Disturbing the Universe

Will wakes to the darkness of night pressing in on him.

Instinctively, he rolls to dangle his feet of the side of the bed and push himself to sitting. He sucks in a deep breath, pulls of his sweat-soaked shirt, and then holds it in one hand and realizes that it is, in fact, dry.

His hands are steady when he raises them to his face to rub at his eyes, then stops when he remembers that you’re not supposed to do that any more. Then he remembers that he’s a fugitive who’s barely been within six feet of any human being besides Hannibal for years, and rubs his eyes anyway.

He hadn’t had a nightmare, Will realizes.

He turns back towards the bed. Hannibal is gone. That isn’t all that unusual; Hannibal doesn’t have nightmares, as far as Will can tell, but he does have periods of wakefulness. Will has wondered, but not yet asked, if these periods of wakefulness were what would once have prompted him to get up and go dismember a body.

Now, Hannibal usually goes to read in the study. It’s slightly discomfiting to wake up without him there, but not as discomfiting as the occasional early morning that Will wakes to the sensation of being watched and turns to see Hannibal’s eyes glowing nearly red through the gloom, just observing him.

Will drags himself to the bathroom. He pisses and then washes his hands the way he’s always seen Hannibal do it before preparing dinner: the surgeon’s habit of cleaning nearly up to the elbows, carefully scrubbing between fingers, over the nails, around the thumb.

He isn’t sure why. It’s not like Hannibal had told him to. It’s not like there are any sick people, or people at all, out near their little house. He just does. He figures he should have been washing his hands thoroughly for his whole life, but small matters of life-threatening diseases and jail sentences and mind games with the FBI and death matches with serial killers had simply taken precedence.

No reason not to be hygienic, now that they’re safe.

He stumbles back to the bedroom, hoping that he hasn’t been awake long enough that wakefulness has caught him by the ears and will refuse to release him back to sleep. He’s about to fall back into bed, when he hears the soft metal snick of a baking sheet against the rack of the oven, and smells the warm earthy scent of baking.

There’s no clock in the bedroom, at Hannibal’s insistence: Will looks at the one hanging in the hall as he descends the stairs. Just past 2:30 in the morning. By the time he reaches the kitchen, he can’t help the smile that’s tugging at the corner of is mouth.

Hannibal is leaning over to turn the oven off, a batch of scones cooling on the rack on the counter.

“Lavender?” Will says, because Hannibal likes it when Will guesses his ingredients by scent, and the gentle floral fills the kitchen like a peaceful fog.

Hannibal just nods, and doesn’t meet Will’s eyes. He scrapes crumbs off the baking sheet, deposits it into the sink. Will sinks down into a stool at the island, and finally says, “You’re stress-baking.”

That gets Hannibal’s attention, his eyes glinting with affront and a tiny bit of amusement. “I am baking,” he corrects.

“At two-thirty in the morning.”

Hannibal sits down opposite him, but he doesn’t lose the slightly agitated sweep of his eyes across the kitchen or the way his fingers curl slightly in on each other.

He’s waiting, and Will knows it. He should correct Hannibal, some day, that Will can’t actually read his mind. He should make it clear at some point that it’s only fair to expect Hannibal to occasionally participate in the deconstruction of his own thoughts, in the same way he always forced Will to participate in the deconstruction of his.

And now is as good a time as any, since he genuinely isn’t sure what’s going through Hannibal’s mind.

“I know it’s not me,” Will says. “Even if I were to catch this disease, which is unlikely, I’m not high-risk. I’d feel lousy for a few weeks, and then recover. Hell, you’d probably enjoy it.”

Hannibal glares at him at that, but it’s only partly in protest, and partly to acknowledge the point. He would. Will laid up in bed, weak and miserable and needy. Hannibal no longer needs to even pretend he doesn’t love that. Will will give him all of his pain and misery for free; so long as he needs to suffer, there might as well be someone who’s enjoying it.

“And I don’t think you’re worried for you,” Will continues. “You’re freakishly healthy, but more than that– in this, you’re a textbook psychopath.” He pauses a moment, allows Hannibal a chance to protest, but Hannibal just raises an eyebrow and gestures minutely for Will to continue.

“You have difficulty conceptualizing the avoidance of negative outcomes as a motivator for your behaviour,” says Will, despite the fact that he’s certain Hannibal is already aware of this particular feature of the psychological label that his captors had affixed to him. “You fixate on the carrot, but can’t hold the stick in your mind for long enough to allow it to make an impression on you. I think you can recognize that you might get sick, and it would be unpleasant, but I don’t think that can impact you emotionally.”

He’s never called Hannibal a psychopath before, not in so many words. And he’s not sure he means it, not really. It’s only true as far as any label can be true, as far as either of them are still tethered in any way to the rest of the world.

But they are tethered, Will thinks, more than either of them care to think about too hard. Hannibal, for his part, has always insisted that no event, experience or person made him who he is. I happened, he’d said, and Will can see the appeal of it. Will has always been far too aware of all of the ways in which he is piecemeal, too influenced by others, stitched together from a visible patchwork of traumas. It would be nice to simply reject it all. Claim everything inside him as his and his alone.

But he and Hannibal had stood in a grocery store in the afternoon, and watched frightened shoppers load carts with bottled water and toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and no matter how ludicrous it seemed that two wanted fugitives should be competing with citizens for basic household goods, they still needed toilet paper, and the aisle was down to three packages.

Will had taken one, and Hannibal hadn’t said anything, and as they’d driven home Will had wondered why.

He’d wondered if perhaps Hannibal was simply unaffected, immune to the effect that seeing an empty shelf in a store– but he knew that to be wrong before he’d even held the thought in his mind properly. If there’s one thing Hannibal insists on, it is that there be plenty. When Will allows himself to think about it, he can only conclude that a childhood in a Soviet orphanage will have that effect.

Or perhaps Hannibal was simply willing to kill for basic necessities, should the need arise. But Will couldn’t imagine that either, quite. He couldn’t imagine living a world in which Hannibal was forced to kill over toilet paper, and he couldn’t imagine him doing it.

Hannibal reads the news on his tablet, now. Will had thought at first that he’d picked up Tattlecrime again, like a smoker who quits only to come back to his beloved habit. But it isn’t Tattlecrime; it’s French newspapers, articles about public health officials giving speeches, hospitals preparing for the worst, cases piling up.

Will thinks about how even the fact that they don’t officially exist can’t prevent them from being where they are; that the decisions of politicians in Paris send out tendrils into their tiny, secret cottage.

If he were being petulant, he might say it’s unfair. If anyone should have been able to successfully retreat from the world, it would be them. If they agree not to disturb the universe, the universe ought to not disturb them back.

But Hannibal has a past that has shaped him just like anybody else, and he and Will are just two men living among other humans. Conjoined not only to each other, but to the entire Earth, just as everyone else is. Tethered. Sometimes it feels more like a straitjacket.

Now, sitting at the kitchen island as the clock approaches three, Hannibal doesn’t argue with Will’s psychoanalyzing. He stands and takes down two plates from the cupboard, and says, “I am still a doctor.”

I doubt it would be the technically correct answer, but Will knows that Hannibal isn’t referring to a professional licence. Will isn’t either, really. “Do you feel a responsibility to help?” he asks, genuine curiosity in his voice.

Hannibal holds a hand over the scones, feeling their warmth. He hesitates a moment at the refrigerator before selecting a small pot of jam from the farmer’s market.

“The possibility of death gives meaning to life, you once said,” Will continues, once it becomes clear Hannibal isn’t going to. “What of it when God starts dropping church roofs without even bothering to stick around to see what happens?”

Hannibal places one scone on each plate. “I could drive to Florence tomorrow,” he says, “Put on a white coat, or a pair of scrubs, and walk into the hospitals whose morgues I once filled with bodies. I would be welcomed without question.”

Will swallows. He knows Hannibal isn’t going to do it, and imagines how he would feel if he were with someone else. Someone who cared more about saving lives than their own safety. He wonders if perhaps, he’s finally figured out how Molly felt.

“At the risk of stealing your line,” says Will, “How does that make you feel?”


Hannibal slides the plate with the scone on it across the island to him. It smells heavenly. It smells like nothing can possibly be wrong in the world when it is still possible to craft beauty with your own hands. Even if he knows that’s not true. “Isn’t that how you always feel?” he asks.

Will bites into the scone, and his eyes are closed in pleasure by the time he hears Hannibal’s reply.

“No,” Hannibal says. “Not always.”

This story is part of the Fic Journal of the Plague Year project, a collection of stories written during the coronavirus pandemic that include an end note contextualizing the story in the author’s experience of the pandemic.

Will and Hannibal are a weird vantage point from which to think about a global pandemic, because in many ways, they’re as removed as it’s possible to be from anything that affects us normal humans. The Hannibal canon intentionally takes place in an in-between space between fantasy and reality, and the events of the show show two people gradually removing themselves from every context except the context of each other. By the time we get to the general fanfictional post-canon space, they’re pretty much assumed to be on the run, either presumed dead or hunted with gradually decreasing intensity, but always fundamentally separate from the world. It’s hard to imagine them being affected even by something that by definition affects everyone.

Which is why I think these characters actually do have something to say about the current crisis: because that’s the dream, isn’t it? That’s what the preppers, the toilet-paper hoarders, the rich retreating to their supposedly virus-proof bunkers, the people who say “it’s fine, only the old and sick will die”– that’s what those people want, is to find complete remove from the world. Physically and emotionally; if you’re not in physical danger, you don’t have to be emotionally troubled, either. Surely it must be possible to transcend humanity if you just try hard enough and throw enough money at the problem.

And it just isn’t. Even if you never see another human being, even if you’re a psychopath have the capability to not only not care but actually enjoy the fact of other people suffering and dying, there is no escape from the reality of being a physical body on an interconnected Earth. The holes in the floor of the mind bleed reality into them as quickly as you can patch them up.

I think a lot of the emotional struggle of being, for now, healthy and more or less OK in the midst of this is that you’re constantly wavering between the extremes. There’s empathy on the one hand, where everything you see and read and think hurts you too much and you forget that you are only one body in only one place; and a protective backlash to that overload on the other hand, the desire to retreat, to wish you could join the preppers and the mega-rich, board up the walls of the house and of your mind and have nothing to do with any of it.

Finding a middle ground is hard. I haven’t done it. I definitely don’t think Will and Hannibal have done it. I think I just wanted to prove, as much as anything can be proved via fanfiction, that the myth of the retreat is just that, a myth. We don’t need to yearn to join them in their isolation from humanity. They aren’t there. They’re out here, with us.

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