There was a petite brunette named Emilia who ran the corner store down the block from their townhouse. For the first few weeks after they moved in, she was nothing but friendly conversation and coy smiles. Hannibal was more amused by her attraction to Will than jealous, almost encouraging of it just to watch Will squirm under the attention. But in the end, she’d grown taciturn. He overheard her a few days later, talking about the unfriendly white man who was always scowling at everyone.
The thing was, Will had spent most of his adult life trying to fly under the radar, trying to avoid attachments, to discourage others’ interest in him. Objectively speaking, he should have been thrilled with the fact that it was working, except negative attention was still attention, and it was the last thing they needed when they were lying low. And in this particular instance, it hadn’t been his intention. Emilia was cute and harmless, and it wouldn’t have hurt anything for her to carry on with her flirtation.
Will wasn’t a vain man, but he found himself cursing Dolarhyde for this newest scar in his ever-expanding collection. One more, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t that big of a deal. This one, stitched with infinite care by Hannibal’s delicate hand, was barely visible when Will wore a beard--a narrow bald patch for the first few days that filled in as the hair grew longer. Of all the myriad marks on his body, the scar was hardly the most troublesome.
It was the damage done to the buccal nerve in his cheek, weakening the underlying musculature. Those first few weeks had been utter agony. Eating, drinking, brushing his teeth, even the accidental graze of his hand against the skin of his cheek, all more painful than the memory of the knife sinking into his flesh. He’d batted away the pain meds Hannibal offered and curled into a ball in his bed for days on end, until it passed, and he could finally bear to eat again, down almost twenty pounds with his ribs protruding and his sweatpants hanging on jagged hip bones.
Eating had become a chore, at best. Meals something to tolerate out of necessity rather than pleasure, despite Hannibal’s efforts in the kitchen. Will wasn’t sure which of them resented that fact more. He’d long gotten over any reservations he had over eating the food Hannibal placed before him, particularly now with the restrictions they’d placed upon themselves in hiding. Chewing only one side, the alternating tingling, aching, or itchiness in his right cheek distracting from any enjoyment he might have otherwise taken from the meal.
When he brushed his teeth, he had to manually pull back his lips with his fingers. He’d given up on shaving not only to hide the scar, but because it was more trouble that it was worth, pulling the skin taut, and his beard was one more barrier between anything that might come in contact with the over sensitive skin
Now, having slowly gained back a bit of weight, in repose, the visible result of Dolarhyde’s attack was negligible, just the slight downturned corner pulling at the line of his lip. But when he smiled, it was more of a grimace--something out of a horror movie, more like. The left side lifting as normal, while the right pulled down, the whole thing off-centre, revealing teeth and gums.
Over the months, he’d practiced it time and again in the bathroom mirror, fogged around the edges after his shower. Hannibal had to know, but he’d never commented, beyond his initial reassurance that in time it would heal. Damaged and inflamed, but not severed. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen overnight, but Will stared hard at his reflection, seeking out even the smallest improvement. That little tic of muscle the only external sign of the massive effort he expended.
There was no longer any pain, but every shift in his muscles tugged at the line of the scar. A reminder, or a warning. Finally, outward, visible evidence of just how twisted up and gnarled he was inside. Will chuckled, perversely amused by the way it looked in his reflection--a snarling madman.
Mostly people didn’t notice, or if they did, they were too polite to say anything. For Will, as with anything else, it was written across their face--their inability to look away, or to meet his eye, focusing on his shoulder while they speak.
Hannibal probably preferred him like this. Will imagined a therapy session between them, walking down the hall from the bathroom to the study, sitting across from one another just like they used to. Hannibal asking Will if he was bothered more by the reactions others have had to this new look, or the fact that, if he were being honest with himself, he found it freeing. He was glad not to have to suffer Emilia’s smalltalk any longer.
They were being careful. That’s what they’d agreed upon. Hannibal didn’t seem to chafe under the restrictions placed upon his extracurricular activities. He’d taken to life in Havana like a duck to water, and even knowing they had to keep a low profile, couldn’t quite resist the lure of high society. No more hosting lavish dinners in their home, but he still attended the opera and ballet and all the gallery events, and dined in all the finest restaurants.
When Will accompanied him, no one expected Hannibal’s “friend” to engage in small talk. Whether he scowled to hide his smile, or loosed it, the end result was the same. Neatly slicing through all the bullshit that polite society expected of him. No need to stumble his way through that dance any longer, trodding on bruised egos. Now everyone gave him a wide berth.
There were, inevitably, snide comments made behind his back. Wondering why someone like Hannibal would associate with someone like Will, so antisocial. Remarking on what a shame it was, such a pretty face ruined by his ghoulish smile. These opinions were of little consequence to Will. He’d heard worse from coworkers and students and random people on the street reacting to his disposition long before he’d been scarred. Hannibal, however, beneath his placid, benevolent grin, rankled as if personally slighted by their words.
Will would meet his gaze, give a subtle shake of his head as if to say Jack is watching. The minute some rich asshole tourist goes missing after a night at symphony, he’s going to put two and two together, Hannibal really. And that, generally, was that.
But there was a night when Will was actually in a decent mood for once. Had been all day, since he’d woken and hadn’t felt any of the normal discomfort brushing his teeth and had managed to get through breakfast without the ache of fatigue settling into his jaw.
He tried to keep himself busy most days with chores around the house and a reading list he was working his way through, but the scent of salt water coming in from the ocean was calling. He followed the stairs down from their villa, lighting on dock, where Rio Jaimanitas spilled into the Florida Strait. It was the perfect, mild weather for a late morning on his boat, a nice wind and low humidity. He caught a few mackerel to bring home. Hannibal had a way of preparing them, so they melted in the mouth. It was a meal Will could look forward to and enjoy.
During the week, unless there was a special event, they spent most evenings at home. Hannibal would often compose or draw. Will had grown use to the soundtrack of plucked out notes on the harpsichord or the scratch of charcoal on paper. Tonight, the buoyancy that had carried him through the day made the walls feel too close. He wanted to be outside.
Will grabbed a bottle of whiskey and they made their way down to the malecon, passing it back and forth. Hannibal arched a dubious brow at first, but took a swig when handed to him.
“I assume today has been better than most, pain-wise?”
Will shrugged. “It’s not particularly bad most days. Just annoying.” He ran his tongue along the inside of this cheek, where the scar tissue was thicker than the rest of the skin. “I’m getting used to it.” He took a drag of the whiskey, relishing in that lovely numbing sensation.
“It’s good to see you enjoying yourself for a change,” Hannibal said. “You’ve shown significant improvement, much more quickly than I’d anticipated. At this rate, you’ll be back to full sensation ahead of schedule.”
Hannibal was fishing. They’d been so careful with one another since the fall, tiptoeing around any sensitive subjects. Will was growing tired of it. He missed that raw, probing honesty. Hannibal had never hesitated in the past, but now, it was as if he feared that if he pushed, it would drive Will away once again, this time for good.
Will snatched the bottle from Hannibal and took another sip. He wasn’t interested in getting drunk tonight, but maybe a nice buzz. El malecon was practically deserted. Tourist season had passed, and they were pretty far west, anyway. Beneath the wall, the waves crashed with incredible force against the shore. The wind from earlier in the day was building into a nice storm that would no doubt break overnight.
“You know, I’m starting to get used to it. I mean, I could do without the pain in the ass that is chewing, among other things, but the other…”
“Your smile,” Hannibal clarified.
Will shot him his smile now. “If you want to call it that.”
Little that Hannibal did these days surprised him, though he doubted the same could be said in reverse. All the same, he was taken off guard when Hannibal reached out for the bottle and caught Will around the wrist instead, bringing them to a standstill facing one another. Will fought the urge to flinch when Hannibal lifted a hand to his cheek, palm brushing over scarred flesh.
It tingled at the touch, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, just strange. Will knew he was being touched, but couldn’t register much of the sensation. The man he once was might have been unnerved at their proximity, even as he longed for it. He would have averted his gaze, trembled at the thought of such intimacy between them.
Now, he lifted his eyes to Hannibal’s, unflinching, as he dragged his thumb back and forth over the downturned corner of his lips. “The Japanese aestheticians of the art of wabi-sabi hold that there is beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Your scars and your smile tell the story of your existence, and you are all the more beautiful for them.”
Will laid his hand over Hannibal’s wrist--stilling its movement, but not pushing him away. “You don’t have to stroke my ego, Hannibal. I know how it looks. I know what people think when they see it, and yeah, that bothered me at first, but maybe living with you has finally gone to my head.”
“Oh?” Intrigue and anticipation sparked in Hannibal’s eyes, black in the moonlight.
“You know I’ve always perceived things differently from how others do. When we--” Will cast a glance around them, but there was no one as far as the eye could see. “When we fought Dolarhyde, I could see the Great Red Dragon, and I think I envied him his clarity, in a way. That he understood the path of his becoming, while I struggled against my own, afraid of where it might lead.”
He swallowed hard, jaw shifting, throat closing up tight around the words he wanted to say. “Then I saw for myself just how beautiful it could be, but I tried to turn away from it. I tried to ignore what I knew I could become, just like I always have, but Dolarhyde, he left me with this reminder. And I’ve hated him for it, but I think...I think I owe him my thanks. You can’t hide what’s inside when it’s written across your face.”
Hannibal’s eyes widened just a fraction. “Will…”
“Tier, Dolarhyde, they underestimated me. Even as they died, they couldn’t conceive of what it was I carried within--what you’ve seen in me. I’ve imagined what it would have been like, to show someone else.
“And who would be deserving of such a sight?” Hannibal asked. He was close enough for Will to feel Hannibal’s breath ghosting hot across his lips, tense longing drawn taut between them. Will honestly couldn’t say what nature of desire it was that either of them felt in that moment. Such divisions hardly seemed to matter any longer when they were concerned.
“I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind.” Will licked his lips and crooked his brow. “It was more of a general expression of interest. Maybe once the search is officially called off.”
At this point, it was only Jack’s rage that was driving the manhunt, when most were convinced that the two of them had perished in the ocean. Soon even that wouldn’t be enough for the FBI to justify continuing to pour money into a fruitless search.
Hannibal was silent for a moment, struggling through cautious delight. “I would love nothing more than to bear witness, if you would allow it.”
It was a good thing that Hannibal didn’t realise just how much power he held over Will. All the things Will would allow Hannibal if he only asked. Outnumbered only by the things Hannibal would do for him. Yet neither of them ever asked.
Will took step closer. Feet slotting in between Hannibal’s, knees sliding together. Will laid his hand on Hannibal’s hip. “There are other things that will be easier, once it’s healed.” His gaze darted to Hannibal’s mouth and back. “But it might be interesting to try, anyway.”