The nightmare is a jumble of impressions - blood and bone and fire, somewhere a scream, somewhere he is failing - and fades quickly when Will wakes. The only bit of it that clings is the wave. How it had crashed into him with too much force to withstand. How he’d gone to his knees, sputtering and choking, and been unable to stand again. Scrabbling for purchase on the wet sand had only driven him deeper, the beach somehow quicksand with the logic of a dream, the wave blinding and driving him under, raw down his throat, burning in his eyes, surrounding and overwhelming him utterly.
The salt on his lips when he wakes must be tears or sweat, but it tastes like the sea. When he tries to find sleep again, seagull cries keep him awake, miles inland. He watches the dogs sleep instead, timing his breathing to theirs to find a semblance of calm.
The riverbed is a comfortable place to lie down. Will rests peacefully on his back, feeling the cool currents run past and over him. A passing fish tickles at the back of his hand, but when he lifts his fingers it startles and darts away. He laughs at that and his laughter is bubbles, rushing up to the surface where they drift away.
Somewhere on the other side of that surface there is a world that doesn’t particularly interest him. He can see it, vaguely, colors and motion somewhere beyond the rippled water surface. If he holds still enough, the world won’t know he’s there, and he can stay.
He rests for a long, peaceful time until the glassy surface breaks, a hand reaching through it to pull him out. He isn’t fast enough; he’s caught and pulled. He thrashes and struggles but he’s out, out above the surface, into the air.
Will can’t breathe air.
His mouth works fruitlessly at the atmosphere, and his body burns with the need for water. He would scream, but apparently he can’t do that either. Dr. Lecter’s hand holds him firm and won’t let him return underwater. He watches Will thrash uselessly, almost expressionless, curious and little more.
Will drowns in open air, and wakes screaming.
No one takes notice. It’s a rare night in the cells of Dr. Chilton’s asylum that someone doesn’t wake up screaming.
He surfaces with a sputter, lungs and eyes burning. He tries to struggle up onto his elbows but they’re tied far too securely, it’s all he can do to keep his face above - water? Not water. Not with the smell of it, the way it stings in his eyes.
Of course. What would Hannibal do to his most cherished patient, but drown and roast him? He’ll be a particularly fine meal, bones and all honored. Hannibal will make sure there’s nothing left of him for anyone else to find or claim.
Will tries to laugh but it comes out a sob.
“Shhhh, darling boy.” Of course it’s Hannibal holding him down firmly with one hand on his chest, while the other hand holds the back of his neck to keep him up where he can breathe, for the moment. “Don’t fight this.” He sounds fond. He sounds happy. He’s always wanted this, hasn’t he?
“Don’t,” Will manages to say, and his throat feels scraped raw with the word. “Please don’t.”
“You’re going to be delicious,” Hannibal says, and it sounds like it’s meant to be a compliment. He slides his hand away from under Will’s neck and down Will goes, gasping at a single breath of air before he’s down under the surface again.
Hannibal reaches for him even under the surface, smooths his hair, strokes at his jaw, runs a gentle thumb over Will’s lips while he’s holding him under.
Will would bite, but he won’t give up the tiny amount of air remaining to him.
He burns, and writhes, and drowns as easily for Hannibal as any ortolan.
It’s not the first time since his release from the hospital that he’s woken up hard and wanting from a dream of Hannibal. It’s probably to be expected, given the nature of the game they’re playing and the lines he’s blurring.
It’s the first time he lets himself do anything about it, turning his face into the pillow as he slips his hand under the waistband of his underwear. It hardly takes anything, three or four strokes and the sound of Hannibal’s imagined voice calling him delicious .
He does not discuss the dream or its aftermath at his next therapy session, even though doing so would probably move him a long way toward his end game.
In Will’s hospital bed, night after night, he dreams morphine dreams - vivid and exhausting, nonsensical and painful.
He returns to the kitchen over and over. Sometimes he’s Hannibal, wielding the knife, and he wakes from those dreams hating himself for how much he understands about what Hannibal did. Sometimes he’s himself - slick with rain and blood and tears, his choices all made a beat too late, the knife in his gut so cold that he’s glad, for a moment, that Hannibal holds him. Hannibal is warm, and solid, and some confused part of him hasn’t caught up yet and still thinks Hannibal can make this better.
On this night, he’s Abigail. There’s no one to hold him close when the blade slices his throat, already warm and slick with blood. He tries to say some magic word that will change what’s already happened, but he can’t speak.
For the second time (the twentieth time, the fiftieth time, Will’s relived this before and will go on reliving it for a long time), Abigail Hobbs dies on a kitchen floor. Will lives it with her. He doesn’t wake up until a nurse shakes him awake to give him more medication, and even then, the water he washes the pills down with tastes salty-sharp, like Abigail drowning in her own blood.
Will moves to Maine once his part in Hannibal’s trial is done. It’s not far enough away, but the other side of the earth wouldn’t be far enough away. It’s enough. His dreams are quiet for a long time.
Eventually Hannibal’s letters find him again. He doesn’t read them, or ask who Hannibal got the address from. He doesn’t burn them, either. They go into the bottom drawer of his desk unopened.
Three nights after the first one arrives, the dreams start again.
They’re on a boat, they’re in Florence, they’re in Paris, they’re in Hannibal’s Baltimore office, they’re in Will’s classroom in Quantico. The specifics change. One of them is undressed, or the other is, or they both are. Sometimes Hannibal’s sorry. Sometimes Will is.
Eventually, almost every time, they kiss and can’t stop. The kisses get deeper, more frenzied, there’s panting or moaning and then Will can’t breathe at all, lungs burning for air that he can’t quite get. He never finds out whether he could break away from Hannibal to breathe if he wanted to, because he never tries. He just gives up everything he has to give, all his breath, all his self, until there’s nothing of him left and he drowns entirely in Hannibal’s bottomless need for him.
Some nights he wakes up in tears, some nights he wakes up aching, and some nights it’s both. He does what he has to do to get rid of the ache, and washes his hand, and goes blearily back to sleep. This is Will’s life now; doing what he has to do with what he has left, which isn’t much.
The pain is searing and so all-encompassing that Will can’t narrow it to any one thing. His chest, his legs, his head, his arm - every bit of it’s throbbing and he fights it off as best as he can. There was darkness, and quiet, and he just wants to swim back toward it.
Something won’t let him. There’s a thumping over his ribs, there’s a voice far away but growing closer, there’s light somewhere at the edges of his awareness.
Eventually, despite all his best efforts, he’s dragged unwillingly to consciousness and opens his eyes. His eyelids hurt.
Hannibal’s leaning over him. Hannibal looks as terrible as Will feels, but he lights up when Will cracks his eyes open.
It takes a minute to remember. There was blood. There was the ocean. There was…
“Are we dead?”
His voice is barely a whisper, cracked and raw, but Hannibal smiles to hear it. He touches the un-slashed side of Will’s face with a gentleness that rings a vague echo somewhere in Will’s mind, a shadow of a dream, maybe.
“I’m afraid not,” he says, and doesn’t remove his hand. It’s so warm, and the rest of Will is so cold. “It’s not your day to drown. Are you coming with me?”
He coughs and the cough moves things in his body that are unhappy being moved, and he lets out an entirely undignified noise. He’s so tired. He lets his eyes slip shut again before he says, “Yeah. I just...give me a minute.”
Will lies very still on the cold wet sand, and takes a minute to remember how it feels to breathe without drowning, buoyant and light, not sinking at all.
What are you waiting for
come home, come home, lost
in the waters, blue and permanent.
~Louise Gluck, “The Drowned Children”