Will slept well into the morning and early afternoon. As he slept, he dreamt of Garrett Jacob Hobbs -not as he was, but as he should have been. A father. A husband. A hard-worker and kind person. He hunted deer and provided for his family. He cooked breakfast, and they shared weekend plans. Abigail was behind in Social Studies, and that was intolerable.
He set a roast down on the table for Sunday dinner. As Abigail’s mother reached across the table to cut it, she peeled a layer of meat back with the knife and revealed Abigail’s face, decayed and long since dead. Maggots crawled through her eye sockets, and worms squirmed along mats of hair. It stunk of rot and lies. It was rank with fear.
When he woke with a start, Will swallowed blood from biting his tongue in his sleep. He wondered if Abigail got away.
The house was quiet; Will wasn’t locked in the study, but Howard just outside of the door eyed him warily when he opened it to take stock of his position. Will nodded to him once, then closed the door and paced the room, teeth worrying his bottom lip. Either they’d escaped or they didn’t. Either Beverly rescued Abigail and Wally, or they were dead.
Hannibal’s touch had been clinical as he’d doctored Will’s broken stitches. The hum of unease through their connection was distorted, unclear as to whether it was Hannibal’s or Will’s. As he paced, he imagined that Hannibal paced, too, just a few halls down in the house. He wondered if the walls had started to weep, yet. He wondered if their secrets were going to come tumbling out, soon. He wondered if Abigail got away.
Matthew had to have been planned if Hannibal was so surprised to see the death of Garrett Jacob Hobbs. Had Matthew been a set-up, a ruse to force a connection? If so, then everyone in the house must have been genuinely frazzled by Hobbs’ death. Will’s lack of hesitation must have shown in the brutal way that he gutted him. He wondered if Abigail got away.
He was given food, but Will ignored it in favor of reading the books that Hannibal kept close: Chaucer, surprisingly. Sun Tsu, unsurprising. Will perused lines of text and wondered at how Hannibal held the book as he read it, face placid as he schemed. Surely there was something better to counter him, in case Beverly hadn’t made it to Jack? In case it really was, once more, Will alone in this place that so longed to change him?
As he read, Will wondered. As he wondered, he began to see.
He was escorted from Hannibal’s study by Francis. His eyes as they grazed over Will where assessing, unfathomable. Will itched the house arrest bracelet idly with the toe of his shoe and wondered just how close he was to being devoured by the Great Red Dragon for what he’d done.
“Do you still believe that you’ll survive us?” Fracis asked as they walked along the quiet of the hall. There was no censure in his voice, although every line of him was taut, fine-strung and soon to snap.
Will chewed his words around in his mouth, and he tucked his hands into his pockets. “Sooner or later you’re all going to have to wonder if you’ll survive me.”
Francis didn’t reply. The Great Red Dragon didn’t snap.
He was taken into the drawing room that larger groups of the house members gathered in -Will often avoided this room at all costs. He entered unwillingly and glared at everyone, quelling their quiet murmuring with his stare. Hannibal appeared at his side and smiled grimly, unease a bare murmur in their connection. It’d been like that all day, though. Hannibal’s, then, not Will’s.
“We have better understanding as to what happened last night,” he said, and Will’s hands curled to fists.
Hannibal inclined his chin, and he walked with Will to stand in front of the fireplace. Cold oozed around closed curtains at the window just beside them, and Francis placed himself there, to better hold back the chill.
“Everyone,” Hannibal said, and the house turned seemingly as one to stare, expressions ranging from grief to mild indifference. Quick, harried glances cut to Will before going back to Hannibal; he bared his teeth.
“I brought you here to discuss what occurred in the early hours this morning that resulted in the death of our friend Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbs.”
Slack mouths thinned to flat lines. Hands reached for loved ones, and Will suddenly saw a numerous amount of mismatched eyes standing side-by-side. Soulmates, soulmates that he hadn’t seen before; had soulmates been forming because of their cult and worship of Hannibal?
“It appears that Miss Abigail decided to leave our house, much to her father’s displeasure. He attempted to stop her, and Mr. Graham presumed that he was going to kill her. He took to her defense, and she ran with Ms. Foster’s son, young Wally.”
“How did no one know she was running?” someone asked, and their voice wavered. “Is she going to tell someone where we are? Are we in danger, Dr. Lecter?”
Hannibal’s calm face darkened, and he nodded towards the doorway. “We know how they were able to escape.”
Francis stepped back into the room, and the silence turned to hisses of surprise and censure as he led Saul in, hands bound in cuffs and face swollen and bruised.
Just behind him, Beverly followed.
“Saul was asleep at his post on the perimeter, and they used his negligence to get away. Rest assured, everyone, we have people already tracking them so that we may bring them back to safety.”
No, no, no…
“No,” Will murmured.
Beverly didn’t look at him, though; rather than stop beside Saul, she took a place alongside Francis, her burning gaze fixated on her soulmate darkly. Will imagined Saul’s skin bubbling, blistering.
“Will she be punished when she returns?” someone demanded.
“She turned on her own family!”
“We will deal with that when the time comes,” Hannibal replied, sanguine-sweet. “First, we must deal with Saul.”
Saul’s left eye was swollen shut. He turned to Hannibal, trembling.
“Dr. Lecter, please, I didn’t fall asleep, something must h-have happened, I-”
“You failed at your job, Saul,” said Hannibal. “You allowed two people to endanger our entire home. Before this, you’ve made other mistakes that have made our plans more difficult to see to fruition. What do you have to say to that?”
“I’m s-sorry, I…I’m just…sorry, sir. I’m s-so, so sorry.”
Beverly’s face didn’t flicker so much as harden, and there was something clawing through Will’s veins that felt an awful lot like physical pain as he began to realize what was happening.
Hannibal’s expression didn’t change as he looked around the crowd of people, their numbers such that some were forced to stand in the doorway and out into the hall. “Since the beginning, I have welcomed you here,” he said, and many heads bobbed in agreement. “Some of you are much like myself, our faces and deeds in every news outlet, on every television. Some of you I’ve protected, given a safe place to hide away so that no one knows where you have found peace. Have I not allowed all of your wildest dreams to come true?”
Silence. Heads nodded, and eyes were averted to the floor.
“When Mr. Dolarhyde, Mr. Brown, and myself came together to imagine a place like this, nothing prepared us for the reality of truly how wonderful it is when so many like minds can come together and belong. Was that not what you wanted? A family?”
More nodding, and Will couldn’t quite dismiss the way in which Saul trembled, violent spasms despite how still he tried to stand. Beverly was a steel wall, although hands that once rested on hips instead clasped tightly together behind her back.
“And yet, time and time again I find myself having to take special precautions because some of you would endanger everyone else, all for the sake of negligence, foolishness, and willful ignorance.”
Hannibal’s eyes darkened, and Will wondered, not for the first time, how it was that he’d ever seen Hannibal as anything other than monstrously abnormal. Even fitted in a sensible suit as he was now, there was nothing normal about him. His teeth as he glowered were too sharp; his cheekbones were too harsh. The deep-set nature of his eyes lent something sinister to his stare.
“Do I not give my best to each and every one of you each and every single day?” Hannibal wondered, and the mood of the entire room shifted as he closed his eyes tightly. “Have I not risked everything to bring you a Great, Red Death?”
Will hadn’t studied cults all that much in his schooling. It was an area he’d focused on for maybe a chapter or two in class; where his focus was soulmates, it hadn’t seemed important at the time. Now, though, seeing how their eyes shifted to grief and guilt, how they dropped their heads rather than rage against his censure, Will sorely wished he’d gone more in depth in his studies. Perhaps there’d been something there that would have allowed him to better understand the silence. The subservience.
“Beverly,” Hannibal called out, turning to her. “Your soulmate has endangered us all. What are you going to do?”
There were several emotions that passed over her face as everyone turned to her, but the one that stuck to Will’s skin was a desperate, cold despair, followed by absolute and utter resignation. It smelled of rancid meat, and when she turned to face her trembling soulmate, her ragged breaths were audible.
“B-Beverly…” Saul pleaded.
“No,” said Will, and he shook his head. When no one else said anything, he turned to Hannibal, the pain of the reality before him somehow worsening as he grabbed Hannibal’s wrist, tight. “Hannibal, don’t.”
Hannibal ignored him, his feral image stark against the firelight that crackled just behind him.
“Hannibal, please don’t,” Will hissed.
Beverly reached out to Saul and took his face in her palm, holding it. She smiled briefly, once, and he softened towards her.
“Beverly-” Will pleaded, and his voice caught on the end of her name.
Then, she plunged a knife into his chest.
Will had held his father as he died of cancer that no doctor could cure. He’d stared into Nick’s fading eyes as he bled along the carpet and ultimately went forever still. Matthew’s mismatched stare was damning, and the cold relief he’d felt at stabbing Garrett Jacob Hobbs made his heart pound and sweat break along his brow from adrenaline and a righteous fury. In reality, maybe there was something to be said about Hannibal’s belief, that if he just pushed Will hard enough than maybe, just maybe he’d See. Maybe there was something to it, that repetition would breed familiarity, and with that the love could maybe follow.
This, then, was a regression of sorts, if that was Hannibal’s plan.
The surprise on Saul’s face was stark. He slumped into the knife, much like Garrett Jacob Hobbs had, and he leaned into Beverly’s palm as he gasped for breath that refused to come. Her gaze was loving, tender. Her mouth opened to a perfect, surprised ‘o’, and tears filled her eyes.
Then, the screaming started.
Will didn’t realize his hands were over his ears until Francis was hauling him back by the crook of his arm. He was pulled away from the crowd of followers that rushed towards Beverly as she fell to the floor, hoarse as a violent noise burst from her lungs. They sluiced around Francis and Will until they created a circle, their voices murmuring, coalescing together. Just at the center of it, kneeling, was Hannibal.
“Beverly, Beverly, Beverly…”
Her screaming continued on as Saul fell to the floor, dying. Hannibal held her as she sobbed in air stained with red, and the look on his face was blissfully calm, relief apparent in the tender embrace. Francis took Will’s face and tucked it into his chest, his hands covering Will’s to muffle the sound more. Will took his physical touch in stride and tried to imagine something different instead, someplace where the taste of blood wasn’t becoming so familiar on his tongue.
All the while, Hannibal’s followers continued to chant Beverly’s name, even as she mourned the soulmate she’d murdered; even as she tried desperately not to follow him to the other side.
Freddie Lounds sat across from Jack Crawford and tilted her head, considering him. Jack stared back and cursed low under his breath.
“How in the God Damn world…”
“You told me to find Will Graham, and I did,” she returned calmly. Confidence was key when dealing with people like Crawford. You had to make him think you were as strong as he believed himself to be.
“Those two aren’t Will Graham.”
“Those two are innocent kids being held hostage because of their parents’ bad decisions,” she retorted. “Will wanted them out of the house before you came in, guns blazing. Seems he cares more about the innocent than you do.”
Crawford took her insult with unblinking, dour eyes.
“And you just managed to break in…how?”
This part of the lying was tricky. “I picked a lock into their root cellar and followed the basement hall upstairs.”
“The root cellar,” he repeated flatly.
“Root cellars still exist.”
“They do,” Crawford agreed.
Freddie Lounds was well-versed in lying. She’d managed to survive in her career as long as she had because of lying, cheating, stealing, and manipulating to get herself in the perfect position to get what she wanted. It was crucial to keep Beverly Katz a secret until the right time, otherwise the spy in the FBI could warn the house. As much as it was obvious that Beverly didn’t care for Freddie, Freddie didn’t want an agent getting killed all because she didn’t keep her mouth shut for once.
Once those people were out of that house, though…
Special Edition couldn’t even cover the sort of exposé she’d do. The reporter that broke the case wide open. She could see the money rolling in on all sides -the book alone would sell millions of copies. Maybe it’d get a gold stamp of approval from Oprah. If Oprah loved the book, America loved the book.
“So let me get this straight,” Crawford said at last, after he’d sat on her words long enough. “You’re telling me that you tried to make Will Graham come with you, but he refused because he thought that Lecter wouldn’t let them get away if he came too?”
Freddie’s stare was implacable. “It’s not those kids he kidnapped to force a soulmate bond with. They were victims of circumstance, much like what Graham used to be before all of this.”
“Used to be,” Jack prompted.
Freddie found it prudent not to respond. In truth, she hadn’t meant to word it that way.
Jack sighed and leaned back in his chair. The weight seemed to have sloughed off of him since this all began, although the fact that Freddie noticed irked her. He looked like his skin was too big for his bones, like he was one bad day away from becoming something much like Lecter himself if things didn’t go alright in the end. Crawford was the sort that needed a victory to make all of the suffering and the absolute Hell worth it.
“I got a call this morning,” he revealed heavily, “that Frederick Chilton currently is sitting in a morgue with a cello down his throat and his vocal cords exposed.”
“The Symphonic Strangler?”
“That’s what it appears to be. Records indicate that he received a phone call just before he disappeared from the institution, and the phone number is untraceable.”
Freddie tried her best to hide the thread of excitement that curdled her stomach. “Is the Symphonic Strangler working in collusion with Hannibal the Cannibal?”
“I’m not telling you this for your trash tabloid,” Jack snarled. “I’m trying to let you know the kind of shit you’ve gotten yourself into if you really managed to break into a house containing some of America’s most dangerous serial killers. How do I know these aren’t some run-of-the-mill kids that you picked up off of the street?”
“Check the DNA on the boy and you’ll see that he’s Molly Foster’s kid,” Freddie snapped. “And just ask Abigail Hobbs to tell you all about how Will Graham gutted the Minnesota Shrike so that she could run away. Maybe, if you’re nicer to her than me, she’ll give you the real story of her dear, old dad.”
Jack’s face, if anything, sunk deeper.
“Christ,” he murmured, and he stood up. “You’ll wait here until I get intel back about the coordinates you provided. If this checks out, Lounds, I won’t press charges for you willfully involving yourself in a federal investigation.”
“You should be thanking me, you-”
The door shut much harder than it should have. Freddie glared balefully at the lock that turned with just enough noise to reassure her of her trapped position, and she crossed one leg over the other, arms folded petulantly.
It was only mildly difficult to feign frustration, though. Jack wasn’t wrong in saying that she’d made herself a target of anyone that worked for Lecter. She liked her odds within the FBI HQ, though, rather than out in the open where anyone could potentially find her. If Crawford was in Georgia, that meant someone else was investigating the Symphonic Strangler in Baltimore, and Freddie didn’t like the odds of a guy like that sticking around Baltimore if he was truly working for Lecter. He’d go where was needed, wherever his master called him to.
Yeah…Freddie would just sit tight for a while. She’d done her duty -as much as she could call it duty, at least.
God, if Oprah liked the book…
“Debbie’s gone make you sleep outside for this,” Duncan murmured.
Murmuring was better than whispering, see. Whispers were sharp hisses that cut through the air and made just as much noise as normal tones more often than not. Soft murmurs, mutters, and low tones were best when one crept through the forest so late at night, camo coats zipped tight and electric socks doing their damn best to keep toes warm.
“She thinks I gone huntin’,” Earl replied, easing down a small bank. His boots were light despite the looks of them, and they found quiet places among the frosted leaves. More leaves on the ground than the trees, and it was going to be a cold Winter coming.
“Poachin’,” Duncan corrected. “She’s gone make you sleep outside for poachin’. Wants her house to be a ‘fuckin’ home’ if you recall. Homes don’t have poached meat, and she’s out there thinkin’ you’re poachin’. Gonna tell all those church folks next time she hosts Sunday fuckin’ brunch.”
“I recall,” said Earl.
They hadn’t seen hide nor tail of that gal, though, Ms. Freddie Lounds. They’d left her, but it’d left Earl with the sort of knots that made his evening bow practice rather spotty, and after the tenth arrow to miss far past its mark, he’d cursed and given up, opting instead for calling Duncan and asking of he, too, was worried for the pretty lady that’d stopped by.
Duncan said as much, too. Not in so many words, but the fact that he’d gotten to Earl’s house in less than three minutes said he’d been driving around, potentially looking for her. Sally at the nice diner down the road hadn’t seen any new blood running around, either, and her intel was as good as gold as far as Earl was concerned. If she wasn’t seeing Ms. Lounds, then Ms. Lounds hadn’t returned from whatever it was that she’d intended to do.
And that didn’t sit right with Earl in the least.
“What’cha think we’re walkin’ into?” Duncan asked as they crested another incline. “Think she kilt them?”
“Maybe,” Earl said, “maybe not.”
“Think they kilt her?”
“S’pose, yeah,” Earl agreed. That’s what he was worried about.
“So why’re we here and not calling the cops?”
Earl fixed him with a look that was hard to see in the darkness of the early morning. It quelled Duncan’s questions, though, as loud as they were starting to get. He was nervous underneath his sensible layers of coats and thermals; hell, Earl was, too. Georgia was a wet cold, and the darkness of the night lay frigid dew on their cheeks and nose tips. Duncan trembled ever-so-slightly in it and zipped his coat up the rest of the way. While they weren’t witches or psychics or anything odd, Earl had a damn good gut and enough sense to follow it when it kept him up at night.
“Probably same reason why you wore all camo and ain’t got no hunter’s orange on,” he said gravely. “Now come on and let’s see what we see.”
It’d been easy to find her tire tracks pulled off of the road. There were tracks going into the soft earth, but none leaving. In truth, the car could have reversed out rather than pull around to leave, but it seemed awful coincidental, their not seeing neither hide nor tail of her of her cheating husband.
And God damn, when he later saw her husband on the television as one of America’s Most Wanted, he’d all but jumped from his chair, upsetting Mutt and his wife in one fell swoop as he’d headed for his gun and his cell phone with nary an explanation.
He hadn’t told Duncan that part. Duncan was a worrier, and they didn’t need worry clouding their judgement should they come across wherever she’d headed. If the newscaster had been even remotely honest, then Ms. Lounds was in trouble.
And Christ Almighty, he didn’t owe her a lick of action on his part, but there they were.
There they fuckin’ were.
“You recall a house out here?” Duncan asked. Just in the far distance, the outside lights to a large home gleamed.
“An old one that Sherman didn’t burn.”
“Fuckin’ Sherman,” Duncan sneered. The South never forgot Sherman’s march to the sea. Georgia moreso, considering how many homes that were burned down.
“Some lady bought it up and fixed it real nice, but it never sold.”
At the sight of a shadow in the shape of a man cresting two sturdy oaks, Duncan and Earl ducked into an overhang, shifting among the hard-packed soil and the roots that hung as a curtain between him and them.
“Never sold,” Earl said, mouthing so low that the words hardly left his mouth. Duncan caught them, though; decades of hunting together -whether legal or otherwise- gave him that sense, that know-how to glance and read his best friend’s lips.
“Squatters?” he mouthed back.
Earl tracked the man passing silently through the trees, his steps just as sure and quiet as theirs had been. Earl and Duncan pressed deep into the curvature of the earth as he stalked by them, and when he turned at just the right angle, the moon illuminated his face.
As well as the AR-15 that he held close to his chest, gloved finger just beside the trigger-guard.
“Killers,” Earl said into Duncan’s ear long after the man had passed. His old friend’s skin was clammy, and it wasn’t from the cold. “Son-of-a-bitch, I think we found ourselves that nest of killers.”
And if Ms. Lounds was trapped inside with them, Earl and Duncan had themselves a bit of a job to do.
Hannibal found Will standing at the large bay window in the study, staring at nothing. He tried not to allow himself to revel too far into the feeling of relief and contentment at seeing his soulmate, the aching sensation that he was mere footsteps away from being able to hold close what he’d wanted for so long.
He’d contained himself for long enough to hold back, no matter how urgent the endorphins felt. He knew how the sentiment would be received.
“How is Beverly?” Will asked, and his voice was detached. He was falling away into himself, somewhere where he was holding his father and counting every second that the paramedic hadn’t reached them. Hannibal thought of teacups and just how shattered Will had looked when it broke on the floor between them.
He stopped three steps from Will and inhaled deeply; dirt from the forest. He hadn’t bathed since his last escape attempt. He wore his actions challengingly, daringly.
“She is asleep.”
It was a lie, and Will felt it. The line of his shoulders tensed, but he didn’t look away from the window.
“Are you chasing Abigail through the forest?”
“I wonder which one of us you’re lying to.” There was a bitter pause, and Hannibal could imagine the sardonic smile twitching his lips. “Are you lying to your avid worshipers, or are you lying to me?”
“You’d feel it,” Hannibal reminded him.
Silence once more. Will’s breathing shook his shoulders as he exhaled.
“What are you looking for, I wonder? Agent Crawford?”
“What semblance of humanity that is left, I suppose,” Will replied. “To watch a soulmate willingly stand before someone they claim to love and-”
His breath caught, and his shoulders turned in once more. Hannibal found himself taking another step before he could stop himself, and Will immediately drew away, chasing the distance until it sat between them, accusing. In that moment, all that Hannibal could think of was Will curled over Jack Crawford, gasping. He still dreamed of the panic that Will had exuded, the terror. The disbelief that once more he was to be the one holding a dying man.
Only, Jack Crawford hadn’t died and the fact that all roads led to that singular moment in time wasn’t lost to Hannibal. That he could go back in time in order to do things another way would be a blessing; the ideas, plans, and fantasies had played out so many times in Hannibal’s mind palace, locked away behind doors that he refused to open because the pain, in truth, was insurmountable. Unconsciously, he took another step.
“Don’t,” Will warned, and he hiccupped a breath. “I asked you not to make her do that, and you didn’t listen.”
“Will, Beverly chose to murder her soulmate.”
“You forced her hand.”
“I may not force Abigail Hobbs back into this house, Will Graham, but I do have to think of the people here.”
“The people,” Will sneered.
“There must be someone they could blame for these unfortunate circumstances. If Saul hadn’t fallen asleep at his post, he’d have seen them and stopped a potential leak in information.”
“And when I don’t conform to you in the end?” Will demanded, and his raised voice was somehow too big for the room. “Are you going to stand me in front of them and gut me, too? Whose name will they chant for your final Becoming; yours or mine?”
Since the initial connection of the full soulmate bond, Hannibal had found his body doing extraordinary things without his consent. In all of his readings, he’d come to understand the why and the how behind each new phenomenon -reaching out to touch Will, needing to walk closer to Will, having to know where Will was -and yet each time there was still some small sliver of surprise that someone somehow had the power to move him so easily. Before he could quite consider himself, Hannibal grabbed Will and turned him around, fingers digging into his shoulders.
Everything felt just right.
“I’d no sooner try and kill you than you kill me,” Hannibal murmured, and Will cringed. “I’d go so far as to claim that between you and me, the only bodies that would fall still would be the ones housing our enemies, not our lovers.”
“We’re not lovers.”
Hannibal hummed soft, low in in the back of his throat, and smiled. “The endorphins no doubt being released into your system says otherwise.”
He’d expected pushback; Will Graham was a stubborn creature, prone to having such vast awareness of himself that taking the ideas and considerations of another wasn’t always entirely possible. To suppose that Hannibal Lecter believed that this plan would go smoothly, that each carefully laid piece would stay where it was meant to be, would be to say that Hannibal Lecter was a fool.
Hannibal Lecter was no fool.
He was surprised once more, however, to see Will Graham look up to stare into Hannibal’s wonderfully mismatched eyes. His brilliant, blue eye and his dark, muted maroon eye narrowed, then did something extraordinary:
The pupils dilated.
“You’re going to kill me one day,” Will said, and his voice trembled. “And the only soulmate I’ll ever know is one so careless and cruel that he’d kill the only thing that made him feel remotely human.”
“Rest assured, Will,” Hannibal vowed, and he lifted his palm to cradle Will’s jaw. Instinct, Hannibal knew, that he leaned into his touch without thought. Soulmate action and reaction, but it still ached so very sweetly to feel it. “The only reason I’d ever try to kill you is if you tried to kill me first and failed.”
“Is that a promise?” Will wondered, and there was a thread of cold disbelief in his voice, even as he held ever-so-still against Hannibal’s touch.
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”