Will pulled at his collar. The retrofitted gas fireplace in Hannibal’s bedroom was on and the room felt blazing. He paced from the window to the dresser and back again like a caged animal, unsure where he was supposed to be but certain it was not here. Finally, he settled for the bench at the foot of the bed. Several minutes dragged by and he considered fumbling through the various wall switches to find the one which would turn off the godforsaken fire. Before he could try, the spring on the antique doorknob creaked and Hannibal swept in with a tray. He set it down on the side table and brought Will a glass of water.
“Tell me what happened.”
Will clenched his jaw. “She touched me and I empathized with her when she was empathizing with me. I got my wires crossed.”
“A simple misunderstanding, then. Not worthy of your distress.”
“I kissed her unwillingly, Hannibal.” He wasn’t sure whose unwillingness he was referring to. The doctor didn’t press him and instead knelt at his feet. A broad palm swept under the flop of curls at his forehead to check his temperature. Hannibal offered his handkerchief and Will wiped at the trails of sweat on his neck. He didn’t bother to try giving it back. Hannibal always insisted he keep them. He’d accrued half a sock drawer of them by now. It was one of those inexplicable intimacies between them which they never openly discussed.
“Let me hang your blazer and tie.” Will shrugged out of the humid jacket and pulled off his wretched tie. Hannibal carefully smoothed what wrinkles were willing to come out of them and hung them on the valet stand in the corner. On his way back to the bedside table, he clicked off the fireplace – a hidden panel under the mantle, it turned out.
“You haven’t eaten. Try a few of these.” He beckoned him to sit beside him.
Will could feel his heart racing. “I’m not going to eat…whoever that is…in your bed.”
Hannibal gave him an amused look. He pointed to one of the tasting spoons on the tray with two elegant fingers. “Seared cabbage with crisped quinoa in chili oil. This one is buffaletto cheese on pane topped with blackberries and macadamia nuts. Over here we have a selection of kumamoto oysters – Washington raised, of course. And last but not least, sea urchin with cauliflower puree and chives. Nothing with a central nervous system, you will note.”
Will sat down on the edge of the mattress. The adrenaline racing through his system told him he ought to make a run for it.
“Let’s have the oysters, shall we?” Hannibal suggested. Will picked up the delicate shell and the doctor mirrored his motion. Hannibal held his gaze as they slurped the contents. Unbidden, the thought that shellfish were an aphrodisiac crossed his mind just as the cool, buttery burst of ocean slid down his throat.
“Delicious,” Will confirmed. The approval pleased Hannibal greatly.
“Now slip off your shoes and lay back. You’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress.” He fluffed several of the pillows up. The velvet and silk bedspread certainly looked inviting. Unsure of why he was complying, Will slid back against the headboard and made himself comfortable. “There now.” Hannibal placed the tray in his lap, as though Will was lord of the manor. “Have a snack and then try to rest. I’ll check on you in, say, an hour?”
“I might not be able to sleep.”
Hannibal seemed to consider this and retrieved a slim book from his writing desk. The green leather binding was old but well preserved and gilded letters spelled out a name on the spine: Coleridge. Only Hannibal would have a 19th century copy of Rime of the Ancient fucking Mariner casually laying around. Asshole.
“Light bedtime reading, huh?” Will smirked.
“Nothing so dull as that. ‘Be as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean,’ dear Will” Hannibal quipped. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Antonia had so expertly attended to his guests, they hadn’t even realized he’d disappeared for nearly half an hour. When he returned downstairs, people were polishing off the last of the sweets and champagne. Hannibal had the servers start clearing the tables to signal that it was time to draw the evening to a close.
It took nearly two hours before he bid the last of his company adieu. He found Will fast asleep and he sat at his side, watching his long lashes flutter and flicker in dreams. Hannibal wondered what he dreamt of and whether he could be convinced to tell. Twice he found himself leaning too close. Twice he wondered if Will tasted like he smelled. With him, all of Hannibal’s clinical objectivity was unhinged by the twitch of an eye, the hitch of a breath.
Will exhaled sharply and a soft whimper came out. His lips worked around a word. Hannibal could have sworn it was his own name.
He felt the twisting pull of darkness, the whirlpool drawing him in. Hannibal picked up the book on the bedside table to see where Will had left off:
“The devil knows how to row.”
He certainly did, and he ought to row harder given the spell with which Will sought to drown him.
Will dreamt he was sailing in a river of long grass. The rolling field was covered in a thin pall of mist. At the forest’s edge, a ravenstag watched him struggle with the lines. No matter how he tacked or trimmed the mainsail, his ship would not move.
“Hannibal!” he called, but his voice seemed to be swallowed by the night. He shouted louder, cupping his mouth, hoping the sound would reach below deck. A crack shook the boards under his feet. “No!” he cried. “No, no!” The groans grew louder and the ship rumbled and swayed. The deck began to split beneath his shoes. Great beastly antlers as black as the sky pushed through the splintering wood and rent the boat in half. Will turned to the ravenstag for help but the ravenstag was gone, swallowed up by the roiling fog. He jumped overboard into the sea of grass and waited for the beast to rise and devour him. The fog closed in and silenced the world, cloaking everything in grey beads of moisture.
Will opened his eyes, shivering. The beast and the fog and the ship and grass – all were gone, slipped back into the shadowlands of his mind. Hannibal hovered over him, his hair slightly mussed. A warm hand lay over Will’s shoulder. Possessively, he thought.
Hannibal watched him curiously. “You were dreaming.”
Will collapsed back into the pillows and let out a little huff of a laugh. “I thought I might be dreaming still. What time is it?”
“Late. The guests are gone.”
“Christ. My dogs…”
“I took the liberty of asking Alana to see to them. I hope you don’t mind.”
“You’ve not told me about the night sweats.” There was more than a little recrimination in Hannibal’s voice. “How often do you experience them?”
Will grimaced. Always? Forever? The truth was ugly.
“Oh, Will.” Hannibal squeezed his shoulder and stroked the length of his arm, pausing to take his pulse. “How do you normally deal with them?”
“Hot shower and a stiff drink. Or four.”
Hannibal tutted at him. “Let’s try something different. We’ll modify your routine. Go shower off. Pass me your clothes when you’re ready and I’ll get them started in the wash.”
Will felt the thick boards of his ship underfoot, again trembling and about to rip apart. Half of him wanted to fight Hannibal’s suggestion tooth and nail. The other half desperately wanted to see where this would lead.
He sat up, forcing Hannibal out of his immediate space. “Why are we in your bedroom? Of all the rooms at your disposal, why did you send me here?”
“You needed privacy, away from the din of the party. This is the most private room of my home.”
“I sincerely doubt that.” No, there was a basement behind a false wall or trap door somewhere, probably close to the kitchen for his work. He hadn’t yet found it yet, or rather, he hadn’t yet been invited in. He wasn’t sure which he intended.
“You already sought my bedroom out once before, did you not?”
Oh, it was games upon games upon games with him. Will refused to balk. “I was looking for clarity before.”
“Did you find it?”
“Not in here.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Some banal clue. Something revealing. But there is nothing about you that isn’t perfectly curated, is there? No half empty prescriptions in the cupboard, as it were.”
“Nothing sordid and terribly mundane in the nightstand?” Hannibal suggested with an imperceptible smile.
Will snorted. “Most people are like onions. You peel them back layer by layer, each one revealing a little more of who they are.”
“What did you find when you tried to peel me?”
“A one-way mirror. Nothing but a black void behind a shiny surface.”
“An interesting choice of words. I too have tried to see the man behind the veil you wear. We neither of us are onions, useful and tasty though they may be. Tell me. What reflections of yourself do you see now? What void lies beneath?”
Will looked away. He looked toward the window where his haggard face was warped by the imperfections in the old, hand-blown glass. He half expected to see the horned beast staring back. “I think I’ll go rinse off now.”