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The first thing he becomes aware of is the stretching dryness of his throat. Next, the soft pinch of the heart rate monitor on his finger. Next, the slow, steady beeping of the machines. It loops and builds on itself. Again, his parched throat and then a curious tang of something brightly citrus lingering on his tongue and cheeks. His dry tongue moves hesitantly in his mouth, feels like sandpaper on the top of his hard palate.

For a moment, he can’t open his eyes. His breath catches in his throat. He lifts his eyebrows, high, in a moment of panic as his lids stick stubbornly together. His hand is halfway to his face when his lashes finally separate, and he’s left blinking wildly into the dimly lit room that still manages to burn at his sensitive pupils.

How long has he been out?

What has he done to himself?

Realization slams heavy into his chest like a physical pressure. For now, he doesn’t remember the fall. He doesn’t remember the sudden, glorious pleasure of becoming what he’d long been persuaded to be.

But.

He remembers the desperate clasp of fingers on his side. Tangled in his shirt. The overwhelming echo of being seen - properly - for the first time. The way the man stood frozen, unwilling to trust himself to envelope him even though he’d spent so long crafting a moment such as this that would permit exactly that reaction.

He remembers how, in what was a rare moment of honesty between them, he could not bring himself to look down upon the one thing he’s coveted for years. How Will’s breath felt like fire in his lungs, his legs crumbling stone.

How he had looked, then. How they’d both looked at each other. And in that moment, how his body had swelled with violent adoration for the monster they’d created together.

Then nothing. He remembers nothing else. Not yet.

Then beeping and stale air and that damned taste of ascorbic acid that the nurses must have used to mask his unclean breath.

After a moment, he becomes aware of the woman. Whether it is because he can’t move his neck or because he simply won’t, his gaze doesn’t shift to land on her. She is walking casually into the room before she stops, so abruptly that from the blur in his periphery she could have slammed herself into an invisible wall.

Something in him remembers that he should feel wanting for this woman. Or compassion. At the very least, bone deep regret. That he should appreciate the silent vigil she’s apparently kept over him, for however long he’s been here. That his awareness should be that his wife is looking upon him for the first time in - how long have I been out? Hours? Days?   He should feel some flicker of companionship as he notices the way she is caught off guard by the gravity of knowing he is conscious once again, shed of the persistent worry that she may only ever see him as this shell of a body, connected forever to machines.

Instead, what registers in him is no more than a primal disinterest. His awareness of her is as a fleeting calculation of the intention underlying the motion that he caught in his periphery. A lizard-brain alertness that need only process the movement for its potential threat. He knows in an instant that he is safe and his consideration of his wife stops there.

He is safe.

It is this realization that opens his mind up to his memories. It is this realization that breaks him.

Remembering comes in floods, as it often does, with little regard for linearity or reality. He feels the powerful hand on his side, the stillness of the other man’s body as he waits. The quiet exhale when Will finally, after taking years to decide his next action, leans in. He feels more than remembers the overwhelming knowledge that in their zero-sum game, this is a Perfect Moment. An instant where neither feel owed a debt or controlled by the other. He remembers the exhale, the nuzzle of the man - Hannibal - resting his chin on the top of Will’s face. He feels the certainty of that moment, and the incoherent compulsion to destroy it so that nothing can take it away from them.

He remembers the fall.

Then nothing, again. Molly’s voice pulls him out of his mind and brings him back into this moment, with all its consequences. Whatever she says doesn't register, becomes more noise to surround himself with.

This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. He knows that he didn’t have a plan in so much as a need. This isn’t what was supposed to result. The beginnings of panic scrape at his chest, making it hard to breath.

It spreads like acid across his chest, into his stomach. Mixed with the panic - the knowledge that every second, every moment now is wrong opens up inside him. He is struck with the image of a black hole taking hold in the center of his chest, ravenous in its need to destroy.

He must look frantic because the gratitude painted on Molly’s face for finding Will awake is wiped clean with uncertainty. She is at his side, hovering, caught in indecision of whether to try to comfort him or run for help.

His blankets are too tight, the IV too invasive, the clamp on his finger too strong, the normally quiet sounds in his private room a sudden cacophony. Everything feels too much. He is scrambling. To remove himself from it all. It’s a panic with no purpose, and he knows he is terrifying, because his stubborn, resolute warrior of a wife is a blur as she whips out of the room looking for help.

At the edges of his mind is an insanity fueled by loss that has no other goal but to physically manifest. He tries to take a breath, but the air gets caught, blocked from his lungs by the swirling blackness that has now anchored firmly in his guts.

What comes out is low at first, a rumbling protest of a noise that Will doesn’t so much hear himself make as he feels its vibration throughout his body. He knows that the black hole licking at his viscera is a poison that will stay in his cells long after the panic subsides. He struggles, dimly aware of the pain radiating from across his body, the growl growing as he thinks for a moment that he can fight back the sucking emptiness welling within him.

He remembers.

Time ticks backwards. The descent defies physics. His ability to take in so much sensory information, grow old considering future opportunities, feel whole and unhinged in what must have been seconds stands as a testament to the absurdity of time. The shock of the water, its treacherous cold hitting them as profoundly as the impact, both sensations feeling more solid than if they’d smashed into concrete.

His last memory, Hannibal’s face. Amongst the chaos of the water, a point of absolute calm. Of reflected acceptance and serene approval of their conjoined deaths.

The air chokes him and he screams in earnest then. At first a growl, soon replaced with a wail so loud, so thick with longing that for just an instant, the busy ward falls silent. It is the sound of the pain of untangling; of separation from what, for such a brief instant, had been a righteous mutation of two men into an unknown thing so much more than the sum of its parts. Without needing to understand, the importance of his vocalization makes the attendants on the ward pause. A shared acknowledgment ripples through the halls, joining them together however briefly, as they bare witness to a grief so vast, several will find themselves woken by its echos years later.

 

---

 

The morning wakes him up with its sticky warmth, a sign of summer’s oppressive approach. The air feels stale around him. Will lays motionless, staring at the fine crack in the ceiling, blinking slowly to match the honey-slow pace of his thoughts.

If he were being honest with himself, there aren’t many thoughts left after the whiskey does its trick. His mind is haunted by memory snapshots rather than cinematic technicolour and that suits him just fine. He’s spent the last five weeks building up a healthy tolerance, but Will works diligently against his own body to push down his sobriety.

To be coherent in his mind is so dangerous a concept that even Molly acquiesces his self-medicating. Passively, of course; she is too righteous in her morality to buy him the booze. But she also hasn’t mentioned when the bills in her purse disappear, or even - God, who is he that he did this - when she and Wally spend the better part of an afternoon searching in vain for his Florida Marlin’s piggy bank.

 

---

 

The days in the hospital slipped by, in part because of Will’s uncharacteristic insistence on keeping his morphine drip as high as the ward staff would indulge him. Jack visited him not 12 hours after he regained consciousness. There was no need to play groggy and uncertain about the events by that time; he found the fog of the sedatives they’d allowed him could cut the edge from the all consuming ache he’d previously felt, and so he’d raged enough that they’d finally relented and upped the dose. He sat now in a paralyzed, whole-body numbness. Jack’s words come out in warbled snippets.

We searched for days but...

… had been a lot of blood.

… we need to talk...

… prints by Dolarhyde’s body.

We need to talk about what happens next, and...

We need to talk about Hannibal.

Hearing his name had pierced through the drugged veil. In response, Will retreated so thoroughly into himself that when he came to again, Jack was gone. Molly lay sleeping on the recliner, dressed in clothes Will was certain she hadn’t been wearing before. Time had been playing tricks with him again, but he gave it attention only as it related to when he could re-up his dose. What did it matter, beyond that. He lay there for some time, watching her with detached disinterest before he too fell asleep again.

 

---

 

His walks start out timidly, an hour or two into the forest under the pretense of clearing his head. The mood is unarguably lighter each time he slinks back to the house, and so he takes it as his cue to keep leaving. It becomes his ritual to first spend his days in the boat house, amongst his tools but too preoccupied with maintaining his insobriety to be of any use, and then to quietly retreat into the wildlife after dinner. Sometimes the dogs come, and that feels right. A man and his pack, wandering. Unanchored. Drifting. Sometimes, by the time the light fades, he is too drunk to feel anything at all.

It was nearly two months out when he thinks he sees him, standing on the deck of a boat anchored about 200 feet off shore. That he can focus on anything at all crosses his mind as decidedly odd. But Will is so desperate for the sight of Hannibal that he believes it, without reservation.

The light on the water is fading, but it’s enough for him. Will slips out of his shoes, then undresses to his boxers before wading in. At first, he is cautious and the dogs jump in thinking he’s decided to play. But when the man on the boat doesn’t react to the sight of him entering the water, he is gripped with the need to move.

Within 40 feet, he realizes he’s made a terrible miscalculation. The whiskey sloshes in his belly, its weight pulling at his limbs. He is caught up in memories he still cannot claim with certainty as his own: gasping desperately for cold air only to gulp more of the frigid water. The chaotic frenzy of the waves he is making working against his natural buoyancy. The sudden awareness that he is alone. He doesn’t remember after the fall, but that doesn’t stop visions of what must have happened from flooding his mind.

His lack of focus has caught him off-guard, and he finds himself painfully aware that he will not make it to the boat. The silhouette of a man on the deck remains, unmoving, as Will sputters in place. There is a magnetism drawing him towards the boat, but ultimately self-preservation wins over as Will makes the decision to turn back.

Everything is tilting, rarely staying in focus for more than a few seconds before shifting nauseatingly in random directions. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to return close enough to water’s edge to touch bottom. Exhausted, Will drags himself out of the water and collapses on the pebbly shore, surrounded by the distinct smell of wet fur.

When he regains enough energy to move again, night has descended enough that the boat - if it was even still there - is masked against the backdrop of the sky.

 

---

 

Despite Molly’s attempts to delay it, Will finally finds himself back at Quantico for the official debrief. Agents had come, multiple times, to their home, but it was too early in his recovery for him to remember anything beyond what Molly relays to him.

He suspects she has filled in a great many of the details for him. Whether they are details he himself has shared during flashes of consciousness, or whether they are her own creation, he cannot say. What matters is the lie they have built up seems plausible, provided Jack and the others are willing to entertain it. He gives little thought to what would happen if they did not.

The meeting feels too much like an interrogation, and Will immediately regrets not stashing a flask in his coat pocket before coming in. But despite the way Jack pushes, he realizes quickly that they believe him. Be it because the evidence allows it or because Jack’s guilt for creating in Will a mind capable of such destruction is too all-consuming, it doesn’t matter.

Dolarhyde is dead.

Hannibal is missing.

Will’s role was… complicated. But not so much so that they can’t willfully believe a scenario that lets it be complicated within the realms of self-defense.

There is no mention of the tape. For that, he is grateful.

When he leaves, he tells Jack in no uncertain terms, never to contact him again.

 

---

 

It was three months in when Molly found her limit. She had just let the dogs back into the house, when she saw Will crash through the thick brush that edged their property, catching himself against his own momentum. He had been gone for nearly 36 hours at that point. She took a deep breath, then called up her final goodnight to Wally before she closed both the main and screen doors behind her. A signal that their home was no longer a safe and open space for her husband to return to.

She was two steps in to going to him, before she gave up and sat herself on the top step of the porch. She waited for him to come to her.

She studied him as he approached. He was covered in sweat, his clothes were filthy, and wrinkled, and damp. His bare arms were covered in scratches, and she could see rogue twigs and leaves stuck to his hair and back.

He didn’t look at her, didn’t seem to notice her as he came nearer. Nevertheless, when he reached the porch, he sunk into the lower step, inches from her. After a moment, he tentatively wrapped his dirty arms around her waist and buried his face into her lap. She didn’t hesitate to tangle her hands in his hair. She felt his breathe release. She let him sob quietly while she picked pieces of the forest out of his curls.

It was some time after he’d quieted that she spoke, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Silence. She didn’t expect him to answer. Her tone had been too bitter to invite a response. She took the time to compose herself and try again, “You cannot come back here if you intend to spend the rest of your days in this haze.”

“I know.” his voice was rough and quiet. His hand slipped from her waist, resting on the worn wood of the porch.

“You’ve stopped drinking.” It wasn’t a question. She’d noticed a day before he’d taken off. The overworked heartbeat should have settled by now if it was only due to his race through the forest. The dying warmth from the day wouldn’t be responsible for the heat still radiating off his chest.

For a moment, she wasn’t sure she could allow herself to say anymore. Wasn’t willing to invite his next answer. But it was too late for holding back. “Are you willing to come back?”

To me.

To us.

From him.

His response came sooner than she’d expected, as though the question had forcibly pushed Will into motion. He pulled himself up, off of her and looked her in the eye for the first time since coming home. “That has never been a decision I had full control over.”

A beat.

“But I can try.”

 

---

 

Weeks slip by, the oppressive heat of the summer fades into fall, and then into the comfortable chill of early winter. At first, his attempts to reconnect with his wife and Wally feel woefully inadequate. For months, he considers how far away someone can drift while still sharing the mundane physicality of their lives together.

He shouldn’t, but he finds the separation fascinating, from a purely empathetic perspective. Where once he spent years building walls to keep other’s feelings distinct from his own, this is the first time he’s watched as he passively unravels from anyone, let alone those he knew so intimately as Molly and Walt. He is unlearning them in a way that he didn’t know he was capable.

If Molly notices, she refuses to give their growing unfamiliarity life by discussing it. Will is physically present, and he is - for the most part - sober. He is leaving the house, and has started back working with his hands, consistently bringing in a small but needed income repairing engines. For now, she thinks, that is enough. She will not let anger cloud her evaluations of what she can only hope is progress. She refuses to believe it is anything else.

One evening, Will watches as she plays joyfully with the new stray Wally had found earlier that week. The ease by which she accommodates the slightly aggressive, possibly abused newcomer into their home is not lost on him. When he allows himself to reflect, he finds that quality in her sparks resentment where once it felt like safety.

But still, he stays. If not because of love, then because he promised he would try. And to acknowledge that he cannot is to admit one of two, equally unappealing realizations. One, that he is broken. Or two, that he is only waiting. For a fleeting moment, Will finds himself desperately hoping - for their sake - that he is simply unfixable. Permanently damaged.

 

---

 

It is fully spring now, the last of the snow gone sludgy with muck and fumes and melted back into the earth. The sky is grey and charged, as it has been all week. The string of storms have been disappointingly short, with showers never lasting long enough to diffuse the electricity in the air. Will has been shocking himself against the dogs for days, to the point where the littlest one approaches him with clear mixed emotions - eager for the attention and wary of the inevitable zaps.

Hannibal is there.

Will knows it in the way that he knows hunger, or exhaustion. It is a primal knowledge that borders on instinct. There is nothing he is more certain of than his knowledge of what he will find when he walks in the door.

So he doesn’t.

He sits for a long time with the car idling in the driveway, waiting. His heart is too steady, it’s beat too regular for what he knows he has come to bare witness to. There was a time where this was home for enough of him that it felt genuine. He found solace that was deserved and, in his most open moments, welcomed. Molly doesn’t deserve this. Wally. He doesn’t deserve this.

He waits minutes longer. But his heart refuses the frenzy. He has lost himself too fully to feel the loss of anyone else.

Finally, when there is no use in waiting longer, he cuts the engine and steps out. As if from a distance, he watches himself collect the paper bags, opens the back door wide to let Buster run free into the yard. He doesn’t bother to lock the car. He watches himself walk, steady, back straight, up the stairs to the door.

If precognition were real, it would be this moment. It would be blood over cabinets and across couches and over wood panels. It would be viscera and savagery and sickly heat sweating the windows of the main floor. It would be the detritus of his family ripped beyond recognition. A revenge for him returning to them. A tribute that would enable him to finally leave.

He sees it so surely that it is the absolute banality of the scene that is what finally makes him lose his breath, makes him stagger and drop the bags of groceries.

There is no carnage. There is no one. No dogs, no adoptive family. There is nothing but a note, hastily scrawled on a sticky yellow sheet, stuck crooked to the cabinet door. Gone fishin , complete in its sincere lack of a final g.  

The whiskey is in his hand before he knows he’s moved. The burn of it feels like hedonism disguising itself as penitence. His reaction to the fantasy. The way he knew opening the door to the utter destruction of his former life would feel more absolutely right than anything has felt since he fell. The way he feels unsupported now, as though the ground was actually giving way beneath him. If it were, he’d let it take him, dead via sinkhole, sucked mightily into the clutch of the earth. There is no way to drown out the incongruity of his desire to be rid of it all with his unwillingness to leave.

And so he drinks. He’s halfway to denying the relief he’d imagined to coming home with their fates forcibly disconnected from his influence. The air inside feels oppressive, and there is energy buzzing the hairs upright on his forearms. He steps around the crusting splash of a broken pasta jar and the pooled orange juice, and moves back outside, into the charged air.

Nothing registers of outside beyond the sight of him there, healthy and poised, and a little breathless. He stares unflinchingly, and narrows on the flickering dance of Hannibal’s gaze:

Eye, eye, mouth.

It is a cautious looping that stirs in Will a re-enactment of wanting. Hannibal doesn’t let his longing tense the muscles of his body, but the pattern of his gaze betrays him for long enough to launch an empathetic reaction in Will that he is too buzzed to defend himself against, even if he wanted to. He doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t. He is pulled out of the house by the sight of him, the door slamming shut before his brain can register the meaning of what he sees before him.

It is too much. It is exactly enough. He sets down his glass on the arm of the deck chair and wants to turn away, maybe to gather some distance between himself and reality. But the draw of him - here - won’t let him deviate course and he cannot help but move so that he is now standing so close. A fist-width apart. He hasn’t been able to look away from his face, the way his lips part just slightly, how his eyes squint as though bracing for impact. Will’s own tongue slips out against the edge of his lip involuntarily.

Slowly, the cacophony of everyday life fades back in. The air slithers in with the smell of evergreen and the electricity of fingers wrapping around live wires. Will closes his eyes, selfishly shutting out the man in front of him, and desperately tries to grasp onto the familiarity brought upon by his other senses. The buzzing of the insects, the crisp air prickling against his face. He tries to hide himself away from the sudden betrayal of his racing heart by focusing on the sounds, smells, feelings from the domestic life he had never thought he’d return to. But despite how immediate his need is to cling to his quiet life here, the reality is that the past year has been nothing more than a haunting. The reality is that there is nothing that feels more like home than when he is with him.

His head tilts forward, resting heavy against Hannibal’s chest. Against his cheek, he feels how shaky the man’s breath comes out on the ensuing exhale. He wasn’t sure about how I would react, either. The realization feels like an admission of fallibility in a man he’d caught himself in dark moments considering a demigod. This peak into his uncertainty blankets him with comfort, makes him brave enough to open his eyes again.

Looking down, he latches on, secures himself firmly into the present moment, the rush of his blood making his vision pulse at the edges. His fingers move forward and entangle in Hannibal’s own. His only thought is that this feeling - the drag of Hannibal’s cool, dry fingers against the sensitive skin between his own calloused pads - is proof that they are both alive. He cannot hold back the quiet noise of disbelief he makes at the realization.

It’s only moments when he weaves their fingers together, more confidently, and lifts himself off of Hannibal’s chest. He pulls them away from the house, leading down the porch stairs. As their boots hit the firm ground, they stand with their shoulders brushing together. Hannibal’s grip on Will’s hand tightens briefly before he gently tugs Will toward the dock, and the waiting boat. Onward.