Will’s invitation to one of Hannibal’s legendary cocktail parties came as a surprise. For several weeks Hannibal and he had engaged in their verbal pas-de-deux with neither giving nor gaining any ground. Will was unsure why Hannibal would want him to mingle with his high society friends. At first he assumed it was for novelty’s sake – the nut who didn’t kill all those people. Ha ha. Yet if he were honest with himself, he knew deep down that Hannibal would never tolerate someone making jokes at his expense. That would be unspeakably rude. Alas, confusing as the invitation was, it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up.
Parking on Chandler Square was tight and the side street nearest Hannibal’s house was already packed with flashy cars driven by his flashy set. Will was forced to pull around and park in the alley behind the catering service van. He entered through the kitchen service door like a poor relation and nearly ran straight into Hannibal who was in the midst of giving orders to the hired help.
“Will! Wonderful of you to make it!”
“I…here…” He handed him a bottle of bourbon with a sadly flopping blue satin bow. “I figured I couldn’t compete with your wine expertise.”
“How marvelous. We’ll have to enjoy this treat together some evening.” Will watched his face, expecting his words to ring false, but Hannibal was truly appreciative. “Come, I’d like to introduce you to a few people.” Hannibal steered him towards the masses with a hand in the small of his back. His touch was warm and strangely grounding. Combined with the heavy dose of Hannibal’s excitement that he was channeling, Will might not actually offend anyone too gravely.
“Hannibal, who is this young man you’re guarding so jealously?” a woman in red said in an archly affected voice.
Hannibal did him no favors by introducing him as ‘one of the most gifted criminal profilers in the world’ to the woman whose name, he learned, was Mrs. Komeda. She was a crime novelist with far too much interest in what she referred to as ‘the bad boys,’ and he was subsequently cornered by the ridiculous creature for the better part of a half hour. He hated talking about the details of his work with strangers. When her husband finally interrupted her and he made an escape, Will found he had no one to talk to.
He grabbed yet another drink off a server’s tray and shrunk his way toward the wall. From there he was assaulted by an overload of useless information: the secrets of the crooks, the liars, and the unfaithful mingling together over hors d’oeuvres. Overwhelming all this, however, was a heady thrum of lust and envy, mostly directed at Hannibal. The entire gathering was patched over with the thinnest veneer of civility. It was this vibrating savagery just below the surface of the cordial nodding and bare-toothed smiles that Hannibal absolutely reveled in. Or was he misreading the entire event because he was channeling Hannibal’s emotions? Will felt disoriented. The alcohol in his system certainly wasn’t helping.
Next to Hannibal stood Alana, radiant as ever, seemingly unaware that she was surrounded by a pack of devils and allied with the King of Hell himself. From where Will sat, he noticed Hannibal’s hand kept roaming to Alana, finding little excuses to touch her back, her arm, her shoulder. She looked up at him with open admiration and Hannibal awarded her with a grin that crinkled at his eyes. Shock rang through Will’s spine. What the utter fuck. They were having an affair…
“You look like a man in need of liquid reinforcement.” The settee cushion suddenly shifted next to him. Will turned, slack jawed and unfocused. “How are you?”
He struggled to acknowledge Hannibal’s intern. “Antonia…” The woman nodded and gave him a glass of whiskey. “Thanks. Uh…” He was still too distracted by the sight of Hannibal’s hand on the curve of Alana’s neck to properly carry a conversation. “So, um…Hannibal’s intern. What’s that like?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. Demanding and rewarding, in equal measure.”
Will studied her for a moment. “He said the arrangement is temporary. When are you done?”
“Eager to see me go?”
“Call it a vested interest in seeing what kind of bird you become before fledging Hannibal’s nest.”
“Fascinating metaphor. I finish in the spring.”
Will worked his jaw and words he hadn’t quite planned came tumbling out. “I have no idea what he’ll demand of you when it’s all said and done – but I promise you, one day he’ll suggest you do something beyond outrageous. Remember me when that happens. Do whatever he asks and don’t you dare consider being anything other than perfectly polite about it. Understand?”
She smirked against the rim of her glass. “I’ve heard about the allegations you made. I’m surprised you showed up to one of his dinner parties, believing what you do.”
Will ran a hand over his mouth. “Don’t…do that. Don’t psychoanalyze me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m under strict orders, you know.”
“You’re still…observing. I can tell.”
“Sure. So are you. Far more clearly than me, no doubt. Mind sharing why you’ve been staring daggers at Dr. Bloom?”
Will sucked in a shaky breath. “I…excuse me.” He scrambled off the couch toward the hallway bathroom.
Ten minutes later, he emerged from the restroom no calmer. Will was sweaty and in the full grasp of a panic attack. He thought he might slip into the study to collect himself, but Antonia found him there.
“Will, forgive me. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s fine,” he shrugged.
“No, it isn’t. I antagonized you.”
“It’s been a long…” What? Day? Month? Thirty-eight years? “These kind of events are hard on me. I’m a little drunk. More than a little,” he blurted out.
“What can I do for you?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. I just…” Antonia’s large eyes were so accepting, so kind. She really wanted to help him and fuck, he really, really needed help. She placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled.
“I’m here. What do you need?” Her mouth parted and looked so inviting. Will closed the distance and kissed her experimentally, once, then twice. She made a sound, not quite a moan, and pushed against his chest. “No, Will. We shouldn’t.”
“It’s okay,” he breathed softly and kissed her again.
“Will. No. Stop.” He pulled away and focused on her face again. To his horror, she looked confused and slightly distressed.
“Oh god. Jesus. Fuck. I’m so sorry. I didn’t – ” He slumped down on a nearby chair and covered his face.
Behind shielded eyes, the tears came, unbidden. The tears he’s kept walled off for so long. Antonia was immediately at his side, rubbing his back.
“Will, shhh. It’s okay. You’re a seriously handsome guy, but I really don’t want to get fired.”
A silent sob came out as shaky laughter. Hannibal’s conduct could hardly be called ethical; he’d be a god damned hypocrite if he sacked the girl over an unwanted kiss.
“I’m so sorry. I get confused sometimes. I misread social cues.”
“That’s bull, Graham. You’re not on the spectrum and we both know it.”
Will scraped his bottom lip between his teeth. “You kissed back. Was that just out of academic curiosity about my ‘condition’?”
“No, it was the three cocktails I’ve had and the fact that not even those chinos you wear can hide your cute ass. I told you, Hannibal made it clear that you are absolutely off limits. He’s very protective of you, you know.”
“Doesn’t want anything in my life except him,” Will said bitterly, scrubbing at the tears on his cheeks.
If she heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Let me go get him, okay? Wait here.”
In the grand living room, Antonia caught Hannibal’s gaze and gestured toward the kitchen. He nodded subtly and held up a finger against his glass. Redirecting his guests to admire a painting he’d recently required, he moved quickly and efficiently through the crowd and found his intern in the corridor, trying to keep out of the way of the bustling wait staff.
“Will needs you.” she whispered. The words sent a shiver through his spine. “He’s upset.”
Hannibal glanced over her, realizing her lipstick appeared slightly smudged. “Show me.”
“In the study.”
He wasted no time going to him. Antonia followed behind, clearly hoping to be allowed, finally, to observe them interact. When he pulled the parlor doors open, he made a split second decision and ushered her in. Seeing them both, Will jumped to his feet.
The alchemy of calibrating neural pathways and activating psychological triggers was as much an art as anything Hannibal wrought in blood and bone. Tonight he’d thrown a host of pressures at Will, curious to see how he would react. He assumed Will would surprise him. Antonia, however, had all but fallen off his radar since Will’s return – a pet project all but abandoned. He had nearly forgotten that she might serve as a chess piece in the games he and Will played.
“What happened, Will?”
“I’m sorry. I should go.” He ran a hand through his untamed hair.
“Not until you tell me what is going on. Antonia says you are upset.”
“I…she should be the upset one. I’ve acted like an asshole. Sorry to distract you from your guests.”
“You are my guest too. You’re never a distraction.”
“I’m just going to head out. Thank you for the invitation.”
While Hannibal had been assessing Will’s state, Antonia had silently worked her way to the far side of the room, effectively blocking the other door. Something flashed in her hand. She had palmed Will’s keys from the jacket he’d carelessly tossed on the back of the settee.
“Maybe you should lay down for a little bit?” She suggested. “You’re not in any shape to drive.”
Hannibal stared at Antonia. Brilliant little thing. He would reward her richly. “I concur. Go upstairs and rest, Will. First door on the right.”
“- the room with the freshest sheets,” Hannibal supplied. “Up you go now. I’ll check on you shortly.”
The furrow in Will’s brow didn’t unscrew, but his feet begrudgingly found their way up the wide walnut staircase. Hannibal turned back to Antonia.
“Shall I have the servers bring out dessert?” she asked innocently.
He grinned like the cat who ate the canary. “Excellent idea.”
“Go on. I’ll say you’ve had an emergency call if they get rowdy.”
“Ms. Miller, I do believe I’ll dance at your wedding for the assistance you’ve offered tonight.”
She bit into a crooked smile. “Not if I dance at yours first. I do believe I just heard bells.” At that, she tossed Will’s keys to him. He caught them and turned quickly, lest his intern see him blush.