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Separately to a Wood

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Will took another bite of the eggs and sausage. “It’s good. Thanks.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” Hannibal let his fork rest against the edge of his bowl. “Will … I have a question for you.”

“Yeah?”

“What would you say if I asked you to marry me?”

Will looked up, startled, and found himself staring into Hannibal’s eyes. He looked down at his eggs again. He wanted to believe it was an unkind joke, but it wasn’t. Hannibal wasn’t the type, and he looked too sincere for comfort. “I’d say you were nuts. And maybe drunk.”

“I am sober. Do I seem like a madman? You are uniquely qualified to judge.”

“You seemed sane enough until thirty seconds ago.”

Hannibal gave him a very faint smile. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“You haven’t actually asked it.”

“A fair point. Perhaps I should say that I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I met you, but I’m afraid that’s not true. The only other great attachment I felt came on me just as suddenly, and I was foolish enough to lose her. That was thirty years ago, and I’m not disposed to repeat the mistake. Would you marry me, Will?”

Will stared at him. “You can’t — this is crazy.”

“Perhaps. If your’e concerned about our financial arrangements, I’m happy to sign any prenuptial agreement you like.”

“Right. I’m worried about the money. That’s the issue here.”

“What then?”

“You can’t—“ You can’t do this. This is not what people do. But Will didn’t do what people did either. He took a gulp of the coffee Hannibal had brought. Like the eggs, it was excellent.

Hannibal rested his chin on his hand. His gaze was warm and just a little amused. “I would cook for you, of course. If that weighs more heavily with you than money.”

For a split second, Will let himself think about it: waking up to the smell of cooking, to someone else in the house. Someone waiting for him when he came home. It hurt more than he’d expected. “I’m not gay,” he said.

“We need not have sex. Although I would ask you to be faithful to me. As I would be to you.”

Will was staring at him again, helplessly, feeling abruptly cracked open. “I have seven dogs.”

Hannibal blinked once. “Unexpected. It would be impractical where I live now, but we can find another place. Or I can move in with you if you prefer.”

“I live in the middle of nowhere. My bed’s in my living room. There’s dog hair—“ He stopped. He was making excuses, not saying no. Trying to explain why Hannibal didn’t want him.

Hannibal sat across from him, patient, waiting.

“You’re serious,” Will said.

“I am.” Hannibal reached across the table and covered Will’s hand with his own.

Will’s heart thumped hard in his chest. “All right. Yes.”

Because Will couldn’t seem to look away from Hannibal’s face, he caught the fleeting expression of surprise and wonder that passed across it, there and gone in less than a second. Hannibal dropped his gaze to where his hand rested over Will’s. “Thank you,” he said.

The words were spoken softly, and they fell into the morning quiet. Will took in the feel of Hannibal’s palm curved over the back of his hand. For a minute, he didn’t think about the day ahead or the eight dead girls at all.

\*

It was easy to put the morning aside and concentrate on work. It was easy to pretend it hadn’t happened at all and, in fact, it seemed more and more likely that it hadn’t. Will went through files and considered, in the back of his mind, whether he might’ve had an extraordinarily vivid dream.

He was sorting through the D - F section of employee records when Hannibal appeared at his elbow. He’d been two filing cabinets down, working his way backward from Z.

“Find something?” Will asked.

Hannibal offered him a bottle of water.

“Oh. Thanks.” Between the dusty files and the overactive space heater, it was welcome. Hannibal watched him as he drank but he didn’t say a word. They both got back to work, and Will felt the day’s sense of unreality grow.

\*

Will stood outside the Hobbs house. Blood speckled his hands and face, sticky in places, dry and itchy in others. He couldn’t see clearly. It took him a long time to realize that the blood had gotten on his glasses too. He took them off.

Hannibal slipped past the mass of uniformed police officers in front of the house. He was wiping his hands on a towel as he walked. It was streaked in red. He handed it to Will, who held it numbly.

“They’ll be all right,” Hannibal said. “The wife and daughter. Mrs. Hobbs is being taken to the hospital, but the wounds her husband managed to inflict before you shot him were not deep.”

“Good. That’s good.” Will shook himself. He scrubbed the blood from his hands and forearms and found a clean corner to wipe at his face.

“You’ve missed a spot or seven,” Hannibal said.

He rubbed harder. “I have to find—“ Whoever was in charge of the scene. Jack was still deposed in court. It occurred to him that the local PD possibly thought he was in charge. He looked around at the milling crowd of police and paramedics. “Get in the car. I’ll drive you back to the motel.”

“I will drive if you don’t mind.”

Will looked at his outstretched hand for a few seconds and then dropped the keys into his palm. “You don’t seem too shaken up by this.”

“I was a surgeon in the ER at Johns Hopkins for more than a decade. I have seen a great deal of blood. And occasionally bloodshed.”

“Bloodshed?”

Hannibal opened the passenger’s side door for him. Will got in. They pulled out onto the road through a swirl of autumn leaves kicked up in the wind of the car’s passage.

“A stabbing in the waiting room. A shooting just outside the hospital. I saw only the aftermath of the shooting, but I was present for the stabbing.”

“And now you’re a shrink. Is that when you quit?” Will scrubbed at his face until his skin stung. He could still feel the blood.

“No. I killed a patient. Or that was how it felt. I could not save her.”

“It couldn’t have been the first time someone died on your table.” Will took a breath. “Sorry. That was — I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You are correct, of course. It was not the first time. But it was the last. My anatomy teacher in medical school was fond of a certain saying. Cooks cover their mistakes with sauces and architects cover them with ivy, but doctors cover our mistakes with dirt.”

Will thought of Hobbs lying on the living room floor, going paler and paler as his blood seeped into the carpet. “Is that better or worse than covering your successes with dirt?”

“Was Hobbs a success?”

“I killed the bad guy. Saved lives.” Will held the towel in his lap, twisted around his hands. It was damp and cold, and his fingertips felt nearly numb. The bloodstains stood out until they were all he could see. “Jack will approve.”

Hannibal didn’t reply. When they got back to the motel, he walked Will to his room. “You should shower and change. If you’ll lend me your key, I’ll bring you some coffee.”

Will had been thinking vaguely of just sitting in the bottom of the shower until the hot water ran out, which, in a motel, could take a while. Coffee did sound good. He looked down at Hannibal’s hand, held out once more for the key. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Marriage is a partnership. I’m sure you’ll do the same for me.”

Will rubbed at his eyes. “Bring you coffee after you kill someone?”

“Perhaps. One never knows what the future may bring.”

“You’re not still serious about that. Not after today.” Hannibal had been standing in the doorway. He’d watched Will pull the trigger. Nine times.

“I am. Now more than ever.” He touched Will’s arm. His hand was warm. “The key?”

Will dropped it into his palm and went inside to start the shower. He stood under the hot water, face turned up toward the spray. It didn’t take long to make coffee. Maybe Hannibal would be there when he got out, sitting at the table by the window. Waiting for him.

It got him out of the shower sooner than he’d planned. He hadn’t brought clothes in with him and didn’t really want to put anything he’d been wearing back on. Even his shoes had a few dots of blood on the toes.

He wrapped himself in a towel and stuck his head out into the bedroom. No one there. He looked for a second at the empty chair by the window and then went to his bag to get fresh clothes.

Hannibal let himself in as Will was pulling on a T-shirt. He carried a thermos of coffee and something wrapped in a white dish towel. He set it down on the table and unwrapped it to produce half a baguette, two kinds of cheese, a red pear, and a bunch of black grapes.

Will blinked at the spread for a second or two. He rubbed a hand through his damp hair. “I’m not really hungry.”

“You’ve had a shock. Food is often grounding.” Hannibal sat down and poured coffee for both of them. He had plates too. And a curved, wood-handled cheese knife.

Will sat down opposite him. He felt disconnected, like he was watching Hannibal slice cheese from a long way off. Like this might evolve into a nightmare at any second. Like the grapes would bleed when he bit into them.

He took one and peeled the skin back from the hole where it had been attached to the stem. The inside was as dark as the outside, the color of dark red wine, not blood. He popped it into his mouth and chewed.

“I presume there is no reason to stay here now,” Hannibal said. “I’ll make flight reservations for both of us, if I may?”

Will tore off a piece of bread. “Why are you doing this?”

Hannibal drew his thumb along the edge of the cheese knife. “Fear and desire motivate most of our decisions. We fear discomfort, hunger, pain, and so we work to acquire money in the hope that we can avoid these things. I knew when we first spoke that I desired you. When you left Jack’s office, I discovered that I also feared losing you. It seems logical to work to prevent that from happening if I can.”

“By bringing me cheese and grapes and making flight reservations?”

“I would cook for you anyway because I enjoy it, though this hardly counts as cooking.” Hannibal tilted his head slightly to the left. Sun fell across his face and bleached it white as bone. “As for the reservations, it seems the least that anyone might do for you after what you were forced to do today.”

Will swallowed and took another grape. “My job?”

“You are a consultant. A teacher. This was not your job.”

“I was supposed to find him. I found him.”

“Yes. You did. And now it’s time to go home.”

Will couldn’t think of anything he wanted more. He wanted to walk in the fields with his dogs. He wanted his mind to be quiet. Maybe then this day would start to make sense.

Jack probably wanted him to stay. Hobbs would’ve had a cabin somewhere. A private place where he could take the girls. Where he could take them apart. Will could see it already, a nest of antlers behind his eyes.

“Okay. Make the reservations.”

\*

Hannibal got them first class seats. “You know the FBI isn’t going to reimburse you for anything above coach, right?” Will said.

Hannibal settled into the window seat and raised the shade to look out at the tarmac. “We shall see.”

Fine. Let him fight it out with the Bureau. Will had made a brief, doomed attempt to downgrade his seat, but the flight was full. And he just didn’t care that much right now.

Hours later, past midnight, he unlocked his front door, poured himself a glass of whiskey, and went out to sit on the porch steps. His dogs ran through the grass and returned to him again and again, sniffing at his hands and shoes. Winston sat down next to him. Will rested a hand on his back and drank his whiskey.

“I said yes,” he told Winston. “Why the hell did I do that?”

Winston tilted his head and made a low whuff noise.

He’d said yes and he hadn’t yet told Hannibal he’d changed his mind. He wasn’t sure he had changed his mind. He hadn’t made it up to begin with. The agreement had been yanked out of him like a tooth. He couldn’t stop prodding at the hole it had left behind.

Hobbs had danced backwards as the bullets hit him. The knife had dropped from his hand. The girl, Abigail, had scrambled away from him, safe and whole. Will looked up at the stars and had a moment of vertigo, as if he might fall up into them. He ducked his head, sick with it, the enormous silence of the night pressing in on him.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out: Hannibal. Good night, Will.

He stared at the bright screen and then, slowly, texted back. did you get home ok?

Yes, thank you.

ok. goodnight.

Will finished off his whiskey, herded the dogs inside, and got ready for bed.