Will doesn’t know why he buys it.

This is one of the problems with having empathy so deep that the boundaries between you and other people begin to blur, he reflects, standing in the fluorescent lighting of a grocery-store aisle. You get used to instincts popping up from somewhere in a morass of emotions, and Will had gotten used to trusting those instincts at least as far as they applied to hunting killers, when he’d worked for the FBI.

He’s now rather used to following those instincts in other areas, too, and it turns out that his instincts do have a body count, although perhaps not always in the exact ways that Hannibal had imagined or would prefer. Will’s kills are rarely elegant and never ostentatious. They are rightings of wrongs too egregious to allow to continue, and if certain police forces have scratched their heads and thrown around the phrase “vigilante justice,” well, it may be insulting but at least Will has never attracted a moniker that fucking rhymes.

He has no idea what kind of instinct has him standing in line for the self-checkout machine, clutching a stick of butter in one hand and a stuffed dog in the other.

Well, the butter is easily explainable. Sometimes even a ludicrously organized gourmet serial killer runs out of butter at exactly the wrong moment, and needs to send his hapless significant other out to the nearest grocery store.

The dog is a little more difficult to explain. There was a whole rack of them, next to the limp grocery store flower arrangements: stuffed animals with ludicrously huge eyeballs and fur so unnaturally soft that it feels nearly creepy to run fingers through it. He’d picked up the dog, identifiably a golden labrador, just to marvel at the range of items available in a place that ostensibly exists to sell food.

Now he is staring at it in confusion, with a line behind him long enough that it would be more trouble to go put it back than it would be to buy it and just– what? Find a kid in the parking lot to give it to? No, Will decides, giving out stuffed animals to children in the parking lot of a Carrefour supermarket would be a great way to come under suspicion for the kinds of crimes he doesn’t commit, thank you very much.

So he pays for it, and vaguely considers throwing it in in the trash can just outside the sliding doors of the store, and then finds himself placing it on the passenger seat of the car alongside the most expensive kind of butter available at a standard supermarket anyway. The dog looks at him as he shoves the keys in the ignition, like it’s demanding some sort of explanation for having been purchased by a middle-aged man with a nasty facial scar and only the ghostly remnants of an adopted child bleeding out on the kitchen floor beside him, offspring-wise.

“I don’t fucking know,” he tells it, somewhat testily. “I don’t even think you’re for me.”

He ignores the fact that that statement makes absolutely no sense, and sets off towards home.

Hannibal is in the kitchen, of course, when he arrives back at their little cottage, and so Will places the dog the only place it makes sense to put a stuffed animal– the bed, perched in between his and Hannibal’s pillow– and brings him the butter.

He watches Hannibal’s hands as he works, chopping vegetables and herbs and filleting the fish with a care close to reverence. It’s Will’s fish, of course, but even that fact doesn’t quite account for the air of nearly religious ritual to this, that feels the exact same after years of cohabitation as it had the very first time he had watched Hannibal cook. The careful preparation, not just of enough, but of plenty; even the simplest of light meals somehow taking on the emotional significance of a harvest feast. A reminder that you are here, you are a body and a body merely, for today at least you will not hunger or be left wanting.

They eat outside, at a small table placed in the yard for that purpose, still set with a tablecloth and a small centrepiece of flowers and candles floating in a wide dish of inky-black water. Will is both thinking about the stuffed dog, and not thinking about it. Its shiny plastic eyes seem to float behind his eyelids as he accepts the plate of that Hannibal offers him, takes the first bite and allows Hannibal to watch him doing so, like he always does. Like the food only achieves ultimate physical reality in entering Will’s body, and once Will has called it into being, Hannibal too can eat.

He tries to imagine the Lecter family sitting around a dinner table, in a version of the castle that Will had found abandoned that was still full of light and life, music and food. Wonders if they were the sort of family where the patriarch is served first, and Hannibal’s habit of watching Will take the first bite had its roots in the eye of a child watching his father.

He tries to imagine Hannibal later, the parts of his childhood still shrouded in mystery to Will. Did they eat quietly at long tables, in Soviet orphanages? Were the older and bigger children free to take what they wanted first, and leave only scraps for the little ones? And if so, which one was Hannibal? Or did he learn quickly how to show that he was a predator and not the prey, how to shove aside the thought of food as anything more than fuel for a body filled to the brim with the promise of vengeance?

“I bought you something,” Will says casually, and realizes as he says it that it is true. He had bought Hannibal Lecter a stuffed dog. If not the Hannibal Lecter sitting across from him, the Hannibal Lecter just out of Will’s reach, suspended in the fog of time and mystery, hungry and dangerous and terrified.

“Thank you,” says Hannibal easily, his eyes flickering up from his plate to Will’s face. Will hits a wall, and utterly fails to say it’s a stuffed animal, because I think maybe you never had one, and maybe that doesn’t bother you but apparently it bothered me enough that my own unconscious mind managed to con me into buying it, which really is the more the kind of thing that you would do, isn’t it, the whole playing-on-the-unconscious-mind thing, so maybe it does bother you, and the whole ridiculous idea was yours in the first place.

Hannibal doesn’t press, apparently confident that Will is going to elaborate in his own time. They eat, and clean the dishes in silent companionship, and read in front of the fireplace despite the nights starting to become warm enough not to need it. By the time Hannibal swipes a hand through Will’s hair and retreats to the bedroom, Will has almost forgotten about the dog sitting innocently between their pillows.

Almost.

Will enters the bedroom a few minutes later, enough time to allow Hannibal to be washed and changed and stretched out under a sheet, as always, awaiting Will’s entrance as if the fact of Will returning to their shared bedroom were still somehow uncertain, and needed to be confirmed afresh each night. The dog is exactly where Will left it: now tilted slightly towards the indent in the pillow that Hannibal’s head makes, but entirely untouched.

Will slides underneath the sheets, next to the heat and solidity of Hannibal’s body. And once he’s there, he can’t think of a damn thing to do or say besides pick up the thing, casually, like any of this were normal, and snuffle its plastic nose very gently into Hannibal’s neck, just underneath his jaw.

For a moment Hannibal is frozen, stiff as a corpse and staring up at the ceiling, its yellowed whorls of stucco that they haven’t gotten around to replacing. When he finally turns to look at Will, his face is blank; not just surprised but entirely absent, the face of a monster who was abruptly forgotten how to inhabit the human body he wears.

Will feels liquid with fear, the same kind of bone-deep terror that he used to feel every time some terrible detail of a crime slotted into place. The horror of knowing what scant moments ago you had had the plausible deniability of merely suspecting.

Historically, Will’s moments of crystal clarity with regards to Hannibal haven’t exactly led to stupendous short-term gains in his personal health and safety. He stares into Hannibal’s bottomless eyes and feels an echo of the old certainty, which he usually manages to push far enough down to go about their day-to-day lives together, that he is one day going to die by this man’s hand.

He can also feel, as clearly as if the small boy was curled up in the space in between their bodies, the child that Hannibal was– or perhaps was never permitted to be, or perhaps even the child who was so much smaller and weaker than the bloodlust that he never emerged at all– reaching for Will’s hand; stretching his arm out through the fabric of spacetime to brush his fingers against the soft fur of a cheap, mass-produced toy. The kind of inert object that holds comfort because that is its purpose; an empty, furry vessel for the mere idea that comfort is possible.

There is a knife in the closet of the bedroom, Will knows, and another underneath one of the slats of the small shelf by the window. Will could probably be at least out of the room before Hannibal managed to get to one, unless he has another one secreted away closer to the bed, which is entirely possible. He considers it for a moment, muscles primed to jump and run.

And then, like an exhalation of breath, Will decides not to. If Hannibal is finally going to kill him for seeing one image too many, taking one step too far into the sticky, murky depths of his memory palace– perhaps that was as it should be. Maybe it was always going to end this way, a stuffed dog’s downy synthetic fur splattered in his blood.

Hannibal’s face flickers, then closes. He gives Will a small smile, and tilts his head down to give the dog a tiny, indifferent kiss on the crown of its head, as if the dog is just an extension of Will and should therefore be indulged.

Will tries not to let Hannibal hear how shaky his breath is as he lets it out, but it’s a lost cause– they are face to face, using each others’ air. Will places the dog back, in between the pillows but up against the headboard, where it won’t be in their way. Out of sight, out of– well, sight. Only that.

But he resolves not to mention it, or touch it, ever again. Will ignores the dog, as Hannibal turns out the light and pulls him close with rough hands, using Will’s body like it’s his only refuge.

He ignores the dog several days later, when he wakes from a nightmare sweaty and irritated and turns to find Hannibal asleep, one hand stretched out tentatively above his head to tangle the very tips of his fingers in the dog’s fur.

He most certainly ignores it several weeks later, when he comes home early from a fishing trip cut short by reports of lightning and finds that Hannibal is preparing dinner with Mahler’s Ninth turned up slightly too loud to hear the creak of the front door. He tiptoes past the kitchen, oddly intrigued to be able to watch Hannibal without the reciprocal sensation of being watched, and finds the dog perched on the countertop like a companion. There is a ramekin full of cast-off bits of meat placed in front of the thing’s plastic snout, full enough that were dog and bowl both scaled-up to their lifelike dimensions, it would probably have a real animal puking in the garden from eating to excess.

He creeps back to the front door to open and slam it shut again, loudly announcing his arrival and heading audibly into the basement to put away his fishing gear, giving Hannibal time.

Dog and bowl are absent when he enters the kitchen. “Bad luck at the river today,” Will admits, glad that they hadn’t been planning on eating his catch fresh. “What’s for dinner?”