue ink: Ha!

He could write those things on Beverly’s story. There’s more than a few places where a ha or a great word choice is applicable. He’s done it for so many others. Prided himself, even, on being encouraging in a workshop.

Why, then, does the idea of doing it here make his skin smoke? Why, then, can he not force his pen to write one kind word?

 

*

 

Literature of Evil is his best class. He doesn’t have to think of his own writing. Doesn’t have to think of Beverly Katz’ writing. Only thinks of the dusty old things Dr. Gideon drags up from the Marquis de Sade and Dante and, if he can help it, hopscotches the swatches of writing that remind him of his favorite novelist’s debut novel, Three Graves. It’s almost a dull surprise that it’s not on the course list. When he read it for the first time at the tender age of nine, he felt blown open. Like Hannibal Lecter had come to his house and seeped into his bedroom and planted dynamite in his head. He’d never felt so completely owned by a few musty pages. Never felt so taken by the themes of death and love. 

His mom, when she found the book, hid it until his thirteenth birthday. Too violent, too horrible, she said. When he got it back, he was almost happy for the time apart. It was a fiery explosion all over again. It was rebirth.

“Stop thinking about him,” Will mutters to himself. Dr. Gideon goes on and on, tells them what significance a dead character holds in the mind of the living. What effect he has on the narrative. “He doesn’t matter.”

But he does matter. Beverly Katz’s story is burning a hole into his desk back in the dorm, and there’s only a day before her workshop. In an hour, or maybe even now, she’s having her meeting with Dr. Lecter. What is she saying to him? Is she quiet, shocked, torn apart by his candor? And what is he saying to her? Will read her story again, from top to bottom, threw in some uncharitable notes that may or may not hold merit, and then considered erasing them but you can’t erase pen and then considered crossing them out but that shows cowardice.

“The writer is a liar. The writer is a charlatan. The writer is the possessor of many mirrored worlds. The one thing a writer cannot be is a coward — afeared of his own innate truth.”

Said during the book tour for Circumstance of Midnight, 2009.

“Stop thinking about him,” Will pleads with himself.

“Mr. Graham?”

Will looks up. The classroom is empty. Just him and Dr. Gideon, standing paces before him.

“Goddammit,” Will says.

“You were a regular space cadet, Mr. Graham,” Dr. Gideon says, not unkindly. He is a man of short stature, husky, with glacial eyes. Will read his book, The Unsuccessful Dead, two years ago and thought perhaps he and Hannibal Lecter may have tastes in common. “Is anything the matter?”

Will’s voice is winter wind through branches: “You know there is.”

“Ah.” Dr. Gideon smiles, doesn’t look at Will. “That man. He really should be more tactful. He hasn’t had much experience in teaching America’s great young minds. Don’t take his digs to heart. He likes to get a rise out of people.”

“That’s no excuse!”

“Yes, I agree. You’d think he would be more careful — why, just this summer, our neighbor college had an incident of a teacher harassing a student to the point of tears; it ended up being quite the matter of indecency. The student went to the department head and kicked up one hell of a fuss.”

Insulting. Will asks, “Do you think he’s insulting me?”

Dr. Gideon’s eyebrows raise lightly. “Oh, no, not you. He’s not said a word about you.”

“Really?”

“Just your writing. Separating the art from the artist and all that. I’m sure he knows you’re a very nice young man.”

“That’s it,” Will shouts, rocketing up from the desk. He grabs his bag and books and shuffles himself to the door. “I’ve had it! Officially!”

“Mr. Graham, where are you off to?”

Will glares over his shoulder, smoldering in his own trapped body heat. “To kick up one hell of a fuss!”

 

*

 

The department head’s office is in Ansin, on the same floor as the other WLP offices. Will has not been to see her personally, has only heard her at orientation, but he thinks they will become well-acquainted today. 

As he marches across the Common, the late-day traffic blaring about him, his anger fuels him. Keeps any discomfort at bay. The way he could see himself in Dr. Gideon’s eyes when he said just your writing, as if that is not the total of him. The way, instantly, he conjured up a scene of Dr. Lecter and Dr. Chilton and Dr. Gideon all lounging around in some oasislike room for men with forthcomings, drinking Merlot and Shiraz and laughing in rich-writer tones about their joint student whose prose is terrible. It’s like rocket fuel. Will doesn’t even need an elevator. He can send his own self sailing from the street corner to Ansin’s twelfth floor. 

It continues to propel him past Alana Bloom sitting at the receptionist desk, that Ticonderoga behind her ear, reading something. She glances up, watches him stalk by.

“Will?” she asks. “Did you read Bev’s—”

“Not now,” he says, chugging along, eyes in front of him, because he can already feel himself limpening, his anger running low, and if he doesn’t make it to the door, he might very well turn around. Whole thing be damned. Because, really, who is he to complain about a great writer’s comments? Is he really so weak that a criticism wrecks him for a whole week? What kind of writer is he, anyway?

He makes it. The nameplate says, WLP Department Head, Kade Purnell. The door is cracked open and Will thrusts himself through with the last of his fumes.

He stands at the office threshold as Dr. Purnell sits behind a cherrywood desk, blond bob sleek against her head. In one chair facing the desk is Dr. Lecter, pristine in a white button-up, sleeves rolled to his forearms. They both turn to look at him.

Dr. Purnell says, “Can I help you, young man?”

“Uh,” Will says, on empty now. Dr. Lecter looks at him, silent. Will drags his gaze back to the department head. “I was wondering if I could talk— uh, have a conversation. With you. Ms— Dr. Purnell. Please.”

“As you can see, I’m in the middle of something here. I don’t suppose you have an appointment?”

“N-No, but—”

This is Mr. Graham,” Dr. Lecter says finally, exhaling. He turns back to Dr. Purnell. “From my Fiction Workshop.”

She looks up at him, eyes flashing recognition. “I see. Very well. Come in, Mr. Graham.”

Will steps inside. He dumps himself in the seat next to Dr. Lecter. The air is thick with his name, so thick Will almost can’t see through it. His anger returns, bubbling low.

“Let me guess,” he says, jabbing a gloved thumb towards Dr. Lecter. “He was talking shit about me. What else is new?”

“Mr. Graham,” Dr. Purnell scolds.

“That’s quite the ego you have there, Mr. Graham,” Dr. Lecter says, leveling a glance at him. “It would serve a better writer well—”

Will gasps: “Hey!”

“—but not everything is about you,” Dr. Lecter resumes. “This meeting was about which of the fellowship students will be aiding me. After we finish this discussion, you’re more than welcome to barrage Kade with your unfounded grievances.”

“Unfounded—!” Will grits his teeth. Grips the armrests. All the seconds of his life he’s spent watching this man in interviews, reading his work, drooling over him from afar. He had never been able to go to a reading. He’d never had the money or the transport. And now here he is. Sitting a foot from him. The man’s murky gaze off somewhere else. How did he think this was going to go? What did he want, from the very beginning?

“—Graham? Mr. Graham?”

Will looks up.

Dr. Purnell sighs. “What is it you wanted to say?”

“I, uh,” Will mutters and glances at Dr. Lecter through his curls: that slivered smile, inviting Will to complain. Will stomps his foot. “I want to be Dr. Lecter’s aid. I’ll do it.”

“What?” Dr. Purnell asks. “Are you a fellowship student?”

“He’s not,” Dr. Lecter says, all levity erased from that smug face. Will revels in this so hard it results in light-headedness. “I had hoped for Ms. Katz. Or, if I must accept lesser, Ms. Lounds might do.”

“Oh yeah? Why’s that, Dr. Lecter? Because they’re girls?” Will asks, rounding his eyes in mock horror. “Don’t tell me you’re a pervert.”

“Mr. Graham,” Dr. Purnell cries. She pauses, then looks to Dr. Lecter. “That’s not it, right?”

Dr. Lecter cuts her a glance so severe she hurriedly frowns back at Will.

“I’ll do a good job,” Will says, feeling both professors reeling. He adjusts his glasses. “And hey, maybe our Distinguished Writer-In-Residence will rub off on me. Since I’m doing so poorly in class, I could obviously use some prosaic osmosis, right, Dr. Lecter?”

Dr. Lecter’s mouth twitches to a frown.

“The thing is, Hannibal,” Dr. Purnell says, tongue worming over her teeth, “Ms. Katz is no longer available. We have her with Dr. Gideon this semester. She may be free in the spring, depending on the schedule, but for now, it simply isn’t possible. Ms. Lounds, I recall, is also not a fellowship student so the way I see it, it’s six one way, half a dozen the other.” She pauses and leans minutely diagonal towards Dr. Lecter. “And to be frank, Hannibal, we don’t want this pervert thing getting any traction, believe me.”

Dr. Lecter stiffens, the fabric across his chest straining. “Kade, this is absurd.”

“I know! Why, just this summer, Tufts had a lawsuit they settled out of court over a handsy teacher. There is so much bad press around professors and young coeds, it’s just best to keep your nose clean. It will show pure intent if you take this sweaty boy first. No one can say anything after that. And Mr. Graham here does seem... willing.”

“Oh,” says Will, barely able to keep himself from a victory mambo around the office, “I’m willing, all right.”

And Dr. Lecter says nothing at all.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe Purnell actually went for that,” Matt says, looking lost at the intersection of impressed and frustrated. He sits across from Will at the Korean bakery, both of them with their own sugar-lathed cakes and coffees. The restaurant is empty at 7 PM on a Wednesday night. A waitress perhaps recognizes him as the mewling boy from a few days ago. He smiles at her, or tries.

“She kind of did and kind of didn’t,” Will says, sticking a fat forkful of cake in his mouth. “I mean, I had to say afterward, when I thought she might cave for him, that since I’m not a fellowship student and I’m paying for this shit myself, I should definitely be the one to curate my own education. I hinted that I’d take it up with the provost.”

“Jesus. Is that all it takes to get something around here? Just toss a big gay hissyfit?” Matt asks his coffee, looking at his reflection. “Presto-changeo.”

“Don’t complain. What more could you possibly want, you hand-picked bastard?”

“Dr. Lecter! I’d love to be his assistant. I got assigned to rotate with Alana on the fucking help desk.” And his expression is of the world’s saddest frog. “What’re you gonna do with him anyway?”

“Um.”

The million-dollar question. Dr. Lecter left the office so quickly this afternoon, Will didn’t have a chance to talk to him. But tomorrow is Beverly Katz’s workshop. He’ll get him there.

 

*

 

When the time comes, Will’s head is so full of possibilities, he forgets the realities. What might he assist the enigmatic Hannibal Lecter with? Is Will’s purpose to grade papers? Might he be told to look over his classmates’ work with a more discerning eye? Or would the man see fit to allow Will to research for him on his next—

His next book.

That must be it. 

Circumstance of Midnight was published six years ago this fall. It’s been nothing but tedious day after day for both Matt and Will, searching the internet for signs of what Hannibal Lecter might be working on. He’s checked the forthcoming page on his publisher’s website he doesn’t know how many times. Matt had been in charge of the offshore publishing trades, on the lookout for a deal with anyone not Knopf, but it seems he’d given up ages ago. They both considered that there might be no warning. That someday they would awaken and the literary world would be set afire.

“That’s gotta be it,” Will murmurs, sliding in the elevator and pressing floor 7.

“What’s gotta be it?”

Will jerks forward, his back up against the slick elevator doors, glasses falling askew. He holds himself as far from Beverly Katz and Abigail Hobbs as the small space allows. Beverly smiles, one eyebrow raised. Abigail squints softly.

“You okay, Will?” Beverly asks.

“I’m fine,” he says, slowly peeling himself from the doors. He gives them a wide berth. “I didn’t realize anyone was in here.”

“A writer’s best weapon is observation,” Abigail says, her russet braid falling along a shoulder. She gives him a cool look. “Dr. Lecter said—”

“That in class, yeah,” Will snips, “and also in his Vanity Fair interview of Lowland Men in 2004.” He catches her surprised frown and goes on: “I believe the entire quote, Abigail, is: A writer’s best weapon is observation and a writer’s worst enemy is excessive observation. If, you know, you were interested.”

She says nothing.

Beverly lights up. “Wow, Will, you weren’t kidding when you said he was your favorite. I can’t quote Neal Shustermann like that at all — some fan I am, huh?”

“It’s, uh, it’s nothing.”

“I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your story last week,” she continues, and the elevator stops. The three of them exit, and Abigail stalks off, wordless. Beverly stands before him, black hair shining under the hallway fluorescence. She has this effortless smile. “I think it might’ve been my favorite so far, but don’t tell anyone that. I’m just such a fan of the Odyssey and I could really see all the allusions.”

“You noticed those?”

“How could I not?”

It hits him then, as she stands there with her thin arms wrapped around a stack of books. As she beams at him. Her story in his backpack, saturated with his unjust red ink, beats in tell-tale heart fashion.

“Oh, we should get going. Dr. Lecter seems like the ornery type about tardiness,” she says, speed-walking ahead. Will follows her, a deep frown etched into his face. The expression works its way into his skin throughout the class, such that by the time it’s over, there’s little hope of him ever smiling again. The way they laud her. What a joy to read. And so funny. And so subtly poignant. The main character is jumping off the page, into their heads. And the things he said echoes. And the things he did they watched as if on a projector. Matt read aloud his favorite part on page fifteen and the girls all murmured their agreement. And Dr. Lecter allows this, sitting at his desk on high; he looks down at their circle as if they were kittens unraveling this wondrous new ball of yarn. Will seethes, boiling in the heated room.

He looks at Beverly and tries desperately to hate her.

She smiles at the conversation, silent. Eyes wide open. Nodding and writing down notes in this worn old notebook that looks picked off any Barnes & Noble shelf. When they flip pages, she follows along with her own copy.

I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your story last week.

Was that just a ploy to hinder his hatred of her?

I think it might’ve been my favorite so far...

Just to make him feel like more of a loser?

Dr. Lecter finishes her workshop with this final stab to Will’s beating heart: “What we can take away from Ms. Katz’s story is the idea of escalation. Utilized in novels, of course, but in the art of the short story we do not shy from causality. The space we’re given to tell a snippet of a character’s life or choice can only work if the action or emotion becomes bombastic, akin to a true key change in music. Ms. Katz does a fine job of it here.”

That’s it. That’s all he can take. 

Congratulations, he wants to say to Dr. Lecter, you ruined my day.

Congratulations, he wants to say to Beverly, though his heart is leaking. It was a good story.

 

*

 

But God and the Devil and Dr. Lecter — all of who must undoubtedly be the same entity — are not finished with him yet.

His classmates are gone. The sun pulsates purple through the window wall and Will stands limp in the sunset, streaked with the sad emissions of failure.

“Don’t look so gloomy,” Dr. Lecter has nerve enough to say. “You knew she was better than you. You knew it when she walked into the room, that very first day.”

“I did not,” Will says hotly, the anger flaring even when he thought he’d had nothing left.

Dr. Lecter waves a hand. “Perhaps not her, in particular. But I could see it in you, the awareness that you would encounter your better. You feared it. All young writers are wary of such a meeting. Some are lucky enough to not have been coddled, to have never been the best in their class. They can encounter other, better equipped writers without an alleyway shakedown of their self-esteem. But you, Mr. Graham,” Dr. Lecter says and favors him with a warm look, “you look like you’ve seen the face of death.”

Will doesn’t know what to say to that. He continues to stand there, fists balled at his sides, hoping to look like anything other than what he is. Dr. Lecter slides a small piece of paper across the desk.

“You still wish to assist me.”

It’s a statement, not a question. Will frowns, doesn’t want to be taken for granted. “Thought you wanted Beverly?” he asks, turning his nose up. “Our Grand Poobah of Escalation?”

“As Kade said, she is unavailable. You will have to do. For now.”

“Oh, gee.”

Will takes the paper, reads the address printed impossibly neat.

Dr. Lecter says, “Meet me at eight PM.”

 

*

 

He wishes he had it in him to not be excited. He wishes he could separate himself from it, make his body understand. What Dr. Gideon said, it applies here too. Separating the artist from the art.

There exists Hannibal Lecter: the magnificent writer who conjured miracles before Will’s young eyes. The man who made him the writer, the thing, he is today. And Will adores this writer and his work.

There exists Dr. Lecter: a sour candy amid the sweetness Will expected from his creative writing program. The professor who makes his stomach squelch with unease, who looks at him as if he is a fly who’s landed haphazardly on his shirt sleeve. Not even that, at times.

When Will left his dorm, Matt sat at his desk practicing his penmanship. He looked up at Will in all black, gloves and scarf affixed tightly.

“Don’t let him wear you down, Will,” Matt said. He tapped the pen against his temple. “It’s all mind games. Remember what we said.”

“Yeah. I remember.”

When they were eleven, and the world still seemed graspable, Matt typed: we’ll be just like Hannibal Lecter. better even

Will had believed him then, with all the fervor his young body could muster. He hugged Three Graves in close, like the words might permeate his skin. Sink into his skin. Yes. They did that.

Out in the Boston night, Will walks through the Common to get to Beacon Hill. The address Dr. Lecter gave him is situated in its lush brownstone folds and the T is too crowded with the after-work group this time of evening. He calms his mind. Quiets himself. Don’t let him wear you down.

Will shows up on a doorstep, rings bell 5. He gazes up, around, at the quietly wooded street, strewn with lampposts. He is buzzed in. Travels to the elevator and is taken up, up. This is one hell of a place for a writing studio.

He arrives at door 5 and knocks, barely once, before the door opens and Will’s fist nearly collides with Dr. Lecter’s broad chest. Will stumbles back against the far wall.

“Jesus!”

“You’re ten minutes early,” Dr. Lecter says, just standing there, just taking up space in grey wool slacks and a white button-up that is not buttoned up. Will stares at the slight down of greying chest hair, then gathers himself. He comes forward.

“Well, uh. I thought, you know, first day of work. Assisting. I should be early. A show of good faith.”

“Good faith,” Dr. Lecter says flatly. He moves aside. “Come in.”

Will tries to be casual about it; Dr. Lecter is just a man and Will has seen his fair share of men in states of undress — mostly in porn and PE locker rooms. He tries not to think about how different it is, this situation, with both Hannibal Lecter the novelist and Dr. Lecter the Asshole-in-Residence. He tries not to recall the first time he saw Hannibal Lecter’s author photo on the back of Three Graves and the way that it shocked sexuality awake in him, gave him his first tepid wet dream in which he sat on the man’s lap as he was read to. Words of death and dying coaxing him to leak.

The door shuts behind him.

Dr. Lecter passes by, buttoning his shirt. Will bids a silent farewell to the curly chest hair and hesitantly welcomes this loft into view: the vaulted ceiling, cold marble floors and exceedingly modern furniture littered sparsely. A marbled wide platform that might hold pottery or statues stands just away from the wide wall of windows. You can see all the Common from here: lampposts like little points of light in the dark, the shimmer of the frog pond nestled through withering boughs. Emerson’s buildings hold monolithic against the bowled sky.

“This doesn’t… seem like a writing studio,” Will says.

“It’s not. I live here.”

“You… live here.”

“I did just say that, yes. I rented this for the duration of my residency. When the year is over, I will return to upstate New York.”

Will looks at him. “Dr. Lecter, what am I doing here?”

“You volunteered to assist me,” he says like that explains everything. “You can leave your scarf and gloves near the door.”

“I’ll keep them.” He places his hands in his pockets. It’s rather cool inside anyway. And when Will prepares to defend himself if Dr. Lecter pushes the issue, he simply walks away, saying nothing more. “So what exactly am I supposed to be doing? Are you working on a new book or something?”

Dr. Lecter glances back. The moonlight touches him in such a way. “Yes.”

Will’s heart swells. He can’t contain it. “Oh my God! That’s so great, man, I’ve been waiting for years for this, ever since Circumstance of Midnight came out and I even told Matt I thought maybe that’s why you came here but he said not to get my hopes up and now I get to watch, I can’t believe it!”

Dr. Lecter looks almost scandalized. “There will be no watching, Mr. Graham.”

“Can you cut it out with the Mr. Graham talk? I’m at your pad. I’m your assistant! Call me Will.”

“I think not.”

“You’ll feel better if you do.” Will ventures to grin at him. “All this pomp and circumstance outside the classroom can’t be good for you. You need a chill environment to write! That’s what I always need anyway.” Will looks at him brightly, expectantly. The prospect of a new Hannibal Lecter novel has washed away all anxiety, fear, loathing. He takes a step forward. “What’s it about anyway? Can I know? I remember from your New Yorker interview, you only talk about unfinished projects to your agent, and sometimes not even her, but you never said anything about a student aid. Although maybe the idea hadn’t crossed your mind then. Anyway, what can I do to help?”

Dr. Lecter has turned fully to face him. The room is quiet, the building quiet. Not even street noise makes it up here, and distantly Will wonders if the place is sound-proofed. Dr. Lecter says, “I came to this residency for a reason. To find something. If you’d like to truly assist me, then you must do as I ask.”

“Yeah, of course. Anything you say.”

Hannibal Lecter, the novelist. It’s Hannibal Lecter, the novelist. Will would drain oceans to please the man.

Dr. Lecter holds out his hand. “Then leave your clothes by the door.”

“My…” Will pauses. “My gloves and scarf?”

“Your clothes, Mr. Graham. Take them off.”

 

*

 

When the bad touch first started, Will thought he was a victim of delusion. He looked it up on the internet. That delusions can, but not always, manifest as figures, voices, even something as undeniable as touch. Will was plagued at a young age with violent thoughts, grim reaper thoughts, and he buried them in Hannibal Lecter’s books. He knows now, at age eighteen, to not refute or torture himself. Even if his affliction was a delusion, it is better to live in tandem with it, for the safety of others around him. And so, although he at first regards Dr. Lecter’s command as mere fantasy, brought on by delirium and some wet longing, he lives in tandem with it. He must.

He stares at himself in the mirror over the sink. The bathroom where he undresses is low-lit and the floors are cold. This whole loft is stark, a sculpture of crystal beauty. And then there is Will: scruffy and raw, glasses fogged, dark hair riled in its curls, his cheeks and ears pink with embarrassment. Underlip almost red from constant biting. His clothes sit in a pile on the floor. He’s been in here for who knows how long, cowering and naked and resentful, but Dr. Lecter does not come to fetch him. Will guesses that he’d wait Will out until the next ice age if that’s what it took.

When he opens the door and steps out, he wonders who is asking this of him: Hannibal Lecter or Dr. Lecter?

“Ah,” Dr. Lecter says from the streamlined couch. He barely looks over, easy-eyed, and then his expression hardens. “Mr. Graham, what were my instructions?”

Will stands there, naked, but for his black pleather gloves.

“But Dr. Lecter, I can’t—”

“My instructions. What were they?”

“To,” Will exhales, shivers, “take my clothes off.”

“What about that was lost in translation?”

Will reddens, can feel it travel from his neck to his cheeks. “Hey, this is just — just too much! Don’t think I don’t know what this is about! You’re punishing me for taking Beverly’s place! You wouldn’t have done this to her.” He doesn’t know how he knows this. But he does. When Dr. Lecter rises and crosses the floor to him, Will wants to startle back, shove distance between them. He looks into the man’s eyes and stays put. He says it again: “You wouldn’t have done this to her.”

“No,” Dr. Lecter says. “I would not have.”

“Then—”

“Why do you care what I would do to Ms. Katz in a hypothetical situation, a dimension away? You’d do better to focus on yourself, your work. What lies ahead of you. As a teacher, it is my prerogative to take stock of each student and give them what they, in their individuality, need to grow. Do you agree?”

Will has the wherewithal to tuck his gloved hands behind his back. “Let me have this,” he pleads, his only recourse.

Dr. Lecter says, “You are taking liberties,” but doesn’t force the issue and Will counts this as a win. And in a few moments, when he’s finally situated on Dr. Lecter’s lap in the sleek armchair, he struggles to count this as a win. He has been told to sit here and, with his gloved hands, hold open the book Dr. Lecter had been reading when Will knocked ten minutes early. When Dr. Lecter nods, Will is to turn the page. He swallows noisily, again and again, to clear away the saliva that threatens to choke him. Will sits, the cool air brushing his skin. He looks about himself in a complete state of wonderment. How did he get here? How did he come to this point? Wasn’t he just in Dr. Lecter’s class this afternoon, listening to the rave reviews of Beverly Katz’s story? Wasn’t he just at his dorm, dressing and mentally preparing himself for the work ahead, what he might learn from this man?

He doesn’t allow himself to consider this, in concrete, at this moment. Crying in front of this professor seems particularly unwise.

Dr. Lecter nods.

Will turns the page.

An imperceptible amount of time passes in oppressive silence. Finally, Will says, “Is this really— really what you’re gonna use me for?”

Dr. Lecter continues to read, eyes scanning the page. “Bookholders don’t speak.”

“Hey, I’m serious!” When he says nothing, Will continues, huffing: “I knew you were a pervert! Is this weird power trip what gets you off?”

Dr. Lecter glances up mildly. “Mr. Graham, you have no earthly idea what gets me off.”

Will flinches. It feels like his spine has been replaced by an iron rod.

Dr. Lecter clicks his tongue. “You are currently assisting me. If you find this too difficult, you can simply walk away. I am no jailer, no slavemaster. You inserted yourself into this position, came here of your own free will, and now you have the audacity to complain. What do you want from me, Mr. Graham?”

As when he looks at a blank page, Will sees a whole world in this. So many things he could demand, which at this point would simply be refused or laughed off. Will thinks it best to bide his time. He’s got his foot in the door, now. All he needs is to work the rest of himself inside, no matter how hard Dr. Lecter keeps slamming it on him. Even if he breaks every bone in his fucking foot. He can take it. He hasn’t come all this way for nothing. He won’t let himself have come all this way for nothing. To be humiliated once and accept defeat? It will not happen.

“I’m fine,” Will says and tries to mean it.

 

*

 

It’s 1 AM when Will arrives at the dorm. He expects Matt to be sleeping and creeps, creeps, only for the light to flick on by Matt’s bed. He’s sitting up, wide-eyed.

“Where were you, man? I called you around ten and no answer. Again around midnight. I thought maybe you got robbed and raped and left for dead in the Common or something!”

“So you just went to bed?”

“What was I gonna do, call a search party?”

Will’s too exhausted to argue. “Nice,” he says, shedding clothes all over the room. He travels the small space to his bed and lays there in his boxers and undershirt and gloves and stares at the ceiling.

Matt clears his throat noisily.

Will doesn’t spare him a glance. “What.”

“What’d you guys do for so long?” Matt pauses. “Don’t tell me he really gave you some writing tips. What’s his studio like?”

Will considers it, these things: the shadows against the wall growing long to dome over top of him, boxing him in. His life, this bed. The way Boston sways in the midnight hour. The book he held in his hands and Dr. Lecter reclining back, those spider eyes running along lines of print.

“He’s working on a new novel,” Will says. “I’m assisting him.”

Matt’s covers shift. “Holy shit. That’s insane! If he’s letting you do that, then he really must just be pushing you to be your best in class. And you were worried he hated your writing!”

“Yeah,” Will whispers.

“You’re so Goddamn lucky, Will.”

“Yeah.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Fifty bucks? Is he serious?” Will mutters, looking at the hard cover of Falling into Craft, a book that Dr. Chilton added into their course list as supplementary essential material. Dr. Chilton’s own author photo graces the back, and Will has no light suspicion that this has more to do with sale numbers and ego than necessary craft talk. Will glances around the shelf, then turns back to the Barnes & Noble staff behind the counter. He shouts across the room: “Hey, you guys don’t have a paperback? What’s up with this?”

The cashier looks at him briefly, frowns, and returns to stocking.

Will’s jaw ticks. “Hey, I’m talking to you, asshole—”

“Will, Will,” someone says, a flash of fiery curls clouding Will’s vision before he recognizes her: Freddie Lounds, from Dr. Lecter’s Fiction Workshop. She’s so close her eyes are like worlds and Will stumbles back against the shelves. A few books fall to the floor around them. The cashier looks over, seemingly unsurprised and unamused.

“Don’t creep on me,” Will says, righting himself.

“Who’s creeping?” She peers at the book in his hand. “Want me to get that for you?”

“Yes,” says the cashier, stooping nearby to gather the books, “please buy something and leave.”

 

*

 

Will can’t remember the last time he ate at a sit-down restaurant. One where they don’t eat with plastic utensils, at least. Though Matt is living high on the hog with his fellowship money, he is fairly frugal and joins Will in his shopping trips to the bodega where they buy Cup Noodles for lunch and Hostess donuts for breakfast. Over the last week, as he’s gone to Dr. Lecter’s loft every other night to assist him, he’s also added instant coffee to his shopping list. It digs his stomach out, makes him feel ill, but he needs it if he’s going to have any hope of finishing his next story and staying awake for classes.

Will sits in Explorer, a glass-walled restaurant on the corner of the Common. His Barnes & Noble bag settles by his foot. Will looks lost at the menu.

“I can’t afford anything here,” Will says.

Freddie waves a hand. “My treat. In exchange, I just wanna pick your brain a bit about Dr. Lecter.”

Of course. It’s Freddie’s turn again this week. She’ll be having her pre-workshop meeting with Dr. Lecter tomorrow afternoon. Will wishes he had some great insight into the man by now, had planned to have a trove of information about his wants, his needs — even the ground zero of his next book but he has nothing. Will is largely a bookholder, naked as the few chrysanthemum terrariums hanging in the loft.

Will tries to change the subject: “I liked your story. It’s good. I’ve never read a romance short story before.”

Her eyebrows rise pleasantly. “Thanks. Do you think Dr. Lecter’ll like it? Bev said you’re a phenom with all this knowledge about him. And you’re his assistant now too, without even having a fellowship.” Her thin lips quirk. “Is he that crazy about you? Nobody picked me to be their assistant.”

He remembers her name being brought up during the meeting with Dr. Purnell. He cannot give her the satisfaction of knowing she was Dr. Lecter’s choice over him — the line about liking her story was hard enough. He says instead, “They ran out of fellowship students to give him to, I guess. Do you… do you ever get angry, that we weren’t given fellowships?”

“Nope.” And when he looks at her, the question of affording this place overflowing, she shrugs and says, “Daddy gives me money. It’s not a big deal.”

“Oh.”

“But I won’t always depend on him. When I’m done here, I’ll become a great romance writer. I already have the number for an editor at Harlequin, she’s best friends with my new step-mom — all I need is the goods.” She smiles like she can see herself booktouring, signing, reading for adoring young women — it’s all taking place right over Will’s head. “I’ve never read his stuff before. Dr. Lecter’s. Maybe I should’ve before coming to the program, but… is he really as great as everyone says?”

They both order when the waiter arrives. Freddie encourages Will to not be shy, to order an appetizer and alcohol and consider dessert. He says, in the midst of his first good meal since arriving in Boston: “He’s greater, even, than that. I’ve never read anyone who writes like him. Who tells stories like him. The most— the most horrible things you can imagine, and he does it with such finesse, almost like he’s not trying.” Will stops, looks out the window to the Common. A couple walks their dog into the gates and Will shoves a sharp pang away. “He makes everyone else look bad.”

“Horrible things?” Freddie asks. She picks at the walnuts on her salad. “What kinds of horrible things?”

Will licks sauce from his underlip. “Well. Everything he writes is great. I mean— just amazing. But his debut, Three Graves, was groundbreaking. It’s about these two guys who were repeatedly raped in childhood by their captor. They break out as teenagers and live their lives trying not to think of what happened to them, you know. Try to go on with bravery. But their abuse tinges everything, from trying to find housing and dealing with being undereducated to just operating in their everyday interactions without flipping the fuck out all the time.

“So, one day, they see on the news that their captor’s hideout where he had other little boys stashed away has been found. It’s a huge deal. Police, FBI, everyone trying to figure out what went on. They watch the news, hoping to see the guy’s been arrested, but he’s pulled out dead. He hung himself and the kids still trapped in the bunker died from starvation. So, our two main guys, they don’t take it well. It brings up so many bad memories and they have trouble keeping up appearances. Then, out of nowhere, their captor’s twin brother shows up to one of the guys’ jobs.

“After the shock of it, the guy keeps seeing the twin. Like, they get along actually. And they talk, and share stories about what the captor was like. What they remembered him to be. Now, all the while, the other guy who was raped too, doesn't like his partner seeing the twin. Thinks it’s bad for his mental state. And of course, it is. The guy becomes so warped by the twin that he starts hallucinating he’s the captor and becomes obsessed with recreating his own trauma through the captor’s eyes. Then, when—”

“Okay, okay!”

Will looks at Freddie. Her eyes are wide, a dark blush stains her face. “What’s wrong?”

“N-Nothing, I’m just— eating, that’s all. I get the gist. Horrible things.”

“Mmm.”

“I never knew that about him. Kind of explains a lot, when you think about it.”

Will tilts his head. “What’s that mean?”

“He’s a little weird. But I guess after decades of having the whole world love your work, you’d be a little weird. I mean, he was only a couple years older than us when he published that, right?” Will nods and she looks down at her half-eaten salad. “I hope to know what that’s like. I hope I can be good enough to know.”

Will feels that, like a whisper through his body. “Yeah. Me too.”

 

*

 

His mom calls to check in.

He’s stuck on page three of a new short story, having to rip it up when he fudges a word, when something sounds false. Matt is out somewhere, having accepted one of the Fiction girls’ invitation to drinks. Before he left, he chastised Will for cloistering up — “They invited you, I’m just a plus-one! What’s it going to look like, me coming on my own? Presumptuous, that’s what.” — but it is what it is and Will is who he is and who he is, currently, at this point in his life, is someone who can’t afford to hobnob with a gaggle of silly girls. None of them got the kind of lambasting Will did during his workshop, not one. They were told things like boring, cliche, trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but Will. Will’s prose is.

Is—

His cell phone rings and he looks at the contact: Home. He can’t stop his stomach from rolling over.

“Yello,” he says, trying to keep his tone frothy and light. He stares ahead at his simian handwriting as his mom and dad talk to him on speakerphone. They take turns nicely, always have.

Mom asks if he’s a world-famous writer yet, Will says not yet.

Dad asks if he’s met any cute girls, Will says girl writers aren’t cute.

They don’t know about his current assistantship with Dr. Lecter but they do know of the man — when he was filling out applications online for scholarships he never received, they would look over his shoulder in a hopeful-but-worried way. Asking if maybe two years of community college and a transfer might suit him better. Asking if he’d considered the long-term detriment of the debt he was sure to wrack up even if he got a scholarship. Emerson has always been an expensive private school, and so far from home besides. But Will turned to them, all bright-eyed then and buoyed with hope. He said Hannibal Lecter, yes, the Hannibal Lecter, was scheduled for residency in the 2015-2016 school year. Matt Brown was going, he told them. Yes, his friend from online. No, he wasn’t a six-hundred-pound pedophile. And like hell Will would let Matt have Hannibal Lecter all to himself — all the wonder, all the possibility, flashing by Will like shooting stars in the night. The man who would give him the world.

Last night, Will spent hours, naked, on cold marble, as the man’s footstool. His knees are still red, still sore.

His mom ends the call with a question: Is Hannibal Lecter everything you wanted him to be?

What else can Will say but yes?

 

*

 

“ —terms of the sublime ending, what do we know? Why do we call it that? … Anyone?” Dr. Chilton finally turns from the white board to find himself confronted with a class full of packed backpacks and perturbed looks. Will sits wilted in his seat near the back. Alana has her hand raised vehemently, like she might die if he doesn’t call on her. “Yes, Ms. Bloom.”

“Dr. Chilton, I have to get to the office desk.”

He looks down at his watch. “Ah, I see. Well, let’s go then. But—” 

The class all but scampers from their desks, nearly knocking over chairs in their hurry to leave. Alana sends a glance back at Will that he only barely registers, slowly shutting his notebook and sweating out despair in his sweater. When he looks up again, she’s closer, standing with the meat of her thighs pressed against his desktop.

“Yeah,” Will says.

“Why didn’t you come to drinks, Will? Freddie said she invited you.”

He shuts one eye as a bead of sweat rolls into it. “Not everyone has time for drinks. I sent Matt instead. Wasn’t he fun?”

“No, not really. He just talked about Infinite Jest a lot and then hit on Freddie all night.”

“Yeah, that’s Matt.”

“I wanted to hear about Dr. Lecter.”

Will’s jaw tightens. He shoves the rest of his things in his bag. “Sorry,” he just says and tries to move past. Alana steps in front of him. “Aren’t you going to be late for your job?”

Her stare is shrewd, implacable. “You look just awful. Maybe it’s too much for you, you know? I mean, assisting him and working on your writing.”

“What the fuck? What’re you trying to say?”

“Nothing bad. I’m offering to switch jobs with you. Mine is really easy, and most days I can even work on rough drafts while I’m at the desk. It’s just giving directions and taking calls.” She tilts her head and a thin river of dark hair falls with it. “I want to work with a professional, see what it’s like.”

“No,” Will says, and feels the scrapes on his knee rub raw against the inside of his jeans. His palms sweat in the gloves. “No way.”

“But just look at you!”

Will has something uncharitable on the tip of his tongue when Dr. Chilton appears like an ill omen and says, “Ms. Bloom, am I going to have to send word ahead to Ansin that you’re lollygagging in spectacular fashion?”

Color rises to her cheeks. “No, Dr. Chilton.” She reshoulders her bag and does something very near a twirl, the ends of her hair flipping under Will’s nose. She’s gone in seconds and the room lowers in degrees.

“You have something your cohorts want, Mr. Graham,” Dr. Chilton says, turning an easy smile on him. “I know Hannibal is not an easy man to get along with — when I catch him in the lounge, he’s always got that… that foppish expression on his face. Slightly infuriating, but there’s no discounting his talent or good fortune in publishing. Your connection with him might even give you a front row seat at Du Maurier’s panel. You could ask—”

Will perks up. “Du Maurier? Bedelia Du Maurier?”

“Well, how many Du Mauriers do you know of?”

“She’s coming to do a panel?”

“Mr. Graham, I went over this whole thing in class. Were you not listening?”

Bedelia Du Maurier. Coming here. And of course Dr. Lecter knew. Will’s been in the man’s loft, used as various items of convenience for over a week now, and he’s not been given a word of encouragement, good will or even tutoring for his terrible prose. But that Dr. Lecter wouldn’t mention this, somehow, eclipses the rest.

“—still not listening. Mr. Graham!”

Will pants openly. He must have some expression on his face, because Dr. Chilton looks mildly discomfited. 

“Mr. Graham, perhaps you need to lie down?”

Will takes off running, startling a cry out of Dr. Chilton as he whizzes by.

 

*

 

Will has not been to the loft in the daylight. Their meetings are terrible things, fit only for the cover of night. While people like Alana and Beverly and Matt all can approach their appointed tasks under the righteous light of day, Will is meant for other things. He knows Dr. Lecter has no classes other than the Fiction Workshop on Thursdays. He spends all his time in the luxury of whatever secret book now forms within the halls of his great mind. Will looks up at the brownstone like it will grow legs and crush him.

He makes his way to the bell, and rings 5. There’s a moment when Will thinks the man will be stubborn and only allow him up during their scheduled meets and already his mind races at how hard it might be to scale the outside of the building and break into the window. The building doors open for him. He ascends.

Upstairs. When the door to number 5 is opened before him, Dr. Lecter is fully dressed, hair limp and holding a sheen from the shower.

He says, “Mr. Graham, you are seven hours early.”

“Let me in there. I have to talk to you.”

Dr. Lecter’s gaze softens. “How could I deny my favorite footstool?” He makes way.

Will stomps in, trying to keep the furnace of indignation lit. He looks around at the sterile interior of the loft and feels something akin to demureness descend over him, undeniable. Who he is here is not who he is outside. But somehow, in some way, the two are going to need to reconcile. He can’t just be an inanimate object forever. Will turns when the door shuts.

“You may fold your clothes by the door,” Dr. Lecter says.

“I’m not here to get naked!”

“Then why on Earth have you come?”

Will steels himself. Dr. Lecter’s eyes always look darker in the sun. “You never told me your agent was coming to do a panel. Why wouldn’t you mention that while I was, I dunno, being your Goddamn furniture?”

Dr. Lecter’s eyebrows knit and he looks so honestly confused it’s off-putting. “Why would that matter to you?”

“Because! I’m going to be Bedelia’s client too, one day.”

Dr. Lecter stares at him. The sun shies behind a cloud and the room shifts into shadow.

“And don’t say anything smart, old man,” Will adds, as an afterthought. The old man part is as unplanned as a hiccup. “You know as well as I do you won’t live forever. You and other writers your age will die off and then it’ll be my and Matt’s turns.”

“What an unfortunate future you envision.”

“What’d I just say?” Will cries out. He sighs, feeling an uncomfortable squish in his armpits where the sweat pools. “Look, I know you aren’t thrilled to have me as an assistant. But this is what you’ve got. And I do whatever you want. How many of the fellowship students would do that? Unquestioning, even?”

“Unquestioning, perhaps. But not without complaints.”

“Can you blame me?” It’s quiet. When Will can take it no more, his shoulders droop and he looks away. “You could tell me stuff, you know. It’s not like I’d blab. And I just want…” and he thinks of Freddie, her hair fiery orange in the daylight, “to be good.”

“An admirable goal,” Dr. Lecter says and Will shoots him a look, perusing the man for any sign of mockery. He looks serious enough and Will wonders if he’s fast becoming paranoid. He never used to second-guess himself like this. But everything Dr. Lecter says has so many sides that it seems folly to take something at face-value.

The silence sets again and Will is miserable and stewing in his own sweat. Dr. Lecter walks around him, and breathes in gently. He says, “If you’re going to stay, you need to shower.”

Will could leave, go back to his dorm and stew and write, but there’s trepidation there with that page he can’t finish and perhaps if he steps away from it, things will right themselves. He’s never had such trouble before. Words poured from him like springwater and thought was secondary. It’s just anxiety, he tells himself. When Dr. Lecter isn’t so cold to him, things will go back to normal and the dam blocking his creativity will evaporate. All he needs is a kind word, some recognition. And he can’t get that stewing in his dorm. So he stays.

In half an hour, Will is washed and smelling of sea salt soap; naked, now, but for his gloves. He holds Dr. Lecter’s wine glass and sits beside him on the couch. The couch is eggshell-white and the wine is red. Will’s fingertips tremble.

From this angle, Will can only barely see the words on the pages. He looks from them to Dr. Lecter’s impassable expression. “Hey,” he says, and it just occurred to him, “you’re reading fiction.”

Dr. Lecter looks over at him, mildly. “Yes, Mr. Graham. I am reading fiction. Or trying.”

“No, no, I mean—” Idiot. So stupid. “But you’re not supposed to be!”

Dr. Lecter turns to face him. “I’m not?”

Will nods, careful of the wine. “In 1999, you said to the North American Review that you don’t read when you’re working — writing, rather. Well, the exact quote was: Reading other, most probably inferior, work is detrimental to the writer’s process. It’s impossible for fresh water to flow when gummed with trash at the riverhead. At the time, apparently, a lot of other writers got really upset about that statement but when I read it, I thought it was really smart. That’s why I try not to read when I’m working on something new.” Will looks down at the book, open on his teacher’s lap. He places a gloved hand over the pages, obscuring them. “Maybe this isn’t good for whatever you’re writing now. Maybe you should put it away.”

“I see.” He looks down and closes the book slowly. “You have a stunning memory when it comes to me and my work, Mr. Graham. I hope you someday learn to approach your own writing with the same attention to detail.”

 “Uh. Thanks.”

“Do you know why my agent is coming for this panel, Mr. Graham?”

“Oh.” He thinks. “To talk about publishing?”

“To be nosy. She’s flying from her ivory penthouse in Manhattan to see to me in my seclusion. To check on her next financial conquest.”

“Your new book?”

“There is no new book.”

Will stares for a long time. “What d’ya mean?”

Dr. Lecter exhales smoothly through his nose. He takes the glass from Will’s hand — from the top of the stem. Will is thankful for this one graciousness and so, when Dr. Lecter says, “Hands and knees,” Will does not balk or make a fuss. He climbs off the couch and goes down to the hard floor, hands and knees, straightening his back when it inevitably curves under the weight of Dr. Lecter’s feet. Will turns to look at him through his curls, glasses sliding down his nose, waiting.

“I mean,” he continues, “that I am not currently writing anything. I mistook a false start for something more. That’s all.”

“Wow,” Will says and feels true awe percolating within him. “You mean that happens to you too?”

“As far as I’m aware, it happens to everyone.”

“I guess I kind of get it. Ever since I finished Circumstance of Midnight, I’ve been waiting, like just panting for your next book.” He wets his lips. “I know that it… obviously takes a lot of work, and maybe it’s annoying to have someone like Bedelia Du Maurier on your back about it, but just think of how many fans you have and maybe something will crop up?”

“Ah, Mr. Graham, thank you for reminding me I am in the presence of a child.” His gaze burns in the afternoon light. He drinks from the wineglass languidly. “You are not so different from Bedelia. She too thinks that if there is a will, there is a way. What neither of you seems privy to is that no human will can defeat cosmic horror. Sometimes there just is no way through a wall. And in such a case, it’s best to look for another way in.”

“That’s what you’re doing?” Will can’t believe it. Hannibal Lecter, the Hannibal Lecter, is talking to him about writing. His writing. His writer’s block. He uses poofy language but that’s what it boils down to, right? He barely notices anything — the strain on his back, the cool air touching his backside, the pain in his knees. Nothing at all. “Looking for another way in.”

Dr. Lecter swirls the wine, looks like he’s considering. “Yes.”

 

*

 

When he gets outside, it’s dark. Will’s eyes adjust to it as he walks down lamplit cobblestone streets, until he hits the Common.

His joints ache but he’s light on his feet. Walking on clouds with an easy stride, ignoring the pop of his left hip from staying in position so long. People walk by him in the late hour, unaware. Unaware of just how special he’s becoming. They talk on their phones or to companions and have no idea how lackluster their own lives are, how little meaning they hold because they’re not him. It doesn’t matter that his prose is terrible or that his handwriting is simian or that he doesn’t have Freddie’s connections or Beverly’s talent or Alana’s fellowship. He’s Will Graham, assistant to Hannibal Lecter, and he’s invited to the party.

Sometime during Dr. Lecter’s fourth glass of wine, he replaced his feet with the half-full glass on Will’s back. He said, softly, “Don’t spill.” When Will didn’t, after long minutes, Dr. Lecter said, “I’m hosting a small gathering here for my agent and a few colleagues after the panel on Monday night. You will attend as well.”

Will shivered, almost enough to dislodge the glass. He took in a big breath. “An afterparty? With me?”

“A gathering, Mr. Graham. And yes. With you.”

He didn’t know such things could happen to him. He’d lost hope, for a second there. How stupid was he to think that Hannibal Lecter wouldn’t see the ingenue in him, the writer who would one day become an agentmate? Maybe he was too hard on the old guy. But anything that gets him ahead — a chance to rub elbows with Bedelia Du Maurier? With colleagues? Dreams really do come true.

Will drifts through the Common, aware of little else. In a half-dark cove of oaks, he removes one glove, just enough to free the heel of his hand. He brushes it against the bush of gardenias and, in the sliver of moonlight coming through the trees, he watches as the leaves slowly blacken and curl and fall from the stem. The petals do much the same. And as corrosion wracks the bush from stamen to roots, leaving only ashen foliage and cinder behind, Will replaces the glove and wanders off towards his dorm and Matt, who will lose his everloving mind with jealousy.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Ugh, that’s so amazing!” Beverly’s eyebrows tent dramatically. She lowers her head to sip a rum and Coke through stirrers. Around them, she mumbles, “I wish I could go too. I’d love to pick Bedelia Du Maurier’s brain a bit.”

“You can, Bev,” Abigail tells her, “at the panel.”

“Yeah, but that’s not the same. It’s not like getting to drink with her.”

Will can’t help but grin. “She’s right. It’s not the same.”

Abigail and Alana send twin glares across the table. They congregate in a dilapidated little bar called The Tam; it sits two blocks from the Walker building, nestled on a side street. Christmas lights droop from the rafters and the torn band posters look to have been on the wall for decades — signatures from ACDC and Led Zeppelin that look like fakes. They’re a gaggle of eighteen-year-old undergrads with a table-full of alcohol but no one bothered to card them or look twice. Will showed up dressed in black, glasses wiped, hair oiled and bouncing, and for once among these writers, he doesn’t feel like such a loser.

Matt sits at his side, picking up and dropping ice back into his mule. “You know, I always had this fantasy, this goal, that I’d be one of her clients someday. But lately I’d been thinking how unrealistic it is. She never even allows people to submit manuscripts to her.”

Freddie nods. “I heard that too. That she just... picks. Getting her representation is like being touched by an angel.”

“It’s being in the right place at the right time,” Will says, and he’s three Merlots deep. Dr. Lecter drinks them in the loft, and though it didn’t taste great on the first sip, he’s getting used to it. “Like the stars aligning. I think that’s what’s happening now. Dr. Lecter wasn’t so into my writing on our first rotation, but he picked me for his assistant anyway. It’s like fate.”

Matt shoots him a flat-lipped look.

Will continues: “We didn’t see eye-to-eye at first but I think we’re over the worst of it. We’ve got this really intimate, understanding relationship. Last night, all he did was talk to me about how he’s doing with his latest book and his relationship with Bedelia and how he’ll introduce me after the panel. He said I have a stunning memory and that it’ll help me become a great writer.”

“Wow,” Alana says, no detectable amazement in her tone, “he really did a one-eighty with you.”

“I can be very convincing, if you spend enough time with me,” Will says, and tosses the last of the wine back. He remembers the way Dr. Lecter’s glass felt balancing on his back. So precarious. Like the world would end if it fell.

Freddie looks mildly surprised. “Convincing?”

Abigail’s gaze narrows. “How much time do you spend with him?”

“Yeah,” Alana says, head rising like the third of the hydra, “because from the sounds of it, this is pretty—”

“Weird,” Matt says, sucking on an ice cube.

Beverly shrugs, the red sweater she wears dipping low on a shoulder. “Just sounds like Dr. Lecter finds him valuable, is all. It’s not so weird. Dr. Gideon says nice stuff about me.”

Thank you,” Will says and motions at the bartender for another Merlot. “Why is Beverly the only one being supportive? Jealousy is an ugly thing.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk, Will Graham,” says Abigail.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Alana raises a delicate finger. “It means anytime Dr. Lecter has a kind word to say about any of our stories in workshop—”

Matt sighs, “Oh god.”

“—you look like you’re about to pop a vein!”

“That’s not even true,” Will says, slurring in his astonishment that anyone would pay such attention to him. “I don’t give one solitary fuck what he says to you guys about any of your stories! He probably just has a soft spot for girls, I don’t know! But he likes me for me— because of who I am! I don’t skate by on swinging my hips and shaking my tits all over the place!”

Abigail looks up sharply. “Just who are you accusing of that?!”

“You know who I’m accusing, Abigail!”

“Okay, okay,” Matt says, rising from the table and jerking Will by the arm out of the booth. “Thanks, ladies, but I think ye olde Grahamster is a bit past his bedtime. We’ll be heading off.”

“I’m not done,” Will cries, tugging himself back.

“Oh, yes, you are.”

“Stop touching me!”

Matt doesn’t heed. He just drags Will nearly kicking and screaming from the dense warmth of the dive, knocking against the chair legs of random patrons and the bartender gives them a grim look as they flail past. Out on the chilly street, Matt finally releases Will and they break apart, feet away. The sidewalk looks soaked in something, maybe alcohol, maybe piss.

Will can feel the heat in his cheeks and, here, the notion of what he said descends on him, gradually. He looks at Matt in the streetlight, huffing visible breath.

“Goddammit,” Will says.

“Yeah,” Matt sighs. “What’s your problem? Why’d you even come if you were gonna act that way?”

“I wasn’t acting any sort of way, I just finally had something to say! You kept telling me to come out and be friendly and this is me coming out and being friendly. They just didn’t like it because they’re jealous and it’s fucking ridiculous.”

“That’s not it, they just didn’t like you being a giant ass!”

“So it makes me an ass just because I finally got something going on? Ever since we got here, going on two fucking months, it’s just the stupid fellowship students and how great they are and how talented they are. How great you are! How talented you are!”

“How great I am? Dr. Lecter doesn’t—”

Even Freddie because of her step-mom’s connections. Beverly’s the apple of Dr. Lecter’s eye and I can’t even be happy that I’m his assistant? That I get some consolation prize? What’s a party compared to being adored? I’ve been crawling through shit, you have no idea, so don’t try to take this from me, Matt.”

“I’m not—” He lowers his voice as people eye them walking by. He takes a step towards Will, who does not flinch. “I’m not trying to take anything from you. Neither are they. But you just came at them really aggressively for no reason. They wanted to get to know you. They were already impressed. You didn’t have to puff up like that.”

Will takes in a huge breath, and it stutters out. “Fuck.” He kicks the ground. “I’m sorry, Matt, I didn’t mean… to make us look bad. I guess I should go say something.”

“Nah, uh, let’s let them talk shit about you for a bit. Might make them more forgiving when you do nut up and apologize.” When Will nods, rubbing at his sore shoulder, Matt jerks his head in the direction of their dorm and they start off. Matt says, “You just wanted to brag, huh?”

“No.” Of course he did. “I mean.”

“It’s okay. Hey, I like bragging too. Remember when I got into One Teen Story? I wouldn’t shut up about it.”

“And you still won’t.”

“But you gotta be nice to girls, man. We can fuck around but they don’t like it when you show off so much. Especially not Abigail, I hear she’s taking Feminist Lit Theory as her elective.” Matt looks up at the sky when they stand at a crosswalk. The red light outlines his cheekbone. “You know we’re all jealous of you. Dr. Lecter’s a big fish to catch. But.”

Will digs his hands into his pockets. His head swims from the wine. “But what?”

“I mean, this whole thing with Dr. Lecter. If he’s saying all this nice stuff all of a sudden, that really is a big turn.”

“So? You used to say all the time how good a writer I was. Because that guy gave me one bum review, you suddenly—”

“No, that’s not it.”

They cross the street, their shadows thrown long against the headlights of impatient cars. When they hit the Common side, the scent of weed wafts over them. Drunk and high. He could be drunk and high if he just inhaled deeper. If he kept walking from here, straight through, he’d eventually be back at the brownstone, the loft, on his hands and knees or sitting on a sturdy lap, doing anything to be of help.

Matt looks at him. “Dr. Lecter and you aren’t… you know.”

“What.”

“Fucking.”

“Psh.” Will rolls his eyes to the sky. “Yeah, right. With these?” He raises his gloved hands.

“I know, I know. Just making sure. You just hear about things like that and they worm their way in.”

“I guess they do.”

 

*

 

It’s not like he hasn’t considered it. It’s been there, like a spiderweb in the corner of his mind — with all the portence and dreary thereof. He could get caught in it, if he’s not careful. Just trip right in, roll into stickiness, and get the blood sucked from a miniscule two-pronged tap. He’s yet to find himself hard in the man’s presence, but has noticed a certain roiling sensation low in his gut while he’s naked.

A bookholder doesn’t speak.

Right.

Don’t spill.

Okay.

Mr. Graham, thank you for reminding me I am in the presence of a child.

It’s all the same to Will. Dr. Lecter can posture and pretend that Will is just some lousy kid who can’t write but in the end Will is the one who’s wormed his way in: to the man’s loft, to the man’s lap, to the man’s afterparty. Who really has the upper hand here?

Will eyes the man from his front row seat in the Abraham Lecture Hall. His fellow Fiction Workshop classmates sit nearby; Matt beside him and the girls mostly away. Will has yet to apologize for his wine-soaked outburst the night before but they don’t yet look in a forgiving mood. All except Beverly who waved haltingly at him outside, only to be herded away by Abigail and Alana. 

Dr. Lecter sits on the other side of the room among Dr. Chilton, Dr. Gideon and a few other professors. At the head of the room, seated at a long table, is Dr. Purnell beside Bedelia Du Maurier.

Will has seen her in magazines, online, read her interviews and watched short clips. She’s a soft blond, a woman with gently plump lips, and now that Will sees her in person he recalls, as if drawn up from a well, some old song: Bette Davis Eyes. Sunday mornings in his childhood room, this song floating through their thin walls as his mom made breakfast. He doesn’t know who Bette Davis is or what her eyes looked like, but he sees Bedelia and can think of nothing but that song. The melody whispering drunkenly inside him, traipsing through puddles of leftover wine.

Will breathes, to Matt alone: “She’s beautiful.”

Matt snorts, one eyebrow raised. “Yeah, pretty hot. I didn’t know you were into milfs, though.”

“No, you ass, I mean she’s beautiful.”

And he has to make her his. His mouth overflows with saliva, his mind whirs and kicks like an old Dell computer, a sound remembered from childhood. Sticky summer afternoons in a room with a window-fan, in just his boxers, sweating and typing out his heart on forums for Three Graves and Loose Ends and telling Matt about this new story he’s working on and would he like to read it and what does he think and what’s his favorite part and Matt sending him a paparazzi shot of Hannibal Lecter and this woman, together, at a coffee shop in Manhattan and Will knowing, intrinsically, that the empty chair between them was meant for him.

It was all meant for him.

And it’s all he can think of, scheme of, what can he say? What can he do in front of this woman from the ivory case of Manhattan to make her know what he knows? To make her see the future he sees? Relying on Dr. Lecter might do, but — Will scans the seats to see him listening, only to be insistently whispered at by Dr. Chilton — he has not really been the biggest champion of Will’s work, no matter what lies Will tells his classmates. When the time comes tonight, he might well have to be his own champion. Him, with his zero publications and no one to vouch for him. He doesn’t even have a manuscript for her to look at.

His stomach broils in his body as the panel continues and he ties himself in intricate little sailing knots. As through a wall of water, he can hear questions being lobbed by the students whose voices shake with reverence. The answers Will can only hear in terms of the timbre of Bedelia’s voice, the slight stop-and-start when she thinks. He’d swear he could hear the shift of her skirt against her stocking. Nothing real gets through, except when Will notices Beverly’s hand shoot up and Bedelia motions for the microphone to be passed to her.

“Hello, Ms. Du Maurier,” Beverly says, standing. “Thanks for coming to our school! My question is, how would a newcomer to publishing go about getting an agent? And by newcomer, I mean, ha, I don’t have any short stories in a lit mag or anything. I’m starting from ground zero.”

Will glances her way. He wouldn’t have expected that. Even Matt has a publication. Will imagines: the rubble of the twin towers in the wake of disaster; he and Beverly growing from the concrete and old blood; ground zero in bloom.

Your prose is— 

Will winces. His palms grow warm in their gloves.

Bedelia favors Beverly with a long look. She folds her hands on the tabletop and says, “My answer twenty years ago would be different than my answer today, in scope. Talent does not always hold place in today’s bestseller listings. If you have a manuscript that rides a wave, many agents will try to harness it. However, one thing remains true: in the race between hard work and talent, hard work will win out. Put your best foot forward, every day. If you write, every day, then publications and awards and tiny things you wrack up in childhood will not matter. You will be prepared on the day you meet your agent.”

Hard work. Hard work?

Will looks across the long aisles to Dr. Lecter, who is still trying not to listen to Dr. Chilton’s conspiratorial whispers. Will sits back in his seat and feels time slough over him. The panel ends with Dr. Purnell making a longer-than-necessary speech about the gratefulness of the staff and students for Bedelia’s visit and knowledge. Will swirls in his peers, carried by the surf out into the hallway, hearing the excited girl-tones of his classmates and Matt saying something, but Will catches the blond flash of Bedelia’s hair and is stricken again.

“Will? Will, you’re blocking the door!”

Will jolts, looking at Matt, finding himself damming the floodwaters of people anxiously trying to leave. Will steps out of the way, into a corner with Matt.

“Hey,” Matt says, “you all right? You’re really starting to sweat.”

“Huh? I—” Will feels the heat in his face. “Shit. I already showered. I don’t wanna meet Bedelia looking like a swamp monster.”

“Let’s go back to the dorm and—”

“That won’t be necessary,” says Dr. Lecter, appearing from the flood of people in his well-tailored way. Matt jumps to the side, blinking up at the man and Will can only stand there, sodden, feeling great relief. “You can shower when we get to mine.”

Matt bleats in surprise. He looks to Will, but Will is already drifting towards Dr. Lecter with detectable gratitude, allowing him to make way through the crowd. Will looks back over his shoulder at Matt in the corner and waves to him, until he’s lost in the churn.

 

*

 

They have an hour before the guests arrive. Dr. Lecter still insists on calling it a gathering rather than a party, but then why all the trays of foofy fancy foodstuffs? Why the two girls dressed demurely in black, setting the plain white plates to rights and pouring small fluted wine glasses? When Will has a ‘gathering’, it’s just him and Matt in their underwear, writing on documents in one window and messaging in another. They do it even after meeting in person, even in the same dorm room. Habit is a hard thing to break.

When Will exits the stone shower feeling new and refreshed, he looks around for his clothes. He knows he left them on the toilet lid but the only item left is his glasses. He looks at himself in the half fogged mirror, curls drenched. Dr. Lecter. Of course.

He pops his head out of the bathroom, looks around the darkened hall. “Dr. Lecter? Dr. Lecter?”

From the opposite direction, the girls talk amongst themselves and giggle. Will groans. He wraps a towel around himself and goes out into the hall. There are rooms down this way — perhaps the man’s own bedroom — that Will has never seen. He peers into the darkness.

“Mr. Graham, it is impolite to snoop.”

Will jumps and almost slips on the wet marble beneath him. He whips around. “Don’t sneak up on me!” He blinks at Dr. Lecter’s placidly raised eyebrow. “Hey, did you steal my clothes?”

“Not at all. I’m washing them. They were no longer suitable to wear due to the horrendous smell.”

Jesus. Will wonders just how often in his life he’s run around smelling bad. This is the second time in a row Dr. Lecter’s had to say something about it. Will tries not to look embarrassed, doesn’t know if it works. “Okay… well. I don’t have anything else. Maybe I could wear something of yours?”

“Nonsense. You’d look quite like a child in his father’s clothes.”

“What the hell? I’m an adult!”

“I know you think so.”

Dr. Lecter reaches out and easily snatches Will’s towel from his waist.

“What— I— Dr. Lecter!” He holds himself, hiding immediately against the wall. He shout-whispers: “There’s girls here! Are you nuts?”

“Mr. Graham, these young women are trusted professionals. They are paid well to stay blind, deaf and dumb. And they know their role here. Do you know yours?”

Will looks at him. The slanted shadows make it only halfway up Dr. Lecter’s torso, and his face bathes in full light from the open living area. He looks at Will with an unending bounty of patience. Will grips himself so hard it hurts.

“You can’t be serious,” he says, the crack in his voice sounding like an autumn leaf against pavement.

“I would never joke about this.” Dr. Lecter turns towards the open room and Will follows at length, watching cautiously as the girls busy themselves around the room. From somewhere, music starts up. Slow, sweeping orchestra. It sounds like it’s coming out of the walls. Dr. Lecter stops and turns to Will in front of the marble pedestal that rises to him waist-high. He looks Will up and down. “We will need to have a chat about those gloves of yours.”

“Oh no, we won’t.”

“They’re unsightly.”

“Tell me how you really feel.”

Dr. Lecter holds one hand out to his side. One of the girls comes by and silently places a small bowl and brush in his palm. She continues on to the kitchen, long brown ponytail swinging behind her. She opens the oven and the room is flooded with a savory scent of rosemary. Dr. Lecter takes the brush into the bowl, stirring a gold glittery substance. Will’s breathing comes in gusts.

“Mr. Graham, are you aware of a novella I published in 1999 entitled—”

The Last Gravedigger?” Will exhales. A prickle starts in his heart. “Yeah, of course. After it’s second printing, Knopf tapped the brakes because of the backlash. It got on banned book lists, mostly in the south. Because, at the time, necrophilia was a pretty obscene topic. The graphic nature of the main character’s obsession and access to his victims probably put it over the line. And the sex scenes are so… vivid. I, uh, I had to do some real searching to find any of your opinions on it, but apparently—” Will sucks in a breath when Dr. Lecter touches the paintbrush to his chest. The gold stains there, then winds around his nipple. “—apparently, it was something you’d written for fun and was only supposed to be a, you said, palette cleanser, between Loose Ends and the next project. You sent it to—” A full shiver, when the wet gold slides across his navel, and Dr. Lecter slips behind him to send the continued line down his backside. “—to Bedelia and she said you’d be crazy to not publish it and sent it to your editor without your permission. You thought about b-breaking up with her, then. But you didn’t because— because—”

“Because, as bothersome as she can be, I have never known her to be wrong.”

Dr. Lecter returns to stand before Will. He looks pleased. It’s an expression Will has yet to receive in the classroom but here, in this cold loft neither of them truly lives in, it blooms. That’s something.

Dr. Lecter tells him to get on the pedestal and Will does it. He furrows his eyebrows, half in a daze, half in the next world, because if this is happening then he can’t allow himself to acknowledge it. He’d rather be asleep, drugged, hit over the head with something. The image of it is already here: Bedelia walking in through that door, taking in the sterile majesty of the place. Seeing, then, amongst it all: him. At this angle that Dr. Lecter has talked him into — head and shoulders down, gloved hands clasped between his wide-set knees, backside in the air — perhaps he could just turn his head and not look at her. She doesn’t know him from the next student. He won’t be able to meet her and press his claim to her, not like this, but at least he could not have his career ruined before it even begins.

“Mr. Graham, look here.”

Will’s cheek burns against the cold pedestal. “Can you call me Will, for fuck’s sake? Just look at me!”

“I’ve made you an accoutrement.” He sets a little gold tented nameplate on the long side of the pedestal, just above Will’s knee. On both sides, it says, Please do not touch the art. “Now you can be free from fear. No one will lay a hand on you, you have my word.”

Will turns his forehead into the marble. Shuts his eyes. This will be over before he knows it. The image of Matt in their dorm room appears, and Beverly in hers, and all of them wondering how Will is faring at the party. He wills it away, like his life depends on it. He can get through this. He can do it. It’s not so bad.

There’s a knock on the door. The music swells.

He can do it.

The girls approach the door with synchronicity. There are footsteps. A light chirping, greetings. Dr. Lecter’s footsteps away, and his soothing tone that turns lighter and frothy when talking to anyone but Will. Someone says, “It smells lovely in here!” The front room fills gently, a trickle of guests. When the first person notices him, Will thinks he might well faint. He might well topple off the pedestal, hit his head, and let that be the end of it. A woman’s voice, soft, as if Will might be asleep, of all things: “Well, my goodness. Look at this little fellow.”

He can do it. He can do it.

No one touches him, at least. He doesn’t know how long it takes before he recognizes someone’s voice. He expects Bedelia to have made a beeline for him, for some reason, against all reason, to know who he was and shame him publicly. But he doesn’t hear her at all. The first voices he hears he almost can’t place, until he can, and a terrible chill constricts his spine.

“M-Mr. Graham?!”

Will, against his better judgement, turns his head to see both Dr. Chilton and Dr. Gideon staring at him from feet away. They are well-dressed, hair shining. Dr. Gideon looks so minimally surprised that Will is sure he should be offended but is mollified by the look of utter bewilderment from Dr. Chilton. He gapes openly, pointing, and Dr. Gideon places his hand over the man’s arm, lowering it.

“Don’t be so ill-mannered, Frederick,” Dr. Gideon says, stepping closer. “You’re a guest in someone’s home. Act like it.”

Dr. Chilton ignores him, coming to the pedestal. “Mr. Graham, can you speak? Say something! Have you been drugged?”

Will grits his teeth. “No, Dr. Chilton. I’m fine.”

“You are not fine at all.”

“Debatable,” says Dr. Gideon. “I say, this is extraordinary work! Look how the paint curves at the muscle. The rings stand an inch apart at every turn, almost machinelike. And look at this—”

“Abel, please,” Dr. Chilton whispers, panic threading his tone. “We have to do something!”

“What would you have us do? Run off with him as if he were the Venus de Milo and we common art thieves? I’m sure Hannibal has this under control.”

“Exactly the problem! If this gets out, imagine what Kade is going to say — imagine what she is going to say if she finds out you and I were party to this lunacy and said nothing.”

“And how, may I ask, would she find out?” Dr. Lecter asks. Will saw him approach as Dr. Chilton worried himself into upset. He holds three small glasses of champagne between his fingers. He hands two of them to his fellow professors and settles an appraising eye on Will’s ski-sloped back. “As far as I can see, my assistant is functioning as intended; while some may have employed him for drink serving, I gave him higher purpose. I don’t see a reason to alert Kade to this, unless you think she might have appreciated the sight.”

“Hannibal, you know this isn’t what these kids are for!”

Dr. Lecter looks to Dr. Gideon. “What is it you use Ms. Katz for?”

“Oh, this and that. Grading papers, some light research. She’s quite adept at fetching coffee. And line edits. She’s very good at catching wayward commas.”

Dr. Lecter nods. “Similar.”

“It is not,” Dr. Chilton snaps. He turns to the pedestal again. “All you have to do is say the word, Mr. Graham. Hannibal can’t keep you here and no matter how ridiculous my colleague is, he will not allow you to be abused. We’ll take you home. Just say.”

Will is panting so hard his mouth hangs open. He wonders if his sweat is running the gold paint down his body. It’s frigid in here. It’s scorching in here. He looks at the three of them, whirring together like oils in the rain, and then Dr. Lecter comes into view, fully, without obstruction. That tender gaze on him. His hips ache, his knees are raw and what will become of his shoulder sockets? Will wants to say no, he’s fine. He doesn’t need saving. He’s right where he wants to be and Hannibal Lecter is right where he wants him. His assistant. So close to his writing he can smell it, like the first gust of autumn or a sweat-drenched clavicle.

But that look says, Art doesn’t speak.

So Will shuts his eyes and turns his forehead into the marble. He forces himself into a small cranny — a crack he had not known was there, along the walls of his mind. He curls up and rides it out.

 

*

 

The gathering oozes by around him. From inside his sacred crevasse, Will can hear muted voices. People coming by to comment on the breathing statuette: how lovely, what beauty, what uniqueness, oh dear how pink he is, but you must’nt touch, he might crack. Will stays under. Will stays under.

And this reaches him from miles away:

The smooth undulation of a beat. The world like water. A woman’s nail-running-down-silk tone saying her hair is Harlow gold. And he feels her vibration: his energy bouncing off her energy and back to him and he keeps inside, arms around himself, and does not dare move.

“Ah, Hannibal. I should have known. Is this how you’ll disquiet your guests tonight?”

“Disquiet? According to the murmur, he has been heavily enjoyed.”

“Mmm. Well. He’s not the most awful thing I’ve ever seen. And how is the manuscript coming? Don’t tell me this one is here to inspire you into quicker turnaround.”

“It will take as long as it takes, Bedelia. You know this.”

“I know only one thing: time is not an everlasting resource. Last we spoke, you had fifty pages. Then, magically, you dropped off the face of the earth. Where is your phone, Hannibal?”

“I threw it out. Distracting things such as conversation only further the drought.”

“So dramatic. And what of the pages?”

“I threw them out alongside the phone. They were trash.”

“Listen here. Take your own advice and hew. What you call trash may very well hold treasure yet.”

“You would hew all the world’s trash after one ounce of copper.”

“Your editor grows impatient.”

“I fail to see what his patience level has to do with me.”

“Can’t you be reasonable? Look, now — make use of this little effigy. Rather than hang him as party decoration, have him work. He could be researching to some end at this very moment and here he sits, being used as a glorified paperweight. Are you really so prideful that you won’t accept help even of the slimmest variety?”

“It is not a matter of pride but of expediency and capability. I might have had an assistant who could grasp the situation, but I’ve been woefully saddled.”

“Listen to you. I’ve never heard a man complain so much about so little work. I’m sure you’re quite complacent, living off of royalties, but my fifteen percent is hardwon and running low. Take pity on a struggling woman.”

“That’s very good, Bedelia. Tell another one.”

“Here’s a jolly one: start something new immediately or I will expect you to go trash-diving. And get another phone.”

Heels click away.

 

*

 

Hours? Yes, hours.

When the door shuts for the final time, Will crawls out of the crevasse. He is numb all over, with just the beginnings of pins and needles in his fingertips. That part of him still wakes. He turns his head and opens his eyes to see Dr. Lecter standing there, flanked by his dark-clad girls and their twin ponytails.

“Should we help him down?” one asks.

“No,” says Dr. Lecter, waving a hand. “He does not appreciate touch. Mr. Graham, can you stand?”

Will slides one leg back. Tries to pull his arms up, and topples completely off the pedestal with the most ungainly squawk. When he hits the ground, he thankfully falls on his backside but feels the jolt up through his sacrum and spine and the base of his skull. A splash of white fills his vision. Leaning against the marble, he opens his bleary eyes again to the sight of the girls starting forward, then stopping themselves like well-trained dogs from a treat.

Dr. Lecter looks so tall from down here. Nearly unscalable. He says, “Nicely done, Mr. Graham. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves and I believe I have you to thank.”

Will lights up.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Will dumps himself into the backseat of a cab Dr. Lecter called for him. He only knows the time from the glowing clock on the dashboard blinking neon-green 3:42 AM into the dark. His physical body rolls like loose cargo against every surface. His clothes, freshly washed and smelling of Dr. Lecter’s detergent, feel too soft. Air is itchy. He longs to take the gloves off, let his fingers breathe for the first time in nearly a day, but the thought comes and goes. He finds those words drifting by: Nicely done, Mr. Graham. He grabs ahold and sails away.

 

*

 

“Ah, Jesus, Will. You gotta help me out here. Come on, dammit, walk!”

Matt?

“I swear to God. Have you been drinking? Did Dr. Lecter let you drink?”

It’s Matt. Of course. And touching him too. Well, it’s his funeral.

“Wake up, Will! We’re not gonna make it — I haven’t been going to the gym!”

Will would wear white to Matt’s funeral.

 

*

 

Matt is fine, in the morning. Will is fine too. The sun seeps in through the blinds of their one window and hits Will square in the face. He blinks and it spills in through his eyes, infiltrates his body. He needs it, after a night in the crevasse. It’s almost as good as the pulpy orange juice Matt pumps him with, like an IV, just refill after refill, and once he goes down to the corner store and returns with strawberry poptarts and they’re so good and canine-rotting Will wants to cry. He sits in his single bed moaning around a mouthful of sugar and Matt watches him solicitously from his desk chair.

“What the hell was up with you last night? You were so out of it when I saw you on the sidewalk, I thought you’d been— been—”

“What?” Will asks around a mouthful, crumbs falling into his lap. “Mickeyed?”

“That— does that mean roofied? Because if so, then yeah. Big time rape.”

Will thinks back on it. He was only given water. And he didn’t feel so poorly until he was forced into that position for close to six hours. The harder contortion, however, was fitting himself inside that crevasse. He tells Matt no, he had no alcohol, and anyway Dr. Lecter isn’t the sort to drug him. He does not tell Matt that Dr. Lecter would rather have Will alert and aware enough to understand what is happening to him.

“Yeah, sure…” Matt sips his own paper cup of orange juice. “You know, when you left with him yesterday, I noticed he touched you.”

“What? No, he didn’t.”

“Don’t tell me no, I was looking right at you! He led you away and had two fingers—” Matt raises his pointer and middle fingers on one hand. “—just like this on your shoulder. And you didn’t flinch or wig out like normal. I can tell, you’ve let the guy touch you before.”

Will looks into his orange reflection in the cup. The pulp floats by, obscuring his eyes. “Not my hands though. I always wear my gloves around him.”

“Jesus, Will, are you really fucking our teacher?”

“N-No!”

“Yeah, that’s real convincing. Look, you’ve been spending an awful lot of time with him, getting invited to these hotsy-totsy parties, he let you meet his agent, for Christ’s sake. What do you expect me to think? What do you expect everyone to think?” Matt looks at him from feet away. The slim bars of light through the blinds rib them in sunshine, in shadow. “You can tell me what’s going on. Does he know about the bad touch?”

He let you meet his agent. It’s so funny Will cannot physically laugh. At least Will now knows what it’s like to be the Venus de Milo, like Dr. Gideon said. Maybe he can write a story from her perspective.

“Will? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Will says, mind wandering without him. He wonders if all of him came out of that crevasse. Maybe he still has a toe in there, stuck. “He doesn’t know. I think he thinks I have some kind of disease.”

“Yeah, well. You do.”

“While I was at the gathering last night, for the first time in forever, I let myself think about Winston. You know.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Then I thought about all those people around me. And like, if it spreads. It hasn’t in so long but what if it does? And the day it does is the day I’m lax. Like, I wear short sleeves or forego the scarf or something stupid. And then just, all of them. Going down around me, like dominos, like nine-eleven. I have those thoughts all the time, but then I just— I felt bad. Like I’m not supposed to be around.”

Matt looks at him sidelong. “You’re supposed to be around, Will. I mean, I guess. If I am, you are, right?”

“Right.”

“Did you do a test lately?”

“Mmm. In the Common, nights ago. I took down a whole length of bushes. But when I touched another plant with my wrist, nothing.”

“So, what’re you worried about?” Matt raises his cup as if to toast. “The black plague is contained in your hands! I still say you should try to market it. You could be an A-one assassin.”

“I don’t wanna be an assassin,” he hisses and looks at his desk: the pages there he’s stopped and started dozens of times since becoming Dr. Lecter’s assistant. “I want what I’ve always wanted.”

“Fool,” says Matt, laughing, “look in thy heart and write!”

 

*

 

He looks in his heart and finds destruction. That’s the only way forward, he decides. If he writes about something close to his heart, something he knows first hand, perhaps he can save himself and his terrible prose. He sees no other way — Dr. Lecter will not let him near his writing if he doesn’t deem him worthy. And there, in the back of Will’s mind, is Dr. Purnell’s compromise:

It will show pure intent if you take this sweaty boy first. No one can say anything after that.

Will Dr. Lecter try to take Beverly Katz in the spring? Pry her from Dr. Gideon? Surely it is within the man’s power to do so. Will looked up at him from the floor of the loft, long after the guests had gone. He: looking down, with two sylphlike angels at his sides. He: who holds Will’s whole future in his hands. That seems rather godlike to Will.

Will throws himself into his work with abandon, the way he did in the old days. When it was just him and his computer and the desk lamp burning through the midnight hour. This ignites similarly in Matt, who was always there, on the other end of the ethernet, on the other side of the screen. Though Matt has been invited out with their Fiction Workshop girls, he stays in with Will. They crack open cans of Red Bull; then Matt has this fabulous idea to shake them up and use his pocket knife to puncture holes in the sides. When they spurt an acidic fountain everywhere, Will and Matt lap up all they can and the stickiness lasts on their chins til morning.

And it’s not perfect — terrible, your prose is terrible — but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Will manages a full first draft where in the days past he’d produced little more than chicken scratched half-imaginings. Matt, too, manages to redraft his next work.

“This is gonna send me sailing to number one in the class,” Matt says, holding up his stapled pages. His handwriting has bettered. “Say goodbye to Queen Bev.”

Will looks at it wistfully. “I don’t think anyone’s going to take down the queen.”

“Won’t know if we don’t try. Bev’s sweet and all but it’s about time Dr. Lecter got to read some serious fiction. Her stuff is just nice, like a good story, but nothing that’s gonna revolutionize the world. You know?”

“I like good stories,” Will says and is at a loss to find he means it.

But he can’t stay in the womb-warmth of his dorm room forever. Eventually, the outside calls to him and who Will is and what he has done approaches him, recklessly. He finds himself at the door to his Novel Narrative class and takes one deep breath, holds it, forces his way in. When his and Dr. Chilton’s eyes meet, Will knows he is not alone in dreading this. There is some comfort in that.

The class goes on as if someone is pressing pause and play repeatedly on Dr. Chilton. Every time he turns from the whiteboard, he looks in Will’s direction and nearly drops his marker and does drop his train of thought. Time and again, he says, “Now… now, where…”

Alana, ever the opportunist, raises her hand. “The future tense jump, doctor.”

“Ah… yes. Thank you.”

It happens again in five minutes.

“Oh… I just had it…”

Alana, again: “Page twenty-six, doctor.”

“Thank you, Ms. Bloom.”

Eventually, Dr. Chilton gives up, to the relief of everyone. He releases the class nearly thirty minutes early, citing a forgotten engagement. No one seems to mind until he amends: “We will go overlong next week to make up time,” and then disgruntled murmurs are heard all the way to the door. When the last of them leaves, Will is still in his seat, gloved hands flat on his desk. Dr. Chilton stands at the whiteboard with seemingly no plans to move.

“Uh,” Will says, his voice filling the cavernous classroom. “Do you… do you wanna talk about it?”

“I’ll be honest here, Mr. Graham. I have been thinking quite a lot about what I witnessed Monday night and am still unsure how to properly… categorize it. It's just that the image is insistent and, um.” Dr. Chilton lowers his head. Touches his temple with two fingers. “Sorry. I don’t— that wasn’t supposed to sound—”

“Dirty,” Will says.

“Right.” He sits on the end of the desk. “Perhaps we should table this discussion. I am not in the right mindset.”

“Should I talk to Dr. Gideon?”

No,” he snaps, then blinks at Will’s rounded eyes. “I mean, that man is— well, he’s in no better shape. You just… look after yourself. Is this some… some arrangement for better grades between you and Hannibal? Because—”

No,” Will snaps.

They look at each other from across the room.

“Mr. Graham,” Dr. Chilton says carefully, almost as if he is learning Will’s name anew, “if you are in trouble, you should alert the department head. Simply because the man is a prized writer, it gives him no right to abuse or misuse students. You know this.” His eyes narrow. "Don't you know this?"

Will gathers his things. “I know it. And if I was being abused or misused, I’d tell Dr. Purnell. But I’m just doing my job.”

“Your j— Mr. Graham, you’re not even getting paid.”

Will goes to the door. Today, he wears a simple black-plaid shirt he’s had for years. A scarf drapes over the back of his neck. Matt was right — the heat might very well kill him. When he makes it outside, he welcomes the November chill but it is not enough. He needs it to whisk through his hollow places, where marrow once lived.

 

*

 

He’s on his second draft by the time Freddie Lounds has her next story critiqued. She received semi-warmth from the class at large and from Dr. Lecter: “Although there is little heart here, the ideation and execution is sound. I would call this saleable.” 

It’s the first time in class Dr. Lecter has called something saleable and, for a week, Freddie walks around the buildings and surrounding grounds as with laurel leaves in her hair. In an elevator, she corners Will and tells him all the things she knows about sending out short stories to publications and which ones her step-mom has put in a good word with. Will recalls their night at the bar and how Freddie looked at him, eyes wide with shock. She’d probably forgotten it by now or, worse, deemed her compliment from Dr. Lecter as higher on the rung than Will’s lowly party invite and assistantship.

She gets out on floor 3 and Will rides the rest of the way down, wanting to vomit.

The next week, of Matt’s second workshop, Will finalizes his story. He goes to the library on Walker’s third floor and sits at a secluded table in the Crime Fiction section. At this time of evening, the place is nearly deserted; just the gentle chatter from the circulation desk and near the copiers.

Earlier, Matt gave him a tip: “Ever try writing your teacher copy without the Goddamn gloves? They look really constricting.”

Will brushed it off, at first. “Mind your business,” he said as he left. Now, in the desolation of the library, Will looks around. He presses his lips together and slowly removes the gloves, one finger at a time, and he sees his pale skin here. The sight of his own fingers, the ruddy knuckles, the long chipped fingernails and tender pads — he feels heat rise into his neck. Like sitting naked in a public area, it’s so terribly wrong and exciting. Will grabs the pen and works towards setting in stone his place at Dr. Lecter’s side.

He doesn’t know how long he writes for, but Matt wasn’t wrong — it does look a lot better. Just imagine. Will’s unique brand of decay soaking through this pen and canister and ink and spilling into this page that Dr. Lecter will pick up with his own two hands. The heat rises in his cheeks, neck, settles low in his stomach. He crosses one leg over the other.

“Hiya!”

Will nearly screams. The pen flies out of his hand and he skids back in the chair against the frayed carpet. Beverly is there on the other side of the long table, books in hand, a sheepish grin sucking in one lock of black hair.

“Sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you, I was just… saying hey. Great minds think alike, huh?” she asks, helping herself to a diagonal seat. “I just love coming here at night. Hardly anyone around and the librarians stop having cows about drinks and food past the common area.” She sets her thermos down. “But don’t mind me, I won’t bother you. I thought about sitting at another table but then, if you saw me, how awkward would that be?”

“Right.” Will snatches the pen from the floor and rights himself. “Are you working on your story for workshop?”

She beams. “Yeah! Last one of the semester, can you believe it? I’ve been in workshops where we got to rotate three times but twice seems like a lot with Dr. Lecter.”

“Yeah. It’s almost too much.”

“I can’t imagine all the things you must have learned from him, being his assistant.”

Will looks down at his paper. “Yeah… are you, uh.”

“Mmm?”

“Do you think you’re gonna stay with Dr. Gideon in the spring?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about it.” She taps the pen against her chin. “I’ve been helping him with his research for his next book but he’s all done with the drafting now. I can’t imagine what more I can do besides just continue to gofer. Why, are you staying with Dr. Lecter?”

“If he lets me.”

“He’ll let you,” she says, laughing. “What a silly thing to say. Hey, how’d the party go?”

Will makes up a story. One he told Matt in passing, one he will tell his parents, one he plans to tell anyone who asks, ever, for the rest of his life. It was a nice gathering. Will was mostly nervous and didn’t say much. Dr. Lecter was cordial and introduced Will around but did not pressure him to make conversation. He was party to a conversation Dr. Lecter had with Bedelia Du Maurier about the progress of his next book but did not pay it overmuch attention. At the end of the night, he felt a little stiff from all the standing and polite nodding. He went home in a cab which Dr. Lecter kindly called for him. That was it. That was all.

They pass the time talking over their attempts to make pretty sentences. Will learns about Beverly’s small family back home and how excited they are for her to visit in the upcoming winter break. Will tells her he and Matt have been virtual friends for a long time. That they always knew they would meet in a writing program. Beverly swears him to secrecy, that he will never tell a soul: she got her start when she was twelve, writing fanfiction for her favorite anime.

“Mom would have flipped if she saw the stuff I was writing,” she says, her whole face glowing from laughter. “But it was fun. I had fun. Sometimes, now that we do it to be judged, it doesn’t always feel like fun, huh?”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

Beverly leaves close to 10 PM. The library closes at 11 PM on weeknights. Will stays a while longer to finish up and as Beverly walks away with a last call to him, “See ya, author,” he looks down at his bare hands. Hoarfrost coats his throat. He never put the gloves back on.

 

*

 

He has sat naked in the man’s loft so often in the past month, used as varying furniture to a sliding degree of usefulness that now, here, in his office on Ansin’s twelfth floor, clad in his normal daywear and gloves, things verge on uncanny. The light through the windows touches Dr. Lecter lovingly, just burnishing his inner ears dark red, soaking his gaze in the promised night. The clock ticks, shoes scuffle just outside, and Matt mans the help desk. After this, they will go out for coffee and cake.

“Well, Mr. Graham,” Dr. Lecter says. He takes the stack of pages and shuffles them to rights. “I see you have been practicing your penmanship. And I would have to say there’s been an improvement. Congratulations. However, this is where the improvement ends, I’m afraid. I’ve been in conference with your Novel Narrative and Literature of Evil professors — curious to see what they are teaching you. I found nothing suspect in their course lists or syllabi. And your cohorts are not struggling in the same way. This leads me to one conclusion and I know you know what I am going to say.”

The bottom floor. An elevator rushing to the bottom floor. He can’t stop it.

Your prose is—

“No, wait a minute.”

“Mr. Graham—”

“Just wait, I know how to write, even if it doesn’t sh—”

“It’s not—”

“I just—”

“Working.” Dr. Lecter looks at him. “It’s not working, Mr. Graham.”

Terrible.

The basement. The elevator hits the basement and judders. His teeth ache.

“I am not saying this to cause you distress,” Dr. Lecter says and is Will imagining this? Is there really tenderness brushing that deep tone? Just a drop, coloring it ocher? “What I am saying is that, in this environment, your abilities are dormant if not completely invisible. I do not see why the committee permitted you into the program this prematurely. It would be wrong of me to lie to you, the way they have. The way, I believe, everyone has.”

Dr. Lecter smoothly slides the story back to Will. Instead of a scathing remark written by the title, this time, there is a diagonal red line struck through the title itself. It looks like a wound, something that will refuse to heal and sting for the longest time.

“And,” he continues as Will stares at his own words, “there is another matter to discuss. I know you recall our joint meeting with the department head.”

Will looks up at him, trying not to blink.

“I have also had a conversation with Abel Gideon. Since his research is coming to a close, he has agreed to give Ms. Katz to me for the spring semester. I will alert her of this in the coming weeks. As for you, you will go to Abel. He has an idea of how helpful you can be and does not wish you to languish on the vine.”

Trying not to blink.

“This transference will happen shortly. I thought I would give you the courtesy of notice.”

“Just… just like that,” Will says, sounding hoarse to his own ears. “But I thought. I thought you liked me. Maybe. Or— or were starting to.”

“I never disliked you, Mr. Graham. Quite the opposite. I find you funny.”

“F-Funny?” 

“Yes. You make me laugh.”

Will has never heard Dr. Lecter laugh. Not once. He’s not even heard Hannibal Lecter, the novelist, laugh in interviews. He cannot conceive of it.

“However, and this is not news to you: the hour is late for me. Six years without a finished manuscript. I have responsibilities. Not only to my work but to my business relationships, which are currently suffering. You cannot assist me in this, no matter your valiant effort. The writer’s primary obligation is to tell the truth. This is the truth.”

Will thinks of himself, on that pedestal.

He thinks of himself, drunk on wine at the bar.

He thinks of Bedelia Du Maurier’s eyes.

“There, now,” Dr. Lecter says and reaches for a tissue box nearby. He holds out two sheets. “Don’t cry, Mr. Graham.”

If Will tries to open his mouth and refute it, he won’t be able to stop the dam bursting. He stays quiet and takes the tissue.

 

*

 

Will exits the Distinguished Writer-In-Residence’s office. He steps out into the cool Ansin walkway and is suddenly surrounded by people, sights, smells, things he would never notice as he writes. And these people: most of them writers, budding writers, people with varying talent levels. People who have worked hard, in spite of their talent levels. Does he not possess work ethic? Does he not possess anything at all?

But.

There is something.

He looks down at his hands in their worn pleather gloves. The way the fabric cracks grey in the creases. How many winters and summers they’ve endured. How many times Will sought to mutilate his hands, find some way to render them useless and ready for the amputation table.

Someone stops in front of him. It’s Matt’s voice: “Hey— how’d it go? W-Will? What’s wrong? What’s the matter? Hey, Will, Jesus.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The Bad Touch received lukewarm comments during workshop. Will spent the entire hour wishing he was nothing at all. It’s worse than being mean. It was limp, two shades from irony, the equivalent of a pat on the head to a toddler for trying to help pour juice — even after the juice ends up all over the floor. The only one to say much in the way of positivity was Beverly, who looked at him from across the circle and said: “The writer is so imaginative. I never could think of a kid who kills things just by touching them. And maybe this is a little out of left field but, it gave me this feeling… remember when the Challenger exploded? Well, I wasn’t alive then, but I saw videos of it when I was younger. I bawled my eyes out. The hope of it going up, up, and then the fire in the sky. Terrible in its beauty, beautiful in its terror. That’s how this main character made me feel. Like the Challenger all over again— it’s so sad. It made me so sad.”

When class was over, Will left the room with a final glance towards Dr. Lecter. But he was only looking out the window.

 

*

 

Over the weekend, Matt cares for him the best he knows how. He runs down to the CVS and when he returns he has a treasure trove of snacks and a receipt that he uses as a scarf. It’s blustery deep in November and the snow falls religiously in Boston. It sticks to everything, including Matt’s winter coat and hat. When the winter wind enters their dorm room, Will shivers with it. His gloves are off in his lap and he holds his hands palms-up on his knees, like asking for forgiveness or guidance.

“We got Doritos, Cheetos, Poptarts, Mountain Dew, Funyuns, Snickers, Red Bull, Monster, some Cherry Garcia… I was thinking we could make sundaes, ha ha. Just kidding.” He grins at Will, who doesn’t return it. Matt groans. “Aw, come on. I’m trying!”

“I know. I know you are, just. I’m just.”

“Look. It’s gonna be okay.”

He makes a buffet instead of sundaes; chips and candy and ice cream all in separate plastic bowls and he sets them on Will’s bed. Will looks at the lot of it and is immediately taken back to the gathering where two young maids readied hors d'oeuvres around him. The way Dr. Lecter’s colleagues picked and snacked around him and considered him with appreciative hums as if he was just another fancifully-prepared appetizer.

“Jesus Christ,” Matt says and hurries to find a tissue. There aren’t any and so he rips a coupon from the CVS receipt and holds it to Will. “What’re you crying for? Didn’t I get anything you like?”

Will looks at his hand holding out the coupon and can only see Dr. Lecter’s hand holding out the tissues. He weeps helplessly.

“Oh my god, Will, I don’t know what to do! Everything I touch is boobytrapped.”

“That’s not it,” Will sobs. “Everything reminds me of Dr. Lecter.”

Matt sits on the edge of the bed, scratching furiously at his hair. “Look, Will, I’m not the smartest guy around but I do know some things. How are you gonna be so broken up over just losing the assistantship to Bev? It doesn’t make any sense. Either he was fucking you and broke it off or— or— I just don’t know what!”

Will sobs into his Funyuns for a good long while. He never planned to say anything to Matt about it, but it trips down his tongue, the whole of it: that first night when Dr. Lecter told him to take off his clothes and used him as a bookholder. The nights that followed, when Will fulfilled his role as a footstool, a wineholder, an anything, an everything, and the gathering where Will was put on display, where their teachers and famed agent Bedelia Du Maurier saw him prostrate himself in rings of gold. The way he lost himself to the pose.

“That’s why I came back so sore. I couldn’t feel most of my body.”

Matt is all eyes.

Will bristles, crushing a Dorito into dust. “Well? Say something, asshole.”

“What can I possibly say, Will? ‘Good job’? You lied to me! How could you let him take advantage of you like that? I mean, you know student aids don’t do that shit, you know that! Don’t you?”

“You wouldn’t get it.”

“What wouldn’t I get?!”

“You don’t love him like I love him,” Will snaps, hugging his bare hands into his chest. Death rolls through his body. “You never have. Even when we were kids, I always loved his work more. I was always the bigger fan.”

“What the fuck does that mean? How could you even measure something like that?”

“We’re measuring it now,” Will says, and points to his face, red and streaked with tears. “This is measuring! If it was you — you he thought was the talentless hack, you whose prose was terrible, you wouldn’t be this broken up about it. That’s why it’s not fair that you got the fellowship, that he calls your work good enough! You don’t deserve it and Beverly doesn’t deserve it! To be his assistant? Are you kidding me? I’d write for a thousand years just to hear a kind word but he doesn’t give a shit and I don’t know how to be okay with that!”

It’s silent but for the soft sound of music from someone’s dorm. Will would swear it was Bette Davis Eyes.

“Okay, Will. Whatever. Whatever makes you feel better.” Matt stands up, goes to the chair where his coat and hat sit, soaked through with melted snow. He dons them both and goes to the door. “I hope by the time I get back, you’ll have realized love and what you’ve been enduring have nothing to do with each other. But I doubt it.” 

He shuts the door.

Will is alone with his hands.

 

*

 

In the night, he dreams:

Himself, on his knees. Naked, in a vast room of cold marble. He doesn’t know how he knows any of this — that the room is vast, or of cold marble. There’s only blackness and black to aid the black. He touches his eyes with ungloved hands and pulls back thick droplets of fluid that don't feel like tears. He exhales and the breath plumes from his mouth. He shudders, hard.

He is not alone.

The sounds: clicking of hard-soled shoes on the floor. Approaching from long away. And closer, now— close. Will shudders again and his body coats in goosepimples. He can’t swallow. Closer. And right— right up behind him. He can feel the ghost of the man’s presence, preceding him, and smell his gentle oaken scent. The man touches Will’s face from behind, allows his strong fingers to rub over the jugular.

The man kneels behind Will. He feels so big. Like he could take Will’s whole world into the palm of his hand and crush it. Takes his hand to Will’s neck, as if he would snap it. But the snap is so soft: just a turning of Will’s head until the man can whisper in his ear: Your prose is terrible.

 

*

 

Will doesn’t see Matt again until Monday morning, when he sneaks into their dorm room by dawnlight. Will has hardly moved from where Matt left him — still in bed, taking his gloves on and off, masturbating with no real purpose or end in sight, looking at his story and trying not to sob and sobbing anyway. Over the weekend, at least twice, he gets it in his head to storm over to Dr. Lecter’s loft and plead his case. He gets so far as his own door, and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot imagine any scenario where he does anything but embarrass himself. He must at least try to retain some dignity, even if the word is only an abstract idea at this point.

When Will rolls over in bed to see Matt’s silhouette in the dawn, he moans, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, it’s fine. I’m sorry too.” He slumps down in his chair, shucking his jacket. “You doing okay?”

“Define okay.”

Matt laughs, a creaky sound.

“Where’ve you been?” Will asks.

“Uh. Freddie’s.”

Will exhales. So that’s what that smell is. Even from Will’s bed, he can tell the piquant scent of fucking all weekend. He closes his eyes and sleeps, better now that Matt is back.

 

*

 

But he can’t hide for the rest of his life. He could, he notes, but he won’t. He’s knee-deep in student loan debt for this place and he’s going to get future-Will’s money’s worth if it kills him. It nearly does. He walks into Literature of Evil and feels it immediately: like everyone knows he’s been crying all weekend. Like everyone knows he’s about to be handed over like veal. To this man.

Dr. Gideon stands at the head of the class, idly chatting with another student. He doesn’t even look Will’s way as he sits. In the time since the gathering, Dr. Gideon has greatly outdone Dr. Chilton in inconspicuousness. He has not treated Will any differently. If Will had not seen the man staring at him stark naked on a pedestal, he wouldn’t believe anything between them had changed at all.

But he and Dr. Lecter have been in talks. They have arranged this. And as they discuss in class Justine and the manner in which women are tortured for show in provocative 18th century literature, as punishment, as an example, all Will can think about is himself: offered up in Justine-fashion, torn down again and again. He rubs his gloved fingers over the pages and his eyes flicker back into his head. 

Your prose is.

He exhales.

Terrible.

Like a dark incantation.

When Will opens his eyes again, it’s hard to breathe. His neck is moist and his hands boil in his gloves, his own sweat as broth. He sits alone in the wide classroom; remembered bright lights are down and there is only the lowering sun from the window. It highlights Dr. Gideon in refined gold.

“Mr. Graham, the astronaut,” Dr. Gideon says from feet away. He leans back against another empty student desk, arms folded. “Welcome back to Earth.”

Will looks around. “How… how long—”

“Were you daydreaming? About an hour, give or take. Every time I’d look over at you, you looked half in another world, walking on balloons. What is it you see in that other world, Mr. Graham?”

His eyes are so blue. And his face is so kind.

Will says, “I want to be a good writer. I’ve always dreamed about it. What it’d be like… touring the world and sharing my work with people who like it.” His breath is shallow. “Do you think that’s stupid?”

Dr. Gideon looks up, away, smiling. “Stupid? No. Misinformed? Yes. Not every writer goes on fancy book tours, nor do they all even have adoring fans. Any writer of any worth is inherently rather disliked, if not for their audacity to tell the truth then for some online political faux pas. It isn’t like it used to be. Something is read, chewed up, then discarded, devalued. Modern readers largely suffer from narcissistic predatory disorder. They love something, they find fault with it simply because someone else said they should, and then disregard it as never having had any value at all. A true writer holds the world, Mr. Graham. And he understands it is not beautiful.”

Will’s heart floats on an icy sea. “I guess so. But… I still want it.”

“There there. If you stay the course, surely you will find your way. I would like to read your work,” he says and does something very near a bow. “If you allow it.”

“Oh…” What is this? This dark heat that floats up to the tips of his ears? He has never been shy about being read before. “No, you— you wouldn’t like it. It’s pretty terrible.”

“Nonsense. You were accepted here, same as your cohorts. I say, what has that man put in your head?”

“That’s why he’s giving me to you,” Will says softly. “Because I’m not good at writing, and he thinks he doesn’t need me. But he— he doesn’t understand. I’d become good at writing just to help him. I could do it. He just needs… patience.”

Dr. Gideon looks at him then. With such a melting tenderness in the fastly setting sun. “Will,” he says, and the name rings like a wind chime, “if you would like to stay with Hannibal, far be it from me to dash your dreams. However, the deal was made. You will have to unmake it.”

Will looks up at the man and his head rushes, pumping, filled with longing like a churning infection. “Really?”

“Yes, yes, really. But I think right now, he’s—”

But Will is already out of his seat. He’s already at the door. He leaves his bag and books behind. They will only slow him down.

 

*

 

He stands on the walkup of the brownstone that looms in his daydreams, in his nightmares. In the oncoming night, it looks a thousand stories tall. Something out of a fairytale he was told in toddlerhood. He buzzes 5, waits pacing on the concrete, and is allowed up. Surely Dr. Lecter knows it’s him. Surely this is him giving Will a chance to change his mind. He didn’t mean that stuff he said. 

He didn’t mean it.

It’s not

No. It will work.

Will rides up, up, and finds himself before the door again. He remembers the first time. His temple aches and he’s so wet with sweat he’s sure he smells terrible. He can just shower here. Dr. Lecter lets him shower here. Dr. Lecter cares enough to tell Will when he smells bad, he wouldn’t mind—

The door opens before Will even knocks. Dr. Lecter’s eyes are slightly widened with surprise and Will cannot know his own expression but his head is filled with cotton candy, sherbert, pink things lighter than air. Will feels it coming out of his eyes and thinks there must be waterfalls, coming to connect at his chin and flowing to the ground.

“Mr. Graham?” Dr. Lecter asks, nearly incredulous. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to— to convince you,” he says and it sounds sad, wet and limp, even to his own ears but he can’t quit now: “To get you to take me back.”

“You can’t be serious. Have you been crying?”

“I need to talk to you. Please.”

“This is highly inappropriate and I am expecting—”

“You’re gonna talk to me about being inappropriate? Seriously?” Will reaches out, stops himself. His gloves are on, but. He looks down at them. Says quietly, “What can I do to make you understand?”

The elevator opens. Will and Dr. Lecter turn to see Beverly Katz standing there, looking as perplexed and wonder-eyed as Will did on his first visit. She sees them immediately and jogs forward, a loosely-wrapped scarf bouncing around her shoulders. Snow crystals hold in her hair, crownlike.

“Hey, Will! I didn’t know you were gonna be here too.” She elbows him in camaraderie and he grunts. “Hi, Dr. Lecter. Am I early?”

“You’re right on time.” He looks at the two of them standing in the doorway and it seems to take all of his composure to invite them both in. Will allows Beverly in first, and follows, and only he sees the dark look Dr. Lecter projects over her shoulder. It is almost enough to break his resolve. Momentarily, he thinks: I should leave. This isn’t a good idea.

But he has come through so many humiliations. What’s one more?

Beverly hangs her coat and long scarf by the door and heads to the middle of the open loft. She looks up, around, with an expression of barely-contained awe. She says this is so big for a writing studio. Dr. Lecter tells her, while walking to the kitchen, that it is not a writing studio — that he has rented it for his year in Boston. Will takes note of Beverly’s lightly furrowing eyebrows, the surprise rising like dawn on her clear face. It’s that first night all over again, and Will feels a strange descent in his gut; he is watching his past fade, being cut in a darkroom, his body pasted over with Beverly’s. Dr. Lecter really intends to do it, and he’s going to do it right in front of Will.

Somehow, Will and Beverly come to sit on the sofa. Will can smell her soft perfume so close. A cloudy plumeria. He’s burning up and sheds his outer layer, but remembers he hasn’t taken two showers today yet. He scoots away, to another cushion.

Beverly looks to him and whispers: “Hey, Will, what’s going on? Dr. Lecter told me to come for a meeting but he didn’t say it’d be at his house and he didn’t say you’d be here. Am I in trouble or something?”

“No,” Will tells her, shrinking away. “I think I am.”

Dr. Lecter arrives at the sitting area with two glasses of red wine. In the time that Will has been sent away from the loft, his home-away-from-home, his workplace, Dr. Lecter has procured a glass-topped coffee table between the couch and recliner. Will looks at the glasses of wine sitting on the table and can only feel an intense jealousy.

“Ms. Katz,” Dr. Lecter says, sitting in the recliner with his own glass, “thank you for coming. I’m sorry our meeting has to be under such strange circumstances.” He sends a mild glance Will’s way, then looks back to Beverly. “Have you had a chance to talk to Abel Gideon about your spring semester?”

“Oh… no,” she says and takes the wine glass before her. She looks at herself in it, then smiles. She sets it back down. “I haven’t — did he say anything?”

“We both thought you might like to work with me. As a change of pace.”

Beverly looks like a thousand things hit her at once. She looks at Will, sweating and trembling one cushion over.

Dr. Lecter continues: “Abel will not go without, however. Our own Mr. Graham will be switching to assist him.”

Will takes his own glass of wine and knocks it back in two gulps. A dark line flows from the corner of his mouth, down his chin and neck. Will chokes the drink down and his head swirls like a cocktail.

Beverly watches him with her mouth slightly open. She looks back at Dr. Lecter. “Are… are you sure? I mean, if it’s— a burden to switch us up— not that I’m not really flattered, Dr. Lecter, and I’d love to see if I could… be of any use…” She sits a little straighter as Will reaches over and grabs her drink as well. He kicks it back, choking as he forces it again, sputtering wine down his shirt and pants. Beverly is open-mouthed, staring, then looks back to Dr. Lecter for reassurance. “We— uh. Maybe we could share… you?”

“Ms. Katz, as kind as you are to think of Mr. Graham’s wants and needs, I assure you, we have discussed this.”

Will wipes the back of his mouth with his sleeve. He feels sick.

Beverly says, “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

Will inhales, burps up some wine, and swallows the acidic aftertaste. He says, “Why’d you get this coffee table, Dr. Lecter?”

Dr. Lecter looks at him with such utter darkness Will thinks he might actually vomit. He perseveres, because that’s what you do for love. He tries another tactic, and looks at Beverly who is white as a sheet, body poised precariously as if she might look for a place to hide. “Hey, Bev, you know what? This coffee table didn’t used to be here. Yeah, this one. Before, like just over a week ago, there wasn’t anything here. Wanna know why he bought this coffee table?”

Beverly just stares at him.

In the recliner, Dr. Lecter rubs his thumb knuckle gently around his temple.

Will continues: “‘Cause he fired his other coffee table. And his footstool. And his wineholder. And his bookholder. And his— his statue. He sent them all off and told them they suck at writing and have no future. That they don’t belong in Emerson.”

Beverly looks worriedly at Dr. Lecter, but Will taps her on the knee. She looks back at him.

“Probably he’s right. Probably his footstool doesn’t belong in a fancy writer’s program. But what he doesn’t know is that his footstool could belong— if he’d just give it a chance. His footstool could change. It’s got everything it needs to— to change.”

“Um,” Beverly says. “I think I’m. I think I’m lost, guys.”

Will looks at Dr. Lecter in his recliner, watching the two of them as if they are a terribly poorly-written play. “Hear that? She’s lost. But I’m not. If you’d just have a little patience with me, I could do it. I could do anything. Please, Dr. Lecter, don’t do this. Do you really think Beverly would have done all this for you? She’d never even read your work before coming to the program! She likes Neal Shusterman, for God’s sake!”

“Hey!”

“All right, Mr. Graham, you’ve had your say,” Dr. Lecter says quietly. “I think it is time for you to leave.”

Will is streaming sweat. He burps up another drizzle of wine. “No,” Will says.

“Pardon?”

“No, I said, no, I’m not leaving you. You have no— no idea. No idea how much your writing means to me. It shaped me. Three Graves Three Graves was everything to me, it made me me.” He hesitates, then with a trembling hand, pulls the glove from the other hand. He watches Dr. Lecter watch him — the motion, the reveal of perfectly unmarred pale skin, only blotched red and damp with heat and sweat. Will holds his hand out, for the two of them to see. “This happened. When I read your book. And not long after— Winston. I—” Will chokes it up, more wine, and a few tears. “I.”

It’s quiet, then.

Beverly’s soft, tender voice, on the verge of cracking: “Will. Let’s walk home together.”

“I’m not leaving,” Will says louder, his hand trembling over the coffee table. His replacement. So easy, ordered from a catalogue. “I can’t be ordered from a catalogue. I wanted you to see that, immediately. I had these— these fantasies of you seeing me that first day in class and falling madly in love with my work. I know it’s terrible, I know it’s not working, but it could work. I won’t leave here until it works—”

“Will.”

She takes firm hold of his hand trembling in the air. Will shrieks, snatches his hand away, up to his chest, and scrambles against the armrest opposite her. He breathes catastrophically, staring wide-eyed at her gentle expression.

“Will, it’s okay,” she says. “It’ll be okay. I won’t take Dr. Lecter away. We can…” She pauses, stops to think. She looks at him again. “We can…” She blinks, once, hard. “Oh.”

Dr. Lecter starts toward her. “Ms. Katz? Are you all right?”

“Beverly? Beverly!” Will is in tremors. “Fuck!”

Her eyes: the sudden finality of it, all the lights on the planet shutting off one by one by one, until their homeworld is just a dark rock floating out in space, bereft of life. A lamp shade over a dimming bulb. Shadows settling like ponding water. The sun going down over the badlands. An infinite Polar Night in the wilds of Norway. An infant exhaling in her crib. When Beverly falls off the couch, there is this loud wet smack against the marble floor and Will is instantly transported to a Saturday morning in childhood when he startled his mom making breakfast and she dropped an egg on the tile.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The fur, between his fingers. Still warm and soft. It would stay that way, for the picture.

Matt typed: what the fuck

 

*

 

Morning — when Will, in his last conscious thoughts, believed no morning could come. When he surfaces inside himself again, feeling the sunrays warm his face from a thousand inward lightyears away, he realises in a roundabout way that he’d been inside the crevasse again. Folded up, tight. He all but falls out, and walks into waking.

The room is unfamiliar. This large bedroom, this terribly soft queen bed — the furniture surrounding it is not so unlike the other things inhabiting Dr. Lecter’s loft: exceedingly modern and stripped of emotion. Will’s brothers and sisters. He looks toward the glass patio window, the slated vertical blinds that jostle each other in the air conditioning. Will looks down at himself, wearing his shirt and jeans from last night. His gloves, both accounted for, weigh on his hands.

“No,” Will murmurs. “No, I can’t’ve—”

The door opens widely, suddenly, and Will shrinks under the blankets. Dr. Lecter stands immaculate; white and pressed, a gentle scent of cologne noticeable even from this distance. Will presses further back against the wealth of pillows, heart fluttering in its bone prison. He can’t know what he looks or smells like but he’s sure it isn’t pleasant and he can’t understand why Dr. Lecter is smiling at him or why he has a pine breakfast tray with a small planted succulent in the middle. Will must still be asleep.

Dr. Lecter comes to the foot of the bed and sets the try down in front of Will. He looks at Will with that strange smile, almost expectant.

“Good morning. How did you sleep?”

Like he spent the night stuffed in a crack in a wall. He says, “O-Okay… I, uh, didn’t mean to… fall asleep. How did I get in your bed?”

“This is a guest bed. I assumed it was more comfortable than where you fainted on the living room floor.”

Will looks at the succulent. Then back to Dr. Lecter. His entire throat feels coated in grease and slime. “C-Can I ask you something?”

Dr. Lecter sits on the bed across from Will. His eyes are bright in the bars of sun. “Yes.”

“Am I… is this a dream?”

Dr. Lecter’s smile splits, just a little. A hint of pointed teeth. “Not at all. Though I can sympathize. It does feel very dreamlike. You have had quite a night. I assume you have some leavings of a hangover as well?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“We will remedy that shortly. You just need to eat, and perhaps some juice. Your scent is also rather alarming, so a shower as well. By the time you leave, we will have you right as rain. But first,” he says and motions to the plant between them, “take off one glove and touch the plant.”

Will stares at the succulent. So hard his vision begins to blur.

“I did not ask for tears. What did I ask you to do?”

“Take—” He exhales, shuddering. “Take off one glove and touch the plant. But Dr. Lecter…”

Dr. Lecter gives him a look and Will hurriedly takes off his left glove. He gazes at his hand in the sun and only sees the way it looked last night — trembling and naked over the coffee table. The way it looked in that second, when Beverly grabbed him. When she held him in an attempt to comfort. Her oh. Will reaches for the thick silken leaves and touches one fingertip to them. The ruination runs from Will’s fingerpad into the living thing, turning it black, until the root is demolished and there is nothing in the pot but dry soil and ash. Will withdraws his hand, puts his glove back on. He looks down into his lap.

“I thought as much,” Dr. Lecter says.

Will can barely speak over the great lump in his throat: “Dr. Lecter, are you gonna call the police?”

“Police?” And when Will looks up, he sees such a strange expression on Dr. Lecter’s face, as if he is half a step from laughing. “No, I don’t believe that will be necessary.”

There’s a spark of hope, then. Even as all his faculties try to scream it down, hope blossoms in Will’s heart. He blinks fast tears away. “Then— is Bev— is she okay?”

Dr. Lecter laughs. It’s low-toned and quick. And his eyes reflect the fast-rising sun. “No, indeed, I’m afraid she is not.”

 

*

 

It’s nearing noon when Will approaches his dorm room. It’s snowing in the sunlight outside, the day cold and beautiful and it feels like some cosmic joke. When Will opens the door, he nearly headbashes into Matt.

“Will!”

“Matt,” Will murmurs and keeps his distance as the door shuts behind him. He opens his mouth when Matt lunges for him and hugs him in close, their jackets and clothes providing layer after layer of protection. Will could be angry at him, if not for safety’s sake, then just for invading his space, but he is tired and a hug has not come his way in years and years. He allows it, this once.

“I called around, I looked for you,” Matt says into the melting snow on Will’s shoulder. “Alana didn’t know, Abigail didn’t fucking care, Freddie had no clue and Bev didn’t even answer her phone. I don’t have Dr. Lecter’s number or his address. I tried calling the police but they said you’re an adult and to see if you come home after a fucking date or something. Like it was just a joke! I didn’t know what else to do so I called your parents. I told them I’d go look for you again and I was just heading out, you fucking moron, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you use a fucking phone? Are you that selfish?”

Will can feel it — Matt’s warmth burning through the layers. Reaching him in cold dark space. “Yeah,” Will says, “I kinda am.”

Matt sits him down on the edge of his bed and fusses over him needlessly. He chastises Will, but most of Will’s consciousness is still in Dr. Lecter’s kitchen, the small dining nook there. Sunlight streamed through the open windows, catching on small basil and oregano plants sitting at the bar. Their sprawling shadows on the floor. Will sat in a bathrobe as his clothes were washed somewhere deep in the loft — the cyclic tumble of the dryer echoing into the living area. His hair was still damp and clung to his cheeks and the temples of his glasses. He watched Dr. Lecter busy himself around the kitchen and set their meals on the table: eggs and bacon and mushrooms and potatoes and pastries slathered with jam and butter. The scent of hazelnut coffee. And for Will: a glass of phosphorescent grapefruit juice.

Will looked off to the sitting area in the wide expanse of the room. The couch foot sported dark wine stains.

Dr. Lecter sat across from him at the nook, drawing his attention. “You must be wondering where her body went.”

Body. He said body. Will released a strained whine, his fork clattering against the plate.

“There there. I took care of it.”

Will looked up, his lenses already spotted with tears. “What? How?”

“I placed her in the Common. After much thought, I realized it would not do to in some way hide or bury her. Even a landfill was out of the question.” He took a sip from his coffee, and made a motion to encourage Will to eat. Will could only limply raise his fork again. “Ms. Katz was much beloved and an Emerson student besides. I remember seeing her parents at orientation in August. Along with that, she was Dr. Gideon’s assistant. She was not one to be simply tossed aside, forgotten. The resulting search for her would be sizable. She must be found, I decided. While you were indisposed, I cleaned your fingerprints from her and any traces of fabric from this place. She had no sign of outward injury, besides that minor crack to her skull from falling. I took her out under cover of night, placed her near the gazebo in a few shrubs. I took her wallet and phone, shook out her purse. I burned these things upon returning here. It will look like an aggravated assault and robbery. As for what you did, I can only surmise her heart simply stopped, or perhaps an aneurysm. If that’s the case, during her autopsy, it could be ruled as a heart-attack due to the stress of her assailant. Past that, we can only wait for assumptions and declarations in the papers in the coming days.” Dr. Lecter had all but demolished his breakfast, his plate streaked with the smallest leavings. “Does this comfort you?”

“N-No,” Will said, shocked by the hysterical trill of his own voice. “No, I don’t understand, why— why would you do all that?”

“To protect you. I’m sure you’ve considered what would happen to you if people in high places discovered your ability.”

Yes. Yes, he has had too many recurring nightmares of being dissected, of being stashed away in some facility, never again to see the light of day. For a long time, he feared only a mental institution, that the things he saw dying weren’t really crumbling before him. He was only a sad schizophrenic who needed sanctuary. But then, there was Winston, and he could no longer deny himself.

Dr. Lecter seemed to take the look on his face as assent. “Eat,” he commanded. “It’s good for you. And drink your juice.”

Will ate a bite. He drank some juice. It tasted like nothing at all. He cleared his throat and kept his head bowed. “Dr. Lecter… why are you being so nice to me?”

Dr. Lecter hummed, pleasure flooding his tone: “Why, what a thing to say. When have I ever not been nice to you?”

Will still didn’t look up. “I killed—” He stopped, closed his eyes tight. Exhaled. “I killed your favorite student. Your assistant.”

“There is no denying that. You did take a young writer with much promise from this mortal coil.”

A sharp needle— so thin. It pierced his heart then with surgical precision. So real Will had to clutch his chest. Her eyes: a thousand mirrored worlds shutting down. So many people she would have touched with her stories. And Will is just Will. His prose is terrible. How could he ever hope to replace her?

Dr. Lecter rose from his chair. He rounded the small table and bent and took Will’s face gently in his hands, turning them to face each other. Will jolted, pulse rabbiting up. He kept his gloved hands in his lap, pressed between his thighs.

“Don’t despair,” Dr. Lecter told him, smiling. “You will repent in some way. I have to say, I find this revelation of yours very compelling. Think, however, of all the time we have wasted. You, pretending you are not special. Hiding yourself from me. If only you had removed those gloves that first night. Do you think about that? How very different things would be now?”

It never crossed his mind before. But it did now. How could he have been so selfish, so stupid? If he had only shown himself beforehand, Beverly would still be alive. Will nodded in Dr. Lecter’s hands, unable to keep the tears at bay. He was raw as a freshly opened wound. And Dr. Lecter connected their mouths so swiftly, so easily. Will shuddered and fumbled, unsure. Dr. Lecter opened his mouth to Will and Will mimicked, desperate, his face wet and red. They stayed like that for long moments, Dr. Lecter teaching him silently how to move his tongue, how to go slack and receive. The man tasted of a foriegn land, a dreamscape Will could only courageously conjure in pubescence. When he pulled away, he looked at Will so carefully, tracing the lines of his face. He tucked a stray curl behind Will’s ear and said, “I forgive you, Will. After all, you’re here now.”

In the dorm, Matt looks at him with dark circles under his eyes. He flashes a sarcastic smile, but something soft hides behind it. “I forgive you, I guess, but only because you finally showed up.”

“Yeah,” Will says from his twin bed though he feels in a thousand places at once, “I’m here.”

 

*

 

Matt typed: what the fuck

Matt typed: will what’s wrong with you

Matt typed: is that your dog?

Will typed: give me a sec

Will typed: it’s gonna take a sec to type it all out

 

*

 

It happens outside of Will. Outside of his understanding of this world, himself, and others. The red and blue lights washing the Common. When Will travels the trashed sidewalks from his dorm to the Walker building, he looks only straight ahead. But the lights splash against the long buildings, reflecting in windows, shining in his lenses, forcing him to squint. The snow falls.

He sees it through the windows of Dr. Chilton’s Novel Narrative class. Feels it come up from the streets like heat from grates, like from the bottom of a volcano, and Dr. Chilton is talking at the board and not looking at him, fervently not looking at him, something about character dialogue and hallmark mistakes of young writers, writers whose dialogue is terrible, but then someone says something, murmurs, and the other students look towards the window, down onto the crowded sidewalks of Boylston Street.

Dr. Chilton stops and looks at them. “Excuse me, was I not in the middle of a lesson?”

They all murmur excitement and Dr. Chilton rolls his eyes. He strays from his place at the head of the room and goes to the window. “Move, please,” he says, “out of the way.” Then: “My God, is this what has you all in upset? They pull a body from the Common every couple of months. Let this be a lesson to all of you—” He strolls back to the desk after dispersing them. “Don’t walk through the Common at night unaccompanied. Especially you young ladies. All manner of terror could befall you and, when you scream, it’s statistically proven that the majority of people will ignore your cries. Inconvenience and all. Is it fair? No. But is it life? Yes. Now. Back to it.”

They get back to it. And Will is sitting alone in a Korean bakery in the afternoon, staring at a slice of cake and an untouched coffee. He tasted the cake but something was wrong with it. Maybe it was sitting out for too long.

And his phone buzzes. Just a simple text from Matt.

did you hear about Bev??? holy fucking shit

 

*

 

Out of respect, classes are suspended for winter break one week early. Time enough for grieving friends and rattled students to gather themselves before heading back to their respective corners of the country to visit family, or to just continue staring at their bare dorm walls and think about death.

In the last calendar days of the fall semester, the WLP program cobbles together a candlelight vigil that takes place in the Common, of all things. Will and Matt and the others from their program attend, huddled together in the whispering snow winds. Dusk spreads oranges and purples along the snow and the trees shimmer with fairy lights. It’s nearing Christmastime, which hits Will like a horrific afterthought. He does not feel very Christmassy.

“This is so fucking inappropriate,” Abigail says from feet away, words slightly muffled by her scarf. She holds a little candle, protecting it from the wind. “Would you hold your grandma’s funeral in the hospital room where her plug was pulled? No? Then why’re we having Bev’s vigil fifty yards from where she was murdered?”

Alana nudges her. “Shut up already. We know. What do you want to do, go down the street and have your own vigil?”

“Anything’d be better than this!”

Others turn and shush her. The whole of the school looks to be packed here, and even graduate students from the MFA programs as well. Professors and staff line the area around the gazebo. It’s nearly as bright as day with all the candles and tree lights. Will eyes Freddie standing nearby, the way her nose is red. Matt rubs her back lightly, through her winter coat.

Up at the gazebo, a familiar voice calls to them. Rings through the park. Will’s whole body shudders, and he looks across the crowds to see Dr. Lecter standing at the microphone.

“I have only a few words to say, as no elaborate oration could properly surmise my feelings. The Emerson and writing community have both suffered a great loss. Our beloved student and friend was gifted with language in a manner I have not encountered in years. The atrocity that took place here will echo through the literary ages. As we grieve for Beverly Katz, we remember the kindness and talent she wore as a garland. A moment of silence, please.”

Everyone bows their heads. Someone, somewhere, cries loudly, and someone else helps to comfort them. Will can only look up at the gazebo to see Dr. Lecter’s sunset gaze swallow the last of the shadows moving into the Common. Will holds his candle tighter.

When the vigil is over, attendees stray off in small groups. Will follows Matt, who follows the girls. The snow falls now insistently.

Freddie whispers into her scarf, “It’s not fair.”

Will’s hands burn in his gloves.

 

*

 

Boston never really shuts down. The lights, the people, the trash, the traffic, the low sky, the frog pond, the wind tearing through Back Bay, the grey rising over the east, a lamppost, an oil slick, the hot air clouding up the T, a Starbucks sign flickering, someone laughing into their cellphone at a crosswalk. These things — in perpetuity. But the snow blankets the city for Will, and he tries to smother it all in his heart. In his head:

At night:

Beverly:

“Like the Challenger all over again—”

A thousand apologies catch in Will’s throat. In a dream at 2 AM, he sees her smiling face, eyeless, crying tears of dark red wine. They spill down her pallid cheeks, connect at her soft chin, and pool beneath her on the black marble floor. Will goes to her and tries to lick them up, stem the flow, but it doesn’t stop and it won’t stop.

 

*

 

When his phone rings on a limp Monday afternoon, Will thinks it must be some mistake. He answers, expecting a robot or someone selling him insurance, but it’s that familiar timbre with a not-so-familiar greeting: “Hello, Will. How have you been?”

Matt is sitting at his desk, writing, with earphones in. The music is just barely heard through them. Will turns back to his own desk, the papers where he has written is terrible is terrible is terrible enough times to fill three meaty prose paragraphs.

“I’m okay,” Will whispers. “How… how’d you get my number? Where are you calling from?”

“I acquired a cell phone, due to the badgering of my lovely agent. I acquired your number through usual means.”

Usual means. Will chews his bottom lip.

“May I have the pleasure of your company tonight?” Dr. Lecter asks. “I have a few things to go over with you. It could be done over the phone but I also have a gift, which, as you know, cannot be given over the phone.”

The sound of his voice. So light, like Will’s classmate and Dr. Lecter’s prospective assistant’s body wasn’t taken last week by her inconsolable parents to be buried with family down in Atlanta. Like they didn’t see her mother in the arms of the department head, bent over and sobbing deep guttural noises, needing her husband to carry her away. Like Will isn’t responsible for the whole of it. If he hadn’t been such a jealous, insufferable fuck. If he had just let it go. He looks at the pages before him. Will—

is terrible is terrible is terrible

—says he will be there.

When he leaves the dorm, Matt takes an earbud out. “Where’re you heading off to this late?”

“Uh,” Will says, staring at the door frame, “Dr. Lecter asked for my help with some stuff.”

“Fuck. Are you serious? Where’s that guy get off — he tossed you out and now that Bev’s—”

“I… I gotta go,” Will says and leaves before Matt can say another word. He’s down on the street and walks and he’s through the Common and passing the gazebo and walks and he can smell it, sure he can smell it, the scent of blood from where she hit her head, the decomposing fluid that went from him to her, the dark root that blooms in his hands, and she pricked her hand, like a princess from a fairytale she fell into a cavernous sleep—

“Will,” Dr. Lecter says. 

Will is shocked into himself, confused. He stands at the threshold of number 5 and Dr. Lecter holds the door open for him. Such an easy smile on his face, crinkling the edges of his eyes. He wears a deep blue button-up and soft slacks. Will shuffles in, keeping his gloved hands in his pockets.

When the door is shut, Will goes to the hallway, the bathroom, showers, and he is out and drying himself before he stops to realize he had done it all without being told. The steam gets to him. His breath thins and he leans on the counter between the twin sinks. Just a second. Just a second to adjust. Closes his eyes. Breathes in. He smells only sea salt soap. And when the dizziness subsides, he dons his gloves and glasses and makes his way back into the living area.

Dr. Lecter stands there, almost where Will left him. He eyes Will softly. “Nicely done, Will. You haven’t told anyone about Ms. Katz, have you?”

Will’s stomach drops, hard. “No! No, I would never—”

“Settle down. I’m only asking.”

Will shakes his head. “No. Have… have you?”

“No,” Dr. Lecter says, like a foregone conclusion. It probably is. Why would he tell anyone — he who relocated the fucking body? “Since campus closed early, it has been unusually quiet. There is an air of unease over Emerson. I don’t believe it is productive for the students to wallow in grief. I don’t believe it is good for you either.”

Will swallows. “I deserve it.”

“It’s not a question of deserving, Will. You should know that better than anyone. You can deserve something and be denied it, a thousand times. You can not deserve something and be given it, easy as that.”

Will hears Freddie say it’s not fair, like she’s in the room. He whips his head around.

“Will.”

Will looks back at his professor.

Dr. Lecter removes from his shirt pocket a neatly folded paper. He sets it in Will’s gloved hands. It’s a plane ticket. From Logan to Albany International. Will sees Beverly’s face in the library, laughing, her eyes tired with joy. He looks up at Dr. Lecter, who says: “In the week since our meeting with Ms. Katz, I have written near fifty pages of new material. I believe I have you to thank.”

“So…” The ticket trembles in his hands. “So…”

“So you are coming with me for winter break. I must capitalize on this streak while it remains, and I cannot tarry here. We will return in time enough for the spring semester, rest assured.”

“Oh… but Dr. Lecter, I had, um. My parents. They’re expecting me for Christmas and New Years.”

“Surely they will understand.” He tilts his head the smallest bit and a lock of ashen brown hair falls across his forehead. “They allowed you to come to this program, though of course they miss you. But it is for your betterment. If you simply explain it to them, this one grand opportunity you have, they will not take issue.”

“But—”

“If you are uncomfortable, I could call and explain the situation.”

“No!” Will swallows it down — something. His heart percolates, despite itself. This ticket he holds in his hand. Had he ever imagined such a thing? In his wildest dreams? That manor, out in the wilds past Saratoga Springs. Will scrunches his toes on the marble floor. “No, I… I can do it. Is this my… gift?”

“Technically, no. Your gift awaits you there.”

Will blinks at him, the ticket, him again. “Um. Okay.”

Dr. Lecter favors him with a winning smile. He sets a hand on Will’s head, amidst his curls, and rubs his thumb against the curve of the skull. And his hand feels so heavy. It feels so heavy.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He has to tell his mom and dad something. He comes up with: “It’s like a field trip for the Fiction Workshop kids. We’re all going. He’s taking us all. Yeah. Just to see what it’s like to be, you know, a rich and successful author, I guess. I hear he’s got some really old books. It’ll be nice. Yeah, but— no, I won’t be a burden. He wouldn’t have invited us if he thought it’d cramp his style. No. I don’t have to pay for anything, he said. We don’t. None of us. I think it’ll be fine. Yeah, I said thank you. Uh huh. No, I. I don’t think I’ll have time to make it down there. It’ll be okay, you’ll see me as soon as summer hits. Sure. Love you too.”

He sets the phone down and looks at the ticket on his desk. His teeth hurt.

 

*

 

The days swirl together. They’re dark. The sky is perpetually grey and patchworked with scud clouds. Snow piles up in the banks, collecting trash like receptacles, and grows yellow from dog and bum piss alike. He still hasn’t told Matt yet when they walk together to The Tam and join what’s left of their Fiction Workshop cohorts for a last drink. Freddie is going back to LA the next day to be with her family, and Alana and Abigail are similarly dispersing. There’s one empty seat at their table and it feels like a wake.

“I guess I’m the only one staying put,” Matt says, swirling two olives around in his martini glass. But he doesn’t even like martinis. Will can only guess he has one because Freddie’s getting them. Matt looks sour. “My parents are going on a second honeymoon this Christmas, and that means yours truly isn’t invited. Figured I’d stay behind and work on my spring stories.”

Abigail has only ordered water. She’s barely taken a sip. “I just have to get out of here. I can’t stand this place right now.”

“Yeah,” Alana says. “It’s tough. It feels like she’s everywhere.”

Will’s head pops up. He looks at Alana, lowlit in the dingy bar glow. “You feel that too?”

“Uh huh. Of course.” She pauses. “I’m surprised, you know. That it seems to have hit you so hard, Will.”

“Jesus,” Matt says, “don’t start, Alana. He’s not heartless.”

“Well, everyone knows Dr. Lecter was going to switch him out with Bev. He’s got to be at least a little happy.”

“That’s really mean,” Freddie says, soft. Her third martini is drained. She doesn’t eat the olives, instead plopping them into Matt’s drinks. “I’m sure he didn’t even think about that.”

“Well, someone did,” Alana says. Her gaze feels like darkness, working its way across the table to Will, crawling up him and seeping into his own eyes. “When I was at the help desk, I heard Dr. Chilton and Dr. Gideon talking nearby. They said Will’s back with Dr. Lecter and he’s taking Will to his place out in New York. They didn’t sound terribly surprised either. Dr. Chilton said something like this was inevitable. Do you know what he means by that, Will?”

“Okay, just stop the witch hunt,” Matt says, hackles rising. “Will’s not going out to Dr. Lecter’s place, he’s going home to Tennessee! This is just some insane gossip. I hear shit like that too. People like to talk.”

Alana just keeps looking at Will. His heart drips, and he can hear it resounding through his body.

“Will,” Abigail says. “That’s not true, is it?”

Freddie orders another martini.

Matt urges him, “Just tell them you’re going home, Will.”

The martini comes to the table.

The table’s flooded with glass and spit-coated rims glittering in the half-light.

Will’s voice is so small it’s barely heard over the eighties rock playing: “But he asked me to. He bought me a ticket. What was I supposed to say?”

“I knew it,” Alana says.

“What?” Will asks. “What did you know?”

“God-fucking-dammit, Will,” Matt says, slouching back in his wooden chair. “What the fuck.”

“You’re fucking him,” Abigail says, simply. “That’s the only reason he’d be taking you out to his house. In the middle of the country? Are you serious?”

“I’m not,” Will says, and can only whisper. “I swear, I’m not. He hasn’t—” His hand on Will’s head. “We haven’t—” Waking up in the guest bedroom. “I mean, he’s not even—” His back arched impossibly in a room full of literary socialites.

Nicely done.

Will shifts uncomfortably in his own skin. There’s— room here. Just a millimeter or so, between him and the skin. Will shudders.

“This is so fucked up,” Abigail says. “What’re you doing it for, good grades? That’s why you’re always so upset when he says something nice about us in workshop. It makes so much sense now. You’re jealous.”

Will flinches. His throat runs hot. “I’m not fucking him but since you’re so keen to think I am, what sense does it make? Huh?”

“Will,” Matt says.

“No, I want her to tell me. Tell me why, if we were together, he’d have tried to switch me with Bev.”

Alana places the flat of a hand on the table. “Maybe because you’ve been gagging for his cock since orientation. And it was just such an easy mark. But he knows there’s a difference between a warm hole and talent,” she says quietly. “And one of those things is always in supply.”

Will rises from the table, rocking it back. A few glasses tumble over, crash to the hardwood floor stained with years and years of dirt and booze. Will grips the table edge, presses so hard he might disintegrate it, the bad touch flowing through the feeble pleather and varnished wood and taking all of them down. He groans and releases it. They all look at him with those same accusatory eyes. Freddie, like she doesn’t want to believe it. Matt, like he wishes he hadn’t heard it. Abigail, like she knows it. Alana, like she’s always known it.

Will turns and rushes out of the bar. He hits the street and the wide expanse of the world feels too small for him.

 

*

 

When Will goes to his cab the morning of the flight, he doesn’t see Matt. Only his brown tuft of hair over his comforter. It’s almost impossible to know if he’s really sleeping or just mimicking the steady stream of breath. Will stands in a sliver of dawnlight, wrapped in winter warmth, and looks at the outline of the body. He leans over and presses the slightest kiss next to the hair, on the pillow. He leaves, wordless.

 

*

 

“You’re tense, Will,” Dr. Lecter says and is Will ever going to get used to him using his first name? Probably not. He also will probably not get used to the unimaginable luxury of first class travel, which, of course, seems to have no impact on Dr. Lecter. He sits near Will in his usual tailored button-up and wool pants and cannot look more disinterested in their surroundings. The ample room, the glasses of champagne they were given. Will guesses he’s been flying this way for so long, it seems run-of-the-mill. Will’s never flown in anything but economy his whole life and more often than not, he’s relegated to a Greyhound bus.

Dr. Lecter looks at him in the windowed sunlight. “You should relax.” He places a hand around the nape of Will’s neck and squeezes there, and Will can’t halt the moan that comes out of him, nor stop an uncomfortable wiggle in his seat.

“Dr. Lecter, that’s dangerous,” he mutters as the man’s fingers stroke soft circles there. Will shudders against the soft material of his seat. He turns his head away, to the window. “Ummm.”

“I don’t believe that it is. Now, if I were to…” He removes his hand and takes it to one of Will’s — lifting the gloved hand up between them. Will twitches and distantly wonders what this looks like to stewardesses floating by. Like a successful man holding his young lover’s hand? Jesus Christ, what has he become? Dr. Lecter rubs at the end of the glove and Will jerks his hand back. Dr. Lecter's eyes dazzle. “You are adorable, Will. Not to worry. It is not my intention to commit suicide here on this plane. Although I have to say, the condition of those gloves makes that a distinct possibility. They’re terribly cracked and in ruins. How do you know there isn’t one small, infinitesimal bit of your skin bared through the material?”

He doesn’t actually know. He looks down at his worn gloves. “Fuck, I’m so careless. Why’d this have to happen to me, of all people? The worst possible choice.”

“I don’t know, Will,” Dr. Lecter says, and takes his hand into the dark warmth of Will’s hair. He massages there. “I’m beginning to think you are not the worst possible choice.”

 

*

 

“An hour?” Will tries not to whine and whines anyway. “I’m tired.”

“You should have slept on the plane.”

“I couldn’t — I was too wired.” He presses himself into the other side of the seats in the limousine. The luxury just keeps on coming. They exited Albany International to this long sleek thing waiting outside. The driver loaded their luggage and Will now finds himself surrounded by the darkened windows, the soft blue LED lights in the floor. He catches sight of a small bar nearby loaded with expensive bourbons and whiskeys. “Plus,” Will adds, “you kept touching my hands.”

Dr. Lecter sits across from him. “You’re very private, very anti-touch.”

“Don’t I have every reason to be?”

“Not with me. Not anymore.”

The limousine pulls through the arrivals roundabout and they’re on the highway.

When Will doesn’t say anything, doesn’t know what would be appropriate to say, Dr. Lecter continues: “Will, why do you think I’m bringing you with me?”

“Oh… you… you said you didn’t think it was good, the environment. After Bev.” The name tastes like ashes on his tongue. “You don’t want me to wallow.”

“I said that to get you on the plane. To quickly bypass any feeble resistance you might make, in your naivety.” He waves a hand to Will’s weak bleat of surprise. “You can’t possibly be ignorant enough to believe I would bring just any student to my home, simply because they are awash in grief.”

Will guesses he is that ignorant. He feels like something has been percolating here, nearly from the start. The absolute knowing hatred in Alana’s eyes when she accused him of fucking their teacher. He wanted to appeal to her, though his pride, what little of it still remained, did not allow it. When he got back to the dorm that night, sick and alone, he thought of all the things he might have said to defend his innocence and found they were, each of them, worthless lies.

Nothing inappropriate has happened.

He hasn’t touched me.

Hasn’t seen me naked.

Hasn’t kissed me.

I’ve not woken in his bed, showered in his home, sat on his lap, let him draw circles on my skin, locking me in body and spirit to that loft.

I am innocent.

He is not.

And when he looks at Dr. Lecter sitting idly across from him in the spacious backseat, he can only say, “I guess I’m here for something else.”

 

*

 

How does he keep doing this? When Will was sure he had no awe left in him, all of it swept away in a bluster of shame and confusion, Hannibal Lecter is able to awe Will. From the depths of him, it rises like sewage, dank and murky, and he revels in it, drowns in it. The long road has led him here: to the wintry countryside of New York, past farmhouses and rolling white hills dotted with cattle and ranch fences running until they run out and the afternoon clouds seeping down from on high and the plains go on for miles. Past that, and past these: the forests rising from the ground, homegrown, netted together in close conspiring clusters, the dirt road they’d ridden turning to uniform cobblestone, the pebbles enlarging to round stones, and then, and then—

He sees it, just over the ridge.

(A memory, of being fourteen and secluded in his room with the white warmth of his computer screen washing over him in pajamas.

Matt typed: see this is his house  

Matt typed: [download .jpeg]

Will’s young eyes scanning the manor amidst the trees in a shitty pixelated JPEG. Even from a thousand miles away and through screens, it amazed him.

Matt typed: he doesn’t have a wife right? def no kids. what’s he need all that space for

Will typed: i wanna go there.

Matt typed: lol you do that, Will )

The forest falling down around it, and the lawns in perfectly dusted snow grooves like carpet, like roads, all leading from miles back to the building. Like every road in the world has led Will here. He can’t even understand it. Just the feeling: a blustery day sweeping through his body, the little crevasse, his hands which press up against the tinted window as he strains to see out. Dr. Lecter may very well consider Will a child for reacting this way but Will is not here for him. He is here to see the great house of novelist Hannibal Lecter. He has come all this way. He’s endured so much shit. And all it really took was— all it took was—

Remember when the Challenger—?

Will wheezes slightly, and sits back in the seat until they have pulled up into the circular driveway before the manor. A large fountain pulses water around a replica of the Venus de Milo. Water also pours from her arm sockets. The door is opened by the driver and Will is second out.

The wind whips through his curls, blowing back the ends of Dr. Lecter’s scarf. The manor is four stories in front of them, with spindled spires touching the low belly of the sky, but when Dr. Lecter walks toward it, Will is hard-pressed to tell which of them is taller. Will follows, ducking like something might hit him. Their luggage follows with the driver.

“I’ve always wanted to ask,” Will mutters, “why do you have such a big place if you live alone?”

“Who told you I live alone?”

“Eh?”

Dr. Lecter doesn’t look back at him. The front doors, framed by a large stone arch, open, and Will is both surprised and not very surprised to see the two maids from the gathering after Bedelia’s panel. They look copy and pasted from the loft, against all odds. Their long brown ponytails flipping like cattails against the wind, their feet bare. They wear subtle black and Will might think they were sisters, if he didn’t acknowledge probability. They smile at Dr. Lecter, brightness on a low day.

“Welcome home,” they say and take the bags from the driver. The switch off is automatic and they almost don’t look at each other. Similarly, they do not acknowledge Will, and this gives him immediate pause.

You saw me naked on a pedestal with my ass in the air, he wants to shout, so why won’t you look at me now?

In small moments of reprieve from writing and worrying, Will has considered that night and all who took place in it. He has blamed them. The maids for not stepping in, his professors for not carrying him off like common art thieves, Bedelia for not recognizing him as her future client and ordering Dr. Lecter to stop. But in the end, these things go away. And blame goes wherever sweat does, in the cold.

When the door is closed, Will is confronted with the inside of the manor. He knows he’s been swallowed whole.

Dr. Lecter addresses the girls: “This is Will Graham, our honored guest. He will be staying with us for the duration.”

“Yes,” they say, and only now do they look directly at him. “Welcome, Mr. Graham.”

To Will, he turns and introduces them: “They are April and May. If you have need, let one of them know.”

Will peers over the man’s shoulder at the girls, standing motionless. “Which one’s which?”

“It hardly matters. Call, and one or both will come.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“Please show Will to his rooms,” he tells April and May.

They comply, taking Will’s bags and, secondly, Will, upstairs. Will looks back at Dr. Lecter standing in the foyer, light from the high windows raining down around him.

 

*

 

Will doesn’t feel so good. He tells himself it’s just nerves, and shock, and awe, yes all of those things. All muddled together in his stomach like sludge, and he can’t sick it up — he’s tried, in the lush stone-paneled bathroom connected to his lavish bedroom. He resides on the third floor and when he looks out of the vista windows across the room, he can see the long expanse of the back lawns that stretch out into who knows where. Nestled, there, is a small cottage, which Will suspects is where the girls live. It is similarly stone and with a working chimney and small path that leads from the big house there. 

They left him in here, with one of them standing at the door to inform him he will be fetched when dinner is ready.

He almost protested, but his body told him no. His body tells him now and here, in this cavernous monster way out nowhere with his parents having no earthly idea where he’s gone, is the time to sleep, and he can’t fight it.

When he wakes, it’s dark out. There’s no way to tell time in his room and when he rifles through his things, he finds his cellphone dead. Amazing. He looks up at the creak of his bedroom door and April or May — it hardly matters — stands there in her demure dark.

“Dinner,” she says, smiling.

“Oh, uh. Okay. Be right there.”

She nods her understanding but doesn’t get lost. Just stands there in the doorway, waiting. Will groans and tries to find something other than his wrinkled travel clothes to wear. He searches around, is rushed by the mere quiet presence of April or May, and settles on tossing an Emerson hoodie over his travel-rumpled shirt. He follows the maid down the grand staircase into the inner workings of the house.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Hey. Do you remember me? From the loft in Boston?”

“Yes,” she chirps. She doesn’t turn to look back at him. “Of course.”

“Do you think he’s gonna do that again? Like… a party.”

“He often hosts grand parties,” she says. They stop outside impossibly tall cherry wood doors. The handles shimmer gold when she takes them. “But I believe this will be a private affair.”

She pulls them open and Will is presented with the vast warmth of the dining hall. He cannot get over feeling so small — this place is like an extension of Dr. Lecter and he looks so at ease standing at the end of the nearly twenty foot dining table. There are two places set: the head of the table, and one beside. Will makes the long shuffle down, feeling infinitely childish in his Emerson hoodie and socked feet.

Dr. Lecter doesn’t say anything about his dress. Just looks at him with those wine-dark eyes glowing in the candlelight. Will looks at his wine glass, filled to the brim beside his plate.

“How do you like your room, Will? Is everything suitable?” he asks. 

The maids come in with appetizers, pirouetting, noiseless, bare feet ghosting along the floors. Dr. Lecter doesn’t acknowledge them as they set plates down, and Will guesses he shouldn’t either. It’s hard not to, to talk like they’re the only ones in the room.

“It’s… it’s more than suitable,” Will says, watching April or May echappe away. He looks back to his host, his professor, his— conspirator? “It’s all just… too much. Is it okay for me to say that? That it’s too much? I look at this place and feel like… like I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t deserve it.”

“We have talked about deserving before.”

“That doesn’t change how I feel.”

Dr. Lecter looks to consider this. He begins eating. “Then, you must embrace it. You’re here now. You can know you don’t deserve something and still partake of it. Perhaps that makes it more enjoyable.”

There’s something in there that echoes. Bounces off these stone walls and returns back to Will, continuously, until dinner is finished, four courses that Will barely touched but for his wine, which he gulped down, and Will finds himself being led outside through the side garden. It is glass-walled and protected from much of the frigid temperature. Dr. Lecter informs him there are five side gardens, all like this, and Will, stalling from both the wine and his unease with simple mathematics, wonders how that’s possible. But he doesn’t ask. His mood has worsened, dampened by each new marvel he encounters here. This place is so perfect it’s terrible.

And Will wonders, now, sitting on the garden sofa surrounded by infinite and strongly-scented flowers, just how long a month will seem in a place like this.

Dr. Lecter sits nearby with his own glass of wine — April or May deftly set another in Will’s own hand. Before them burns a fire glass pit, roaring heat, abating the December winds. Will looks down into his wine and can’t see himself.

“I guess this must be pretty cool to you,” Will says to his glass. He feels Dr. Lecter shift. “The thing with my hands. At one time, I think Matt thought it was pretty cool too. Maybe he still does, I dunno. But. It’s not cool to me. You guys don’t understand. Imagine never touching anything, anyone, just because— just because your touch is literal poison to living things.”

“Mr. Brown knows,” Dr. Lecter hums.

“Yeah. Well, he’s been my friend for years. I had to tell someone.”

Dr. Lecter looks off, as if he is considering something.

“And when did you first read Three Graves?”

Will sips his wine carefully. “When I was nine.”

And Dr. Lecter looks at him. No— he looks at Will’s hands. Then him. “You have not touched a person barehanded since you were nine?”

“Um.” He swallows, and it sounds so loud. “Well, yeah. I mean. I did touch my dog, Winston. That was… the first thing that mattered.”

The first thing that mattered. That’s true, isn’t it? Though he has never said it aloud.

He continues: “I didn’t mean to. I fucking adored Winston. He was my best friend. It happened before, when I found out my two fingers—” He holds up the pointer and middle finger of his left hand. “That they killed things. Just by touching flowers and plants, but then… I remember when my— when my grandma was sick. And me and my parents went to visit her in hospice care. She looked just— just awful, with skin like paper and her eyes all sunken in. A skeleton wracked with pancreatic cancer. It was scary, and she didn’t know me from anyone else anyway. I took off my mitten and I touched her, just soft, like this.” He scrapes the middle and pointer finger along the rim of his glass. “Then, it happened. Slow, but definite. Despite how dim her eyes had been, there were lights in them. And then, they all started to go out, one by one. She died, and everyone mourned but no one suspected anything. Because she was supposed to die, you know? I thought, too, that it didn’t prove anything. Maybe it was just coincidence. But then it spread. And I didn’t know it. So when I pet Winston, even without the two fingers, it— he—” Will looks up at the wheeling sky. Little points of light in the dark. “I dragged his body to show Matt on the computer.”

“It spread, when you touched a human,” Dr. Lecter says, as if they are discussing the weather.

“Uh huh. I keep waiting for it to spread again, since Bev, but—” He touches the back of his wrist to a nearby hydrangea. Nothing. “I almost wish it would just happen already. It feels like I’m being balanced on something I have no hope of getting off of. Just balancing forever. And it’s taking all my willpower and strength to stay standing.”

Dr. Lecter takes hold of the large hydrangea. “You just need to relax, Will. Finish your wine.”

Will frowns, sips anyway; automatic. “You remember when Bev was in your loft? Remember when she didn’t drink the wine? She thought it was drugged.”

“She thought so because of your erratic behavior. Drink.”

Will clutches the glass tighter. He drinks. “Is this your plan? You’re gonna get me drunk and then, what, have your way with me?”

Dr. Lecter looks at Will sidelong, with this slowly rising eyebrow as if Will has said something fantastically stupid. “Do you honestly believe I need to get you drunk to have my way with you?”

“Everyone in Fiction Workshop thinks you’re fucking me.”

“Is that so.”

“That I’m letting you for— for good grades, an edge with publishers, a kind word, I don’t fucking know. All of the above, maybe.”

“I see.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Not at all. After the spring semester, I’ll leave regardless of what they think.”

“Yeah, but I have to stay! For four years!” He drinks again, and again. “It’s so fucking stupid. If only they knew.”

“Knew what, Will?”

The glass is empty. Will chases the dregs. “That even if you were fucking me, I wouldn’t get any of those things in return.” He pants white breath out into the night.

Dr. Lecter caresses him with a gaze. A gentle crinkle at his eyes. The fire undulates, throws shadows and light haphazardly. He says, “You are very right, Will. I’m quite the impartial teacher that way. April, May.”

The two of them enter the garden with such silence and quickness that it startles Will back against the cushions. April or May takes the glass from his gloved hands and April or May helps him stand on unsteady legs.

“W-What’s—”

“Prepare him,” Dr. Lecter says and turns back to the fire pit.

“Yes,” they say and usher Will over the winding path back into the manor, deftly ignoring his slurred cries of hey and stop it and what’s going on?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They bathe him. Will almost doesn’t let them, at first — he struggles, and curses, and tells them no, but in the end their patient doe eyes are so overwhelmingly placid, he can’t help but give in. Like nursemaids with fussing children, they let Will wear himself out. They strip him down gently, and part of Will is comforted in this. It feels like memory, or simple routine. When he is with Dr. Lecter, in his home, he must shower — loft or countryside manor, it makes little difference. April and May’s presence becomes as immaterial as steam.

They take great care: shampooing and conditioning his hair while he sits, brooding, in the oversized wood-paneled tub. They wash his body in sea salt soap which seems to follow him everywhere. Or maybe it’s something only for him. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, one of them unwrap a new bar from a stash under the twin sinks. The girls sit on the edge of the bath and wash his arms.

His hands they wrapped in plastic.

Will looks at his cellophane-coated hands sealed with rubber bands and says, “He told you guys?”

April or May says, “He alerted us of the situation.”

“Gee.”

April or May dips into the sudsy water and lifts Will’s left foot, washing between each toe. He thinks back on that night of the gathering and guesses they’ve seen every part of him anyway — what’s there to be modest about? 

When he’s out of the bath, Will feels tired. The steam gets to his head, fills it, and they rubbed him lightly, almost like a massage. He feels the weight of the day, of travel, of despair, and so when April or May hand him another small glass of dessert wine, Will tries to refuse it.

“I don’t want any,” he whines.

“Just take a sip, see if you like it,” April or May says.

The other April or May finishes drying him, and they usher him into an adjoining room. It’s cooler here; goosebumps lightly form along his skin. Here, the girls manifest a small bowl, twin to the one Will remembers from the gathering. The brush with its ornate handle, too. Inside this bowl, a thick black substance gently glitters. Will shrinks away.

“There there,” they say, like coaxing a small animal. Smooching noises included. “It won’t hurt.”

Will groans, loud enough he hopes Dr. Lecter hears him, from wherever he is. Who knows where he is in this place. Who knows where Will is. Suddenly, it comes on him all at once, as both April and May join forces to swirl lines of the black paint along the curves of his muscles: no one knows precisely where he is. His mom and dad think he’s on some insane school field trip. His professors thought this was inevitable. And he is out here with a man who covered his murder, who took Will’s face in his hands in the morning light and said—

You will repent in some way.

Will’s hand shakes and he downs his small glass of wine. They were right. It’s pretty good.

At last it’s done, and Will feels like nothing so much as a piece of canvas. There are lines from his undereyes to his chin down to his ankles, each curving naturally with the grooves of his body. He looks down at himself in the body-length mirror wide enough to reflect the three of them. The girls begin taking the plastic from his hands.

“Your funeral,” Will tells them, head swirling with sweet notes of the wine.

They throw the plastic away. April or May comes to face him with a thin black box that is just bigger than her open palm. When she opens it, Will just stares, and she explains: “From him.”

Gloves. Terribly sheer and black and lightly stoned along the frilled hem with tiny diamonds. Between each three diamonds, a ruby. These things don’t make sense in Will’s mind — wine and travel-slog be damned. They don’t make sense. He can’t take them apart: the softness, the way they shimmer in the overhead light. April and May place them on his hands with the utmost care. Will allows this, unmoving: he has never felt so doll-like, thing-like, it takes him back to that first night when he sat on his professor’s lap and a fire of indignation lit in his gut. But something else came, too, and it stayed.

It stayed.

They guide him out of the room, through the halls; April or May in front and April or May in back. Will walks in a daze. He has not been in this corridor yet; massive Bernini-esque paintings look down at him from on high, judging, calculating his every step. God, if only Matt could see him now. What would he have to say?

Don’t think about Matt right now, he tells himself. Nothing good can come of it.

They come to two large doors, equitable in size almost to the dining hall. April and May pull them apart with great effort, and Will is presented with Dr. Lecter and Dr. Lecter is presented with him.

“Here he is, thanks for waiting,” April and May say and they all but shove Will into the room and push the doors closed behind him. The turn of the lock is deafening.

The wide expanse of the room. Walled by open windows on the far side, and softly carpeted. And high ceilings, and darkly colored walls. And a walnut wood bed, large and freshly made. And Dr. Lecter, standing amid the cold clarity, shirt sleeves rolled up.

Will tries to blink out the haze. “Hi,” he says, and his voice cracks, of all things. “Um.”

Dr. Lecter exhales laughter. He crosses the floor to Will, takes his chin in hand, careful of the paint. By now, it’s surely set. It feels so, anyway, the two hardened paint lines under his eyes like dried tears. Dr. Lecter turns Will’s head from one side to the other, like a physician checking eyesight. He leans in, then, and breathes in deep into Will’s neck. Will startles, back rod-straight, rising onto the balls of his feet.

“You smell good,” Dr. Lecter informs him quietly. And that’s the world in a nutshell. Will leans into the man and inhales in kind — and Dr. Lecter always smells good. This deep woodsy scent and leather and earth, these things magnified in their current environment. This place magnifies everything, Will thinks languidly, and he doesn’t mind when Dr. Lecter drops his chin to take one of Will’s hands in his. “I knew they would look like this.”

“Like what,” Will mutters against the man’s neck. He has never been touched like this before. So gently. With Dr. Lecter’s other arm coming around Will’s low back to pull him close, Will feels more than drunk. The wine swims in him, and something else. This is— 

“Befitting,” Dr. Lecter says.

“Are they my, uh, gift?”

“No, not at all.”

He seems to suddenly take notice of Will’s swooning into him. He smiles against Will’s temple and takes a wide step back. Will flails lightly, regaining his footing. This is the first notice he’s taken that Dr. Lecter is holding a length of looped rope in one hand. “I take it, Will, that with what you divulged to me out in the garden, you are something of a novice to pleasure.”

Will blinks, rubbing at one eye. What time can it be? Midnight? 1 AM? He says, “If you’re asking if I still got my cherry, then yeah, I do.”

“Your cherry,” Dr. Lecter echoes, thoughtfully delighted. “Yes, I believe that will do nicely. Come here, Will.”

Will comes when called. He watches from behind a wall of watery curiosity as Dr. Lecter uses the length of rope to bind Will’s wrists. The rope is soft, silken; the bind is strong. Two loops around his wrists, then between them, bowed with a tight knot at the juncture of his thumbs. When Dr. Lecter seems satisfied, he pulls and Will is jerked forward, following the man to the bed. Dr. Lecter presses him back-down to the infinitely soft bedclothes, head cushioned by too many pillows to count. Will’s gaze flickers to the dark world outside, the snow beginning to fall around the estate. The glass looks so cold.

The end of the rope is tied through a space of the headboard. Will pulls at it, testing, and finds he’s secure. He’s not going anywhere.

Flashes of the confusion and anger on his classmates’ faces spark in the back of his mind, like fireworks, terrible in the night. Across the table, their eyes saying everything they themselves hadn’t. And if they could see him now— oh, if they could see him now.

Dr. Lecter’s weight shifts the bed, and Will’s breath catches. He has never considered this, concretely. It’s been in him, in a capacity, this: Dr. Lecter’s large hand petting him, just against his ribcage. The ridges of hardened paint numbing his touch — the sensation strong on his skin, made stronger by spaces of barrier. Will shuts his eyes when Dr. Lecter lowers his mouth to Will’s neck again. He shudders with the warmth there, the dampness of a tongue. And teeth. Just the points, at first. As if he only wants to test for ripeness. Will mewls, unable to keep it in, and the softness is too much, the raw fidgety feeling of almost. Will wants to jump into it, catapult into it, if he is what his classmates think of him then let him be it already.

Will tries to throw his arms around the man, wants to pull him in close, but his wrists barely move at all. Will struggles, groans.

“Is the rope really necessary?” he asks, surprised at how out of breath he sounds. “I have gloves on, right? Hey.”

Dr. Lecter reaches up and rubs a thumb gently against Will’s nipple. Says into Will’s ear: “Precautions. You have heard of safe sex, yes?”

Will’s eye twitches. “T-That means condoms!”

“Not here, it doesn’t.”

A few questions float through Will’s mind, and then Dr. Lecter’s mouth is against his once more and those things evaporate. Into thin air. And Will’s having trouble breathing air, and— he doesn’t mind. The sensation of Dr. Lecter’s heavier body against his, and the shift when Dr. Lecter undoes the buttons on his shirt, both nearly miraculous. The reveal of his toned chest and strong biceps. The chest hair Will recalls from that very first visit to the loft. If he doesn’t think about where he is, who they are, what he is, he can enjoy being a boy losing his virginity. He can enjoy this handsome, world famous writer who has seen fit to take him home. He doesn’t have to consider Matt’s look of hurt disappointment or Alana’s searing accusations. He doesn’t have to think of Beverly’s lights going off one by one. And her face, the way she smiled. The Common in the middle of the night. A desk Will sat at in class, wondering when—

Will’s cry is muffled when Dr. Lecter shoves two fingers in his mouth. He rises up over Will and watches him, bemused, hair askew and shirt open. He says as Will chokes, “Will, listen to me. You are not something that thinks. Do you understand? You don’t have to worry. Everything will be fine.”

When he says it like that, it doesn’t feel like everything will be fine. But he’s probably right, as he has a habit of being. If a bookholder doesn’t think and a wineholder doesn’t think and art doesn’t think, what need is there for Will to think? He can—

Just be—

Just be.

Dr. Lecter’s expression shifts from bemused to darkly satisfied. “There. Right there.”

The fingers slide from Will’s mouth, dripping wet. Dr. Lecter drags the fingertips down Will’s hairless chest and stomach, and lower, and lower. Will goes from looking to not looking, from wanting to see to not wanting to see and when Dr. Lecter opens one of his legs, Will releases this thin sound he’s never heard from himself before. He arches his back, feels one finger press and sweetly slide in.

Fine. He’s fine. He wants to beg Dr. Lecter to kiss him again, suck the worry from him the way he took his breath away, but only succeeds in pulling his restraints, fisting and unfisting his hands. This catches Dr. Lecter’s attention.

As he continues with one finger in Will, he leans forward and Will feels it: the man’s mouth around two of Will’s gloved fingers. The warmth and damp even through the material. Dr. Lecter’s finger pushes in further and Will gasps, and sucks the breath back in when a second finger joins it.

That’s all he’s ever done to himself. Two fingers, prodding tentatively, because he read somewhere online that it would feel good. It felt okay. And here, now— he realizes what all the fuss was about. Dr. Lecter is so warm. His fingers move in such a way. And he finally takes his mouth from Will’s fingers and replaces it where it belongs: Will’s mouth, a kiss, a nip at his low lip, then his throat and spends time there: whole mouth against his Adam’s apple, and the threat of a bite that for a second feels real, and Will bucks up slightly, and he’s trying to keep some decorum, but.

If Dr. Lecter doesn’t do something soon—

Will throws his head back when Dr. Lecter slides down and spreads his fingers, undulates them and pulls, like motioning come here. He takes the blushing tip of Will into his mouth, just that, and Will’s only conscious warning is the man’s first name stumbling out of his mouth amid startled cries.

Half of Will’s come drips from the man’s chin, the rest swallowed. When Dr. Lecter raises his head, Will finds him looking obscenely pleased with himself. Will tucks his siren-red face into his shoulder.

“D-Don’t make fun of me!”

“When have I ever made fun of you?” he asks, crawling up the length of Will’s body. He turns Will’s face to kiss him, and Will tentatively licks the come from his chin. The taste is unpleasant but the body-long shiver coming from Dr. Lecter is worth it. He looks down at Will, considering. “You called me by my name.”

His fingers, they move. Will now realizes that during his orgasm, Dr. Lecter had placed a third inside. Will’s body is languid, less tightly strung.

“Sorry,” Will mumbles, exhaling. He watches as Dr. Lecter takes his fingers away, rises back and fully discards his shirt and slacks. When he returns, body placed between Will’s spread legs, Will feels himself light anew and the contact is verging on too much after an orgasm.

Dr. Lecter says into his ear, “Call me one more time.” He licks the hollow under Will’s ear, and presses Will’s thigh again, the pale skin marred by black paint open to the ceiling. Will squirms beneath him, feeling the slick start of him, just the beginning, and he can’t stop himself worrying about pain.

“Hannibal,” he says, almost a question, moving his hips. In response, Dr. Lecter rolls his hips down. Will’s groan is noiseless.

Dr. Lecter’s face is obscured, buried in Will’s neck. He kisses it like it’s Will’s mouth. He positions himself, one hand sliding up under Will’s knee. His hips start forward.

“Again,” he says, soft.

Will does it, blushing so hard his whole body must be red. It sounds so terribly inappropriate and Will can only liken it to calling his own dad by his first name. They are only three years apart in age. It’s the last thing he remembers before Dr. Lecter is inside him, a steady push forward, undeterred by Will’s gasping and small cries and pleas to slow, just slow, oh, he can’t. But of course, he can, and Dr. Lecter knew it, he always knows what Will is and is not capable of and in this moment, Will is filled to the brim and secure in the knowledge of unknowledge, that he doesn’t know and it doesn’t matter, nothing matters but Dr. Lecter’s body and the heft of it and the searing heat of him pressed inside Will now to the hilt. Hips against thighs. The paint spreading from heat and sweat and Dr. Lecter’s body is streaked with it too.

He holds Will’s hips, tight, and thrusts again. Will yelps, babbles, wants his mouth, wants his mouth, wants his mouth. Anything to bury his screams in. The looming notion that April and May are never too far from their master is there — and Will can’t stand the thought of them listening to him lose the petals of his flower one at at time.

One.

At.

A.

Time. And again. And— Dr. Lecter’s hand slips on Will’s wet flesh and he regrips higher, thumb falling in the space between Will’s ribs. Skin stretched tight over his bones. He hasn’t been eating well. His hipbones like little knots protruding, and one of them pops with a particularly rough shove from Dr. Lecter. Will hisses between his teeth, tries to catch his breath, almost does it, and then feels the gentle slide of the glove fabric from his hand.

Will cries out, stretching his bare fingers. Dr. Lecter pulls off the other glove. He tosses them gently onto the ruffled covers.

“Y-You can’t— hey!” Will moans when Dr. Lecter rolls his hips again. “T-That’s dangerous!”

Dr. Lecter mutters something. It doesn’t sound like English. He pushes one of Will’s legs up against his chest, splaying him, and drives down into him brutally, forcing defenseless sounds from Will’s throat. Unbidden things. Faithless things. Who cares if the girls are around to hear? His voice echoes throughout the room, throughout the entirety of the manor— when Dr. Lecter grazes that spot, Will’s whole body tightens around him. Calling out fuck and ahh and uh huh, throwing his legs around the man’s waist. Hands clenching and unclenching. Pulling against the rope that offers no leeway. Dr. Lecter folds him: both legs against his chest, heels over Dr. Lecter's shoulders, the full of his weight pressing Will down into the mattress. He fucks Will like he’s trying to break the bed. To break something. Images, just fragments of thoughts, appear and disappear, like Matt’s eyes and a dead gardenia and Beverly crying over the Challenger—

Up, up, and then the fire in the sky!

—calling his dad by his first name—

It made me so sad.

—and the horrible prospect when Dr. Lecter leans over Will’s head and he can feel the man’s breath against his fingertips.

Will shuts his eyes, and comes when his professor does. Feels him pulsating inside, the heavy groan reverberating from his body into Will’s. The sensation of being so wet. The newness of it. And his own toes curling against sweat-slick flesh, crossing at the ankles behind the man’s head. Keeping him there. Keeping him still. When Dr. Lecter is inside him, the roominess he has experienced between himself and his skin does not exist. He’s so full.

Dr. Lecter lowers away from Will’s bound hands. Will’s legs drop. Will looks at him through blurry vision: his face streaked with black paint, hair sticking to his forehead by way of perspiration. His eyes hold dark.

Will croaks, “You d-didn’t say you were gonna take them off.”

Dr. Lecter smirks wryly, as if Will is being tiresome. He slips out of Will, replacing himself with his fingers. Will yips, startled by pain, panting openly. Dr. Lecter says, “Not to worry. We can put them back on after.”

Will’s hips shift. He winces. “Huh? After wh-what?”

“After we’re done,” he says easily and kisses Will's nose.

 

*

 

Three times. By the end of it, Will’s mind is little more than a puddle Dr. Lecter has splashed through. By the end of it, Will’s throat is cried out and raw. By the end of it, he’s lost count of how many times he’s come — the last few times felt like they were forcefully yanked out of him, his body attempting to take hold but Dr. Lecter refuted nature and opened the floodgate. Paint coats the bedsheets, wettened by sweat and come and saliva and Will’s exhausted tears.

Will lays sprawled in the bed with his professor’s come leaking from him. He watches through hazy vision as Dr. Lecter grabs a small knife from the bedside table and cuts the rope quickly. Will’s arms fall forward and he cries out at the pops in his shoulders. His entire back is afire.

Dr. Lecter reclines on the drier side of the bed. He watches with quiet interest: Will turning on his stomach, wriggling around to fetch his new gloves, shakily replacing them. Will’s breath comes and leaves him, of its own accord.

When Will feels safe again, he looks at Dr. Lecter mildly — as mildly as he can manage as he feels like a piece of debris dropped by a cyclone. “What— what’re you smiling about?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Dr. Lecter says and looks off to the other side of the room. “Are you ready for your gift?”

Will all but blanks. “You mean this wasn’t it?”

Dr. Lecter’s smile does crack into laughter then. “No, Will. Certainly not.”

“What else is there?”

“A good question,” he says and moves towards Will, gripping his wrists to pull him to the center of the bed. Will seizes up, clamping his legs together. He doesn’t think he can take another round. It must be nearing 3 if not 4 AM. He’s just a tatter by now, wary of any sudden movement and unable to defend. Dr. Lecter looks into his eyes. “Do you love me?”

“Yeah,” Will says, instant, wondering if Dr. Lecter means him, the professor, or Hannibal Lecter the novelist, or his writing, or all three, and there is no real answer to the latter but he does love some of those things. “Y-Yeah, I do.”

And Will, for all his follies and foibles, knows better than to ask in return.

Dr. Lecter says, “Then you are home.”

“I’m,” Will says, lost.

“Since the night you revealed yourself to me, my mind has suffered ongoing deluge. Awash in the lunacy of love for the written word I have not known since I was your age, twenty-four long years ago. Your hands have brought this about. All my life, I have heard the greats behind the epics speak on Muses come and gone. And all my life, I thought them mad or liars. I never knew something like this could exist. Far better than any student assistant could possibly aid me. No epiphany could match it. It seems so simple, so common sense, now that I look back on our initial meeting. The impossibility of someone like you being permitted into the program. The way you pursued me, recklessly. I attempted to reject you, rid myself of you, but you returned time and again. Like God trying to knock sense into me. No matter what hardship I put you through, you continued to crawl back to me. And you did so because I made you. You had no choice but to come to me. Your very bodily makeup demanded it of you.” He leans in, and kisses Will, so soft. Will does not close his eyes. He can hear his own heart hammering in its bone prison. When Dr. Lecter pulls back, his gaze holds on Will’s bejeweled hands. “You will live here and be my Muse.”

He pauses and Will is shocked he’s even allowed space to respond to this. He thinks he must be sleeping — surely, Dr. Lecter has fucked him into unconsciousness and this is some awful dream.

“But… but, Dr. Lecter, what about Emerson? I-I already paid for the whole year and I’m nowhere near done—”

Dr. Lecter chuckles lightly, looking at Will as if he has told a clever joke. “What need is there? I will pay off your loans. It’s nothing. Less than nothing. You wanted to be with a professional writer, and here you have found yourself. That school was only a means for us to find each other. It serves no purpose for you, now. This is your gift from me — what you have waited for your whole lifelong.”

Will’s body has had all it can take. Will’s mind has had all it can take. For the time being, he can offer no argument, no refusal. He cannot imagine Dr. Lecter would listen particularly well in this state — he holds Will close, hands exploring casually his conquered land, the little divots and redness the rope left behind, and Will’s backside still burning and sodden with come. Will has the man wrapped around him, constricting, and a pitch-black faint is coming fast for him, whether he likes it or not.

He quakes in the man’s embrace when Dr. Lecter whispers: “My mausoleum rose. You deserve this.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The kindest thing Dr. Lecter has done for him yet: allow Will to sleep unmolested through the next day. He remains in the room that is not his, ten miles past exhausted, snoozing into midday. The covers envelope him; they feel so good even stiff with paint and come. A bed has never felt so wanted to his poor bones. He melts into it, becomes one, and his stomach growls occasionally in the interim of his wakings, but he turns over and refutes it. His one clear memory out of the twenty-four hours is April and May coming to fetch him, carrying him naked from the room and back to the large bath. They wash him in his dreamstate and he lolls in the warmth. They take great care, scrubbing between each toe, sloughing the last of the paint away and cleaning him of sex. After, when he is dried, they take him back to his own bedroom and slip him between the covers. He’s out again.

His one clear memory from dreaming:

Dr. Lecter’s loft in the dusklight. The man sitting in the recliner, silent, gazeless, unknowing. Will sits on the couch, naked, and beside him is Beverly Katz, naked. They are of similar build, and impossibly pallid. Her skin stretches drum-tight over her bones, nipples pert and rosy in the orange glow. She looks at Will with sorrow that does not cross the lane into pity.

“Look, Will,” she says to him, and holds out her hands, palms up. “We are the same.”

He mimics the action, his hands gloveless.

She places her hands in his, holds them. Will shivers, feeling their professor’s presence over them. The sensation of her hands — skin against skin — is something he will take with him into the waking world. When she releases him, the palms of his hands sport dark spots like bruises in the center.

He looks up at her, words on the tip of his tongue. A thousand apologies, excuses, the blame of her death hanging over him like a pendulum.

She shakes her head, and smiles her pleasant smile. “We were destroyed.”

 

*

 

He wakes, after nearly thirty hours.

It’s light outside — morning light, and the window is coated lightly with frost. Flurries fall from sky to earth and the surrounding land and trees are all but pristine white. Will sits in bed, completely dehydrated and with a thrumming headache. When he looks to his bedside table, there is a silver platter with an icy glass of water, two pain pills in a small dish and a bowl of chocolates. Dark, from the look of them. A small card, also. Will takes it, and all it says is: The World.

Will’s blank expression grims. “Oh, hardy har har. Fucking ridiculous.” He doesn’t know how he’s going to convince Dr. Lecter that keeping him here is a crazy plan, but he’s going to do it. And who knows, that was a while ago and they were both half-hysterical from sex anyway. Will only barely remembers what the man said but You deserve this has faded in and out of his marathon dreaming and he can’t disremember the grip on his wrists when it was said. Dr. Lecter’s hands had felt so warm and secure. But they were shackles, weren’t they?

Weren’t they.

Staying here. Will looks up at the surroundings of the room. Never in all his years would he have imagined— he just keeps traveling higher and higher into the stratosphere, it seems. Like a rocket who lost control on Earth, no one can seem to return him back to base. He’s out here in cold space, floating. Floating.

Will gulps down the ice water, pops the pills, and stands up, and immediately falls down. His legs are almost totally numb; he slept with them tangled, and now spends a good ten minutes on the hardwood floor and area rugs, shaking them out and massaging them. It’s there, in the back of his mind — he could call for April and May, demand they do it, as they would almost surely do, but he clamps down. He’s going to do it himself. Dr. Lecter’s been marinating in luxury for over twenty years now, used to such things. But Will was born in the slums of Nashville, raised in a small two-bedroom home most of his life. He doesn’t need them. What he needs is—

He goes to his duffle bag. Still naked, he finds his Emerson hoodie from the other night folded neatly on top of his things. He dons that, a pair of grey sweatpants, and his new gloves remain. Now— just—

Where is it?

He knows he brought his cell phone. He saw it that first night before dinner, dead from travel.

When everything from his bag is dumped onto the floor, and it is not revealed, Will presses his lips together. Dr. Lecter. It’s always Dr. Lecter. Will turns on a heel and walks, speed-walks, runs, through his double doors and down the corridor. He passes a grandfather clock standing lonely between two paintings — one of a prince, the other of a unicorn. It’s nearing 10:30 AM. In an interview Hannibal Lecter gave The Atlantic in 2004, he spoke on his writing habits during the birth of a manuscript.

“The urge can strike you anywhere, but a writer must adhere to strict regimen if true progress is to be made. I will typically write from 6 AM to noon, then break for lunch. I reread the day’s pages in the evening, after dinner.”

He should be writing, now. Just the thought of it, that somewhere in this haunted manor, Hannibal Lecter is working, is enough to send little thrills down Will’s spine. He tries not to think about Dr. Lecter inside him, thinks about it anyway. There’s a slow warmth flooding his low gut and he pushes it away. Runs faster. If he was Hannibal Lecter, the great novelist, where would his writing studio be?

At the very top. He has to be at the summit of every mountain. Will scales the stairs, noting the rotted ache in his backside; another gift. He huffs every breath, notices April or May on a landing, dusting at the frame of a painting. She blinks at him running past, to the fourth floor.

“Mr. Graham? Wait a minute!”

Will breaks into a sprint. There’s a door at the end of the hall, sitting between two large Lalique vases. From the other side, standing against a window with a duster in hand, is April or May. She turns and sees him approach, with April or May lagging behind.

“Mr. Graham, you can’t—”

He slides into the door, swings himself around by the handle, and bangs. He looks up at the door as if he could peer through it. There is hardly any strength in him at present, but he believes himself to be making a good enough racket.

Both girls come up behind him, hands outreached, uncertain. “Mr. Graham, please,” they say, “he is working!”

“Dr. Lecter,” Will cries. “Dr. Lecter!”

The handle moves. The three of them take a step back as the door opens and Will looks up into the man’s face. He’s suddenly shocked backwards to thirty hours earlier when he was painted and come-stained beneath the man, watching through winced eyes his roving gaze, the way he licked sweat from his lips, the hair sticking to his temple. And here he stands now in soft slacks and a cable-knit sweater. His feet in tanned house shoes. And Will never thought he would see it but he wears glasses, just thin frames, riding low on the bridge of his nose. Will can’t parse any of it until he can. All the lights in his small house click on. Hannibal Lecter, the novelist. At long last.

Will doesn’t know how long he’s staring silently for. Just that when someone finally speaks, it’s April or May: “Excuse us. We told Mr. Graham not to be so rowdy.”

Dr. Lecter sighs. He takes the glasses off. “Will—”

“My phone,” he says, and it comes out so wilted. “Um. I couldn’t find it. So. I thought.”

“That I had stolen it.”

Will can’t blink the soft pink away. “Y-Yeah.”

Dr. Lecter looks at the two girls over Will’s shoulder and they quickly about-face and depart down the grand staircase, as chastised as two badly behaving cats. When they are finally alone, Dr. Lecter shuts the door behind him, stepping out into the hall. “Let’s take in the air, Will.”

 

*

 

It goes on for miles. Until this very moment, standing out so far from the main building amid the snowy plain, just before the treeline, Will has not recognized how far the property goes. And in this weather, it would be almost impossible to know which way to go. The road leading up to the manor is covered. The Venus de Milo stands in her fountain amid frozen water. And Will looks up into the flurried sky and feels himself inside a snowglobe.

Dr. Lecter walks beside him, a coat and long scarf draped over his clothes. Will sticks close by, filled with some irrational fear of being lost to the snow.

“I have to call my parents, Dr. Lecter,” Will says, his voice two shades from pleading. “They think I’m on a trip to your place with the other Fiction Workshop students. And it’s been days. They probably wanna know what the hell’s going on.”

Dr. Lecter looks at him mildly. “That was a poor decision, lying to them that way.”

“W-What else was I supposed to say?” Will hunches his shoulders, the scarf he was given nearly covering his mouth. “That I’m going off to have sex on a remote estate with my teacher? I didn’t even know that’s what we were gonna do!”

“You knew,” Dr. Lecter says, and covers his mouth as he yawns. When he glances back at Will, who looks at him with a thousand eyes, he asks, “Yes?”

“Yeah—” Will shakes his head. “I mean no! And anyway, they definitely wouldn’t’ve approved.” He dares to look over again. “And they won’t approve of my living here either, you know.”

“I see. I may have misremembered, Will, but I seem to recall not very long ago, a young man standing naked in my loft in Beacon Hill, declaring vehemently that he was an adult. And as far as I know, an adult is not shepherded by his parents.” Will has no rebuttal to this and Dr. Lecter surely knows it. He continues: “However, for the sake of argument, let us say they do have reign over you in this area.” He looks up to ponder. “Your parents allowed you to waste your time and nonexistent money on a creative writing degree, so from that I can assume they aren’t very intelligent. And if they had had your future in mind, they would have pushed for some sort of science career. Or perhaps law enforcement. They are always looking for bodies in those fields. Now, if you were to explain the idea to them in this way, that your favorite author has taken an interest and will care for your needs indefinitely, I’m sure the practicality of the situation would appeal to them. No more debts or worries over their wayward son’s dead-end career goals.”

They approach the treeline swiftly. These beings infinitely taller and older than Will, that exist in the multitudes. They offer shelter from the falling snow. When Will looks back, their footprints are already filling with new powder. Will reaches out and grabs Dr. Lecter’s arm. In the dimmed sunlight, the diamonds on Will’s gloves glimmer gently and it looks slightly less gaudy than it truly is.

Dr. Lecter smiles, eyes soft. “And no, Will. You will not be a writer. It is not in you. But something else is. Something I myself placed there.” He takes Will’s hand from his coat sleeve and raises it to his mouth. Kisses the knuckles. “You must have been so lonely all those years without me. I know you wanted someone to confide in. Not a child like Mr. Brown. An adult. Someone who could truly understand. Didn’t you long for me?”

Will’s face grows warm.

You deserve this.

He flinches. Mumbles: “Y-Yeah. I mean. I guess so.”

Dr. Lecter gives a sympathetic nod. He says, “Oftentimes, what you think you want is not for you. And that’s perfectly all right.” He pulls Will in tight, and takes his mouth. His tongue floods those words into Will’s skull. And they light it up.

 

*

 

Will is permitted to call his parents that evening. Under Dr. Lecter’s circumstances.

“D-Dr. Lecter, um. I don’t… d-don’t think this is gonna— ah! Work.”

“You just need to relax. Stop holding your breath.”

“It’s not,” he exhales deeply, “that.”

“Here. It’s ringing.”

Fuck. They’re g-gonna know...”

“Not if you compose yourself. Breathe.”

Will listens to the ringing in his ear. His grip on the cell phone is tentative; the gloves make everything harder. Even these fancy ones. He sits naked on Dr. Lecter’s lap, the man buried in him to the hilt. When he tries to adjust, or even move his legs splayed over his professor’s hips, the sensation hits him anew, sending stars behind his eyes, forcing him to leak steadily onto Dr. Lecter’s stomach. Dr. Lecter himself sits reclined against a wealth of pillows in bed, in a room, one of the hundred rooms in this place. It smells of gentle lavender here, as if April and May just cleaned.

Dr. Lecter strokes Will’s thigh, squeezes it. Will’s mom answers with her bright hello.

“Jesus Christ,” Will mutters, when Dr. Lecter’s other hand smoothes up his ribcage to thumb at a nipple. Will jerks in the grasp and has to bite his lip to keep from crying out. “H-Hi. It’s me. Yeah. I’m fine. No, no, I’m… I’m good.” He tries to send a glare to Dr. Lecter — knows it probably isn’t threatening at all. “Well, I—”

His mom talks so fast. She does that when she’s worried, or angry. She asks him why he waited so long to call.

“We were… just having so much fun. There was— a lot of travel.” Dr. Lecter’s other hand travels up to thumb the other nipple. Will’s voice hitches. His gaze grows hazy. “And it was so big— long! The trip was long!”

Will turns away from the phone when he has to exhale sharply. Dr. Lecter shifts and the pain teases pleasure and shoots from Will’s spine up to his skull. Sings there, and Will replaces the phone to listen to his mom berate him, tell him she’s been worried sick, and didn’t you know planes can fall right out of the sky?

Will just sits there and half-listens. Her voice blurs into the background. Some machine behind that, like the low hum of the microwave. Will’s foreground is this: Dr. Lecter’s attention. Will comes to recognize in a roundabout way that this is the only way he can have Dr. Lecter’s undivided attention. The way the man looks at him. Eyes so dark shadows look pale. The rise and fall of his chest and the workings of muscle beneath the skin. He takes his thumbs and massages deep circles into Will’s inner thighs, that stressed ligament there. And just the searing heat of him — where they meet. The pulsing thickness. If Will even thinks about it for too long, he might—

His mom calls him William. William, are you listening?

Will startles forward, moves up an inch, and nearly sobs: “Yes.”

She says his father would like to speak with him.

“Oh no,” Will says and sinks back down. “No, wait a minute. I don’t have— time— not that—”

The least he could do, she informs him, is let his father know he’s okay.

And he gets no say in the matter when the phone switches over and there’s a small conversation half-heard there — he sounds funny, do you think he’s okay? — and then his dad’s voice, strong and loud, asking him just what in Hell’s name is going on over there and don’t you know you’re worrying your mother?

Dr. Lecter shifts. Takes Will’s hips in his grasp and sits up further. He moves Will along his length inch by inch, sinks him down just as slow, and Will uses both gloved hands to grip the phone at his ear. It might well break. He bites his lower lip to bleeding.

Will, his dad calls.

“Yeah, Dad,” Will says, groans, “I can’t— we’re just— having fun, please just—”

Dr. Lecter licks Will’s mouth.

This is going nowhere, his dad says, half to him, half probably to his mom. He asks if Dr. Lecter is around, asks if they can speak.

“Y-You gotta be kidding,” Will gasps as Dr. Lecter pauses, his mouth in the crook of Will’s neck. He easily reaches up, plucks the cell phone from Will’s grasp. He pushes Will back-down against the rumpled comforter, shoves a pillow under his backside and hikes his legs up. Will is suddenly looking at the ceiling, blurred, and Dr. Lecter looming over him with the phone pinned between his right ear and shoulder.

“Hannibal Lecter speaking,” he says and pushes in until his hips meet Will’s thighs and Will is grasping wildly for anything to shove in his mouth to stem the screaming. Dr. Lecter only regards him with an impassive stare from above, listening to Will’s dad mutter on and on. “Yes. Yes, I understand.”

Will sweats profusely, and the bed beneath him grows wet and wetter. The covers don’t muffle him properly — a particularly rough shove from Dr. Lecter forces a shriek out of him.

Dr. Lecter pushes one of Will’s legs up against his chest. He uses it as leverage for longer, deeper strokes that have Will close to tears. “Apologies,” he says into the phone. “The children can be quite noisy. But I assure you, your son is safe. Yes. He seems to be having the time of his life.”

Will takes to stuffing his fingers in his mouth. It’s all he can do. When Dr. Lecter strokes mercilessly over a particular milky place, Will throws his head back and thinks he may well go insane.

“I do understand your concerns, Mr. Graham, but I do not share them. I believe this is best for his development.”

He sees her — in the bright white spots before his eyes. Her long black hair. The spots on their hands. Even through the gloves, Will tastes decay. Dr. Lecter maneuvers Will’s other leg open. His thrusts slow even more, lengthen, pulling along Will’s taut strings with the deftness of a refined bow and Will’s moans elongate. Shame and pleasure begin to merge, exquisitely. 

“He shows great promise. I think I may keep him.”

Again. And. Again. Dr. Lecter leans forward and presses his weight into Will. He bites at the fingertip of a glove and effortlessly pulls it from Will’s hand. Will keeps them both, covered and uncovered, in his mouth, his eyes watering; he’s drooling.

“Would you like to say goodbye?” Dr. Lecter asks and Will has no idea who he’s asking. He shoves in again, smooth, and places the phone to Will’s ear. Into his other ear, Dr. Lecter whispers, “Say goodbye to your father, Will.”

His dad tells Will to remember he is a guest. Be good, okay?

Dr. Lecter reaches between their bodies and gives him one full-fisted pet. Will’s voice breaks on, “Yeah, Daddy,” and the line cuts and they both come immediately.

 

*

 

Life around the Lecter manor is weird and lonely, Will finally decides. The only one he can ever talk to is Dr. Lecter, and only when he isn’t working. April and May are completely out of the question, as they only speak to him in niceties and platitudes and largely act as roombas and traffic cones, cleaning after him and walling him off from certain rooms. Will often finds himself waiting for Dr. Lecter to come out of his studio simply for companionship.

He waits in the great hall sometimes as early as 10 AM, knowing the man won’t emerge until noon. But just for that small chance. That chance of the door opening and Will seeing the room behind him, and the desk— he’s only caught a glimpse so far and already knew from interviews that Hannibal Lecter was one of those old guard writers who still persisted with a typewriter. He’s sure he’s seen a sliver of it, the way the late morning sun bounces off the metal ribbon carrier. But Dr. Lecter shuts the door swiftly behind himself before Will can even be completely sure of what he’s seen. He enters the corridor in some sweater, the same houseshoes, and those damnably thin-framed glasses. 

Will can barely contain himself when he sees him like that. Like every author photo he’s ever scoured the internet for is suddenly refracted and merged in front of him and Will feels it like firecrackers in his gut, sparklers in his head. Dr. Lecter doesn’t seem to mind — taking Will in hand as he all but dumps himself into the man’s arms, sagging on him, burying his face in the man’s chest. When he’s done writing, all he wants is Will’s hands and all Will wants is him.

Dr. Lecter often takes him out for walks on paths only he knows. The move into the treeline and Will’s view of the surrounding grounds are obstructed and he knows, like he knows his own name, that he depends on Dr. Lecter to walk him out. He could be trapped here, lost on his own. He ventures to place his arm in loop with Dr. Lecter’s and is allowed this. It fills his stomach with a sweet bile that threatens to spill all over his shirt and coat.

There exists a place out here now that is half dead. Trees thin and sagging, withered with emaciated roots that differ vastly from their strong brothers and sisters. Here, Dr. Lecter tells Will to remove his glove. Will stands in the snow and frost, pink in the cheeks. He looks at his chapped hand, the ruddy knuckles. He places it flatly to the bark of a cold tree and watches as it spindles and diminishes, snow falling from its great boughs like thick sobbing. When it is done, Dr. Lecter has grabbed Will and takes him into his embrace and kisses him until they are both out of breath. The free hand lolls by Will’s side.

At such a time as these, the two of them barely make it back into the manor before Dr. Lecter takes Will roughly in the foyer or a coat closet. Will bites the inside of his cheek, his face pressed against a hung jacket. He doesn’t know how to feel.

Otherwise, there’s so much time to himself. He can explore the manor and the closer grounds only so much before it all starts to look the same. When he’s outside for a walk in the early morning, sometimes his mind tricks him; once, he saw smoke rising from someplace and thought, wildly, that there must be someone around. He ran what felt like half a mile around the manor, chuffing, mushing through snow like a well-bred malamute, only to see the small cottage that functions as April and May’s home long behind the manor. The girls stood out front in their fur coats with earmuffs, one of them placing hunks of wood on a tree trunk, the other swinging the axe down to cleave it in two. They barely noticed him, billowing cold breath, standing feet away. After a few moments, Will trudged back to the manor.

He is mostly allowed to bathe himself. The only times April and May take it over is when Dr. Lecter asks it of them, Will supposes, although he’s never been present for those conversations. Zero warning. They just barge into his room and he’s all but abducted and hoisted out and dumped into the bath. Once, when they washed him, April or May in the water with him, and April or May sitting on the wooden siding, sudsing his hair, he asked which bedroom belonged to Dr. Lecter.

“All of them,” April or May chirped.

Will frowned. “No, I mean— which one does he sleep in? Like, for real?”

“All of them,” April and May said.

Will gave up. Any kind of logic he tries to apply here simply gets snowed under. He could swear on Winston’s grave that he’s seen the girls walk out of the cottage once and then walk out again, twenty minutes later. There seem to be an infinite amount of them; little robot girls all cleaning the manor around the clock, secretly checking on Will to make sure he isn’t into mischief. Will has peered into one of the cottage windows and found that that hypothesis would be a little far-fetched with the twin beds separated by a single nightstand, a couch, a dining table and a quaint fireplace alone, but still. He sends them looks to let them know he’s suspicious.

Something about it. This place. When Will stands naked in a fogged mirror one morning, he sees only part of himself: dark hair, pale skin, flushed pink. Then it moves. The image of him, cast in condensation. The hair flickers, lengthened to his biceps, and one doe-brown eye flashes.

The Challenger!

Will gasps and rushes forward, rubbing the fog away. It’s just him. Streaks of him, wide panicked eyes, a sheen of saliva on his teeth. He looks at his palms in the mirror, and sees it then: two dark spots like bruises in each center.

“Fuck,” he mutters, and takes his hands to the sink. Scrubs them with this sea salt hand soap that seems to be in all the bathrooms. When he dries his hands, he looks again. The dark spots hold fast to his skin. Will holds his hands up. He looks over his shoulder at the spacious room. 

“April,” he says softly. “May.” Nothing. Then: “Bev?”

Nothing.

He dresses and goes back to bed. This place sure doesn’t feel like home.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It’s only one week before Christmas. When Will was first propositioned for this winter break getaway, he didn’t concretely understand that it would mean spending the biggest holiday of the year with his professor. The implications of it, the heft. Though these things seem small potatoes next to what he’s actually here for — the mantle of Muse is too lofty, too grand, to apply to him. When Dr. Lecter whispers these things in his ear, calls him mausoleum rose and graveyard theory and my own tailor-made coffin, when he sucks the fingers of Will’s gloves and comes inside him, Will wants to know who he’s talking to. Who these things are for. It doesn’t feel real. Not yet.

And it doesn’t until Dr. Lecter asks him one night, over dinner, “Would you like a reward?”

Will looks up. He’s yet to truly adjust to this kind of food. Every night, April and May set an expansive dinner before them, flooding the entire dining room somehow with savory scents. When he smells rosemary, however, he becomes fidgety, ill. There is rosemary sprigging the chicken. Will says, “A reward for doing what?”

“Being you. You have been equitably indispensable these past two weeks. I find myself traveling quickly to the end of this draft.” His eyes are the color of the lowlit wine. “Already I am swimming in possibilities for the next manuscript. And the one after that. Your hands are, quite literally, magic. And you deserve the world for having them.”

“You gave them to me. I didn’t do anything.”

Dr. Lecter smiles at him over candlelight. “Yes. We work well together.”

Will taps his gloved fingers against the flatware. He has become more and more used to not having them on at random intervals of the day. The girls know well enough to stay clear of them and Dr. Lecter is largely away from him when they’re off. But at dinner, he’s learned his lesson — Dr. Lecter finds them almost irresistible and Will has been bent over this table more often than he’d care to admit.

He speaks softly: “What kind of reward?”

“You sound so very suspicious.”

“Can you really blame me?”

Dr. Lecter laughs. He reaches for Will’s hand and Will gives it. “Perhaps you have a point. You may well enjoy this. I’m going on Saturday down to Manhattan, to speak with Bedelia on new developments.”

Will’s attention sparks dramatically. He can’t stop this strange feeling: like he’s overflowing. His hand in Dr. Lecter’s warms. There is music, somewhere, and Will has to catch himself from falling too deeply. He is not Bedelia’s potential client anymore. He is Will Graham, hapless murderer, talentless hack, and Muse to the great novelist Hannibal Lecter. But it is a nice reward. Too nice a reward. Too good for him. Will tells Dr. Lecter so.

“I thought you would feel that way,” he says and kisses Will’s gloved fingers.

 

*

 

It’s unclear if Dr. Lecter has noticed. He certainly hasn’t said anything, but.

But.

The black bruises nestled in the palms of Will’s hands have spread. Sporadically, at first. Just little dim spots appearing around Will’s thumbs, knuckles, the pad of a forefinger. Then they all merged together, dim, darker, ash-black. His hands are smoky, ill. Will tries not to look at them. When April and May bathe him, he has to keep his hands cellophaned to prevent any mishaps. Surely they can see through the plastic, notice it, but don’t want to say anything. Surely they’ve been coached by their master on politeness.

 

*

 

In a dream, Beverly turns to him with bruises on her open hands and says, “Her hair is Harlow gold. Her lips are a sweet surprise. Her hands are never cold. She’s got—” and blood dribbles from her mouth.

 

*

 

Will, how did the Challenger make you feel?

 

*

 

On the morning of the Manhattan trip, Will is haggard from bad dreams. He looked at himself in the mirror earlier — rings under his eyes, sure. Par for the course. He looked into the whites of one eye and saw a grey spot there just under his iris. His eye watered deeply and he tried to wash it out with soap but all that did was irritate the entire thing. His left eye is as red as if he’d spent the morning crying.

The girls wave them off from beside the Venus de Milo and her frozen world. The manor gets smaller and smaller through the blackened windows as the limousine drives away.

“Hey, Dr. Lecter,” he says, turning back around. Dr. Lecter has his arm securely around Will, as if Will would disperse into thin air. “Um.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel like I’ve changed?” He looks up, curls falling away from his eyes. They don’t allow him to cut his hair, here. “I mean— do you feel like I’ve changed? At all?”

Dr. Lecter gifts him a glance. “I wasn’t going to say anything,” he says.

“Oh God.”

“You’re fine, Will. You’re still exceedingly attractive, if that’s what you’re fretting over.”

“Oh God!” Will places himself in a fetal position. “No! That’s not what I’m fretting over, Jesus. What’s wrong with me?” He looks up, fingers in his hair. “Am I dying?”

“Certainly not. Listen.” Dr. Lecter pulls him up by the chin and places their mouths together. Will opens his mouth on instinct and allows the man everything. He doesn’t even think about it, anymore. When Dr. Lecter pulls away, he looks into Will’s eyes. “If nothing else, this could be considered an improvement. Now your outside is coming to reflect your inside. Most people do not have such heavenly favoritism to speak of. You are, in so many words, one lucky duck.”

“Huh…”

Dr. Lecter smiles and bops Will’s nose with a finger.

 

*

 

Will has never been to New York City. Matt knows this about him and told him it’s not so great — it’s just like Boston but with more vicious bums and about ten more stabbings per square mile. But when Will stands amid lower Manhattan for the first time, it doesn’t seem at all how Matt described it. It’s big, less claustrophobic than Boston’s Chinatown, and the first time Will sees the colors of giant television screens blaring ads that can be heard for blocks, he can’t contain his breathless wide-eyed wonder. He sticks close to Dr. Lecter, holding his hand through the busy sidewalks. Sometimes Will looks down at them: Dr. Lecter’s glove through necessity of the cold and Will’s through the burden of being.

Mostly, he’s just grateful for a distraction beyond the torture of his own imagination. And the city provides wondrous distraction. Dr. Lecter takes him first to a line of boutique shops. When Will is all but kidnapped by sales staff, set behind the barrier of a dressing room with girls of the same manner and way of April and May, he tells Dr. Lecter through the wall: “You don’t need to buy me anything. I’m not a doll.” A salesgirl strips him of his Emerson hoodie, his jeans. “Hey! Dr. Lecter!”

“You may not be a doll, Will,” Dr. Lecter says through the partition, “but you do require accessories. Don’t you want to see Bedelia, looking your best?”

Will looks at himself stripped down to underwear and gloves in the long mirrors. Three of them, reflecting all sides back at him. He watches himself change in a way he hasn’t seen before. He’s never been dressed nicely. He went to his own prom in Vans and stayed in the corner all night, wishing he was online messaging Matt. At his grandmother’s funeral, he was made to wear a tie, but it didn’t look right. He felt like he was being strangled. And when the girls dress him in a fitted black button-up, black slacks, and black shoes with soles as if Will has walked through a pool of blood, Will doesn’t like any of it. He’s sure it shows on his face when he walks into his new lamb’s wool winter coat that hangs to his knees. The girls drape him with a blood-red scarf.

Dr. Lecter looks overly pleased. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Define better.”

The sales staff fawn over him until they leave. Down the street, into nearly each shop, Dr. Lecter orders things to be sent to the manor. Clothes, shoes, Moschino underwear, things Will has to stand around and be fitted for. Dr. Lecter orders two appallingly large ruby stud earrings and Will tugs on his sleeve and says, “But I don’t have ear piercings,” and Will is only mutedly horrified when Dr. Lecter tells him they will remedy that in the coming days. The worst thing Will takes note of is a full fox stole, complete with head and feet intact, eyes replaced by black marble, and Will tugs again on Dr. Lecter’s elbow, whispering hurriedly, “Is that for you or for me?!”

“Take an educated guess.”

“Ugh.”

Among people again. He’s never favored people before, but after spending weeks locked alone in a place like the manor, this is so welcome. Voices, movement, funny accents, all of it organic and nothing orchestrated by his professor or his maids. Car horns blare and Will watches half of a fistfight before Dr. Lecter drags him away. His head is on a constant swivel and so when Dr. Lecter walks into another shop, saying it will only be a minute, Will catches sight of a public telephone not five feet away. The idea appears to him fully-formed: Call Matt. Will knows his number by heart. And even if he doesn’t answer, thinks to himself who the hell is calling him from a random New York number, Will could leave a message. Let him know he’s okay. Mostly okay.

(He did ask to call Matt, once. Dr. Lecter looked at him with such a tender steady gaze and said yes, of course, anything you want, Will, but do you think he will be able to understand you through your moaning and screaming? Will quickly told him to forget it.)

Will stands there as people sidestep him. He looks at the telephone as if it were someone he knew in elementary school. If he—

“Come, Will,” Dr. Lecter says, appearing quickly. He takes Will’s hand like the end of a leash and pulls him gently. Will looks back at the telephone, swallows, and turns ahead. “Bedelia will not be a good mood.”

“Huh? Why won’t she be happy?”

“We are half an hour late.”

“Wha— that’s your fault! Buying me foxes!”

They come to the right street and before turning down it, Dr. Lecter pulls Will to the side against a building. Will feels all of himself heat; he knows this position from many a time in a coat closet, when Dr. Lecter couldn’t wait to get to one of the hundred bedrooms. Dr. Lecter must be able to read Will’s expression and all but rolls his eyes.

“You’ll play a game with me, won’t you, Will? If you win, there will be a reward.”

Another reward? It must be his lucky week. Will nods, carefully, aware that this is not really a question.

“Good boy,” Dr. Lecter tells him, and his gaze falls along the concrete.

 

*

 

Deja vu? Can you have deja vu for something you were never party to?

That paparazzi shot he saw years ago: of Hannibal Lecter and Bedelia Du Maurier in a glass-walled coffee shop. It’s set up all over again and Will is sure this is the place. If he were to go online now — his old computer at home still has a folder of photos, shots he and Matt compiled of Hannibal Lecter from their youth.

Home. His mom and dad’s home, he guesses.

Will finds himself where he always knew he would be. Sitting between Hannibal Lecter and his lovely agent at a small wood-plated table, varnished, and the scent of roasted coffee beans surround them. Will only never imagined that he would be sitting here under such circumstances. If he thinks back to that very moment this fantasy first appeared, he can still feel the little cinder of hope in his young heart. A great young novelist with his first manuscript in Bedelia’s capable hands. Both her and Hannibal Lecter taking him under their wings and helping him make his way. 

Is it stupid? Dr. Gideon had said. No.

Is it misinformed? Yes.

Will has been greatly misinformed of his own life.

Bedelia does not look to be in the friendliest mood, but it seems to have little to do with their tardiness. She is a vision in gold, her soft features nearly blurring together. There is a pensiveness at her mouth, held tight, jaw ticking, as she looks Will up and down sitting next to her. Finally, she turns to Dr. Lecter.

“Hannibal,” she says, in the tone of an old friend who is wise to patterned behavior, “who is this and what is he doing here?”

“This is Will Graham,” he says, nodding. “He is currently enrolled at Emerson College. You’ve met. When you came to the panel.”

“Is that so? I’m sorry, I don’t recall.”

“He was dressed differently, before.”

“What is he doing here? A student?”

Dr. Lecter sips quietly from his espresso. Will looks down at his own, sees himself with his darkening eyes, and looks back up quickly. Dr. Lecter says, “He is currently enrolled. We are taking him out of the school. He will no longer be needing it.” He smiles at the two of them, neither of whom smiles back. “As of now, Will has become my Muse. He stays in my home.”

Bedelia had her tea cup half-risen to her lips. She lowers it. “What,” she says.

“Don’t be difficult, Bedelia. You’ll be pleased to know I have managed a near complete first draft of a manuscript. In such a short amount of time since I came to know him, it is something of a miracle, wouldn’t you agree?”

Bedelia seems to take in this information with a long sip of lychee tea. She scans Will solemnly. The tea cup sets back in the saucer. “A miracle, indeed.”

“It should be only a few more months before the second draft makes it to you. I will be waylaid, slightly, by my teaching duties at the school.” Dr. Lecter’s fingers tap at the side of his cup. “I had considered simply quitting.”

“You can’t do that,” Bedelia says quickly.

“I don’t particularly care what I can’t do.”

“The professorship was an honor. One you may never receive again from any institution if you behave so capriciously. And—” She stops and looks immediately into Will’s eyes. “You. What do you have to say about all this? Taken out of such a capable program. How do your parents feel?”

Will looks at Dr. Lecter.

Dr. Lecter says, “I keep his parents reasonably informed through phone conferences. As for the program itself, Will is very talented in other areas that Emerson cannot nurture.”

“I asked him, not you. Is he mute?”

Dr. Lecter smirks, placing a hand in Will’s hair. “Define mute,” he says and tugs a curl.

She doesn’t seem amused at all. Her face is slightly red. “Hannibal, you cannot simply— simply abscond with someone’s child. They have a name for that, you know. If someone becomes aware of this, you cannot tell how the tabloids will spin it. And what kind of environment is that for the birth of your new book?” She waves a hand towards the window — the very one they were photographed in years ago. “I can see it now, on every newsstand endcap: ‘Famed Author Flaunts Barely Legal Escort.’ Yet another fire I will have to put out.”

“Lord knows you could use something to occupy your time, Bedelia.” Dr. Lecter eats her affronted noise with a toothy smile and pardons himself from the table. “You two get to know each other.” When he leaves, just his coat and scarf sitting on the back of the chair, Will feels pulled by an invisible string connected to his hands. He forces himself to sit still.

Bedelia sits smoldering in her chair. Will has seen irritated cats with much the same expression, tail tips flicking restlessly behind them. She turns this expression on Will and, suddenly, it softens. Her eyes soften. Others talk around them, murmured conversations, and Will hears a familiar key change drifting by. He’s sure his face changes — to what, he’ll never know. His teeth itch.

“Listen,” she says, plain. “Will. I understand more than most that Hannibal is a charming man. Unfairly so, some have said. And the things he provides may feel good. But you do not have to obey him. You can go home. He cannot stop you, not truly.”

She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what she means when she says charming man. She doesn’t know what she means when she says feel good. She doesn’t know that Hannibal Lecter hid a body at a moment’s notice and knows Will’s only secret in the world. And if these things were communicable through eyes alone, perhaps now she would know. He feels it, actually feels it: the spread of rot and decay in the whites of his eyes. When she looks at him, her own eyes squint. Will finally looks away. His mouth cramps from holding it so still.

“Would you like me to intervene, Will?”

He doesn’t even know what she could do. She doesn’t even know what she could do. He hears it in her voice. Or is this some test? Oh. Perhaps. Perhaps Dr. Lecter called her in the store and told her to persuade him away. To test his fealty. His love. Will won’t be tricked so easily. He sits there, stone silent and still, like the Muses from long ago.

Dr. Lecter returns in his cat-quiet way. “Have you two felt each other out?”

Bedelia tears her gaze away from Will. “I believe so,” she says.

Will stares down at his coffee and watches his reflection churn, change.

Not long after, Bedelia relents. She says she must be going. That they have wasted a sizeable chunk of her time with frivolity and audaciousness. She tells Dr. Lecter that if he knows what’s good for him, he will put Will Graham back where he found him, post haste. And, she adds: that manuscript better be in her mailbox by March or they will be revisiting the terms of their contract. Fifteen percent, she says, is too low for what he is forcing her through. The ends of her golden curls flip as she turns and leaves the cafe. Dr. Lecter watches her go, cheerily.

“That went well,” he says, then gives Will a consolation pat. “She will come around when she holds the fruits of our labor. You can spit it out now.”

Will raises his pleated napkin and opens his mouth. He allows the beetle, covered in saliva, to rest weary and confused in the fabric.

 

*

 

The trip back home is too long by the end of the night. Will is overtired from a day in the city and doesn’t feel particularly well after having a beetle in his mouth for forty-five minutes. Dr. Lecter spoils him with a night at the Baccarat before they return to the manor in the morning. Will steps into their suite’s bathroom and shucks himself of the new clothes, and gloves. He lays the gloves tenderly on the white marble counter. The clothes in a pile on the heated tiles. The room fills with steam. The whites of Will’s eyes can hardly be called whites anymore. He steps into the glass shower and tries to boil himself alive. He scrubs with the hotel soap for overlong, and extra hard.

He exits the bathroom in a fanfare of steam, skin scrubbed red. He stands without his gloves to find Dr. Lecter sitting on the edge of the bed, unclasping his wristwatch. He glances at Will, does something very near a double-take, and it hits Will where nothing else could. He’s half hard already when Dr. Lecter comes to him, gripping Will’s flank and backside. Will holds his hands up against his own chest in surrender.

“You have to be careful,” Will says between kisses. He could almost forget the beetle was there, now, traveling haphazardly over his teeth where his professor’s tongue roams freely. Will gasps for breath when Dr. Lecter’s shirt presses against his open hands. “God. Please.”

“When have I ever been careless with you?” he murmurs against Will’s wet lips. He takes his hands to the backs of Will’s thighs and hoists him up. He laughs at Will’s surprised whinny and tosses him on the bed, easy as anything.

“Hey—”

Dr. Lecter is on him in a second. Will struggles to keep his hands above his head, out of reach, and when Dr. Lecter crosses them at the wrist, pinning them to the mattress with one hand, the burden of choice is lifted from Will’s frail shoulders.

After, when Will is streaked with his own come and dripping Dr. Lecter’s, he shoves his hands in a pillowcase to keep them safe. Dr. Lecter lays silhouetted in the moonlight from the window. It touches finely the curls of his chest hair and Will’s mind swims through a thousand liquidated stars.

“You did well today, Will,” Dr. Lecter says, like he’s speaking to the ceiling. “I’m proud of you.”

Will’s spine jellies. He feels that down to his toes.

Dr. Lecter exhales softly. “You’ve earned your reward. I think I can trust you to come back with me.”

“Mmm?” Will is already snuggling up to Dr. Lecter’s warm side. “Huh?”

“Bedelia, for all her bluster, is quite right in that I cannot simply shirk my duties to the school. More than the optics of it, I am contractually obligated.” He lays fingers in Will’s hair, touches the individual curls. “I had considered leaving you with April and May while I finished the spring semester. It seemed more secure.”

It’s almost enough to bring Will out of his pink stupor. Almost. He shifts, just below the surface. “You… thought I’d run away?”

“Never something so concrete as that,” Dr. Lecter says and pats Will. “Still, I did wonder. Today was an experiment of sorts. It can be so stressful for a young Muse to be out amongst people. Overwhelming. I think you are almost ready. We will have to do more work on your thought and impulse control but by the start of the semester, it should be fine. You can return with me where I can still have access to you. The work must continue and our separation may hinder it.”

Emerson. The world again. Boston and its drear. Matt. Beverly’s lost particles blowing through wind tunnels.

“Would you like that, Will? To see Boston, one last time? I don’t favor the city much. We will not be returning, after the spring.”

Will hides himself in Dr. Lecter’s side. “Okay.”

 

*

 

They decorated. When the limousine pulls up to the manor in midmorning, Will can tell from inside the blinking multicolored lights on the Venus de Milo. And then in the manor: this scent of holly and ivy. Wreaths and tinsel and piano music playing from somewhere. The girls wear Santa hats as they receive Will, as they inform him that some of his orders have arrived and have been put away in his room. Will and Dr. Lecter go their separate ways: Will to the great room where an obscenely large Christmas tree sparkles with light and gold; Dr. Lecter to his studio on the top floor.

Will looks up at the tall monstrosity before him, the scent of pine nearly overwhelming. He looks back at April and May standing solicitously by. “Did you guys do this?”

“Yes,” they chirp, “he asked for it for you!”

Will turns back to it. Sees himself distorted in a red ornament. “I see.”

A few days later, when the holiday arrives properly, Will is woken by a soft sound in his room. He rubs at his eyes with his bare hands and on instinct, holds them against his chest. Until he sees it is just Dr. Lecter sitting on the end of the wide bed, still in his own pajamas. The bare dawnlight seeps in through the window. Frost spiders over the glass. It’s a white Christmas, and somewhere far away his parents are still in bed, turning over in a dream.

Will shuffles up against the pillows. “Dr. Lecter, it’s dangerous for you to sneak up on me.”

“Merry Christmas,” Dr. Lecter tells him. Will, warming into his faculties, only now notices the shiny gift box sitting in his professor’s lap. Dr. Lecter holds it carefully. Will can’t help but press his lips together, toes twitching under the coverlet.

“Uh. Merry Christmas.” He pauses to think if he has anything he can make into a gift. Nope. “I, uh, I’m sorry but I didn’t get you anything.”

“Nonsense. You’ve given me everything.”

This is all very romantic, Will supposes, but he feels a slide of unease in his stomach nonetheless. He really has become such a suspicious thing.

Dr. Lecter moves closer to him with the box and Will scoots further back into the pillows, until there’s nowhere for him to go. Dr. Lecter takes the top off of the box as the sun rises quickly, as the silver light filling the room turns to gold. It highlights the sudden pop-up of a fuzzy head from the box: it’s a little mutt, perhaps a cross between a Labrador and something else. Mostly yellow, with patches of white, and the tiniest pink tongue that lolls as it pants. He looks up at Dr. Lecter first, then Will. Dr. Lecter pats him on the head and says, “This is Luther. I had April and May pick him up from a local shelter.”

Will makes these little half-noises, caught in his throat. Tick, tick, tick. His chest heaves. He breaks out in a body-long sweat. And he screams, screams like someone is killing him, like someone is stabbing him, and his inner self wails and dives for the crevasse.

 

*

 

He stays in the crevasse for eighteen hours.

 

*

 

When Will finally reemerges, he’s in the middle of a bath. The steam is lulling. He expects April and May at his sides, washing his hair, but when he looks up, it is Dr. Lecter sitting tubside with a bar of sea salt soap. Will blinks, shuddering, turns his face away.

“Do you know why I use sea salt soap on you?” he asks. His voice carries in the bathroom, like it’s coming from a hundred places at once. He continues: “From that very first time in the loft. It’s a very subtle scent but like the natural sea, tends to cover unpleasantness. The scent that plagues you perpetually. At first, I thought it was just tedious undergraduate hygiene, or parental neglect dogging you from Tennessee to Boston. Bad habits our parents teach us carrying into adulthood. What I later discovered, what fell into place for me, was that it is simply the smell of corpses. You wear it like cologne. Something expensive, off-market. It honestly suits you.”

Will sits still as Dr. Lecter washes the back of his neck. He pulls his knees up to his chest, wraps his arms around them. His ears vaguely ache. Dr. Lecter washes his back.

“I’m sorry,” he says, close to Will’s ear. “That was a bit much for you.”

“Okay.”

“We can go slow.”

“Okay.”

After Will’s hair is washed, Dr. Lecter leaves to fetch a towel. Will looks into the hot water lapping gently at the shores of the tub. He takes a handful and looks down at himself: the ruby earrings lodged in his new piercings; the glinting color of his irises peering at him from the surrounding black.

 

*

 

Luther is not spoken of again, past Will asking what became of him. Dr. Lecter tells him that April and May returned him to the shelter and Will doesn’t question it. In the nights leading up to New Year’s Eve, he dreams in the color of Winston’s fur, and can’t stop himself wondering if Winston and Luther would have been friends. Winston was very kind, and tried to befriend even cats. Luther, too, seemed like a good boy.

At random intervals, Will loses balance and falls against a counter, or tabletop. The maids right him, and continue on with cleaning, like second nature.

On New Years’ Eve, it is a cold clear night. The stars burn overhead in the black of space. Will and Dr. Lecter stand out in the far back of the manor as April and May set off aerial fireworks. They have a barrel of them, nearly large enough for a corpse to be stuffed into. They snuff out the starlight, replacing it with vibrant reds and yellows and greens. The girls shout fire in the hole each time and push their earmuffs to their ears during the explosions. Will keeps his ears uncovered.

At midnight, for the big finale, there is a barrage of ice-blue sent up into the whirling dark. They explode into snowflakes. Will watches them go up, up, and then the fire in the sky. They light up the entire estate in blue, and they light up Will’s tears in blue.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The girls pack his new luggage. His duffle bag, the tired thing he’s held onto since the eighth grade, is unceremoniously trashed, along with his Emerson hoodie that he bought on Orientation Day. Will has a completely new wardrobe: all blacks and silks and furs and blood-reds and gold. It will accompany him back to Boston. As he and his professor depart the estate on a sleepy mid-January morning, Will looks back through the tinted limousine windows and watches as April and May stand in the snow, flanking the Venus de Milo. They wave like little metronomes and await their master and his Muse’s return.

 

*

 

In a dream on the plane, with a champagne glass lolling in one hand:

Beverly sits across from Will in a magnificent library. Will doesn’t know how he knows this, but all the books are crime fiction. A few are written by the great novelist, Hannibal Lecter. The acknowledgement pages are all scribbled out. This knowledge exists in Will’s head like his own name.

Beverly is naked. She’s always naked. Will is, too, now. Always. They sit in matching maroon armchairs. Beverly’s long white legs cross at the knee and one sleek foot bobs towards Will.

“If we fail this time,” she says, a thin bubble of blood popping out of her ear, “it will be a failure of imagination.”

Will says, “You know, you really were a great storyteller.”

The other ear begins leaking blood. Beverly looks lost, guys. “The,” she says, wondering, “the Challenger.”

“I could never have replaced you.”

“All over again?”

“I can only hope to repent in this way.”

“It made me so sad.”

The blood runs from her ears, down her neck and arms and legs and to her raised foot and a drop falls delicately to the library floor.

 

*

 

He hadn’t realized until he left Boston and then returned: the city never changes. It feels like he was just here yesterday. It feels like he was here twenty years ago, in the negatives of his personhood.

Personhood.

He returns in his Musehood.

Will pauses at the entrance of Matt’s dorm room. His key still works. Will doesn’t know why he’s surprised, but when the tumblers turn, he also feels a turn of some unnameable emotion in his gut. When he walks in, things are as they had been: in another life. Matt sits at his desk under the harsh yellow light from the floor lamp, earbuds in, typing away at his laptop. When Will shuts the door behind himself, that soft slam against the wind, Matt jolts upright. His eyes, sharp, then round.

“Oh, Will,” Matt says, almost venerated, like a gasp or prayer. He knocks over the chair in his hurry and throws his arms around Will. “Fuck! Man, it’s great to see you!”

“You too,” Will says and raises his arms to hold Matt. He smells like remembrance.

Matt releases him, holds him at arm's length by the shoulders. He scans Will, eyes alight, smiling, and then his smile dims, bit by bit, a lampshade being pulled down. Will allows for this, but his gaze remains on the floor, or Matt’s socked feet.

“Jesus, Will. I waited for any word from you. I called I don’t know how many times.”

Dr. Lecter hadn’t mentioned that. Will doesn’t know if his cell phone even exists anymore. It could very well have been tossed out with his duffle bag. Will says, “Sorry. I wasn’t— really able to talk.”

Matt looks at him again. Really looks at him. “Will. What happened to you? You don’t— you don’t look so good, man.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, I mean. Hey… hey, what the fuck are you wearing?” Matt asks, reaching out with hesitant fingers to touch the fox head hanging around Will’s shoulders. Its legs limp on the other side, tail long and bushy. It’s exceedingly warm, just like Dr. Lecter promised. The rest of Will’s outfit — the fitted shirt under the coat, the dark slacks and shimmering black shoes — Matt looks at as if they are from a foriegn land. They are. “Don’t tell me Dr. Lecter bought you this shit. Is he dressing you?”

“They’re accessories,” Will tells him.

“Accessories are for dolls!”

Will says nothing.

“And what the fuck are these?” He reaches up to touch Will’s ears. Will jerks back lightly. “When the hell did you get your ears pierced? Are those real? How much is he spending here?”

Will shrugs.

“Hey!” Matt’s gaze hardens. His upper lip pulls back in a grimace. “What the hell happened over there? Why didn’t you answer any of my calls? Did you get to talk to your parents?”

“Once.” Yeah, Daddy. Will shudders. “I did once. They’re fine. But listen—”

“No way. You listen. You look like shit. Fancy ass clothes aside— did you even eat while you were there? You lost, what, ten, fifteen pounds?” He looks up at Will’s hair, touches a lock. “Your hair’s thin. It’s long but thin. What the fuck. And why— why do you smell—”

“Like a corpse. I know. You don’t have to rub it in.”

Matt looks startled. Then angry. “No, Will,” he says quietly, “you don’t smell like a corpse. You smell like someone’s come rag.”

(When they first got back, Dr. Lecter told Will to touch every plant present in the loft. One by one, Will watched herb after succulent die, and in the end they were left with pots and pots of ash and soot. Dr. Lecter took Will against the kitchen bar, forced an arch so deep into Will’s back it was nearly ninety degrees, and then told him he was the eighth world wonder.

When they were done, Will asked if he could see Matt.

Dr. Lecter said yes, Will, yes, but you’re not to shower before you go.)

Will blinks away wetness. 

Matt presses his lips together and looks to take a big breath in, let a big breath out. “Okay,” he says, maybe to himself. Then, to Will: “Okay. Will. You’re gonna be okay. Don’t worry. You’re here now, it’s over. I’ll just— hey, where’s your bags? Doesn’t matter, just take your coat off. Take that goddamn fox carcass off too. You look like you need a nap or something. I can get some tea from CVS—”

“I can’t stay, Matt.”

“—and maybe some… what?”

Will rubs his gloved hand against the side of his leg. This draws Matt’s attention to the gloves, glimmering even in this inexpensive light. Will’s sweating already. It’s going to smell like a morgue in here soon. He looks at Matt, plain as he can. “I said,” he speaks softly, enunciating, “I can’t stay. I’m not going to live here anymore.”

“Oh yeah?” Matt asks, voice hollow. “Where are you living now?”

“Dr. Lecter’s.”

And it means so many things. It means too many things. Will’s head swims, gently, in an ongoing stream.

Matt’s face twists, a little. He gives a bite of near hysterical laughter, then clamps down on it, like a cough. “You’re not living with that guy. I’m not having it. Why would he want to live with a student anyway? That’s not even— is that allowed? Where’re your bags?”

“Probably it wouldn’t be allowed. But I’m not gonna be a student, anymore.”

“Stop it.”

“I’m serious. Dr. Lecter’s taking me out of school.” Will blinks, even at the sound of it. “I’m gonna live with him and be his Muse. I know it sounds weird. And it is— weird, I guess. I, um.” He can’t look at Matt when Matt looks at him that way. Like he’s legitimately gone nuts. Like Matt can’t believe what he’s hearing. Will says quickly, “Look, it wasn’t my idea, but it’s what’s happening so just… don’t give me a hard time.”

“Are you listening to yourself right now? Do you hear what you’re saying? His— sorry, what? His Muse.”

“That’s what he calls me.”

“Will,” Matt says and takes hold of Will’s upper arms. He pulls him in, close. Will has not been this close to someone other than Dr. Lecter in what seems like eternity. “Will, listen to me. He’s not your owner.” Oh, he doesn’t know. “He’s not your dad.” He has no earthly idea. “He’s your teacher.” Dr. Lecter is all of those things. “And a fucking ass-poor excuse for one, too. We can get him in trouble for this, Will. What he did to you there at his house— I can only imagine. But it’s not unfixable. We can get him kicked out of Emerson. You don’t have to leave, Will, he does.”

“You don’t understand,” Will says, like a plea.

Matt’s grip tightens, minutely. “Will.”

“I just came to let you know. So you don’t worry. And that I wanted—” He pauses, something caught in his throat. He tries again: “I missed you. When I was gone. I thought about you every day.”

“I’m not letting you just— just go off with this guy,” Matt says, as if to convince himself. “Look at what he’s done to you!”

“My body’s done it to itself,” Will insists. “It’s not his fault. It's the bad touch. I’m thin, I know, but it’s because all the food tastes like corpse rot. Not just his food, everything. I tried to eat chips on the plane and almost hurled. He’s helping keep me safe. By now, without him, who knows what would have happened to me.”

Matt’s gaze narrows. “You told him about the bad touch?”

Will can only nod. The truth floods him, up to the waist. He keeps it at bay.

“You shouldn’t’ve done it, Will. Who knows how he’s gonna use it against you?”

“It’s done now.”

“Stay here.”

“I only have a little bit of time. I gotta get back or he may come here looking for me.”

Matt laughs, eyes wide open. “Let him come here! I’d like to hear what he has to say for himself! You know what? It doesn’t even matter. Fuck what he has to say. I’m telling the department head about this. That he kidnapped a student. That he fucking raped a student.”

Will tugs back on his arms, to no avail. Matt has always been stronger than him, and Will is now thin, thin, thin. Even the struggle of pulling his arms back makes him light-headed. “Don’t do that,” he says, breathless, “it doesn’t matter. He’s only going to be here one more semester. It’ll look bad on his record with other residencies if he gets kicked out. Bedelia said so.”

“Why the fuck should I care?!”

“If you do it,” Will says, panting, “I won’t like you anymore.”

“Are you fucking serious? Will Graham! Look at me!”

Will looks at the wall. Hard, at the wall.

“What do I have to do, Will?” Matt asks, and his grip loosens, the smallest bit. Then it strengthens and Matt pulls Will in and shoves him against the door. The wood judders behind him and Will’s head smacks back. A brief flash of white clouds his vision, and when he can see again, it’s Matt in his face, Matt crowding him against the door. His breath is soft on Will’s ear. He whispers: “Do I have to be like him to get you to listen to me? Be rough with you, push you past your limit? Tell you your writing is terrible? Let strangers gawk at you naked? Kidnap you? Fuck you? Fuck you ‘til you smell like you’re dripping come?” His leg presses between Will’s, keeps him still. “Tell me what I have to do, Will.”

Will turns his head. He looks up into Matt’s eyes through lank dark curls and Matt has not mentioned the darkness of his eyes but when he looks at him now, Matt must see something horrible for the expression that comes over him. Pain, like an organ being sweetly pulled from the nestle of his ribcage. Loss, like he will never get it back.

Matt takes Will’s face in his hands. He presses their foreheads together. Firm. So close Will thinks he can hear Matt’s heartache. So close Matt thinks he can feel Will’s misery.

 

*

 

Will leaves the dorm room and the building not long after. He and Matt didn’t speak, past that. Matt gave him this look when he left and Will can’t tell the heft of it, nor does he want to. Will walks down the frosted street. Will stands on the corner. He waits for the light, he crosses the Common, he traipses beneath the fairy-lit trees, he passes a little girl and her mother and the girl says look at his pretty gloves, they glitter, they glow, and look at the fluffy fox, and Will meets with the brownstone and collapses his bones on the front steps, waiting until he stops sobbing to go upstairs.

 

*

 

“I’m sure it was very nice to see Mr. Brown again,” Dr. Lecter says, three fingers deep in Will. Will lays on the expanse of the master bed in the loft, both wrists tied to the headboard, and one leg tied to a bedpost. Dr. Lecter kept the other leg free, he said, to serve as a handle. He looks down at Will softly, considering.

Will looks back at him, through his one open eye. He pants openly, trying to press down on the fingers inside him and scarcely able to move. “I-It was… nice. A-And other… stuff…”

“Other stuff,” Dr. Lecter says, skirting the line of mimicking Will’s higher voice. He laughs. “Mr. Brown seems like the jealous type. Am I wrong?”

He pulls his fingers out. Will can breathe again and doesn’t want to. He’s been kept on the edge for going on thirty minutes.

“Will, I asked you a question.”

“H-He was jealous. Yeah. He— hated it.” 

“I’m sure so. It must have hurt. Thinking for all those years he would be the sole person to know about your immaculate hands.” Dr. Lecter pushes his fingers back in, curls and spreads them. “Acceptance of a lesser fate. It would scar anyone.”

“Please. Please, can we—” Not talk about him? Will wants to ask. He won’t.

Dr. Lecter does as he promised. Uses Will’s free leg as a handle to angle him open. Dr. Lecter dips down and takes the flat of his tongue into Will and Will cries out, high-pitched. The wet warmth there short-circuits him somehow. And all the residual anguish and tears he felt oncoming after leaving Matt now slide down his walls and puddle on his floors. He feels the man’s tongue running firmly against him, and his arms encircle Will’s hips and pull him in his bonds. Will’s toes fan out and his eyes roll back.

And it stops, all at once. Dr. Lecter takes himself away, prowls up the length of Will’s sweat-red body and says, “You are an infinitely noisy little thing. Sound-proofing only does so much.” He reaches above to Will’s hands and deftly slips off his gloves. He stuffs them in Will’s mouth. Will chokes a little with surprise. Dr. Lecter kisses his nose. “That’s better.”

 

*

 

Will has to readjust.

The manor was scary, in much the same way Will supposes old lords were scary to young maidens in the seventeenth century. When they were told this is your intended and you will stay in his home, with his servants, and be his ladywife. But, over time, it would become the maiden’s home too, when she was no longer a maiden. And fear and loveliness would rinse off her like the scent of corpses. And Will suspects that will be so for him as well. He will get used to it: April and May, the wide expanse of lonelydom, only Dr. Lecter to talk to, the way the sky opens above the manor and seems to go on and on forever and ever.

What he must do now is reconcile this loft. He has changed. He is no longer simply furniture, in the way the coffee table is: with one purpose. When Will looks at it, he barely feels jealous anymore. He and the coffee table have different functions, identities, and they are as dissimilar as a coffee table and a gold-poured award. Will’s functions are many varied things. Dr. Lecter takes him in his arms and Will holds there, looking up at the man, wondering what now. He is no longer always required to be naked but he often is, if for nothing more than a longing for simpler times. Dr. Lecter doesn’t mind. He touches one of Will’s hip bones, once, and says he should eat more and Will blinks at him. Hunger and Muse don’t really go together, in Will’s opinion.

He’s taken time to read up on the situation, since arriving back in Boston. Now, since he’s been allowed back into the master bedroom which is only marginally bigger than the guest room, he’s been able to scrounge around for reading material. Dr. Lecter has a sizeable bookcase in the room: a few novels, mostly nonfiction, true crime, and many pamphlets that feel about to break apart — Greek plays and epics. In them, Will has found news of his forebears. Other Muses to other great artists. The Muses themselves are women but Will waves that away. They are described as beautiful and not-nearly-there.

Will doesn’t right-off consider himself beautiful, these days. Dr. Lecter tells him he is. He tells him he has never lusted so fast in his heart as on the night of Beverly’s death.

“Tell me what you saw,” Dr. Lecter whispers, once, when he lies back-down on the bed, coated in a thin sheen of sweat, the only thing that separates his skin from Will’s. Will sits atop him, struggling to orient himself. This position always feels the most open — there’s nowhere for Will to hide his face, and if he so much as glances away— “Will,” Dr. Lecter says, jolting him.

Will yips, adjusting. He says, “Her— her eyes. They went. Black. No, not— not the black of color. But black, gone. I’ve—” Dr. Lecter takes Will’s hips in hand. Moves him, just slightly. Will exhales, wincing. “I’ve only seen it. A couple times. Ahh— before.”

Dr. Lecter’s fingers tremble. On Will’s thighs, when he pulls him down again, and Will places his gloved hands on the man’s chest for stability. He pushes back, down, against the subtle pain.

“It feels like— like magic,” Will says, eyes half-lidded. There’s a place here. Think about it and don’t think about it. Enough to satisfy him. Not enough to bring about the crevasse. Will walks the line, carefully. He keeps his gaze on his professor’s lips, open mouth, hint of a wet tongue. “When it goes… from my hands. Like a dead spark, or— electricity, muted. It feels like it takes some—” Dr. Lecter rolls his hips up, forces Will down on it. “S-Something out of me. Something necessary. Out of me. Fuck.”

Dr. Lecter grabs Will’s chin and yanks him down into a kiss. Will all but collapses on top of him and Dr. Lecter uses his other hand on Will’s low back to snap his hips back and forth in quick revolutions and Will feels him rub up against that spot and the aurora borealis shimmers behind his eyes, he’s drooling onto the man’s chest, and everything becomes so wet and Dr. Lecter feels so big and safe and he doesn’t mind it and even strokes Will’s back when Will whispers Daddy and it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad.

Will has wanted to keep Beverly out of his head. Has tried. But Dr. Lecter likes it too much. Will has imagined pushing back, trying to set a boundary, and can’t even imagine what that would look like or what Dr. Lecter might do to him. There have never been boundaries before between them, perhaps he and Dr. Lecter live in a world where boundaries don’t exist. Will knows he should just be grateful that Dr. Lecter hasn’t brought home another dog.

Once, Will wakes up in the master bedroom. He sees Beverly sitting on the edge of the bed. She says, “Hey, author.”

Will blinks hard, opens his eyes again. He’s alone. He’s alone.

 

*

 

On the first day of the spring semester, it’s frigid. The streets are coated in black ice and a collision occurs just outside of the Ansin building. Will stands on the curb, watching the wreckage, the way a Toyota’s bumper falls completely off. The drivers emerge, scream at each other. They tell each other they’re terrible.

Will makes his way upstairs. He sees people he has not seen in the longest time. He doesn’t know their names, their majors, but remembers them as if from a dream. The cramped quarters of the elevator have him heaving breath in the corner. He tries not to acknowledge the looks he’s getting: over-the-shoulder glances and whispers and double-takes. Will keeps his eyes downcast. He isn’t always sure what people see when they look at him, now. Without Dr. Lecter, Will is sure he looks like one of those internet videos of dogs who hold their own leashes in their mouths and go on walks alone. Cute, but susceptible to the cruelty of humans. They must look at him and think, Where is your master?

Will gets off on floor 12. He looks up and wants to walk right back into the elevator. Of course it’s Alana sitting at the help desk and of course she is speaking jovially to Dr. Chilton over the counter. And of course. They both look at him standing across the glossed floor. Him: in funeral black, a mink stole wrapped around his shoulders, rubies in his ears. The jewels on his gloves catch the fluorescent light.

Alana looks primly disgusted and turns her face away. Dr. Chilton stands there, an awkward smile plastered on his face.

“Oh. Mr. Graham! How nice to see you back, safe and sound.” He crosses the floor to Will, and that smile slowly fades. He says, quietly: “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I’m good.”

Dr. Chilton has probably never believed anything less, from the way he looks at Will. He says, “Well, your wardrobe has certainly changed. Have you, uh. You haven’t really been online, have you? I know Hannibal protests such things in his home.”

“What? Oh, no. I haven’t been online in… jeez, I don’t know how long.”

“Hmm. Yes, well. Perhaps you might—”

“Will.”

Will’s head snaps up at the sound of Dr. Lecter’s voice. He walks up to the two of them in a wool coat, simple dress. His hair is lightly windblown and he smells of a cold front. Will moves himself closer and feels sudden stability in his lower bones.

“Frederick,” Dr. Lecter greets Dr. Chilton. “How nice to see you.” 

“And you,” Dr. Chilton says, smile twitching. “I can see Mr. Graham had a great time on his trip. He’s positively glittering. Did you buy him a bouncy castle, too?”

Dr. Lecter laughs in a congenial way. “Something like.” 

Dr. Chilton squawks: “Hannibal, Jesus!” He wears a terrible blush.

“Now, Frederick, if you’ll excuse us, we have a meeting.”

“O-Of course,” Dr. Chilton says, sending Will a questioning glance. “We are thrilled to have you two back in civilization.”

“I’m sure.”

Dr. Lecter leads Will away and only Will can see the juvenile face Dr. Chilton pulls behind the man’s back. The two of them leave the help desk and wind their way back into the offices, where Dr. Purnell’s door rests closed. Dr. Lecter has said he cannot unenroll Will on his own. Nor can his parents. That Will is an adult and must do it himself. But with such a small program of supposedly gifted students, they do not allow mid-year dropouts without understandable cause. Often, if it is a matter of finances, they might try to assist. This is no matter of finances. Dr. Lecter said it shouldn’t take long.

Dr. Lecter knocks and enters, and Will trails in behind. He didn’t even hear Dr. Purnell allow them in, but Dr. Lecter seems to be in a hurry. He relaxes himself into the rightmost seat. Will stands at the threshold and looks at him and is so struck he nearly falls into the jamb. He looked just this way on the day Will stormed into their meeting and insinuated himself into this man’s life.

The way you pursued me, recklessly.

Will changed all of their fates that day.

Let’s walk home together.

If he sets himself in that seat again, will he change the future of more students? Himself? He raises a foot, doesn’t set it down. He feels caught in some stuttering time loop.

“Will,” Dr. Lecter says. “Come in. Shut the door behind you, please.”

Will walks in. He shuts the door behind himself. When he falls into his chair, it’s like locks form around his wrists and ankles. Like when Dr. Lecter uses his joints to drag him around in bed. Shackles or love bracelets. It hardly matters.

“Well, well, well,” Dr. Purnell says, hands folded atop her desk. She glances from one of them to the other. “Here we find ourselves again. I’m surprised you two made it into the spring semester with how much open hostility there was last time we met. A little TLC and mutual understanding goes a long way, eh?”

Will looks at his shoes. “Dr. Purnell, I’d like to unenroll myself from the program.”

“I see that,” she says, tapping at her keyboard. “Your submission form is in contention by both professors Abel Gideon and Frederick Chilton.” She looks back at him, blinks, tilts her head. Squints. This is the first time she’s looked at him headon. “Uh, Mr. Graham, are you feeling okay?”

“He’s perfectly fine,” Dr. Lecter says. He reaches over, taps Will’s elbow once. Will sits up straighter.

Dr. Purnell looks from Will to Dr. Lecter and narrows her gaze. “Okay… Listen, I’m just relaying what I was told. Mr. Graham isn’t a fellowship student, so technically the school wouldn’t be out money, however his teachers say he’s doing well. He’s smart, engaged, with a zest for the written word, a critical reader. Well, except you, Hannibal. He’s been failing in your class.”

“Tragic,” Dr. Lecter says, “but there is nothing to be done. Will and I have had much chance for serious, heart-to-heart talks. About his future. About his talents. And he is quite talented but this is not the field for him. I have conferenced with his parents as well, and they agree with my assessment and would prefer him not to waste time and money. We are all eager for Will to begin his future outside of these walls.”

Dr. Purnell double-takes. “You talked to his parents? When?”

“Over the winter break.”

Her lips purse, eyebrows furrowed. “Ah, yes. Winter break— another matter to be discussed, perhaps privately between you and I, Hannibal.”

Dr. Lecter looks mildly surprised. “Kade, you can speak plainly in front of Will. It hardly matters.”

She looks at Will, hesitant. “All right. It does concern him, I suppose. In that case—” She fishes in her desk drawer and pulls out an iPad. Wakes it, and flips it around for both Will and Dr. Lecter to see. “What is this all about?”

It’s a tabloid site. The article pictured is dated from nearly two weeks ago and Will struggles to remember what this could be about until he notices the photograph: Hannibal Lecter and Bedelia Du Maurier sitting in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan. Will is lightly amazed. It looks so similar to the other one he and Matt had found on the internet as boys. The two of them are slightly older, certainly no less attractive. It may even be the same exact table. The only difference is the boy sitting between them and it takes Will too long to recognize that it’s him. He didn’t know he looked like that. Will’s attention flickers then to the headline: Famed Author Flaunts Barely Legal Escort. Will notes that Bedelia really is always right.

Dr. Lecter reclines back in his seat after taking a glance. “Well, it’s obviously sensationalized. The Tattler is known for sloppy journalism, if indeed it can even be called that at this point.”

“I am aware, Hannibal, but good Christ! You should not have gone off with him like this. This is a student.”

“Yes, for the next—” He looks at the Vanguard watch against his wrist. “Two minutes. Kade, surely your good sense tells you I would never make an escort out of a student. And I believe we have fallen off track. Poor Will is here to terminate his program, not to stand your unfounded accusations based on a misunderstanding. He has already been duly traumatized by these horrible prints besmirching his good name.”

“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause him distress,” she says, quietly shocked.

Dr. Lecter waves a hand. “All is forgiven. Let us carry on, Kade.”

“Well.” She looks back at Will, who has begun to drench his clothes. “Mr. Graham, how do you feel about all this? Is termination really what you want to do?”

Thousands of kids applying. Tens on waiting lists. Four on fellowship. A few more accepted. The day Will received the email, all he read was Mr. Will Graham: Congratulations — before he ran screaming through the house, like his hair was on fire, like his whole world was on fire. He jumped into his parents’ bed at 6 AM on a Saturday and still can’t forget the startled wail from his mom, the way his dad fell out of the bed in shock of the launch of Will’s teen body, cannonballing in pure joy. 

I got in, he yelled in their faces, I got into Emerson! I’m gonna be a fucking writer!

Will’s eyes are wormholes. He says, “Yeah. It’s what I wanna do.”

 

*

 

Just out of the office, when the door is shut and Will’s future is certain, Dr. Lecter takes Will by the nape of the neck and brings him close. Says into his ear: “You did beautifully. I’m so very proud of you.”

Will is hard immediately. He breathes in the scent of Dr. Lecter’s whole person: the forests around the estate and expensive leather. He whines lightly, presses his forehead to the man’s breastbone, and tries to keep himself from shaking too noticeably.

“Let’s go,” Dr. Lecter tells him, and places a hand on his low back to guide him away from the door. Will cannot know what expression is on his face, only that he feels so hot and itchy and he’s dying to be in the loft again, cold and naked and expertly pulled apart.

They walk to the elevator. The changing of the guard has occurred. Will walks by the help desk and evil-eyed Alana is no longer there, radiating disdain. It’s Matt. Matt, sitting there, writing something, and then he looks up just as Will and Dr. Lecter enter the elevator. Matt starts up from his seat, knocking a Rolodex and pens to the floor. His gaze flickers to Dr. Lecter, who simply presses the first floor button. The elevator dings. Matt looks back to Will. His breathing is labored, chest heaving visibly all the way from here.

Will mouths: Bye, Matt.

The doors close.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A bright afternoon in late August: Orientation Day.

Will stood on a corner of Boylston Street in his worn gloves, a ratty long-sleeved shirt, and was dotted lightly with sweat. Hordes of people thronged the sidewalk, body heat in plumes, and noise— so much noise. He had never experienced this kind of everyday fanfare back in Nashville. There were times, sure, like during the fourth of July fireworks downtown or the odd Opry Mills trip where Will would find himself amid a boisterous crowd. But nothing like this. This was gargantuan. So much whirl and thunder Will could not move his head fast enough to keep up enough with it. Matt elbowed him and Will nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Shit,” Matt said, holding hands up in surrender. “Sorry, man, I’m gonna have to watch that.”

Will settled. They crossed with the crowd, from this side to the Common. “It’s okay… it’s weird, isn’t it? Finally being able to see each other in person and… touch each other.”

Matt looked at Will’s gloves. “Well, kinda.”

“Yeah, kinda.”

He grinned, anyway. Matt had had the same exact grin since he was nine-years-old. Eclipsing even the late summer sun. The little barely-there dimple on his left side. All this through pixels for years and years. It was sort of overwhelming to see it in the flesh. He was hard-muscled, had obviously been working out through his wrestling and soccer teams up through high school. Will was always the lazily skinny kid; the most exercise his arms ever got was when he raised them fervently to answer questions in English classes. And now they would share a dorm room, for as long as they were at Emerson. Or as long as Matt could stand Will’s weird hangups. Either one.

So far, he didn’t seem to mind. Matt gave him a reasonable berth and when they initially met each other on the floor of their dorm building, the instinct to hug was there but Matt approached him and asked, “Man, where have you been all my life?” He winked and Will burst out laughing, could not contain it. All those years talking online translated to instant chemistry and the worry and doubt he’d felt on the Greyhound bus melted like snow on a warm afternoon.

They made their way to the Common. There was a picnic lunch for the freshmen in the WLP program, near the frog pond. The itinerary called it Theydies Who Lunch in an attempt to be inclusive. Matt whispered that it was just grammatically incorrect. But they found themselves among their future classmates, all sitting in a ring on checkered blankets around sandwiches and iced teas. Most of them girls, no surprise there.

Matt whispered to Will: “Does that make us the they in theydies?”

Will snorted laughter behind his gloved hand. Sitting out here in the sun, he was really beginning to sweat.

“Hey, are you hot?” one of the girls asked. She was pale, red-lipped, with dark hair. “You look hot.”

Another girl beside her, with a russet braid, snorted laughter. “Nice, Alana.”

“I-I didn’t mean it like that!”

“He’s fine,” Matt said, instant. “He likes to be hot. He comes from down south.”

The girls all seemed to accept this as truth and didn’t bother Will anymore. Once Matt got started, he almost didn’t stop talking: about his one publication, his writing style, opinions on who everyone should be reading. The girls mostly seemed to tune him out. Except one: this girl named Beverly, with her long hair and interested eyes. She laughed at his jokes and tried to get Will to talk more, about his own accomplishments of which there were few. When another girl, a redhead, asked Beverly about her own publications, Beverly shrugged and said, “I’ve got zilch. Ha! I’m just happy to be here, really.”

Will wondered if she meant that.

After lunch, the next event. A WLP-wide Q&A with the professors for the upcoming school year. Including the Distinguished Writer-In-Residence. Will and Matt held their pamphlets and tried not to look like the world’s most amped up fanboys and failed fantastically. Will could feel excitement and anticipation vibrating through him like a wavelength. He felt so close to the secrets of the universe he could almost smell the ozone.

The hall was dark, cool, a blessing. The students took their seats and Will and Matt found themselves at a table with their fellow fiction majors. When the department head, Dr. Purnell, appeared, she seemed to be wrestling with the microphone, shouting noiselessly for someone to turn the damned thing on.

The other professors filed in, sat with her at the long table. Men Will recognized from the list of primary staff on the Emerson website. Dr. Purnell got the microphones fixed. And then he walked in.

Will’s hands sung in their gloves. This heft suddenly went into them, weighing them down on the table. Hannibal Lecter: striding in easily and taking his seat to the left of Dr. Purnell. The way his hair hung lank and ash-brown against his forehead. The finely-pressed button down he wore; white, of all things — Will would be soaked to the bone in sweat, visible for all to see. Not him. He looked like he’d just walked out of another world. One where heat and sweat didn’t exist. One where there was nothing but cool breezes and expensive cologne and God, how must he smell? He must smell like heaven, like the lining of a Maserati. The way he sat there, too, looking off away from Dr. Purnell like nothing she had to say was even close to mattering. His netherworld eyes scanned the room and it was surely too dark out in the audience for him to see Will but Will wanted desperately to believe he did see him, saw him and thought— something— anything. Will would be in class with this man, learning from him. Nothing like a dream at all. Like a simulation of his best life. Someone had put Will under and flipped a switch and he hoped he would never wake up.

“Jesus, Will,” Matt muttered, looking at the way Will trembled in his seat, face blotched with sweat and blush, “you okay? You seem worked up.”

“Shit. He’s just so perfect.”

Matt looked up at Hannibal Lecter. Although, Will supposed, he would need to address him as Dr. Lecter now. Matt said, “He looks cool as hell. Bet he’s gonna work us over though, you know how those types are.”

“I can’t stop shaking.”

“Just sip your water or something. Take a breath.”

“He’s really hot, Matt.”

Matt burst out laughing, causing others to shush him. “Ah, Will, you’re my favorite gay. Just try to keep your legs closed and we should all be fine.”

Oh, Will would keep his legs closed all right. There was no way a worldly older man like that would be interested in a twiggy twerp like him. Not sexually, anyway. But Will was confident he could wow this man with his writing, at least. He could see, so clearly, any number of scenarios where Dr. Lecter read Will’s work and was overcome, simply flabbergasted, with the calibre of such a gifted student. So stark and vivid in his mind’s eye. It was practically reality.

 

*

 

“Very nice. Go slow. It’s all right.”

Will looks up at the ceiling of the loft. The bedroom he shares now with Dr. Lecter. He lies naked on the wide bed, covers deeply ruffled from two rounds of strenuous fucking. Will has traces of Dr. Lecter’s come on his lips and his gloves are who knows where. He works his oil-coated bare hands along his own length— slow, like he’s told. Will tries to keep his gaze averted from where Dr. Lecter stands at the bedside, in just slacks, his new phone out, snapping pictures. Some closeups of Will's hands working. Some wide-shots.

“Bedelia was right,” Dr. Lecter says quietly, almost to himself. “This is quite handy. Will, look at me.”

Will whimpers. He looks over, eyes unfocused.

Dr. Lecter kneels on the bed. He takes one hand into the dark wet tresses of Will’s hair and bares his throat. He readies the phone camera. 

“Smile, honey,” he says. 

Will smiles, strained, gums showing. The photo snaps.

 

*

*

*

 

The first month back passes with little interlude. Days and nights spent in the loft run together, trip together, and there are whole weeks where Will does not leave. He is not chained to the bed, although once Dr. Lecter makes a joke about it and Will giggles nervously in response. Dr. Lecter says Will can go out if he wants to. 

Will no longer wants to. Going outside without Dr. Lecter seems like inviting trouble. He gets so overwhelmed, and when he told Dr. Lecter this, in his arms at night, the man patted him and said of course you’re overwhelmed, a Muse is a terribly simple thing and simple things take only to other simple things and that made sense to Will. He is becoming more himself everyday.

The first time Dr. Lecter takes him out again properly, Will doesn’t right off know why. It’s evening and the Boston streets are choked with traffic. In mid-February, the sun disappears early still, dipping behind naked trees in the Common. Through the populated sidewalks, Will holds Dr. Lecter’s hand and feels belongingness. The unease of people around, of the very unsubtle over-the-shoulder glances he receives, dissipates. He has realized that it doesn’t really matter if other people see him as some haunted wraith. Dr. Lecter finds him beautiful. It took a while to understand but he finally does. He really is such a simple thing.

They come to Explorer. Will looks at the great windowed walls of the building and something ticks, in the back of his mind. He was here, once. In another lifetime.

It looks different at night. Lit hot by votive candles lining the walls and a rose on each table. The plain white linens hold shadows well. The scents of food toss Will’s stomach, however. Lately Dr. Lecter has had to command him to eat.

“This is unacceptable,” he told Will one night, touching the raised ridge of his ribcage. “Have you been vomiting?”

Will had, a little. He could not stand the taste of food. It tastes worse than before; ashes, once, and now the rotted flesh of human beings. Will told Dr. Lecter this, gaze downcast in shame. Dr. Lecter sighed and strapped him down and force-fed him and said if he continued this way, Dr. Lecter would send for April and May and they would tend to him. Will has been eating ever since, at every meal, taste be damned. He likes Dr. Lecter’s firm hand, best. Better than the soft cooings of women.

They are seated near a window and deja vu clicks in Will again. Like a lighter with little fluid. Just the exhaust of a spark, something—

I hope to know what that’s like.

Will blinks.

I hope to be good enough to know.

He looks at the shadow-reflection of himself in the glass.

Yeah. Me too.

He blinks it out and smiles across the table at Dr. Lecter. “I like this place. Thanks for taking me.”

Dr. Lecter waves it away. “Do you know what today is?”

“No.” Muses don’t concern themselves with time, overmuch. “Time is… ephemeral,” he says, quoting Dr. Lecter exactly from the instance where he tied Will up with a vibrator inside him, a cockring constricting him, and then left the loft for hours.

“Very good, Will.”

Will is hard instantly, gripping the table edge with his gloved hands.

Their waitress approaches them and greets them with a “Happy Valentine's Day!” and Will understands better. He hasn’t done anything in particular to warrant such a reward but sometimes Dr. Lecter gives them out freely. Will knows love doesn’t have to be said to be felt. They do things their own way. Will keeps his menu folded on the table and Dr. Lecter orders for them both. The waitress nods gracefully and sends Will a tepid smile. She says, “Love your earrings.”

Sometime just after the appetizers have arrived — sunken-in cheeks, formaldehyde, bone cancer — Will feels a small trickle at his back. Something like memory, or sonar. He flinches, looks around the crowded restaurant.

“Something wrong?” Dr. Lecter asks.

“No, I—” Will shakes his head. “I thought I felt something.”

“That, again?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Sometimes, Will feels like he’s sweating on the inside of his face. He has discussed this at length with Dr. Lecter, who says not to pay it any mind. “I’m fine.”

“I know you are. I don’t think he knows, however.”

Will looks to where Dr. Lecter has indicated — and there he is. Will almost doesn’t recognize him at first. This is a commonplace occurrence for Will. He understands, bleakly, that it is not the thing he looks at which has changed but he himself. His eyes are different, the film of black over the whites like a filter. So when he sees Matt, and when Matt sees him, two very different things are happening and Will’s gums begin to ache. Matt stands across the room, being led to a table by the hostess. Beside him is Freddie Lounds — it also takes Will a moment to place her. She takes hold of Matt’s arm carefully, tugs him towards their table. Matt looks at Will like he is on fire and there isn’t water for miles with which to put him out.

“Mr. Brown has become quite the feisty thing in class,” Dr. Lecter says mildly, watching as Freddie finally succeeds in tugging Matt to his seat. “He looks like he would enjoy stabbing me to death. It’s very invigorating mid-afternoon; better than coffee. I think he misses you dearly.”

“Mmm.” Will chews his food carefully, trying to avoid it on his tongue. “I guess so.”

“He thinks I am some monster keeping you in a tower. Do you feel like a princess, Will?”

Will swallows. He thinks about it — a thought is half-arrogance, half-sewage; you are better, purer, without it — and then stops thinking. He raises his hands and the gems glitter in the candlelight. Finger by finger, Will removes the gloves and places them in his lap. He holds his hands, palms-flat, against the table linen. The ash-grey is startling against the white of the flatware. The fingernails have gone stark black, like paint. Will looks placidly at Dr. Lecter.

The man cannot speak. He stares at Will’s hands with stratosphere eyes. It is rare for him to see them outside of the safety of the loft. It is rare for Will to feel the necessity to show him. Will could be his Muse, his princess, his captive, his mausoleum rose, it does not matter. Will is his.

“What will happen to me,” Will says softly, “when I read your new book?”

Dr. Lecter, at length, finds his voice. It is lightly hoarse. “One can only imagine.”

Will has considered this, when he allows himself to consider anything. The book is nearly finished and will be mailed to a very irate Bedelia within her timeline. Dr. Lecter has told Will nothing of it, only that Will was integral in its birth. In this way, Will feels a bit like a mother. Mothers don’t have time for sad friends, if indeed he and Matt are still friends at all. That wasn’t even him, all those years, online and then at orientation and then in their dorm, surrounded by snacks and empty pens. That was—

See ya, author.

—someone else.

Will replaces the gloves on his hands by the time the entrees come. When they finally leave Explorer, Will looks back at Matt and Freddie’s table. Freddie speaks to Matt, fervently, but Matt doesn’t seem to be listening. He is looking at Will, fists straining in his lap, shivering in the body heat.

 

*

 

Sometimes, Dr. Lecter leaves the loft. He cites these as walks he must take, to clear his head. It’s like back at the estate when they would walk out on the white lawns, lose themselves to the quiet storms. Will considers that when they get back to the estate in the summer, it will look vastly different. Greenery rolling down every hill, the plains stretching with ryegrass and sunflowers. He will no doubt return to that dead place as well, and turn it into a graveyard of trees. How long will that go on? It’s impossible to tell. Will doesn’t like to dwell on it—

His name is Luther.

—but he knows that the death of plants can’t satisfy a great man like Hannibal Lecter forever. A writer of his magnitude will one day require another blood sacrifice. That day approaches Will like a debt-collector.

Will watches the closed front door for a while after Dr. Lecter leaves. He likes to be nearby, at hand, for his return. But he doesn’t seem to be returning quickly today. When Will rises to busy himself elsewhere, he hears a sound he hasn’t heard before. A little ding. A call box by the front door blinks orange. Will looks at it, head tilted, fingers fidgeting in his gloves. The box dings again. Once, Will was on the other side of it, demanding to be allowed up. But Dr. Lecter doesn’t need to ring the bell. Will goes to it, hesitates. He presses the open button and waits near the door for the inevitable knock.

It comes. Will pauses with his hand over the doorknob. He finally opens it and is numbly surprised. He didn’t expect to see that fiery halo of hair in front of him anytime soon. Anytime ever again.

“Hi, Will,” she says, struggling between whispering and not whispering. “Is Dr. Lecter home?”

“Freddie,” Will greets. “No, he’s out. Did you need something for class?”

She presses her lips together. Shakes her head. “Can I come in?”

Will is so many things. A Muse, a mother, a princess— one thing he’s never been is a guard dog. He opens the door wide and allows her in. She looks around quickly, her wits about her, as if someone might jump out and accost her. Will doesn’t blame her — who knows what’s being said on campus about the two of them, what goes on here. Will tries not to think about it. It hardly matters, after all. But he does wonder.

When the door is shut and she stands in the wide expanse of the open room, Will sees a flash of black hair, an oversized scarf. His head hurts.

“Will? You okay?” she asks.

Will lowers his hand from his temple. “Uh. Yeah. I’m good. How’s— how’s it going?”

She just looks at him, soft and long. Will wonders if he’s said something wrong already. It’s been over a month since he talked to anyone except Dr. Lecter. And the way he talks to Dr. Lecter is not applicable here. He remembers the way he used to be and tries mimicking himself. Pulling on old skin over new skin, an ill-fitting costume. He goes to the couch and flops down, feeling awkward. He motions for her to sit too.

She remains standing. “Matt is so worried about you, Will. You— you don’t know how many times I’ve had to stand in front of his dorm door and beg him not to come over here and cause trouble. One day, I won’t be able to stop him. You know that, right?”

Will looks off. “You’re his girlfriend, right? You need to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. I don’t need saving.”

“I don’t know if that’s true, Will. We all heard about what happened at Dr. Lecter's place.”

Will’s head jerks up. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean word travels. He talks to Dr. Chilton and Dr. Gideon, you know, and shows them... pictures. And they talk, and the help desk overhears, and… well, one day, Matt came off a shift and he looked like he was going to have a heart-attack. I’ve never seen him like that before. I got him some Valium but it’s not doing too much.”

“Oh,” Will says.

“Oh? That’s all you can say?” She steps forward, her boots clicking on the marble. “Isn’t he your best friend? You guys grew up together. That’s what he told me.”

“We didn’t— grow up together— not really. I knew him online.”

“The way he talks, you’d think you grew up in the same house. He said you made a promise to become writers together.”

Will feels himself grim. “I’m not going to be a writer.”

“Not like this, you won’t.”

“I wasn’t going to be one anyway. I suck. I’m terrible.” Will rubs his arm gently. “But I’m good at other stuff.”

“Yeah, apparently,” she mutters, tugging on an orange curl. “Listen, I can’t stay and I really don’t wanna be here when Dr. Lecter gets back. I came to give you something.”

Will isn’t sure he’s supposed to have anything. “Um. What is it?”

“Just this. Matt’s up this week for workshop. This is his story. He wants your critique too.” She reaches into her black purse and produces a small sheaf of papers, clipped together. Will just looks at them, wide-eyed, and Freddie groans aloud and tosses it onto the coffee table. “Will, Jesus!”

Will flinches. “Matt doesn’t need my critique. Look, we made a promise, but promises get broken. You don’t get it, I don’t expect you to. You’ve got it all figured out. A way into the literary world — through your step-mom or your own abilities, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have that. I’ve got something else. I help Dr. Lecter.”

“Yeah, help him get off.”

“Fuck you, Freddie. You don’t know shit about us.”

“Us?” Her eyebrows rise into her bangs. “Okay, you enjoy then,” she says and stalks back to the entryway. Will follows her, ready to slam the door and lock it. Letting her in was a stupid mistake. She steps out into the bright corridor and whirls around, sticking her boot into the closing door. “Wait,” she says.

“What now,” Will says.

She gazes at the floor, half turned back to him. “I… just thought you should know. We’re going to do something for Bev, this weekend.”

Will’s arms drop from their fold at his chest. His body temperature drops with them. “Bev,” he mutters. “What do you mean?”

“Just like a little vigil. Since it’s her birthday. Small, at the Tam. One drink, in her honor. Did you want to come?”

The writer is so imaginative.

Will feels her walking through him. The chill of her, like a cold December day.

“I, uh. I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”

“You’re welcome to come. It’s about Bev, not you.” Freddie looks up at him again, finally. “She liked you a lot, you know. Every time Alana made a fuss about you, Bev stuck up for you. You guys must’ve been closer than you let on.”

“S—” Will blinks, hard. Something’s caught in his throat. “She was a friend.”

“It’s at 8 PM on Saturday. If you’re really not a prisoner here, come.” And she takes her boot away. Sends Will one final glance he can’t parse, and departs down the hallway. Will watches her until the elevator. When she’s gone, he shuts the front door and places his back against it. He looks up at the ceiling, through the plaster and pipes and other lofts and into the cold day and he can nearly see it for himself: the fire in the sky.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Matt typed: i only got like two hours of writing in from my mom yelling for me to do something every five minutes

Matt typed: finally just gave up

Matt typed: it was all stupid anyway

Matt typed: waste of time

Will typed: i’m sure it wasn’t stupid

Will typed: even your shitty stuff is really good

Will typed: better than most people in my school’s fiction club, for sure.

Matt typed: oh yeah? how’s that going anyway

Will typed: pretty good! everyone’s wild for my shit.

Matt typed: lol gross

Will typed: lmao i’m serious. the teacher says i can get into any writing program in the country. i’m gonna make Iowa my bitch

Matt typed: Iowa?! thought we wanted the New School

Will typed: nyc can suck my dick

Matt typed: don’t think with your dick, think with your head. Iowa is old school. we want new wave. we wanna be on the next crest

Will typed: well it doesn’t really matter. anywhere would be fucking lucky to have us and they know it

Matt typed: oh talk ego to me baby :)

Will typed: [download .docx]

Will typed: here this is something i worked on last week, tell me what you think

Will typed: i had it critiqued at fiction club but they blow smoke up people’s asses a lot

Will typed: i like that you tell me for real

Matt typed: ofc man

Matt typed: oh shit

Matt typed: OH SHT

Matt typed: *SHIT

Matt typed: you’ll never guess who’s scheduled for residence at Emerson College in two years

Matt typed: FUCK

Will typed: wtf who?? stop teasing me

Matt typed: guess asshole!!

Will typed: um Stephen King?

Will typed: McCarthy?

Matt typed: who makes you cream your panties every night

Will typed: stop playing

Matt typed: Hannibal F. Lecter (f stands for fucking)

Will typed: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

 

*

 

Will reads the story Freddie left when he gets a chance. It isn’t terribly hard to get time alone. Dr. Lecter locks Will out of the master bedroom while he writes in the morning hours. Will sits on the couch, legs tucked under him, and reads fiction for the first time in he doesn’t know how long. He’s exhausted all the plays and poetry and classics in the loft. This feels new, fresh. Rustic. The pages are long cold from the copier but he’s sure he could feel residual warmth from Matt’s hands — if he tried.

Will sits in the morning light and feels himself smile. Typical Matt. Making literary allusions too unwieldy for him and they take up too much page space for such a short story. But the characters are strong. Well-drawn. Matt always thinks out the plot, has a clear definition, and ends on something entering surrealism. There’s never any real resolution, which he’s received flack for in workshop. Will’s never minded it. It’s a stamp, a trademark. For instance, in this story’s end, the main character’s best friend walks into his room while he’s sleeping. He leans over the bed and looks into the main character’s face, pallid and loose, unguarded in dreaming. And the best friend whispers, “Hang on. I’m going to save you.”

Will sets the story down and looks off into the Saturday morning across the Common. It’s Beverly’s birthday today.

 

*

 

He waits until the last possible minute. He isn’t sure why. Could be any number of things: afraid of Dr. Lecter saying no, or him just being in a sour mood if the day’s writing didn’t go well or he didn’t accomplish as much as he wanted. But Dr. Lecter is always in a chipper mood post-sex.

Will’s breathing has calmed. He can take longer breaths now. In a ruffle of covers in the bed, his legs are twisted with Dr. Lecter’s. The man’s heavy arm lies over him, keeping him close. It must be mid-afternoon but it’s hard to tell time, sometimes. They have become particularly skilled at marathoning; Dr. Lecter knows which positions Will lasts longest in, shortest in, where all his trip-switches lie, and Will knows now when to clamp down and roll his hips and when to take his gloves off to make the man come in him. It’s like magic. Will sees sparks behind his eyes for the longest time, even when he shuts them. Even in the dark.

The gloves are back on, now. Will turns into Dr. Lecter’s shoulder. “Um,” he says.

“Your mind is so quiet, lately,” Dr. Lecter says to him. He looks up at the ceiling. The only sounds in the entire loft are the hum of the heater and their joint heartbeats. “I have grown to adore that. It makes it easier for me to think. But your mind isn’t quiet now.”

Will bites his low lip, wondering how to go about it. “Did… did you know it’s Bev’s— birthday, today?”

Dr. Lecter finally turns to look at Will. His hair is mussed, a red spot of blood on his upper lip where Will nipped him. “I was not aware.”

“I— they’re doing something for her tonight. Um, your students. They invited me.”

“I see.”

“It’s a drink at the Tam. I wouldn’t be gone long.”

Dr. Lecter strokes the side of Will’s face. His gaze is so deep, Will could drown in it. Maybe this was a bad idea. But Dr. Lecter leans in and kisses the side of Will’s mouth. “Of course.” He takes hold of one of Will’s gloved hands and holds it against his chest. “You needn’t even ask.”

Will swallows. He waits, waits. For Dr. Lecter to ask just how he was invited. He certainly has no access to a phone. Will wonders what they said in workshop about Matt’s story. Was the ending too open to interpretation? Did they want something definitive? Something happy? Isn’t melancholy more literary? What would Beverly have had to say about it? She was always. So insightful.

“Will, Will,” Dr. Lecter says, nearly singsong, gathering Will into his arms. He hugs him close and Will deteriorates bit by bit. All the knots in his back from the ways Dr. Lecter folds and twists him in sex. All of them melting. Will goes nearly boneless. Dr. Lecter trails his fingertips up the knobs of Will’s spine, to the base of his skull. “In terms of Ms. Katz’s absence from this world, you have taken her place beautifully. The literary world suffers no great loss now that you have become my Muse. I will fill her gap over ten thousand times. It is because of you, not in spite of you. You are highly favored by me.”

Ah.

Will shuts his eyes. His eyelashes are soaked. He molds himself to Dr. Lecter and fits so well. They fit so well.

“Nevermind,” Will mutters against the man’s chest. Warm. Like a cocoon. Will can stay here and become anything Dr. Lecter writes into a page. “I don’t want to go.”

“You should go, Will. Your friends invited you.”

“They’re not my friends,” Will grumbles.

You’ve been gagging for his cock since orientation.

He winces. “They were Beverly’s friends, really. I just—I just—”

“It would be a nice gesture.” Dr. Lecter presses his mouth to Will’s temple and Will continues to enfold himself against the man. Like if he could just press hard enough, they might become one. It will happen sooner or later. Dr. Lecter said so. Will guesses he’s right, of course. He’s always right.

 

*

 

Will washed himself before leaving the loft. He doesn’t want to offend anyone — he’ll just have a quick drink, toast to Beverly’s life and talent, and then quietly depart.

He walks down the somewhat familiar streets in half-dark. Headlights and lamplights shine over him, taking turns with shadows. People traipse past in twos and threes. Will feels wildly lonely. He told Dr. Lecter before leaving that he would be gone an hour, tops. Even that seems too long now. As he stood at the threshold of the loft, in his gloves, a fox wrapped around his shoulders, ears shimmering red, Dr. Lecter took him by the hand and kissed its palm. Again, Will changed his mind. Again, Dr. Lecter urged him to go. He really is too sweet.

The Tam. It’s just like some other Will remembers it. The Will who was still a child: cherry unpopped, jealous, angry all the time. Musehood has lifted so many frightening emotions from his tired shoulders. He is glad to be rid of them.

“Mr. Graham. Fancy seeing you here.”

Will jolts. He looks to the side of the bar, where a man leans against the wall. His cigarette butt burns bright in the dark and he exhales. Recognition lights in Will, remembered lessons from the head of a classroom.

“Dr. Gideon?” He blinks, hands going to stroke the tail of his fox. “What’re you doing here?”

“Same as you. Having a drink.” He smiles in the lamplight. The cigarette he flicks, snubs it out with the toe of a wingtip. He points to the fox. “New pet?”

“Um.”

“Chilly out here! Let’s get warmed up inside.”

Dr. Gideon places a gentle hand on Will’s shoulder, near the fox’s head, and Will is too confused to jerk away. He leads them in through the rustic, run-down entryway. It’s immediately warmer here. Will watches as Dr. Gideon rids himself of his coat, leaving it on the rack. There aren’t many for a Saturday night. It doesn’t seem typically loud in there either. There’s no music. Will halts at the frosted door separating the coatroom from the bar proper. He raises a foot to step back and Dr. Gideon takes hold of his shoulder again and pushes him in through the door. Will stumbles in, hears the door shut behind him and can’t look back. He sees Matt.

Him, amid a few others. The bar is totally empty save for one table, their table. Will remembers it well. Beverly’s seat is empty. Will’s is too.

Alana and Freddie sit side-by-side in their stockings and skirts, pretty scarves. Abigail with her arms folded next to Alana, in denim. And Matt there, sitting in front of Dr. Chilton who stands feet away with this strange look on his face. Finding a name for that look would require Will to think. He. Can’t.

“Wh-what is this?” Will asks quietly.

Matt rises from his seat. Dr. Chilton places a hand on his shoulder. Will, with Dr. Gideon’s hand on his shoulder. They stand like that. Will’s eyes moisten.

“Traitor,” Will says. “Fucking backstabber.”

Matt shouts, “That’s not true!”

“Mr. Brown,” Dr. Chilton says and then moves to his ear. Whispers something.

“But—”

“Sit down,” Dr. Chilton orders. “What did I tell you about reactionism?”

Matt grits his teeth and sits.

Will dips a bucket into his low well and pulls up soggy laughter. “This is what you meant. ‘Hang on, I’m going to save you.’ What is this supposed to even be? Some intervention? Did you rent out this bar?”

“We didn’t know where else you would go,” Freddie says, looking up.

Abigail elbows her. “You’re not supposed to tell him that.”

“Why not?”

Will laughs again, drier. “I’m leaving.” He turns and is met with Dr. Gideon’s solid body, his warm smile. Will does not return it. “Move.”

“Let’s all calm down for a second. Mr. Graham, why don’t you have a seat with your friends and hear them out?”

“Move,” he says, again. “You can’t keep me here!”

“Our intent is not to keep you here at all.”

“Then why are you blocking the door?!” Will makes to rush past but Dr. Gideon is so sturdy. He locks an arm around Will’s barely-there waist and hoists him up over his shoulder, red-bottomed shoes leaving the dirty tile. In this is some memory. April and May barging into his bedroom and hoisting him off to a bath to prepare him for sex. He stopped fighting them after a while. He goes limp, now. And is carried over to his seat at the table and gently placed into it. Across the table, over Matt’s head, Dr. Chilton frowns heavily.

“What?” Dr. Gideon asks. “He was causing a fuss.”

Dr. Chilton shakes his head, two fingers pressed to his temple. He pats Matt on the shoulder. “Just do it.”

Matt is looking at Will. Will looks off at the wall — a fake signed Led Zeppelin poster. If he’s going to be held against his will here, he refuses to participate. If he plays dead, maybe they will lose interest.

When Matt doesn’t say anything, Freddie clears her throat. “We’re all very worried about you, Will. That’s the only reason we lied to get you here. Will you just please hear us out? Then you can go.”

Will glares at the poster. “You told me to come if I wasn’t a prisoner. Well, I’m here. Dr. Lecter told me to go. I even didn’t want to and— he said it would be a nice gesture for Bev’s birthday. I’m not a fucking prisoner. Just tell me you believe that, and then I’ll listen. Otherwise, I’ll toss a chair at that front window and scream that you’re all keeping me here.”

Freddie blinks widely and there is a flash of her hair in Will’s periphery, where she looks to get Dr. Chilton’s opinion. Finally, she says, “Okay, Will. I don’t think you’re a prisoner.”

“Fine,” Will says. He crosses one leg over the other. “Hurry it up.”

There is silence. This place smells like a hell hole. The loft always is so gently-scented, even with Will dwelling there. He longs for it now, bone-deep.

“Will,” Matt says.

Will shrugs. “I’m listening.”

“Look at me, Will.”

Will almost does it. Then doesn’t. “Just talk.”

He hears something like paper being crumpled. A page goes sailing until it hits Will in the head. Will whips around, eyebrows tented.

“What’d you just throw at me?” he cries.

Matt leans forward in his seat. Shoulders hunched, biceps touching the end of the table. His little dimple above a tense smirk. Will is startled to see it there, now. Matt says, “Fuck your letter. I wrote it in a rush anyway and it’s barely legible.”

Dr. Chilton bristles. “Don’t say that!”

Matt continues: “You read my story, right? Freddie said she gave it to you. What’d you think? Give me your critique.”

Will rubs at the side of his head. Mumbles: “I, uh, I read it. But I don’t have a critique.”

“Bullshit. You never could keep your opinions to yourself. What was wrong with it?”

“I’m not a writer, Matt. Ask these guys.”

“What’d you think about the ending? Was it believable?”

Will pauses. Thinks—

A thought is half-arrogance, half-sewage. You are better. 

Purer. 

Without it.

Will flinches.

“That,” Matt says and shakes the table a little. “Stop doing that. What you just did. Just fucking tell me what you think, Will. You know that ending was shitty, so just tell me it was.”

“Fine, it was shitty.”

“Don’t just tell me that because I said to!”

“What the fuck do you want from me?!”

“You,” Matt says, begs, then pulls it back. He reclines in the chair, and his face is pallid, his neck red and sweaty. It’s under his armpits, too, soaking his shirt. “I miss my friend. I miss my friend who promised to become a great writer with me. I miss the kid who never took no for an answer.”

That was him, once. The kid who never took no for an answer. Any blockade in his way, he rammed his hard head against until it came crumbling down, or he concussed himself. Whichever came first. Wild and angry, and look where that got him. Will’s chest hurts. Thinking about these things is poison. Rotted. The kid he used to be didn’t have a corpse’s hands, a wraith’s eyes, and he could eat. Will doesn’t know how to tell Matt that that kid doesn’t exist any longer, doesn’t deserve to exist for the awful thing he’s done. His life was stricken through with a red pen.

“When I got my acceptance to Emerson first,” Matt says, “and you were just waiting around for your email, and you tried not to show how worried you were, I wasn’t worried. I guessed even if they didn’t admit you, you’d show up to class anyway and dare them to say anything. Why the fuck would you let this guy take you from what you wanted your whole life?”

This is your gift from me — what you have waited for your whole lifelong.

“Why, Will? Just because he’s your idol? He was mine too, once. But I’d never let that stop me from what I know I’m meant for. I could’ve sworn you felt the same way. I’d’ve bet my life on it.”

It settles. The heat of the room, the breathing at-odds. Will blinks quickly.

“I realized,” he says, voice small, “that I made a mistake. I’m not a writer. I’m—”

Matt surges forward. “If you fucking tell me one more time you’re that guy’s Muse, I’m going to have a motherfucking fit. All this bullshit he’s been filling your head with! That you smell like a corpse? You fucking don’t! You never have and I’ve lived with you, I’d know! You don’t even know him! Fucking someone doesn’t make you close!”

I love him,” Will snarls, gloved fists banging on the table. “And he loves me! M-Maybe he doesn’t say it all the time, or any of the time, but you don’t have to when you’re in love. I know it’s real by the way it feels. He completely relies on me. He’s said. He couldn’t go on writing without me. He couldn’t go on living without me. Not now that he knows me. And something tells me you’re just jealous!”

“What is that supposed to mean?!”

“That I have a clear purpose in life! Dr. Lecter gave me one! Even after— even after I surely didn’t deserve it— he found a use for me! Being a writer is awful, just awful, because there’s no guarantee of anyone ever giving one shit about what you write. People say you should just enjoy it for you but anyone who’s ever written seriously knows that is grade-A bullshit! There’s no guarantee of making money, or being free to follow your dream, or meeting with anything but rejection!” Will turns quickly to find Dr. Gideon, still by his side, wearing a somewhat stressed expression. “That’s right, isn’t it, Dr. Gideon? You said so too. ‘Something is read, chewed up, then discarded—’”

“Yes, yes, Mr. Graham, I remember what I said,” he says with a hand splayed over his eyes. “I didn’t know you would take it so to heart—”

“Abel,” Dr. Chilton cries. “You half-wit! What did you say that for?”

“I was pontificating—”

“Jesus Christ—”

“I—” Matt opens his mouth, closes it. He looks into Will’s eyes from across the table, chest puffing as if he wants to scream. But he swallows it all, places his hands over his eyes, heels digging into the sockets. “Someone else go. Someone else go. I need a second. Fuck.”

“I’ll go,” Freddie says, glancing quick at Matt. She unfolds a paper she’s had pressed between her hands. It’s lightly translucent with sweat. “Um. Dear Will. We haven’t gotten to spend a lot of time together, but that afternoon we had lunch meant a lot to me. I had never heard someone speak about writing and stories so passionately. The way you could remember every detail. What that story meant to you. I went home and tried to think if anything had ever touched me like that, even by my favorite authors. I realized nothing had. It made me feel… bad, like maybe I wasn’t such a good reader.” She peers over the page at Will. “It made me want to be better. I wanted to be touched by something, the way you were with Three Graves.”

Will can’t help the pity that overflows him. “You don’t want that, Freddie.”

“What I want is for you to come back to school, Will,” she says and lowers the page to her lap. She glances at Matt, with his head on the table, then back at Will. “I-I don’t know if this is even right to say. Maybe it’s— I don’t know— blasphemous? Disrespectful? When Beverly died, it was horrible. The worst thing. I could never have imagined I’d know someone who was murdered. And what’s worse— she was a good person. Talented. Always ready to cheer me up after Dr. Lecter got done ripping my piece to shreds.”

Each sentence feels like a hot knife in Will’s heart.

Freddie continues: “But one loss was bad enough. Two losses is just too much. It feels like you’re dead, too. Our class is so pitiful now.” She looks down, her shoulders trembling. “Beverly’s empty seat. Your empty seat. It’s like a funeral. It’s like a funeral every week. Please, Will, it makes me so sad.”

It made me so sad.

Will exhales, harsh, like someone has punched him in the gut. He says, soft, “I can’t. I can’t do this. I want to go home.”

Freddie tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. “Will—”

“You guys tricked me. You tricked me into coming here.” He looks up at the lot of them. “Is it really even her birthday?”

Alana says, “Yeah. It is. She’d be nineteen today. And you know, if she were alive, she’d be right here with us trying to talk some sense into you.”

Will whips his head so fast his curls bounce. Right here with us? And this is the first time he can remember Alana speaking since he was dumped into this seat. He grimaces. “What the fuck do you know about what she’d be doing?”

“She liked you, Will—”

“I know that,” he cries, the words scraped from inside him. He wipes at one eye. “Don’t you think I know that?”

Alana studies him for a long second. She is perfectly still.

Will feels it tight in his chest. His upper lip rises. “Fuck. You can’t even fake it, can you, Alana?”

“What’re you talking about?”

He points an unsteady finger. “You. I’m talking about you. You can’t fake liking me, worrying about me, not even for this. Not even when Dr. Chilton probably told you to keep your opinions to yourself. That’s why you’re so quiet. But not talking doesn’t do it. It fucking bleeds out of you—”

Dr. Chilton comes forward. “Mr. Graham— Will— I’m sure Ms. Bloom isn’t—”

“What’s your letter say, Alana?” Will asks. “Does it tell me how bad I was gagging for our teacher’s cock? That I brought this on myself? That I got what I deserve?”

Dr. Chilton gapes at her. “She didn’t— did she?”

“My letter doesn’t say any of that,” Alana says, unfazed. Her eyes, her face, steady as always. “I didn’t write one. I didn’t need to. I have everything I want to say to you on the tip of my tongue, and it’s been there since winter break.” When Abigail touches her shoulder, Alana shakes it off. “I’m sick of pretending you’re some poor doe in need. You’re a grown man. A grown man who wouldn’t take criticism. Who did everything you could to endear yourself to Dr. Lecter except stick it out. He would’ve come around, eventually, but you took hits so hard. Like running when a predator chases you. It’s the worst possible thing you could do.”

“Alana,” Abigail says, “okay, okay.”

“Lay off,” Freddie says. “You’re not helping!”

Alana continues. Will watches her mouth move. “You gave up and I have no pity for you. Writing is hard? Writing is thankless? I hope you don’t think you’re the only one who knows that. Matt said it was your life’s passion but I don’t smell passion on you, I smell apathy. And it stinks.”

“Ms. Bloom,” Dr. Chilton snaps. “Please leave if you insist on being inflammatory.”

She stands, chair sliding back against the tile. The steadiness falls from her like rhododendron petals. Her fists quaver at her sides. “You pretended you were one of us. Beverly loved your stories. She took them to heart. And she would talk to us about them outside of class, saying what she thought of the characters, or a turn of phrase and what it meant. If she could peek out of her grave and see you wasting away now— no longer a writer but a doll without a heart— she would be fucking sick—”

Will almost doesn’t realize, until he’s done it. Jumped out of his seat, ran over the table, launched himself onto Alana and stumbled with her until she hit the back wall against the restroom corridor. The sound of the table and chairs falling, of their classmates and teachers’ cries, follows them. Will’s gloved hand against her throat. Her hair in dark disarray. Pupils like slits, and Will holds her against the wall, old band flyers and dust floating down around them.

Will takes his other hand in his mouth, bites the end of the glove and rips it off. He holds his bare hand over her face, the shadow of it shading her eyes. “You have no fucking idea,” he says, drooling between his teeth, eyes streaked with black capillaries, “no idea what I could do to you.”

“Will, stop it—” Shrill. Someone? Matt? “Will, put it back on!”

Alana chokes as Will squeezes. “I-It’s so unfair. That you lived. And she— she died.”

His hand hovers a hair’s breadth from the open plains of her face, a lowering storm cloud. He whispers, words wet, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Will!”

Will is jerked back, stumbles, dizzy, and when he looks again at Alana, it’s Matt standing in front of her. His eyes wild, like the very first webcam photo Will saw of him. Will’s bare hand looks sickly in the bar lighting, the nails gleaming black. It shivers. Will lowers it, brings it to his chest.

“Jesus Christ, Will, you can’t do shit like that, you don’t know if it will—”

“I do know,” Will says, and he doesn’t know if he’s crying but his face is wet. He can’t recognize his own voice. “I do know. Bev—” He turns his head and vomits onto the dusty tile, the flyers, his own shoes. He gasps, retching, bile streaked down his chin. “I never meant to—”

Matt watches him, face gone blank. The others stand around, quiet. Watching. As Will continues to vomit until it’s all clear, just thick globs of saliva that smell like a burning corpse pile.

“Will,” Matt says carefully, “you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”

Will meets his eyes. It’s the hardest nothing he’s ever said.

“Mr. Graham,” Dr. Chilton says, coming around in full view. “You’re all right. Would you like some water? A seat? Abel, get him—”

“I-I gotta go,” Will says and slips in his own vomit, and nearly falls, and makes a run for the front door. The entryway, the street, the crosswalk. It’s not until he gets to the loft in Beacon Hill that he remembers the glove left behind.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Will has been sobbing for what feels like hours. Clutching at Dr. Lecter, rubbing his face into the man’s chest. Will keeps his gloveless hand against his own chest, like a terrible secret. Dr. Lecter rubs his back; first, standing in the entryway, then guiding him to the couch where Beverly died and soothing him. Will has not spoken a proper word and Dr. Lecter has not asked a thing. Yet, he knows. Knows to kiss the crown of Will’s head and envelope him in his strong arms, his expensive cologne. Will cries deeply, from the very fathoms of his being. He doesn’t stop. Don’t tears run dry? His don’t.

Finally, between the pain-wracked sobs, he looks up at the man and says, “I hate this place. Everything thinks they know me. They don’t fucking know me. They don’t know the first thing about me.” He presses his face back into Dr. Lecter’s shirt. “Only you know me.”

“Of course, Will.”

“I don’t belong here.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I want to go back home, Dr. Lecter. Please. I can’t stay here all spring. It’ll kill me. I’ll die.”

“And where is home, Will?”

The manor. On the rolling plains. Beneath the depressed sky. Far into the countryside of New York. With the Venus de Milo and her waterfall arms. The living trees and the dead trees. April and May, an eternal spring cleaning. His new clothes and his wide room with a perfect view of the long expanse behind the manor. The grand bath and the steam. Jewels dripping from him like sweat. Sweat dripping from him like come. Come dripping down his legs eternally. Dr. Lecter filling him up eternally. Sticky with love. Happily ever after.

Will perhaps says all of this. Perhaps he says none of it. He babbles, either way: about home, about the Tam, about Matt’s eyes when he heard of Beverly. Dr. Lecter’s hand comes to Will’s cheek, thumb stroking gently over his cheekbone.

Will says, “I love you.”

Dr. Lecter says, “You are my most cherished possession.”

At length, Will is able to untwist himself from the man’s arms. He is soaked to the bone in his own sweat and his gloveless hand poses a problem — though Dr. Lecter says they can have another one made. He says he will get him any number of glove sets, all with varied colors of gems embedded in their hems. Will goes to the marbled bathroom and almost falls over against the counter. He gets hold of himself. Makes his way, grappling where he can, to the shower handles and turns the water to boiling. The room fills gently with steam as Will undresses.

He turns.

Will, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.

The mirror: reflecting his build back at him. Will’s scream is noiseless, half caught in his throat. The ashen black has spread from his hands up his arms, to his elbows, spidering to his shoulders before his very eyes. The blacks of his eyes worm beneath the gelatinous film, like jelly, like something living, like something in death throes, and black hairline fractures appear beneath Will’s eyes. They flow down to meet the black from his arms. His chest in ruptures. He can’t breathe. Something in him begs him not to go down. The blackness reaches his heart and head, at the same pinpointed moment. He goes down.

 

*

 

Will slips himself gingerly into the crevasse. He bends his legs up, folds his arms around them, and does not plan on coming out. Let his body rot. Let his mind fester. Dr. Lecter will still have access to his hands, and the work will continue. Will need not be present for it. It is safe and good, right here.

Will sits in the crevasse and waits patiently for death.

He waits.

And he waits.

And still nothing comes. 

“Unless this is death,” he says and his words come out as if underwater. He looks off to the side and here— something he has not noticed before. There is light, here, in the crevasse. Just a crack. It goes deeper than he previously thought. Will scoots further in— and in— and places his hand in the light. He dips the first half of his body in, loses balance, slips.

He’s gone.

 

*

 

Will wakes in his childhood bedroom.

It smells terribly of adolescent corpses — dead bodies forever frozen in puberty. His old clothes on the floor: underwear, socks, sticky with come, old habits dogging him into teendom. There are sagging posters of BLINK-182 and SYSTEM OF A DOWN. One of them glows in the dark, or used to. Will stares at the ceiling, patchworked with those Dollar Store glow-in-the-dark star stickers he used to beg his mom and dad for. They gave in, sometimes.

Across the small room, at his old desktop computer, a notification pings.

Will gets up. Makes his way over in the half-dark. When the monitor wakes, it bathes his young face in haunted blue. MSN Messenger is open. The last message from Matt is empty. All their messages are empty. But they haven’t gone a day without talking since the day they met on the forum.

The notification pings again. A new message. Will clicks over. The keys are sticky with juice and crumbs.

Will’s hand trembles over the mouse.

Dr. Lecter has logged on.

Dr. Lecter types: Will, are you coming home?

Will’s chest moves up and down. Up and down. He licks his top lip.

Will types: i don’t feel good

Dr. Lecter types: Come home. You will feel so much better.

Will types: i don’t know how. i don’t know anything. anything at all. where to go, what to do. i’m lost

Dr. Lecter types: Choices are problematic. You poor dear thing. You need help. You need someone strong-willed to tell you what to do. What to think. What to wear. When to fuck. How to act.

Will types: yes

Dr. Lecter types: I will take on this burden. This responsibility is mine alone. I created you.

Will types: yes

Dr. Lecter types: Meet me.

Will types: where?

Dr. Lecter types: Downstairs. :)

Dr. Lecter has logged off.

Will sits back in his chair. He looks down — he’s in his childhood pajamas: just boxer briefs and a tank top, stained with something unknowable. He rises from the chair, to his bedroom door; peers out. It’s quiet, at first. Then there is laughter and conversation. Will goes down the small flight of steps, into the warmth of his parents’ home. The light and noise comes from the kitchen. Will follows it.

The dining table is occupied. His mom and dad, both completely faceless, sit side-by-side. Their heads are just blood-rimmed wormholes that voices echo out of. Across from them, in Will’s usual dinner seat, is Dr. Lecter. He sits pressed in a dark blue button-up, slacks, hair hanging lank against his forehead. Will’s heart pumps a love-tinged bile out to his extremities.

“Will, look at you! Absolutely unsightly. And with company over too,” his mom says, her voice coming from a thousand miles away. Her dark hair sticks to the bloody edges of her face. “You are such an embarrassment.”

His dad places his arm around his mom. “Yes, we will be glad to be rid of you.”

Will looks around. “Oh.”

His dad continues: “This nice rich man has offered a fuckton of money in exchange for you. It’s enough to pay off all your debts, even going back to when you were born. Diapers, bottles, clothes, food, and my God, those braces. What an expense! All the sacrifices we made. But they finally paid off!”

Will’s mom trills: “Dreams do come true! Have a look, Will.”

A check sits on the dining table. Will comes forward carefully. There’s this awful smell in the room, like a swamp, like something dead in a swamp. It’s coming from his parents’ open heads. Will notices the check is signed in Dr. Lecter’s authorial script and the amount says: a fuckton of money.

Will says, “Oh. Okay.”

Will’s mom grips his hand. Her nails dig in, creating red crescent moons in his skin. “You’ll make him happy, Will, won’t you? That’s all you have to do. A Muse is to be quiet and beautiful. Brush your hair, make sure you smell nice. Smile! You can do that, can’t you?”

Before Will can answer, his dad adds: “And you must spread your legs, Will. Whenever he asks. Before he asks, even. You should lay naked on the bed, or counter, or floor, at any given time. It’s an expediency thing and good manners, besides. You can do that, can’t you?”

They both ask: “Can’t you?”

Will’s stomach churns and churns. He looks to Dr. Lecter. “Yes.”

Dr. Lecter snaps his fingers.

The room disperses. 

 

*

 

Beverly has logged on.

 

*

 

Will wakes in a strip club.

There is one in center Boston, not far from Emerson. Will has passed it by on occasion. Noticed the name in neon lights: Centerfold. But he has never been inside. It’s seedy, dirty, with only the shimmering facade of luxury in faux leather seats— easier to wipe down. Chrome poles painted gold. Girls in see-through high heels, wearing hair extensions down to their backsides, makeup like siren lights in the blaring dark. Will feels something familiar around his shoulders: Dr. Lecter’s arm. Will had fallen asleep on his shoulder. The scent of him — strong, gentle notes — overrides even the dankness of the club.

Up on the stage, a girl’s dark hair catches Will’s attention. He thinks it’s someone—

But when she turns, her hard dark eyes find him and Will’s stomach sours. It’s Alana, almost naked, with a hand wrapped around the pole. She glares at Will in every revolution of it. Her heels glitter like diamonds and she wears nothing but a lace-pink thong.

Will starts in his seat as she crosses the stage, comes out on the runway and stands before him.

“What do you think, Will?” she asks. Barely heard over the deep bass rap playing from the speakers. The other patrons shout and throw twenties. It’s a full house.

Will’s throat is dry. “What do I think about what? Alana…”

She twirls, lightly, chin up. “I’m doing exactly what you said I was. I’m swinging my hips and shaking my tits all over the place.” She does just that. And then points a ringed finger at Dr. Lecter sitting listless beside Will. “But he doesn’t care. Guess it doesn’t work on everyone.”

Abigail walks up onto the runway in a soft blue thong, see-through heels. She can barely walk in them. She leans a hard elbow on Alana’s shoulder. “They say every teacher’s got a trapdoor. Huh, Will? For some it’s an underaged student. Others like huge tits. For some, it’s just an ego thing.”

Alana tilts her head. “Why don’t you tell us what Dr. Lecter likes?”

Will blinks out the neon. He looks aside to Dr. Lecter: he stares off, with one arm still wrapped securely around Will. Will has been paid for. He is very expensive. Of course Dr. Lecter would want to keep tabs on him.

When Will looks back to the stage, the girls are on hands and knees, eyes huge before him.

“Tell us,” Alana demands. “Tell us what he likes!”

“Yeah,” Abigail whines, placing her cheek to Alana’s, “tell us, Will!”

Will looks down at his hands. One glove on. The other off. The free hand is black, nails blacker. This is dangerous.

“He likes… death. He likes fucking… unending death.”

“Ohhh,” Abigail says and backbends over Alana. She blinks at Will, upside-down. “That makes sense! That’s why he writes about all those corpses and necrophiliacs and undertakers. You’re his dream come true.”

Alana looks disgusted. “Too bad. We can never be that.”

“Yeah,” Will says, “just me.”

“Just you,” Alana and Abigail say.

Dr. Lecter pulls Will against him. Says into his ear, “Just you.”

Will’s free hand rests on Dr. Lecter’s pant leg. Just one thin layer between him and death. Will can tell the outline of his arousal through the wool slacks. Will can make Dr. Lecter so hard. He can make Dr. Lecter go for hours. That’s something to be proud of. That’s better than an Emerson diploma. Will looks off into the density of the club, the other girls dancing; the spotlight falls on a woman at the far end of the stage. Her hair dark, falling around impossibly pale shoulders. She turns in a slow revolution; she causes quite a stir. The patrons clap for her, throw torn book pages at her. Will strains to hear what she’s saying. When he catches her doe-brown eyes, he hears it from clear across the room: “Once upon a time—”

 

*

 

Beverly types: —in a land far far away: there lived a peasant boy

Beverly types: who was very frightened, for his mother and father sold him at market to a great lord

Beverly types: the great lord was not very kind, at first, deeming the peasant boy an untalented nuisance

Beverly types: but oh! when he saw how the peasant boy glowed in the cemetery light, he finally understood what a treasure he truly held.

Beverly types: he told the peasant boy you are no peasant boy

Beverly types: you are my ancient tomb

Beverly types: gushing with gold

Beverly types: and I will bury myself in you for all eternity

 

*

 

“Mr. Graham!”

Will gasps and wakes in class on a rotten Tuesday afternoon. Outside, over the traffic-stitched Boston layout, two suns set in tandem, burning up the entire sky. Will looks to the head of the class where Dr. Chilton sits at the end of his desk, one leg crossed over the other. He holds his new book in one hand.

“Mr. Graham, were you sleeping while I was reading this very enlightening passage from my latest book, Falling into Craft, now available wherever fine books are sold?”

“Uh. Uh. No.”

“Lies.” Dr. Chilton shuts the book and swings his head lowly as if Will is a great disappointment. “I see this is too advanced for you, Mr. Graham. Shall we go back to basics? Did you do any studying over the winter break?”

“Yeah. I did.”

“Very well. Will you demonstrate for the class what you learned?”

Class? Will thought they were alone. But when he looks around, the other seats are freshly filled. Faces he has seen in Walker, Ansin, Little, cascading around him. Alana and Abigail and Matt and Freddie in their assigned seats though they have no assigned seat because some of them don’t take Novel Narrative. Will glides up to the front of the class as if on a conveyor belt. He stands in front of Dr. Chilton’s desk — Dr. Chilton who has disappeared into the shadows. Will looks out at his classmates. Matt sits front and center, so close Will could reach out and touch him. Matt’s eyes are only whites, streaked with red capillaries. He grits his teeth so hard they may grind down to nothing. 

Will carefully removes his clothes. He hoists himself onto the desk and spreads his legs. He shows the class all the miniscule cuts and tears he wears on his most sensitive area; he explains to the class that Dr. Lecter has never favored manufactured lubricant and says the discomfort keeps Will from being complacent.

The veins along Matt’s neck stand out.

 

*

 

Beverly is typing…

 

*

 

Will opens his eyes. He looks up at the remembered ceiling of so many of the manor’s bedrooms. Who knows what floor this one resides on. But he knows one thing: April and May just cleaned. There’s a lavender scent in the sheets and they are so soft. They feel marvelous on Will’s world-weary bones. He lies naked on top of the coverlet, supine, one hand uncovered, one gloved.

Dr. Lecter sits on the edge of the bed, facing away from Will. On his lap is a length of rope. The room is silent. Outside, a snowstorm kicks up.

Dr. Lecter raises a finger. “First position,” he says.

Will blinks. He grips himself behind the knees and pulls them up to his chest. Opens them as if his knees would sink into his underarms. His toes point downward, orderly.

Dr. Lecter raises another finger to join the first. “Second position,” he says.

Will rolls over. His shoulders against the mattress, backside in the air. Knees widely parted, big toes together. Such a slope in his back.

Dr. Lecter raises another finger. “Third position forward.”

Will sits upright, keeps the arch in his low back. 

“Third position back.”

Will comes onto his hands and knees, flat-backed. His face is cherry-red, a similar color in his chest. His breath comes evenly, if not slightly hurried.

Dr. Lecter finally turns to him, and smiles. He places a gentle hand on Will’s shoulder blade. “Nicely done, Will,” he says, all fondness and joy. “You are supremely talented.”

Will gushes with gold.

 

*

 

Beverly types: no i don’t like that story

Beverly types: let me tell it again

Beverly types: let’s go back to the key change

Beverly types: where did it all go so wrong? let me find it. i can find it.

Beverly types: oh, here we go!

 

*

 

“Will. Let’s walk home together.”

Will looks up, head swimming with red wine. He looks across the couch at Beverly. Her eyes wide and soft, hair falling around her shoulders. Will glances at his bare hand over the coffee table and quickly re-gloves it. He doesn’t know what he was thinking, leaving it in the open. He looks across the sitting area to Dr. Lecter who only regards him with annoyance. Will feels queasy.

Beverly stands up. “You want to?” she asks him, head tilted.

Will gives Dr. Lecter one last hopeful look. But returned is nothing. He stands with Beverly, and mutters yeah. They go to the entryway and leave and Beverly tells their teacher that she must turn down his request. She is highly flattered but she would rather take a break from assistantship. He will have to find someone else. Will waits for her in the hall.

When she emerges, her face is aglow. “Let’s go!”

Out on the Beacon Hill side streets, they walk through the cold. Snow falls insistently around them, whiting out whole stoops and garbage cans. The wine keeps Will’s low stomach warm but the rest of him is frigid. He keeps glancing over at Beverly jaunting beside him. Her scarf is pulled up around her chin. She looks up at the lamplights, the whirling flurried sky overhead.

“You know what?” she asks. “One time, I took this fiction writing course at the local town center, back when I was still in high school. It was all-ages. Anyone was allowed to join. We brought in little pieces of flash fiction and read them aloud. Almost like an open mic, but with some feedback after. Anyway, I went every week. Everyone really liked my stuff.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Will mumbles.

“All except this one guy.” She opens a hand and slams the other fist into it. “Man, he made me angry. Because he didn’t give any real criticism, like stuff to improve on. He just said it was shitty. And he kept on saying that. Every time. For a while, I didn’t want to go back. I was almost scared to hear him just rain all over my parade when I was really proud of what I’d written. It got to the point where I stopped being proud, even though other people liked my stories.”

Will stops walking, stands beneath a lamppost. “Is this some kind of allegory for me and Dr. Lecter?”

Beverly stops feet away and looks back. She raises her hands in a shrug, catching snow. “Nope. That guy in the town center was a nobody. I doubt he’d read much ever. Dr. Lecter is definitely a somebody.”

“Then… what is it?”

“It’s a story. A true story. If you see some similarities, that’s not the story’s fault, it’s the preconceived notions you bring to it as a reader. These things can make the story better or worse, from your perspective, but it doesn’t make it any less true.” She grins, huge, all white teeth. “Sorry, Will.”

“Hey. Is any of this… real? I can’t… I can’t tell anymore. It feels like I’ve been falling for years.”

“Unfortunately,” she sighs, hands falling to her sides, “I can’t come back to life. It’s a shame, really. I’d’ve liked to keep living. But I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.”

Will’s hands warm in his gloves. “Yeah.”

“I’m not mad, though. At you. I could never be mad at you, Will.”

Will thinks he might cry. He rubs at his eyes. “You’d have every right to be mad.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” she drawls in that Atlanta, Georgian way, and turns back to walking. “Too bad I’m not.” She raises a hand as she disappears into the whirlwind.

 

*

 

Beverly has logged off.

 

*

 

Dr. Lecter has logged on.

Dr. Lecter types: Come here, Will.

 

*

 

Just like he imagined.

The manor in summertime. Nighttime. The clarity of the sky, unfettered by winter balminess or storm. Crystal black. Little points of light in the dark. A trillion of them, clustered together, sparkling just for him. Will: beneath it all before the Venus de Milo and her waterfall arms. He breathes the universe in. He exhales it out. The trees rustle with novel pages in their boughs. Somewhere between the paragraphs of prose, cicadas cry in mourning.

The crunching in the grass. Coming up next to him. Will doesn’t need to look to know it’s Dr. Lecter.

Will’s lower lip in tremors. The Venus de Milo’s water arms run red.

Dr. Lecter’s scent overtakes the summer down. “Come here,” he says.

Will turns to him, quaking. The Venus de Milo soaks the fountain in red.

“Come here,” Dr. Lecter says. Smiling. He holds out his arms.

Will steps into them. The arms come around his small body. The stars clank together overhead, shivering like glass. Dr. Lecter enfolds him, cheek against Will’s hair. Whispers soft: “You long to die, that’s why you are unable to die.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

The entire estate seizes. The foundation of the building, the walkways, shudder and give up their atoms. All streaking black miasma up to the sky. Evaporating. The trees and their pages turn to sludge. The Venus de Milo’s face cracks open. Will’s eyes fill with blood, sobbing blood, gushing blood, until his eyeballs burst and ooze down his cheeks like jelly. His tongue dries like a salted slug in his mouth. Skin cracks and peels, dispersing into aerated decay sweeping up above. Until he’s skinless, and tendonless, and veinless, and he stands a skeleton in Dr. Lecter’s everlasting embrace.

 

*

 

Daddy types: Nicely done, Will.

Daddy types: :)

Daddy has logged off.

 

*

 

Will wakes in the master bedroom in the loft. The sudden pain that crashes into him forces a wave of nausea. He gasps, and that hurts. He opens his eyes to light, and that hurts. And he knows it’s real by the way it feels.

“Will, there you are,” Dr. Lecter says. Will would recognize his calm tenor amid a thousand screaming angels. He’s very close, perhaps sitting on the bed, but Will can’t bring himself to open his eyes again. “It’s all right. You can keep them closed.”

Will tries to say thanks. His voice cracks. Suddenly, there is something small at his lips. Will takes in the straw and sips water. Even this is painful, the shock of ice against his thundering skull.

“You were out for quite a long time. I found you on the bathroom floor.”

After a bit, it isn’t so painful. The water calms his throat.

Dr. Lecter’s hand comes to Will’s forehead. “Your fever has diminished as well. I admit, I did briefly consider taking you to the hospital. However.”

Yes. However. Will is not a fit thing to be around people. He is dangerous, a terror. When Will thinks of the way Matt looked at him last night. When he thinks of what he said. He has to get away from here. He has to get far away.

“Will. There, there. You’ll be alright. I contacted April and May. They will come and escort you back home.”

Gratefulness overflows Will. Home. Finally, home. And he will be home forever.

Dr. Lecter’s hand comes to Will’s cheek. Finally, with much concentration, Will can open his eyes. He looks on Dr. Lecter’s face, his ash-brown hair, his shaded eyes, and cannot temper the infinite passion in his heart. “Will, last night, you were near unintelligible. But I thought I understood you to say you told Mr. Brown about Ms. Katz. Is that correct?”

Will turns his face away. His eyes burn.

“I’m not angry. Nor do I blame you. How could I? Mr. Brown pushed you to it. He and his friends cornered you.”

Yes, it’s true. Matt made him say it. Everyone blames him. Everyone hates him. Everyone but Dr. Lecter. Will manages to say this, though it comes out raw and broken.

Dr. Lecter gently pats Will and urges him to drink more water. He says, “Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Yes, I understand. It won’t be a problem. I can send it immediately. Anything else? No. Ah. No, I was unaware of this. Luckily, we have not run into any problems beforehand. I will see to it. Yes. What else did he say?”

Will lies naked on the master bed. His long thin limbs, once a very pale color with pink joints, have turned soot-black. His toes have gone necrotic. One of the nails fell off in the shower yesterday. His undereyes hold spider-legs beneath them that burnt into his skin. He wonders what April and May will do with him, how they will wash him now. They will have to be so very careful.

Dr. Lecter paces at the end of the bed, fully dressed. It’s been days since Will went into the crevasse, since he emerged. His head has healed, as much as it’s going to. He still feels tender. Dr. Lecter told him quietly in the aftermath that if Will had not come out of it on his own, he was quite unsure what to do. Taking him to a hospital was too risky. Will agreed. He told Dr. Lecter not to worry. That, like he’d said, somewhere in the cavern of Will’s consciousness, because Will longs to die, he is unable to die. That seemed so right. Dr. Lecter gave him a look, one Will was unable to parse.

Finally, Dr. Lecter turns to Will on the bed. The phone still pressed to his ear. He sends a wink Will’s way. Says into the phone: “Would you like to speak with him?”

Will waits, blinking.

“I see,” Dr. Lecter says. “I’ll let him know. Yes. And you.”

He clicks off. Keeps the phone in one hand. With the other, he touches one of Will’s feet, very gently. Will used to be ticklish, when he was young.

“Your father had to go. He sends his best. Your school debts will be paid off in the coming week.” Dr. Lecter joins Will on the bed, sitting beside his naked body. He runs a hand over Will’s concave stomach, the smooth skin there yet unmarred. “The way your father went on, it was as if I would be purchasing a yacht. It’s more a dinghy. I will have to buy something nice for your parents. A price more suitable to the value you hold.”

Will hums. “Did— did he say anything about me?”

Dr. Lecter drums his fingertips on Will’s lowest few ribs. Like playing piano. “Yes, of course. He asked after your health. He alerted me to your shellfish allergy — really, Will, this is something you should have mentioned long ago. How was I to know?”

“I-I’m sorry.”

“No more secrets.”

It wasn’t a secret. It just wasn’t at the forefront of Will’s mind. He looks back at Dr. Lecter. “Will I ever see them again?”

“Surely. Perhaps in the summer, for a week.”

Now that he says it, Will isn’t sure it’s something he wants. His brain muddles. He looks at Dr. Lecter with some worried expression and the man lights up, dipping down to take Will’s mouth. Will opens to him, instant. He touches Dr. Lecter’s cheek with his gloved hand. The other, bereft of a glove still possibly sitting in his own vomit at the Tam, he keeps out of the way. Dr. Lecter has said a new pair — sapphires! — is already waiting for him back home. Home. That’s where he wants to be. Where his skin will peel away and he will become one with Dr. Lecter.

Dr. Lecter pulls back, when Will is wet-mouthed and trembling. He whispers, “I still have another call to make.”

He opens Will up like that, half leaned over him. Two fingers knuckle-deep, pressing and dragging sweetly just away from the place Will desperately longs for. He holds the phone up to his ear with the other hand. Will thinks it’s Bedelia. Dr. Lecter always has such a relaxed tone with her.

“It is on its way to you as we speak. Yes, aren’t you pleased? You, who made such a fuss over everything.” Dr. Lecter presses a thumb to Will's stretched pink skin, making him groan. “That was not an encouragement to continue your fuss. Will happens to be flourishing verdantly, if you are so concerned. As a matter of fact…” Dr. Lecter retracts his fingers and grips Will fully, stroking him in earnest. “Why don’t you say hello?”

Will’s breathing is labored, studded with little whines. He leaks into Dr. Lecter’s fist. The phone is placed to his ear and Will is forced to grip it. He hears the last of Bedelia’s protests: “—nibal, do not put that child on this phone. Do you hear?”

“H-Hi, Ms. Du Maurier,” Will says. He shuts his eyes when Dr. Lecter’s mouth envelopes him. “Fuck!”

“Will. Are you all right? Have you plans to return home anytime soon?”

Dr. Lecter swirls his tongue.

“Yes,” Will cries.

“Very good,” says Bedelia. “It’s where you belong. Put that man back on the phone now. Please.”

“B-But he’s— busy,” Will sighs and bucks his hips lightly. Dr. Lecter presses a finger inside him again and Will’s knees shake. “I, umm.”

Bedelia pauses. “Good Christ,” she mutters. Then, minutely louder: “I’m hanging up now.” And she does.

Will drops the phone to the bedspread. He releases a long thin whine when Dr. Lecter relinquishes him, smile wet. He says, “She is a terrible spoilsport, isn’t she? She’s always been like that, even when she was young. It’s not you.” He undoes his slacks and slides them off like second nature. 

Will knows immediately. He loves to know immediately. What to do, when to do it. His reaction time is nothing at all. He takes his knees and pulls them up to his chest, open. Dr. Lecter rewards him with a long, deep kiss. He doesn’t break it, even when he lines them up, even when he slides into Will, unabated by the hot friction or the trembling of Will’s thighs. Will winces a little and feels anything but complacency.

Will releases his left knee, lets his free hand travel up the bed, under pillows. Safe. Dr. Lecter holds that wrist, presses onto it. He drags the hand back down. Will cries out when Dr. Lecter shoves, rough, into him.

“Honey,” Dr. Lecter tells him, almost simpering. “You don’t have to be shy.”

Will’s bare hand flexes. Fingers against the silk sheets. He weaves them through the covers, brings them to his mouth and sets them between his wet lips. Dr. Lecter’s eyes unfocus on him. Will sucks his forefinger, the length of it, his body jolting lightly with each thrust. He moves to his thumb. He had a habit, when he was little. His mom weaned him off it by dipping his thumb in pickle juice, sour things, until Will lost interest. He doesn’t know why he’s remembering that, now. It simply swims in and settles there, and Will moans around his necrotic thumb.

“That’s it,” Dr. Lecter says, and pushes Will’s left leg up to his chest. It opens him for deeper strokes. Will is being turned, page by page. “Your father told me something else.”

Will takes his gloved hand into his dark curls and tugs.

“He said Mr. Brown has been quite the nuisance.” Again, deeper. The hamstring stretching. “That he calls all the time. Begging them to intervene, as only family can.”

Will’s thumb tastes terrible. He doesn’t mind.

Dr. Lecter leans in, licks a warm stripe up the pale column of Will’s throat. “But Aiden and Emma Graham are not your family any longer.”

“No,” he says, and bites his nail. This jagged black thing. He exhales, breathily, as Dr. Lecter slows, eases and eases outwards. “No.”

“Who is your family, Will?”

“Just you, Daddy.”

“Just me.”

Will is rewarded for his correct answer. Rewarded until he’s weeping with pleasure, plastered to the sheets, sticky with sweat and come and some blood, simply because Dr. Lecter bit him; he said he wanted to taste the filling of his favorite candy.

 

*

 

The long vista ahead. Will can smell it; the way one can smell the open sea as they stand on the shore. More than once, living in landlocked Tennessee as a child, Will would stand on the pebbly beach of Percy Priest Lake or some other infinitesimal body of water and pretend it was the Atlantic. Grime and dirt and dead fish washed against the closed shore, but not in Will’s head. It was the crash of the waves on pilings and the faraway groan of a whale and the call of seagulls lowing overhead. It was the sunrise. Will used to be able to see so far.

He can see far, now, too. But he looks to the north, to upstate New York.

Dr. Lecter walks into the open living space with his cell phone in hand. The scent of forever is on him.

“April and May have checked in at the W. Your redeye leaves tomorrow at 10 PM.” He places a hand in Will’s wild hair and rubs gently. “I have given them many instructions. Much as it will be an excursion for you, this is the first time I am entrusting them with something so precious.”

Will looks up at him, smiling. He moves just away, to make room. Dr. Lecter sits beside him on the couch — in a strangely uncharacteristic lack of care, he practically dumps himself onto the cushion. He takes his thin-rimmed glasses from his face and rubs the bridge of his nose, where they rested. Dr. Lecter has been even busier after sending the manuscript off. Will never knew this about professional writing. The time spent after the book is written is more strenuous. Dr. Lecter’s editor from Knopf calls him daily, and Bedelia often rears her sleek blonde head, and he is forever in conference. He does not invite Will to be party to these calls, citing him as a distraction. Muses are for during, not for after. Will accepts this readily, as an unfinished puzzle accepts another correct piece sliding blessedly into place.

But he can’t help feeling bad. He wants to help the man, even if it is just something as simple as being stress relief.

Will looks at Dr. Lecter in his sweater and house shoes, considering. He gently climbs over and settles himself in the man’s lap. Dr. Lecter gazes at him mildly. This is so… familiar. If Will were naked, he would feel stuck out of time.

“Do you want me to stay?” Will asks, tucking himself under Dr. Lecter’s chin.

“Of course I do. Though I acknowledge that it is not best for you. The stress is indeed too much.” Dr. Lecter touches Will’s hair, stroking one curl and then another. He looks off to the Boston skyline through the windows. “We will give it another year… or so, before we try this again. After that, perhaps you will be better equipped to be in the world.”

A year in the manor. A year in the manor. Will licks his lips. What’s a year?

“I’ll miss you,” Will says, though of course Dr. Lecter knows this already.

Dr. Lecter scratches Will’s scalp. “April and May will keep you company. You are to listen to them, not cause mischief.”

“Yes.”

“You can call me. I will have you supplied with a phone.”

A phone. Those things are so complicated. And, like magic, like Dr. Lecter can feel Will’s muddled mind, he pats him and amends.

“It will only have my number, and April and May will keep hold of it.”

Will’s waters settle, like those on the shores of Percy Priest Lake.

It is quiet, for a time. Will’s senses take in the little subtleties of the loft: the heater, the coldness radiating from the floor, a hum that comes from who knows where. The room where everything started. It is a rare thing, Will is aware, for someone to give their beginning a proper goodbye. As Dr. Lecter once told him, Will is one very lucky duck.

In the midst of lazily kissing, Will playing with a button on Dr. Lecter’s sweater, Dr. Lecter asks him, “Do you ever think about your Christmas present?”

Will pauses, mouthing the hinge of Dr. Lecter’s jaw. He is not supposed to think. He also is not supposed to have secrets. What to do?

Dr. Lecter runs his fingers along Will’s collarbone. “Be honest,” he says, like coaxing.

Will says, “Yes.”

“What do you think about it?”

“I—” His pound of flesh. A debt owed. Dr. Lecter has been so boundlessly kind and caring, Will almost cannot believe he denied the man this. It feels like it was a different Will. He says so, words dribbling out of him like baby food. Spit-up. Will feels ill.

“It’s all right,” Dr. Lecter says, soothing, rubbing the knots of Will’s spine through his shirt. “You were so new then. So unaware of yourself. But look at you now. You are stunning, golden, glowing. Everything I could have ever wanted in a Muse, when I dared to let myself conceive of such a being. I knew it would take time, patience. But I have been greatly rewarded in taking time with you. We exist in a perfect symbiotic relationship. I, the creator. You, the destroyer. To this end, I have created what may be my greatest work yet. And you—”

“I must… destroy?” Will asks— the thought is certain, the reception of the thought uncertain.

Dr. Lecter smiles at him, eyes alight. It is warm sugary paternal love and the dirtiest deepest fucking Will has ever recieved, all rolled into one. What more could he ask for?

 

*

 

Sometimes she comes to him, late at night.

Will’s sleep is restless, at times, and imaginings are not always dreams are not always nightmares. She sits on the edge of the bed, or sometimes lies between Will and Dr. Lecter. Dr. Lecter sleeps peacefully, evenly, his breathing as calming for Will as a mother’s heartbeat to an infant. He doesn’t wake at the heft of Beverly in the bed, and so Will concludes she is not there and he should not be frightened.

He stares up at the darkened ceiling. Beverly curls lightly at his side. She smells of summer down south: plumeria and firefly-filled nights. She places one hand over his barely-there chest, feels his breathing rise and fall. Will places his bare hand over hers. Nothing can hurt her, anymore.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he whispers to her.

She nods against the pillow. The swishing sound of her hair against the fabric. A detail she would throw in as she wrote.

She asks, “Can I come with you?”

“Please don’t,” he tells her, plaintive. “I am too weak to carry us both.”

“I don’t want to stay in this cold place all by myself.” And she sounds so honestly scared. Will has only heard her frightened before, once. I think I’m lost, guys. It’s the same tone: wavering, wondering, looking for stability. Will couldn’t provide it that night. And he can’t provide it now either. “Please, Will,” she whispers.

Will tells her a secret, one he hopes will keep her warm in her cold grave: “I don’t think I’ve become a coward, suddenly. I think I was always like this, deep down. Not even very deep down. I didn’t mean to kill you. It was an accident. But somewhere, inside me, there was a relief. That someone my age, so talented, so beyond me, wouldn’t be able to challenge me. I know that is the worst thing. I know that makes me a bad person. And look— I’m not even someone to be challenged, anymore. So it was for nothing. It doesn’t change the fact that I felt that. It doesn’t change the fact that I will never again hear the kind of story only you could tell. But I would never ask you to save me. Please don’t ask me to save you.”

Beverly looks at him in the dark. Her body becomes dark, soaking it in. She moves closer and closer, and Will enfolds her, until she returns home to his heart.

 

*

 

Will is all packed.

His furs, his silks, his reds and golds. He looks into the Louis Vuitton suitcase and notes all the beautiful glittery things he now owns. They all shine for him, the way nothing else has. He shuts the suitcase and sets it aside. Looks at the master bedroom at large. The bed, then. How many times has Will been bent, twisted, opened, kissed until senseless here? But Will is done. He will not return to this bed. He doesn’t know if he prefers one bed, forever, or the seemingly hundreds of beds in the manor. It hardly matters, he guesses.

April and May should be by in a couple hours to pick him up and take him to Logan Airport. The sun is hidden behind a swath of storm clouds and rain falls continually down. Yawning grey soaks into the loft. Will’s bare hand hangs at his side, thumb rubbing against the forefinger. He wheels the luggage through the cool hallway, taking note of everything for the last time. The private bathroom where he lost consciousness, the guest bathroom where he used to shower as a student.

Will sets the luggage by the open hall. He’s breathing deeply. That thing is just as heavy as he is, now. Dr. Lecter turns to him from the kitchen bar, in white and tan. His glasses fold in his shirt pocket, hanging lenses out. Will blinks tiredly. He doesn’t know what he’ll do without this man beside him. April and May’s orders are no substitute. Will is going to crumble: a helpless animal whose spine has been ripped out. He will collapse and puddle on the ground.

Will hears something soft pattering on the floor. When he looks down, he sees his tears dropping from his face. He hadn’t even felt them.

“Will,” Dr. Lecter says and opens his arms. Will goes to him, nearly falls into him. He keeps his bare hand between their clothed bodies, his gloved hand gripping Dr. Lecter’s shirt. “It’s all right. I will return in a short two months.” He rubs Will’s thin back. His hand’s width is incomprehensible. Will sobs harder. Dr. Lecter’s voice carries a slight amusement: “Will. It will be alright. I promise. When have I ever lied to you?”

“I-I know, but—” He can’t get it out. He doesn’t even know what it is. “I know I asked to go, but— I won’t know what I am— if you’re— if you’re not—”

Dr. Lecter pets him and lets him cry. The rain falls steadily down the wide windows. Boston is a terrible drear somehow containing the only sun in the world. Will sags in the man’s arms.

“You are perfect,” Dr. Lecter says, so gently, maybe to himself. He finally takes Will by the shoulders and forcefully places distance between them. He lowers his head to look into Will’s water-glassy eyes. “I have a gift for you, Will. A promise ring, of sorts. My promise is that you are mine. I will never grow tired of you. I will forever house and care for you. You will be Muse eternal, the gardenia that blooms amid the apocalypse. As long as you stay in my world, you will be my world.”

Will gushes with gold. He is so happy he could die. He could. Just die.

Dr. Lecter releases him slowly. There is a ding at the call box by the door. Will looks to it, a little breathless. April and May weren’t to come for some time yet. Will wanted more time with Dr. Lecter. He watches as the man allows them up, and waits by the door.

Will says, tepidly, “I-I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”

There’s a knock on the door. Hard.

Dr. Lecter beams at him. “You don’t need to say thank you. You’ve earned this. You deserve it. Merry Christmas, Will.” He opens the door and Will blinks in the reality of it, and hurriedly tries to blink it out, like an eyelash. He stands very still as Matt steps into the entryway, in a raincoat and wet hair, already looking pissed off to be in the presence of Dr. Lecter on a non-workshop day. Then, when he sees Will. When he sees Will.

He comes forward, stops. “Will,” he says. “Are you okay?”

Why do people ask him that? Whenever they see him? Will has yet to stop crying from Dr. Lecter’s declaration. Fresh new tears pump out. Will hasn’t cried this way in what feels like eons. Indefinable, innate. An infant crying, unbidden. The shock of pure existence. 

“I’m good,” he says, voice waterlogged. “What’re you doing here?”

“He is here to see you off,” Dr. Lecter says, the front door now shut and locked. “And to return something to you.” He places a friendly hand on Matt’s shoulder.

Matt roughly shrugs it off, steps away. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls from it something sleek and black and glimmering. Remembered from that first night in the manor, in a gift box. Remembered from the Tam, in a puddle of clear vomit. Matt holds it out, fingers unsteady. He holds Will’s gaze from across the room.

Time: like sludge. Will wades through it, his body weighted down. His joints feel stuck three seconds behind the rest of him. When he turns to look at Dr. Lecter, he is given an encouraging nod. Will takes a step through the muck, the thick river of viscera rising around him. Waist-height. Organs and body parts floating. Coagulating. Will floats on by, too. He stands before Matt and feels himself thinly sliced on slides, each layer of his skin on display. Electricity in little blue lines run from the overhead lights, touching every available surface. Will is sweating, on the inside.

He reaches his gloved hand out to take the glove and tries not to look at Dr. Lecter. Matt retracts it, a little. “Beverly,” he says, loud and invading, a bright chant to stutter all curses.

Will is noiselessly sobbing. “Yeah,” he says. “I did it. I did it.”

Matt doesn’t change. He knew this already, since the Tam. Perhaps he was waiting for refusal, any lie to believe in. They are so far past that. He presses his lips together, thinking. Then: “Did he make you do it?”

“N-No! No, it was a— an accident. She touched me. Things got out of hand. It— it wasn’t her fault, and I didn’t mean it, but I’m— I’m dangerous.” Will looks at Dr. Lecter’s expression over Matt’s shoulder. Calm, nothingness. Waiting. Will feels like his bladder may give. “I can’t undo it. You know I can’t undo it. But I-I would’ve. If I could.”

Matt’s gaze hardens. “And now you’re just going to leave. For good.”

“Yes. For good.” Will looks at Dr. Lecter again. “Please, let me go home.”

Dr. Lecter’s face ticks. Just this small twitch at the corner of his mouth, into something treading the territory of a frown. Will’s never felt dizzier faster, sicker faster, he lists a little, as if he may fall over with the weight of the disappointment being leveled at him. He wants to dive for the crevasse, have its warmth save him, but it does not allow for this. He is stuck here, he is stuck feeling this. His skin might vibrate off his body.

It tumbles out of Will’s mouth: “Matt, run.”

Matt furrows his eyebrows. “What, Will? What’re you talking about?”

I think I’m lost, guys.

“Get out of here,” Will shrieks. “Go!”

“Will—”

Dr. Lecter grabs Matt’s shoulders from behind, whirls him around. Matt is too shocked to react when the man strikes their heads together, at the bridge of Matt’s nose, and he drops instantly and puddles on the floor at the man’s feet. The sound of it — bone plate against bone plate, still echoes, and Will’s hands, gloved and ungloved, have flown up to his mouth to muffle his scream. Matt lays there, breathing, unconscious. Dr. Lecter looks at Will again, grim disappointment scrawled along his stately features, a bit of blood oozing from a cut along his browline. 

“Will,” Dr. Lecter says, and how can one word contain so much regret?

“Please,” Will can only say. “Please not this. Please not this.”

Dr. Lecter looks at him. His expression is of utter disgust. Will dissolves into panic.

“Please, Dr. Lecter, I’ll do anything else, we can go down to the shelter and I’ll touch all the dogs, even the puppies, I’ll— I’ll touch anything, I’ll— someone, maybe, I mean yes, a person, anyone on the street, I could— I could—”

Dr. Lecter comes to him, looking now everywhere but at him. There is a strangeness to his walk, as if he too is having to wade through the red river, visceralogged. “I am not proposing this merely for enjoyment,” Dr. Lecter says and motions to Matt’s limp body on the floor. “This is for your own good, Will. Surely you know that is all I have in mind. All I have ever had in mind. You cannot leave here with loose ends. Have you learned nothing from reading my novels? Mr. Brown will grow irate at your departure and he will say something about Ms. Katz.”

Will. Let’s walk home together.

Will takes a trembling step back. “B-But who would believe— It would sound crazy—”

Oh.

“He would risk every reputation he has, at any level, to get you back.”

“Please, not him.”

Will’s face is sopping wet. Past that, it’s only numbness. Then, Dr. Lecter grips Will’s ungloved wrist and Will can feel that. He bites down on a yelp. The grip is terribly strong. Dr. Lecter has never grabbed him so roughly, not even during sex. He yanks Will forward; Will stumbles to keep footing.

“You had one last ligament to cut,” Dr. Lecter says, eyes nebulous and red. “And you could not cut it. I thought I had been thorough.”

Will tries to jerk his hand back, then stops, realizing any stray movement could cause disaster. He tries again: “You have been thorough! Matt hasn’t done anything wrong! He isn’t a threat! Please, just—”

Dr. Lecter pulls him again. Will looks at Matt’s body. His own bare hand.

“You said you loved me,” Dr. Lecter says, not even looking at Will. At the windows, the floors, gaze scurrying.

“I do love you! You’re my everything! You're my only thing! Please, let’s just go home!”

Dr. Lecter looks skyward, as if there is anything above them but plaster and paint. “Who is the bigger fool? He who offers a gift beyond price to an unworthy wretch or the unworthy wretch who rejects it?”

“I’m not rejecting it! Please stop! Please listen!”

The rain beats against the window in torrents. Will realizes how close they stand to Matt’s body, and his wrist bones ache under the intense pressure. His hand in a vice grip.

“Matt, wake up! Matt, wake up!” Will kicks at his body, his shoulder. “Matt!”

The crevasse won’t open for him. He’s stuck here. He’s stuck in this experience.

“Oh God, please, Matt, wake up!”

Dr. Lecter jerks Will again, up. He forces Will to look at him and Will can barely see through the barrage of tears, the miasma in his eyes, the horrible abyss of Dr. Lecter’s expression that drives him months and months back, before the depths of the crevasse and winter break and Beverly and heartache: that first nothingness when Dr. Lecter looked across the wide walnut desk and said your prose is terrible and Will has never been the same, will never be the same.

Dr. Lecter leans in. Says, in a prim tone, “If you ever thought for one moment I would allow you to make a choice, you truly have learned nothing at all.” He raises Will’s bare hand and Will looks at it in the rain glow; the way little raindrop shadows dot it, run down it. Will chokes over his inhale as Dr. Lecter raises the hand up to his own throat.

“No no no wait a minute oh God I’m so fucking sorry I won’t do it again please Daddy forgive me oh Daddy don’t do it I’ll be good anything you want forever Daddy no STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT

 

 

 

Chapter Text

For a long time.

They stay like this: Dr. Lecter gripping Will’s wrist hard enough to hear bones creak; Will pulling down, away, with all his bodyweight, sagging to the floor; their eyes on each other; Will’s bare hand helpless and pressed around Dr. Lecter’s throat. The sensation of skin on skin, something unknown to his hands for ages. Fear unlike any Will has ever known coursing through his every artery, frying his brain until it is soaked in unadulterated terror. Until he is a child again, fearing for his life against monsters under the bed. Alone. He’s going to be alone. He’s going to be all alone.

They stay like this for the longest time.

 

*

 

Will stares at him, breathless. Dr. Lecter does much the same. The rain continues down the window, sliding, pooling out in the middle of Boston. It could be creating an ocean. On the floor, nearer the couch, Matt begins to stir. There’s a little moan. His fingers inch along the marble.

The call box dings. Dr. Lecter releases Will, as if in a dream. Skin on skin slowly relinquished. Unfettered by time, he drifts from Will, to the entryway and allows for someone to be let up. Neither of them are able to tear their eyes from each other. Until Will looks at his bare hand, ash-black in the light. He touches his fingertips to each other; his hands are always dry. There’s a knock at the door.

Dr. Lecter opens it.

“Good evening,” April and May greet, beaming. Their brown ponytails sit high on their heads; they wear black raincoats, boots, sheer embroidered stockings. Their smiles fade slowly as they take it in: their master’s paleness, fogged eyes, Will long behind him with a face still red and wet from unimaginable wailing, and Matt laying on the floor, moving incrementally. The girls look at each other.

 

*

 

“Work quickly. We’re leaving,” he tells the girls and then walks down the hall to the master bedroom. The door closes behind him. The lock echoes throughout the loft.

 

*

 

The rain doesn’t stop. It deluges onto all of Boston, or perhaps has pinpointed itself to only Beacon Hill — this little brownstone neighborhood with homes in the millions, history baked deep into every brick, every cobblestone, the country’s humble beginnings rising like steam from the unseasonably warm sidewalk as Will kneels there, drenched, glasses somewhere, glasses somewhere. It’s hard to see through the torrent in his eyes, from the sky— from— he can’t—

“Matt? M-Matt, get up,” Will says, shivering, shaking Matt’s shoulder with his gloved hand. “H-H-Hey, Mattie. Mattie.”

The rain is washing into his ears, his shut eyes. When he opens them, the rain slides into his eyes too, and Matt immediately blinks it out, groaning, “What the fuck? Will?”

“Hey, Matt, ummm.”

“What’s—” Matt tries to sit up, gets to his knees, head lolling forward. A car rushes past, speeding to catch the light, and washes a filthy puddle over the two of them. “Shit! What’re we doing outside? My head.” Matt touches where he was bashed, the middle of his forehead where a bruise begins. “Did that asshole brain me?”

Will can’t tear his eyes from that spot. It will be green, in a while. And then purple.

Will is going to—

See it go—

Purple?

Will is going to see it fade?

“Will,” Matt says, and tries rising to one knee. He makes it. Matt has always been so strong. He gets the other leg up. Finds his footing even amid the deluge, even soaking wet, his coat heavy with water and mud. Will looks up at him, cradling his bare hand. Matt stands, wavering. Will’s other glove is still clutched in Matt’s hand. “Will— why’re we outside? What the fuck happened? And— where’s Dr. Lecter?”

Something, deep in the recesses of Will’s mind, splinters. He gasps and gurgles and presses his bare hand against his face, against his face, against his face, and why won’t it work on him, why won’t it work on him, why won’t it work on him?

 

*

 

Will sits in his old twin bed. It’s late morning the next day and Will had not expected the sun to rise. He had not expected it to not rise either. He expected nothing at all. Around his shoulders is one of his boutique coats that smells faintly of Dr. Lecter, and his hands are covered in glittering diamonds and rubies. It took the gloves a few hours to dry from the rain, and Matt kept a reasonable distance as Will sat them on the heater in the dorm.

Matt sits across the room in his own bed, phone held to his ear. Will looks around at the infinitesimal dorm room with wide, worried eyes. He couldn’t sleep last night. He sat in the twin bed with his back to the wall, watching the door. Waiting.

Matt hisses into the phone: “What’s that even mean? He can’t have just left!” He looks up, across meager feet of separation, to Will. “Well, what did she say? … Doesn’t she know there’s like a month and a half left of classes? What the fuck is Will supposed to do? … No, don’t— don’t say that, I just mean… Look, I’ll call you later. No. Don’t come here. It’d only make things worse.”

Matt hangs up.

Will looks from the door to Matt again. He swallows, blinking, pulling the coat closer around his shoulders. “What’d Dr. Chilton say?”

Matt doesn’t say anything. He just keeps looking at him.

Will presses: “When’s Dr. Lecter coming back?”

A huge sigh. Matt leaves the phone on his bed and goes to Will’s, sitting near him. Will feels his heft weigh the thin mattress down. Like Will and the bed would float right off if it weren’t for Matt.

“Hey,” he says, and places a hand on Will’s covered shoulder. “Listen. Can we talk about what happened yesterday? I didn’t— I mean, I wasn’t really awake for much of it since that guy fucking headbutted me but— what exactly happened?”

Will blinks. “Well. Dr. Lecter got disappointed in me. For disobeying him.”

“Uh huh. Disobeying him how?”

Will says nothing.

Matt presses the heel of a hand into his temple. “Okay, doesn’t matter. Then what?”

“Then he tried to kill himself to punish me.”

“What?!”

Will holds up a gloved hand. Palm-up, as if he is holding a small world. “By putting my hand on him. But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. On him. I didn’t. Know that. He obviously didn't either.” His eyes unfocus. He can see this tiny world: him and Dr. Lecter, Dr. Lecter and him, in a snowglobe, in a pocket dimension, a thousand lightyears away from the nearest soul who could say their love was wrong. “But it makes sense. Doesn’t it, Matt? Of course the man who gave this to me. Would be immune. He really did make me. From head to toe.”

Matt is quiet for a while. Will wishes Matt could see that world with him; if he could see it, then even he would wonder why he ever put up a fuss in the first place. Will belongs there. Anyone with eyes could see that. He is barely materialized on this plane, anymore.

Will continues, gaze focused on that world alone: “That’s why I know he’ll be back. He’s going to come get me. He just needs time to cool off.”

“Will.” Matt places his own hand in Will’s glove, disrupting his view. Crushing that world under his palm. He forces Will to look at him. “He terminated his residency with Dr. Purnell. Through email. He left on a flight to New York last night.”

Will tilts his head. “So?”

“Will, I’m not kidding.”

“He’ll come back for me. You’ll see. Just wait.”

Matt opens his mouth, shuts it. He looks at Will looking back at him, open. A great shuddering sigh escapes him, and it is an escape — he looks like he wants to take it back. Matt wraps his arms around Will’s shoulders and pulls him in tight, tighter. “Okay, Will,” Matt says into the wool collar. “I’ll wait.”

 

*

*

*

 

Matt’s family home lies stashed in the wooded outer folds of Augusta, Maine. It is a quaint two-story; white-paneled, a chimney, with a wide front and backyard. Will looked at it in pictures back at the dorm when Matt wheedled him with that dimpled smile, trembling and trying not to tremble, when he said, “Come on, you can’t stay in this box all summer. Come spend it with me. With us. My parents probably won’t even be there most of the time, they love to travel. You won’t have to interact really.”

Will looked at the picture, his stomach writhing like gelatine worms. “I don’t know, Matt. If Dr. Lecter comes back here and doesn’t find me waiting, what’ll he think?”

“He’s a smart guy. He can figure out where you are.”

True enough. It was even possible that Dr. Lecter had some kind of sonar to Will’s hands — something that linked them together, so that he was always aware of their location. Will wondered if he was close to cooling off yet. It had been a month and a half, by now.

Matt manages to get Will on the plane and when they arrive at his home, there are no nearly-twin girls to greet them graciously. There is no Venus de Milo to look eyelessly upon him. No manor that stands impossibly tall, pinning the ongoing stretch of land to the wild map. And there is no Dr. Lecter, not really, though when they exit the cab, Will’s mind plays a terribly mean trick on him:

Dr. Lecter: standing at the front door with one hand outstretched in a gentlemanly fashion.

I’m sorry, Will, he would say. Let’s go home.

Will would tell him he doesn’t need to apologize. It was all my fault. I pushed you. Cornered you. A Muse showing disloyalty to its Artist is unforgivable.

But I do forgive you, Will.

Oh, Daddy.

“Will?”

Dr. Lecter disappears, and Matt stands at the threshold, welcoming Will in. His smile is different, these days. Like glass fashioned too thin.

He was right; Will doesn’t meet with his parents until the middle of the trip. They are away in Barcelona for the first two weeks, having left the night before Matt arrived. Matt’s younger sister has gone with them. Will is unsure if this is coincidence or not, or what Matt has told them about him and his situation. He knows his own parents were always skeptical of his online friend. Matt seems to have been given freer rein.

The first night, Matt cooks him burgers on the grill out back. The raised patio surveys lines of leaning pines surrounding the property and Will looks off into the trees with this wild impulse to run and not stop until he reaches the far-off past Saratoga Springs. Instead, Will goes down the planked steps to the grass and removes one glove. He places his hand flat to the ground. When he lifts it, the grass is brown dead ash, in a perfect hand-print. Will's unique ridge patterns.

“Hey, uh—”

Will rises; looks back, towards the grill.

Matt has this look on his face. The spatula he holds lowering in his hand. He looks back to the patties, sizzling, sizzling. It smells like bodies on fire. Smoke wafts up.

“I was just going to ask how you like it,” Matt mutters. “But nevermind.”

Will doesn’t have an opinion.

Since Dr. Lecter went away, Will has been largely without an opinion. Dr. Lecter took all of Will’s opinions with him. When to eat, what to eat, showering, when, sleeping, should I have this apple, can I go outside, where should I sit, is this okay to wear, and am I hard because I want sex or because I want a pat on the head? Will would not have eaten a bite, moved at all from the twin bed in the dorm room, if it hadn’t been for Matt. Those first few weeks, Matt brought food to the bed and helped Will change clothes. Will asked Matt for permission to shower and Matt looked at him for half a second before saying, “Yeah, okay,” and helped him in and washed his back. 

The dorm bathrooms are separated by floors, and gender. There is one wide restroom of stalls and urinals and showers and sinks for their floor. A few of their hallmates watched as Matt and Will walked together into one of the shower stalls. They didn’t say anything. Matt didn’t either — he was very gentle, and told Will to hold his hands to his chest, to avoid accidents. Will laughed then, like a surprise.

“What?” Matt asked.

“Our maids, April and May,” Will said, “they always call death an accident too.”

In those first few weeks, Freddie sometimes visited the dorm. She returned with Matt one day after a class and Matt held her at the door, whispering. Maybe he didn’t know Will could hear perfectly well through the paper-thin walls.

“You can’t come in, babe,” he said. “I still don’t know how he’d react.”

“I haven’t seen him once since Dr. Lecter left. Come on, Matt. He’s my friend too.”

“It’s not the same. You know that. And you don’t know how he is right now — fragile doesn’t begin to cover it. I feel like I’m touching crepe paper all the time.”

“I would know if you’d just let me see him. Look, you can’t just keep him in there like a pet, he isn’t a student anymore. What would the department say if they knew?”

“Who gives a flying fuck what they have to say? The school abandoned him. Dr. Lecter abandoned him. His own fucking parents abandoned him! I’m going to take care of him now. I’m not going to let anyone hurt him.”

“You can’t do that all by yourself.”

“Just watch me.”

Will looks at Matt across the patio table and they eat burgers in silence. Will’s doesn’t taste like anything particularly good, but he chalks that up to his own failures as a living being and not Matt’s as a cook. In the time he has been separated from Dr. Lecter, the taste of food has only marginally improved. His hands and feet, however, have returned to his natural alabaster coloring. Will can only attribute this to his Musehood falling from him like rose petals. He tries not to look at them too much. Matt watches Will eat carefully, perhaps to make sure he isn’t hiding any under his tongue, preparing to spit it out in private.

“Hey, Will. Can we talk about… can we talk about that last night? The night he left.”

The sun going down over the pines. The forest crowding in. There were faint sounds of neighbors: children playing, laughter, a dog barking. Nothing like the manor. You could be the only one left alive on the planet there. You couldn’t hear one solitary soul; just the not-nearly-there footsteps of a waifish maid on the staircase.

Will picks the lettuce off his burger. “What’s there to talk about? I was bad. I didn’t listen.”

“You said you disobeyed him. And he tried to kill himself with your hand.”

“Yeah.”

Matt chews and chews and looks at Will. Finally, he says, “I can only think of all his books, you know. The way he was always writing about death and dying. Like an obsession. And since he knew about your hands, I can only guess they fascinated him too. I’m sure he wondered what it’d be like to see them used right in front of him. Like Bev.”

Will says nothing.

“Like me.”

Will looks away.

“Will.”

“What.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Dr. Lecter wanted me out of the way. He wanted you all to himself. But you weren’t going to do it.” Matt looks at him, continually, even as Will looks off. “You saved my life, Will.”

Will picks the tomato off, too. “It’s not as heroic as all that.”

Matt snorts incredulous laughter. “You know, I never got to tell you everything I’d wanted to that night. I knew you were leaving for New York — he told me, said I should come say goodbye. But what I wanted to say. Is that if you left, if you spent a month, or a year, or two, or ten in his fucking house and then, somehow, against all odds, realized out of the blue one day that you’d had enough, you could’ve just come back. I’d be around, if you came back.”

Will presses his lips together. The halls of his mind stand open, yawning, yearning to be filled. He looks to Matt, sitting across the deck picnic table, hunched over his mostly-eaten burger; his tank top reveals the light freckling on his shoulders. The waterfall running from the Venus de Milo. A grandfather clock ticking. Come here. Will says, “I don’t know if that would have ever happened, Matt.”

Matt shrugs. “Me either. But, just in case.”

 

*

 

The Brown home has one guest room that Matt tepidly readies for Will. Will takes one look at it, and follows Matt to his own bedroom upstairs. They lay in the small blue beams of moonlight through the blinds, in Matt’s childhood bed. It’s so strange. The old Dell CRT monitor sits on Matt’s desk and Will realizes that was his instant link to Will’s own computer for years and years. Will has seen pictures of this place, blurred backgrounds, and it hasn’t come close to the real thing. He is less than a foot from Matt, closer than at one point he ever believed he would be, looking into his green eyes. And he has never felt more alone.

Matt looks at Will’s hands encased in their glittering gloves. Brilliant, even in the muted moonlight. He says, “Do you need anything from me, Will?” He pauses. “Before we go to sleep.”

Will can’t bring himself to say yes or no. He turns his face into the pillow and they go to sleep.

 

*

 

Matt’s family returns two weeks into June. Matt stands around rigidly most of the morning, cooking Will eggs and bacon in a fantastically chatty fashion. He looks like he might vibrate right out of his skin.

“They don’t know anything. I haven’t told them, you know— anything.”

“Okay. That’s fine.”

Matt looks at Will, then away.

In the afternoon, Will meets Matt’s mom, his dad, his little sister, Hailey. They are each of them impossibly tanned — the dad rather burned on his bald head. They shake Will’s gloved hands and each of them makes a joke about what Matt’s mom calls “Michael Jackson’s lost gloves”. Matt looks so red he might combust, but he stays quiet.

In the evening, during a dinner of Chinese takeout, Matt’s mom claps her hands together and looks at the two of them. “So! I bet you boys are super excited. The news just broke early this morning. I thought my phone was going to explode with all my friends texting me about you, Matt. Asking if you have any insider info.”

“What news,” Will mutters, fishing around with his chopsticks in the bottom of a container.

Matt looks up, sharp. “Hey—”

“You know, your fancy professor announced his new book.” She pauses when Matt turns away, cursing under his breath. She blinks at Will’s blank expression. “What, you hadn’t heard? I thought you two were superfans. In my day, I knew the minute a new Madonna album was announced and we didn’t even have the internet back then. What’s your excuse?”

It’s so quiet, Will can hear himself swallow. “N-No,” he says and places his chopsticks down. “I hadn’t heard.”

Matt says, to his family at large, “We’re not fans of that guy and he isn’t our professor anymore.”

“What?” his dad asks, glancing at his wife from behind thick glasses. “Since when?”

“Just never mind,” Matt says and looks at his plate.

Hailey, who has just celebrated her eleventh birthday, pops half an eggroll in her mouth. She says, “He’s probably just mad because he got bad grades.”

 

*

 

It’s after midnight. Matt is sleeping soundly — breathing just shallow, eyes flickering beneath the lids in a dream. Will watched his face for a long few minutes and felt himself revert back in time. Things are so different now. Nothing has really changed at all. He went about the room, gathering his things quietly. Not everything. There wasn’t time for that. He took what little he could, and tiptoed out of the room in his pajamas with his fur coat thrown over. Down, past Matt’s sleeping parents’ bedroom, and his sister’s, out into the warm summer night.

He stands now perhaps five streets down, at the biggest intersection he could find. The red light combs over him and his one bag and he surely must look ridiculous: pajama pants a size too big borrowed from Matt’s drawer, a huge coat on in the summertime, and a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. Who would want to pick him up? But Will is sure someone might take a chance — he has not a dollar to his name but he isn’t too terrible at using his mouth; Dr. Lecter said so himself. He could pay that way for at least a ride out of town. He will ride and stop and ride and stop until he makes it beyond Saratoga Springs.

Another car passes by. There aren’t many out this late. Perhaps he should walk further, out to the highway. Will lowers his thumb, sighs, looking to do just that, when another pair of headlights approach. Will raises his thumb quickly and an old Honda pulls over to the side of the road.

Will goes to the passenger side, peers in, and jerks back with an underwater reaction time. Matt grabs him by the collar of his coat and yanks him forward through the rolled-down window.

“Let go of me,” Will shouts, pushing against the door. “Help! Help me!”

“Jesus, Will, are you fucking nuts?!” 

Matt releases him. Will stumbles back from the force of it, tumbles into the grassy sideroad and lightly moist ditch. Will has yet to get to his feet before Matt jumps out of the driver’s side door and is on him, pulling him up and to the car.

“Help! I’m being kidnapped! Someone—”

Matt’s hand is fastened over his mouth. “Shut the fuck up,” he whispers, like a papercut. “Are you for real right now? You’re gonna get us arrested!”

As Matt lifts Will off his feet, Will’s whole body limpens. He only keeps hold of his luggage, and is silently placed into the passenger’s seat, strapped in, and the door shuts. Matt hurries into the driver’s side and they just make the yellow light, Matt hanging a right turn and angling them back towards the Brown house.

They drive in silence for only a moment. Matt steers with one hand, the other cradling his head. “I can’t— I’m sorry. I’m sorry for yelling, all right? But fuck, Will, this is dangerous!”

“Coming here with you was a mistake.”

“No, a mistake is thinking you can hitchhike from Maine to New York and not arrive in little cut-up pieces. Not everyone is a nice person, Will! God, you’d think—” Matt sighs, shuddering. Mumbles: “You’d think you’d know that by now.”

“You can’t keep me from him,” Will says softly. “I’m sorry, Matt, but it’s true. I realized I’ve been complacent.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was sitting around, waiting for him to come and get me. I-I thought he would, after he cooled off. When he realized— remembered that we were meant to be together.” Will looks at his hands in his lap, clenching the fabric of his pajama pants. Green and yellow traffic lights roll over him. “It was how I was able to keep from panicking. Because if I believed he wouldn’t come back— I-I surely couldn’t go on. I have to go to him and apologize. Ask him… if I can come back home. I want to go back home. I’m just— just lost,” and he’s surprised at his own thin voice, barely there, “like a dog without its owner, I don’t know what to do.”

Matt doesn’t say anything. He grips the wheel with two hands, now, as if the car must withstand a great gust. They make it back to the quiet home with little incident. The headlights dim, the engine sleeps. Matt gets out first, comes around to Will’s side and opens the door. They look at each other in the ill yellow cab light.

Will says, “You can’t stay up all night, forever, just to make sure I don’t go back to him.”

Matt says, “Just watch me.”

 

*

 

Matt makes good on his word, though not for Will’s lack of trying. Will attempts night escapes twice more, and once in broad daylight when he takes off running in the middle of a grocery store as he and Matt shop for fourth of July dinner supplies. Matt grabs at his elbow but Will slips through, stricken by an icicle-like pierce to his heart. He can hear Dr. Lecter calling to him from what sounds like the next aisle over, the echo similar to that great writing studio at the summit of the manor. The book Will’s Musedom had helped to create. 

Come here, he calls, come here.

Will knew he would be forgiven. He just knew it. Dr. Lecter promised to house and care for him forever. Nevermind that Will could not kill Matt, could not kill Dr. Lecter. Nevermind that he is a faulty coffin. Love runs the same; gushing and flowing. Will runs into a blockade of shoppers and carts converging at the end of the paper goods aisle. He bangs straight into them, crashes, startling angry cries from the crowd. He falls back onto his tailbone amid a cascade of jolted boxes from a nearby shelf. Someone offers a hand.

“You okay—”

“Don’t! Don’t touch me!” Will scrambles back against the shelf. He pulls his gloved hands in against his chest. He blinks up at the blurred faces, the doughy cheeks and dull eyes that are nothing like Dr. Lecter’s. He whimpers. “Where is he? Where’s Daddy?”

“Young man—”

Will shudders back against the shelf, kicking his legs out.

“It’s okay!” Matt is suddenly in front of him — his skinny jeans forming to the contours of his legs. He holds himself between Will and the churning masses. “He’s fine. I got him. Sorry about all this.”

Matt takes Will, sobbing and shivering, out of the store. They leave their cart behind.

At night, Matt urges his family to go to the downtown firework show without them. He and Will stay in the backyard, on the patio, with sparklers fizzing blue and yellow and green.

Will says, holding his sparkler low to the ground, “Sometimes I can hear his voice. You know. Mostly at night. Right in my ear— this— his voice is always so calming.”

Matt’s sparkler has burned out, already. He sits beside Will in the half-dark. “What’s he say to you?”

“That he loves me, mostly.”

“Has he ever said that?”

Will doesn’t respond. His sparkler burns down too, and they sit in full dark.

When August slides around, Will has been at the Brown residence for nearly two full months. The fact that Dr. Lecter has not sent for him, has not come for him, sends no word to him, matters little to Will. He is surely not done repenting for his lack of ability, his brokenness as a Muse, and this should not surprise him; he was a lesser writer, is a lesser Muse, cannot even kill his own best friend and, of course, is not the grave, the tomb of Dr. Lecter’s greatest imagining. How long will it take to repent for this crime? Will can only guess and even his guesses are half-sewage and half-arrogance and once, he looks to his side in the bed and sees Matt’s faux-sleeping face and can nearly not take it anymore.

He imagines placing a bare hand over Matt’s throat and letting it take effect. He imagines dragging his body out to the old Honda his family lets Matt use around town. Drive off in the middle of the night and show up to the great manor way out in the New York countryside. Park haphazardly on the roundabout, and drag Matt out into the dirt. Matt weighs more than Will and by the time he got to the front door, he would be haggard, and too from the long drive. He would finally lay him on the stone steps and knock with as much strength as was left.

April and May would answer it, entirely in tandem. And they would see Will’s gift and their brown eyes would light in the oncoming sunrise.

“He will be so pleased,” they would say.

“Let us get him,” they would say.

“Welcome home, Mr. Graham,” they would say.

And Will dare not imagine further. Simple thing though he is, he knows a dream is only a dream.

 

*

 

When they return to Boston — riding coach on an overcrowded plane — Will comes to understand that he is effectively homeless. Matt’s family gave him pats on the back and Hailey hugged his pant leg and told him to return whenever, that they would always gladly receive him. Matt’s mom said she felt like she knew him — through all the years of Matt babbling excitedly about the Hannibal Lecter fan his own age he met on a forum. She told Will about how she’d forbade Matt to go on those things — because predators are everywhere — but when she saw his lit-up face at the mere mention of Will’s name, she couldn’t deny him. She said the only other thing that had ever made Matt so happy was a Hannibal Lecter novel, and even that was in contention. Will looked at her in the driveway, well aware of Matt’s fervent annoyed blushing beside him. He didn’t know what to say.

She patted him on the shoulder. “Our home is as good as yours, Will.”

He doesn’t want to call the Brown house home. He certainly can’t call his parents’ house home — not after the screaming match Matt had with them over the summer, about how selfish they’d been, how Will would be better off without them and if he caught them sniffing around Will for money again, he would likely go to jail for battery — and there was little sense in him trying to find a job, affording an apartment on his own. What job is he even suited for? 

He wishes Dr. Lecter was here to tell him.

When Will and Matt open the door to the dorm room, it smells musty and unused but there is the underlying scent of them, the two of them, as they once were for nearly an entire semester. That scent soaks into everything.

“You’ll stay here,” Matt says, foregone. Will’s stomach swims, just at the notion of it: Matt telling him what to do. When no one else will take the rein, Matt has picked it up. But Matt is not Dr. Lecter.

Will offers feeble refusal: “The school will want to give you a new roommate.”

“They won’t care if I pay for a single on my own.”

It’s enough reasoning and Matt has this look on his face that Will is too soft to deny. He doesn’t have anywhere else to go, anyway.

 

*

 

“Do you need anything from me?” Matt asks from across the room in his twin bed. “Before we go to sleep.”

The room is dark. Will’s own twin bed has never felt like this much of a sea. He can still recall the feeling of sleeping next to Dr. Lecter in the loft’s master bedroom. The warmth of the man. The safety of belongingness. The knowledge that, sure as the sun will rise, Will would return home to the manor and live all his days in love and owned completely, from the very atoms that make him up. Here, now: he feels nothing. Chill and cold, they don’t come close. The notion that Dr. Lecter has forsaken him, truly has rid himself of Will Graham, knocks once at the back of Will’s head and Will dares not answer it. Instead, he rises from his twin bed, pulls his gloves on, and crosses the small space to Matt’s bed. Matt makes room, lifting the thin cover and allowing Will to slide in.

Unlike Matt’s childhood bed, the reasonable space, here there is nothing save an inch between them.

Will can barely see Matt. He can only tell someone bigger than him is in the bed. Will shuts his eyes and says, “Please,” and Matt takes his mouth, so careful. So nearly hesitant Will thinks Matt might stop, change his mind and send Will to his own bed, but he opens his mouth more and more and suddenly his tongue is against Will’s. Their kiss tastes like spearmint toothpaste. And Matt is so warm. Like a furnace. Will pushes up against him and touches his hard bicep, the thin vein that runs the length of it. It’s barely felt through Will’s glove. He throws his arms around Matt’s neck and the sensation of his arms against Matt’s neck sends hot trickles down and down and down. Will can’t help wondering — sewage, arrogance — if Matt is pretending he’s a girl.

(Matt has told Will before — when they were physically unknown to each other, only children — that he was girly. Those curls, he said, typed, laughing— Jesus, where did he get those, the head of a Barbie doll? And his jaw was so fine and his lips were the color of strawberry lemonade.

Will typed: what a stupid thing to say

Matt typed: not stupid if it’s true lol)

But Matt places a hand on Will’s jutting hip bone, thumb rubbing there, and allows his hand to wander and there can be no doubt that Will is male. Will gasps into his mouth and tries to focus on Matt’s bigger build, the sturdiness of him, someone to hold onto, to cling to, in times of unending need. Will presses his hips forward and Matt matches him, holds him there, grinding through the thin fabric of their boxers. He places a knee between Will’s legs, urging Will to rub against his hard muscled thigh. Will breaks away from kissing just to keen into Matt’s throat.

“Will. Is this— is this okay?” Matt presses them together again. His firm grip on Will’s low back. “I mean, are you all right?”

What is he talking about? It doesn’t even sound like English. Will moans and wriggles, says nothing.

Matt kisses Will once, hard, and rolls him onto his back in the little bed. Will submerges, thankful. Matt leans over him, to the rickety nightstand, and Will can just make out Matt’s tousle of hair in the moonlight and he tries to make it longer, straighter, in his head. Matt finally fishes a small bottle from the drawer and uncaps it with a thumb, tipping liquid into his hand.

He lowers the band of his and Will’s boxers and Will’s body opens instinctually, a novel begging to be read. His knees hike up, sides of his calves rubbing Matt’s obliques. Will shivers body-long when an oiled up hand takes him gently. He jerks back, gasping.

“W-What’s that on your hand?” Will asks, hushed.

“Uh. Lube? Oh, sorry— is it okay if I touch you here? Will?”

Non-English again. Will whimpers and bucks up against Matt, who just shivers.

“I’ll take that as a yeah,” he mumbles against Will’s ear and presses both he and Will into his slick hand, just barely able to wrap his grip around. When he first slides his fist down, that slick squelch reaching Will’s ears, along with their joint shudder, Will nearly screams. He gives this long guttural sound to Matt’s chest, only slightly muffled, and Matt’s breathy laughter ruffles Will’s curls. The slow slide again. Will is shocked by it. Utterly perplexed. Trembling, whimpering, Matt soothing him between his own pleasured gasps. Both of them leaking heavily. Matt pressing kisses into Will’s neck, muttering You sound so pretty, Will and Is this okay, Will? and How do you feel?

How does he feel?

Everything slick and oiled and painless and all wrapped in Matt’s solar heat and Will feels an orgasm barreling towards him far too quickly, and more than that— is this what Dr. Lecter meant— when he said— complacency?

“S-Stop, stop it,” Will cries, breathless, “Daddy, stop, please.”

Matt releases him, the hand is gone, the heat, the kissing, and he backs away against the wall. “Did— did you just call me—”

Will uses his shirt to wipe the oil off himself. He flips around, his spine threaded to Matt’s chest and stomach. Will’s words come studded with exhales: “Just fuck me. Fuck me dry.”

What?”

Will presses his backside against Matt, still heavy and leaking and he can feel Matt’s interested twitch. “D-Don’t spoil me,” Will says and arches his back. “I don’t deserve it. Just— please—”

“I don’t wanna hurt you, man—”

“Tell me what I am—”

“Will!”

When Matt grabs Will by his thin upper arms and whirls him around, Will sees it, in his eyes: Matt doesn’t understand. And it comes up out of nowhere, a little crack in Will’s boat floor, sinking him, sinking him, flooding him with shame he has not known for so long. Will pulls up his boxers, soft almost instantly, and wonders what he could have been thinking. There’s the fault in thinking. He goes back to his twin bed and curls up against the wall.

Matt sits up in his bed, hair riled. “Will,” he whispers. “Will. Please talk to me.”

Will tells him, “It’s just a bad dream. It doesn’t mean anything.” He turns over and pretends to sleep.

 

*

 

The fall semester begins and Matt is a second year student in the Emerson College creative writing program. His fellowship continues, but there isn’t enough money to fund the entire dorm room as a single. Matt applies at the CVS down the street and works part-time. When he isn’t in class or working, he stays in the dorm and comforts Will with one half of himself, and writes a story with the other half of himself. He gets calls, sometimes. Freddie, asking if there’s anything she can do. Dr. Chilton, asking if they need anything. Matt takes his calls out in the hallway where he thinks Will can’t hear.

“He’ll come around,” he says into the phone, voice a rasp. “I know he can do it.”

Will sits in his bed and hates himself a little more each day.

 

*

 

“Happy birthday, Will,” Freddie says, looking simultaneously like she wants to shout and is actively trying not to shout. She glances at Matt for confirmation, who gives a small smile. At the back and corner table of a long-standing Boston restaurant called Jacob Wirth’s, Matt has organized what is perhaps the strangest list of guests to a birthday celebration Will has ever seen. Matt, himself, looking largely stressed and worried for Will to be out amongst people; Freddie, his girlfriend, who Will guesses Matt has effectively cheated on; Abigail, who makes an effort but that smile looks almost frightening on her; and Dr. Chilton and Dr. Gideon, who have made an honest attempt at casual daywear but failed fantastically. 

There’s a thin hum of conversation from other tables. Will tries not to eavesdrop. It would be all too easy to hear someone recognize him from recent article photos in The Tattler. Leftover close-ups a photographer got of him in New York City over winter break paired with new photos of Dr. Lecter and Bedelia out this weekend past. They speculate on everything from Dr. Lecter’s relationship status with him to the reasonings behind Dr. Lecter’s abrupt departure from Emerson’s residency. Will caught a glance at a headline online — Famed Author Trades Boytoy for New Novel — just before Matt smacked the laptop closed. Since then, Will is sure every whisper this close to Emerson must be about him. 

But Matt wouldn’t let him stay inside on his birthday. “I’ve got a surprise,” he told Will, waking him gently this morning.

Will looks now at the cake they ordered after a tepid meal. German chocolate. Nineteen candles glow before him. 

“Make a wish first,” Freddie reminds him. “Anything you want!”

Matt worries at his lower lip.

Will looks over the candles, between Abigail and Dr. Gideon’s shoulder. There’s a girl sitting two tables over with long dark hair, brown eyes. She laughs and it sounds like love, like a melody. It floods Will with the memory of a secluded table in the Walker library — hours spent just talking, anxiety over his hands melting into thin air.

But it was fun. I had fun.

Will had fun too. He shuts his eyes, wishes the impossible, and blows.

After, when Will is saddled with presents he never asked for, and everyone has made a good show of pointedly stepping around their last night at the Tam, it’s time to go home. Will carries a frilly gift bag in one hand and waits for Matt out on the dingy sidewalk, yards away from where he talks with Freddie.

“I haven’t seen you in weeks,” she says, lips quirked. Her voice carries on the wind. “I mean, not really. Not outside of class. Can’t we hang out a little tonight?”

“It’s his birthday. You don’t want him to be alone on his birthday.”

“No, but he could come with us or something!”

“That won’t work. Look, I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? Thanks for helping with the party.”

“You always say you’re going to call. And you don’t, until you need something for Will.”

“Babe—”

“I don’t mind that. I know he needs help. But you can’t let that consume your life too, Matt.”

“Jesus. Don’t talk like you know about this. It’s really annoying.”

“Matt!”

“I’ll see you later,” he says and turns and approaches Will without looking back at her. Will can see the tremble of her small chin, the way the still-hot September wind teases her long orange curls across her face. She turns and walks away.

He and Matt walk on the outskirts of the Common, on a street sidled with department stores and shops. It’s quiet, Matt staring ahead, until Will says, “You don’t have to stay with me all the time. I know it’s probably pretty boring to just—”

“Let me stop you right there. You, Will Graham, are probably the least boring person I know.” He flashes those white teeth and that dimple over. “What do you want to do? We could go to a movie.”

Will isn’t sure he could sit for two hours and watch people play out fake drama and terror. Matt stops at the crosswalk in front of a shop, and digs around in his back pocket.

“Shit, I forgot— Dr. Gideon and Dr. Chilton got you something else too. But they didn’t think you’d want it given in public.” He pulls out a little open envelope and hands it over.

Inside is a small business card. It says Dr. Thaddeus Wilt, Counseling Services. Will just looks at it.

“Y-You don’t have to go,” Matt says. “They bought you a bunch of sessions. It’s just an option. Obviously, you can always talk to me, but I’m just not. I mean, sometimes I can’t be. Impartial.”

Will looks up at him, his fluorescent green eyes and smooth pale cheeks. He says, “I don’t know if I need someone impartial.”

A familiar voice. Will’s back goes rod-straight, and he nearly drops the card. He can hear it, but more than that— he can feel it, starting in the skin of his scalp, fizzing, and then it travels and hangs low in his gloved hands. His empty ear piercings throb. His heart takes on a deep drumlike beat, stuttering, repeating itself, Will’s head in a swivel until he recognizes it coming from a line of plasma screens behind a glass storefront. Will nearly knocks a woman over to get to it, pressing himself against the glass.

“Daddy,” he breathes, and at a remove feels Matt come to stand beside him.

Like a warp. Will can’t believe what he’s seeing. Dr. Lecter sitting comfortably, one ankle crossed over a knee. He wears calm colors, his eyes are clear, hair gently brushed back. Will’s shins begin to feel immaterial. A long time ago, back when Circumstance of Midnight was still unborn, Dr. Lecter went on this literary talk show: Aaron Talbot’s Bookshelf. He spoke on his process and what was to come. Will got the impression that he was made to do this, either by his publicist or Bedelia or perhaps both. He looks minutely less annoyed here, speaking placidly as Aaron Talbot has asked after his newest book, A Gifted Student, releasing in January of this upcoming year.

Dr. Lecter looks from Aaron Talbot, to the camera. He says, “It was a labor of love.”

Will’s heart drowns out all other noise. The steady bass pumps in his ears.

The studio lights go down. Aaron Talbot, oiled mustache and colorful bowtie, slowly deflates like a large balloon, slumped over his desk. There is one remaining stagelight on, and it shines on Dr. Lecter alone as he looks deep into the camera, deep into Will’s eyes.

“I’m glad you came, Will,” Dr. Lecter says. No. No, this is Hannibal Lecter. This is the Author Infinity, the man who set the literary world on fire when he was only twenty-years-old. This is the man in the thin-framed glasses who sees stories so far beyond conception he resides permanently in another world. Hannibal Lecter says, “It took me a long time to understand how I felt. To categorize it. Do you know the five stages of grief? Of course you do. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. I experienced all of those in the few short seconds after we touched. All the time we had spent together, all the effort I put into you— wasted. I had not been courting my own death at all. Simply everyone else’s. And in the end, I realized, it was quite silly of me to think anything else. Since I am not God, my abilities of creation only go so far. You are the ceiling I hit, Will. Bashed my head upon. 

“You were the death, not of my body, but of my wild fantasies, my delusions of greatness beyond greatness, a circular existence where I brought about my own demise in the form of a scruffy young boy. It was terribly painful. I even had to change the ending of my book, which I argued over with both my editor and darling Bedelia. My happily ever after of the main character’s holy death then became a slog of drear, the part of the book most readers find too disheartening. What comes after the end, when all the key players have gone home— not dead, not glorious in victory, but simply defeated. Bedelia did not favor it much. But it is not about her, is it, Will?

“It’s about you and me. I brought clay into being. Ex nihilo. I attempted to mold it into something beautiful, but in the end, I was simply unable. What I had fantasized as a majestic end to a great life became a romance-novel break up, with all the heartache and fruitless pining that entails.” 

Hannibal Lecter rises from the plush chair and crosses the stage. Down the steps, towards the camera. Will’s body is an ocean, one he will surely drown in. He remembers those eyes from the bedroom, when he was pried open, when Hannibal Lecter attempted to bury himself in a grave not marked for him. Hannibal Lecter grabs the camera and angles it up, as if he were grabbing Will’s shoulders, forcing him to look into his opiate eyes. 

He says, “You know, Will, your prose was terrible. But I loved you anyway.”

Will breathes in water.

He blinks, choking, coughing harshly, and through diluted vision he watches as Dr. Lecter and Aaron Talbot exchange ending pleasantries. Aaron looks towards the camera and holds up the mock for A Gifted Student. The cover is an illustration of a thin boy, charcoal black, standing against a blue background. His hands, gold shining, held palms-up to the sky. Aaron grins his cheesy grin and crows, “Available for preorder now!”

Matt is patting Will on the back. “You okay? Will?”

Will waves him off, hunched over. But he can’t stop coughing, for a long time. When they get back to the dorm, Will’s face is past red, and for all of his body’s hard effort he cannot sick it up.

 

*

 

The offer comes just a week before winter break. When the fall semester is nearly done and Matt is constantly groaning about how Dr. Gideon’s final didn’t make any sense, was too nebulous, he tosses a letter from the mail to Will. It is addressed from the WLP department head, Kade Purnell. Matt has noticed this and tries not to look like he’s peering over Will’s shoulder.

Will sits on the edge of his bed, wet from their joint shower. He wears a towel over his head.

“Dr. Purnell is inviting me back to the program. To pick up where I left off,” Will says, the words tasting dull. He lowers the letter and continues drying his hair.

Matt perks up cautiously. “That’s great, man. What, in the spring?”

“Yeah.”

“That’d be cool, wouldn’t it? I mean, we’d be a year apart but better late than never. And the writer they have for residency now is pretty nice, low-key. She writes mysteries or something.” Matt joins him on the bedside and Will looks away from that hopeful expression when he takes off the towel. “Look, I’m not pushing. I’m just. Saying.”

“I don’t have any money for that.”

“We’ll figure something out. We always do, right?”

Will looks at him. Matt is always saying we. Us. Will heard Freddie point that out, too, when she broke up with him a few weeks back. She said, Us isn’t you and me, it’s you and Will. And that’s fine. But I need to move on. Matt didn’t even argue. Freddie still calls, sometimes, and asks how Will is doing. For just a second, sitting there smelling of cucumber and aloe body wash, Will is taken by a long-ago image of her and Abigail and Alana and Beverly and Matt all sitting around him in a workshop. Before Will’s first pre-workshop meeting. Back when he didn’t know what he didn’t know, and just looking at Dr. Lecter in his seat on high filled Will with a blessed sense of You have arrived

His therapist, Dr. Wilt — who tells Will to call him Rusty — says it is more than okay to remember the good times. He says only don’t lose yourself to the despair that good times may never come again. Open your heart to possibilities.

Will hasn’t really taken that advice. He leans his temple gently on Matt’s shoulder; Matt turns to place his mouth against Will's hair.

 

*

 

By late January, Will’s wardrobe has changed. Matt never said anything directly about the fur and expensive items he wore, but Will felt the unease as tangibly as Boston chill. He never threw them away. Just squished them into the very far back of their joint closet which is stuffed enough as is. The coats, the gloves, the fitted shirts, and red-bottomed shoes and even the mink and fox, like something stashed from a night of murder, all of them streaked with strange blood.

(In a session, Will asked Rusty if he was expected to throw them away.

Rusty looked at him in the ribbed light from the windows and shrugged. “Throw them away or don’t. What those clothes mean or don’t mean is something you have to work out for yourself. If you keep them, is Hannibal Lecter still in your life? Let’s phrase it differently— if you threw them away, right now, burned them in a bonfire and danced around the ashes, would you suddenly be emancipated?”

Will looked directly into a bar of light. “No.”

“It means what it means. You get to decide.”)

Will stands where a hundred Wills have stood before him, on a January day, in an old coat, jeans and pleather gloves thrifted from two blocks down. Money is tight, now. Matt’s parents and his CVS job help, but Will has been looking for a part-time job, too. Only: he went to the store once last week on his own and broke down sobbing in the cereal aisle. There were too many choices. Matt tells him there’s no rush, to take his time, but Will feels even his own self as a huge burden. He can only guess at the weight for Matt, who holds Will long and close every chance he gets.

The sign on the door says, Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. There’s a call through the cracked door, telling Will to come in. He enters. He had forgotten how much being a student meant simply taking orders and his low being settles happily, comforted even at this.

It’s as he remembered. A temporary member of staff never changes the decor much. The walnut desk, the ample bookshelves, and two seats before the desk. But sitting in that big chair is a woman of fifty, with white horn-rimmed glasses and a softly tied bun atop her head. She smiles and motions for Will to come in, to shut the door behind himself. He does both, and sees his story sitting on her desk.

He couldn’t bring himself to write anything new. In truth, he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to. Perhaps this is as far as the train goes. The best he could manage was taking The Bad Touch from his original semester and applying the line edits given to him by the class. He focused on Beverly’s, mostly. Seeing her handwriting — her Ha! — in blue ink all along his pages laid him in bed for a full day, shivering and sweating, before he could make the changes. He turned that in, for Dr. Tanaka’s first round of Fiction Workshop.

Will sat in this very seat a year and a half ago, barely eighteen and wet with ardor.

Dr. Tanaka clasps her hands over Will’s pages. “Will Graham! Thanks for being brave enough to go first. I was worried I’d have to make enemies and pull unwilling participants.”

“It’s no problem.”

“I’d say not. I really enjoyed this. The concept of a boy who kills living things with his hands is strongly utilized, and it works to hang the narrative off. I might be reaching here but from the descriptions of the main character, there may be a little self-insertion going on. I’m no stranger to it myself. I noticed particularly strong writing towards the ending, where the conflict comes to a head. The middling pages were stringier, I think, which may have to do with either pacing or a change in tone. It’s almost as if different scenes were written at different times, and that has a rather jarring effect. Not that it couldn’t be fixed.” She picks up two pages, sets them aside. “I’ve made some suggestions here and here. For clarity's sake. There is also a time jump I don’t think you intended. But, at its core, the message of the story is strong. The boy struggles with something out of his control. How do we feel like good people now, when we’ve committed such atrocities in the past? The fact that this is universally unanswerable and so the story does not venture to make a guess, is commendable.” She stacks the pages neatly and slides them across the desk. “I’m excited to see what your classmates have to say! Very nice work, Mr. Graham.”

Will looks at the pages, then at her. Her face is blurred so badly, she could be anyone. Will asks, “Why would you lie to me?”