Everything was chaos.
Jacob huddled at the back of the group out on the lawn that hadn’t yet caught fire, and he desperately tried to appear as non-threatening as possible. One minute, he’d been reading in the library where Abigail had allowed him to kiss her, and the next there was the piercing siren of the perimeter alarm that told him to do something he wasn’t entirely sure he was prepared to do.
Of course, the moment the fire had started Jacob ran for the first exit that he could find. Right into the waiting arms of the FBI.
Fire licked along the pillars of the place he felt had become something of a home, the place where no matter the words that came from his mouth, it was accepted. The heat, even at their safe distance, scalded his skin and kept the chill of winter away. They’d never find the initials he’d carved in the library, the ones with his name and Abigail’s. He’d promised to kill her father for her. Turns out Will Graham did it instead, and now she was gone.
At least she got to miss out on this. Jacob would have almost bet that this was far more terrifying than even the first time he’s sat across from Hannibal Lecter.
You don’t belong here, Hannibal had said, piercing him with eyes that saw too much. But you could. I do believe, Jacob, that you could.
Just beside him, Candace from Utah trembled. They were grabbing the members of the Red Death one-by-one, frisking them a little more thoroughly before taking them to respective vans for detainment. Each of them had been checked for a capped tooth, and it seemed that the rumors were true: the other house had fallen, and all but one of those followers was dead.
“Did you take the pill?” he asked Candace, trying to keep his lips from moving. The handcuffs dug into his wrists and bent his elbow at a funny angle.
“Of course,” she replied passionately. In passing, she’d once mentioned that her only brush with death had been with a cheating ex-boyfriend.
After running him over, she kept on driving out of Utah and sooner or later found her way to Hannibal Lecter. The details, she said, were a bit murky.
“Then that’s it,” he breathed.
I don’t know about that,” she murmured.
“No talking,” an agent barked, and the huddle stiffened together in some sort of sloppy solidarity. “You’ve all been read your rights. As of right now, speaking with one another is strictly prohibited. If you have something to say, you may speak with a federal officer at this time.”
“I heard screaming before the siren,” Candace revealed after the agent had moved on to the next person to frisk. She was better at keeping her lips from moving.
Candace gave a slow nod that jerked erratically in the firelight. “Sounded like it was from Dr. Lecter’s office.”
Jacob wasn’t sure if there was a correlation, that screaming and now this, but as he looked upon the faces of these people whose house he was trying to call a home, he thought of the vial tucked away on his person and how none of them seemed to appear as afraid as he felt, how they all seemed so sure and blissfully calm as their safe space burned to the ground.
You don’t belong here. But you could.
“Where’s Dr. Lecter?” he wondered.
Candace opened her mouth, but before she could speak they were interrupted by Agent Jack Crawford letting out a wild shout just a few cars away from them. Oddly, he wasn’t turned to the house, but instead facing the forest and its darkness.
The same forest that Will Graham was currently walking out of, accompanied by two people that Jacob had never seen in his entire life.
“What in the—”
That was when the screaming started.
Jacob had been there when Beverly murdered Saul. It’d stayed with him long after that night. It stayed just behind his eyelids, and every time he blinked he was forced to see the surprise on Saul’s face, quickly followed by the horror. Soulmate severance, and he wasn’t ashamed to say that he stayed back when the rest of the crowd rushed forward, holding and hugging one another while Beverly sobbed for breath. He’d always been a little intimidated by Beverly, seeing as how she was clearly one of Hannibal’s most trusted. Whenever Saul wasn’t around, her face was impossible to read, hardened and stoic. Hearing her screams was probably one of the most terrifying things, that someone so reserved could hurt so much.
Seeing Will Graham of all people collapse into convulsions hurt much the same way. In the end, it seemed that no matter how strong or capable, how driven or powerful, everyone took a knee to their soulmate. Everyone.
You don’t belong here. But you could.
“No, no!” Jack Crawford ran for Will, and the huddled mass of followers trembled with their furious whispers to one another.
“That’s…no, no,” Candace moaned, and she wasn’t alone in her fears. Will Graham was screaming. Will Graham was in pain.
Something was wrong with Hannibal Lecter.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” someone chanted.
The others looked to the man that spoke. He was once a mildly successful author, and he often held small seminars in one of the parlors. His smile was wan as he stared at his companions, and he nodded encouragingly.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” he repeated, and the others, as one, nodded.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” someone else repeated, and there was a hushed murmur of people clearing their throats to join in. Something was wrong with Hannibal. The Red Death had reached them.
Prince Prospero had fallen.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” Candace chanted, and she looked at Jacob with a smile, eyes shining bright from tears.
The firelight caressed Jack Crawford as he reached Will Graham. He held his shotgun aloft to one of the men, and they reached for the sky, AR-15 arcing overhead. The other calmly put his gun down onto the earth and followed suit with his partner, mouth moving rapidly. Who was he? How had he gotten there? From the distance, it was hard to tell.
Will Graham continued to thrash upon the ground, screaming.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” the group chanted together, their voices growing.
More agents followed behind Jack, two of which carried a stretcher between them. Jacob tracked their quick and efficient movements, their disregard for the others that fought the fire and continued to corral any follower that hadn’t made it from the house yet. Jacob swallowed raggedly, his breath coming short. Not many followers came from the house. The ones still inside were likely already dead.
You don’t belong. But you could.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” the group chanted. FBI agents turned guns on them, their voices indistinct over the screaming, over the sound of shattering glass as one of the windows gave out to the heat.
“GET HIM OUT OF HERE NOW!” Jack bellowed, and the fire roared in return. Jacob thought of Abigail’s kiss in the library, how she’d trembled. Was she afraid of her father?
Was she afraid of Jacob?
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
The voices rose, then broke. One-by-one, his friends and family began to convulse, foam frothing from their mouths as they dropped to the ground and flopped like limp fish in the firelight.
“And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable—”
“Medic! We need a medic here, stat, we—”
jacob stumbled back from them, his chest heaving. Someone grabbed him by the elbow, and he turned wild eyes to see Candace vomiting before falling to the ground, hands at her throat. Her eyes were hidden from him, but he knew what they’d have conveyed. Confusion at his lack of action. Confusion at his lack of words.
He wasn’t one of them. They’d been betrayed.
You don’t belong. But you could.
It was chaos, agents with medic bags and quick movements jostling him about as the other followers died, ugly and horrific with fixed faces of pain. Death was not beautiful. Death was not poetic. Jacob had been in the room the day that Will Graham had given his speech, how death was nothing more than death, ugly and distinctly intimate. His eyes then had begged understanding, horror at the face of so many that disagreed because they didn’t know.
They didn’t know.
He didn’t realize he was in the back of a cop car until his breathing stopped cutting jaggedly through his ears, until his head was pressed to the window in order to cool the sweat that collected at his temples. They were dead. They were dead, and it seemed that in the end Will Graham was completely right in his analysis of death and murder and all of the ugly things in between. Death was a waste.
In that moment, choking on his own air, Jacob wasn’t sure if he could say he was glad to not have been a waste, or if he was regretful because in the end it seemed like he truly didn’t belong anywhere after all.
They found Agent Zeller barely clinging to life in the basement of the wretched house that burned to ash around them. Having already seen off an unconscious Will Graham in one ambulance, Jack wasn’t stopped from climbing into the back of the second in order to hold his friend’s hand all the way from the place whose walls wept fire to a hospital where he could finally be saved. He tried his damned best not to cry.
Agent Jack Crawford of the illustrious FBI sat down in front of Earl and let out a quiet, exhausted sigh.
Earl didn’t make comment on it. He knew how most grown men got with things that could maybe be considered a weakness, things like sighing and all. Groaning like that in front of a suspect was the sort of thing to say that he was maybe too tired to interrogate, but he was going to do his best. Maybe, seeing some of the stuff that Earl saw, he could figure that Agent Crawford was just getting too old for things like mass-suicide and so many bodies tumbling down around them every which way.
Most people would never really be at an age where that was a commonality in their day-to-day lives.
He was an aggressive-looking man, in truth. His shoulders were broad, his jaw was square, and something in the way his eyes cut right through you made Earl more than glad that he was just a citizen getting in over his head rather than one of the ass-hats causing the problem. He looked old, though –maybe aged was a better word. Something had snuffed the life out of his skin, left it ashen and a little lined. More than lined. Earl squared him up just as much as he was sure that he was being squared, and that was fine by him.
“Seein’ as how I didn’t suddenly drop dead right there on the burnin’ lawn, maybe you’re supposin’ I’m not one of those cultists?” Earl suggested when Agent Crawford didn’t speak right away.
Agent Crawford looked up from his file and fixed Earl once more with a long, hard stare. Earl stared back, unmoved. Debbie’s scowls could have put this man’s to shame, although he wouldn’t say it. He could almost imagine her grooved glare when she realized he hadn’t been out poaching and instead had taken his evening activities to the forest with all manner of psychotic folks and screaming doctors.
Shit, his stuff was probably already packed and sitting on the porch next to the bedroll where her brother sometimes slept when she kicked him out for being ornery.
“Your friend already talked,” the agent said at last.
Earl let out a loud, ugly guffaw of a laugh. “Sure as shit, he didn’t.”
“You sound awfully sure about that.”
“That’s ‘cuz it’s Duncan. Maybe you’d have got Jess or Henry to open their traps, seein’ as how they’re a gossip and a damn half, but I’ll bet you five hundred bucks right now he’s shut up tighter than Fort Knox and said he won’t say shit until he’s confirmed from me verbally that I’ve already done explained it all,” Earl replied, and his slow and easy grin was probably a bit too hard for the agent to handle. His lips compressed, his brows drawn down sharply in great, deep divots.
“Why don’t you walk me through how we found you holding Will Graham on the lawn of a house used as a disguise to harbor wanted fugitives?” Agent Crawford suggested.
Earl nodded slowly. “You found us there since Will Graham said that he needed to get to you because you being there was a trap.”
“How did you find him?”
“Nearly dying through his soulmate bond. He was being threatened and questioned by an Asian lady, and when she lifted her gun up I knocked her clean out. Wasn’t sure what she was plannin’ on doin’ with it, but I wasn’t gonna take no chances. Those bastards are stir-crazy.” A pause. “Were,” he added lamely.
Agent Jack Crawford’s facial expression didn’t change, but there was something in the way his fingers tapped lightly on the file before him that said the information about an Asian woman was news to him. Call it Earl’s gut, but he shifted in his seat, unsure.
“Y’all did go find an Asian woman tied up in the woods, didn’t you?” Earl asked, nervous. “Real quiet type, moved just as soft as we did. Said she was going to go get your nasty little cannibal that y’all been lookin’ for. I was tryin’ to tell y’all about her when y’all were busy cuffin’ me and Duncan, but no one was really inclined to listen to us. Had her tied up good as you like, although she could have got out if she was as good in the woods as she looked.”
“And why were you in the woods at night, well past sundown?” Agent Crawford asked. He glanced to Earl’s attire, then back. “Armed with a field knife, a bowie knife, a machete, an AR-15, a 9mm XD, and dressed in camouflage,” he growled pointedly.
Earl could admit just how guilty it made him look, but he wasn’t going to back down anytime soon. He figured it wasn’t worth it to tell Agent Crawford that they’d actually camped out for a couple of days making a game plan. “We were goin’ to go check on Ms. Lounds, seein’ as how she went after her husband, but looks like her husband was part of that cult. You catch him? You get her, or do you think they killed her?”
The long, hard stare given was mildly off-putting, given the nature of its confusion. Earl wanted to shift in his seat, but he maintained his position. He may have done a few unorthodox things, as Debbie would have put it, but he didn’t regret it. He’d been able to help, even just a little, and that was fine by him. Debbie wasn’t his soulmate, but he wondered if he’d scream much the same way that Will Graham did, should she ever get hurt. That noise alone had haunted him, haunted him long after the poor doctor had gone unconscious, long after they’d strapped him to a gurney and drove him off, long after, as one, all of the surviving and conscious cultists had begun reciting a soft, chilling speech of sorts before they dropped, one-by-one, to the ground where they convulsed and died.
Lord above, he wasn’t a church-goin’ man, but he hoped to hell Debbie hadn’t put his shit outside on the porch where her brother sometimes slept. She wasn’t his soulmate, but she could probably make more sense of this than he could. She’d be able to explain all the nuances and bull-shit that went over his head, all the while making her homemade potato casserole that’d won 4 different competitions across two counties. She wasn’t his soulmate, but he sure as hell loved her, even with all of the church groups and Sunday sermons and the lack of ability to chew tobacco in the house.
Agent Crawford let out a slow, furious breath and leaned back in his chair, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “Alright, Mr. Fischer,” he said, and his tone alone showed just how tired he was. “Alright; Ms. Lounds, you say?”
“That’s right, married that psychopath that stuck a knife in your man at that gas station up in northern Georgia. Said he’d cheated on her and she wanted to get hers.”
“Get hers,” Jack Crawford repeated.
“Mr. Fischer –”
“Just Earl is fine by me, Agent Crawford.”
“Right.” He shuffled the papers in front of him and leaned back in his chair, the hinges creaking dangerously. “Okay, Earl, why don’t you walk me through how you got roped into all of this, starting first with how you met Miss Lounds.”
“It’ll take awhile,” Earl said warningly.
Agent Crawford hummed low in his throat and nodded. “I’ve got time.”
Will woke in a soft room with muted lights. He stared at a ceiling in an off-white color –off-white because white was too harsh for those in grief. The corners of the table, he knew, were rounded, as well as the window whose corners had been sanded down to fit perfectly into the wall.
He lay there for some time, breathing. There was something hollow inside of him, aching, and it fluttered painfully with each heartbeat. There was a burning sensation just along his skin, but that paled in comparison to how empty everything felt. His bones were hollow. His veins were hollow. He wondered about his lungs, if he coughed too hard that surely dust and rot would fall from his mouth that was dry and tender, chapped and scabbed from where he’d bitten cleanly through.
He inhaled a breath, but it came short and left him wanting. His vision watered, and he stuffed his fist into his mouth to keep from screaming. Hannibal, Hannibal; what have you done to Hannibal?
A piece of him was missing, something much like an arm that was severed or an organ removed. When breathing became too labored, he rolled over to his side and curled up, trembling. Something was hollow inside of him. Something had opened him up and scooped everything out of him that was ever important, ever special.
He didn’t move when the door opened. He didn’t move when the footsteps hesitated, unsure, nor did he move when they continued towards him with purpose. Given how muted the sound, Will supposed either it was either a very, very soft floor or a very, very soft foot.
Dr. Alana Bloom came into view with red-rimmed eyes.
Neither one of them spoke. Will removed his knuckles, marked with his teeth, from his mouth as she busied herself with pulling a beanbag chair closer to him and perched just on the edge of it. The sight of her sensible skirt and dress shirt rumpled by the beans that sank and squished about her was comical, but there wasn’t anything inside of him that could bring a laugh to his mouth. He tracked the pulse thudding in her neck, and he frowned.
“You’ve been crying,” he noted, voice raw and hoarse. His throat ached.
Her laugh was strangled. “Yeah…yeah, I have, Will.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
“Do I want to –” she scoffed, and her hands clenched to fists in her lap. “Do I want to talk about it, really, I –”
“You hit something, too,” said Will casually, staring at her pink and abused knuckles. He swallowed with difficulty and resisted the pressing need to hold his breath until everything around him was swallowed in that black silence once more.
“The steering wheel,” she explained coarsely. “Couple times. I yelled a bit, too.”
“Did it help?”
Her smile shook. “…At first. Now, I just feel silly.”
“Don’t feel silly,” Will assured her. “Therapy comes in all forms. I have a scream, too.”
“Do you?” she asked, and her voice gentled.
“Oh, yes,” Will affirmed with a nod. “It’s perched just…just at my lips. Right behind my teeth.”
“Have you tried letting it out?”
“I think I did already, Dr. Bloom. It’s the sort of scream that no matter how much you push it out, there’s always more there. I’d just…keep going, wouldn’t I?”
“Will –” she began, but he shook his head.
“Where’s Jack?” he asked, and he pushed himself into an upright position, letting his socked feet touch the floor. Definitely a soft flooring, something spongy and improbable to hurt oneself on. It was a standard soulmate-severance grieving room, complete with a door boasting a smooth surface devoid of any place for a handle. When unlocked, it swung on smooth and hidden hinges. When locked, it was an impenetrable tomb.
“He’s here, Will,” Alana replied, and she sat forward. “We’re all here.”
This was what she was waiting for, it seemed. Now that they knew about his eye –his fucking eye –then they knew about Hannibal.
What have you done, Will? What have you done?
“Still in Georgia?”
“We’re at the headquarters for the FBI in Atlanta,” she said. A minor hesitation, then, “Will, you know that I was sent in here first for a reason.”
“He’s dead,” Will said curtly, and his tongue was serrated from the words.
Silence. Will stood and padded across the spongy floor in order to stare into the two-way mirror that rested fixed and seamless into the opposite wall of the window. He scanned his blacked reflection, mouth taut.
“That’s what you wanted to know, right?” Will asked the people that he knew were on the other side. “How’s Will, where’s his head, and is Hannibal Lecter of all the people in the world actually dead?”
Her silence was acquiescence. He scanned the opaque mirror and bared his teeth.
“He’s dead,” he repeated savagely when she didn’t speak. Maybe she knew that he didn’t want condolences, how roughly it’d smart in his chest where something had carved out all the important bits. “He’s dead, and I feel like something inside of me was removed. It hurts, as we know with soulmate severance.”
“Can I see Jack now?” he interrupted, still staring at the wall. “And…and Winston?”
“Of course, Will,” Alana replied, and after a brief pause she stood.
She walked to the door, and it was then that he looked back to her, swaying with the sensation of a strong wind that was pushing, pushing, and what have you done?
“I’m sorry they scared you,” he said, thinking of the Symphonic Strangler and Maggie Kester.
She paused, palm pressed flat to the door. “Did they tell you what happened?”
“No, but they assured me that they didn’t have to kill you. I was relieved, Dr. Bloom.”
Her smile was thin. “Me too, Will. I…”
But he wouldn’t know what she truly wanted to say. In truth, what could she say? That her terror and fear was nothing to what’d lurked behind Will’s eyes for the last few months, what left him weak and hollow and empty and there he was getting locked behind another door again.
He knew what this was, though. As she walked out and the door latched shut behind her, Will didn’t need an explanation. Jack Crawford didn’t know that Will had actually become Hannibal’s soulmate, didn’t know until he heard him screaming that Will hadn’t been able to make it in time. This was a test. Hannibal Lecter’s soulmate, alive to tell the tale of what truly went on behind the walls of that fucking house of horrors.
Jack entered first, closely followed by Winston. Will sunk to the ground to accept the onslaught of sniffing, licking, and whining once more, his fingers sinking deep within the layers of fur in order to ground himself, in order to find something to stop the burning sensation on every inch of his skin that screamed that something was terribly wrong.
Will stared at Jack Crawford’s shoes after he’d sufficiently hauled Winston onto his lap.
“That’s a nice dog you got there,” Jack ventured, and it sounded just like before, only it wasn’t because nothing was the same anymore.
“You shined your shoes,” Will replied.
Silence. Jack Crawford had shined his shoes, and Will’s intestines felt as though they’d been surgically removed.
“I’m sorry,” said Jack, and his voice dropped so low it was hard to catch the sound.
Will looked up, and his eyes met Jack’s There they were, one eye blue, the other maroon, and the tic near Jack’s eye said that seeing it on a face like Will’s wasn’t ever going to feel right, wasn’t ever going to be okay because how could anything be okay after this?
Will kept his stare though, mostly because seeing Jack grounded him. Seeing Jack meant that everything was coming together, that although it could never be alright, at least it meant that the nightmare was going to come to an end soon.
“Come on, Jack,” he murmured, but Jack shook his head.
“I was too late,” Jack replied, and he rubbed hands roughly over his eyes, fingernails digging into the soft skin there. “I was too fucking late, and I –”
“I’m the one that didn’t make it to the end, not you,” Will interjected. His fingers worked small whorls into Winston’s ears.
Jack’s face fell, and Will saw the horrors of everything he’d had to endure in the lines there, in the crevices that spelled out just how much he’d suffered while Will had been captured.
Will studiously focused on that perfect, soft spot on Winston’s ear and rubbed it.
“I’m sorry,” said Will distractedly, “really, Jack, I am.”
“Don’t you say that,” Jack growled, and despite Will’s focus on Winston he took two steps and hauled Will to his feet, holding onto his shoulders tightly. Winston gave a yelp and a tumble, and Will thought of the night Abigail had escaped, how Hannibal had held him much the same and told him he knew Will had enjoyed seeing Garrett Jacob Hobbs die. His touch was a burn against skin that already ached and blistered, and a tremor worked through him.
“I’m sorry,” he couldn’t help but say again, and Jack hauled him close, hugging him tight enough to feel like maybe he could piece the bits of Will back together that’d somehow fallen apart the moment he took a linoleum knife to the one person that his chemicals needed to survive.
“You’re alive,” Jack said into his ear, and Will hugged him back tightly, just as desperate to feel someone that had never used him for their own survival or games, for their own wants or desires. “God dammit, Will, I’m just so relived you’re alive, I…I’m so god damn happy that you’re alive.”
“I didn’t make it,” he said miserably, and his eyes burned. He’d get colored contacts after this, something to hide the realities of just what it took to move his chemicals inside. “I tried, but I didn’t make it. Less than one percent, Jack…”
“Don’t think on that, Will. I’m just…you lived. You’re here, and you’re alive.”
“I got him with a linoleum knife,” Will replied into his shoulder, and his arms ached from how taut he held himself. “I felt it as he died.”
“You stabbed him?”
“I got him good,” Will said savagely, and it was a cheese grater on his tongue to say it. “I watched him bleed out onto an oriental rug just like the one from his old office. It looked black almost, in the firelight.”
And despite everything, it was Agent Jack Crawford of the FBI who first broke down and began to cry, holding Will close like he’d lose him again if he somehow got out of sight.