Alyss stared at the wall before her, and she counted the seconds like sandpaper.
She had dealt in death before. Death had plagued her for far longer than any chronic pains or childhood traumas; it made her who she was. Her ease in it, slipping in and out and around the cracks of death is what made Francis Dolarhyde first recruit her to Hannibal Lecter’s following, a grouping of like-minded individuals that saw her previous works and congratulated her for it. Their hands had passed along her shoulders, awe and praise as she told her stories. The acknowledgement merely fueled her, merely made her dream of more to come.
First her family. She’d never loved them anyway.
Then the doctor that tried to prescribe her anti-psychotics. She would not be controlled.
A woman that’d tried to take her ex-boyfriend, although he ended up walking in on their meeting and had to be put down, too. A shame, since his smile was so lovely it could light up her most dreadful of days, stuck working as she’d been in retail with people who honestly made her pension for killing go up a notch.
But then Nate came along, and honestly she’s forgotten that ex-boyfriend’s name.
“My condolences for your loss,” the interrogator said.
Loss. Even before, when her name wasn’t Alyss, she wasn’t in the game of losing. She didn’t lose, she gained. She grew. Not anymore. She was most assuredly falling in on herself, and there could be no growth to come when everything around her was dead, dealing in shades of rotting, putrid grey.
She bumped into him on a subway, and his eyes were the loveliest shade of tomorrow that she’d ever seen. She wondered what they looked like, now that he’d had time to begin decomposing. Ugly. Milky white. They wouldn’t be so mismatched anymore. A matching shade of death.
“We want to help you, Kelly Brown. Maybe there’s an arrangement that we can come to, if you just answer a few of my questions.”
When she found him the next day, a stirring in her chest that pushed, pushed, pushed, she’d been almost nervous that she was going to have to kill him to make that feeling go away. Soulmate, the general public said with the sort of sigh that made her teeth rot. You’ve found your soulmate, and isn’t that nice? It didn’t sound so nice to her. Alyss didn’t like being controlled, no matter if it was her mind or her body or a chemical reaction that made her focus on the shades of color within another person’s eyes.
“This won’t change anything,” she promised him, clinging to his skin to make the whispers go away.
“What if I want it to?” Nate asked her, clinging back.
Then it turned out that Nate had a pension for killing, too.
She didn’t feel much when she’d killed her family. Natural emotions, like frustration at their staining her favorite shirt. Fatigue after the care she took in displaying them, laying them out. Pride at her work, at the inevitability of taking care of something she probably should have dealt with years before. It was done now, though. She could say that it was done.
Nate’s death, though…God, she could feel it within her very cells it hurt so bad. She’d been stabbed a few times, shot on more than one occasion. One of the girls at the house had given her a cigarette burn on her left breast, and Nate had kissed away the pain of it. The scar was a lopsided heart that she liked to look at, each bit of raised tissue something pretty, something that was hers.
She wondered if she told them that she couldn’t feel her legs, if they’d cut them off of her. Remove the dead tissue, give way to something new. She didn’t want something new, though, she wanted Nate for God’s sake. She felt his stomach give way, felt him stumble, searching. Distance was a razorblade to the skin, the gunshot wound the aftermath of a sledgehammer to the gut.
The death a severance so complete that she was sure she was going to die.
God, why wasn’t she dead?
“Kelly, I do honestly want to help you, despite what you may think.”
Her gaze lifted from the table before her, grey and matte and cold. The agent had a soulmate, that much she could see; one eye black, the other eye black with a ring of blue around it. The set of their eyes made them appear Chinese in nature, although she could be wrong. She didn’t like to assume those sort of things because it was a stereotype and it was ignorant. One of the girls at the house was Japanese, and she spent her time practicing crochet. She’d made Nate a hat once, two years before.
“Is your soulmate alive?” Alyss asked. Her normal sort of self-control that would have made her voice sound so vividly sweet was gone. Her tone cracked on the way ‘alive’ tasted sour and rotten in her mouth. Alive, alive, alive. Why was she still alive?
Alyss nodded in thought at that, fingertips pressed tight together as she considered them. She wondered how much force it’d take to bite them off so they’d stop hurting so much.
“If I could…I would give them a smile like I gave Agent Bowman a smile,” she said at last, hoarsely. “Maybe the shock would be so much that you died when you felt the severance.”
“Are you afraid of death, FBI-Guy?”
“I think we all are.”
“I’m not. And neither was Nate.”
“Was Nate your soulmate? We are trying to-”
“I want you to tell Agent Crawford this for me,” she interrupted. He paused to listen, head tilted to catch the slightest word. “Think of it as a courtesy, nothing more or less than what he needs to hear.”
“Alright, Kelly…I can do that.”
“Are you listening carefully?”
She licked dry lips, smiled as wide as she could. “That which you mistake for madness is but an overacuteness of the senses. You who death follows so closely, a companion we give to you: Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Just underneath the capped tooth near her back left molar, a pill lay in wait that she bit down on, swallowing the taste of bitter, rotten almonds. It curled, burning down, down, down her throat.
“Kelly, what are you-”
She wasn’t listening anymore, though. She couldn’t have, even if she wanted to, the pain was so acute. A fiery agony that washed away the dull, rotting ache of Nate, baptized her skin anew just to burn it to ash. She relished in the pain, even as it killed her.
“I need a medic! Kelly Brown took a foreign substance that…”
One couldn’t call soulmate death a severance if you were soon to join them.
Molly walked along the garden path, Wally’s sticky hand in hers.
“Beverly and Saul gave me candy last night,” he confessed. At eleven years old, he was far too mature for his age, a fact that haunted Molly to her core. While he still clung to childhood curiosity, time and experience had given him an edge that Molly resented and blamed herself for. He was an honest person, someone that reminded him of her deceased husband with every turn of his cheek, every furrowed brow. They’d married too young, but they’d been happy.
They were happy.
“That was nice of them.”
“Can we trust them?”
She sighed, stared out towards the impossibly blue sky. Despite her abhorrence of the humidity, the bugs, and the clay that caked everything and stained it an ugly orange, she had to admit that the skies in Georgia were beautiful.
“No, Wally, we can’t,” she said, staring at the sky. The expanse of it with no clouds to interrupt was beautiful, a never ending entity where everything seemed possible. She resented it, even as she loved it.
“We can’t trust anyone here,” Wally muttered, kicking a rock.
“There’s a new guy here. Will Graham.” When they reached the rock once more, he kicked it with a little more gusto, sending it skittering here and there before resting just ahead of them. “I saw him. He looks sad.”
“He is sad, honey.”
Just in the distance with his back to them stood Will. It wasn’t apparent in his stature or the way that he held himself that he was in pain, but Molly saw the edges of him that others often missed. The way his arms bowed in as his hands were stuffed to his pockets, the way his head ducked as he concentrated on whatever he was looking at; he was in pain, and it wasn’t just whatever had happened to him in the forest.
“Is he sad because he’s here?”
A dangerous question. While Wally had had to grow up too fast, he didn’t always know when not to speak, let alone around those that would take his words to someone who would wield them against her like a knife. In all things she tried to be honest with him, and she did so once again now. “He’s sad because he’s having a hard time here.”
“Can we trust him?” Wally pressed.
Could they trust him? At the end of the walkway, they paused long enough for Wally to pick up the rock and study it at all angles. Bits of mica clung to it, facets of crystal that fell away under his insistent inspection. As if sensing her scrutiny, Will turned away from the forest’s edge and paused, and if the distance hadn’t been so great, Molly would have sworn that he was staring right into her eyes. Judgment and a stab of betrayal, that he dared to give some part of himself to someone that used it against him like a clumsily weld scalpel.
“We can trust him, Wally, but he can’t trust us,” she said sadly.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Wally decided, and Molly laughed.
“Maybe someday it will, but that’s okay. Just know that if something is happening; if you’re scared, or if you need help, you can trust Will Graham. He’ll help you.”
Even as it hurts him.
She swung their arms with wild abandon as they turned away from Will and headed down a bend in the path. In his free hand, Wally clutched his newfound rock with a sense of victory.
The autopsy room at the Atlanta HQ was almost too small for so many bodies.
He’d had them delivered there, all the same. He needed people that could really dig into each and every aspect of the tragedy that’d occurred, compare and contrast the many lethal ways in which thirty-two innocent people were murdered for the sake of some sick statement by a man that found delight in torture and death.
He’d found new wrinkles in his skin since taking a look at the bodies. Newfound wrinkles and a newfound purpose.
“Agent Crawford?” someone pressed.
Jack looked over to them, poised in the doorway, and frowned impressively. They were sharp, from their pantsuit to their perfectly adjusted cuffs, and nary a hair lay out of place.
“My name is Clarise Starling,” she said, and she strode over to shake his hand firmly. “I head the division specializing with cult activity.”
“Did Director Purnell send you here?” Jack asked.
“Yes, sir. I’m heading this investigation now,” she said. She had a way of speaking that sounded like she was used to constantly having to defend herself. Her shoulders were squared for battle. Jack wondered if it was because someone had warned her about him, or if she was just used to putting up with constant bull shit.
“You work with behavioral analysis, but group mentality is something far different from tracking a singular person. You found Dr. Lecter through your knowledge, but I can use my knowledge to help you bring his entire group down. Director Purnell called me in for that reason.”
“He may be using people to front his sadistic game, Agent Starling, but I can track him. Everything I need to find him is right here,” Jack said, nodding towards the bodies. Too many bodies.
“From what I can tell, he’s not giving you a damn thing, sir.” She had a bit of a southern twang as she shifted her stance, irritated. “You’ll have better luck finding him through the mistakes of his followers, not through taunts he leaves behind for you.”
“My presence here isn’t a request, Agent Crawford,” she said, bowling over his words. “This here is my jurisdiction, and if you’re nice enough I’m willing to share. But just let me do my job, and I’ll let you do yours. How’s that?”
Jack liked that about as much as he liked hearing Katy Brown’s final words before she bit down on a cyanide pill and died in an interrogation room. He stalked from the autopsy room and left Agent Starling to glean over the dead bodies, needing to breathe in some air that didn’t reek of chemicals and death.
A companion we give to you: darkness and decay.
He stood on the steps to the HQ, breathing in the stink of the city and the smell of burning, crackling cloves. He’d broken down on his smoking habit, having needed something to do with his hands.
“Agent Crawford,” someone off to the side called out, but it took a moment for him to register.
He looked over, saw who it was, and choked on the smoke. Short, curt, ugly puffs of it spewed from his mouth as he swallowed a curse and took the tobacco with it, making his lungs burn and his stomach curdle. Logic said that at a time like this, it only made sense for them to make an appearance, but that didn’t improve his mood in the least.
“I’m not talking, Freddie,” he said warily. His distaste for her was far kinder than Will Graham’s was –during Lecter’s trials, she’d hounded him to try and get an inside scoop to what had happened. When Jack was in the hospital, trying to survive off of Jell-O and runny soup, Will had barely been able to stop her from sneaking into Jack’s room while he slept so that she could try and get a photo of his stab wound.
The article claimed that Will had physically lifted and threw her down the steps of the hospital when he’d escorted her out, and when Jack asked about it, he wasn’t inclined to deny it. Jack made sure that the FBI paid her a visit to ensure that no charges were pressed against Will for attempting to give Jack some much needed peace and quiet.
“Come on, Jack…you’ve seen the news, right?”
“I don’t watch the news much. It’s a load of shit is what it is,” he replied. He took another drag from the cigarette and stared out at the air that rippled with the humidity and the heat. Even in the Fall, Georgia tried to stay hot.
“Thirty-two dead, all by the name of Will Graham? Will Graham, one of the few survivors of ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’s reign of terror missing just after Lecter’s escape? This is good stuff, Jack,” she needled, walking closer.
Freddie’s outfits were as loud as they were obscene. He eyed her plaid pants and polka-dotted button-up with extreme prejudice as he tried to find something kind to say. The red of her pants matched the vibrancy of her hair, accented by a heart shaped face and too big blue eyes. Matching eyes, he thought. The day Freddie Lounds gets a soulmate, I’ll eat my hat.
“Most people think a killing spree is horrifying, not good stuff,” he said after a pregnant pause. “But I guess you’re not most people.”
“I covered most of the Lecter trials, as well as the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper, Jack. I’ve earned a word from you.”
“You haven’t earned shit,” Jack said pleasantly.
“I know you want to catch Lecter again. I bet that once you get guys like that behind bars, you want them to stay that way.”
“Most people do.”
“I might have heard something that could be of help to you,” she said, stepping closer. Jack had to resist taking a large step back, something that kept him out of her range of reach.
“Something that’d set you on the right path towards who got your man Zeller. I know most news places ignored that fact, but as Will Graham’s across America were being mutilated, someone got a needle in your man, too.”
“We’ve already got him in custody, but thanks, Freddie.”
“No, you have the witness in custody, Jack,” she replied. “You have a mentally impaired man in custody, but he didn’t attack Agent Zeller.”
“The cameras inside of the establishment had been tampered with. He was the only one with access to do so.”
“Don’t take it out on him because you can’t get to the real culprit, Jack,” she said softly. “I know you like throwing darts at the board with wild abandon, but I have something substantial for you.”
He sighed and dropped the cigarette, stomping it out with the heel of his worn shoe. He hadn’t had time to polish them since Will first made notice of it.
“If what you have to say is something good, I’ll give you something in return,” he said irritably. “But only IF.”
She snorted and flipped her hair over her shoulder, head tilted. It reminded him of a finch, hopping closer and closer to beg for just a bite. “There’s a guy in a bar near Convington, Georgia that got too drunk last night. I happened to be there to interview someone that claimed they knew the woman that assaulted Agent Bowman, but it didn’t pan out.”
“Those things tend not to,” Jack agreed.
“I was about to leave when I overheard him speaking with a female companion about his luck with Agent Zeller. He’d had to wait in that bathroom for ages before you stepped out, but it was worth it.”
That stopped Jack cold, right in the midst of lighting a new cigarette. Chain-smoking, and Bella would scold him once he was able to get on the phone to talk to her. The ache of their distance was a cold one, something much like the chill one gets when they wake in the middle of the night with no blankets on.
“Excuse me?” he asked, dangerously quiet.
“I got a drink and listened, Jack,” she said, and she pulled a recorder out of her purse. Naturally, it matched the ugly red pants. Fingers with nails short from constant typing and biting curled around the plastic, and she hit play with pursed lips and a furrow in her brows.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be so loud, Clark.”
“No one here is listening…’sides, they arrested that gas station manager –what was his name?”
“Peter Bernardone, yeah…yeah. They got him. We’ll head to the big house and tell the boss the good news.”
“I already called him. He said to do a roundabout way to town, since there’s a lot of feds on the interstate.”
“They won’t stop us, baby, we’re on the home stretch. I played my part, you played yours, and we’ll go and get a big fat hug when we get back there.”
“Dr. Lecter isn’t exactly the hugging type.”
“Maybe he’ll make an exception when I show him just how much I got that fucker to bleed.”
She hit stop on the playback and stared at Jack, maintaining a long, uncomfortable stare to match the long, uncomfortable silence. The air felt too heavy in the aftermath.
“I got his license,” she said, and she reached into her purse and withdrew a leather billfold.
“Of all of the crazy, fucking luck,” Jack muttered.
“Not really crazy, Jack. I got a copy of the gas station video, same as you. I saw him go into that bathroom and wait, saw you come in, saw a girl pull up to get gas, saw you go out, and that’s when the inside camera went fuzzy.
“The outside camera, though…it shows you on the phone while that same man walked out of the gas station, got into the car with the woman, and drove away. You go inside, and that’s when you find Zeller.”
“You think Peter Bernardone is innocent?”
“He’s so innocent, I’m going to offer him my lawyer that I keep on speed-dial for libel cases.”
That was something.
“Once he knows that his wallet is missing, he’s going to move quick,” Jack muttered. He headed towards the bureau doors. As an afterthought, he turned back and snatched the billfold from her. “Thank you, Miss Lounds. Because you’ve been useful, I won’t make a case about you letting that son-of-a-bitch walk out of that bar without calling the police.”
“Your end of the bargain, Agent Crawford,” she prompted, following close behind him.
“My end?” he turned back, tucking the wallet into his inside jacket pocket. “Oh, you thought I’d give you something ‘off the record’?”
“I just helped you so that you didn’t make an ass of yourself when you tried to incriminate an innocent man,” she fired back. Heeled boots clacked along the concrete as she crept even closer. “You owe me.”
“You owe me, Miss Lounds,” Jack replied. “After your last venture with me, I’d say you piled on quite a few debts.”
“I can really make it miserable for you in the papers if you do this, Jack,” Freddie warned, and she hitched her purse higher on her shoulder. She looked ready for a fight.
“Look, you want some kind of scoop, how about you put that nosy business of yours to the grindstone and find me Will Graham; how’s that? You kept hunting him down six years ago, dogging his every step then. Shouldn’t be too hard for you to find him now, right?”
He walked back into HQ, savoring the ugly shade of pink on her cheeks. As he passed security, he motioned back towards her. “She doesn’t come anywhere in here,” he ordered, and the security guards nodded in understanding.
Will Graham wandered the house for the next few days in order learn its secrets. If he could learn its secrets, he could undo them.
He wasn’t quite sure what he’d find, perusing the unnecessary amount of formal living rooms. Something, he supposed –anything. More than a week’s time in that house was making his skin stretch to odd proportions, making his muscles tense at the slightest of sounds.
He wondered how many others felt such a kindship to Hannibal Lecter; would more Matthew’s crawl from the floorboards to try and oust him? Was another Randall Tier lurking along the forest’s edge, waiting?
Every time he blinked, he kept focusing on his eyes. Randall Tier had matching eyes, and they stared at the stars like they could somehow find peaceful oblivion in the night.
It was a nice home, all things considered. Will could remember times between moves where he and his father would take tours of the old homes in the south, passing hands along bronze posts and velvet ropes to keep them from ruining relics of the past. He’d always felt small in such places, the history stuffed within the very air he breathed, so much so that he felt something like a thief standing in the space. His father loved the tours, though, so he followed along. The paintings of George Washington were always a cheesy touch.
Dr. Lecter didn’t have an abundance of Revolutionary War paintings, although he had an unhealthy obsession with Blake. Will paused before one such painting and stared, hands tucked into his pockets.
“The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun,” Dolarhyde said behind him. His deep voice, appearing so suddenly in the silence, startled Will, and he turned around sharply.
“I didn’t see you as an art type,” he said in lieu of nothing else.
Dolarhyde’s eyes were dark, fixated on the painting. “…You don’t know. But you could understand.”
“I could,” Will agreed reluctantly.
Whatever Francis wanted to say to help Will understand was unable to break past his lips. He stared at the painting, and his jaw clenched. His mouth worked, mulling the words over, but they didn’t come, something blocking up in his throat and silencing him. Tension rippled just underneath his skin, and Will thought of the way his shoes had sunk into the carpet soaked with blood, how it’d seemed like a terrifying amount of blood to lose –how simply killing someone wouldn’t do that, that someone would have to really relish in the way blood stained everything to make someone bleed that much as they killed them.
“…I didn’t protect you,” Dolarhyde said, and Will took a step back from him unconsciously. The intensity that he’d pinned to the painting shifted to Will, made his skin crawl. “I promised to protect you, and Matthew almost killed you.”
“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at Matthew,” Will assured him. He felt a genuine need to convey that fact.
“I promised you that you’d be safe here.”
“You’ve been lying to me from the start, Agent Dolarhyde, so you shouldn’t start feeling bad about it now,” he replied. The staring was beginning to make him sweat, the something just lurking at the edge of Francis’ gaze unsettling. Quiet he may be, calm he may be, but he wasn’t stable. Will could smell it off of him like a fever. It threatened to bleed into him, force Will to take some part of it.
“I never lied to you,” said Francis calmly.
“Oh?” Will barked a curt laugh.
“I told you the truth. I would keep you safe, we would go to the house, I would make a call at the house, your friends would be safe, I do my job very well, and I wouldn’t hurt you.” He frowned, mulling everything over. “The only lie is that you were put in danger. For that, I apologize.”
Will was pretty damn sure that a lie by omission was still a lie, but he wasn’t sure if that was a conversation to have with someone like Francis. While he speech came across as simplified, it didn’t quite fit the calm control and intelligence it’d taken for him to completely fool not only Will but Jack, too.
“How long had you been in the FBI?” Will asked.
“S…Seven years.” A hand lifted unconsciously to hide the scar near his mouth.
“How did you find Dr. Lecter?”
“…We read about him in Quantico. Learned him before he was publicly named, found his ways and habits when he was nothing more than The Chesapeake Ripper. When he was discovered by Agent Crawford, I wanted to know him. I understood him better than anyone else I’d ever seen, and I wanted to know him. I wanted him to know me, too.”
“The FBI has strict psychological screening protocols, Agent Dolarhyde,” Will whispered.
Francis blinked lazily at him, nary a flicker of emotion at Will’s pointed statement. “I did my job very well, Mr. Graham.”
“You did,” Will agreed. “You made me equivocally trust every word that came from your mouth.”
“You can trust me,” Francis assured him. “You can’t trust Matthew Brown.”
“So if he tries to take me on morning walks again, I should find you?”
“Yes,” Francis affirmed. “Or, if you’re inclined, you could just kill him.”
Will took several steps back at that, and Francis let him. His flat gaze followed Will’s trail around a small sitting area, using the couch as a barrier between them. He neither advanced nor retreated, merely watched. Merely observed.
“…I don’t want to kill him, Agent Dolarhyde,” Will said, tasting how it sounded in the air. Honest. Real.
“You could kill anyone in this house, Mr. Graham, and Dr. Lecter wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t view his opinion on killing as a base for my own interactions.”
“Just a thought,” Francis said, and he gave a small half-smile. It tugged on his scar, gave him an altogether crooked look. “In case you’re ever inclined.”
He walked out of the room and left Will to his thoughts, dark and wicked as they were.
Just to the side of him, Red Dragon arced over the woman clothed in sun, ready to devour her.