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Gentler Means

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Will did not immediately open his eyes as the weight of consciousness descended on him once more. He first became aware of the ache in the lower-right quadrant of his abdomen, dulled into a pulling, chronic pain by what was likely a steady drip of morphine. Through his closed lids, he recognized bright lights, and his fingers twitched once against the stiff hospital bed sheets. Regardless of Will’s feelings on the matter, it seemed the gods of vengeance had chosen to deliver their latest champion from death at the hands of Mason Verger’s henchmen.

The vetiver note of a musky aftershave, turned stale by a splash of cheap coffee, informed Will he had not quite evaded danger yet. He considered keeping his eyes closed until Jack Crawford carried that distinct melange of fragrances away with him. It would have been too simple to spare Will the courtesy of waiting until he was no longer in a hospital gown to interrogate him. Blue eyes opened and closed again in a slow motion blink as the fluorescent lights made Will squint. Jack was hunched over in the chair staring at his phone with a vacant gaze; Bella waited for him, and he waited for Will.

Will opened his mouth to speak, but his dry tongue and throat prompted a hollow cough instead. Jack’s eyes snapped up at the sound.

“Will.”

He spoke as though Will was an unnamed creature until Jack bestowed the title upon him.

The pain in Will’s side twisted from a deeper place-- the effects of some form of surgery, he guessed-- as he reached for the water on his bedside table. The water was room temperature but soothed his raw throat all the same. Jack’s patience for Will’s convalescence only extended long enough for Will to take two sips, then fall back against his pillows, breath puffing out in a pant.

“Will,” Jack repeated in a friendlier tone, maybe remembering Will was not the one who had jammed him between his wife and his work. He almost smiled as he asked, “How are you feeling?”

Will frowned and huffed out a noise that he hoped would convey the ludicrousness of that particular question, and Jack did smile then. A moment of quiet passed between them, Jack’s lips turned up and Will’s furrowed brow conveying his exasperation with the entire situation. It almost felt easy.

Crawford broke the silence, “Gave us a scare. Wanna tell me what happened?”

The word no was right behind Will’s teeth, but the futility of his protest seemed petulant, particularly when he knew Hannibal had likely been subjected to the same treatment already. Anything Will said now would be held alongside Hannibal’s statement so the two might be compared at a molecular level. Hannibal was alive-- Will knew he was alive-- but the question still came to his lips: “Hannibal?”

A nod from Jack relaxed the claw wrapped around Will’s heart-- a vise he didn’t know it’d been trapped in.

“He’s fine,” Jack affirmed. He hesitated to continue, and his next words were delivered to the tiled floor: “Miraculously intact.”

Will wished he could blame the wave of nausea rising in his stomach on the morphine. He remained silent, forcing Jack to repeat his earlier question.

“Tell me what happened, Will.”

Exhaustion anchored Will like quicksand, and for a split second, the truth appeared as an almost elegant lifeline tossed into the muck: Three flunkies attacked us in our sleep. I don’t know what they wanted or why. We killed them before they could kill us. Officer Babyface should’ve waited for backup, and he shouldn’t have pulled a gun he wasn’t prepared to use. It would be so simple. Will would probably get off with self-defense; Hannibal would be tried for the murder of a police officer-- one victim too many. If it ever surfaced that Will essentially told Hannibal to shoot, it would be of no consequence when it came time to press charges. Hannibal would serve some portion of the years and years of prison time he rightfully deserved, and Will would live the rest of his life in numb, moral tediousness as penance for his sins thus far.

Will’s stomach churned at the thought of the pain that would follow severing the shared blood and flesh between him and Hannibal. Carving into Hannibal because of remnants of misplaced spite was the same as turning the blade onto himself.

“It happened fast,” Will answered blandly. “We were asleep.”

Through the fog of medication, pain, weariness, and worry, Will attempted to measure his words.

“A man pulled me out of bed with a rope around my neck, Jack. What would you have done?”

Jack leaned back in the chair from his hunched position and half-shrugged.

“What you did,” Jack responded, then added knowingly, “more or less.”

Will assumed he was referring to the broken arm.

“One of the first two had a gun, and two shots went off, but nobody was hit,” Will continued. “Hannibal was bleeding--I think he was stabbed-- and another man came in--”

“Carlo Deogracias,” Jack supplied.

“Carlo was the one who shot me. Then, he took Hannibal with him. I followed them and…,” Will’s voice broke off.

He could feel flesh give under an imagined knife in his hand and feel the spill of hot blood. As Will grasped for the right words, Jack looked at him sympathetically, oblivious to what had caused the man in the hospital bed to stumble. Will swallowed hard.

“I heard yelling. Saw a flashlight. I stabbed Carlo, but...he fired. I don’t know what happened after that.”

Will looked at the wall across from him blankly. He had never recognized how similar shock and reverie might appear to an outsider.

“What was Hannibal doing during the struggle?”

Will’s eyes flashed to the agent in the hospital chair.

“He had a gun on him, Jack. He couldn’t do anything.”

Jack’s gaze and voice were equally steady as he replied, “How did he come into possession of Carlo Deogracias’s gun?”

“Hannibal tried to help me disarm him.”

“Before or after you stabbed Carlo in the throat?”

Will combated the compulsion to bare his teeth as he snapped, “What are you getting at?”

“I’m just trying to figure this out, Will,” Jack offered with a show of his hands.

Will kept his eyes locked on the other man’s.

“Don’t lie to me, Jack.”

For many tense seconds, Will couldn’t tell if he’d overplayed his hand as a long-suffering, semi-official agent hurt by his boss’s lack of faith. Then, Jack sighed, and the thick tendons in his neck relaxed.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I’m going to be honest, Will, they don’t cast Dr. Lecter in a very favorable light.”

An authentic scowl twisted Will’s features.

Jack leaned forward again so that his elbow’s rested against his knees, and he clasped his hands together. Will imagined Jack thought he looked terribly understanding in that position.

“Listen, there’s no easy way to say this. We don’t always see things clearly when it comes to the people we care about. I’ve made mistakes with Bella…,” Jack trailed off, then shook his head. “Just ask yourself the questions I’m asking: Why would three thugs-for-hire try to kidnap Hannibal Lecter? How does Hannibal end up holding a former mafia member’s gun? How the hell does a psychiatrist walk away from an ambush with a handful of stitches while one of my agents got shot?”

Will refrained from commenting on how he was one of Jack’s agents only when it served to fuel the flames of righteous indignation. Instead, he looked at his lap and counted to fifteen. Then, he solemnly responded, “My eyes are wide open, Jack.”

“Just promise me you’ll keep them that way,” the man in the chair insisted.

Will nodded and said, “I will.”

Jack stood at Will’s words and approached the bed. He placed a heavy hand on Will’s shoulder and squeezed once, not too hard.

“You see anything at all, Will-- call me. We’ll talk again soon.”

Jack shot him a half-hearted smile and turned from Will’s bed without waiting for a response. Jack Crawford’s heavy footsteps departing Will’s hospital room were better than any opera the Baltimore symphony could offer. A second person’s footsteps joined Jack’s just beyond the half-open door, and Will realized an agent had been stationed there. Will wasn’t spry enough to be going anywhere in his current state, so he surmised it was more likely the officer had been given the order to keep people-- Hannibal-- out, not to keep Will trapped inside. It was a prickly, itchy thought that Jack Crawford believed he had the power to impede Hannibal Lecter’s journey through the world in any capacity.

Will closed his eyes and laid back against his pillows. He only rested for what felt like a few minutes before he sensed he was no longer alone.

He spoke without looking: “Do you practice skulking?”

An exhale that only sounded like a laugh to Will’s ears confirmed Hannibal’s presence. At the breath, Will couldn’t help but turn his head and find the source of the sound.

“I choose to preserve a dash of mystery,” Hannibal answered, the lines of his face sharpened under the harsh lights.

Hannibal had, at some point, gotten a pair of dark slacks and a beige v-neck sweater that looked blanket-soft. The man continued his path to Will and lifted the chair Jack had sat in shortly before to reposition it directly next to Will’s bedside. Will shifted to prop himself up but grimaced as the movement strained the wound he still had not seen. The expression wasn’t missed judging by how swiftly Hannibal moved to hover over Will’s bed, one hand catching Will in the center of the back to add support and the other adjusting the pillows.

“I’m fine,” Will assured, withholding the hint of sourness he felt at being a patient yet again.

“You’ve been divested of your appendix,” Hannibal impassively noted.

Will’s mouth opened and a flat “Oh” fell out. He processed this new piece of information as Hannibal checked his vitals on the monitor adjacent to the bed. The doctor moved the blankets down to Will’s hips and lifted the flimsy hospital gown to examine his wound before the younger man could object. Will allowed himself to be looked over; Hannibal didn’t need to be informed of how familiar, and comforting, Will found the graze of his deft fingers.

“Any other internal organs go AWOL?” Will asked as Hannibal tucked the blankets up around Will’s chest again and took a seat in the bedside chair.

“Two broken ribs and an impressive black eye,” Hannibal recounted. “But all other organs are accounted for.”

“Win some, lose some,” Will replied. “My dogs?”

“Tended to,” Hannibal simply answered, and Will had neither the energy nor the patience to try to determine what exactly that meant.

From the chair, Hannibal watched Will intently, sloping cheekbones and a strong jaw forming the canvas for his dark eyes. The stillness of his features gave the impression he was both absent and painfully present; it wasn’t dissimilar to the face he turned to Miles when the young man had carelessly put his hands on Hannibal. In contrast to the jagged contours of his countenance, Hannibal’s hands were in constant, gentle motion: His left stretched up to lay just above Will’s head, the fingertips stroking lightly through the tops of his curls, and the right grasped Will’s blanket-wrapped thigh, rubbing circles on top of the fabric. Will couldn’t ascertain by observation alone if Hannibal wanted to devour him or scoop him into his arms, blankets and all; worryingly, he suspected Hannibal might not quite know what he wanted, either.

Tentatively, Will cast out a line.

“Jack was here.”

Hannibal’s face remained dark, and his hands continued their soothing movements. His eyes focused on the tubes running from Will’s body.

“He and I spoke briefly. I gather our friendship has reached its natural conclusion.”

A tired hum served as Will’s assent.

“Was it already dead when he put a guard outside my door?”

The light warmed Hannibal’s eyes to a deep amber as he met Will’s waiting gaze and replied in a thick voice, “Loyalty is held as a near-holy trait. Society demands constancy. I would not fault Jack Crawford for the instinct, only its execution.”

Will blinked slowly, too tired to choose a lure with finesse.

“The execution is as much a cloistered monk as it is a bullet through an officer’s chest,” he remarked with the ghost of a sardonic smile cast toward the man in the chair. “Jack thinks he’s uncovering you. He wants me to help him.”

Hannibal’s expression didn’t change as he asked, “Is this when I demand your oath of loyalty, Will?”

Sighing, Will replied, “I question if anything short of fanaticism would satisfy you.”

“Then you believe me fated to find you wanting,” Hannibal responded, expression falling into neutral blankness-- a slate upon which someone other than Will would have projected a polite, if not pleasant, reaction by the doctor. “We might still share a temple-- adherents of the same religion.”

“Bound by dogma?” Will scanned Hannibal’s eyes for signs of warning, but he found none.

“One of our own choosing,” Hannibal answered, voice warmer than his eyes.

Will parsed Hannibal’s words absently, the morphine keeping them at arm’s length. He wanted to believe Hannibal’s idea of their shared religion was one of violence, but the comfort of fingertips keeping a steady rhythm in Will’s hair and against his thigh made a convincing case otherwise. Will didn’t give his mind the space to put a name to their common god.

Will’s gaze rose to watch the digital fluctuations in his vital signs-- his entire existence reduced to numbers.

“I’m tired.”

“Rightfully so.”

Will looked back at Hannibal. He seemed almost human now.

“When can I leave?”

A smile crossed Hannibal’s face, and Will’s fingers itched with the desire to reach out and run along the crooked lines of his mouth. It took him a few seconds to realize they were doing just that; Hannibal leaned into his hand as it paused.

“For a moment, I thought perhaps time had, at last, reversed and returned us to another afternoon when I stood by your hospital bed. It was a disconcerting notion.”

Hannibal did not speak for a long moment, his eyes cast downward, but then he seemed to return to himself all at once, pulling back his hands and sitting upright in his chair.

Meeting Will’s eyes, he said matter-of-factly, “Your encephalitis treatment compromised your immune system, to say nothing of the disease itself. This causes increased concern for infection and proper healing.”

Will shifted against his pillows; he hid the frown that threatened to appear at the stab of pain behind his incision.

“That doesn’t sound promising, Doctor Lecter,” he criticized in the closest thing to a teasing tone he could muster.

“I would expect at least a week. Long enough for you and the nurses to tire of one another, yet brief enough to avoid further bloodshed.”

An unexpected laugh bubbled from Will’s throat at the comment, and Hannibal’s eyes glimmered.

“I doubt I have much left to spare,” Will dryly remarked.

In the span of a second, Hannibal’s mouth closed and his jaw twitched as it tightened; then, he relaxed his face back to the good-natured mask he had worn just a moment before. Will caught the subtle changes and latched onto them.

“You’re upset,” Will concluded.

It was laughable how basic yet shattering the phrase was. Will supposed the most catastrophic messages imaginable could be distilled to such a statement:

The psychological assessment did not find you appropriately stable for further participation in the application process.

I got a friend in Michigan needin’ a hand. Nothing in Louisiana for us anymore.

The injury renders patrol work within the city unnecessarily dangerous.

Hannibal Lecter is upset.

The sun is dying.

Disturbingly, Hannibal did not deny Will’s claim.

“After the officer at your door turned me away, I went home. I scrubbed your blood from my rug.”

Will’s voice dropped but didn’t turn cold: “Did it bother you more that it was mine or that it wasn’t Mason Verger’s?”

Hannibal nonchalantly replied, “Those thoughts run parallel.”

Will sensed a tugging at the line he had cast earlier. If Hannibal seemed removed-- closed from Will’s view-- it was because a not insubstantial portion of his mind was stalking the halls of the Verger estate while the remainder wanted nothing more than to sink its fangs so deeply into Will Graham that he could not move beyond Hannibal’s reach again. The threat intrinsic to Hannibal’s nature was not the prospect that he would lose control but that he would intentionally choose cruelty over discretion.

“Mason views others as either assets or problems; he solves his problems by crushing them and feeding them to his pigs. He has no desire to interact with a world that doesn’t bend to his whims,” Hannibal explained, still detached.

“Mason Verger sent his men for you in hopes you would bring Margot back to him,” Will said weakly, a slur tinging the edges of his words.

Hannibal agreed with Will’s assessment of Mason’s motives in a typically opaque fashion: “His father gifted him an empire, and he made it his prison.”

Will’s limbs felt heavy in his mounting exhaustion, but he couldn’t fall back into the blackness of a narcotic sleep until Hannibal understood Will didn’t need Mason’s flesh-- at least not yet. If he’d been anywhere other than a hospital bed with a dozen staples in his side, he might have wrapped his fingers in Hannibal’s sweater and pulled him until their noses touched; he might have snapped and snarled that Mason Verger could wait; he might have pressed his own angry, hungry mouth to the other man’s to remind them both they were not alone in the world anymore. Mason Verger was anchored to a plot of land by herds of swine and rumbling machinery bearing his name; they would always know where to find him.

But Will couldn’t sit upright without flinching, and his words were beginning to stumble over one another, so he offered what he could and prayed to their shared god that Hannibal understood.

“If we stare at the bars too long, we risk forgetting which side of them we’re standing on,” he murmured as his eyes closed. Will was more asleep than awake when he made his point: “Tell me about Italy.”