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Where the Wicked Walk

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Chapter 1:

            When four non-descript SUV’s pulled into Will Graham’s apartment complex, he knew something had happened.

            He hadn’t seen a column of cars like that for quite some time –six years, in fact. The first time they’d come to question him, he’d been near-frightened by the manner in which they sequestered him and talked circles around him to the point of dizziness. Now, outside as he was with his dog, he saw them before they’d parked, and he had enough time to mentally prepare himself for the onslaught.

            Agent Jack Crawford led the group, and honestly that was just the icing on the cake.

            “I’m not seeing any psychiatrists,” he said, rubbing Winston’s ears to reassure him.

            “Is that what you thought I was going to ask?”

            “The last time you showed up at my house, it was to pester me about my psychiatrist and if he’d ever mentioned anything suspicious,” Will replied, not looking at him. “You, in fact, asked if he’d ever ‘confided in a desire to cannibalize anyone.’”

            Jack Crawford, despite Will’s prickly tone, smiled. It made the crinkles around his eyes emphasize the mismatched colors of brown. “How have you been, Will?”

            “Good,” he said, glancing to Jack’s dress shoes. They were scuffed, indicative of a lot of foot work in the past day or so. “Not so good for you, though.”

            Out of the corner of his eye, he noted two agents ascending the stairs towards his apartment. One of them barely avoided kicking a terra cotta pot off of the ledge as they went.

            “What makes you say that?”

            “There’s at least four agents per car, and four cars in the parking lot,” said Will, and he sat down on the metal bench to get somewhat comfortable. He sensed the lengthy conversation like the dips in the warped metal. “The only reason you’d come to me with that kind of arsenal and unpolished shoes means something happened.”

            Jack sat down as well, and that solidified Will’s suspicions. Things were grave indeed.

            “I haven’t been home to give them the proper shoe shine,” he admitted with a bark of laughter. The forced ease sat on the back of Will’s neck and made him cringe.

            “Is it about Hannibal Lecter?”

            “Yes.”

            Will sighed and looked up at the sky. Sensing his uncertainty, Winston put his head in his lap and whined.

            When he said nothing else, Jack ventured, “That’s a nice dog, Will.”

            “I adopted him,” Will replied absently, scratching Winston’s ear. “He was going to be killed at the shelter, but I adopted him before they could.”

            “You empathize with dogs, too?”

            “I empathize with anyone,” he retorted. “Even those no one should empathize with.”

            “People like Dr. Lecter?” Jack tested.

            “I haven’t heard from him, Agent Crawford,” Will said, looking to him. He focused on the fat of his earlobe and frowned impressively. “He sent me a letter last year, congratulating me on my doctorate. I burned it.”

            “Other graduates frame his letters,” said Jack. Will could sense his admiration, that he wouldn’t want to keep something from someone like Hannibal.

            “Other graduates weren’t his patient.”

            Jack hmm’d low in his throat and nodded. He was at odds with what he wanted to say, a hesitance in his mannerisms. Behind him, the other agents that had tarried around the SUV’s fanned out through the apartment complex.

            “Just tell me,” Will prompted.

            “I’d show you if I thought it would help.”

            “Just telling me is fine.” Will didn’t want to see whatever it was Jack wanted to show.

            Jack nodded and shifted on the uncomfortable bench. “A woman walked into a police station just the other day. In front of everyone, she strode over to the nearest officer and gutted him with a linoleum knife. She was shot down, and autopsy revealed that underneath her clothing, she’d written over every inch of her body from the neck down.”

            The mention of the linoleum knife was enough. “Which article of his had she written on her skin?”

            “Evolution of Violence from Human Ancestry,” Jack replied.

            Will nodded along, lips pressed so tight he felt the blood leave them. He rubbed Winston’s ear with a little more vigor, chastised himself silently for even asking. He hadn’t needed to ask. He didn’t need to know what sort of sick person paid homage to someone like Hannibal Lecter.

            “Well, what matters is that he hasn’t contacted me,” he said at last.

            “Has anyone contacted you about this?”

            “No one. I hadn’t even seen the news report.” Will smiled, grim and just as ugly as Jack’s. “How’s your wound?”

            It was a savage attack, all things considered. Jack Crawford, despite being a prickly and obsessive agent when he was on the case, was a decent person. The gut wound he’d taken from Lecter when he brought him down had nearly killed him. If Will hadn’t found him, walking into Hannibal’s office for his appointment, he’d have certainly died.

            Sometimes, Will still dreamt of how Jack’s blood had felt all over his hands.

            “Very healed,” Jack assured him. “Aggressive tactics when you’re feeling cornered won’t work on me, Will. I’m just concerned for you.”

            “I know,” Will said, and that was as apologetic as he could make himself sound. He dipped his head and used both hands to rub Winston’s ears. Self-soothing through use of an animal, and it tended to work as far as he was concerned.

            “Given how he’s behaved around you, I just want to make sure that you’ll call us if anything happens.” A pause. “You will call me if anything happens.” It wasn’t a request.

            “He’s still locked up, isn’t he?”

            “Yes. I had a chat with him this morning.”

            Will nodded, logging that fact away as an immense relief. Hannibal Lecter was best suited behind bars, not walking as a free man in any place.

            “Then I’m fine,” he assured Jack. “I’ll call if something odd happens, but I don’t think he’d give much consideration to me. I was one of many patients.”

            Jack gave him a look that said he thought Will had clearly lost his marbles. “He asked me just this morning how you were doing,” he said slowly, like speaking to a toddler. Will opened his mouth to object, and Jack continued, “Above that, you were the one that found me, Will. You called for an ambulance, and as you tried to staunch the blood flow, he stood not ten feet from you and didn’t kill you.”

            “I was his patient,” Will repeated stubbornly.

            “I would bet my life that if it were any other patient that walked in that door, we’d both be dead,” Jack countered.

            His confidence bled from his pores, and Will found himself taking some of it as a result, an unconscious act that left him feeling strangely lucky to be alive. He’d sometimes wondered at that; as he’d stood on the stand and answered questions against Dr. Lecter, as he’d sat at the back and listened to the verdict, and for many years after, he found himself wondering just how he’d survived Dr. Lecter. It wasn’t luck; that was certain. Dr. Lecter had stood hidden in the shadows of his opulent office, watched Will as he tried desperately to save Jack, and he hadn’t killed him. He’d made the conscious decision not to hurt Will –he’d even snuck out of the exit rather than even engage Will in any sort of threat or banter. Sometimes, Will woke in the middle of the night with the sensation of someone’s eyes burning into the back of his skull, and he considered asking Dr. Lecter just why he’d decided to spare him.

            Then common sense would set in, and he’d go back to sleep.

            “The officer died, didn’t he?” he asked suddenly, feeling cold.

            “Yes.”

            They considered one another, and Will sighed, patting Winston’s side. The dog licked at his pant leg and sidled off to sniff about the grass; the cold seemed to grow with his departure.

            “I’m sorry.”

            “No need to be sorry, Will. We’re hoping this is an isolated event, but I just wanted to check on you.” Jack could sense Will retreating within himself, lost to his thoughts of the cop that’d died so that a fanatic could make a statement. He took that as his cue to leave, and he stood, holding his hand out to shake Will’s. After a beat, Will followed suit, shifting from one foot to the other.

            “If he’s still talking about me, I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I mean, maybe if we were soulmates, but that’s not the issue.”

            “What do you think the issue is?” Jack asked.

            “I’d say it’s a lot of him wanting to pick at you the only way he knows how,” Will replied. “And since you’re here, that’s a pretty easing picking on his part.”

            He was doing that thing that he did when he was nervous about something, picking up the tone and cadence of phrases from others. He felt Jack’s stare like a sunburn, and he shifted again, stepping away. He’d tried to work on that, once, when he’d been seeing a therapist.

            Then that therapist went and ate a lot of people, and therapists didn’t seem like such a good idea after that.

            “Keep in touch, Will,” Jack reminded him. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from his jacket pocket and pulled it out, murmuring a curt, “Move out,” into it before he headed back to his army of cars.

            Will watched him leave, each car peeling out of the parking lot with smooth, uniformed efficiency, and he let out a slow breath that burned on the way out.

-

            The news was horrible when it wanted to be. It made a light mockery of the baffled FBI and DC police, all the while spreading a fear-mongering sort of behavior regarding the illustrious ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’. Will sat on his apartment couch with his roommate, Beverly, Winston curled up at their feet.

            “How does he still look good, even after six years of no sunlight?” Beverly wondered, elbow-deep in the popcorn bowl on her lap. The photo provided was of him in profile, stark cheekbones lethal, giving way to deep-set eyes and a prominent brow. The orange jumpsuit didn’t give his skin the same sallow look that it gave others. Will scowled at the photo.

            “He’s going to enjoy the attention,” Will noted.

            “You think?”

            Will tried often enough not to think about the not-so-good doctor, but at her innocent, unobtrusive question, he tried. He thought back to the days he’d sat in a comfortably crafted, leather chair and attempted to open himself up to the sort of scrutiny that would potentially help him combat his hyper-empathy. He thought back to the calm, witty, and oftentimes remarkably clever doctor and how Will always left feeling as though he’d taken some sort of monumental, pivotal step in understanding himself.

            He thought back to those god-awful ties that Dr. Lecter always, always wore, and he snorted.

            “Yes. It’s been years since he’s been in the news, and if there’s one thing that an intelligent psychopath like Dr. Lecter needs, it’s an audience to admire his work,” he said after a minute. When the news cut to commercial, he muted the television and rubbed the stress from his eyes. “Someone admiring him so acutely that they painstakingly wrote his words on their skin, then murdered a cop the way he tried to murder Agent Crawford? I’ll bet the son-of-a-bitch is just preening in his cell right now.”

            Beverly nodded and chewed noisily around an over-stuffed mouth of popcorn. “I know you don’t like talking about it, but what was it like to be in therapy with him?”

            “…Far more calming than you’d think,” he said slowly. Her nonchalance in asking made it easier to be honest. “Despite everything he did outside of work, he was actually a very good therapist.”

            He unmuted the television when the news came back on, and he stared at the picture of the woman that had made the gruesome attack. Due to the nature of her death, they didn’t show a crime scene photo, but they did show her Facebook profile picture. She was innocent-looking, from her blonde hair to her dark brown eyes and her engaging, full-lipped smile. The picture of kindness. The picture of something sweet.

            “Authorities have revealed the woman as Melinda Carson, a full-time worker at a local convenience store with a soulmate and a son that made the attack on Officer Henson,” the news anchor said. Her own mismatched eyes narrowed in mock-speculation. “Her boyfriend is unavailable at the time for questioning, but sources say that she seemed, for all intents and purposes, a completely normal young woman.”

            “They all seem normal, don’t they?” Beverly commented. She shoved another handful of popcorn into her mouth.

            “You’re the one studying criminology,” Will replied.

            “So far, I’d say they all seem normal until you start finding body parts in their freezer.”

            Will thought so, too. As the picture cut away from her and back to a picture of Lecter, he looked instead to the decorations on the wall that Beverly had insisted upon putting up. Never one to really care about wall décor or if the curtains matched the paint, he’d let her have at it with the critical eye of someone that enjoyed Pinterest far too much.

            “I mean, she’s got a soulmate, too,” she continued, “and a son. How does someone just…do that when they’ve got a family to think about?”

            Will had taken classes on that, given his current occupation. “He’s either involved with her and completely supportive and aware of it, or she’s placed her obsession far above his head,” he replied.

            “What do you mean?”

            “She has a soulmate. If there was any fault in the soulmate, from his behavior to his looks to their connection, she’d naturally place her interest somewhere that she felt she’d never reach. A desire and connection for someone she’d never have, therefore she could give her fantasies a place to go wild.” He snorted. “Just because she has a soulmate doesn’t mean she particularly likes them. Hell, it could just be a half-connection, and she resents the shift of her eyes.”

            “That’s true,” Beverly allowed. “I read your thesis. You should have titled it ‘Soulmates Aren’t the End-All.”

            “I thought about it, but I also wanted to graduate,” Will replied. “The entire panel of judges all had soulmates. Hell, even you have a soulmate, Beverly.”

            “Saul is a good guy,” she replied, “but even I know that not everyone gets a good guy as a soulmate.”

            “When am I going to meet him?”

            “Soon, I promise.”

            The news cut to commercial once more, and he muted the TV, stealing a handful of popcorn. He’d never met Saul, busy as he was with his residency and Beverly firing on all pistons for her final semester of grad school. Despite how comfortable he was in her presence due to the last four years of rooming together, Will didn’t know too much about her apart from her design quirks and her avid adoration for Mac‘N Cheese when she was drunk

            It was better that way, though.

            He still felt Jack’s concern like a sheen of dried sweat on his skin, so he muttered a quick goodnight and made his way to the bathroom to try and wash it off.

-

            He woke with a start to someone in the room.

            They weren’t quiet about it, if he was being entirely honest. His desk chair clattered to the side, and there was a muffled uumph as they ran into the edge of his dresser. Silence descended, save for their heavy breathing, broken by a stifled sneeze. Will sat up and stared into the shadowed outline of their presence, and he let out an irritable, slow sigh.

            “Molly, what are you doing?”

            “Sorry, go back to sleep,” she hissed, and despite himself, he cracked a grin.

            “I can’t go back to sleep. Hang on.”

            He turned on the lamp to the side of the bed and blinked blearily up at her frozen form near the end of the bed. She held her high heels in one hand and a clutch in the other, her cheeks flushed from drinking far too much. Her matching, darling blue eyes were wide and shiny like marbles.

            “Sorry, sorry,” she said, tossing her things down. “I thought to surprise you.”

            “I am surprised,” he promised her. At the foot of the bed, Winston guarded his legs and watched Molly with the sort of wariness that only a loving dog could provide. When she extended her palm, he sniffed it and allowed her closer with a wary fwapping of his tail.

            “Can I get in?” she asked, nudging the bed with her thigh.

            Will debated it, then sighed and scooted over for her. In the time it took for him to get situated, her clothes were discarded on the floor, and she was sidling up to him beneath the covers, smelling of sweat, grenadine and peach vodka.

            “We went out dancing, and I thought of you,” she said. “I’ve thought of you all night.”

            “We can’t keep doing this,” he murmured, but he found himself wrapping an arm around her all the same. As they laid back, she snagged the lamplight and they lay pressed together in the dark, the alcohol-induced heat of her skin warm and inviting in his foggy mind.

            “You say that every time, but you’ve never asked for your key back,” she said lightly. Kindly. Molly was never the mocking sort, and their on-again-off-again relationship was made all the easier for it. “You still let me go on walks with Winston, and when you got into your car accident, I’m the one you called.”

            “I know,” he said, tracing idle designs against her shoulder. Her bare skin, despite smelling like she’d been partying, was tempting. Stress is what he’d label the thoughts surrounding Hannibal Lecter, and Molly was the sort of person that eased his thoughts, took the stress away. Caring about Molly was easy. In the four years he’d known her, caring about her was as natural as breathing.

            In reality, it was his fault that it was an on-again-off-again sort of thing. In the words of Molly last time he ended things, if she had her way then they’d always be on.

            “You’re not going to kick me out of bed, are you?” she asked when he didn’t reassure her. “If you did and I had to get back into that sweaty dress in order to go sleep on the couch, you’d be a cruel sort of person you know.”

            “I like you in this bed,” he assured her.

            “For now,” she said, and she leaned across his shoulder to kiss his bare chest. “That means you’ve either reevaluated your stance on ‘Will Graham in relationships is a terrible idea’, or you’re feeling particularly vulnerable right now.”

            Well, there was that. Molly, for all of their pauses and their more-off-than-on relationship, probably knew him better than anyone else.

            “…I’m feeling particularly vulnerable,” he admitted after getting a feel for how the admission would sound. Calm and level, all things considered. His voice was low and smooth, even though his blood felt like it didn’t quite fit in his veins. Her mouth passed along his chest, paused at the dip where the ribs met in the center of his chest.

            “Bad day?”

            “…You saw the news, didn’t you? Is that why you came?”

            She wasn’t a liar by any means. She kissed her way to his collarbone and paused there, biting it. “I did.”

            “You were worried about me.” His hand slid along her arm, glided beneath the covers to press to her bare hip.

            “Despite your stance on us only ending in misery someday, I maintain that I do care about you.”

            “I care about you,” Will said. He rolled to his side to stare at her shape in the dark, and he sighed. “I care about you, Molly.”

            She kissed his lips and adjusted around him. Her mouth tasted like the maraschino cherries from mixed drinks. “I know, Will.”

            “Jack Crawford came to see me. He was worried, too.”

            He couldn’t see her smile, but he could hear it. “Do I have to share with Jack Crawford?”

            “This bed can’t fit you, me, Winston, and Agent Crawford.”

            “Thank god.” She kissed him again, pressing into him as her arms curled over his shoulders with fingers tangled into his hair. “We’re good together, aren’t we?” she whispered against his lips.

            “We’re good together,” he promised. Her kisses made him dizzy, made him feel like he was the one who’d spent his evening drinking.

            She rolled them so that she could straddle him properly, knees pressed to the beginning of his ribs as she leaned down to kiss him properly, all tongue and wicked, sinful things that made some of the anxiety that’d crept up his spine fall away. His hands settled low on her hips, and Will focused whole-heartedly on every inch of her skin that was pressed tight against him. They were good together.

            Things were good.

-

            Despite the late night, Will woke early. It was a shame, since he didn’t have to show up for his residency until early afternoon, but it wasn’t the worst that’d ever happened to him. Pressed snug against his side, Molly’s halo of dirty blonde hair was disheveled and mussed, her face hidden by the curve of his arm. He stared at it, blinking bad dreams from his eyes, wondering just what had woken him –had his dream been bad enough to wake him? Had she elbowed him in her sleep?

            It took far too long for him to hear his phone vibrating by his bed, but once he recognized the sound, he grabbed it and hit accept, pressing the phone against his ear with a blurry, slurred, “Hello?”

            “Will, it’s Jack. Why weren’t you answering your phone?”

            It was his tone that made Will tense, so much so that it stirred Molly from her still-drunk slumber. She murmured something under her breath and kissed along his arm, nuzzling it before closing her eyes tight, reaching over to rub shapeless designs into his chest.

            “I was asleep, Agent Crawford. People at” –he paused to look at the clock by his bed, scowling –“seven AM are normally asleep.”

            “I’m going to need for you to pack an overnight bag, Will,” Jack said, and there was that damn tone again. Will sat up, detangling his arm from around Molly’s hold. In that moment, between the sense of knowing and unknowing, he felt vulnerable once more, all of Molly’s hard work dashed against the rocks.

            “What’s happened?”

            “I’ll explain more once we get to you, Will, but right now I just need you to listen to me.”

            He thought to argue, but a numbness crept into his skin, something cold and hollow. It stifled whatever stubborn retort he had, until all that he could do was nod dumbly against the phone.

            “Will?”

            He gave a start. “…I’m listening, Agent Crawford."

            “First, I want to reassure you that everything is going to be okay. I’ve got my guys headed your way, and I’ll be following right behind them. They’ll be there within the hour.”

            “First,” Will echoed. Unaware of anything wrong, Molly curled around him, snoring lightly.

            “Second, I need for you to reassure me that you’re going to follow my instructions once I’m there.”

            “…Okay.”

            “Will you follow them, Will?” Jack prompted.

            “I will.”

            “Thank you.” The phone crackled with the sound of his long, tired sigh. “Third…early this morning, Hannibal Lecter escaped from the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was aided by what appears to be four accomplices.”

            The words took on an odd cadence as Jack said them. Sitting there, bemused and still half-asleep in his bed, an icy sort of sensation slithered down his skin, much like someone had poured a bucket of water over him. He let out a strangled, muted noise, a mix between a squawk and a whine, and he had to catch his phone as it started to fall from his grasp.

            “Will?”

            “How?” he asked when he could force words from his lips. “How did he escape?”

            “We can discuss that when we-”

            “How, Jack?” he pressed.

            Jack sighed, and Will could hear his years in the noise, rocks tumbling to crush against his back and break him. “He was helped by a nurse, a guard, and two visitors.”

            “Okay,” Will replied. “Okay.”

            “I’m on my way, Will,” Jack promised. “I’m going to make sure nothing happens to you.”

            Will hung up and stared blankly around his room. He thought of his dreams, memories distorted with the past, time strong enough to take some of the sting away. He thought of how it’d felt to walk into Dr. Lecter’s office and see Jack Crawford bleeding all over the rug he’d dug his feet into for the past two years, a mix of horror, surprise, and disbelief. The blood was warm on his hands, Jack’s dress shirt cold. He’d used his own jacket to try and staunch the flow.

            Unbeknownst to him, Hannibal Lecter had stood just ten feet away and watched.

            He thought of luck, and how there hadn’t been any true luck in his living, how Lecter could have simply gutted him and been done with it if he’d wanted, made a quick getaway with none the wiser. He hadn’t, though. He’d let Will call an ambulance, and he’d let the two of them live. Hannibal Lecter had given Will time that day, had given him enough time to live and grow and dream.

            It seemed that that time had run out.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:

            Having FBI agents in and around his home wasn’t so much a comfort as he thought it’d be.

            Next to a frazzled, hungover Molly, Will sat on the couch and watched Jack pace, his heartbeat keeping time with Jack’s fingers that tapped against his pant leg.

            “We can escort her home-”

            “I’m not leaving Will,” she said fiercely. Clad in Will’s pajama bottoms and a spare t-shirt, she was a force to be reckoned with. Her arm was looped through Will’s, and she’d tossed her hair up into a messy bun on her head to keep it out of her face as she glared at Jack. “This is a bad situation to be in, and I’m not leaving him to go through it alone.”

            “If Hannibal Lecter-”

            “There are four agents just outside of the apartment and two inside, Agent Crawford. I think we’ll be alright.”

            Her protective instinct was soothing, if Will was being honest. There was something calming in the way she traced idle doodles into the soft spot of his wrist, just over his pulse. He didn’t deserve someone like Molly, but there she was. Even hungover, she was placing his needs and problems over her own. He was pretty sure she had an online test to take.

            “Will,” Jack said wearily. Molly had been stubbornly resisting him for the better part of the last ten minutes.

            “If she wants to stay, I’m alright with it. I have a roommate, too, named Beverly Katz. You can’t keep them all out,” said Will with a shrug.

            Jack looked half a breath away from a slew of filthy curses, but as his mouth opened to vehemently object, his eyes traced over Molly’s arm looped through Will’s protectively, how she leaned into him and how he leaned back.

            “I’ll… let Agent Dolarhyde know,” he said, and his shoulders slumped in defeat at Will’s acquiescence.

            “How did he get out, Agent Crawford?” Will prompted when he said nothing more.

            Jack suddenly looked ten years older. Subconsciously, his hands passed over his stomach where a lopsided, unhappy smile resided, raised and discolored beneath his crisp button-up shirt.

            “He complained of stomach pains, and he was taken to the infirmary to have tests done. God knows why, and I’m going to be questioning Chilton about this once I leave here, but security was lax. They stepped out to take a smoke break, and when they came back in, they were ambushed.

            “I don’t know he paid these people off, but one nurse loosened his straps. When the other nurse turned, Lecter got a hold of her.” Jack let out a world-weary sigh, and he placed his hands on his hips. “They managed to save one of her eyes, but the other is gone, and so is her tongue.”

            “Oh my god,” Molly whispered.

            “Two guards entered the room, and seeing the scene in front of them, one rushed to subdue Lecter. The other shot his partner in the back of the head. Lecter was strapped into a wheelchair and wheeled out through the back where two visitors had a van waiting. They loaded him into the van and had pulled away by the time another nurse entered the infirmary.”

            “How long did it take?”

            “Under five minutes,” Jack replied.

            Will nodded, accepting that information. Dr. Lecter had always been meticulous, down to the second-hand on his watch during sessions. He never hovered over it, watching the time tick away, but he always knew the exact moment that it was time to begin their session, and without ever having to look, knew the moment that it ended. Time in a prison cell would ensure that he wouldn’t waste a single second in getting out.

            “What makes you think he’s coming for me?” he asked. “Did he say something?”

            “I have agents and local police officers going to check on all of his patients that still live in the general vicinity,” he assured Will. “Where you were one of the main testimonies during his trial, though, I’m not taking any chances.”

            He stepped out of the room when someone called his name, and Will slumped back into the couch, squelching down the bubble of laughter that crawled up his throat. It was a hysterical sort of laugh, one he didn’t want to frighten Molly with.

            “You were the main testimony in his case?” she asked. Her hold on his wrist tightened, then relaxed.

            “Just one of them,” he said quickly. “…It’s because I found Jack in his office, and I knew personal details about his life that he’d shared. There weren’t many testimonies because they caught him with forensics and sheer, dumb luck, so mine just…stood out. It was more of an emotional testimony to present the kid that was stuck finding an FBI agent bleeding to death in Hannibal Lecter’s office.” He gestured with his free hand and stared morosely at the television. He didn’t want to turn it on and see the news panicking about Lecter. He didn’t want to take what little shred of self-control that he felt like he had and toss it out the window.

            “That must have been horrifying,” she murmured.

            “You don’t have to stay, Molly,” he said. He tracked her hand as it slid down, fingers interlacing with his and squeezing tight.

            “I’m not leaving you like this,” she snapped. “Alone with no one but Jack Crawford to keep you company. He stresses you out, even I can see that.”

            “He sometimes can,” Will agreed.

            “You stress him out, too.”

            “I think that there are some memories he’d probably like to forget.” Things like being stabbed and all. “Every time he sees me, he’s forced to remember. Those are things I’d like to forget, too.”

            Jack returned with a man that exuded calm, quiet confidence. Despite being dressed in a suit similar to Jack’s, he wore it with a sense of purpose that made his shoulders straighter and his back stiffer. His dark blonde hair was close-cropped, his jaw square, and apart from the faint scars reminiscent of a cleft palate, he was relatively attractive. Matching brown eyes rested heavily upon Will with an intensity that made the back of his neck prickle.

            “Will, this is Agent Francis Dolarhyde. He’s the head of your security detail, and he’s going to make sure that everything is alright until we can get this situation under control,” Jack said.

            Will stood up to shake his hand because he felt like it was proper to. There was a hesitation, then after a beat Francis followed suit, shaking his hand with a firm, steady grip. Will could feel callouses from hard work and ease around weaponry, a slight comfort in case of violence to come.

            God, he hoped that no violence would come.

            “We’re going to keep you safe, Mr. Graham,” he said. He spoke slowly, mouth fumbling over the ‘S’ with a painful attention. “Nothing will happen to you.”

            “Thank you, Agent Dolarhyde,” Will replied. He couldn’t look at his face for very long, disquieted as he was by the intensity. He could feel utmost sincerity rippling from his skin, a hungry desire to do his job with no mistakes. Underneath Will’s skin, the responding emotion curling out from him chafed.

            “I’ll have four men patrolling the area outside, one by the door, and I’ll remain here,” he continued when Will sat down once more. “Try to pretend I’m not here.”

            “Okay.” He bit the inside of his mouth hard enough to draw blood and tried again. “Thank you,” he said to the both of them.

            “I’m going to be heading to the crime scene to get a head start on the manhunt, Will. If you need anything, just let Agent Dolarhyde know.”

            The look he gave Will said more than words could. Will blinked, and he was kneeling before him, trying to hold his intestines in. He blinked again, and Molly was back to drawing soothing designs against his clammy skin.

            “Thank you, Agent Crawford,” he managed to say.

            It was going to be a long day.

-

            He tried to watch the television, but he couldn’t concentrate on it. He tried reading, pacing, and playing cards with Molly, but thoughts slid away like rain down a windowpane, collecting at the bottom of his mind to turn stale and muddled. Try as he might, he couldn’t focus on anything in front of him. Every creak of Agent Dolarhyde’s shoes on a faulty spot in the carpet made his muscles clench, and every breath that huffed from him sat in the air and made everything sour.

            When Beverly got home, Will had to visually confirm that it was her before they’d let her come in. She broke through the defensive stance of two agents at the door, and she dropped her backpack in order to properly give Will a spine-stiffening hug, her arms tight and her mouth pursed.

            “Leave it to me to finally bring Saul here for you to meet, and this happens,” she groused, pulling back to look Will over critically.

            “Saul is here?”

            “You were complaining that you hadn’t met him, and I thought that now was as good a time as any.” She glanced to the agents standing in the doorway, then looked over Will’s shoulder where Dolarhyde waited near the kitchen. “Will they let him in, or…?”

            Will looked back to Francis. “Can her boyfriend come inside?”

            The look that Agent Dolarhyde gave Beverly could have melted butter. He mulled the question over with a dark, foreboding expression verging on almost hostile, before he came to a decision and gave a slow, even nod.

            “Bring him up.”

            Saul was a wiry, red headed mess with one bright green eye and one black like Beverly’s. Unlike Will, whose discomfort gave way to monosyllabic words and internalizing, he spent the better half of the afternoon commenting on just how ‘wild’ all of this was. It was bad enough that even Beverly had to kindly ask him to shut up, and by then Will had made his escape to the kitchen where he feigned hunger and hid behind a tall glass of Jack and Coke.

            “Sorry,” Beverly apologized, leaning against the counter. Will took a long sip of his drink and shrugged, his smile nothing more than an awkward grimace. In the living room, Molly made awkward conversation and tried to keep an eye on the news for any new information.

            “He’s charming and honest,” he said.

            “Charming? Telling lies to make me feel better?” She snickered and made herself a drink as well, much more Jack than Coke. “I don’t need you to tell me what you think right now. I wouldn’t put you in that position.”

            “Does he make you happy, Beverly?” he asked. She studied her glass with far more intensity than was necessary, turning it about before she turned her back on Will in order to add ice to it.

            “I didn’t think I’d be happy with a soulmate,” she said. With her back to him, the words were hard to catch, and he moved closer. “When I met him, I…was so angry. He wasn’t angry, but I was, and he could feel it. He tried.”

            “Five years now and you’re still together,” he noted. “He must be doing something right.”

            “Five years now and I think he makes me happy, yeah,” Beverly replied. She closed the freezer and looked at him, taking a sip of her drink. “Do you ever think about yours? What it’d be like to have one?”

            “…I don’t think I’d be a good soulmate. I can hardly maintain a normal relationship with Molly, and we’re not soulmates.”

            “Maybe it’d be easier with one than to try and have a relationship without.” She wrinkled her nose lightly. “Especially since you usually just end up turning her into some kind of booty call.”

            “She came into my room last night,” he protested.

            “Had you messaged her, first?”

            “No,” he snapped. At her shit-eating grin, he added, “I even told her we weren’t good together.”

            “If you still had sex with her, though, that makes your point null and void, to be honest.”

            Beverly was right, but he didn’t always like it. They eyed one another over their drinks before her pleased, shit-eating grin placated him, and he sighed, looking up at the ceiling.

            “I’m sorry about this,” he murmured. “I’d have liked to meet Saul when he had a chance to be…”

            “Less cringy?” she offered.

            “He’s pretty cringy,” he agreed, and they both laughed, time kept staggered by the occasional clinking of the ice inside of Beverly’s glass.

-

            He was woken in the middle of the night by Agent Dolarhyde. It didn’t take much; Will’s dreams were such that he slept in a mostly semi-conscious state where there was awareness about him, even as he dreamt of Lecter taking a linoleum knife to his skin just to see what the muscle looked like underneath.

            His hand touched Will’s shoulder, and he instantly sat up, concern a knot that twisted inside of him, ugly and cloying. The side of the bed that Molly had been sleeping on was cold, the sheets twisted up in a pile.

            “We need to go,” Agent Dolarhyde said, and as Will stretched, he let go of him and stepped away, tucking his hands behind his back.

            “What’s happened? Where’s Molly?” His voice dropped to a whisper, an odd sensation of the air around him pressing until it felt too heavy push through.

            “Molly is okay. I need you to get your bag and come with me.”

            His urgency shook through the fog, and Will twisted out of bed to follow his lead. When he went to grab the light, though, Francis stilled his hand, and the dark shape of his head shook slowly.

            “No light, Mr. Graham,” he said quietly.

            “Where’s Beverly?”

            “Beverly is okay, too.”

            “Agent Dolarhyde-”

            “Mr. Graham,” he interrupted, tone firm, “there is no time. We need to go. I will keep you safe.”

            His mouth fumbled with the ‘S’, uncertain of it. Will thought of the way he’d stared at him before, as they shook hands and considered one another. Focused was a good word for it, as well as desperate –that sat just underneath, lurking within his awkward speech. He was desperate to keep Will safe.

            “You’ll tell me on the way?” he asked, shuffling through the dark to grab his bag.

            “I will.”

            When they left the room, the hallway reeked of wet pennies. Dolarhyde kept them pressed tight to the wall, shuffling down it with Will just behind him. When an odd noise tried to escape from Will’s lips, he pressed a fist to his mouth to silence it. His tongue sat heavy, and spit pooled just beneath it at the taste in the air. The urge to gag was strong.

            The smell grew in the living room, although in the darkness Will had to depend upon Agent Dolarhyde to lead him through whatever had happened while he’d slept. When his shoe slipped into a particularly spongy part of the carpet, he cringed closer to the man and shuddered. Blood. He’d just stepped in blood.

            Once outside, he gulped in the cool night air and scrambled after Francis, grip tight on his overnight bag.

            “What about Winston?” he asked, voice grating.

            “He will be okay.”

            “I want to take Winston,” Will protested.

            “I will get him if I can, Mr. Graham.”

            Will thought about running back for him, but when they hit the bottom steps, Francis’ hand slid to the dip of his shoulders and urged him forward to one of the SUV’s. The sound of shouts carried across the parking lot, and shots rang out, muted, odd things that spit at the pavement around them. His gait shifted from a harried walk to a run, heart stuttering.

            “Get in and put your head down,” Francis urged him, and he shoved him towards the car as he whipped around and returned fire.

            Heart pounding, eyesight narrowed with the fear that stepped on his shoulders, Will dropped to a crouch and skirted around the car. It took far too long for him to realize that the wheezing, rattling noise was his breathing, and when another bullet ricocheted just beside his feet, he jumped and climbed into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him.

            “Will?”

            “Beverly?”

            “What the hell is going on?”

            “Where’s Molly?”

            A hand touched the back of his shoulder, and he jumped.

            “I’m here Will,” Molly whispered to him. Her voice quavered with mortal terror.

            “This doesn’t look good,” Saul commented. If his voice hadn’t sounded so strained, it’d have almost been funny.

            Seconds passed like hours before Dolarhyde climbed in and started the car, pulling out of the parking lot with a steady grip on the wheel. As they took a corner, he turned the lights on, the reflection from streetlights bathing his calm expression with streaks of reds, yellows, and oranges from passing signs. He made no mention of the gunshots in the parking lot.

            “Buckle up, Mr. Graham,” he prompted in that same strange, calming voice.

            Will managed to buckle himself with only the most minimal of trouble, his hands shaking.

            “What the fuck just happened, Agent Dolarhyde,” he asked when he trusted his voice.

            Agent Dolarhyde’s face twisted, became ugly as he tried to find the right words to say. When they passed under another wash of streetlights, it took the shadows and colors from his skin, leaving him sallow and foreboding.

            “They tried to take you, Mr. Graham,” he said at last, rounding his words up. “And I do my job very well.”

            “Where are the rest of the agents?”

            The grief-stricken look Dolarhyde gave him was his answer.

            “Where are we going, then? Have we called Jack?”

            “We’re going to the house where you will be…safe.” He struggled with the word, although it seemed to stem more from a lack of desire to use any word that didn’t have the letter ‘S’ in it. “Then we will make the call.”

            “Agent Dolarhyde-”

            “Do you trust me, Mr. Graham?” he asked lightly.

            “I trust Jack Crawford,” Will replied after a while. “If he trusts you, then I trust you.”

            “Jack Crawford trusts me to keep you alive. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you.”

            “And my friends?” Will pressed.

            “And your friends,” Dolarhyde agreed. “I apologize that we didn’t have time to retrieve your dog, Mr. Graham.”

            Despite the situation, Will found himself heaving a short, dry laugh. “They’re not animal killers, are they?”

            “No, Mr. Graham.”

            “You can call me Will, Agent Dolarhyde,”

            “No,” he said, and his grip tightened on the wheel. “That’d be…rude.”

            Will was too tired to fight that. Off to the side, in the far distance, he saw the beginnings of sunrise, fingers grasping to peel away the layers of the dark in which Hannibal’s followers had used. Followers. Somehow, Hannibal had gotten himself some followers.

            “I’m sorry,” he said miserably to Beverly and Molly in the back seat.

            “It’s alright, Will,” Molly said. Despite the tremor in her voice, it came out stronger than he’d expected. “It’s not your fault.”

            “As long as my teachers get an e-mail, I think we’ll be okay,” Beverly said dryly. “And hell, Will, Saul is already asleep.”

            Will turned around to see, and sure enough, Saul lay with his head sprawled in Beverly’s lap, fast asleep.

            “Your presence releases serotonin,” he informed Beverly.

            “That’s what I’ve been told, Dr. Graham.”

            “It’s ten hours to the safe house,” Francis informed him. Will turned back around and adjusted his seatbelt. “Try to…rest.”

            It would be a futile effort, Will knew, but he’d try. Rather than force dreams where he knew he’d wake with the sensation of what it’d be like to bleed to death, Will tracked the rising sun, each blink of his eyes a gunshot that’d just narrowly missed both him and Francis.

            It seemed he hadn’t run out of time just yet.

-

            He dozed between two gas station stops, and by the third the sun was well into the sky. When they stopped again, Saul was finally awake, although the chatter that’d filled the apartment before was sorely missing. Will wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

            “Do you want anything inside?” Beverly asked. They were climbing out of the back seats, herding around Dolarhyde as he gassed the SUV up. Will watched them, expressions varying from exhaustion to grim determination, and he shook his head.

            “I’m not sure that I can eat right now,” he admitted.

            Francis didn’t like him waiting alone in the car, but Will promised to lock the doors and slump down in his seat. He wasn’t entirely confident that someone had managed to follow them all that way, but Francis’ paranoia was something to wonder at. In between bouts of small, two-minute naps, Will would watch his face. The calm, steady assurance remained, but he glanced to the rearview mirror for more than just cautionary checks of the traffic around them. More than once, Will noted how he’d grip the steering wheel so tight his knuckles would whiten. He wondered how many agents had given their lives, just so they could get away.

            He wondered why anyone even thought he was worth the effort.

            Once the doors were sufficiently locked, Will slumped down in his seat. The silence pressed in, heavy with accusations at him, and he let out an uneven breath of air. He counted seconds by the muted clicks of his eyelids. He counted minutes by the sensations that crawled along his skin, reminding him that even if he lived through this, many more would die as a result. Was his life worth it? Who was he, in the grand scheme of things?

            Needing some sort of distraction that didn’t involve people, he turned on the radio.

            “…and that’s all for the weather today! Right now, we go to Darren and Clara for our news reports during this noon hour.”

            It wasn’t just the FBI agents. Will glanced down to his shoe whose rim was red with the blood he’d had to step through to get away. Beverly, her soulmate-boyfriend Saul, and Molly were in danger because of him, because he’d saved Jack Crawford’s life so long ago. It wasn’t right for them to be in danger, nor was it right that they were stuck in a potentially fatal situation.

            God, who was going to feed Winston?

            “Thank you and yes! I mean, they’re kids, but come on…”

            The shock must still be strong for them not to complain about what he’d inadvertently done to them. That, or they were far better people than he deserved, to have their lives at stake and still find the grace to smile.

            “You know, Darren, I’m hearing a lot of complaining about millennials, but let’s talk about baby boomers, shall we?”

            He shouldn’t overthink it, but he’d once gone to therapy due to his horrific ability to internalize to the point that the emotions were his and his alone. He’d once sat across from a serial killer who spent a good half of his hour-long sessions peeling away the dark thoughts from his head in order to organize them in neat piles for discussion. The tools given then to compartmentalize his feelings were put to use now –not with much success, but at least he could say that he was trying.

            “Y’know, I’ve got a rebuttal for that, but right now we’re getting something from federal authorities, a follow-up to our earlier discussion. There is currently an east-coast wide search for the missing Will Graham of GWU in Washington, DC.”

            The sound of his name from the radio pulled him from his dark, roiling thoughts.

            “-where authorities are telling us that early this morning, Will Graham was abducted from his apartment complex by people who are suspected as accomplices to the escape of Dr. Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter yesterday morning.”

            “Now, wasn’t it just the other day that a woman in Baltimore, Maryland murdered someone in Hannibal the Cannibal’s ‘name’? I think I remember her gutting someone, right?”

            “Yes, and it looks as though several federal agents lost their lives this morning trying to protect this guy from the same fate. Listeners, we’re going to put the photos of these wanted people on our website, as well as the last vehicle they were seen in. If you happen to see these guys, give us a call, give authorities a call, but do not engage them. They are considered armed and dangerous. Let’s bring Will Graham back to safety, yeah?”

            “Can you imagine being a victim of a kidnapping like that?”

            “I can’t! I mean, the closest I’ve gotten to that was a girl in a bar that just wouldn’t let up, you know? She kept asking for my number, wondering if I was single…”

            “I’ve seen you in bars, buddy, and I’m going to call bull on that one.”

            Their words rebounded inside the bone arena of his skull, left Will reeling as he realized that it wasn’t a joke. Once they sunk deep enough to bruise, he didn’t hesitate. He was out of the car before he could process what his next move would be, the radio turning off as the door opened. He closed the door behind himself, heart pounding each and every word further and further into his skin as he was forced to realize the truth:

            Dolarhyde was one of them.

            “Will-”

            “We have to go,” he interrupted Molly, whirling around to face her. “Molly, we have to go.”

            “Will, what’s happened?” She looked frightened, her brow creasing as she took in his shaking hands and sallow skin.

            “I just heard the radio, Molly. Dolarhyde is one of them. He’s working for Lecter.”

            “Oh, Will,” Molly said with a sigh. She suddenly sounded nothing like herself, her tone shifting as her expression of dismay fell. “Why’d you have to turn on the radio like that?”

            Her words made his skin go cold, his muscles tensing. “…Molly?” he ventured cautiously.

            “Get back in the car, Will.”

            He hesitated, his mind refusing to accept what he was seeing, what he was hearing. When he didn’t move, she sighed and stunned him further when a gun was removed from her purse. With perfect, calm assurance, she leveled it at his stomach.

            “Please get back in the car, or I will shoot you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:

            When Will was younger, his father used to play a game with him.

            A man of few words, Will’s father was the sort of person to sit back and observe rather than speak. He was a sharp individual that valued integrity over profit, and he recognized rather quickly the sort of person that his son was. Will Graham’s empathy was a concern for him, not because it made him kind to those who most needed kindness, but because it also made him kind to those one should never be kind to.

            Thus, the game ‘Spot the Fake’ was made.

            It started with him telling his son three stories –two were honest, and one was a lie. Will’s job was to listen and observe the stories, then choose which one was the lie. His father told him, mouth grim above two painfully mismatched eyes, ‘people will smile with the brightest smiles at you, son, because you have something to give. I need you to be able to see past the smile and know whether or not they have good intentions because if you’re not careful, those bastards will eat you alive.’

            At eight-years-old, it was a heavy lesson to learn, but Will Graham tried to learn it, mostly to make sure his father was proud of him.

            He sorely wished he’d kept up on that game. He could have used it when he first met Molly.

            He took a shaky step back at the sight of the gun, and his back pressed to the steel of the car door, cool against his shirt that clung to his suddenly clammy skin. In the distance, just over her shoulder, the rest of them walked out of the gas station, shoulders lax and heads down. Be it the expression on his face, or the way in which Molly stood, but Dolarhyde noticed them immediately. He crossed the distance in eight long, quick steps and towered behind Molly, effectively trapping Will with glittering, livid eyes.

            “He knows,” said Molly dismally.

            “Mr. Graham-”

            “Beverly too?” Will demanded, cutting him off. It came out more like a whisper, but it stopped whatever Francis was about to say.

            “Beverly too,” Molly replied.

            “Mr. Graham-”

            “I’m not getting in the car,” Will said. “You’ll have to kill me.”

            “We don’t have to kill you to make you comply,” Molly informed him. She sounded distinctly world-weary, like she was repeating a rather mundane fact. “He said that we could hurt you if you resisted.”

            Will’s laugh was strangled because of course Dr. Lecter said that. “I bet he did,” he murmured. Even with his world crumbling around his feet, Will was glad to know that he could sound relatively calm, as though this were nothing to him, as though there wasn’t a gun pointed towards his intestines. As though Dr. Lecter hadn’t assured Will’s on-again-off-again girlfriend that she could hurt him if necessary.

            Beverly and Saul paused just behind them, hands held tightly, their mismatched eyes side-by-side as they surveyed the situation. Beverly suddenly looked far older than her twenty-eight years. Seeing her face made Will’s blood boil, even as his palms turned clammy and cold.

            “Come on, Will,” Molly prompted.

            “Gonna sick Dolarhyde on me?” Will taunted quietly.

            “No, Mr. Graham,” Francis replied. “I won’t hurt you.”

            “That’s awful nice of you.”

            “But Molly will,” he continued, unheeding of Will’s jab. “She will, and I don’t want her to. Don’t make her hurt you.”

            “Get in the car, Will,” Beverly urged. Her eyes cut from Francis to Molly, and she looked genuinely concerned for him. The feeling curdled in his gut, made his stomach threaten to spit up what little he’d consumed the night before.

            “Dr. Lecter would like to see you. Get in the car, please, Will,” Molly requested.

            “Will-”

            “Shut up, Beverly,” Will snapped. Molly stepped closer at his tone, and she pressed the barrel of her pistol into his stomach harshly.

            “Don’t make me ask again, Will,” she whispered. “I’m not the patient type.”

            Her words contradicted everything he knew about her. Looking into her eyes though, two matching baby blues, Will realized that everything he knew about her was wrong, wrong and tainted because it was built on nothing but lies, a foundation that began the moment she first introduced herself at a party and declared herself an avid fan of Will Graham. The expression she gave him now matched nothing of the woman he knew before, but that was because he didn’t know the woman before –she was a fake, a copy, and this person before him was a complete stranger.

            A stranger with a very lethal gun.

            “Okay,” he said at last, and the weight of the gun lessened as his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’ll get into the car.”

            “The backseat, please,” Molly said, motioning towards it.

            He climbed into the backseat of the SUV, crammed between Beverly and Saul who both did their best to avoid touching him. The care they took, in comparison to the sudden coldness of Molly, made his guts roil, and when Beverly’s arm brushed against his, he cringed away from it.

            The SUV pulled out of the gas station and headed towards the interstate, and whatever hope Will had felt in attempting to escape was gone, decimated in the wake of what cold steel felt like against his favorite t-shirt.

            It took several miles down the road for anyone to speak.

            “It was the radio,” Molly explained to Francis. He hadn’t spoken, but Will noticed him gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turned white. After a beat, his hands relaxed, and he flexed them before gripping the wheel again.

            “The radio,” he repeated. His voice was harsh, pricking against Will’s ears with an unmistakable fury.

            “It wasn’t any of us. He heard it on the radio.” Molly reached over and patted his arm lightly, coaxing. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

            Her comfort in the wake of everything happening gave Will the sudden urge to laugh, although he tamped that down. Still, an odd sort of strangled noise escaped his lips, enough that Francis looked at him through the reflection of the rearview mirror.

            “Get his phone,” Molly said in the uncomfortable, disquieted silence that followed.

            Saul reached for him, and Will let out a low, furious snarl.

            “I’ll break your fingers,” he promised. When Saul hesitated, Will reached into his pocket and fished his phone out, tossing it towards the front seat where Molly caught it. She turned it about in her hands, considering its shape and texture, before she unrolled the window and threw it out into the screaming wind.

            “He didn’t call anyone,” she assured Dolarhyde as she rolled the window up.

            “He hadn’t needed to,” Francis replied after a moment of thought. “He thought we were…different.”

            “Will-”

            “Shut up,” Beverly,” Will ground out. “I’ll break your fingers, too.”

            “Break anyone’s fingers, Will, and I’ll shoot you,” Molly returned before Beverly could speak. “Just do what you did before. Sit still and follow Francis’ directions, same as you did when you thought we were… ‘different.’”

            Will sat still and followed Francis’ directions.

            After thirty minutes of his reading road signs, Francis noticed.

            “Molly,” he murmured.

            Molly looked back sharply and met Will’s eyes once again, hers flashing with something he couldn’t name. “Put the bag on his head.”

            When the bag was placed over his head by a hesitant Beverly Katz, Will found himself leaning back to press his head against the headrest. The interstate was a long, straight stretch, and no matter how many times he tried to count the blinks of his eyes or the curves the car took, soon enough he lost count and let himself ruminate on one solitary, dizzying fact:

            He was royally, horrifically fucked.

-

            Jack Crawford stared at the bloodbath, and he had to resist an honest urge to vomit.

            It wasn’t the carnage; he was used to seeing death displayed in rigorous forms, twisted minds using their hands and their claws to carve death and destruction through the flesh of another. Years of work in the FBI had seasoned him to the practice of turning his emotions off when he observed the dead in all of its gory horror, made him impervious to the quips and jokes his forensics team tended to make to lighten the mood.

            No, the nausea stemmed from the way the blood seemed to still sit in the air, even after all this time.

            “That’s an unnecessary amount of blood,” Price said, crouched over a body.

            “Are you shaming him, even in death?” Zeller asked dubiously. “Give the guy a break. It’s not his fault he bled everywhere.”

            “I mean it,” Price protested, although not without a mild, wry smile. “If Dolarhyde was just…killing them, it’d be one thing. He eviscerated these guys.”

            “Eviscerated,” Jack repeated bluntly.

            “I mean, he really took a knife to them.” Price gestured to a neck wound, and he sighed. “It wasn’t enough that he got his jugular, he got him in almost every major artery afterwards.”

            “Personal?” Zeller wondered.

            “How many?” Jack asked. He had to force himself to ask, to move past the part where he had to walk across Will Graham’s apartment complex and step around large puddles of blood. In truth, it still felt like he was back in Baltimore, talking to the bastard that’d somehow instigated all of this, but that certainly wasn’t true. If it was, then he’d have had more time to plan, more time to prevent this.

            More time to protect Will Graham.

            “He got every single one in his unit, Jack,” Zeller replied. That quieted them as they mulled over the death of their fellow agents. “Five.”

            “How do their stomachs look?” Jack asked.

            “He’s got a Glasgow smile,” Price said, gesturing. “And it looks like…”

            “He used a linoleum knife,” Jack cut in as Price inspected the wound. “I’ll bet my damn marriage on it.”

            Price looked a breath away from asking about Bella, but Jack’s withering stare silenced him. He rubbed his eyes and inhaled the stench of blood, wishing that he was back home with Bella, enjoying a lovely dinner of takeout Chinese rather than dealing with this shit. He felt her concern like pinpricks across the back of his neck, and he was helpless to ease her worry. Time had made the distance easier to handle, being separated from his soulmate as he was, although it made the emotions between them stronger every time he returned home.

            “Get them bagged and tagged. I want a full autopsy so we can see if he left any information behind about where they were going or what they were doing,” Jack said, stepping around another large puddle. The carpet was soaked with it; the landlords would have to either find a damn good wet-vac, or they’d have to replace it entirely.

            All expenses paid by the FBI, of course.

            “What do you think we’re dealing with here?” Price asked. He skirted the body and moved onto the next one, gesturing as a few more specialists stepped into the room. “We’ve got a newly-freed cannibal, at least five little helper bees, and potentially four hostages. Maybe more helper bees, maybe less hostages?”

            “We’ll run background checks on everyone. His friends that were allowed access to the apartment had to give identification, so we can look them up.”

            Jack hmm’d lightly and nodded. “For now, let’s not be so dumb as to think Agent Dolarhyde was able to corral four hostages into an SUV, keep them compliant for the duration of his drive, and get them where he wanted to go in one piece.”

            “Drugs and fear tactics are good weapons,” Zeller pointed out. He crouched down beside another body and tilted his head, studying the wound patterns. “He could have gotten them one-by-one, and by the time they were all put away, he could do as he pleased.”

            “The question is, where’d he take them?” Jack murmured. He swallowed down the bile that rose up, fast and sharp in the wake of a deep inhale.

            Zeller and Price both looked up at that, and they stared at one another in the living room of Will Graham’s apartment, expressions grim.

            They didn’t have to ask ‘what was Lecter going to do to them’ because Jack Crawford was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. If they didn’t find Will soon, no one had to try and guess what his fate would be.

            Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter had a bold enough track record that they could say with utmost certainty that this wouldn’t be the last of the carnage. Things were just getting started.

-

            The inside of the cloth bag was hot.

            It took less than five minutes of him breathing before the fresh, cool air ran out and he was left with the taste of his own morning breath. He hadn’t had time to brush his teeth when Francis had woken him, after all. He wasn’t quite sure how long it took for the heat to make him fall into a not-quite sleep where his head bobbed and his breaths came short, but he was certainly aware hours later when the bag was lifted. The space around him was suddenly cool, and he took a long, heavy gulp of air, sitting up with a lurch.

            To the side of him, Beverly held the bag with that same, god damned expression she’d had in the parking lot when he was informed of her not being his friend, but something rather sinister instead. He focused on the spot right next to her black eye, and he smiled crookedly.

            “I hope he’s paying you a fair amount,” he commented dryly.

            “Dr. Lecter doesn’t have to pay us,” Saul said from the other side of him. “Come on.”

            Will wasn’t quite sure if he liked this Saul, serious and curt, or if he liked the one from before who joked even in the most uncomfortable of first-meetings. He continued to stare at that spot on Beverly’s face until she looked away from him, climbing out of the SUV with awkward, jerky movements.

            When Beverly motioned for him to get out, he slid along the seat and climbed out after her, logging that information away for later. Dr. Lecter didn’t have to pay them to abduct him. He had willing, eager participants in whatever game he was playing, so much so that money was of no concern for them. That, in of itself, was an unsettling thought. If one was being paid, they could be swayed by other money offers, promises of immunity, deals with the FBI or other government organizations, or even a cost/benefit analysis.

            Motivations of the emotional variety, though, weren’t so easily dealt with.

            He was led around the SUV that was parked in a wraparound gravel driveway. Looming over them sat an imposing, grandiose plantation home, windows lining the front and columns supporting a beautiful balcony that overlooked the driveway. It was an old home, but the paint on it looked fresh, and the shutters seemed new. Someone had taken great pains to place potted plants in between the columns, flowers ranging from lilies to roses to foxglove.

            Two large, solid wooden doors parted, the mouth of the entryway spewing forth a number of people that spilled out along the marble steps in an organized chaos. At the sight of them coming towards him, Will tried to stop his forward motion, but Francis grabbed one arm and Saul grabbed the other, their muscle and weight propelling him forward against his will.

            “Come along, Mr. Graham,” Francis urged.

            “I don’t want to go in there,” he said, and he jerked against their grip. It was futile, though, and looking into the faces of adoration around them, Will knew he’d find no aid.

            Their small group walked the gauntlet of onlookers, expressions ranging from outright delight to mystification, and one person felt so bold as to reach out and touch him.

            “It’s Will Graham,” someone whispered.

            “That’s Will Graham.”

            “It’s really him!”

            “He’s going to be so pleased…

            Will flinched from the scrutiny, bumping into Francis, but that seemed to only embolden the others. They closed in around him, hands reaching, touching, grasping at the hem of his shirt as they stared; his skin prickled, tingled, burned until he wanted to rip it off of himself.

            Someone managed to touch his face, and he cringed, stumbling over his feet. Francis caught him, and he seemed to see something in Will’s eyes because his expression of stone-walled intent softened ever-so-slightly.

            “Give him room,” he said to the crowd. His tone brooked no argument.

            They stepped back just enough for Francis to lead Will up the rest of the steps, and they entered the house uninterrupted. Breaths slipped from his lips in short, small gasps.

            “His room is up the stairs and to the left,” Molly said. Once they entered the house, she strolled past them and headed towards the right where French doors led to what appeared to be a parlor. Will’s gaze followed her, then roamed about, noting the lavish details of the main hallway. Saul and Beverly broke to the left where another hall lay, and just ahead there was a second set of double doors, leading deeper into the bowels of the home. He wondered if he should make a break for it. Probably not the time, not with Francis holding onto him.

            “Will you walk on your own?” Francis asked him.

            “…Yes.”

            Francis motioned to the stairs off to the side, and Will walked up them, noting the lack of squeaking steps or faded carpeting. This was a well-cared for place, every inch of it spotless with nary a dust particle in the air. The banister looked smooth and freshly polished, a deep, dark wood that gleamed underneath the yellowed light of a chandelier.

            Just to the left at the top of the stairs, a door sat open, inviting him. Will walked in, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets so that Francis couldn’t see him ball them into fists.

            It was just as clean and decorated as the rest of the house, from its curtained windows to vases lining the fireplace mantle. A large, four-poster bed sat centered, a trunk at the bottom with a fresh set of clothes folded on top. Will noted the two windows and a door that led either to a bathroom or a closet.

            “Here is your bedroom, Mr. Graham,” Francis said. He hovered in the doorway, one breath away from entering. Reaching the center of the room, Will paused and turned to look back at him, frowning.

            “…What is going to happen next?” Will asked.

            “You will remain here,” Francis replied. “I will go and work, and someone will come to get you when it’s time.”

            Will noted that the farther away from the FBI and Crawford he got, the less agitated Francis’ words sounded. He took his time speaking, found ways to avoid having to use the letter ‘S’. He took a step closer, and Francis tensed.

            “Don’t leave me in here, Agent Dolarhyde,” he urged quietly. “Don’t leave me in here like this.”

            “You will remain here, Mr. Graham,” Francis replied.

            “I don’t belong here…please just let me go. I’ll find a way home, I won’t tell anyone about this…just let me leave. Let me go home.”

            Francis’ eye twitched, and a muscle spasmed in his neck. He rolled his neck back and forth, popping it, before he tossed Will’s overnight bag into the room, letting it hit the ground with a solid, desolate thump.

            “You are home, Mr. Graham,” Francis Dolarhyde informed him, shutting the door.

-

            The windows were barred from the outside.

            Quick scrutiny of the room revealed a full bathroom with a walk-in closet, as well as a wardrobe that housed even more clothing than what was already hanging up. Inside of the trunk, several books of various genres rested, and the dresser held socks, underwear, and more than enough flannel to hang oneself with.

            The door, naturally, was locked.

            He took stock once more, noting the soaps and shampoos that lined the counter underneath the sink, as though one couldn’t have been sure what the visitor would like to use. By the third glance over the room, Will’s hands were shaking, and his breath started to sound more like a wheeze.

            He was trapped in a house by Hannibal Lecter. He was going to be killed by his old therapist.

            That is, if his on-again-off-again girlfriend didn’t get to him first.

            He pressed a hand to his mouth to stifle the hysterical laughter that managed to tear its way up his throat, and his pacing became more erratic as he tried to dispel the energy that rippled just underneath his skin. Jack Crawford showed up, and Hell followed in his wake. In reality, that seemed to always be what happened, Jack showing up to ask questions and leaving Will to wade his way through a river of blood in the aftermath.

            God, if he lived through this, he was going to find a way to ensure he never saw Jack again. The poor bastard.

            He scoped the room out once more, then resumed pacing. Time crept with the sort of sluggishness that made him tremble, made his hands jittery as they fumbled with whatever he could find in his pockets –a pen with a chewed up cap, as well as a stick of gum.

            He saved the gum for later, and he twirled the pen around in his hands, chewing furiously on the cap as he paced.

            Time passed; his pacing gave way to him huddling into the farthest corner from the door, hands pressed to his eyes like he could somehow erase everything that he’d seen. Occasionally, he’d look down at his shoes, gaze fixated on the rim of red around one of them. Francis Dolarhyde had murdered several FBI agents. He’d put his trust in a killer.

            The sound of the door knob rattling shook Will from the dark thoughts he had, images of dead bodies and the many colorful ways in which he supposed Francis could have killed them. He scrambled to his feet and pressed his back to the corner, tucking the pen away before whoever was on the other side of that door could see. He just had to wait. He just had to wait for his moment, and then he’d take his chances.

            Dr. Hannibal Lecter stepped into the room, and it suddenly felt colder.

            While time had given Will slightly shorter hair and a trimmed beard during his residency, it had made lethal edges of the once good doctor. His deep-set eyes were dark, his cheekbones high and hollowed from whatever food he’d been forced to live off of. His flat, thin lips held lines at the edges, although from frowning or smiling, Will couldn’t say. Rather than the jumpsuit he’d worn in what few photos the press had released, he was now dressed much the way he’d once been, before Jack Crawford had had the misfortune of walking into the sharp end of his knife. He’d even gotten his hands on an obscene red, purple, and black argyle tie.

            He eyed Will, as well as the distance between them, and Will’s chest tightened, twisted so sharp he thought his heart would rip out from his skin. His heartbeat skipped, then rushed like the frantic flutters of a hummingbird’s wings. He felt distinctly trapped.

            There was something different though, something in the way that the light reflected off of his eyes that made Will look again, even as he held his breath, even as he dug his shoulder blades into the wall painted a rather ostentatious shade of cobalt. It was something in Lecter’s eyes that took him aback, and it took far too long for his mind to process it, as obvious as it suddenly was:

            One eye blue, the other maroon.

            “Hello, Will,” Hannibal Lecter greeted kindly.

            “No,” Will whispered, horrified. It wasn’t real. What he was seeing as an illusion, a delusion brought on by stress and mortal terror, a deadly, potent combination when one was abducted by their on-again-off-again girlfriend at polite gun-point.

            This wasn’t real.

            “Oh, yes,” Lecter replied breezily. “You and I have some things that we need to talk about, I think. There are some things you may have missed while I was locked away.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:

            “You must be hungry, Will. If you’ll follow me downstairs, I’ve had dinner prepared.”

            “…Dinner,” Will repeated stupidly.

            “Yes.” Hannibal gave him what seemed to be a somewhat disappointed look. “Francis informed me that you haven’t eaten today, and yesterday was spent feeding an empty stomach with alcohol.”

            Francis could kindly go fuck himself, for all Will cared.

            Hannibal glanced about the room as though he could see just where Will had spent the afternoon, gaze tracing along the path he’d paced. When Will didn’t reply, Hannibal walked back to the door and held it open for him, gesturing towards it. Will stared at the door blankly, then looked to Lecter for confirmation.

            “I wouldn’t do you the discourtesy of making you eat in your room,” he explained.

            Will hesitated, torn between trying to melt himself into the walls or comply with the request for food. His stomach twisted, wrenched with hunger –he hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, that much was true. It’d been difficult to try and even imagine stomaching something when his worst fear was that Hannibal Lecter would find some way to get him out of the clutches of the FBI.

            Then that fear was realized, and he most certainly didn’t have an appetite after that.

            As he inched closer to Dr. Lecter, he reasoned that he couldn’t escape on an empty stomach. He’d need to eat just enough to at least give him the energy to get away until he could do something –what exactly, though? Where were his opportunities? When would he have the chance?

            Dr. Lecter held his hand out, palm up like he was trying to soothe a scared animal. When Will passed him and walked through the doorway, his hand ghosted along his back, a breath away from touching him.

            He was led down the stairs, the lights brighter now that the sun had gone down. The people that’d pressed close to him earlier, hands stealing the faintest of touches from him, weren’t present. He was led to the right where the hall bisected to multiple corridors and rooms, doors closed on every side. It was one such room with double sliding doors that he was led into, a formal dining room housing a large, solid wood table decorated with vases of rich flowers whose perfumes clogged the air.

            “Everyone was excited to contribute at least one flower to tonight,” Hannibal said. Two places had been set, one at the head of the table and one to the right of it. Will numbly sat down at his place, and Hannibal sat at the head of the table, the faintest impression of a smile near his lips.

            “Wine?”

            “…Yes, please,” Will murmured.

            A rich red wine was poured for him, and Will studied it rather than look to the man whose gaze was burning into his skin. Questions, thoughts, and fears crowded their way to the forefront of his mind, but he wasn’t quite sure how to even begin to say them, let alone if he should give voice to the whisper that he most certainly was going to die. After all this time, Hannibal Lecter had finally decided that he was done being charitable with his time.

            “This is loin in a blackberry sauce, with fresh figs and vegetables from the garden,” Hannibal said in the quiet. Will looked down to his plate and stared at the meat for far longer than was probably necessary. How did one kindly ask if the meat was pork or not? The thought of it being anything but pork made his stomach threaten to rebel, although there was nothing for it to give. Would these people actually try and force him to eat human meat? Just who had died for this meal?

            “Thank you.”

            Hannibal cut into his meat, and Will took that as his cue that he could eat. He managed a cooked fig, the flavor rich and succulent with the sauce it’d sat in. He washed it down with wine that settled sourly in his stomach.

            “How have you been, Will?” Dr. Lecter asked. His tone was curious, engaging, like no time had passed since their last therapy session. It could have been a courtesy call, if he hadn’t been taken hostage.

            “…Fine, thank you.”

            “You’ve been hard at work at your residency. You work with Dr. Bloom at one of her clinics, don’t you?”

            “Yes.”

            “I remember Dr. Bloom. She was a fine young woman, quick on the uptake.” Lecter cut another piece of meat and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully. “She was my TA for a time, when I lectured.”

            Will wasn’t quite sure if he should laugh or cry. He speared a few more greens onto his fork and stuffed them in his mouth so that he’d have an excuse not to reply. When he felt particularly brave, he glanced to the mismatched eyes set into Lecter’s face, focusing particularly on the blue one.

            He’d be an idiot not to recognize his own eye color.

            “She wasn’t specifically involved with soulmate psychiatry, though. She works with family trauma, doesn’t she?”

            “…Yes.”

            “She must have an extensive clinic for you, then, so that you can practice your own specialties.”

            “Yes.” Will cleared his throat, and when he trusted his voice, he continued, “Dr. Lecter…why…am I here?”

            “You’re here because I wanted you to be here, Will,” Lecter replied easily. He tried to catch Will’s stare, but Will avoided it and took a gulp of his wine. “I have quite a few friends that wished to bring that desire to fruition.”

            The hysterical laugh tried to bubble up, but he swallowed it back down with another gulp of wine. When his glass was empty, Lecter refilled it without prompt, his shoulders turned so that he could give Will his full attention.

            “I don’t know what use I could be to you here,” said Will, although it sounded stupid, even to him. Why keep him alive if he had no use? Stupid, stupid, stupid.

            “You’ve seen my eyes, Will. Eight years of studies within your specific field of interest, and you can’t make your own conjectures?” Despite having to state the obvious, he sounded kind while doing it. It was like being back in therapy again, the good doctor pointing out an avenue of interest that Will either was too afraid to go down or had never considered.

            He didn’t want to consider what he was seeing, though.

            “It…it looks like a soulmate connection, Dr. Lecter,” Will said slowly.

            “Please, you may call me Hannibal.”

            Hannibal was too familiar for someone that Will was certain would eat him within the week. “It’s not…it’s not me, though, it’s…” His voice trailed off, and he fumbled, trying again. “Your eyes were brown the last time I saw you. And my eyes haven’t changed color, so…”

            “Within your first week of therapy, Will, you met my eyes exactly once,” Hannibal said lightly. “The next morning, I was surprised to see that one of my eyes had changed color. I felt no different, though, no presence of need or concern. Not wishing to upset any patient of mine that struggled with soulmates, I purchased a pair of colored contacts until I could understand what I was dealing with.

            “I met with you a week later, and your eyes were still the same. A half-connection, one bred from my mind connecting to some aspect of yours that didn’t quite connect back.”

            Half-connections weren’t as common as a full, established connection, but they were still common. Will’s studies had focused more on the aftermath, a culture of people whose behaviors circulated around wanting a soulmate. More often than not, half-connections were seen as one person not entirely meeting the needs of the other, and society as a whole viewed it with the kind of disdain one gave a sub-par vacuum.

            Will felt a cold sensation slither down his spine. Dr. Hannibal Lecter wasn’t the sort of person that would endure being thought of as a sub-par vacuum.

            “I’m sorry,” he said slowly. He glanced to his eyes once more, then looked away quickly, swallowing heavily. He didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want to even consider it. “I…I’m sorry that you…had to endure that.”

            “You’ve done nothing wrong, Will,” Lecter replied. He took another bite of food, strokes of his knife cutting the meat with ease. “The longer I spoke with you, the more I understood just why there was no connection on your part. The aspects of yourself that I connected to are things you resisted taking enjoyment in, let alone indulged. Of course your psyche didn’t reach back.”

            His mind was whirling with that information, stunning as it was –damning as it was.

            “Did they know in the institution?” he asked. “Does Jack Crawford know?”

            “The hospital knew that I had a half-connection, but I gave no information on the particulars,” Lecter said. He sounded almost like he was trying to reassure Will. “My lawyer was able to ensure that I wore my contacts, though, as it is a basic fundamental human right. He was quite passionate about it. Agent Crawford wasn’t given leave to have that information.”

            Will sorely wished Jack had known about the half-connection. Maybe if he’d been aware that Hannibal Lecter’s designs on Will had even deeper meaning, better precautions would have been taken with his safety.

            “Forgive me for saying this, but…” Will’s voice halted in his throat. He cleared it and tried again. “With a half-connection…I still don’t understand why I’m here.”

            Hannibal hummed, low in his throat, and Will busied himself with another bite of food. The pork lay untouched on his plate. When he chanced a glance up, he caught Hannibal’s eyes and looked away, staring about the room decorated with such designs at what he was fast realizing was something akin to a date.

            But surely not, right?

            “You truly don’t, do you?” Lecter said, more to himself than Will. He sighed quietly, like this was the sort of conversation one tried to avoid. “You’re here, Will, because the idea of enduring a half-connection is insupportable to me.”

            “Insupportable…?”

            “Clearly there is something that goes unnurtured in your mind that would connect to me. I had never entertained the thought of a soulmate, but there is no reversal for what has occurred. We can only move forward.

            “In your research, I’m sure you’ve come across what we call Âme décalée. It’s the French psychiatric term for the staggered soulmate connection.”

            Will wasn’t quite sure if he’d heard him correctly. “Âme décalée is one of the rarest soulmate pairings known to psychology, Dr. Lecter,” he said. His stomach clenched.

            “It is. But our minds are somewhat of a rare thing. Is it so difficult for you to suppose that a staggered connection couldn’t occur?”

            He wasn’t hearing this right. He wasn’t hearing Dr. Hannibal-fucking-Lecter say that he wanted to somehow create an environment in which Will would endure a staggered connection to him –to become a soulmate to him.

            This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real.

            “Something to consider, Will,” Hannibal said. His tone was much like it was when he was tabling a particularly difficult thread of therapy from one of their sessions. “We can discuss it later.”

            Silence. Their forks scratched faintly against fine china. Will tongued the back of his teeth and struggled to find words.

            “I don’t…want a connection to you,” Will finally managed to say, although once it was said, he regretted it. It was too aggressive, too blunt in the face of a man that had been more than capable of gutting someone with a linoleum knife of all things.

            We managed to save one of her eyes…

            “You haven’t had time to process-”

            “I…I don’t want a connection to anyone, let alone you, Dr. Lecter,” Will said. He felt the hysteria bubbling up his throat again, making his stomach churn. The wine wanted to come back up with it. “You of all people should know that I don’t want a soulmate, I don’t want…I don’t know what sort of operation you have here, but Francis Dolarhyde murdered at least five federal agents to get me here, you told Molly that she could shoot me if necessary, you –you fucking planted people around me to…to pretend to give a shit about me for over four years! And this is because you’re trying to force Âme décalée? It’s not…this isn’t…” This isn’t happening.

            “Rest assured, everyone within this house cares about you in a fundamentally important way, Will,” Hannibal interjected.

            Will found himself jerking to his feet, stumbling over the leg of his chair as he tried to move away from Lecter. Lecter stood as well, although with far more finesse and control over himself.

            “I’m sorry that your eyes changed, honestly. Socially, I completely understand the discomfort of it, the issue of having to be part of a society that’s arguably hell-bent on pushing a basic chemical connection down everyone’s throat, but I can’t…I don’t want that!”

            “Will-”

            “If you were going to kill me, this would be one thing, but I can’t pretend that I could do something like this every single night and enjoy it, not when I literally found-”

            He moved so quickly that Will was hardly fast enough to trace the movement, let alone prepare for it. One moment, he was using his dinner chair as a shield of sorts, and the next moment, he was pressed against the wall of the dining room, a butter knife taut against his neck. He wasn’t so stupid as to suppose that Hannibal wouldn’t be able to break skin with it; he was more than confidant that his life hung in the balance in that moment, suspended between Hannibal Lecter’s mercy and his ultimate judgement.

            “If I was going to kill you, Will?” Lecter asked quietly. His weight pushed against Will, his skin burning hot. Pressed tightly against Will’s chest, Lecter’s heartbeat was calm, steady. Will felt it through his clothes, through his favorite t-shirt that a gun had been pressed to just hours before.

            It’s not smart to piss off the psychopathic cannibal, Will.

            He swallowed, adam’s apple bobbing harshly against the blade of the knife, and sweat broke out along his temples.

            “If I was going to kill you, Will Graham, you would already be dead,” he said, and god damn if he didn’t sound almost affectionate. “Don’t you recall the last time we stood so close without handcuffs, paunchy bailiffs, and an army of lawyers between us?”

            Will nodded dumbly, thought of how Jack Crawford’s blood had felt in his hands as he tried to staunch the flow. He thought of Dr. Lecter standing not ten feet from him and deciding to spare him –not because he was his patient, as Will had stupidly supposed for all this time.

            It was because of his eyes.

            “I brought you here for a reason. I’m not so foolish as to suppose your thoughts and feelings will change so rapidly overnight, but I’m a patient man, Will. I am willing to create the space in which such foundations could be made. In this house, we will have all the time in the world to see whose theory will pan out –yours, or mine.”

            He moved the knife, turned it so that the flat of it glided down Will’s neck, stopping to rest at his collarbone. Will gulped again, tremors working their way over his skin, and he thought of Jack Crawford staring him down the first time they’d ever met, long before he’d ever walked into the bad end of Hannibal Lecter’s linoleum cutter.

            “I just have a few questions for you, Mr. Graham.”

            “I’m late for class.”

            “It’s about your psychiatrist. Dr. Lecter?”

            “What about him?”

            “Has he ever given you the impression of a desire to hurt anyone?”

            “What?”

            “To cannibalize anyone?”

            Hannibal reached up with his free hand and jerked Will’s chin down. In his surprise, his eyes met Hannibal’s, and he stared into the mismatched color, horror curdling the blackberry sauce he’d managed to choke down. Within their depths he saw the way flecks of grey dotted the blue, the way tawny streaks of gold caressed the brown so rich it looked red. He also saw a hunger, something primal and something far too dangerous for a human being to contain within their skin.

            “Sir?”

            The sound of Francis’ voice filled the room, jolted Will from the frozen, calculating expression of the man before him. Lecter released him, and he turned to smile at Francis as though this were a common enough occurrence, him threatening guests with dinner knives. Will stayed pressed against the wall, chest heaving with breath that’d refused to come before.

            “Everything is quite alright, Francis. Will is tired, though, and I think rest is best.”

            Rest was best. A barrier between him and Hannibal Lecter was best. Will raggedly reached up and rubbed the spot where the knife dug in, and when Lecter turned to look back at him, he nodded jerkily. Rest was best. Getting away from Lecter was best.

            He skirted around the table the long way and escaped down the hall, his harried steps accompanied by Francis’ long, sure strides. When he reached the main hall, he took the stairs two at a time and fled to the bedroom, not so stupid as to suppose he could make a getaway from the main entry at a time like this.

            He would have to find a way to escape soon, though. There was no way he’d survive, not when Dr. Lecter finally lost his cool because his bets were placed on a soulmate phenomenon that had less than one percent chance of ever even happening.

            Will sure as hell wasn’t going to place his own bets on the mercy of a man that ate people for a living.

-

            The woman stood just at the edge of the crowd of onlookers, close enough that she could see the whites of the eyes. News reporters milled about, interviewing distraught apartment tenants, but she didn’t pay much attention to those sorts. They’d see soon enough. She wouldn’t have to fight for their attention; they’d give it to her all on their own in just a moment.

            She saw the FBI agents walking down the stairs, heads ducked at they discussed their business with rapid, quick speech. Against the fall chill, she pulled her coat closer around herself, a tang in the air from the storm that was soon to follow.

            The bodies had been removed from the pavement, but the lake of blood still remained as a testament to the keen and honest brutality of Francis Dolarhyde. It was art, in its own way. It wasn’t necessarily her style, but it was a style none-the-less, and it worked. It sent the perfect message to the FBI, something that would stick with them for the years to come, even as they tried to understand fully what they were dealing with:

            We are whoever we want to be. Your friends, your co-workers, your lovers.

            She saw her target the moment he came out of the apartment behind the illustrious Jack Crawford. He wore a bowtie to a crime scene, and that’s how she knew she had her man. Jack Crawford was a person comprised of moving parts, a leg that specialized in fingerprints, an arm that extended to toxicology. Each limb was equally as important as another, rising up to meet the head, a bull-man who tended to rush into situations before truly understanding him.

            Cut off one limb, watch the bull-man flounder. Cut off another, watch him fall.

            Just to the edge of the crowd, she felt the budding excitement of her soulmate, her one and only. It made her own eagerness bubble, beginning to boil. She had to tamp it down. She had to focus.

            She shifted closer to the line, waiting for the agent guarding the line to step away in order to force back a news anchor. The air had a smell of chemical cleaner.

            “It’s certainly Dr. Lecter’s writing, Jack. I’d pin your marriage on it,” Lloyd Bowman said. His gloved hands tenderly held the paper, as though he were cradling a dove.

            “You heard that, did you?” Jack grunted. “Everyone’s gonna use that phrase now.”

            “It’s really more of a jab at you than a real clue. He’ll jab at you one too many times, I think,” Bowman said. Despite his slight stature, his voice was deep, and as he laughed, the bowtie bobbed.

            “We’ll still do as many tests as we can, see what we’re dealing with.”

            “This was left in the mailbox, and we didn’t get it ‘till day two, Jack. I know that no one is wanting to say it, but…have we considered the idea of a cult?”

            “A few ‘friends’ running around gutting people doesn’t make it a cult.”

            “How high does the number have to climb before it does?” Bowman wondered.

            Jack Crawford parted ways with him and headed towards a line of SUV’s, each one as non-descript as the one Francis had delivered Will Graham in. Bowman continued on towards a small transport van with the bold, yellow letters FBI emblazoned on the side. His head was ducked towards the sheet of paper, and she could distinctly see him mouthing the words, ‘you’re so sly, but so am I.’

            The moment he passed along the line, she reached out and touched his shoulder. It was a gentle gesture, but it got his attention all the same.

            “Excuse me,” Bowman said, and she smiled, a wide, cheek-cringing smile that took him aback with her utter sincerity, her kindness.

            “Are you Agent Bowman?” she asked sweetly.

            “I am.”

            “Oh, good,” she gushed, and when he turned to face her head-on, confused, she withdrew the linoleum knife from her sleeve, and she glided it with ease along his stomach, parting cloth and skin and muscle.

            There are many ways in which a person reacts to being stabbed. Her own experience was a burning hot pain that reached her like waves, building then crashing over her. Over time, the burning became muted, like a barrier protected her so that she could focus on the task at hand –the task at that time being, of course, survival. Some people froze, face showing pain but above all an honest confusion at their circumstances. She figured that Agent Bowman was something more along the lines of the latter, a person so used to the laws of order that they drew around themselves that when such a thing as a stabbing occurred, they didn’t know quite how to react.

            She was very, very wrong.

            Rather than stumble and fall, hands grasping at his insides, Agent Bowman reached out and grabbed her, hauling her over the yellow line so that they fell to the ground together, his weight pinning her down. Screams permeated the air as blood seeped from his wound, and she struggled against him, furious grunts issuing past her mouth. She had to go. She had to go.

            She had to go.

            “You’re so sly, but so am I,” he murmured against her skin. His breath was ragged, hot, and she hissed a curse as she tried to crawl out from beneath him. Despite his fatal wound, though, he was strong, and as other agents came running, Bowman was removed just long enough for another agent to haul her up, the linoleum knife clattering to the ground as she was twisted into a pinned position.

            “We need the ambulance here, stat!”

            “Agent Bowman, I need you to stay with me, okay?”

            “Back up! Back up, now!”

            “You’re under arrest,” the agent holding her said, but she wasn’t quite hearing him. As she struggled, fought against hands that held like iron, her eyes scanned the crowd, heartbeat hammering in her ears as she found who she was looking for. Their concern for her was claws down a chalkboard, and she shook her head, struggling, fighting.

            Run, she mouthed to them. Run and don’t look back.

            Their mismatched eyes widened, then narrowed in understanding. They broke through the crowd that was eager to get away from the carnage, every step away from her a pounding pain in her skull because that was her soulmate, that was her life, and she was desperately needing him to get away so that everything could be alright.

            Everything was going to be alright.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5:

            Will Graham was allowed outside in the early morning.

            He’d grabbed a change of clothes from his pack, having ignored the now obvious hints that the other clothes within the room had been provided for him. He stood out in the fog, and he inhaled the humid air, cool only because of the early morning. It was going to be a warm day, much like it often was in a place like that.

            Will may have had a bag put over his head, but he could recognize the good old, country south when he saw it.

            The trees were hardwoods beyond the lush, well-maintained yard: maples, oaks, river birches, hickory, and beeches. The dense thickness of them was apparent even from where he stood, off to the west side of the house, standing among the dew and the grass. He wasn’t allowed to walk in the forest, Francis said, but he could walk around the yard. A kind sort of exercise, all things considered.

            There was a pond in the back that he stood beside for a long time, staring down in it. It was a large pond, devoid of too much algae and grime. It was difficult for him to wrap his mind around the idea that Lecter hadn’t paid anyone to put so much effort into the space around them. It was difficult because of the implications, because of the idea that adoration for him was so utterly strong that they’d break their backs to give him a lovely mansion of sorts to lounge about in as he attempted to force his old patient’s eyes to change color.

            Thankfully, they hadn’t changed color. He woke with two very, very blue eyes.

            “Judging by the interstate we were on last before Molly had a bag put over my head, I’d say we were in Georgia,” Will said casually, glancing back to Francis. Francis stood a respectable distance, standing at a stiff ‘parade march’.

            “I can neither confirm nor deny,” Francis said.

            “You don’t have to,” Will assured him. “It’s not quite wet enough for Florida, and we drove farther than South Carolina. I’m guessing Georgia.”

            Francis said nothing to that, a stoic expression on a carefully constructed face of calm.

            “Marine Corps?” Will guessed, studying his stance. “Yeah...Marine Corps. My dad was in the marines, long before I was born. When he thought he was stuck waiting for something a long time, he’d stand like that, too.”

            “Mr. Graham-”

            “Did Dr. Lecter tell you to call me that, or have you decided that’s just how you’ll speak to me?” Will asked. “Because if he told you to call me Mr. Graham, that’s a load of horse shit.”

            “I respect your position in this house,” Dolarhyde said, and he stumbled over his ‘S’ once more. It made his shoulders tense, and he ducked his head. “Please…just enjoy your walk.”

            Will sighed, tucked his hands into his jacket pockets, and enjoyed his walk.

            It wasn’t right for him to needle at Dolarhyde, but he’d woken with an honest anger, now that the shock was abating. Dr. Lecter was going to try and induce a full connection because he couldn’t handle the idea of his psyche reaching for something that didn’t reach back? He was going to try and force Will to connect to him so that he could justify something in this world changing him the way he oftentimes changed other people?

            God, if he were a saner person, the thought alone would have crippled him.

            He wasn’t a saner person, though. That’s why Hannibal Lecter honestly thought that he could change him.

            “Will?”

            Will glanced to the side as he meandered along a gravel path. Beverly stood closeby, her steps silent in the grass.

            “Go away, Beverly,” he said pleasantly.

            “I just want to talk.”

            “Do you honestly think that you can salvage this mess out of the maw of madness?” he wondered. He realized instantly that he’d picked up on Lecter’s tone and words, and he gritted his teeth. He hated when he did that. “Better put; why do you think that I want to talk to you?”

            “You don’t understand,” she said.

            “I don’t,” he agreed, and he kept walking. “And I honestly don’t want to.”

            “If you’d just listen-”

            “You know, I’m getting that a lot from you people. If you’d just listen, if you’d just trust me, if you’d just get in the fucking car, if you’d just look into my eyes…everyone here, despite claiming to care about my well being, seems royally hellbent on giving me a laundry list of to-do’s, even as you all say, ‘if you’d just.” He paused to savor the sound of his voice coming out dry, sardonic, and perfectly in control. “I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised at your lying, though.”

            “Look, Will, we’re friends, and I honestly care about you,” Beverly replied.

            Will barked out a harsh laugh, hands curling into fists in his pockets. “No, we’re…we’re not friends. The, uhm, the light of friendship wouldn’t reach us, Beverly, not for a thousand years. Not after this.”

            “Will-”

            “You pretended to give a shit about me! For the better part of four years, you slowly gained my trust, got to know me, became the person you thought would appeal to me so that you could sidle in close and spy on me for Dr. Hannibal Lecter.” When his voice grew, he paused to take a deep, slow inhale. “What…could possibly make you think that now that I’m well aware of just the kind of person you are, I would ever want to consider you a friend, let alone think fondly of you?”

            “I do care about you, Will!” she snapped. “That is real! That is honest!”

            “Whatever shred of real honesty you claimed to have shriveled up and died the moment you watched Molly point a gun at me and did nothing,” Will replied.

            That made her hesitate. An odd shadow passed over her face, and if Will had been closer, he could have seen the emotion shifting in the corners of her eyes, bleak somehow as her lips twisted down.

            The moment passed, and the expression was gone.

            “Dr. Lecter…is a good person,” she said after a long, pained silence. “He sees things that no one else does. He views the world in an entirely different light, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

            “That’s because he views human beings as animals,” said Will dryly. “Beverly…you may think this is somehow right or somehow…justifiably good, but you are putting your faith and trust in the hands of a very bad man.”

            “You simply need to see him from a different perspective,” Beverly replied easily.

            “Under his orders, I was kidnapped. Under his orders, Francis Dolarhyde murdered at least five FBI agents, and four others aided in the escape of a criminal, not before murdering at least two innocent people at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. That was after another person under his command walked into a police station and murdered a police officer just a few days before. Can you say that it’s worth it? What you’re giving up for someone like that?”

            “…I don’t know that yet,” she said honestly, “but I’m willing to find out.”

            “You know that sooner or later you’re going to have to pay the piper, don’t you? Are you going to be willing to pay that price?”

            Beverly held his intense, probing stare, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed.

            “I guess we’ll see,” she said, and she raked fingers through her hair before adjusting her stance.

            “I guess we’ll see,” Will agreed.

            “Mr. Graham, it’s time for breakfast,” Francis Dolarhyde said from behind them. Will turned to him, no longer standing at parade rest, then looked back to Beverly, brows raised.

            “We have a specific breakfast time,” he said informatively.

            The three of them ventured across the lawn back to the house, their passage marked by the dark shapes of their feet cutting through the dew.

            “Dr. Lecter said that you’ve likely puked up anything of substance last night,” Beverly said when they reached the door. “You didn’t consume anything with protein, so he requested a remedy for that.”

            Will didn’t want to admit that she was right –alone in his room, thoughts gave way to a discontented nausea that brought everything up, the wine burning in his throat hours after.

            “…I wasn’t sure quite how the meat was sourced,” he said after a beat, darkly.

            “We’re not all cannibals,” Beverly retorted.

            “You just blindly follow one, I know.”

            She looked like she had a quick rebuttal for that, but when they walked down the hall towards the dining room he’d just visited the night before, she let the matter drop. Which was just as well; at the swell of voices carrying down the hall, Will’s muscles tensed, and the ease in which he condemned Beverly was gone, replaced instead with the sensation of hands reaching out, grasping for him. He was painfully, completely aware of Francis following behind him, just a step-and-a-half away, and he wondered if he’d be so quick to keep them off of him, should they try to touch him again.

            The curtains had been opened in the dining room, bathing the rich mahogany walls with natural light. The flowers from before remained, although they’d been moved to a small table against a wall off to the side. That gave room for the twenty or so people that crowded along the chairs, eagerly discussing the morning events, punctuated with yawns, sniffles, and the sort of dry cough one can only give when they’ve just woken up.

            As Will walked in, such chatter stumbled to a stop. Will was painfully aware of far too many eyes on him, their mouths in various shapes of surprise or intrigue, mouths half-full of what looked to be semi-chewed eggs and sausage.

            “Come on,” Beverly coaxed, and she blessedly led him through a door to the side that opened up to the kitchen and away from so many prying eyes.

            “Good morning,” Lecter greeted from an island counter. Standing poised beside him, Molly sipped a cup of coffee and observed him over the rim of it.

            “…Good morning,” he managed after a beat. When Molly met his gaze, his lip curled, and he had to look away before something nasty fell out of his mouth.

            “I’ve made omelets. It’s been some time, but I do believe I remembered the recipe after all these years,” he said. Molly and Beverly laughed appreciatively, and Will managed a grimace.

            An uncomfortable pause followed, one bred from the memory of what a butter knife felt like pressed to his pulse just the night before. Being blatantly rude to Beverly was one thing, but when he’d exhibited too much emotion in front of Lecter, things hadn’t gone so well.

            “Thank you,” he said, much too late for it to be considered polite, much less in conjunction with what Dr. Lecter had first said.

            Thankfully, Lecter didn’t seem to mind. He set a plate down to the side of the island where stools had been pulled out, and Will sat down, accepting a fork with a dip of his head.

            “The tomatoes are coming in only a little late in the season, but they taste wonderful,” he assured Will. “Ladies, if you’ll give Will the privacy of eating in here, there should be more than enough room at the table.”

            Molly and Beverly left, although the look Beverly shot him as he began picking bits of sausage out of the omelet clearly said behave.

            “It’s a protein-packed meal in order to replenish anything you lost within the last few days,” Hannibal said conversationally, washing his hands at the sink. As he dried his hands, Francis set a plate in front of the stool beside Will, adjusting the fork just-so. Will wondered if Lecter had ever had the chance to stab someone with a fork before.

            Maybe that’d be the weapon of the day, if he didn’t keep careful control of his mouth.

            Dr. Lecter hung his apron up on a hook by the pantry, and he sat down on the stool beside Will, his back straight and his presence far closer than Will would have liked. Beside his own hunched, curved posture, Lecter’s was impeccable and professional.

            “The spinach is to replenish electrolytes,” he said, motioning to Will’s plate.

            “I don’t even have the ability to puke in private,” Will muttered, savagely setting another bit of sausage to the side. He stopped, turning the fork around in his hand. “…Thank you for breakfast,” he added hastily.

            “It was an educated guess that I made based off of what I know of your personality, actually,” Lecter said. “No doubt if you did manage to sleep, the images of fallen agents whose faces you’ll now forever remember haunted you at your most vulnerable.”

            He was right about both of those things, although Will didn’t want to admit that. He picked another piece of sausage out of the omelet and set it to the side by the steadily growing pile. He tried very hard to pretend that he didn’t notice Hannibal watching his every move, taking notes. Before, when he’d been nothing more than his therapist, Will had always felt under a microscope, each inch of his person noticed and noted. While at the time it had been unsettling but ultimately helpful since he was trying to get better, now it was a grating sensation, the notion that each move he made gave away some sort of aspect to his character that he didn’t want to share.

            “Do you suppose that I am feeding you something other than pork?” Lecter wondered after Will dug out a particularly large chunk of meat.

            Will gripped the fork tightly and focused on the task at hand. “After the first year of therapy with you, Dr. Lecter, you wished to congratulate me on my progress by inviting me to dinner,” he said, staring at his food. “You told me that you’d made rabbit with braised potatoes and fresh herbs, and I ate everything on the plate that night. It was probably the best food I’d ever had.”

            He spared Hannibal a glance as he unearthed another piece of sausage. “About two years later,” he continued savagely, “during one of your court cases, the prosecuting attorney listed dates in which the Chesapeake Ripper had murdered his victims. One of the victims you’d killed, Marissa Schurr, had died just one day before that dinner. She was missing several vital organs, as well as the meat just along her spine.”

            “You believe that I fed you Marissa Schurr.”

            “No, I know you fed me Marissa Schurr. When Agent Crawford was secretly investigating you, you invited him to your home and fed him Nicholas Boyle, brother to Cassie Boyle.”

            “He vomited the dinner and ran tests on the meat,” Hannibal said dismally. “An ingenious plan, all things considered.”

            “Yeah, so I’m not entirely convinced that it’s not your plan to do the same now. Half of your amusement, I think, was keeping us ignorant of your general machinations.”

            “How is Agent Crawford?” he asked.

            “You saw him less than a day before your escape. How was he then?” With all of the sausage successfully removed from the eggs, Will allowed himself to eat, chewing over the cooked spinach with a curl to his lip. He hated spinach.

            “I asked if he ever woke with stomach pains. He informed me that the only pain he suffered was the fact that I was still alive.” He didn’t sound upset by the statement. Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw his lip twist into a small, delighted smile. “I’m sure he is enduring stomach pains now.”

            Will had nothing to say to that. Instead, he focused on his meal, and Lecter followed suit, the sounds of forks clacking against china the only noise in the otherwise silent kitchen.

            After breakfast, he was led back through the dining room where the numbers had dwindled down to about ten, Hannibal walking just ahead of him. Will didn’t so much as watch him as he watched the others in the room, noting the way adoration and –horrifically enough –hope lit up their eyes, mouths curling into soft, pleased smiles. He’d seen similar expression on the faces of those in churches, eyes turned towards statues of Gods and saints. Hope. Blind faith.

            “Who are all of these people?” he asked Dr. Lecter as they walked down the hall.

            “Attempting to glean information, Will?” Hannibal wondered.

            “…Trying to understand what I’m seeing.” Among other things. He hadn’t seen a single cellular device or telephone yet, but he reasoned that he hadn’t seen all of the rooms just yet. Once he could locate a phone, he could find a way to get ahold of Jack.

            “These are dear friends that have come together to help me in my time of need.” He didn’t sound the way one sounded when referring to a dear friend; if anything, there was a distinct turn of his mouth as he spoke, and Will wondered what sort of person suit he’d put on to convince them that he was their savior. He thought of the hands touching him before and cringed.

            “Are they all…?” His voice trailed off.

            “Killers?”

            “Yes.”

            “Some.” A young woman walked by them and stopped just long enough to bob her head respectfully. “Some are disparate youths seeking shelter from a society that has rejected them. Others simply found a place where they can be accepted, regardless of their differences.”

            “So you’ve made a summer getaway camp for psychopaths,” Will said, although he immediately chastised himself. He couldn’t call it ‘surviving’ if he kept running his mouth and made Hannibal angry enough to make him dinner.

            Rather than chastise him, Lecter surprised Will when he instead laughed, pausing in the main hall to really, truly look at Will, as though he were seeing him for the first time.

            Will tried very, very hard to not look at his mismatched eyes.

            “I have missed our conversations,” he said fondly.

            That time, Will was smart enough not to say anything in return.

-

            Jack sat across from a pretty, young woman with mismatched eyes and wondered where all her love had gone. If blood hadn’t stained the front of her shirt in a sloppy, haphazard manner, her appearance would have suggested a trip to a mall, not an attempted murder. She was dressed to blend with a ponytail tucked into a baseball cap, a white t-shirt, and medium wash denim pants. Jack wasn’t the sort of person have a damn clue about differences between medium wash from a light wash, but Zeller had noticed right away. This was a woman meant to blend into a crowd.

            Thankfully, even while being stabbed, Bowman was quick on the uptake.

            “We ran your prints, and they don’t match your identification, ‘Alyss Conners’,” Jack said at last. He’d let the silence sit suspended around them for quite some time, simmering in an underlying rage that was contained with only the slightest control. She hadn’t seemed to mind it, in truth; one brown eye and one hazel eye blinked at him lazily, casually. Her thin lips parted, and she let out a soft huff of breath.

            “That’s odd,” she said. She had a distinctly high-pitched tone, the sort of voice that would normally get her whatever she liked.

            “They did match the prints found at the scene of a crime in Kansas City from nine years ago, though,” he continued like she hadn’t spoken. “Suspect Kelly Brown, wanted in conjunction with the murder of four family members: Jason, Steven, Linda, and Bryce Brown.”

            “My name is Alyss, not Kelly.”

            “We know you’re working for Lecter. We’ve been pulling visitor records, and you’d started going to see Hannibal for at least 3 years under various misnomers. Thankfully, face recognition was able to pull you up and save us time.”

            “I’m currently unemployed, actually,” she informed him lightly. “I hope to fix that, though. I want to work with soulmate counseling.”

            Graham was attempting to finish his residency with soulmate grief counseling. Jack leaned in at that small jab, his mouth rippling with a silent snarl.

            “Where’s Will Graham?”

            “It must hurt to see your fellow agent die, Agent Crawford,” she commented. “In a TattleCrime news article, Freddie Lounds once said that you ‘walked with death’. Everywhere you go, death follows. How does that feel?”

            “Agent Bowman isn’t dead, Kelly,” Jack replied with a gritty smile.

            That took her aback. Her expression of sweet calm faltered, a twinge of panic lurking around her eyes before she struggled to compose herself, teeth bared.

            “You’re lying,” she decided.

            “He’s in surgery right now, but things are looking good. Whatever mission Lecter gave you, you failed.” He relished in her unease at his completely serious tone, a spasm near her mouth. It was a balm against the burn of her words. “You were supposed to kill Agent Lloyd Bowman and get away, right? A shadow of death that could strike wherever. Except you failed on both counts, Kelly.”

            “You won’t find Dr. Lecter,” she hissed, and she bared her teeth. Her canines were sharper than normal, peeking out over lips the color of pink rose petals. “I may have failed him, but you won’t find him. You who walks with death and brings it in your wake, you will only hurt those around you in your quest to save Will Graham.”

            “Where’s Will Graham?” Jack demanded. His tone darkened in response to hers.

            “You’ll never find him,” Kelly hissed.

            “Tell me, and we can maybe think of a deal, Kelly.” It was a lie, but it was a good one. Even if he took care of her attempted murder of a federal agent, she was wanted elsewhere for other murders. Things didn’t look good for Kelly Brown.

            “Over my dead body,” she snarled.

            “That can be arranged. The death penalty is still legal in Missouri.”

            He stood up and gathered the papers into a file, heading from the room with a straight, confidant step. Just outside, Zeller straightened from his slouch, and he fell in step beside Jack as they headed down the hall.

            “He’s still in surgery,” he said, and Jack grunted. Bowman was still alive, even if only just. It was good news. Good news was hard to come by whenever Lecter was in the mix.

            “Also, I did checks on everyone. Molly Foster, single mother with a son by the name of Willy. Twenty-seven, widowed, but the death of her husband is from cancer, not murder. No soulmate, and no word on where her son is. Her face was pulled from the cameras at the BSHCI five different times, although she signed in to see Lecter under a different name each time.”

            “I want to see where, when, and how she first came to find this guy. Do we have letters of correspondence?” Jack wondered.

            “Beverly Katz, a student in the GWU graduate program for criminology. She was being scoped out by the FBI, but… this essentially ruins her application. She has a soulmate, Saul Yancy, who visited Dr. Lecter five years ago and used his real name. Beverly Katz visited Dr. Lecter only once, although she used a pseudo name.”

            Jack nodded and walked into the autopsy room where Price was busy peering through a microscope. He tossed the folder down, loosened his tie, and tried to roll her words off of his back.

            Everywhere you go, death follows.

            “Agent Francis Dolarhyde.” At that, Zeller paused, a frown creasing the space between his brows. “We pretty much know his professional career. Before that, though, he was bounced from foster house to foster house, abandoned by his mother, cared for by his grandmother for a short while before she died, then taken in by his mother once more before he was back in the foster system until he graduated high school and joined the marines a month later.”

            “How many times did he visit Dr. Lecter in his spare time?”

            Zeller glanced up from his folder and frowned, uncomfortable. Jack didn’t care, though; while Dolarhyde may have been an agent, he certainly wasn’t one any longer. Jack had placed his trust in him to keep Will Graham safe, and Francis Dolarhyde had spit on it.

            How does that feel?

            “Quite a few times, actually, each time under a false name with a different guard working,” Zeller said reluctantly. “We’re going through as much information as we can, and Dr. Chilton is giving us his full cooperation.”

            When Jack didn’t speak right away, Price lifted his head and cleared his throat.

            “While he was looking at that, I looked through a few things, too,” he said. Jack turned to him expectantly. “Namely, the backpack of your Saul Yancy, soulmate to Beverly Katz. It seems that in the rush, he left a few things behind, namely a Nalgene bottle with very stale, very warm water in it.”

            “Okay,” Jack said blankly.

            “Well, I decided to study the diatoms in it, on a hunch,” he continued.

            “You studied the diatoms on a hunch,” Zeller repeatedly bluntly.

            “People have hunches,” Price replied defensively. At Jack’s aggravated sigh, he continued, “Diatoms are unique and can house specific ‘fingerprints’, so to speak, like people can. You study the diatoms, compare them to other diatoms, and you can find a general water source. Where this was water from a tap rather than bottled water…”

            “We can try and hunt down just where Saul was before he made his way to Graham’s apartment,” Jack finished for him. His gut tensed, and he idly rubbed the scar. It did that often enough when he was stressed, a reminder of just how close one walked the line between life and death in situations like this. If Bowman lived, they’d have to compare scars.

            “Sounds like a long shot,” Zeller murmured. Despite the misgivings in his tone, his eyes lightened perceptively.

            “That’s what I thought, but I decided to give it a shot while you were doing your background sleuthing and face recognition project.” Price paused to savor the moment. “Looks like our guy Saul came from a place in Georgia before he made his way to Graham’s apartment that fateful night. Specifically either the Piedmont region, or the Upper Coastal Plain.”

            “That guy really needs to drink more water,” Zeller said triumphantly.

            “I’m pretty damn glad that he didn’t,” Jack replied. He felt the beginnings of excitement unfurling just under the place where Lecter gave him his crooked smile. “Get me on the phone with the Atlanta HQ,” he said, grabbing his phone. “I want my ass in the air in under an hour.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:

6 Years Ago:

            “Mr. Graham, can you please tell the court how you first met Dr. Lecter?”

            Will shifted in the uncomfortable wooden chair and tried to look towards the prosecutor’s face, like they’d practiced. He managed to get to his chin and stared it down. “I met Dr. Lecter two years ago when I was searching for a therapist.”

            “Was he recommended to you?”

            “I have a bad habit of being too thorough. I extensively researched various therapists for quite some time before even calling to set up an appointment with any of them. He was recommended by several psychiatric journals, reviews online, and through word-of-mouth from professors at the school I’d just started attending.”

            “Which school was that?”

            “George Washington University.”

            The prosecutor nodded and looked away from Will, pausing for a sort of dramatic buildup that Will had been coached to wait for. He shifted once more and spared a glance towards the defense’s side of the courtroom, something he’d been attempting to force himself not to do. Seated between two defense attorneys and two guards, Dr. Hannibal Lecter was the picture of serene calm. If he minded much that Will was taking the stand against him, it didn’t show. In the quick pass over that Will gave him, he’d have almost said that the doctor appeared pleased.

            “You traveled a little under an hour once a week to see your therapist?”

            “He was a good therapist.”

            “I’d like for you to describe the events which took place on the evening of April 10th of this year, Will. You’d been seeing Dr. Lecter for almost two years at that point?”

            “Yes.”

            “Tell me about that night in your own words.”

            Being as stressed as he was, that was difficult. The speech and inflection of the attorney was a smooth, rocking cadence that gave way to a sense of ease and self-assurance that Will desperately wished he had. He could feel his mouth parting to scent the room the way the man across from him did, like he could taste the emotions around him and react accordingly.

            “Due to my classes and travel, my appointments were at 7:30 P.M. I was early that evening due to a class being cancelled in the afternoon.” He licked his lips, desperately wishing that he had a glass of water. “I normally waited in the waiting room until he opened the door.”

            “Why didn’t you that time?”

            “The door was ajar. I heard…a noise.” He paused the way he’d been told to, a brave man in a horrendous situation that didn’t know how to put to words the horrors he’d witnessed. It wasn’t entirely a lie, in truth. “I thought maybe Dr. Lecter was unwell, or that something had happened, so I opened the door.”

            “What did you see?”

            “I saw Agent Jack Crawford on the ground with a knife wound to his stomach. He was bleeding, and he was clawing his way towards his jacket on the couch towards what I supposed was his phone.” He blinked, each click of his eyelids a snapshot from that memory, a thing burned into his skull, so much so that he eat, slept, and dreamed it as though it’d happened to him instead.

            “What did you do?”

            It took longer than it should have for him to answer, lost as he was in the scene. The rug he’d spent the better part of two years digging his heels into was soaked, an oddly beautiful gloss to the stains as each straining grunt made more blood ooze from the opening along Jack’s stomach. His skin, despite its darker tone, was pale, sweat staining the collar of his shirt as he struggled. He was dying, and he knew it, knew it like he now knew what his own blood felt like on the outside of his body, knew it like he knew the tone of his own voice.

            “Mr. Graham?”

            He blinked rapidly and shook his head, trying to shake loose the way he’d panicked. He was ashamed to discover that as his eyes had glazed over, as he’d retreated into himself, his gaze had sought out Dr. Lecter, honed in on him.

            Dr. Lecter smiled faintly and bobbed his head as though he were encouraging him to continue. It could have been another therapy session to him, for all the calm he exuded.

            “I’m sorry,” he said, and he rubbed his soggy palms onto his recently purchased dress slacks. “I…I took off my jacket and used it to staunch the blood flow, and while I did that, I called 911. Agent Crawford was in shock, and he kept saying to me, over and over again, ‘It’s Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter did this.’”

            “Did you see Dr. Lecter?”

            “Not at that moment, no,” Will replied. There was a speck on his glasses, and he stared at it rather than look back over to where Dr. Lecter was watching with rapt attention. “I didn’t realize he was in the room until I heard a noise at the door. He was…walking out of the room. In his hand was a curved knife.”

            “I present to the court the weapon in question, a standard linoleum knife.” The prosecutor crossed the room and retrieved a plastic bag that housed the weapon Jack Crawford had almost died beneath. “Did you try to engage him in any way, Mr. Graham?”

            “No. I thought that if I moved, Agent Crawford would die.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Graham. No further questions.”

            He could sense the appreciation and awe from onlookers in the room. It felt like a rash that spread along his neck, hot and itchy, and he nodded and glanced to the judge with mismatched eyes and a face of stone.

            “Defense, your witness.”

            The defense attorney had matching eyes and an uncomfortable smile. When he stood and crossed the room, Will felt distinctly pinned to his chair, and he couldn’t have moved if he tried.

            “Mr. Graham, I’m sure Agent Crawford is grateful for your brave and quick actions that led to his life being saved,” they began with a thin-lipped smile. “I have a few questions for you, though, if you don’t mind.”

            Will nodded. He didn’t have a choice in the matter, in reality.

            “What were you seeing Dr. Lecter for?”

            “I’d rather not say,” Will replied, far curter than he’d have liked. “That’s personal.”

            “Mr. Fisker?” the judge prompted.

            “While the details of his therapy are certainly his right to have remain private due to confidentiality laws, your honor, I’d like to submit this letter provided by Dr. Bloom, a psychiatrist that guest lectured often at GWU. It is a letter from her to the head of the psychiatry department discussing the mental state of student Will Graham.”

            The judge accepted the letter and pushed glasses up on the bridge of his nose in order to read it. As his hand touched the standard printer paper, a cold sweat broke out at Will’s temples, and he looked back to Dr. Lecter, eyes widening.

            The bastard was smiling.

            “Will Graham is a unique case due to his hyper-empathy disorder, a disorder still being discussed within psychiatric circles today due to its relatively newer discovery and study. Your honor, the pure empathy that Will Graham can display for anyone in a room means that his mind can be swayed simply by high emotion and the power of suggestion. He first was given recommendation to see a psychiatrist due to his almost withdrawing from his first semester of school because of delusions he was suffering after the death of his father. In his own words to Dr. Bloom, ‘I sometimes think that he may be alive, and I will see him just ahead of me in the distance. I can literally make myself see things, but I am powerless to stop the images once they appear.’”

            “Your point, Mr. Fisker?” the judge prompted.

            “I motion that Mr. Graham’s testimony be struck from record due to his inability to recount past occurrences with complete accuracy. His memory, as malleable as it has been proven to be by esteemed psychiatrists apart from Dr. Lecter, is such that as he attempted to save the life of Agent Crawford, the agent informed him that Dr. Lecter attacked him. His hyper-empathy caused him to fully believe in what he was being told, causing the delusion of seeing him departing to occur. Mr. Graham’s mind is not stable enough to stand up in a court of law.”

            “I didn’t imagine seeing him leave,” Will snapped, his cheeks burning red with anger and embarrassment.

            “The traits that have been given to Dr. Lecter are claims of an intelligent psychopath, your honor. An intelligent psychopath, armed with a deadly weapon, would have simply attacked Will Graham before he could have made the call that ultimately saved Agent Crawford’s life. In the scenario provided, he only saw Dr. Lecter after Agent Crawford told him to see.”

            The courtroom was quiet, save for the stenographer typing. After a stilted few seconds, even that paused. An air conditioner in the back of the room gurgled and complained, and somewhere down the hall, a door slammed shut. Will curled his fingers into his knees and dug his nails into slacks he’d paid far too much for, all for the sake of looking professional as he testified against his own therapist.

            “I’m going to call a recess,” the judge said at last, setting the letter down. “Councilors, my office. We’ll meet again here within the hour, at approximately 1:20 P.M.”

            His gavel made a sharp cracking noise, and Will jumped with the sensation of it. At the motions of one of the agents off to the side of the prosecution, he rose from the stand and made his way off of it, his skin going numb and cold all over as he realized that despite his best efforts, his mind that –in the words of Dr. Lecter –was supposedly a gift, was now being used as a weapon against him instead.

            All the while, Dr. Lecter remained smiling.

            Will was given an official tour of the house and all of its winding hallways. There were over fifteen bedrooms that Will could see, many of them housing bunkbeds or neat, straight rows of twin sized beds lined from one wall to the other. The rooms and halls were spacious, newly painted and refurbished with modern lighting and technology. Lining the many walls were oil paintings of what Will recognized as things that had once inhabited Dr. Lecter’s office and home.

            “Did they find what once belonged to you?” he asked, pausing before one. “Or did they replace them?”

            “Much of my art went to auction, but it was recovered.”

            Will nodded, not at all surprised to see Leda and the Swan as part of Lecter’s collection. There was something depraved and carnal about the swan pressed close to her thigh, her dress hiked up her stomach so that she was exposed to the world and all its censure. No one liked to talk about the fact that Zeus tended to rape most of the women who bore his children. Hera definitely like to ignore that tidbit when she exacted her revenge. Dr. Lecter paused with him, much too close for comfort.

            To be fair, anything not involving a 6x8 cell with bars was much too close for comfort.

            “How did you find this house?”

            “I had this house placed in my cousin’s name a few years before Agent Crawford began his hunt for me. It had been a precaution taken with little thought to what would happen later, but I’m pleased with the decision.” He didn’t press closer when Will moved away from him. The space was given with little resentment or anger.

            “Don’t you think they’ll try and track your cousin down? Or any family you have here?”

            Lecter laughed lightly. “If I didn’t know better, I would say that it almost sounds as though you’re concerned that they’ll find us.”

            His voice had definitely been pitched that way, although the honest emotion tied to it was more hope than anything else. Will hadn’t been aware of Lecter having a cousin in the states, but if they could locate information on the cousin, Jack would be one step closer to finding him.

            “They won’t, though,” he continued when Will didn’t speak. “This has been pieced together for some time, Will, comprised of many parts that have come together to run as a singular, cohesive plan. So far, there hasn’t been a single snag.”

            “You’ve been working on this for years, I know,” Will said bitterly. He thought of Beverly and Molly, a sore in his mouth that he kept tonguing over.

            “All good plans take time and patience, Will,” he said. “Come, let me introduce you to some of the people.”

            Downstairs was a maze of parlors, living rooms, sitting rooms, tea rooms, and a library that’d been remade into a large security office. Computers and hardware sat in an organized chaos, and a large map had been pinned to a burnt ocher wall. Their entry was noted, eyes drifting over him to fixate on Hannibal immediately. Francis covered the map from Will’s view and greeted Lecter with a dipped, submissive head.

            Seeing him before Hannibal was far different than seeing him beside Jack. Where there’d been a perfect, calm assurance to his mannerisms with Jack, a slow, deep, and mellow personality that moved as a shadow, as he stood before Hannibal, that persona was stripped away. There was a vulnerability in his eyes, the way they dipped down rather than meet Lecter’s gaze. His large, broad frame somehow shrunk, like he could take all of his muscle and his deadly capabilities and make them smaller in Hannibal’s wake.

            “Dr. Lecter,” he greeted. “Mr. Graham.”

            “If he likes, Will can go by Dr. Graham,” Hannibal said lightly. “He’s completed his degrees, after all. His residency was soon to be finished, too.”

            Francis looked to Will expectantly, although he wouldn’t meet his eyes.

            “It’s not like I’m going to be practicing psychiatry anytime soon,” Will stated bluntly.

            “Mr. Graham, then,” Francis decided.

            “I thought it best to introduce him to the main security here at the house,” said Hannibal, looking about. “I see Matthew is still here.”

            “I’ll be leaving soon, sir,” a man said, walking over to them. He had a Baltimore way of curling his letters in his mouth before discarding them, thin lips twisted into a semi-permanent smirk. His close-cropped hair was professional, his beard neatly trimmed, and when he looked Will over, Will was more than capable of tasting the disdain that rippled off of him, dank and heady in the air.

            Will thought to make a joke about his wearing a Sherriff’s uniform, but at this point it was becoming far too exhausting to be surprised by these people.

            “Sherriff Brown has been a valuable asset to our cause here,” Hannibal informed Will. “He was more than eager to help in relieving me of the Baltimore State Hospital.”

            “You used to work there?” Will asked. There was a surprised pause at his question. “You sound like you’re from Baltimore,” he explained.

            “Matthew used to work there, yes,” said Lecter.

            “I take care of the town here, now,” Matthew said. There was a sudden conscious attempt to give his tone a southern drawl. Will wondered if he had a hard time fitting in at his department, if the good old southern boys gave him trouble when it came down to brass tacks. “And I help Dr. Lecter however I can with the big house.”

            “Lucky for Dr. Lecter,” Will replied, deadpan.

            “We haven’t heard anything yet,” Francis said, looking from Will to Hannibal. “If they have anything, it’s not…good enough to make a move.”

            “You were sufficient with your evidence, then,” he said, pleased. Francis’ intent gaze lightened at the compliment. “Once we hear word from Alyss, let me know.”

            “I will have gotten a call by this afternoon,” Matthew assured him.

            “Good.”

            Matthew left with another glance tossed towards Will’s way, and Hannibal made quick work of the rest of his guards: Sam, Howard, Matt, Glen, and Rick. Their faces blurred, melted together in the sort of mush that made Will uneasy to look at for too long. He considered it luck that they didn’t reach out to touch him again.

            They left the room, the implication by the introductions made abundantly clear from the gun holstered at each of their hips: Will would be detained if necessary.

            He was taken to a large, spacious office next, the chandelier overhead an antique that threatened to drop at a sideways breeze. Will skirted around it and took quick stock of the room, from its open, wide fireplace to the large bay windows that gave way to the sprawling backyard he’d walked along earlier. Books lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, and the musk of male cologne hung along the chairs and desk.

            “It looks the same as your old office,” Will said when he realized Hannibal was waiting for him to speak. He shifted his stance and tucked his hands into his jacket pockets, eyes drawn outside where he spied Molly walking with a young boy.

            “Does that bring back pleasant memories or disquieting ones?”

            “…Tasteless ones.”

            “You tried to see another therapist after everything that occurred. It lasted a month before you never returned.”

            “Therapy lost its…charm after everything,” he replied. “I didn’t see a reason to return.”

            “Were you afraid that if you returned, you would somehow find another therapist whose personal desires extended towards a less socially acceptable avenue of interest?”

            That was an awfully fancy way of saying that Hannibal Lecter genuinely enjoyed killing and eating people. Will bit along his bottom lip, found a piece of peeling skin, and tugged it so sharply that he tore flesh. Just outside, Molly held the child’s hand and swung their arms, sunlight gliding across her cheekbones and giving her a halo of light. He wanted to strangle her with it.

            “…Not even I’m that unlucky,” he managed. His tongue glided along the tender skin, lapped up the blood that beaded with faint dots of red. He kept his back to Hannibal. “I didn’t want to talk about you in therapy. Dr. Bloom wanted me to stop internalizing everything, but I just kept…holding it in. It was a waste of her time and mine.”

            “It must have hurt you when you realized that your perceptions of me weren’t quite what you supposed.”

            It had hurt, but not in the way Hannibal was implying. “I didn’t blame myself for being blind,” he said, harsher than intended. “We were blind because you wanted us to be blind. I don’t blame myself for that.”

            “What did you struggle with reconciling, then?”

            “Are you trying to psychoanalyze me right now?” he asked, turning away from the window. Molly and the child had disappeared downhill towards the pond. “Missing the days when I paid you to climb into my head?”

            “You have a unique mind and a valuable way of thinking. I won’t feel guilty for wanting to understand it further.”

            He wasn’t going to say it, stuck as the words were in his throat, jamming up and making breath stutter to a stop. He wasn’t going to give voice to the fear that of course the only person in the world he’d been able to be completely honest with was a psychopathic cannibal; Will Graham was not a man that shared the ugly thoughts in his head very often. What did it say about him that the first time he’d been able to consistently remove them and place them before an unjudging person, it was the same person that just the day before they’d met had taken the brain from a judge and placed it on a set of scales in order to display his displeasure in the judge’s last ruling?

            What did it say about Will Graham that for two years, his source of mental stability and clarity had come from the lips of a serial killer?

            “…Do you think that by attempting to…do this, you’ll somehow be able to make my eyes change?” He looked to Hannibal who stood poised beside a rich mahogany desk, his three-piece suit a blend of greys, greens, and off-white plaid. “Do you think that by trying to pick up where we left off six years ago, you can force a connection?”

            “What do you think, Dr. Graham?”

            “I’ve been told that my line of thinking is considered rude in polite company.”

            “You once informed me that I should practice the art of ‘say it rude,’” Hannibal countered. “When one can’t think of the kind form of rephrasing, they should simply speak their mind. You said that there was something to be said about transparent honesty.”

            Will gritted his teeth. “I think you’ve got a cult following you for reasons I don’t quite understand, and I think you’re just using them for whatever game you’ve got going currently –a big, honest ‘fuck you’ to Jack Crawford. I think you’re going to try and force a staggered connection that –even when no manipulations are added –has a less than one percent chance of occurring between two willing participants because becoming part of some ‘common rabble’ is ‘insupportable’ for you.

            “You said that they’re your friends, but you had absolutely no qualms in sending one of them that was clearly mentally unstable into a police station so that she could commit suicide-by-cop. You’ve somehow manipulated other people into ingratiating themselves within my life in order to spy on me for you, and they say that it’s not for pay –what hold do you have over them? What have you promised them that they’re willing to sell their lives away at your whim?”

            “If you’re upset about Molly, know that she genuinely enjoyed your company. She informed me that you were a good person,” said Hannibal. When Will set to a furious pace across an oriental rug, he sat down and tracked his route with half-lidded eyes.

            “She…you…” He floundered, digging his nails into his palms. I fucked her the night before you escaped. You told her to do that, didn’t you, you son-of-a-bitch? You told her to fuck me? “Dr. Lecter, soulmate connections are based off of some form of commonality among two people that our psyche can see before our conscious mind does. It makes that leap, and in the space and time when we dip into REM sleep, it establishes the connection between the individuals. It can connect due to shared beliefs, personalities, desires, feelings, or even memories and sensations.” A beat before he added, “You know this.”

            “Yes, and my mind connected to yours,” Hannibal said.

            Will blanched and stopped his pacing to face Hannibal, hands planted on his hips. “Mine didn’t connect back,” he said, attempting to sound calm. His tone was almost plaintive. “You of all people know that my hyper-empathy makes connections with soulmates a tricky environment.”

            “Which is why you’ve spent the better half of your life avoiding eyes, yes,” Hannibal agreed.

            “It’s not…fair to them that if I even did connect back, there is no guarantee that it was due to a genuine connection. It could have been my empathy, my…sub-consciousness reaching for that space in which it became someone else. Your reaching, your…finding of me is not an indication that there was even something between us to connect to. My empathy disorder may have only made it seem that way because I can empathize with anyone. I can connect to anyone.”

            It would have been a much better argument if he could have maintained calm. It was difficult to do so, though, when was staring down a cannibal who sat with such poise and tranquility that Will was certain he was imagining the many ways in which he’d potentially flay Will alive. He took a shaky, uncomfortable breath of air and looked away from him, worrying over the wound on his lip. His hands dug into his hips, and he imagined bruises forming in small, uniformed ovals.

            “That is what makes it so special,” Dr. Lecter said at last. Against his olive skin and ashen hair, the blue eye stood out far more than the maroon, giving him an eerie, unearthly look. “Your grasp and understanding of the thoughts and behaviors of others makes the likelihood of a staggered connection far more likely because you’re able to see what first drew my subconscious to you.”

            “That’s what you don’t get, Dr. Lecter,” Will snapped, exasperated. “I can understand it, but that is not enough. The aspects of my person is this untapped potential, like you’re the first person that’s ever seen that in me and tried to take advantage.” And succeeded, he thought bitterly. “You’re a murderer. You’re a serial killer, you’re a cannibal, and my potential for that darkness doesn’t matter because I will never be that person. You can’t force a staggered connection with me because the things you have hope that I will come to understand are the things about you that I’m completely and unequivocally repulsed by. I don’t find any aspect of that interesting, let alone appealing.”

            Hannibal stood, and he crossed the distance between them at a leisurely, calm pace. Be it the look on his face or the way his hips twisted, but Will had the sensation of being prey, a predator crossing the distance between them to end him. He’d gone too far, said too much, and it didn’t matter that Jack could maybe hunt Lecter down through his cousin that owned a plantation home when Will managed to get himself killed on his second day there –

            -Hannibal withdrew his pocket square and pressed the corner of it to Will’s bottom lip.

            “…You will,” Hannibal said simply. Will snagged the handkerchief away from Hannibal, glancing from him to it, marking the small specks of blood along its white cloth. When he looked up again, he was disquieted by the pleased, secretive smile he was being given, like he was in on a joke whose punchline was told too fast for him to catch.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7:

            The next morning, Will was taken out for another walk. He wasn’t quite sure if was Lecter’s plan to give him walks, feed him three times a day, and give him mental stimulation simply to keep him compliant; he debated tossing around something snarky about having a new role akin to a pet, but that reminded him of Winston and his being left behind when Will was taken.

            He fervently hoped Jack took him in before he was taken to a pound.

            His caretaker was Molly –Hannibal wasn’t going to be kind, apparently. He was allowed just along the line of trees in the backyard that stretched and stretched. Sunlight clawed its way over the rooftop behind him, fingers of gold highlighting pink cirrus stratus.

            “That’s far enough,” Molly said when the tips of his shoes brushed against the fallen leaves. Not too many had dropped yet, but enough. Enough to look like autumn. Enough to feel like a sense of change was brimming, something that could only foretell death. He dug his shoe into one, disappointed when it didn’t crackle and come apart.

            “Who is the kid?” he asked.

            “My son,” she said after far too long.

            “I didn’t know you had a son.”

            “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Will,” she replied curtly.

            Will hummed an assent and bent down to retrieve the leaf he’d stepped on. “I’ll agree to that.”

            They continued on in silence broken only by his occasional stepping on a twig or her short, curt coughs in the cold air. He wondered if the entire duration of his stay would be filled with such pregnant pauses, words left unsaid due to far too many necessary to share. There wasn’t enough time in the world to make this comfortable. There wasn’t enough space in his mind to find solace in their lies.

            “I’m curious,” he said finally, walking along the perimeter of the trees. “How did you find him? Did he find you? Did you write to him?”

            It took a long time for her to reply –Will felt it was as much her way of trying to find the right words as it was her trying to decide if she’d even answer him.

            “He found me.”

            “What…drew you to him? So much that you are willing to bring your child into this?”

            “Oh, Will,” she sighed. “You won’t use my child against me to make me feel guilty.”

            He turned back to her, twisting the stem of the leaf around in his fingers. It spun wildly, fluttering about. It make the air smell like bitter, crisp maple.

            “I’m not,” he said. “One of the others…she had a boyfriend and a son. She walked into a police station and was willingly shot down. Beverly had asked me why she would do that when she had a soulmate, but I can see the question is a stupid one, now. She knew why and how and what. I don’t. I don’t have a child, Molly. I don’t know what motivates, what moves you.”

            “Dr. Lecter saved me, Will,” she informed him. “You had a great gift in being one of his patients. You told Beverly that it was more calming than she thought it’d be. Isn’t that enough of an answer for you?”

            “No,” he said bluntly. “No, it’s not. Not after I found out just who he was beneath his skin…what motivated him. It wasn’t calming after that.”

            “Life motivates, Will,” she said. “We are, for being such capable, powerful beings, are fragile people. Every day, we walk the line between life and death, and Dr. Lecter revels in it. He takes as he likes because he can see that line, and he rejects it. We don’t have to fear death if we control death.”

            “I’d have never asked you on a second date if you’d said something like that on our first,” Will informed her.

            “People spend so much time trying to survive life when we should embrace it,” she continued, ignoring him. Her gaze traveled along the lawn, pausing on a few figures in the distance that were also enjoying an early morning stroll. “How many times did you tell me that you woke up and felt like you were drowning?”

            “Too many.” He looked to where she stared, and her back stiffened perceptively. She looked like one of the toy soldiers in the toy shops his father often took him to, at attention and aware of all that surrounded her. He’d stared at their neat, straight lines and ached for them, these beings that stood patiently still, waiting to die in the end.

            “You told me that you were just trying to survive.”

            “I did,” he agreed. “I had to survive Dr. Lecter. No matter what I thought, what I tried to feel…I had to survive him, like Jack Crawford had to survive him, like everyone that had to be in his presence when his person suit was gone had to survive him. I’ve spent six years surviving him. I’m trying to understand so that I can keep surviving him.”

            “That’s your problem, Will,” she said with a forlorn sigh. She looked away from the figures in the distance and fixed him with a cold stare. “You’ve spent so long trying to survive while I have spent my time trying to overcome. It’s made all the difference.”

            He mulled that over as they took a final lap of the house and he was returned to his room. He kept his bruised maple leaf and turned it over in his hands as he sat on a bed too comfortable for him to sleep well in. His palms were damp from the cracked edges of the leaf, and he pressed them tight together, letting the scent carry over his skin to seep in.

            He took the stick of gum from his pants pocket and popped it into his mouth to chew. He chewed and chewed and chewed until he no longer felt the grit of sugar rubbing on his teeth, until it became smooth and hard to chew on. Just before he was fetched for breakfast, he opened the door and poked his head out, looking around. A guard stood just at the bottom of the stairs, but that was alright. He took the chunk of gum and stuffed it into the opening where the deadbolt would go, fitting it so that it wouldn’t be noticed right away. Then he closed the door once more and sat down on the trunk at the foot of the bed, fiddling with the maple leaf.

            He rather liked the notion of Molly’s statement, how she’d stood at stiff attention and stared to the distance with a challenge in her eyes. She’d decided that she wasn’t going to merely survive. She was going to overcome.

            Will figured he could try something much like that, too.

-

            While Will Graham stood outside in the early morning light and questioned his tumultuous ex-lover about her dubious actions, Abigail Hobbs sat beside her father at the breakfast table and watched the room with rapt attention.

            Not everyone was gathered there, but that was alright. Dr. Hannibal Lecter sat at the head of the table, and that made the meal special. She took a large bite of the carefully cubed fruit and savored the taste of a honeyed, sweetened glaze. Beside her, her father ate with his head ducked and his eyes half-lidded, not quite awake but not quite asleep. He’d had the night shift guarding the perimeter of the house.

            She glanced back down the table where Dr. Lecter sat and chatted amiably with Beverly Katz, remarking on the food and the general house. Beverly was something of a saint, she figured, the way that people watched her. Abigail supposed it was because she’d kept so close to Will Graham of all people, befriending him and ensuring that when the time came, he’d be alright.

            His appearance throughout the house was somewhat ghost-like, but her father said that was normal. Some people needed time to adjust.

            Abigail wasn’t just ‘some people’ though. She’d been more than happy to join the house where it was safe. Secure. When she’d stood on the steps of the house, she’d watched Will Graham’s arrival with something like the starved desperation of a person seeing a life line extended. Will Graham meant hope. She hadn’t pressed to him, touching him with a wild desperation like the others had, but she’d certainly felt like it. Everything she’d been working for, since that day she first wrote to Dr. Lecter…

            Things were going to be alright.

            “Quit staring at him, darlin’,” her father murmured good-naturedly. “He’s not going anywhere.”

            Not anymore he wasn’t. Now that Dr. Lecter was free, he could be the leader they’d all been so patiently waiting for.

            “I just want to hear him speak to us,” she said quietly.

            “He will, don’t worry. Morning and evening meetings will be done by him rather than Mr. Brown, now that he’s here.”

            And sure enough, at the end of breakfast, when chatter and the morning noises of clinking silverware and mouths gulping down freshly made, gourmet coffee faded, Dr. Lecter stood up and surveyed each and every one of them with something much like kindness on his face.

            “Today…is a special day,” he said, and everyone nodded along. This was what they’d been planning for so long, after all. “Not only am I here before you, able to thank each and every one of you personally for what you’ve done not only for me, but for everyone here…we also have Will Graham.”

            There were shared smiles, mouths wide with the truth and realities of what they could all enjoy and hope for. Abigail tracked each and every one, noted them and nodded along.

            “The FBI has no idea where we are; there are no leads, no witnesses to our actions. Like a shadow, we moved with swift action, and look at what that’s brought us: success.”

            “Yes!” someone agreed, their head bobbing with the emotion behind their words.

            “Success,” another murmured humbly.

            “To you, I have only this home of safety and my words of encouragement to offer; the world that has turned away from you, bruised and broken you, given you nothing but sorrow and weighted minds is of no consequence. Together, we are made whole, stronger with our unified minds and ideas that live, adapt, and grow.”

            Another bout of nodding, eyes wide. Abigail looked from them to him, a small jolt of shock and pleasure zinging down her spine when she saw him watching her in turn.

            “You brought me Will Graham,” he continued –did she mistake a sly, quick wink tossed her way? –and turned, lifting his glass up to them. “It was only through you that my own happiness, my own soulmate could be brought to me. Though his eyes are unchanged now, he will see just what we can offer him, what we can help him Become.”

            She met eyes with a man that couldn’t quite keep her stare, and she smiled encouragingly at him. After a beat, he looked away from her and smiled, too, eyes cast to his food as though it could give him an answer.

“And now, with it having come to pass, I will give what each and every one of you have desired since the very beginning, when we first dared to believe in more than just our flesh and bone and the bonds of mortal men: The Red Death.”

            “The Red Death,” everyone murmured, and Abigail murmured along with them, the low thrum of their voices creating the sort of hum that settled low and deep in her gut, warmed her like a quick sip of hot chocolate.

            “And to the time that comes after,” Hannibal added, and there was a smattering of laughter before everyone began applauding, eyes bright, turned towards their future.

            Their future stood at approximately six feet in height and wore twill suits in summer.

            As if on cue, Francis Dolarhyde entered the room, primal and mildly terrifying to behold with the dark set of his gaze. Abigail wasn’t one to be intimidated so easily, though, no matter quite what she projected to the world. When his stare fell to her, she shifted in her chair and met it head on, nodding subtly, just once. He nodded back, thin lips compressing tightly.

            “Welcome, Francis,” Hannibal greeted warmly as the applause died down. He passed another smile over the table, then sat down in order to resume breakfast. “And truly, thank you you; all of you.”

            Francis dipped his head to Lecter, then circled the room at an idle, lazy pace. To anyone else, it appeared that he searched for an open chair, a place in which he could sit to eat. Abigail wasn’t just anyone, though. As he walked behind her chair, she swung a hand casually around the back of it so that she could hold up four fingers.

            “He’s always late to these things,” her father noted quietly. He buried his face into his coffee and made no other comment after.

            Breakfast came to an end, and Abigail remained, feigning aid in cleaning up the mess from the meal. When she saw Francis lingering by the door, she glanced about to ensure that her father had already left to go to sleep, then walked out into the empty hall.

            “Dr. Lecter would like to see you in his study,” he said. He had a quiet manner of speech, but Abigail wasn’t fooled –two years of living in the house had given her a thorough knowledge of each and every person, their strengths and their weaknesses. Although quiet, Francis was by far the most dangerous –moreso than her own father.

            Barring Dr. Lecter, of course.

            When she walked in, she was greeted with a firm handshake and a brief hug that made her clothes feel too tight. Years of wondering over his person gave her the scent of cedar wood and whispered promises, the after tang of cloves just under her nose. Before the fireplace, tea for two had been set, and she accepted her cup with a dip of her head. Her heart pounded a rough staccato against her chest, creating random divots. She’d been waiting for this for years –longer than she’d even been in the house, longer than she’d even first heard the words ‘Hello, Abigail,’ come out of the good doctor’s mouth.

            “By far, you are one of the most resourceful people I’ve come to know, Abigail,” Dr. Lecter began, and Abigail felt her cheeks burn red. He sat down across from her and got comfortable, one leg crossed elegantly over the other.

            “I try,” she said, and he waved a hand lightly.

            “You succeed where many before you have failed.” He paused to take a sip of his tea. Despite the years of prison, Dr. Lecter was a refined sort of man –a far cry above her own father who’d all but fallen into his drink. “Francis informed me that you counted four?”

            “Yes,” she said with a nod.

            “And you’re sure it’s four.”

            “Yes,” she affirmed. “I checked once more, just to make sure.”

            Hannibal Lecter nodded thoughtfully and looked to the fireplace. It wasn’t yet cold enough to have it going, but he studied the wood in the grate all the same, like it could tell him the solution to his problem. Four. Four wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t quite good.

            “I think that I know why,” she said after a beat, and he looked back to her. His brow was deep-set, his cheeks gaunt. At that angle, she could see a hint of his time as an inmate, a whisper at the edge of his jaw that said he hadn’t eaten so well then.

            “Tell me your thoughts,” he said, and she sat forward, on the edge of her seat. She’d been waiting for this, a chance to share her thoughts and impress him. If he was impressed, she wouldn’t have to worry for a thing.

            “Will Graham…when he arrived here, many people were overcome. They reached out and tried to touch him, and he was afraid. For some that witnessed that, they whispered that it wasn’t quite right to bring a man here against his will.”

            “He hasn’t yet seen enough to understand,” Hannibal assured her.

            “Oh, I know,” Abigail replied immediately. “But…those that may have already doubted or been unsure of themselves, to them see someone so scared –did Francis tell you that they actually grabbed him and held on?”

            “He did.” Hannibal sounded mildly amused at that.

            “I understand why they did that, but it not only made him afraid of us, but it made any doubters uncertain, too. It was supposed to be a warm welcome, but Mr. Graham looked prepared to run if he thought he could have gotten away fast enough.”

            “What do you suppose should be done?” he asked. Abigail had an answer for that, too.

            “A dinner to welcome Will Graham officially, to show our best side. If he doesn’t look so afraid, or if he can as least see that we’re not all quite like that, it will soften him towards our cause. His ease would probably ease their doubt, as well.”

            “And what if that doesn’t quite work, Abigail?”

            “Then we kill them,” she said, and the stare she fixed on him was intent, unwavering. “That was the deal, wasn’t it? You protect me from my father trying to kill me, I find your weak spots within our cause and silence them if necessary.”

            “That was the deal, yes.”

            Abigail busied her hands with her tea, turning the cup about in its dainty, delicate saucer. Spying a Lady Finger, she grabbed one and nibbled on it, her jaw set. She’d killed before. Perhaps if she asked someone else nicely, they’d hold a rag for her to clean her hands with after.

            “When you first reached out to Francis on the internet, I had my misgivings because of your age,” Hannibal said when she could say nothing else. He had a way of staring that pierced through you, fixing you to the spot. Abigail chewed furiously at her biscuit, staring down at his shoe rather than meet his gaze. “But not only are you intelligent, you know just how dangerous it can be to fail, even with a singular misstep.

            “Tell me, did he make you kill your mother to come here, or did he do it?”

            Abigail washed the crumbs down with the tea and cleared her throat. “I killed her.”

            “All for protection and amnesty against him.”

            “I’m glad you’re here, Dr. Lecter,” she said, redirecting but not-quite changing the subject. “He listens to Francis, but…he respects you more. When we heard word that your plan was set into motion, he said that he’d want to honor someone for you. It wasn’t in reference to me, either.”

            “And just how is your father?” Hannibal wondered.

            “More night shifts wouldn’t hurt, Dr. Lecter,” she replied after a moment of thought. “He can’t kill me if he’s too tired to think about it.”

            “I’ll take him with me for a tour of the grounds today,” Hannibal decided. “After he’s woken up.”

            “Thank you,” Abigail said sincerely.

            They finished their tea, and she was sent off to socialize, to better glean more information from those that doubted. They weren’t necessarily bad people, Abigail thought, as she sat down and played checkers with the boy that’d smiled at her during breakfast. In reality, their questioning of their place in Dr. Lecter’s following was a sign of just how not bad they were, that they could see the flaws in his designs on someone not interested in him.

            Still, though. If there was one thing Abigail had learned about herself when she first began searching for people online that could kill her father before her father killed her, it was that self-preservation was far more important than flowery things such as morals or integrity.

            And if there was a way to make use of her father’s talents without someone having to stick a knife in his neck, so much the better. He made a relatively good deer steak.

-

            Will ate breakfast and lunch alone in the kitchen, which was fine by him. Beverly tried to coax him to the dining room, but he’d quelled her with a look that sent her away. Lecter was busy with something, although the what of it wasn’t entirely clear. It was fine, though. Will preferred eating alone rather than having to endure someone with one of his eyes staring at him and waiting for him to take theirs in return. Day three in the house, and he still had two seafoam blues.

            He shuddered at the thought of one day waking up and that changing.

            He wasn’t given direction to go anywhere or do any specific thing after eating, so he sat out on the outside steps with one of the guards just behind him. The front lawn was just as beautiful, a serene world in which nothing but the house and its secrets survived, cut off from the rest of the world and its struggles. The entire idea was surreal, and there was a sort of disconnect to Will, an idea that this couldn’t be true –wouldn’t he wake up soon? Surely this was all just a dream?

            A car came up the drive, and Will stood. Just behind him –Howard? Matt? Glen? –moved around him to track their slow, awkward progress as the car jerked, stopped, then continued in a crooked line.

            “Matt, you’ve got visual?” the man said into an earpiece at his ear. Not Matt, then. Howard or Glen, probably.

            The car shuddered to a stop, gave a whining lurch, then turned off. It was the action of it that was unsettling to Will, worse still the silence that followed as the guard calmly removed the gun from his holster. The look he gave Will was chilling and clear: don’t move.

            When a man stumbled from the car, though, covered in blood, Will found himself distinctly disobeying that silent demand. He rushed down the steps and caught the man before he could fall to the gravel. His skin was cold, clammy, and he didn’t seem to truly see Will as he moaned, low and pained.

            “H-he needs medical attention!” Will shouted, hauling him towards the steps. The guard hurried after him, whatever shock that’d frozen him thawing at the sound of Will’s panic. They each took an arm over their shoulders and carried him, the guard barking orders as the doors opened to admit them entrance.

            “G-Got…got…Alyss,” the man said, teeth chattering.

            “Don’t talk, Nate, just wait,” the guard urged, and looked at Will around Nate’s head. “Follow me.”

            “He needs to go to a hospital!”

            “No he doesn’t,” the guard snapped. “Follow me.”

            Will reluctantly followed him deeper into the house, past the doors to parlors and living rooms and drawing rooms. At the far back of the house, in one of the rooms Hannibal hadn’t let him see, the guard stopped to fumble with his keys, unlocking the door with shaking fingers. It opened to admit them, and Will followed him into a room that, for all intents and purposes, was more along the lines of a torture chamber than a hospital room.

            “Here, put him…I need Clarence in the medic room right fucking now,” he growled into his earpiece. They hauled Nate onto a gurney, and Will made quick work of removing his shirt, ripping it off of him so that they could see the damage.

            He’d never been much of a hunter, but even he could recognize what a shotgun wound looked like.

            “I’m here, I’m here,” a man said, striding into the room. He was followed by three others, each of them skirting around Will as they rushed towards a sink at the back and washed their hands, chattering all at once as the guard informed them of what little he knew.

            In the midst of the hubbub, Will was pushed, pulled, and gently but firmly booted from the room. As the door shut and locked, all that he could see was the pale, clammy skin of a man that most certainly wasn’t going to make it through the day, let alone the night.

            He was left in the hall with its dim lighting and oil paintings, and Will stood there for some time, staring down at his hands. Blood was an ugly sort of color, the kind that muddied everything it touched, turned it old and aged. A door slammed in the distance, and he jolted, shuffling along the hall, but when he reached the end and turned back, he found that he’d tracked some of the blood into the carpet, oblong and disjointed steps of red that spelled the end for Nate.

            “Oh my god, are you alright?” he turned around at the voice, pausing on the face of a young woman who couldn’t have been older than eighteen. She was wind-chafed, the kind of pretty like the old America Dolls with shiny blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Kewpie dolls, he remembered them as being called, and the only cousin he’d ever met had a hoard of them that she put wigs on whenever she wanted to play Tea Party.

            “It’s not my blood,” he informed her, as though that made it any better.

            “Is someone hurt?” she asked, and she looked genuinely afraid. Her brows knit over a genuinely terrified expression.

            “Oh, yes,” he said, and he took stock of his blood-stained shirt and skin. There was a smear of it along his arm, curling over the elbow to stop just at the wrist. The man had leaned on him. Not knowing who he was, the one-called-Nate had leaned on him in his weakest moment, even as Will felt him dying.

            “I’ll…I’ll go get someone,” she managed, and she hurried down the hall, shouting for help.

            Help had already come, he reasoned, as he made his way up the stairs in order to shower the feeling of dying off of his skin. Help had come for Nate, but if those wounds were any indication, it wasn’t there fast enough. He wondered if he’d have saved Jack Crawford’s life so easily if Hannibal had taken a shotgun to him rather than a knife used for cutting linoleum and the like.

            Probably not.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8:

            Kelly Brown, sitting demurely in her prison cell where she’d declined to give any new information, promptly fell from her chair at 11:42 A.M. and began screaming.

            It was not the screams of someone grasping for attention. Jack Crawford stared at the image on his smart phone, and even with his lack of empathy that oftentimes came across as callous, he could see that it wasn’t an act. It was the sounds of genuine pain, of an agony that was more spiritual than physical, and even he could see exactly what it was that took her to curling up into a ball and begging for it to end:

            Soulmate severance.

            “Sir, should we…?” The guard hesitated, unsure if he should step in or not. His voice was disembodied, off to the side of the live video.

            “Leave her,” he decided, watching her writhe. “The only thing we could do is administer a sedative, but that won’t stop this from happening when she wakes up later. She’ll have to endure it now.”

            “We lost the suspect who was in possession of her vehicle,” Zeller said beside him, in person. “He did take fire before losing them in interstate traffic. The helicopter couldn’t get to the air in time to track him.”

            “If the suspect was her soulmate…” The guard murmured, disquieted. His mismatched eyes were a testament to his own fears. Once, a long time ago, Jack would have also felt a shiver of unease down his spine for the pain he’d one day feel so acutely it tore at his very being. He’d stopped feeling that fear a long time ago, though, probably around the first time he’d been to the doctor with Bella and found out what terminal cancer sounded like coming out of her mouth.

            He’d sat in pain with her every day since then. The idea of severance, if anything, meant she’d no longer hurt.

            “We’ll question her after,” Jack decided. “She’ll be vulnerable.”

            “I don’t think we can do that, Jack,” Zeller said. “Soulmate rights and all.”

            The right to grieve the death of a soulmate without pressure from law enforcement. Jack mulled the dilemma over, a curl to his lip. Her screams were subsiding, giving way to sobs that couldn’t quite get traction due to the loss of breath she was experiencing. Her body thought it was dying. She thought that she was dying.

            He could relate, although he could certainly choose not to sympathize. She’d almost killed one of his men, after all. Bowman’s fate still hung in the balance.

            “Question her after she regains consciousness,” he said after a moment of thought. “No, I don’t want to hear it.” He gave Zeller a dark warning look, then looked back to the video. “Soulmate severance is a serious concern, but so is finding Will Graham and stopping the people that first decided to start attacking our men for standing for what was right.”

            “Yes, sir,” the guard replied.

            Zeller followed him down the hall after he’d disconnected the livestream, and he didn’t comment on the way Jack’s hands were clenched to large, capable fists.

            “Do you think Graham is still alive?”

            “Yes.” At Zeller’s dubious expression, he continued, “If he’d killed him by now, he’d want me to know. He’d probably leave pieces of him scattered into the shape of an arrow leading to where his head was mounted.”

            “Jack…”

            “What else have you got for me?” he asked, curtailing that sort of line of questioning.

            Zeller frowned. “Due to his good behavior, Lecter was able to meet with these people in a private, unrecorded room rather than the public room,” he said after a brief hesitation. “Chilton said that he has several recordings of psychiatrists going to see Lecter, but they’re discussions of death, focusing particularly of our awareness of our own mortality.”

            “How did he muster such a large following?” Jack wondered out loud. “Was he allowed near computers, or did he have access to any technology? Something to reach out towards others?”

            “No, but we’re still getting information about those that helped him escape. The nurse and the orderly…who knows who else was involved?”

            “God damn,” Jack murmured. “All that he had to do was look like the poster boy for acceptance and tolerance for their psychotic tendencies, and they’d have flocked to him.”

            Wherever you go, death follows.

            “I’ve got a meeting with the director here.” They paused by the door, and Jack sighed. “We’re going to start looking for places that he could keep a large amount of people under the radar. I’m thinking either vastly rural area, or a predominantly large city like Atlanta. So far, I’ve got Atlanta PD on our side.”

            “Do you think they’ll keep information from us if they find it?”

            “It’s a serial killer.” Jack smiled grimly. “If anything, I’d say the guys on the brass don’t want to handle it at all, but if it’s on their back doorstep...they’ll cooperate.”

            “I’m used to pissing contests with these guys.”

            “They don’t want a pissing contest when it’s Lecter. They want it clean, easy…” Jack rubbed the nape of his neck, pressing down the hairs that stood on end when he thought about the bastard slipping right through their fingers. “If you need something from them, don’t hesitate to ask.”

            “Right.”

            “Why did Chilton allow so many different people to meet with this man, one-on-one?” Jack wondered. “That’s what I want to know. Why he thought it was safe to let Lecter talk to these people privately.”

            “A lot of what happens there isn’t always run through Dr. Chilton,” Zeller explained. “And the head orderly that would have been the eyes and ears of that place was one of the men that helped Lecter escape.”

            “Get a few guys on the inside…” Jack murmured, disgusted. “Get a hold of Dr. Chilton, too. He ducked out of our phone conversation, and I want screenings of all of his staff.”

            Zeller turned and strode down the hall of the FBI Atlanta division, headed towards the tech department.

            Jack Crawford sighed, collected himself, and strode into the department head’s office to give him news about their only suspect in custody.

            How does it feel?

-

            Molly Foster stood in a room with six other people and desperately tried to blend in.

            It was difficult to, all things considered. While in the house itself, she tried often enough to spend time with Wally and no one else, but with the tasks she’d been given, people tended to view her with awe-filled, wide eyes. It was her job to keep Will from moving on. It was her that kept him stagnant, waiting for that perfect moment when Hannibal would relieve her of his love. They hadn’t put hands to her the way they’d tried to with Will, and for that she was eternally grateful. Although she had no aversion to touch the way he did, it would have made her uncomfortable, all the same. They loved her, even as they kept their distance and watched.

            It was a nuisance, to say the least.

            “He didn’t want dinner,” Beverly said in the unkempt quiet. She stood near the fireplace and appeared distinctly troubled. “I’ve seen him like this before.”

            “Internalizing, no doubt.”

            “Usually he’d go on walks with his dog when he gets like this, but…” Beverly shrugged. Winston was back in DC, and Will was here. Captive. No one would say the word, but he was very much captive. Molly could admit it to herself, although she wasn’t so dumb to say it out loud.

            Hannibal sat at his desk and steepled his fingers, staring over them with his normal, sanguine expression. The fire popped and cackled along a poplar log.

            “Nate’s death is a troubling thing,” he said at last. “Matthew, you never heard word from Alyss?”

            “No.”

            “News in DC is that she attacked Agent Bowman, as planned. He was able to apprehend her before she could get away though, and they traced Nate through Alyss’ car,” Saul said. He sat close to Beverly, his eyes tracking her casual pacing in front of the fire. His adoration was clear, although when he looked from her to Hannibal, it was difficult to see which one he cared about most. That rankled at Molly, made her spit taste sour.

            “Francis?” Hannibal looked to him expectantly.

            Francis always looked one breath away from biting someone, in Molly’s eyes. He had the sort of eyes that seemed to hold a thousand secrets, but closer inspection gave way to the kind of fear a person only has when they’ve lived under the thumb of another for most of their life. She thought of the wet sound one of the agents had made in the back of his throat as Francis took his knife to their neck, and she had to suppress a shudder. She heard that noise whenever she dreamed.

            “I’m not hearing a lot,” he said at last. He always took his time speaking, the words stiff on his lips. She’d seen his writing, though, and that in of itself was an elegant thing to behold; far from the way he puzzled over the sound an ‘S’ should make. “Crawford doesn’t…want a lot of chatter because of me. Nervous to trust his own agents. They have her, though, and he’s in Atlanta right now.”

            “Atlanta?” Hannibal looked up from his fingertips and appraised them, expression shifting. It was that face that Molly most feared, the kind of face that made him appear utterly human, even when he wasn’t thinking like one.

            “They think we’re in Georgia.”

            “We are in Georgia, Francis,” Saul said, looking away from Hannibal to scowl at him. “How’d they find that out?”

            “Did something slip through the cracks?” Hannibal asked.

            “I’ll find out, Dr. Lecter,” Francis promised.

            “I’ve got a guy that can keep us posted on their movements with the Atlanta PD,” Matthew informed them. “Last he said, Crawford was promising utmost transparency so that they could find us faster.”

            “I commend Agent Crawford on such designs,” Hannibal said with a thin-lipped smile. The rest of the room laughed, and Molly joined in, although she kept her arms firmly wrapped around herself. “Molly, how was your walk with Will this morning?”

            Everyone looked to her, and she forced herself to let go of her self-soothing embrace. Her back stiffened, her chin lifted, and she smiled humorlessly.

            “As I expected. Whatever sway I had was gone the moment he realized that I was involved in this.”

            “You pointed a gun at him,” Beverly said defensively.

            “He would have fought otherwise, and that wasn’t the sort of publicity we needed in a gas station parking lot,” Molly returned. They stared one another down, weighing, assessing. It was often like this between them, a difference of opinion on just how Will was to be handled. Molly wondered what it would be like to have a room full of people assessing and weighing her psyche; she’d probably have a laundry list of mental problems, just like Will.

            “He was not receptive to you.”

            “No.”

            “Is he at risk for running at this moment?”

            “He might have been, had he not seen Nate,” Howard stated before Molly could say anything. “He helped me take him to the medic room, and he went to his room without having to be asked afterwards.”

            Hannibal looked to Molly for confirmation, and she nodded in agreement.

            “We’ll have Nate buried in the cemetery just a mile into the forest,” he decided. “Matthew, if you’ll look into the matter of Agent Crawford’s movements, and Francis, see if you can ascertain just where they have Miss Alyss. I’ll speak with everyone about the matter, keep them calm.”

            “Are we going to begin the next act?” Saul asked, mismatched eyes glittering.

            Molly looked to Beverly rather than Saul at the question because she always found it fascinating to watch the two of them together. There was always a sense of desperation, like time was running out. She could never quite place why she felt that way, but she supposed in was in the manner that Beverly always sought him out, eyes shadowed and haunted. She hadn’t made it a secret that she didn’t like the connection at first; years of it gave way to acceptance, though, and Molly supposed that the love followed after that. Saul looked to Hannibal, and Beverly looked to Saul. It made anxiety curdle in Molly’s mouth.

She never gave voice to the feeling though because it was just that –a feeling. Still, though, she watched them now and saw that same haunted look on Beverly’s face that she always did; like one day, all of this would be too much for her, and she’d blow her brains out.

            “Given the circumstances, Saul, I think that it’s time to begin the next act,” Hannibal said in the silence that followed. “Matthew, you understand your part?”

            “Intimately,” Matthew replied.

            “And Molly?” At the sound of her name, she turned towards Hannibal expectantly, hands on her hips. With Hannibal, one would be stupid to look like a victim where he could see. Victims were devoured by wolves, a sheep to be picked off at their leisure.

            Molly wasn’t a survivor. She overcame.

            “You know what we discussed last. Despite everything, you’re doing wonderful.”

            On cue, she gave a bright, chilling smile.

            “Thank you, Dr. Lecter,” she lied through her teeth. “In reality, this is the happiest that I’ve ever been.”

-

            Hannibal stared down at Will Graham while he slept.

            It was not the calm, quiet sleep of the well-rested, but the anxious sleep of the fearful. He studied the thin membrane of Will’s skin against the pillow, a thread count high enough that Chiyoh had informed him of it when she’d purchased them. While Hannibal couldn’t care less about the number of the tread count for sheets one slept on, he could care that despite its comfort, Will still couldn’t sleep easy.

            Granted, he was sure that Will Graham hadn’t had a good night’s rest in a long, long time.

            “I’m already dead,” he murmured, and that small thrum of pleasure curled down his spine, settled at the base with a warm, heady hum. He blinked slowly, languidly, committed to memory the short, sharp inhales with the too long pauses between exhausted exhales. The way he slept was much like the way Will Graham lived; curt, hesitant, and altogether worrisome.

            He paced the room at his leisure, steps silent since he’d removed his shoes and left them just outside of the door. He tried to imagine it how it could be; fishing lures on the desk by a window, books on soulmate psychology tucked onto the small bookcase, a dog bed that lay unused by the window because despite Will’s best efforts, the dog slept on his bed. He imagined art work just above the dresser, a gift that Will would accept with an awkward shift of his stature before he held it close for the rest of the night. He’d put it up with a level to ensure that it was straight.

            Sleep didn’t often elude Hannibal, but it did now. He silently paced the space that Will spent most of his time in, committing the scent of fear and suspicion to his memory. It was a refreshing, something reeking of the bergamot soap he’d left in the shower; a lovely replacement of the memory of the last time he’d smelled him, fear and Wal-Mart cologne blended into a nauseating concoction. Skipping meals, avoiding people as a whole, and locking himself up in his room while he no doubt planned his reckless escape; Hannibal felt each and every step that Will took across the floor, each aggravated thought as he mulled over Nate’s unfortunate end.

            He’d thought to put him closer to his own personal quarters, but logic had proceeded ahead of desire. Hannibal needed him in a place where he could learn to become familiar, a place to call his own while he navigated through the house and everything within. If Will could find a safe space in the house, he could become acclimated to the house. Comfortable.

            He just needed to take his time. Patience in this, Hannibal knew, was the ultimate key.

            “Sir?”

            The whisper brought him to the door where Saul and Beverly waited patiently. He gave himself one last glance back to Will who turned violently to the side in his sleep. A sigh, one of mourning and pain passed his lips as he readjusted, and Hannibal noted the curve of his hip, the slant of his shoulder as he turned in towards himself. Even in his sleep, there was a relentless chasing, it seemed. Even in his sleep, he could not dream with ease.

He closed the door behind himself silently, then followed them downstairs with shoes in hand. Once at the bottom, he put them on and strode towards his office, their steps trailing after him. Saul smelled of the forest, and Beverly smelled of secrets and vanilla musk skin cream.

            “Everyone is in position for tomorrow,” Saul said the moment that the door to the study closed.

            “I’ve gotten confirmation from our guy on the inside that no one is expecting a move like this,” Beverly added. Her hand brushed against Saul’s, and Hannibal tracked the motion. While Saul was an easy read, an open book that begged to be seen and loved, Beverly was the spine of that book, stiff and unyielding unless one knew how to apply the right pressure.

            “Jack Crawford is in Atlanta currently,” Hannibal said. “What do we know about Alyss?”

            “Francis informed me that Alyss is kept at the HQ right now. Because of soulmate grieving rights, they can’t question her until tomorrow.”

            Hannibal hmm’d quietly, taking a seat at his desk. Splayed across it lay his current drawing, an art piece of his favorite tableau. The scalpel for cutting fine points for graphite lay just to the side, turned at the perfect angle -45 degrees with the point facing whoever sat diagonal from him. For those of utmost faith in his abilities, they hardly noticed the sharp edge. Those who doubted, who were unsure of him, stared at the scalpel, their eyes darting from his hands to his eyes to the fine point, sweat soaking the collars of their shirts.

            “It’s too risky to retrieve her,” he said at last. “With Nate now…indisposed, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the backlash in letting her wait at the illustrious FBI.”

            “We’re not going to rescue Alyss?” Saul asked, unsure. His pinky linked with Beverly’s, seeking a grounding rod.

            “It’s too risky,” Beverly agreed. “After tomorrow, it will be even riskier.”

            “But she…” Saul stopped at the look Hannibal gave him, something even-tempered and smooth. Time had given him the ease and practice of shaping his face, his expressions subtle but powerful in the way they conveyed his innermost thoughts.

            “She’d understand,” Beverly said, interlacing their fingers and squeezing. She was the spine, and he was the rice paper that fluttered at the slightest breeze. “Alyss wouldn’t be so selfish as to put herself above the plan.”

            The plan. Hannibal thought of it and leaned back into the supple leather of his chair, a recovered item from his old office. While most of it had been taken to auction, sold to the highest bidder with an affinity to the macabre, Francis had seen the return of his things with a focus most delightful. The man that’d bought his chair in the aftermath of his unfortunate detainment had come to a certain sort of understanding, according to Francis.

            That, and he no longer had a mouth capable of calling for help.

            “It’s regrettable, Saul, but we cannot deviate now,” Hannibal said at last, looking him over. Under his gaze, Saul was clay, malleable to his whims. He was much unlike Will, who was steel that only bent to the right elements, shaped because he willed it, because he saw fit to be shaped.

            It was a fitting person to be a soulmate to him, if Hannibal was being honest with himself –he tried often to be honest with himself, even if it was an ugly sort of honesty. While Will was the steel, he was the heat that would mold him, aid him as he Became more than what he thought himself to be.

            “Matthew is going to begin the next step of his part tomorrow as well, sir,” Beverly said.

            “In truth, he plays the biggest part,” Hannibal said, and he stood, fingertips brushing just along the edge of the paper.

            “He’s braver than I am,” Saul said with a laugh. It was quelled under Hannibal’s stare, snuffed out like the puff of breath to a weak flame.

            “Do you mean to say that if asked, you could not do as he does willingly?” Hannibal wondered. He tracked Beverly’s hand, how it twisted to grip and hold onto Saul’s wrist. A warning. A warning and a worry. Beverly Katz was far smarter than Saul, far smarter and far cleverer.

            “I…I mean, sir, that…” He paused, struggled with the words, then laughed sheepishly. “Dr. Lecter, I’d do anything for you,” he said instead. A new direction. A misdirection.

            Hannibal circled the desk, caught Saul’s chin in hand with the barest of touches. Of all the things to fascinate him in this puzzle he currently pieced together, it was how easily people bent to him, to him and his machinations. Manipulations had always come easy to him, the simplest of words twisting and ensnaring even the brightest of minds –Will Graham had described it so poignantly as he stood his ground and said, ‘we were blind because you wanted us to be blind.’

            These people specifically, though, with all of their failings and their desires, were manipulated because they wanted to be manipulated.

            “I do hope so,” Hannibal murmured, staring into his eyes. Saul couldn’t keep his gaze, mismatched eyes dropping instead to the collar of Hannibal’s shirt. “Because if Matthew fails, you were who I was going to rely on next.”

            Saul balked under his words, but he held still, allowing Hannibal to glide fingertips along his jaw, pausing just at the dip between ear and neck. Just below it, underneath his invasive touch, his pulse hammered. Saul feared him, even as he loved him.

            People, with all of their odd and exhilarating unpredictabilities, were utterly predictable. Utterly, utterly boring.

            “Good night,” Hannibal said pleasantly to them. He released Saul and turned away, heading towards the decanter he kept on a shelf in the corner. “Matthew will be the one to wake Will tomorrow.”

            “Good night, Dr. Lecter,” Beverly said for the both of them. She turned Saul about and led him out, and through the distorted reflection of the glass Hannibal saw her spine, stiff and deliciously unyielding, even under pressure.

            He idly wondered just what it’d take to make it snap.

-

            Will’s door was unlocked when he tested it early the next morning. The gum was still in place, and he checked it once more before heading down the stairs. No steps squeaked underneath his feet, and the locks at the main doors were nothing more than short chains and dead bolts. He slipped out into the crisp morning air, everything still blanketed in a dark, calm embrace of night. When it was cold in the south, it was wet, and he felt it just along his skin even though he’d layered appropriately.

            He took off at a brisk trot and skirted the car that Nate had all but fallen out of hours before. He hadn’t left his room after that, busy instead with scrubbing every inch of his skin and posting up near the window to test just how sturdy the locks were. Beverly tried to coax him downstairs for food, but he’d silenced her with a long, steady stare that finally made her leave him to the silence of his bedroom and the instability within.

            Bugs screamed and complained in the early hours, and he absentmindedly swatted a mosquito off of his neck. Definitely the south. He hadn’t seen that many mosquitos hovering in droves in a long, long time.

            Down the gravel driveway took him to trees curling in on either side, dark and imposing with limbs stretching overhead. He picked up his pace and followed the curving, winding road, and in the darkened distance, he spied a wrought-iron gate. The sight of it made his heart lurch, and he tripped over his feet as he picked up his pace to reach it faster. If there was a gate, there was a property line. If there was a property line, he could find someone to help.

            Maybe even get a phone to call Agent Crawford directly.

            He reached it and pushed into it, a curse hissing from his lips at the heavy chains and padlock that sent the gate forward then jauntily back. The top of the gate was lined with sharpened metal spikes, as well as the iron that continued on, on either side of it. He’d have to risk it. Nothing said desperation like passing your junk along sharpened metal, but it was now or never, and Will wasn’t quite in the mood for never.

            “Good morning,” someone said pleasantly behind him.

            Will whirled around sharply, and he had to cover his eyes as a bright light was flashed in his face, blinding him.

            “A bit early for a morning walk, don’t you think?” Matthew Brown asked thoughtfully. Will blinked a kaleidoscope of colors out of his burning eyes, and he took a step back, brushing against the gate.

            “I couldn’t sleep,” he said.

            “I like to go on walks when I can’t sleep, too,” Matthew agreed. “It’s not all that safe to do that out here, though, Mr. Graham. Wild hogs will eat a human if they can get their mouth on them, and believe it or not, I’ve even seen coyotes that’ll get desperate enough.”

            “I’ve seen that.”

            “You just never know what’s out here,” Matthew continued, bobbing his head. “Allow me to show you back to the house, just to be safe.”

            “…Thank you,” Will managed, even as he felt his hope shifting beneath him. Thank you. The only words he could muster when he realized that no matter where he was, they would always have eyes on him.

            “You’re welcome,” Matthew said pleasantly, falling into step beside him. “I don’t know what any of us here would do if something happened to you.”

            The implication was clear: don’t make me be that something.

            “You put a lot of work into my safety,” Will said because despite both of them knowing he wasn’t just taking a walk, he felt that pretenses needed to be endured. “I don’t always know what to say.”

            “Just a thank you is more than enough for me,” Matthew assured him. They broke the tree line, and the moon sinking in the distance gave them the faintest of light to follow towards the house that stood in sharp relief to the darkness around it.

            Matthew saw him into the house and all the way up to his room, and he hovered in the doorway as Will turned on a lamp and made a grand showing of removing his shoes by the bed. When Will looked back to him, the same exact expression of distaste was reflected in his eyes, the intensity of it just enough that it rocked him back onto the bed.

            Distaste and a singular, obvious sensation of crippling jealousy.

            “Good morning, Matthew,” Will said, mouth suddenly cotton.

            “Good morning, Mr. Graham,” Matthew replied, and he closed the door behind him. Will heard the deadbolt turn, heard the heavy retreat of booted footsteps.

            He also heard the deadbolt not quite set as the gum did its job.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9:

            Lloyd Bowman woke up in a hospital much the same way that a drunk does –confused, nauseas, and with movements just sluggish enough that they slopped about and ultimately settled restlessly against sheets boasting a ridiculously low thread count. Government edition, from the feel of it. His eyes flicked and listed about the ceiling as he breathed, counting specks in the tiles. Hospitals on television always showed people waking with violence, swinging about as they ripped tubes and needles from their body in a frenzy, but Lloyd wasn’t much for dramatics when his body felt both like it were floating and also as though it were made of lead. Even if he wanted to be dramatic, he didn’t have the strength for it.

            He was alive, though. He marked the echoing, chirping sound of his heartrate on the machine and managed a slow, steady nod. He was alive. Being dead wouldn’t feel this damn bad.

            There was a steady, pressing ache near the center of his core, and he knew without having to look that it was where he’d been stabbed. If he was stronger, he’d have ripped the blankets back to dig at the bandage, really and truly see just where that woman had gotten a hook into him, but he couldn’t. Lloyd blinked, and he recalled the sensation, a ripple of shock followed by the sense of his insides trying to fall out, a pressure tight on his skin and muscle that made a violent burn rub raw through his veins. He tried to shake his head to dispel the memory, cloying and painful, but the tube shoved down his throat made it difficult. He groaned, low and agonized.

            Oh, good!

            He wasn’t found until a few minutes later, when a nurse came in to check his vitals. At his open eyes and calm, steady breathing, she paged a doctor and began the uncomfortable task of removing the tube from down his throat, massaging it with gentle, clinical attention. He allowed it because even though it was invasive and mildly embarrassing, it also soothed the ache in his jaw from the angle. She was just doing her job, same as Jack was just doing his job, same as Lloyd had only been trying to do his job when a pretty woman in the crowd ultimately tried to kill him for doing his job.

            Oh, good!

            He cringed, and the nurse misunderstood it.

            “Are you in pain, Agent Bowman?” she asked.

            He managed to shake his head. Normally, he’d have something for this, a joke to lessen the tension that sat in the room like an ugly, obtrusive toad. He’d have to test his voice, see if it was as ugly and wretched as the rest of him likely looked.

            “I need…to make a call,” he said, and yup; hoarse and scratchy. Lovely.

            “We’ll have a doctor in here so that we can discuss what’s happened and how we’re going to move forward, but first I just want to say that you’re safe, Agent Bowman, and you’re doing just fine,” the nurse informed him. “After we see exactly where you’re at, we can think about that call.”

            If he was a grouchier man, he’d have protested. Bowman wasn’t much like Price during a stressful case, though, so he lay stretched out in his hospital bed and waited. He waited while a doctor came in so that she could explain just what’d happened to him. A linoleum knife wasn’t the best of weapons to use for an attack, but it had certainly gotten through his skin, his muscle, and his intestinal lining well enough, she said. Surgery was touch and go, but he pulled through, and wasn’t that something to celebrate?

            Are you Agent Bowman?

            His chart was looking excellent –he was going to heal just wonderfully, the doctor said.

            Oh, good!

            “Thank you,” he managed after she asked if he had any questions. “I appreciate your hard work in saving me.”

            “That’s our job, Agent Bowman.”

            “If I could just…make a call, though. My cell phone should be with my things?” At the doctor’s confused expression, he continued, “I’d like to call my family and hear their voices.”

            “No one’s charged it,” the nurse said, presenting him with his phone. Her nails were unpainted, although she did sport a sensible, rubber watch on one hand. “I hope it’s not dead.”

            “Thank you.”

            It was an old military edition phone, a ‘relic’ among phones, but he loved it all the same. Unlike smartphones, whose batteries burned while struggling under the weight of running a computer in their tiny frame, his flip phone lasted for days before dying. At his assurances that he could make the call alone, the nurse administered his pain medicine and they left him to it, thumbing through the contacts before he found the one that he needed.

            Oh, good!

            “Hello?” their disembodied voice was firm, curt, and to the point. Lloyd hadn’t realized just how much he was looking forward to hearing it until he relaxed into his pillows, a sigh breaking past his lips. God, he was tired. Being awake like this was tiring.

            “I’m glad you answered.”

            “Agent Bowman? What number are you calling from?”

            “My personal phone, not my work phone,” he said, and at the beginning of their questions, he cleared his throat weakly to cut them off. “I know you’re worried, but I don’t have much time. I think…I think I got the girl that did this, so Jack will have her in custody, but I need to ask you to do something for me.”

            “Wait, you mean you haven’t called Crawford yet?” they asked, and their tone lowered to censure. “You wake up from a fatal stab wound, and the first thing you do is call me to talk about work?”

            “Not a lot of time, I don’t think,” he replied, and he resisted the urge to lift his blanket so that he could see just what his stomach looked like. Reason told him that it’d be bandaged, and he wasn’t going to work at peeling that off just to take a gander. “The girl that stabbed me was targeting me specifically. She asked who I was.”

            Are you Agent Bowman?

            “She was tasked to attack you, then? A job, not random chance?”

            “Another jab at Jack, probably, to take his trusted men out.”

            Oh, good!

            “Do you think that-”

            “I think Price and Zeller are probably in danger, too, but if it gets out that I’m alive, they’re going to come for me. One thing I gleaned from his writing in that letter to Jack –you’ll have to get a hold of that and read it, tell me what you think –”

            “I really shouldn’t be surprised with you thinking of work at a time like this –”

            “–he’s thorough. He won’t like my loose end because it’s supposed to hurt Jack, cripple him. With Agent Dolarhyde one of his own, we…can’t take chances about who is working this case. We can’t just bring in agents that we don’t have complete background checks and clearance on.”

            “I’m not your department, Lloyd.”

            “No, but you’re the department we should be using. I worked with you on that FLDS raid in the early investigations. You know what you’re doing around cults. I deciphered their manifestos and tone in writing, you kicked down their door and saved hundreds of children.”

            “You think it’s a cult?”

            Oh, good!

            “Yes. The tone, the actions…the disregard for personal survival in the wake of the orders from their leader…I think Zeller and Price are in danger, too.”

            “Why wouldn’t he just go for Crawford?”

            “It’s not suffering if Jack dies too soon,” Lloyd replied. The medicine was making his mind foggy, tossed about before settling in a sort of entropy. It reminded him of smoking pot in college, how he could just take a hit and lay back on the couch for hours after, lazy. Listless. “I’m not much in the way of…doing anything right now that requires physical movement, so I need your help.”

            “I can get a safe house set up, if it will make you feel more comfortable. Or we can place agents there that –”

            “No agents,” he cut off, probably harsher than intended. His deep voice was oftentimes loud, boisterous. He lowered it, tried to soften it around the concerns that tried to poke holes in the calm of the pain medicine. “If we want to do this right, we need to take me off of the table completely. That’s why I’m calling you, not Jack.”

            “…Just what is it that you want me to do?”

            “I need you to kill me, Agent Starling,” Lloyd Bowman said and he smiled wryly as he looked back up to the scuffs and stains of the aged hospital ceiling. “I need you to kill me off, and I need you to go save Jack from himself.”

            You’re so sly, but so am I.

-

            Francis visited him in the evening to bring him his food.

            He didn’t try to coax him to leave his room the way that Beverly tried to. In truth, Francis Dolarhyde seemed to be the only person thus far that wasn’t intent on asking him to ‘just…’

            He wasn’t quite sure what that meant, that Ex-Agent Francis Dolarhyde of all people desired nothing of him. He did his job, therefore he expected Will to do his job. It seemed to be more along the lines of a cause and effect, a system in place where every gear turned into another, creating a working and cohesive machine.

            The job everyone asked him of, though…

            Dolarhyde set a tray down on the desk, adjusting the fork and knife on either side. Wine was filled in the bottom portion of the glass, a white whose color turned ocher in the lamplight. Poised beside the bed as he was, Will tracked the careful motions of him, the unassuming nature of each bend and creak of his bones.

            “Did Jack talk about me a lot?” Will asked, unable to help himself. “When he asked you to guard me?”

            He paused beside the desk, a hand coming to rest on the back of the chair next to it. His flat, intent stare didn’t pierce the way that Hannibal’s did, but it was a fixated expression none-the-less. It told far more about him than anything else had, in truth.

            “Yes, Mr. Graham.”

            “What’d he say?”

            Francis took his time gathering his answer. Drifting through the doorway, the sound of dinner downstairs punctuated his slow and unrushed collection of thoughts, like he had to sift through each one to find the right words to say. Will didn’t rush him, merely watched. Merely tried to understand. He felt like he’d break himself, trying to understand.

            “He said that you had a troubled past,” he said at last. “You didn’t want pity, but he wished that he could have given you the sort of quiet that every other person seemed to be able to enjoy. Normal problems, like a late payment on a credit card, or expired milk.”

            “He trusted you.”

            “He did.”

            “And you ultimately betrayed him.”

            The look Francis Dolarhyde gave him would keep him awake for most of the night. “I was never loyal to him. He may have thought so, but that was not the case.”

            “Just what are your loyalties? Where do they lie?”

            He smiled very faintly, the scar from his cleft pallet making it crooked and altogether untrustworthy. “My loyalties lie with Dr. Lecter, you, and this house we have made a home.”

            His conviction was absolute, unwavering. Just beyond his expression was utmost belief, an unquestioning faith that wasn’t so much blind as much as it rang true with the proof in his actions. When Will had nothing more to say, he made his way to the door and paused in it the frame of it, hand grasping the doorknob to close it. He glanced back to Will, and the oddest of expressions crossed over his face, a cross between mild discomfort and honest hope.

            “Here, Mr. Graham, you won’t even have to worry over late payments and credit cards. We’ve created a place where the peace Jack Crawford sought so diligently for you can finally be achieved.”

-

            Abigail sat next to the boy from breakfast that evening, after dinner.

            It wasn’t so much a meeting as it was a time for everyone to gather in one of the large, formal rooms so that they could socialize –half of what kept their group together was the communication, the understanding. Now that Dr. Lecter was there, there was also a special part of every other evening where he’d give a devotional of sorts, something to share with them that showed his own personal traits and behaviors that he’d gained through honing in on his deadly capabilities. Sometimes, he even spoke with reverence the way it’d felt like to kill.

            “You’re…Jacob, right?” she asked, sitting down.

            “I am.” He flashed her a smile, hands occupied with a glass of orange juice. “Abigail?”

            “Yes.”

            “I always love this time of night,” he said, glancing about the room. “Back home, we’d have never had something like this. Family time wasn’t exactly our thing.”

            “What was it instead?” she wondered. Her tone was gentle, probing without being nosy.

            Jacob let out a bark of laughter. “Dad was watching the game with a few beers, mom was probably in the kitchen on the phone with her friend and a bottle of wine.”

            “What did you do?”

            That part wasn’t so easily shared. He turned the glass about in his hands before he took a sip, wiping his mouth distractedly.

            “I don’t think that they noticed when I left,” he said instead, after watching a few people enter the room to sit down. “You can’t really call it running away at this point when I’m nineteen, can you?”

            “Legally, no.” Abigail assured him.

            “I’d say it’s more of a ‘not my problem’ situation where they’re concerned. They probably think that I went to college, since the semester started a few months after I left. After I was able to contact you guys, I made my peace. They won’t notice that I’ve really disappeared until it’s time for Thanksgiving, I think.”

            “You brought your computer with you?”

            “No, and I destroyed the hard drive before I left. Cell phone tossed somewhere like I was headed for New York.”

            Jacob was clever enough, it looked like. Abigail shared with him a kind, flitting smile before she looked over to the rest of the people walking in. She marked her three other problems to deal with, noted their facial expressions and mannerisms as they sat down. Two of them were easy fixes, and they already appeared to be placated and part of the fold once more.

            One of them, though…

            “It’s your dad that you walk around with sometimes, right?” Jacob asked. He finished his orange juice and set the cup on a coaster.

            “Who else would it be?” she asked with a snort.

            “I don’t know…an uncle? A…” Jacob floundered for a moment before he shrugged. “I’ve seen weirder couples.”

            The thought made her nauseas, dinner going sour in her gut. “…Definitely my father. Not one of those weirder couples.”

            “That’s cool,” he said, and that flirty smile appeared again.

            He seemed nice enough, she decided, as he chatted with her about bands and music that he liked. He’d brought his CD’s –was that too cheesy? Too old school? He’d brought a Gameboy as well because he didn’t want to risk any electronic that could connect to the internet, in case that somehow made a difference in security. It didn’t, but she didn’t want to burst his bubble about having to leave his Nintendo Switch behind. He was thoughtful like that, and the more he spoke to her, the more Abigail wanted him to be an easy fix, just like two of the others.

            When Hannibal came in, the companionable conversations among everyone quieted, stilted to hushed murmurs that folded smoothly into silence. For those that’d been there for years, this was something they’d been waiting for –it was one thing to believe in someone, to look to them for guidance. Abigail glanced about the room attentively, noting those that were there even before her, when Francis and Matthew first began their mission. They’d believed in nothing but the shared words between Francis to Hannibal, then back to them. They’d hoped for things without even being able to see him in his glory.

            Here they were, though.

            “I much prefer evenings like these than evenings in the Baltimore State Hospital,” he said, and everyone laughed, warm and lovely with the feeling of wine he’d graciously shared with them at dinner. Even Abigail got to have a glass. “There, the tales of my actions were psychoanalyzed, cross-examined for what the deeper nuances meant. They couldn’t appreciate the art of it, nor did they care for what it truly symbolized. I didn’t share much with them, as you could surmise.”

            “Sir?” someone asked, and standing poised before the fire, Hannibal looked somewhat god-like, if a god were to live in the modern day and dressed like a successful businessman. Flames licked about his neatly pressed suit, a delightful backdrop to his intent, focused stare. “Is…is it true about Nate?”

            The worry was apparent on the faces of everyone, a tautness at the skin around their eyes. Abigail worried over her lip and looked to Hannibal, frowning.

            “While he and Alyss were dispatched to take care of Agent Lloyed Bowman, he was killed in the line of duty,” Hannibal said at length. His face wore grief with ease as he looked at each and every person, mouth twisted down regretfully. “Alyss was taken for questioning at a secure facility. Mr. Dolarhyde is working diligently to try and see just which prison she’s being detained in, that we could potentially free her.”

            People reacted differently to death. Each and every person experienced it in some unique, fundamental way, and it always fascinated Abigail to see. Beside her, Josh reached and took her hand, holding onto it tightly as he fought to hold back whatever emotion struggled to reach his face. Others openly wept, heads dipping down to tissues dabbed half-heartedly at reddened eyes.

            Even Hannibal Lecter, powerful and capable as he was, shed a tear and wiped the track of it from his cheek.

            Abigail was certain that there was something wrong with her, that she felt no impulse to cry for Nate and Alyss. In reality, her thoughts were centered on their failure and just what that meant for Hannibal’s carefully laid plans. She’d cried for her mother, buckled into the passenger seat of their Subaru as they headed towards the rendezvous point where she finally got to see Francis for the first time, but she’d known her mother. Her death was a necessity, but she certainly didn’t enjoy it.

            “One thing we must take with us is Nate’s vitality and life,” he said, and as people contained and took hold of their emotions, he smiled gently. “Those of us in this house that take these great risks to carry out the plans of everyone, they take risk and reward and clutch them in the same fist. They understand just how fragile the balance of life truly is, the way that it tips in either direction with the barest of nudges. Nate had an honest grasp, and with his actions, he became something of a god, didn’t he? In taking control of his situation, he was able to make it to this home so that they couldn’t take the car and glean from it our secrets.”

            Heads nodded, bobbed with understanding.

            “As we study how fickle the aspect of life and death are…each of us, I think, knows in our own way the scales that do not always tip to us. We have to take control of it, be as powerful and capable as destiny. The only thing in this world that is certain is death. How we come to it, though, is what makes us powerful.”

            Someone raised their hand, and at his gracious nod of acquiescence, she said, “Three days ago, Dr. Lecter, the roof of a church in Oregon fell on thirteen teenagers and two adults during their mutual. Every single one died.”

            “Within God’s own home, they did not escape,” Hannibal murmured.

            “Did God feel good about that?” another asked.

            “I think he felt powerful,” he replied, and heads bobbed in agreement. “Humans try to attach human emotion to a being that is considered omnipotent, but his behaviors are not so easy. There is no good or evil in nature, and nature is what God made. There is balance, action and reaction, and animals that survive due to their ingenuity and desire for that survival. God felt powerful dropping that roof on his followers, just as God felt powerful in watching Nate react and behave in a situation that did not favor him. By his own hand, Nate died.”

            Abigail loved the feeling that came with his words, the honest sense of logic and the intoxicating taste of just how capable that made her. God was neither good nor bad; he simply was, and he simply did. That is something of how it’d felt to kill her own mother. She saw an opportunity to escape from beneath her father’s gaze, and the price was her mother’s life.

            She’d have liked to say she regretted it, but that would make her something of a liar. A quick glance about the room told her that no, her father wasn’t present. He was off on watch duty, ensuring that the perimeter would stay safe from those that sought to take this paradise from them.

            Thanks to Hannibal Lecter, he’d be so busy he’d never have a chance to ‘honor’ her the way he did eight other girls.

            “Tonight, I want us to honor Nate,” Hannibal said, and at a motion from him, a few people walked into the living room in order to divvy out glasses of wine, as red and bright as the color of blood. Abigail wasn’t much a drinker, but she could appreciate the time he’d taken to get the color choice right. “One of our own has fallen trying to bring to fruition our goals, hopes, and aspirations. He saw what was necessary to survive, and he took his life into his own hands and chose to Make it more than what it was.”

            “To Nate!” someone cried out.

            “To The Red Death!” another chimed in.

            “To their success, that although Nate fell and Alyss was detained, Agent Lloyd Bowman is now a crutch to Agent Jack Crawford rather than an aid,” said Hannibal, and someone clapped heartily to that.

            “The Red Death,” Abigail murmured, hushed. She accepted two glasses and passed one to Jacob, who looked distinctly uncomfortable as he accepted it. His orange juice glass lay empty on the table, taking up the only coaster.

            “What do you think?” she asked him, quietly.

            He looked unsure of how to answer that, and when everyone lifted their glasses in the air, he mimicked them, teeth worrying over his bottom lip.

            “To Nate and The Red Death,” Hannibal said grandly, and he tipped his head back to drink from his glass.

            Every other person in the room drank in unison, save Jacob beside Abigail who hesitated a bit too long before following suit.

            It was somewhat of a disappointment, in truth, to see him hesitate so assuredly. When Hannibal met her gaze over the rim of his wine glass, she knew that she was supposed to shake her head, a sign that Jacob would have to be dealt with, and soon.

            She thought of the care he’d taken when he’d left home, though, to make sure to bring things that couldn’t compromise their location or safety, the way he’d spoken bitterly of parents that took to the drink rather than look after their son. Unlike the one that was a lost cause, Abigail wondered if she could maybe just show him the way, the path that would ultimately lead him to a greater purpose and happiness, then they could spare him and utilize his cleverness rather than waste it with his end.

            Rather than give the sign to Hannibal that not all was well, she smiled at him from her seat beside Jacob, and she took a long gulp of her wine, savoring the sour and dry taste as it lingered on the back of her tongue. It felt rebellious, drinking at her age.

            “We should hang out,” she told him once Hannibal looked away.

            He smiled, quirky and more than a little awkward.

            “Yeah…I think I’d like that,” he said, and he took a quick sip of wine to hide the way his voice cracked a bit at the thought.

-

            There were exactly 32 other Will Graham’s in the United States of America, four of which were females: Billy Graham, Willow Graham, Wilhelmina Graham, and Wilma Graham. The rest were male or non-gender specific.

            The next day, by approximately 2:00 P.M. eastern time, every single one of them would be found dead by various means ranging from being pushed in front of a moving train to being found in their bathtub with a breezeblock on their chest.

            Where each body was found, a small message would also be found:

            And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

            Of course, for the body thrown in front of the train, the message was found five miles before the train stopped. It takes time to stop trains, after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10:

Three Years Before:

            She was a lovely sort, from the tip of her head down to her feet. On the rare occasion that Hannibal had correspondence with her, her letters were always well-written, to the point, and articulate. Molly Foster wasn’t the sort to mince words, let alone waste time.

            In person, she was even more charming, even as he wanted to rip her throat out with his teeth. He wondered if he’d taste Will’s kisses on her skin as he did it.

            “I wonder at him ending your relationship once again,” Hannibal said, studying her. “I’d rather thought the two of you were getting along nicely.”

            “He’s a commitment-phobe, Hannibal,” Molly said, flipping her hair over one shoulder. “If I get too close, he backs away. When you crowd Will Graham, he shuts down. You have to make him come to you.”

            “He shuts down?”

            “It’s a defense mechanism that I’ve noticed. He’ll share some things, but you can’t pry. I think he’s afraid to commit because he honestly believes that he’s on borrowed time.”

            “Borrowed time,” Hannibal murmured, and he licked his lips. “Is he drinking again?”

            “Definitely.”

            “What was the catalyst?”

            “I’ll need to figure that out,” she admitted. “It was bad enough he spent the weekend puking everything up before going right back out again. I went back to the apartment to make sure he was alright on Friday night, and whatever set him off, it was…bad. It’s a bad bender.”

            “Bad,” Hannibal repeated, and he tasted the scent of her perfume and her unease. A disquieted smell that muddled the air, turned it fetid and foul. “You wouldn’t give me this detail if it was not important.”

            “You’d wondered before if he still thought of you. You asked if he ever mentioned you.”

            Hannibal felt a thrum of interest at her tone, and he leaned in. “Naturally.”

            “I put him to bed when he got most of it up, and I told him that he was being reckless with his life, constantly doing this. One of these days, he wasn’t going to have someone nearby to help him in his drunken stupors. No one deserved to have to bury his body.”

            “The guilt of implying people need him alive rather than dead because of the extra work it’d be,” Hannibal agreed.

            Molly licked her lips, pressed them together tight. The color fled them, left the edges pale and wrinkled with the effort. “He laughed then, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Molly…I’m already dead.’”

            “I’m already dead,” Hannibal murmured. His skin, thin and stretched over his bones, felt too tight, and the breath left him.

            Molly nodded, shifted in her seat. “He looked…unwell. Like he wasn’t there. When I asked what he meant by that, he’d already passed out. I wondered if he was thinking of you.”

            “I’m already dead,” Hannibal repeated, and the words rang, resonated deep within him as the doors of his mind palace fell away, left him with the memory of Will Graham staring at him in the courtroom, pulse fluttering in his neck, too fast for comfort. They’d only exchanged words once in the courtroom, in the midst of witnesses and forensics and verdicts. Hannibal could imagine Will’s pulse, heavy and full of life, thudding so hard he could feel it against his teeth as he smiled, stared into the eyes of the only person in this world that could move him and somehow not be moved in turn.

            “I’ll give him his space because he was convinced that I deserve better than him, but I’m genuinely concerned, Hannibal. I don’t know if it’s a simple depressive episode, or if there’s more to it than that, but he’s not well.”

            “Molly, have you forgotten the date?” Hannibal asked lightly.

            “No?” Her brow wrinkled in confusion.

            “It’s a commonplace date, all things considered, but for him it holds a special place. It’s the anniversary of his father’s death.”

            “…I see.” Realization made the wrinkles of worry smooth away, falling to a twist of pity and remorse. She’d have done more if she knew that, tried harder to break through walls that he lifted between himself and the world.

            That was why, ultimately, she was no good for him, though. Hannibal was. Hannibal knew Will Graham better than Will Graham knew Will Graham. While she stepped away when he built his walls, Hannibal knew the cracks in the foundation to help Will lower them instead. She was a proxy, a stand-in until he could break past the walls that contained him. She would have to do, for the moment.

            “He held his father in his arms as he died from cancer,” Hannibal explained lightly. Kindly. “In his death, he took some aspect of his son with him.”

            “I’m already dead,” Molly repeated with better understanding. She nodded. “Thank you, Hannibal.”

            Hannibal dipped his head in acceptance, a small, thin smile about his lips.

            He thought about it, though, for long after. Long after she’d left, her perfume light enough to tease but not stifle, long enough for him to be deposited back to his cell where the corner light flickered pathetically, long enough that Multiple Miggs had already masturbated and fallen asleep in a corner, and long enough that the lights in the hall had been turned off, Hannibal thought of those words, of a desolate and broken Will Graham saying them as he curled around a trash can desperately.

            I’m already dead.

            He thought of Will Graham walking by him in order to take a seat behind the partitions, having done his part in giving his testimony. Hannibal’s memory gave him every detail, from the sweat dotting his temples to the twitches of his fingers at the probing attention. Will never enjoyed close attention, let alone from so many at once. He could smell his sweat, a horrid combination with the cologne he’d worn throughout the entire trial. He could still smell it, something putrid that tickled his nose and tightened his throat. It reeked like something with a ship on the bottle. Cheap, encased in plastic, and set in the back of a medicine cabinet for far too long.

            I’m already dead.

            His eyes had said that, as he looked at Hannibal, truly, honestly looked at him. As much as Hannibal could see every detail of his starched shirt, his new slacks, and his scuffed shoes, Will Graham saw Hannibal, too. Will saw him, saw the hunger in his eyes, saw the calm, detached manner in which he sat. He’d swallowed so hard his adam’s apple bobbed painfully along his five o’clock shadow, and he ducked his head. In speaking against Hannibal, he knew that he was dead.

            “On borrowed time, Will?” Hannibal had asked kindly.

            “I advise you not to speak,” the DA urged.

            Will looked away from him, and he pushed the partition open, fingers stuttering across the solid, wooden frame before they gripped firmly. Resolutely.

            “Oh, yes,” he said absently, like remembering something last minute at the grocery store that he needed to buy. “In reality…I’m already dead,” he added, and he took his seat behind the prosecutor’s bench, utterly and impossibly alone save for the beating of his frantic heart.

-

            Will woke with two blue eyes on day seven.

            He marked them triumphantly, a small, savage smile at his mouth at the sight. Even when Matthew Brown unlocked the door and stood poised in it, a slight curl to his lip that had no real purpose other than to look intimidating, it didn’t quite reach Will the way it was likely intended. He wondered if Matthew had spoken to Hannibal Lecter yet of Will’s early morning ‘walk’.

            In the kitchen, a plate was made ready for him, pancakes with peach slices and a glaze. Bacon sat on a separate plate next to it, as well as what looked like fresh orange juice.

            “Dining alone?” he asked Matthew.

            “Everyone is busy at the moment,” Matthew explained. “Although Dr. Lecter wanted to ensure that you had a proper meal.”

            “That’s…considerate of him.”

            Will ate everything except for the bacon.

            He then wandered the house, time an odd sort of thing that didn’t quite sit right. He passed a grandfather clock in the foyer, marked the passage of the secondhand and felt distinctly separate from it. Time may have moved, but he didn’t.

            Truth be told, he hadn’t really left the space that he’d stood in while Nate bled to death.

            The sole comfort, as small as it may be, was that he could reasonably assume that Nate had deserved it. If he’d tangled with the FBI, he deserved what happened to him. If he was anything like Francis Dolarhyde, he most certainly, unequivocally deserved what happened to him.

            That didn’t clean the blood off of his hands, though. It didn’t stop him from dwelling on other nasty, ugly things that liked to crawl deep into his ear to rot.

            He paused in the doorway of a parlor at the sound of voices and stared into a room full of people. Followers. Cultists. The word sounded funny in his head, grave depictions of men in robes with curved knives. Usually there was a virgin running around in the trope, and they were generally the captive –captive he may be, but virgin he wasn’t.

            These people, for all their odd stares and touching, appeared relatively normal. No robes. No curved knives. If anything, it looked like a book club was meeting, one person standing and gesturing aimlessly while others nodded along, hands grasping at leather bound works.

            “You know it,” the speaker said, smiling. “You know it as you live and breathe, as you sit here and look at me; death is just another part of the journey. All of you that have taken a life –those that have felt changed, moved –you know the reality of what we do. What we’ve done.”

            Heads nodded, bobbed along. Far too many heads nodded. Far too many killers.

            “We know how life is nothing more than light and sound and sensations. Their loss fueling our radiance, our growth and beauty as we become more than what we are in those moments.”

            “In those final seconds…I’ve always felt a little bit like god,” someone chimed in, and the main speaker laughed.

            “Yes, yes! We are made powerful through them. They give us a precious gift, that they first were seen, and in being seen, Became.”

            A squeaky floorboard betrayed him, interrupting the discussion. Heads turned back to survey him, and Will froze next to the entryway, swallowing heavily when multiple eyes rested upon him. He was pinned by their scrutiny, more so when they recognized him than anything else. Expressions of confusion and annoyance gave way to utmost delight.

            “Mr. Graham,” the speaker said, pleased. “Please, come in.”

            “…I don’t…” want to, he finished silently. He licked his lips, tried again. “…want to interrupt you. Please continue.”

            “No, no,” the man urged, and he made his way through the onlookers in order to coax him further into the room. More from a desire not to be touched than anything else, Will reluctantly followed. “With your education, your knowledge…please, share your insights.”

            He reached the front of the room and turned, balking under the stare of shining, fervent eyes. Too many stares, like a toy shop with the marble-eyed dolls placed right at the entrance.

            “…Uhm…” he swung his arms by his sides, shifted his weight. At least fifteen people sat and stared with naked hope –that was probably the most frightening thing about it, in truth. They were waiting for him to say something. To be something. “…You’d…said that people are nothing more than light and sound.”

            “Yes,” the speaker agreed.

            “Quick noises, first started and ended because you decided that it should.”

            “In those brief moments where we can see their life and death, coinciding in that final moment of something beautiful,” he added with a smile. “Is that not lovely, Mr. Graham?”

            “…No.”

            He wasn’t surprised at the shock that rippled through the water, soft breaths and even softer murmurs.

            “I beg your pardon?” the man asked.

            “It’s the ugliest thing in the world,” Will added, glancing to him. “You make it very poetic and artistic because that somehow softens its reality, but killing is…disgusting. That moment where life and death coincides is a revolting and intimate thing to witness.”

            “You…you saved Agent Crawford. Surely you saw that moment then?” a woman asked, raising her hand. It was a half-raise, the sort made when they’re not quite sure if they even want to speak. Emboldened by their confusion, Will snorted.

            “I did.”

            “Did it not invigorate you?”

            “No.” He sighed, rubbed his mouth to remove a barely formed curse from his lips. “He said…light and sound, sensations fueling your radiance. What a load of shit.”

            “Excuse me?” The speaker’s cheeks darkened.

            “Tell me… everyone, be honest, raise your hand if you’ve actually murdered someone,” Will said, ignoring him. “Don’t…don’t lie.”

            He was just barely mollified when only three people raised their hands in the room. Just three out of fifteen or so. Not bad, all things considered. Still pretty bad, though.

            “Depending on how you did it, surely you realize it’s not all poetry and aesthetics, right?” At their stupefied expressions, he sighed. “It’s…heavy. Dirty. Messy. Slack mouths, a person at their most vulnerable, and you made them vulnerable. You made them that way.” He scoffed, glancing to the speaker again. “Air and light and sound…yeah, it’s not…like that. It’s more…a breath you cut short. Wasted. That’s what death is when you choose to administer it the way he’s preaching. It’s a waste.”

            “Dr. Graham, I don’t think-”

            “No, you wanted to know, didn’t you?” he asked. “You wanted my insight, and there it is. Your leader took Jack Crawford’s life in his hands, and he tried to waste it. He lived, though, and that’s life and death. You either live or you die, and no one here has the authority to decide who gets to live and who dies. None of us have that authority.”

            The room sat in silence, disquieted by his admission, somehow still keen on his words. Their quiet emboldened him, made him feel just strong enough to drive the point home.

            “Your friend just died,” he said, looking over all of them. As many mismatched eyes as matching eyes. “Nate? I held him up as he died. There was no poetry in that. Shot from a shotgun shell fell out of his stomach when we were lowering him onto the medic table. It was dirty.”

            “He had a soulmate,” one of them protested. “You can’t just…refer to him…like that.”

            “He had a soulmate,” Will sneered. “I guess that’s a huge focus for you people, right? Because of your leader?”

            “Dr. Lecter has a half-connection to you,” one of them agreed.

            “He will bridge the gap so that you can connect back,” another chimed in.

            Will’s lip curled, and his gaze looked over the crowd, surprised to see Hannibal watching him just at the doorway to the room. “…What a load of shit,” he murmured.

            “You’re a soulmate psychiatrist. Do you truly find no value in their existence?” the speaker asked.

            Will stared directly into Hannibal’s eyes as he replied, “I think that I’d rather end my own light and sound and color than deal with the overwhelming disappointment of a soulmate.”

            After a pained, taut silence, Hannibal smiled.

            “Dr. Lecter said that you understood us,” the speaker stated, appalled.

            “I don’t.”

            “But he will,” Lecter interjected, still smiling. “That…is simply something we’ll have to show him. How our lights and sounds and colors can blend to something truly beautiful.”

            Will didn’t wait to be beckoned. He waded through the onlookers and made his way to the exit, ignoring the sensation of what it must feel like to have someone walk over your grave.

            Hannibal followed him out.

            His office was the same as before, apart from a small tray of lunch foods set out for them. Will picked at a sandwich, his back to Lecter. It must have been lunch time.

            “Did you enjoy riling them up?” Lecter wondered. Thankfully, he didn’t sound angry at the idea of it; merely curious.

            “…They love the idea of what you do. In application, they’d find it messy.” He thought of how the blood felt, drying within the cracks of his skin. “Sticky,” he added.

            “Most of them, yes,” Lecter agreed. His voice came closer, crawled along Will’s shoulder as he paused just behind him. “A lot of the people that came to me are, in truth, nothing more than lonely hearts; those left in the wake of despair or delusions, seeking comfort and stability. Quiet places like this are a haven for them.”

            “They were easily manipulated.”

            “Easily convinced that this is a safe place for them,” he corrected. His arm snaked around Will to grab the other plate where a sandwich waited. “It’s not so nefarious as you make it sound.”

            A weird sound gurgled in Will’s throat, a mix between a laugh and a sob. When Hannibal withdrew from him, Will made his way to one of the chairs near the fireplace and sunk into it. He considered the meat on the sandwich, thin slices of white with Cajun seasoning.

            “It’s chicken from a specialty deli,” Lecter said, sitting down in the chair across from him. He watched Will with an inscrutable expression, his plate perched precariously on his knee.

            “You must hate that I’m making you take lunch here rather than set up at a table with twelve courses,” Will said, inspecting the meat with extreme prejudice. It looked like chicken.

            “I can be flexible,” Hannibal assured him.

            Hannibal could be flexible. The meat tasted like chicken when he took a bite. Human meat hadn’t tasted like chicken when he’d first had the horrific experience of dining upon it, and he took that as a sign that this came from a deli rather than someone’s ribcage.

            It still made him uncomfortable, though. If he managed to live through this, Will would probably consider some form of vegetarianism. Maybe fish. Maybe not.

            “Nate didn’t survive,” Hannibal said as Will took small, suspicious bites of his sandwich.

            “I know.”

            “Would you like to talk about it?”

            “Would you like to talk about it?”

            “I’m more than happy to discuss it. I know that death is…a delicate topic for you.”

            He took a larger bite of the sandwich, far hungrier than he wanted to admit. He’d forgotten to eat the day before. “…I didn’t know him,” he said, swallowing it down. “And what I do know of him corresponds to this house and everyone in it. He didn’t exactly have a glowing reference for me.”

            “You still held him in some of his final moments.”

            “…I did,” Will agreed. Reluctantly.

            “Did it remind you of Agent Crawford?”

            “I walked into your office for therapy and found an FBI agent bleeding out on the floor, Dr. Lecter,” Will said, fingers digging into the soft bread. He wasn’t sure how many times he’d have to say it, but saying it made it real, resurfacing from the deep dark waters of his mind where he sent sordid thoughts to drown. “He was investigating you for the murders of several people, and you stabbed him. I find no correlation between him, a servant of the law, and the guy that stumbled out of a car from a wound that was likely given to him by a servant of the law.”

            “For hours after, though, you stared at your hands, clean but somehow still stained, and made the associations against your will,” Lecter replied calmly.

            Will jerked back, stung.

            “You’re wrong,” he managed.

            “You can pretend all you like that I don’t know you, Will Graham, but I do. For two years you came to me and opened your mind, laying out each piece so that I could examine it, to better understand it. You asked me to build you walls because you didn’t know how to, and you asked me what it was like to be able to compartmentalize your feelings and associations the way that others could. The way that I could. You wanted to know what it was like to be ‘normal.’”

            “I shouldn’t have asked you,” Will ground out savagely. “Seeing as how you’re not normal in the least.”

            “No, but for once in your life, someone understood. You claim that you don’t make the associations between Nate and Agent Crawford, but it is a lie, and a poor one at that. You stared down at the blood on your hands, and you wondered if you’d always feel that pull, that drive that whispers that maybe one day you will be the one to cause such violence. You wonder when the blood will flow because you willed it, rather than you having to catch it in the aftermath. Then, a quiet part of you said, ‘this is somehow your fault, anyway. If you hadn’t caused a half-connection to Dr. Lecter, none of this would have happened.’”

            Lecter had a way of speaking that was almost drug-inducing. His tone, the rhythm and melody of it, had a lulling effect, and Will found himself setting the sandwich down as he stared, enraptured. He swallowed a lump of barely chewed food down his throat, and he coughed.

            “…Let’s…say that you’re right,” he said slowly.

            “Alright,” Dr. Lecter replied with an encouraging nod.

            “It doesn’t matter. Even if I…feel the same, think of them as the same, see myself in their weakest moments, their…balancing act, it doesn’t matter. Even if I can see myself as the one to pull the trigger, the one to take a knife to skin, that’s not reality.”

            “In the nightmares you dream while awake, though, it is your reality. That is why you fight it so much. That is why you, for all of your degrees and education and capabilities, are a person that is driven purely by fear.”

            “Fear.”

            “When you’re afraid, you’re rude,” he explained lightly. “Most others entertain a fight or flight response in aggressive situations, but due to your fear of losing yourself within the minds of the people around you, there is an almost constant companion at your side named fear. That is what motivates you, what creates your reactions.”

            “His name was Winston, actually, and your thug left him behind,” Will retorted. “Kind of relieved, seeing as I was brought here instead of a safe house.”

            “I did maintain that animal therapy was an excellent idea,” Lecter replied. “I’m glad you took my advice.”

            Will busied himself with his sandwich, picking over the pieces of it that he didn’t want. The pickles he set to the side, along with the spinach leaves and tomato. He stared at the dressing that’d been drizzled over the meat, and as it oozed over the sides of the bread, he imagined the bloodstains on his shirt from Nate. From Jack.

            “His death was inevitable,” he said after a long, stunted silence. “I could see it, even as I couldn’t fix it.”

            “It reminded you more of your father, then,” Lecter observed. “Helpless as you were.”

            “The medicine made him vomit,” he murmured to the sandwich. “And I caught it in my hands. Called the hospital, but he was already gone. I called anyway, just in case.”

            “You helped Nate to our small infirmary, just in case.”

            “I didn’t hear screaming,” he said, glancing up. Lecter’s sandwich sat forgotten on the end table near his chair, focused as he was in watching Will decimate his own meal with plucking, nervous fingers. “His soulmate wasn’t here.”

            “Alyss has unfortunately been detained by the illustrious FBI,” Lecter informed him. “Therefore the pleasure of her grief was given to Jack Crawford, not us.”

            Will knew he should feel some sort of glee in that, Jack managing to get his hands on one of them. He thought of the pain, though, and how horrifying it’d be to hear the screams of someone that thought they were dying. The severance. The shock. He wondered if she’d torn at her own skin to try to pry the hurt out.

            “His wife has cancer,” Will said, then instantly regretted it.

            “Then Agent Crawford likely witnessed Alyss’ pain and knew that one day he’d share it, should Mrs. Crawford not survive.”

            “…Yeah.” He took another bite of food to have something better to do with his mouth than talk.

            “Your welcome here was sporadic, I know,” Lecter said as Will tried to focus on his food. “You haven’t properly met these people as a whole entity. They’re all really quite kind.”

            “Yeah, well, the first time I met them, they all started grabbing at me and Agent Dolarhyde had to get them to stop touching me,” Will said around a mouthful of food. “Second time, they were in a book club meeting talking about lights and colors and sounds. I’m not exactly impressed.”

            “’Slack mouths, a person at their most vulnerable, and you made them vulnerable. You made them that way. Air and light and sound…it’s not like that. It’s more a breath you cut short. Wasted. That’s what death is when you choose to administer it the way he’s preaching. It’s a waste,’” Lecter quoted quietly. “That is what you told them.”

            “It’s true,” Will said curtly.

            “I find it poetic, in its own way. You chastised him for speaking of death beautifully, but you did the same in your own rendition of loss and life.”

            “There’s nothing poetic about deciding that you get to be god,” Will snapped.

            “It reveals far more about you than you realize, though, Will,” Lecter replied. He stood and walked over to the small lunch tray, picking up a wine glass and taking a sip. “How would you administer death? Would you be wasteful with your choices, or would your choice in who lives or dies carry far more weight because you’d take the time in choosing?”

            “I don’t take on that responsibility. I’m not god; I’m a human being.”

            “You’ve thought about it, though,” Lecter chastised lightly. He sauntered over to Will, staring at him as he set his glass on the mantle. “Your adamant and passionate response tells me you’ve dwelled on the thoughts before, enough to make you defensive of them. Enough that once again it is your fear speaking for you.”

            Will had no answer to that. He wasn’t quite sure he could make the lie sound convincing if he did.

            “How would you choose?” Lecter inquired when Will didn’t –couldn’t –speak. “How would you choose who to kill, if you could do so without repercussion?”

            Will mulled the question over, even as he finished the sandwich, even as he was relieved of his plate. Even as Lecter coaxed him to his feet so that he could stare into his eyes, mismatched and ugly and clever, Will thought on the question, dangerous as it was.

            Enticing as it was.

            “I’d probably start with you,” he said, staring into Lecter’s appalling gaze. “If I was to kill anyone, I’d probably start with you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11:

            “W-when I s-saw the…TV, I h-had to call in, seeing ‘dat…”

            The man spoke with a stutter that grated. He was nice enough, from his eager mannerisms to his clean gas station establishment, but time was of the essence, and this man wasn’t made for time.

            “Can we see the video?” Jack requested. It was a few hours from Atlanta, right on the South Carolina line, but he’d wanted to see personally.

            “S-sure…”

            When he gestured to the camera, his head jerked the other way, eyes closed. Jack glanced over the man’s head, met Zeller’s gaze of utmost confusion, then sighed silently.

            “Thank you.”

            It was a good video, despite everything. The angles and quality of camera gave them a perfect view of Will stumbling from the SUV, panicked and reaching for Molly who drew near the moment he was out of the car.

            It gave them an excellent angle of her leveling a gun at him, too.

            “We can confirm Dolarhyde, Katz, and Yancy,” Zeller said from beside Jack. “And we can confirm that he was the only one unaware of the situation at this point.”

            “So he gets into the car because Dolarhyde told him that he had to take him somewhere else, and with his ‘friends’ nearby, he doesn’t think to question it,” Jack murmured. “It’s not until something in the car spooked him that he even tried to run for it.”

            “But miss Firearm Freida goes and points a gun at him, and…well, there he goes,” Zeller said, gesturing towards Will getting into the back seat.

            “Four against one is bad odds,” said Jack. “Without audio, we won’t know what was said that got him back in the vehicle.”

            “Let me guess: if you don’t get in, I’ll shoot you?”

            “Something like that.” Jack nodded towards the small DVR in the corner. “Get me copies of this, and let’s see some potential routes they could have taken from here. Piedmont and Upper Coastal Region…”

            “Th-they said they was gonna go to a house,” the gas station manager said behind them.

            “Excuse me?”

            The man hesitated by the door, wavering in and out of it as he swallowed heavily and gestured aimlessly. “They was…they was in here, t-talkin. Said they was gonna go to the ‘big house’ and was gonna be alright. Alright at the big house.”

            “Did they say where this big house was?” Jack asked. He had to refrain from taking the two steps close enough to tower over him, wanting to pry the words from his mouth.

            “N-no…just that it was a big house. Georgia, they was headed. To a b-big house.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Bernardone,” Jack said sincerely.

            Mr. Bernardone managed a small, crooked smile before he sidled away.

            “If it’s a big house, I’m thinking rural,” Zeller commented as he inserted a USB drive. “They don’t want something to draw too much attention.”

            “Secluded enough that when they rolled up with an unwilling guest, no one would hear if he yelled for help,” Jack agreed. “Hell; that could be any place. Georgia is covered in old homes with large properties. It’ll take a while to go through them all.”

            “We could narrow down the list of them when we map out where they went to next,” Zeller replied. “See if any of his assailants used a credit card recently.”

            Jack was about to agree with that line of thought when his phone buzzed at his hip. He stepped out of the manager’s office to take the call, nodding to Bernardone who stood near the Doritos, restocking the Little Debbie snacks.

            “Crawford here.”

            “Jack, Jesus, been trying to get a hold of you at the Atlanta HQ.”

            “Director Purnell, I’m out in the field at the moment.”

            “I need you back at the Atlanta HQ as soon as possible. We’ve got a situation.”

            Jack noted Bernardone listening in, and he stepped outside, letting the door squeak shut with a cheerful jingle. “What’s the problem?”

            “I’ve got a mass homicide that’s hit nation-wide,” she said. Curt. Cold. “Do you mind telling me why I’ve got over twenty different Will Graham’s turning up dead this morning, Jack?”

            Something nasty and slimy nestled against his spine at her words, dug in with claws and teeth. “…You know, I’m not entirely sure, Director. I’ll head back to HQ right now.”

            “Yeah, do that. The media is in hysterics, and I’ve got as many units out as possible in each city where it’s happened. Just…get back there. Damage control until we can get a grasp on what’s going on.”

            “Will do.”

            He tucked his phone into his pocket, stared out at the gas station parking lot, and sighed. In that moment, watching a girl with short hair lean stiff-legged against her car, arms crossed defensively as she gassed up, he felt himself age a good twenty years, old and decrepit and grey.

            He hadn’t been aware that Will Graham was a common enough name for someone to make it a target, but there they were.

            There they fucking were.

            He waited for the girl to finish gassing up before she printed a receipt, snatched it up, and tucked herself into the driver’s seat, letting the car idle. He wondered at it, as he watched the car, seeing without really seeing. Supposing it wasn’t a common name, just what would he find when he got to HQ? Will Graham on a slab? Will Graham at a crime scene? Will Graham in an alley, head missing? Will Graham’s head on a platter? How many curly-haired people had died, and just how many would it take for him to find the real one? Was he part of the rabble, or was Lecter hanging onto him for the final act?

            God, he was too old for this. Far, far too old.

            The door behind him dinged, and a man strolled out of it, nodding towards Jack before he climbed into the passenger seat. The car shuddered and drove away. The rest of the parking lot was empty, save the car he’d taken with Zeller.

            The humidity sat hot between his layers of clothing, so he turned and went back inside.

            “Zeller, we need to get going,” he said, heading towards the manager’s office. His heart sat heavy in his chest as he thought of Will, one of far too many.

            He walked in, and the first thing that he noticed was the blood.

            The second thing he noticed was Mr. Bernardone cowering beneath his manger’s desk, hands clasped over his ears as he whined.

            The third was the note scrawled across the dry erase board with a cheerfully red expo marker:

            And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

-

            Day nine yielded two blues, too.

            It was a victory to him, even as Matthew scowled at him in the doorway. He took his time getting dressed, took his time patting his hair into some sort of shape. His residency before had all but demanded a clean-shaven face and trimmed hair, but the week he’d been left unattended gave way to a stubble that would have looked better on an unemployed bar rat. He scrutinized it, then scrutinized his eyes, checking every angle to ensure they were indeed the same.

            So far, so good. Jack Crawford would be proud of him.

            “Come on,” Matthew coaxed, and Will followed him downstairs and out to the crisp, sharp morning. He zipped his jacket against it, but rather than the normal walk that took him to mindless laps around the house, Matthew headed towards the forest with sure, even strides.

            Just at the edge, Will hesitated.

            “Come on,” Matthew said again, turning back. He stood just beside a large maple, eyes the color of unturned leaves. They were green against the beginning signs of gold and red, and Will hesitated for it, hesitated due to the burning jealousy that rooted him to the spot.

            “I was told not to enter the forest,” he said slowly. “Francis was very sure of the rule.”

            “If you’re accompanied by one of us, it’s fine,” Matthew replied. “I want to show you something.”

            Will stepped into the forest, even as every muscle in his body begged him not to.

            There was a small animal path that they followed, the dips of it turning naturally with the land. Clover and desperate sprouts of grass dotted between trees that grew closely together, creating a canopy overhead, stifling what little sunlight there was. It was colder beneath the eaves of the trees, and Will huddled into his jacket as he kept close. His heartbeat thudded just behind his eye, warning him: trap, trap, trap.

            The walk was long; several miles or so until they came across a dilapidated shack whose sole occupant was a furious armadillo that rushed into the underbrush at their arrival. Throughout the entirety of the walk, Will kept an eye out for other followers, guards or fences to warn him that Matthew was up to something that wasn’t particularly safe. Not a human soul disturbed their walk, nothing but the soft murmurs and gentle cooing of waking doves and rustling squirrels.

            He stared at the shack, and he looked from it to Matthew with raised brows.

            “I’d mentioned the wild animals before,” Matthew said, looking about. “Hogs and coyotes desperate for the easiest method of food.”

            Will didn’t reply. Whereas before, he’d felt their solitude like a heavy, grasping blanket at his shoulders, he now felt the distinct, toe-curling impression that they were alone no longer.

            “I heard what you had to say to some of the people back at the big house,” Matthew continued, looking about the woods casually. “You tried to shame them for their feelings, for being the way that they are.”

            “One can have the urge to kill without indulging,” Will replied, staring at the back of Matthew’s head. He willed him to turn, to face him so that he could see just what was happening, what he was to prepare for.

            “You called it ‘a load of shit’,” he said, and he gave a low, frustrated laugh. “Do you know what we’re here for? What we’re doing, Mr. Graham?”

            “I see a house of killers converging around the faux promises of a dangerous individual who merely wants to try and control those about him. Like pawns.” Will glanced about, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He needed to go back. He should have turned back, should have never followed him into the forest. He tasted regret like biting into a maple leaf; bitter, filled with the sort of dread that made stomach acid murmur and threaten mutiny.

            “See, and that’s where you’re wrong,” Matthew said, turning around. In his Sherriff’s outfit, it was a stark contrast to the forest around them, an appearance of safety when no such thing was offered. “It’s here that we can truly be ourselves, Mr. Graham, explore our full potential without the trivialities of modern day society. Free from judgement, free from censure, and you threaten that.”

            “I thought psychopaths were normally solitary creatures.”

            “That was our weakness,” Matthew replied. His eyes glittered in the dim light, a sneer curling his lip crookedly. “Until Dr. Lecter realized, ‘why allow the hawks to be mobbed one by one by flocks of finches when they could band together and truly become an unstoppable force? Then we’d be an honest, true power that couldn’t be threatened.’”

            “Matthew…I wouldn’t be a threat if you’d all just left me alone.”

            Matthew nodded in agreement and gestured, a smooth, sly move that Will tracked, his mouth turning to cotton, his muscles tensing.

            “You see, Dr. Lecter wants you, but…in reality, Mr. Graham, I don’t see why. Why would he bother trying to teach a finch to hunt when he could have a hawk instead? One that already knows how?”

            “And you’re the hawk that you think he could love,” Will said derisively. “Oh, Matthew…Dr. Lecter doesn’t know how to love. He only knows how to control. To destroy.”

            “Half-connections can become full connections to someone else. Enough studies have occurred that-”

            “That’s the jealousy,” Will murmured, cutting off his speech smoothly. He shifted away from Matthew, his heel digging into the soft earth beneath him. “It comes off of you in waves, desperate…you think that if I’m out of the picture, Dr. Lecter could potentially make eye contact with you enough times to establish a full soulmate bond?”

            His derision rankled at Matthew, and the quick flashes of light reflecting off of his eyes stilled as he held Will’s stare, furious. Desperate.

            “Unfortunately, I can’t kill you,” Matthew said, staring. “Dr. Lecter wouldn’t like it. But there’s a beast in these woods that I tried to warn you about, Mr. Graham, one that you didn’t expect to find when you ran from me during our morning walk.”

            Will froze, gaze drawn to the shape materializing in the dark, just over Matthew’s shoulder.

            “You see, not everyone Dr. Lecter finds is altogether human,” he continued, and his sneer grew, curling into a savage, dark snarl. “Randall is one such person. I mean, the doctors say he’s a human, but inside…there’s something altogether savage that isn’t quite man.”

            The one called Randall didn’t speak; over the sound of gears softly whirring and air pressure hissing, Will didn’t figure that he’d hear him, even if he tried. Just barely peeking through the space where the maw of what looked to be a bear skull lay, he saw eyes, a bleakness to them that was disquieted, flat. These were not the eyes of a man, although the skin beneath the horrifying exoskeleton made him appear that way.

            In truth, they were the eyes of a beast.

            “What is this,” Will said, looking from him to Matthew. He took another step back, poised for flight.

            “If you live, think of it like a lesson, Mr. Graham, one you won’t find in your textbooks and your lecture halls,” Matthew replied. “This house and these people? They are under my protection. They’re under Randall’s protection, too.”

            On cue, Randall let out a snarl that stood the hair on Will’s arms on end.

            “And we won’t allow someone to threaten that.”

            He couldn’t have said if it was the look on Matthew’s face that set him at a dead run; it could have been the shift of Randall’s stance, the low, primal growl. It could have been the utmost glee in Matthew’s eyes, a dead sort of happiness that lightened only at the stark, honest fear that set Will’s heart pounding, rough and scratching against his ribs. It could have been the wind, a scent in the air that urged him to run and run fast.

            Either way, he was on the path back towards the house before he could think, before he could even plan, before he could even wonder what his next step could be.

            Behind him, shouting after him with a morbid delight, he heard Matthew Brown:

            “Run fast, Mr. Graham!”

            Even closer, and gaining, he heard the roar of the beast Randall.

-

            Schedules didn’t deviate when one was serving life in a mental institution.

            Granted, he’d only been serving his life sentence for three months, but one could easily see what the new mode of living would be: wake up, take medicine, eat breakfast, endure a therapy session with one of the bumbling doctors, enjoy a brief moment of sunshine, medicine, lunch, quiet time, another brief moment of out of doors sunlight, dinner, medicine, then quiet time before sleep.

            Occasionally, a random letter from an adoring fan would come through, but they were heavily screened, as was anything in his cell. Soft paper with rounded edges, felt-tip pens, and nothing but double-sided tape so that he could place his drawings on the walls.

            Florence. Verona. Paris. Brussels.

            He was on his best behavior, as one should be when they’re held with extreme prejudice, turned either which way and regarded with an expression akin to a dog that was inclined to bite often. By month four, though, there was a certain sort of monotony to the whole idea of it, this place where he could potentially die if he wasn’t careful.

            Lucky for him, halfway through that month there was a deviation from the norm.

            “A visitor?” Hannibal asked as he faced the wall and put his hands through the bars behind his back. He was handcuffed, as was procedure, and it was only then that the orderly deemed it safe enough to strap a small mask across the bottom of his face. His muzzle metaphor became reality, and Hannibal allowed himself a small smile at the thought.

            “Yes,” the orderly –Matthew, his nametag said –replied. He smelled of sweat and unwashed skin, although there was enough cologne caked over it that Hannibal could assume he’d spent an enjoyable evening of partying before hurrying to work the next day, hungover but ultimately pleased with himself.

            “Isn’t it rather late for visitors?” he asked.

            “No,” Matthew said, and that was that. Hannibal allowed himself to be led down the hall, past Multiple Miggs whose cell always reeked of semen, past Abel Gideon that amused himself by gossiping among the nurses, and past a man whose silence was viewed as guilt when Hannibal knew him to be absolutely innocent of every crime he’d been accused of.

            The room that he was placed in was something much akin to a large grey block with small dunk tanks slotted into their respective places. It was the same place that he had to endure psychiatric darts slung his way; Hannibal much preferred the room that he was allowed to speak to his lawyer in, seeing as how it was the only room in the establishment not bugged by the illustrious Dr. Chilton. He was allowed into his dunk tank, and Hannibal sat poised on the stool, prepared to meet whomever had decided that seven o’clock in the evening was a decent time to meet.

            No one came, though. Hannibal gazed ahead with a pleasantly affable expression, a benign and false interest, and it wasn’t until he counted to the five minute mark that he decided that he was done waiting.

            “Are you going to explain yourself, Mr. Brown, or am I to sit here all night while you stare at the back of my skull?”

            Matthew laughed lightly.

            “I’ve been watching you,” he explained, and the stench of his previous night out of drinking wafted over.

            “I know.”

            “Do you?”

            “Your shifts used to bring you by my cell once or twice a week. Now, every shift that you work brings you by my cell five times a week. Either you are here at the behest of Dr. Chilton, to observe and report, or you have something personal to share that you think that I need to hear.”

            “I admire you work.”

            “Did you disable the microphones in here?”

            “I did.” There was a beat as Matthew savored his admissions. “I was the one that he had set them up, after all.”

            “You’re resourceful.”

            “And you’re not going to waste away in this institution, are you, Dr. Lecter?”

            “Do you suppose I’m digging a hole into the wall with one of my dinner spoons?”

            “I looked at your case file.”

            Him and the rest of the world. The moment that he came into view in Hannibal’s peripheral, he tracked his movements with rapt attention, noting each and every quirk. He tried to keep pertinent information about all of the orderlies, to better understand their behaviors in correlation with his own actions within the institution. Matthew Brown was oftentimes off to the side of them, not quite part of the rest of the staff. A fringe-survivor, but one with eyes that oftentimes stared too long at rowdy inmates with the sort of emotions akin to amusement and condescension rather than disgust.

            “What insights did it give you?”

            “You have a half-connection, although it’s not listed as to who. I supposed that they’re either dead, or they’re unaware of just what they’ve done to you.”

            He’d certainly thought about killing Will Graham, although it was looked at through a purely clinical lens rather than a haze of red. Throughout his time of treating Will, speaking with Will, getting to know Will, then ultimately sparing Will, Hannibal always entertained the notion that at any point, if it became too much, he could kill him and move on rather than struggle with a connection in which the other half was wholly unaware. Having that small comfort in knowing made sparing him feel far more in his control rather than like he had no choice.

            Although, killing Will would have ultimately been a boring avenue to pursue. Underneath his tentative layer of normal, Will Graham was completely, unequivocally interesting.

            “That’s not so much insight as it is reading and understanding.”

            “I just thought it interesting, then, to read about you allowing Will Graham and Agent Crawford to live rather than just killing them in your office.”

            That gave Hannibal pause. He continued to track Matthew through his peripheral, gaze half-lidded as though he were completely unconcerned with what was happening.

            He was listening, though. Matthew Brown now had his full attention.

            “He was my patient,” Hannibal replied mildly.

            “I thought that could have been the case, your not wanting to damage your patient’s psyche further, but there is an account of you using one of your patients in order to create one of your masterpieces.”

            He likened his work to a masterpiece. Matthew was either something similar to him, or he was attempting to appeal to his vanity.

            “You didn’t view your patients through any special lens, Dr. Lecter. So I wondered, what made Will Graham so special to you that you not only let him live, but you allowed him to save your intended victim?” Matthew continued, his slow gait one of ease and practice. “I looked into a few things. During his testimonies, he accounted for a dinner at your home after you’d murdered Marissa Schurr, a gala attendance the day after you’d murdered Cassie Boyle, and a confirmation that you were with him during a dissociative episode where he’d called you and asked for help when you’d claimed to be working with Dr. Bloom instead. Your creation, a spliced FBI agent to leave Jack Crawford fuming, left trace evidence of DNA in Graham’s home when they later did a sweep of it.”

            “Your memory is one to be marveled at, Matthew,” Hannibal said calmly.

            “There was a lot of special attention to him, so I pulled up a picture of the guy, and do you know what I saw?”

            “I imagine that you’re going to tell me.”

            “You’ve gotten contacts now, and the will of your lawyer to back you up, but you had one eye with a reddish brown hue, and you had one blue eye with green edges. When I saw Will Graham’s eyes that is when I realized; you have a half-connection to him. That’s why you spared him. That’s why, when you stood just behind him as he tried to save that FBI Agent’s life, you who could have easily subdued and killed him at your leisure, instead let him put you here, behind bars.”

            Matthew paused just in front of Hannibal, far enough away that if he should lunge and reach for him, he’d be the barest of fingertips away. Smart, on his part, since Hannibal was honestly considering harming him in some fashion. That had been a difficult day for him, all things considered. He hadn’t intended for Will to see so much of him so quickly, without preparation or preamble so that he could better understand. In that moment, curled over Jack Crawford, he’d let out a noise that haunted Hannibal’s dreams, so vulnerably agonized as it was, and it meant what Hannibal already knew –he wasn’t ready for this, hadn’t yet seen and understood enough to embrace and accept this.

            No matter; this was not the end for him.

            “Just what do you intend to do with that information?” Hannibal wondered out loud. He stared at the space just between Matthew’s brows, feigning kind curiosity. “If you intended to use it against me, you wouldn’t have made the show of parading your skills of deduction before me.”

            “You know those hawks that sit on wires, Dr. Lecter? Solitary, and when you drive by on the highway they maybe swoop down, snatch up a mouse and go to the next pole to rest?” Matthew looked like he wanted to continue pacing again, but he kept himself from it, hands folded across his chest, rumpling the scrubs and setting his nametag askew. “They’re powerful, regal. But sooner or later, a mob of finches come along, and the sheer numbers drive them away, send them off to the shadows to lurk about.”

            “Do you see yourself as a hawk, Matthew?”

            “Yes. People like us…we’re hawks. The problem is, hawks are solitary creatures. They don’t necessarily play nice with other hawks.”

            “Your solution?”

            “What if we could teach hawks to get along, Dr. Lecter? Rather than allow the finches to keep them to the shadows, fringe-survivors that come out only when the numbers won’t overwhelm them, what if they instead worked together?”

            “Have you tried such a thing?”

            “Yes.”

            “What were your results?” Hannibal asked. There was a mild shift of distaste in Matthew’s eyes, a flicker of annoyance.

            “I’m not charismatic enough, I suppose, to keep them from tearing into one another like wolves.”

            “But you think that I could be?”

            At that Matthew gave a slow, rippling smile. He was pleased with just how quickly Hannibal’s mind turned, but Hannibal had been doing this for as long as he could recall; thinking quickly and thinking cleverly were his tools, assets so that he was always one step ahead, prepared for anything.

            Anything, he supposed, except Will Graham showing up for his appointment early.

            “I read your posts about the evolution of social exclusion, as well as the tools and assets that a charismatic leader would obtain in order to rally people underneath whichever banner they so choose. You’re charismatic. Just how long were you able to wear your person suit before something slipped through the cracks?”

            “Many, many years.”

            “And I just so happen to have a few friends that love your work,” Matthew said, and he continued his pacing once more. There was an energy to him, something that lurked beneath the surface and urged him to keep moving about. “When they heard that I was here, working with you, they were overjoyed.”

            “I’d imagine you want me to give them a few kind words?”

            “Nothing so fanatical,” Matthew assured him. “Mostly, I was wondering, one hawk to another, just how far you’d be willing to go in order to have eyes and ears outside of this institution. If you’re charismatic enough, maybe you’d be able to get them to do things for you, see things for you.”

            “And what’s in it for you?”

            Matthew took his time answering, and it was then that he stepped just close enough that Hannibal could reach him. He didn’t lunge, though. He tracked the orderly’s movements with rapt attention, and when he was close enough to the bars, Hannibal let his gaze linger on the pulse that moved steadily at his neck, not at all afraid.

            “I’d like to touch greatness,” he said quietly, a mere murmur. “Even if only once. Then me, my assets, and my friends are all yours, to do what you want.” He let out a low, sardonic laugh. “Maybe we’d catch Will Graham for you, if you were so inclined.”

            Maybe we’d catch Will Graham for you.

            Maybe we’d catch Will Graham.

            Maybe we’d catch –

            Maybe –

            Hannibal considered him, just close enough to kill but still calm, and he stood, making his way over to Matthew, as though there were far more than a mere two steps between them. He paused just before the bars, studied his dilated pupils and the way his lips fought to stay smooth, and Hannibal smiled, flashing canines as he deliberately extended his cuffed hands forward, offering them.

            Matthew placed his hands in Hannibal’s, palm to palm, and the look on his face was much akin to bliss, a certain heady pleasure as he closed his eyes to savor it, like his skin was enough to glean the sensations of what it’d been like for Hannibal to paint his mind palace red. Hannibal had seen the gaze and expression of the obsessive before, marked it by the way the eyelashes fluttered and the way skin flushed. He could see it now, just at the edges of what made Matthew Brown tick.

            He could use this.

            It’d be rude not to, considering what was being offered.

            When Matthew released his hands, Hannibal seated himself once more, regarding him with a pleasant sort of hunger. Matthew lingered in the space where their palms touched, and he smiled faintly.

            “What is it that I can do for you, Dr. Lecter?”

            “…Just how many friends of yours also admire my work?”

            “A couple now…” He flashed a coy smile that he wiped away with his hand. “I can easily find more, though. A few orderlies and nurses here, a few psychos there…Chilton’s been screening your letters, but I can fix that. I can also ensure that anyone coming to meet you here won’t be caught on microphone.”

            “Perks of the job, Mr. Brown?”

            “Perks of the job, Dr. Lecter,” Matthew agreed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12:

            “You’re sure this is what you think is best?” Starling asked.

            Lloyd wasn’t entirely sure it was best, but it would have to do. The safe house was obscure enough from the public to keep him out of trouble, but close enough to town that if there was an emergency, he’d be alright.

            “Just keep in contact with me and we’ll be alright. I can help here without getting in the way of Jack’s focus,” he said. Prostrate on the bed as he was, he didn’t feel like much help, but Agent Starling wouldn’t hold that against him. For that, he was glad. “If anything, he can use my death as some sort of holy vengeance,” he joked.

            “I talked with Director Purnell, and she’s letting my division take the lead on this. With this hitting the media, they’ve already taken the ‘c’ word to a whole new level. Looks like you were right.”

            “Once the media calls it a cult, it’s all downhill from there,” Lloyd agreed. “Did…he give you any trouble when you gave him the news?”

            Clarise Starling shifted and decided that sitting down was best. Her gaze flitted about the room before they settled towards the bottom of the bed, where a few of his things had been laid, just in reach.

            “…Tell me,” he prompted lightly.

            “I didn’t speak with him directly because he was in the hospital with Agent Zeller. I spoke with Agent Price instead and relayed the news.”

            “Agent Zeller,” Lloyd mused quietly. “…My suspicions were correct?”

            Are you Agent Bowman?

            “Another knife to the gut, and one to the neck. He’s barely holding on.”

            Oh, good!

            It felt like another knife had come to reopen the wound that smarted and ached something fierce. The pain medicine helped but only just. He thought of Zeller, younger than him and quick on the uptake, and he sighed quietly, morose.

            “They’ll try to hit Price next, when another wave comes along.”

            “I’ll have my guys keep an eye on him. Jack won’t like it, but if it keeps him safe, so much the better.”

            “Thank you, Agent Starling. I know this isn’t protocol, but…” He sighed. “When Jack was investigating Dr. Lecter, no one believed him. There was nothing in his history, not enough suspicion for a warrant…just his hunch.”

            “He was almost fired for that hunch.”

            “He was right, though, wasn’t he?” Lloyd laughed, and the boom of it echoed in the room and just down the hall. He regretted it, as it made his stomach pull and ache. “He risked his career to stop that bastard from hurting anyone, then he risked his life. I guess sometimes it’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter of the law.”

            “I’ll quote you on that if this comes back to bite me in the ass.” Starling warned him.

            “Do that,” Lloyd urged her. “Just keep me in the loop, and I’ll see what I can do.”

            Are you Agent Bowman?

            “I think they chose the wrong man to stab,” she said as she gathered her things, a simple backpack and her jacket. It was cold, brisk just outside of the walls that were temperature controlled. Starling had sprung for a nice place, all things considered.

            Oh, good!

            “They did,” Lloyd agreed with a wry smile. “Or, they chose the wrong person to do the stabbing. She didn’t quite get deep enough for a confirmed kill.”

            “Their first mistake.”

            “I think their first mistake was using a linoleum knife as a symbol, actually,” he said thoughtfully. “I’m aware that’s what was used against Jack when Lecter attacked him, but realistically, he only used it because it was the sharpest object within reach. A coincidence.”

            “Better they gutted you with a linoleum knife rather than a hunting knife, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Starling said pointedly. Poised in the doorway, she slung her bag over her back and smiled thinly.

            “I’ll have to send them a thank-you card when this is over.” At the twist in her expression, he added congenially, “And one for you as well, of course.”

            “Of course. I’ll bring you the data as I get it, and we’ll go from there…it might take a while, though. There’s a nation-wide homicide going on. Around thirty or so Will Graham’s are cropping up, dead. Last we got in, it was thirty-two, I think.”

            That sucker punched him, and he thought of just how much Jack was going to drink that night.

            “I’ll bet none of them are ‘the’ Will Graham,” he murmured. “Not a single one.”

            “Research the Red Death if you’re feeling up to it, as that’s their symbol right now. The Red Death, which holds darkness and decay, and an illimitable grasp over us all.”

            She saw herself out, leaving behind the faint smell of Evian skin cream and lavender perfume.

            Lloyd leaned back into the pillows, and he let out a quiet, subdued groan of pain that he’d been holding back. Theatrical to fake his own death, but if it kept Jack focused rather than worrying over him, so much the better –if it kept Hannibal’s followers from appearing in the middle of the night to finish him off, so much the better, too. The Red Death. It had a nice ring to it, if he was being honest. Dramatic as hell, though.

            He thought of Zeller, fighting for his life in a hospital, and as he drifted off to sleep, he hoped dearly that Starling could get a hold of him and whisk him off to safety before they went back for him, too.

-

            Will Graham ran, and the beast followed.

            He realized quickly that the path he’d taken before was no longer the one he was on now. Somewhere in his panic, his rush to run and run fast, he’d taken a wrong turn on the animal trail and found himself slipping and sliding along a steep bank.

            He slipped, tumbled, and rolled, hitting the bottom hard.

            There was a lurching, twisting sensation as his senses tried to get a grasp on just what had happened, but at the sound of crushing, crashing footsteps, he didn’t give himself the luxury. He was up once more, carving through the thickly clustered trees with wild abandon. Each step drove home a horrifying, terrifying concept:

            No one even knew he was out here.

            Behind him, Randall roared, fast despite the metal and grotesque leather contraption he was strapped into. The sound sent shivers down his spine like claws, and he wondered if this was how rats felt in a maze –terror, a panic and disbelief as they’re chased, chased, chased.

            It didn’t take too long for his running to slow, his heartbeat to struggle. Breaths leaked past his lips in hurried, stumbling gasps, and he pressed a palm to the stitch in his side, fingers coming away orange from the Georgia clay he’d fallen into.

            He needed a new plan, and fast.

            Looking back behind him, Will could trace the rushed, destructive path of his run, leaves scattered and braches broken. Through the thick of the trees he could still hear Randall tearing after him, tracking him. It wouldn’t do for someone like that to find him, to take those bones of his and do what predators do best.

            He looked about, then began to make his way more carefully, listening for the sound of any running water.

            He found a small brook at the bottom of another dip, and he didn’t hesitate in wading into it, ankle-deep and chilly. The rocks were slick on his shoes, although if he’d been aware that he was to be hunted, he’d have asked for sneakers rather than dockers.

            The water deepened; Will craned his head and strained to hear the sound of the machine hissing air, the thunderous step of a hungry beast. Was Randall as good at hiding as Will was? Did he know how to be just as silent? When the water went up to his chest, his gaze slid along the banks on either side, tense. Although Randall was the immediate threat, cotton mouths were another issue. They were fast in the water, silent and venomous. Will could remember as a boy stumbling across a knot of them, curled up for warmth. When his father found him staring at the writhing mess of the muscled bodies, he’d told him to run and run fast.

            Naturally, he was right in their element.

            At the sound of another howl, though, he didn’t give a second thought in slipping deep under an overhang of roots struggling to reach the earth. The lip of the ground gave him good coverage, and he sank low into the water, the cold seeping into his bones and making his joints stiff. Up to his neck, he pressed back until he started to feel the moss and the algae at his shoulders, then he stopped.

            Just across the way, pacing along the riverbank, Randall tier hunted.

            Out from underneath the canopy, with the sun rising, he looked truly hellish. The leather strips and spine knobbing along his back was grotesque and jutted out from him, curving into the skull of a bear that looked far bigger than any Will had ever had the chance to see. He’d hunted bears once, with his father. The bear he’d shot looked half the size, half the fury.

            Almost as though he could smell him, Randall lifted his nose to the air and sniffed.

            Will slunk down further, submerging his nose and mouth, the pattering and gurgling of the water rushing around his ears, tugging at him. Scattered across the water, mosquitos in various stages hovered, buzzing. Water skimmers danced, paused, fluttered. Through the roots he watched Randall creep along the river, studying his path, and through the rays of light that cut through the trees, leather gloves gave way to long, black claws that curled and flexed as he searched.

            He turned, looked across the river, then hurried farther down to cross it. Will worried that he might wade in the water, but he heard the crashing of leaves scattering on the forest floor farther down, and the breath he’d been holding exhaled into bubbles that popped around his eyes.

            He lifted his head, took a deep inhale, and continued on.

            The water sluiced around him as he crawled out onto a bank a few miles up, and his skin was blue from its abuse. He tried to make his climb up to solid ground as unmarked as possible, but when he managed to haul himself onto the higher ground, the churning mess of red clay and lichen was unable to be salvaged. If Randall made his way over, he’d see just where he climbed out.

            To warm his aching muscles, he took off at a brisk pace. Survival was the game, and as Molly had put it, Will Graham was very, very good at surviving.

            He found his way back under the canopy in the forest, a thick grouping of trees whose leaves blocked out the light and its warmth. Needing to find a direction, a point of interest –anything –he climbed the first tree whose branches looked promising enough, hauling himself up and up and up. He reached the top and looked about, the sun overhead and positively blinding.

            It was later in the day than he’d thought. After noon at least, closer to two maybe. Just how long had he been running?

            He couldn’t see the house, but he could see a break in the trees, in the distance. That was his best bet for either a road, or another place where he could access help. If he could find a fence or property line, he could climb it and well and truly escape. Matthew would assume he’d been killed by Randall, and it would be at least a day before they realized he’d gotten away.

            Maybe this was Matthew’s way of trying to get rid of him –if Randall couldn’t kill him, he could at least let him go. Either way, it paved the place for Matthew to try and sidle close to Lecter, which gave Will the all clear.

            If he could just survive, it would work.

            He climbed down carefully from the tree and continued on his way. His heartbeat had slowed considerably since the initial rush; it beat in a heavy, pointed sort of way. Thump. The break in the trees was West. Thump. Despite your best efforts, you’re leaving a trail. Thump. If you’d just kept your mouth shut with the cultists, you wouldn’t be here. Thump.

            If Randall finds you, you’re going to have to kill him.

            He didn’t entertain the last thought, even as he sweated, even as he trudged. The treeline had made it look far closer than it was, and it took several miles before he found himself hiking up to higher ground, breaking out of the canopy whose humidity soaked deep beneath his already wet and chafing clothes. Coniferous trees dotted between the deciduous, and pine needles on the ground gave his steps a little bounce.

            At the break in the trees, he found a glade. Within the glade, he found Randall.

            Even as he groaned, he ran. The roar behind him was triumphant, elated. The pine trees were further spaced apart, but while that made running easier for him, it surely made it easier for Randall, too. His clothes made odd, swishing, squelching noises. His breaths gave way to wheezes, and too soon he felt himself slowing, aching.

            Too soon he felt Randall gaining, growing.

            He doubled back and cut at an angle to try and find the canopy again. If he could lose him there once more, he could hide out, make a new plan. There must not have been a lot of open spaces on the property, places where a person would think to go. Had he just waited Will out, lurking along the glade until Will made his way to it, desperately seeking shelter?

            Predictable. He’d have to get better if he was going to live.

            Despite the aching pains, he was far lighter than Randall was in that suit. He managed to draw ahead, a burst of desperation fueled by the idea of what it’d feel like to have those teeth drop across his neck, crushing him. That was a suit made to maul, not to give kindly deaths. He would feel every painstaking inch of it, until he could feel nothing anymore.

            He found a large, leafy oak, and he climbed it.

            He made his way to the top, along leaves whose many numbers gave him a place of relief, of hiding. Breaths gasped from him, short and choppy, and when he heard the crashing, crunching sound draw close, he placed his sleeve over his mouth to stifle it. Pressed against the trunk as he was, he willed himself to be small, small and invisible. His knees curled to his chest, his free arm wrapped around a branch for stability. He counted the seconds, too fast as they stuttered against his pulse.

            The crunch of leaves drew close, then away. Through the break in the leaves, Will saw Randall barely even pause in his steps, engrossed as he was with the trail. It’d lead him far enough, until it became sparse, faded. While Will was more of a fisherman than a hunter, he knew how to try and fake a trail, to step soft in the underbrush like a deer.

            He could live through this. He just had to be smarter than the hunter.

            As Randall hurried along the path, Will pressed his back against the trunk, and he wiped sweat from his brow. Now, the name of the game was waiting.

            Time passed. Whereas before, while he’d ran for his life, it’d rushed by him, a river of water that stopped for no one. Now, as he dried out against the scratchy boughs of the oak tree, time crawled like the mosquitos that hovered by his neck, hungry. More than once he’d had to kill a tick before it could burrow into his flesh, and he’d finally given up on the praying mantis that’d taken up residence on his pant leg. The air grew hot and stifling, then finally let up with agonizing hesitance. The sun dipped just above the treeline, and it was then that Will deposited the praying mantis onto a branch so that he could climb up just enough to see above the trees.

            In the distance, the lights to a house were just starting to come on as the sun went down.

            He couldn’t see the house, but he could see the glow of it, highlighting the space and darkening the trees around it. While Lecter’s house of crazies kept the outside lights dim, non-descript, these lights were bright, inviting. Warm. The prospect of it, of food and water, made his stomach whine, his breath catch. God, he hadn’t eaten at all. The water in the woods wasn’t something he’d even consider drinking, let alone the amount of poison ivy he’d had to comb through.

            He was just starting to climb down when he heard the low, primal growl.

            The forest always darkened faster than the space around it, but even through the light seeping through the breaks in the trees, it was difficult to see Randall. He was there, though, and the trail Will had given him had finally brought him here, back around to where he truly had hidden all this time.

            Without a second thought, Will launched himself out of the tree, directly on top of Randall.

            It was a jarring, crashing sensation, legs smashing into the exoskeleton before the rest of him followed. Something cracked, snapped, and Randall let out a horrendous howl, one of pure fury and complete and utter surprise. They rolled, one around another as Will grabbed the closed maw and twisted, trying to wrench it off of the rest of him, trying to wrestle it away because if that got around his head he was done, he was finished, he was dead.

            The momentum carried them, then slowed to a stop. Will found himself on top, the force of the fall having broken the top of the skull off into his hands.

            “Fuck you,” he hissed triumphantly, and he rose, gripping it tight, the blood singing in his veins as it begged him to finish him, smash him, kill him.

            He didn’t, though. As he rose up above Randall, aching and pained, Randall didn’t try to stand. The shattered exoskeleton around him lay in ruins across his body, and he lay still, staring at the sky with wide, impossibly grey eyes. They blinked, stunned, and he choked out a gasp of breath.

            Will didn’t wait for Randall to make his next move. Instead, he ran towards the light.

            It was not the smooth, triumphant gait of a winner, but the exhausted, sideways slant of exhaustion. His heart beat against his skull, at his temples, along his jaw. When he didn’t hear Randall tearing after him with a furious roar, the adrenaline that’d barely kept him ahead for most of the day was fading, giving way to heat exhaustion and a dehydration that made his limbs shake.

            He had to keep going, though. He had to keep moving.

            He broke the tree line much later, long after the darkness had eked away at what pitiful light he’d used to keep a straight line. The bright lights in the opening burned before him, but it was with a horrifying, jolting realization that he hadn’t found a new house at all, scrambling through the woods as he’d been.

            It was the same god damn house.

            Every light was on, and spilling out onto the grass appeared to be the house members, laughing and talking with drinks in hand. The balcony overhead housed them in droves, and light, classical music carried across a gentle wind that soothed his sweaty, grimy face.

            A banner fluttered in the wet evening breeze, the red letters curling artistically: And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

            Some kind of celebration. Some kind of trap.

            At the sight of him, furious and bleak and dirty, someone let out a shout and ran inside for help.

            He thought about running into the forest again, trying to lay low until he could make a better move, but at the thought of taking another step, his knees buckled. Cutting across the bright lights ahead, long strips of black shadow made their way over, then lifted him and helped him stumble across the lawn towards the back steps where he was eased down onto the marble. It was cold against his stiff, barely dried clothes.

            “Will, are you alright?” Beverly’s face floated into view, concerned and creased with worry. “What happened?”

            “Give him space,” Molly’s voice called out. “I’ll go get him water.”

            “Mr. Graham, are you-”

            “What was he-”

            “Do you think that he’s-”

            “Did Randall find him in the woods?”

            “I hope he’s-”

            “Mr. Graham.” Francis Dolarhyde’s voice, low and forced, drew Will from the murky thoughts where he floated, suspended. He looked up, made it as far as his jaw before he could look no farther, teeth gritted.

            “Are you hurt?” he asked Will, crouching down to inspect him. Will cringed from the attention, invasive as it was, focused as it was. His hands shook, and he threw down the top half of the bear skull he’d taken with him as he ran.

            “Took care of your animal problem,” he managed. He was well aware of too many people around him, their light and their heat and their concern just as cloying as the humidity had been.

            “What happened?” Beverly pressed.

            At their scrutiny, he pulled himself to his feet, managed to stay upright. He recognized some of the crowd from the book club, although others were strange faces that blurred, dizzying as he looked past them, trying to find someone. There were too many, though; far, far too many. Too many killers for comfort.

            Matthew Brown lurked towards the back, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

            “Ask Matthew,” he said, glaring at him. “He’s the one that set a rabid dog on me.”

            Their shock was palpable, as was his glee as his eyes raked over Will’s appearance, took in every nick and bruise. Will wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of a victim, though. He turned and pushed through the crowd, their touch a burn that scalded and left scars.

            He went inside to his room, and Dolarhyde followed.

-

            He was allowed to clean himself, although afterwards Dolarhyde was insistent upon inspecting him for injury. He worked with a clinical detachment, and Will sat still for him, allowing him to roll his ankles about, feeling the muscle and sinew beneath skin.

            “Bruised but unbroken,” he said, looking up to meet Will’s withdrawn, distant gaze. “You survived.” After a beat, Will nodded.

            “That’s all I can keep telling myself when I’m dealing with you people,” Will murmured. “I survived. I’m trying to survive.”

            Francis looked like he had something to say about that, but when he opened his mouth, no words came out. He seemed to struggle with the thought, wrestling it about, before he tucked it away and shook his head, patting Will’s knee lightly as he stood up straight.

            “Keep to the house, Mr. Graham. That is how I keep you safe.”

            Food and water soon followed, although Will was mildly ashamed to admit that he’d stood under the shower water and inhaled gulps of it before he’d even bothered cleaning himself. Half of that he’d spit up in his rush, but it was worth it. Pain killers were provided, which he declined, and he sat before a modest dinner at his desk, a salad with strips of meat laid across it.

            Despite his ravenous hunger, Will ate everything but the meat.

            He laid in the center of his bed after, a pained sort of entropy that made muscles lax and bones ache. Just outside of his locked window, the trailing, distant sound of music carried over, a celebration of sorts just outside that he couldn’t bother to try and investigate.

            Instead, he kept going back to the same scene in his mind, that moment as he’d straddled Randall and held half of his skull aloft. Randall hadn’t tried to fight back, hadn’t attempted any sort of fight with him. He’d merely stared at Will, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come, wheezing with the sort of noise that in memory made his hair stand on end.

            He thought of that look of utmost panic on his face, long enough that it followed him into his dreams that gave way to nightmares.

-

            It took Hannibal two hours to find Randall Tier, and even then it was only because Garrett Jacob Hobbs was an excellent tracker. Even in the dark, he found Will’s exhausted, stumbling trail, and it led them straight to him.

            Randall lay staring up at the trees, the stars above blinking between sporadic leaves.

            “Randall,” Hannibal said kindly. “How are you doing?”

            “…I can’t feel my legs, Dr. Lecter,” he said, still staring at the trees. “I can’t move.”

            Hannibal had wondered something much like that when he didn’t receive a report from him. “He didn’t kill you.”

            “He could have,” said Randall after a long pause. “He didn’t.”

            “He left you paralyzed instead. No longer can you hunt, roving the trees and destroying as you please.”

            Randall was not a weeper; he didn’t cry now, although his eyes shined like sequins in sunlight.

            “I don’t want to live paralyzed,” he whispered. “If I can’t…be what I am, I don’t want to be at all.”

            Hannibal could certainly sympathize with that. He crouched down beside Randall, studied him from head to toe. His work of art lay in ruins, decimated in the wrath and fear of Will Graham’s survival.

            “When I found you, you weren’t quite sure who you were or what you wanted to be.”

            “You helped me with that…you made me unafraid to embrace myself,” Randall replied.

            “You’d become something beautiful, Randall,” Hannibal said kindly. He passed a hand along his shoulder, paused to cup his cheek. “I don’t wish to have that taken away from you.”

            “Thank you, Dr. Lecter. I knew you’d understand.”

            They kept eye contact, even as he slit Randall’s throat.

            “I’ll take care of the body,” Garrett Jacob Hobbs promised him. He stooped down and lifted Randall with ease, the exoskeleton awkward but ultimately light. It couldn’t have been too heavy; how else would Randall have caught his prey?

            Hannibal paused, turning on his flashlight to lead him back. “I’m sure, Mr. Hobbs, that you’ll honor every part?”

            “Oh, yes Dr. Lecter,” Hobbs promised. “Not a single part of him is going to go to waste. Otherwise, it’s just murder.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 13:

            Jack Crawford paced the hospital halls.

            It wasn’t the best of hospitals, but they wouldn’t move him until they stabilized him.

            If they could stabilize him.

            “Price…yeah, glad you’re on it. I need someone on it until I can get there.” He sighed, considered going outside to light a cigarette. It was an old habit, a bad habit, but he needed something to do with his hands, something that didn’t involve going back to the nearest police station to strangle Peter Bernardone with his bare hands. He was a suspect, but it didn’t quite feel right to call him that. He chocked it up to the lack of sleep.

            “It’s a blood bath, Jack. Looks like twenty-nine confirmed deaths, three missing persons, all with the name of Will Graham. We’ve got guys compiling data on each one, but they’re all over the United States. This isn’t a concentrated event in one location.”

            “Of course,” Jack growled.

            “So far…none are the Will Graham we’re looking for, though. There’s a couple we can’t get visual confirmation on due to their…manner of death, but the information is coming in slowly but surely. If he’s still in Georgia, no Will Graham’s been found in Georgia.”

            It shouldn’t have been a balm to hear that, but it was. Jack leaned against one of the walls and took a few deep, soothing breaths. A damned shame, all the death, but god damn it was good to say that Will Graham could still be alive.

            He was more than aware that he was going to hell for such thoughts, dark as they were .Cruel as they were.

            “I want real names, information, cross-references; what ties all of these people together, apart from their names? How far in advance was this planned?”

            “I’ll send it to you as I get more information. I’m here at the one in Baltimore. Looks like we got ourselves some Poe-lovers.”

            “A cult of killers that are obsessed with a drunken poet that fantasized about death,” Jack muttered. “Why am I not surprised?”

            “Oh, so we can call them a cult, now?”

            “The sheer number alone that had to have been able to hit all of these people at once…the number alone that took Will, not counting the four that helped Lecter escape…fanatical messages scrawled across a wall…I’d say we’re in cult territory, Price,” Jack admitted. It blistered to say, left his mouth puckered and sour. Cult territory meant this wasn’t his jurisdiction, meant that someone else was going to come along and try to wrestle this case out from under him. “Director Purnell said she’s going to be sending someone in to cover it.”

            “Brenda down the hall will be just overjoyed to hear that,” Price said wryly. The speaker crackled as he exhaled, leading to a pause on the line, one stifled. “Jack…how is he?”

            “Still in surgery. He lost a lot of blood before we could get here.”

            “How are you doing?”

            Wherever you go, death follows.

            “If he and Bowman can just pull through…I think I’ll be alright. Hell, if our Will Graham isn’t one of those Will Graham’s, I think I’ll be alright.”

            “Jack,” Price said, and something in his tone stopped Jack’s frantic pacing, rooted him to the tile of the hospital floor that smelled of generic soap and concentrated bleach. “Jack…did no one tell you?”

            “Tell me what,” Jack said, but his voice sounded far away, far enough away that it echoed, a distinct disconnect between him and his speech, him and the reality of the words that he somehow just knew Price was going to say. He leaned back against the wall once more.

            “Agent Bowman…Lloyd didn’t make it. There was a complication after the surgery, and his body reacted badly to the medication…he passed away this morning, Jack. Lloyd is dead.”

            He managed to take a seat on the bench nearby before his legs could give way beneath him.

            “Jack?”

            Jack gripped the phone so tightly that it creaked. “Yeah…I’m here. That’s…thanks for telling me, Price.”

            “Jack…”

            “My condolences…that’s…dammit, Price, have we sent flowers to his wife, yet?”

            “They sent them this morning. I thought that when this was all over, we could go see her.”

            “I think she’d like that,” Jack said numbly. “When’s the service?”

            “I’ll find out and send that with the information about the bodies.”

            “The bodies, yeah,” Jack agreed.

            “Jack…Jack, I’m sorry, I thought they told you.”

            “Hell, Price, let’s…let’s just do our jobs,” he said, and there was a painful relief that his voice came out so strong. “That’s what he’d want us to do, I think. Our jobs, so we can catch these bastards and finish them off for what they did. Save Will, and finish this shit.”

            “Sounds good, boss,” Price replied.

            He leaned back against the wall, staring at the small medic stand in front of him. There was a picture on it, one he saw in every government hospital that he’d visited, one he’d come to memorize as a sort of sordid joke during check-ups for Bella, in between chemo and scans and dialysis. It was a laminated photo of a series of poorly drawn smiley faces, a number system beneath to depict levels of pain. As the numbers grew, the smile turned to a flat line, then a grimace, then a howling expression of agony at 10. How do you feel? Bella liked to ask him, as he stared at that stupid laminated photo and waited for her to slowly die.

            How does it feel?

-

            Hannibal was the one to fetch Will the next morning. Sleep had eluded him for most of the night, left him stretched out and wan before one of the windows. The image of Randall in his mind was still, so very still, and his eyes shined too bright like newly minted dimes. Every time he blinked, he heard the crunching, snapping noise of the exoskeleton giving way beneath him. Every time he exhaled particularly hard, his ribs complained from the abuse. Waking gave way to every single abused joint and muscle in his body, but he relished in the pain because he was certain of something without having to be told, having ruminated long enough on the sound of cracking, of snapping that had registered beneath him, not just around him:

            Randall was either dead, or he was very, very close to it.

            “Good morning, Will,” Hannibal said by the doorway.

            Will turned back and blinked at him languidly, eyes heavy-lidded and distant.

            “I thought we could take breakfast in the study,” he said. “Unless you’d like to eat elsewhere.”

            Will considered the proposal, then made his way to his feet with a wince. He didn’t care, in truth, as long as he didn’t have to eat with Matthew. If he saw Matthew, he may willingly try to do what he’d accidentally done to Randall.

            He walked with a straight back, all things considered. When he reached the doorway, he jolted when Hannibal took hold of his face and cradled it with the faintest of touches, turning it to one side, then the other. Will stared flatly into his eyes, daring him. Challenging him.

            “Still two blues,” he taunted Hannibal. “Turning it to a different angle in the light won’t change that.”

            “Touch gives the world an emotional context,” Hannibal replied quietly. His thumb brushed a faint bruise near Will’s temple. “The touch of others makes us who we are, shows us how to view the world. Just how have you touched lately, Will?”

            “Defensively.”

            “And?”

            “…Fearfully. Angrily.”

            Hannibal hummed quietly and released him, turning away. Will followed him towards the study, his skin burning wherever Hannibal dared to put his hands on him.

            Breakfast was pan-fried ham with some sort of quiche. Will eyed the ham with extreme prejudice as he sat down at the table that’d been tucked into the nook, fork turning over and over and over in his hand. His fingers were nicked, scratches adorning the backs from when he’d had to climb up a particularly savage hill.

            “How do you feel this morning, Will?”

            “Are any more of your groupies going to set mentally disturbed psychopaths on my trail if I piss them off?” Will asked. He took a small bite of the quiche, the flavors savory with undertones of thyme. The lack of meat in it gave him a little more courage, and he took another bite.

            “I’ve spoken with Matthew about his rash decision yesterday. He shouldn’t give you any more trouble, and he expresses regret that he wasn’t able to find you earlier to call his little game off.”

            “A game,” Will scoffed. “That was a game?”

            “In his mind, yes. It was very untimely, seeing as how I’d organized an event so that you’d be able to meet everyone else in the house.”

            Will thought of the banner that’d fluttered in the breeze preaching the Red Death; the voices and music coalescing together in an odd, twisted sort of white noise.

            He wasn’t quite sure which would have been the better alternative –having to meet the occupants of the house in its entirety, or being hunted by Randall.

            “…Unfortunate,” he muttered.

            “Francis also spoke with him, as he is ardent about your safety in this house. You are as welcome here, Will, as any other.”

            “As long as I conform and become,” he retorted sharply. “I’m not stupid, Dr. Lecter. You’ll only entertain this as long as it’s interesting, curious, or if you will gain something from it. When the interest fades, when the curiosity fades, and when you have nothing left to gain from having me here, you’ll have me disposed of.”

            “Do you think of yourself as disposable, Will?”

            He glowered at his breakfast, taking a sip of the coffee that sat just to the side of it.

            “If I supposed that you were disposable, I’d have never bothered with this endeavor, Will. I’m not inclined to waste time.”

            “You’re wasting Jack Crawford’s time,” he pointed out. “If you don’t intend to kill me and toss the body for him to find, then you’re just wasting his time. If you…really intend to just keep me prisoner here forever, he’ll keep searching. He’ll waste his life trying to find me.”

            “I’m teaching Agent Crawford a valuable lesson,” Hannibal replied mildly. He sat down across from Will, one leg folded elegantly over the other, dress slacks hitched just-so. “His obsession with the two of us isn’t healthy for him. Exposure therapy for his obsession may just be the trick to help him overcome it.”

            “Some would argue that exposure therapy is an out of date, unorthodox practice.”

            “The two of us worked on several unorthodox practices in your therapy, if you recall,” he replied with a coy smile.

            “Forcing me to attend a gala in order to overcome social anxieties isn’t the same sort of unorthodox therapy as knowingly dangling the hope of potentially beating you so close in front of him. That merely drives him further into his obsession,” said Will. He stared into his quiche and took a large, unattractive bite.

            “I requested that you attend the gala because I enjoyed your company, actually,” Lecter said with the faintest impressions of a smile. “You supposed that it was exposure therapy, and I wasn’t inclined to correct you.

            Will glanced up at him, at his unnervingly blue eye, and he frowned.

            “So you purposefully withheld that information in order to persuade me to attend the gala?”

            “Yes.”

            Will would say that he was surprised, but he wasn’t all that surprised. If Hannibal’s eyes had indeed changed color so soon after meeting Will, he’d have naturally tried to find ways to spend time with him outside of the office, to try and initiate a staggered connection without the pressure of patient-therapist.

            “You haven’t asked about Randall Tier.”

            “I don’t care about Randall Tier,” said Will with a snarl.

            “Don’t you?”

            Will did, but he didn’t want to admit it. He thought of Randall’s eyes when he’d fallen on top of him, gazing into the space just over his shoulder like he could see into eternity.

            “…Is he dead?”

            “He is.”

            So calmly was it said, bereft of blame or gleeful accusation. Will chewed on the inside of his mouth, teeth dragging against the fat of his cheek before he forced another bite of food down his throat. Behind him, like sharp taps against the top of his spine, the second hand ticked on the mantle.

            “He asked me to kill him after you managed to paralyze him,” Hannibal said. He could have been commenting on the weather, or on the shade of a particularly flattering blouse, for all the care in the world that his tone conveyed. “I was honored that he’d care so much as to ask me.”

            The rush of relief was almost dizzying, and Will found himself leaning back against the chair, heels digging into the rug. His eyes sought his hands, studied the cuts and bruises. The skin by one knuckle was puffy and yellowed from falling, and his wrist twinged when turned just-so. He wondered if Randall felt the same sort of panic that Will felt, running for his life. As he lay in the dying leaves, did his heart pound so hard against his ribs that they bruised? Did his breathing cut short as he tried to move legs that were unable to listen to his pleas?

            “I fell on him,” he said at last, after a long and agonizingly quiet silence. “From a tree.”

            “When you were running for –what could arguably be called –your life, how did that feel?” Lecter inquired. His gaze traced over Will, paused on his hands.

            “Are we really doing this?” Will demanded. “These ham-handed attempts at crawling into my mind, hoping that you’ll stumble across something that prompts a connection?”

            “It’s been almost seven years since the two of us have had a conversation,” Hannibal said shamelessly.

            “For a reason.”

            “I’ve missed our conversations, Will. Two like-minded individuals being able to lay bare their thoughts and most intimate of feelings, unhindered by societal expectations. It was refreshing.”

            “It was a lie.”

            “Is that what this is about?” Hannibal asked. “You felt deceived?”

            Will set his fork down on the near-empty plate and leaned back into the chair, digging his spine to the dips and grooves of it. It was about as calming and grounding as it could ever be, all things considered, but he was trying.

            “I felt…disgusted,” he said at last. “Unclean. For the longest time, my thoughts…my inner voice had been myself. Same timbre, same tone…same way of speech. Then I went to therapy with you, and I heard my inner voice as you instead, whispering…dark things. Manipulations, thought processes that prompted not-so tasty thoughts. It felt normal, though. You normalized those thoughts and feelings. When I felt…intrusive thoughts from my empathy, you encouraged them.”

            “Normalizing such things is a form of overcoming.”

            Will rubbed a sharp retort from his mouth, focusing instead on the small ring of condensation that’d gathered on the table from his cup of coffee.

            “Was it so difficult for you, Will, too see me in my entirety? Was your horror in finding Jack Crawford because a person was wounded and dying, or did some of that horror extend from you finding yourself curious about it?”

            “Curious?”

            “You held your father as he died, Will, and you have witnessed someone’s most intimate moments as their life ultimately ended. How did you feel when you saw Jack Crawford’s blood on my rug? How did you feel when you saw me?”

            “…I thought there had to be some other explanation.”

            “And when there wasn’t?” Hannibal pressed. Fingers like parenthesis hooked across his cheek as his gaze bore into Will’s. Will felt his stare burning into the back of his skull.

            “It made me think of one of the only sermons I’d ever heard.” Will chewed on the skin on his thumb and stared at Hannibal’s hideously checkered tie. He’d always hated his weirdly patterned ties. “My father wasn’t a church-going man, and neither was I. Churches…were overwhelming. People were overwhelming.”

            “A room full of ardent worship and the decaying of logic to make way for grandiose ideals of higher beings that can erase your sorrows with radiant light.”

            Will nodded in agreement, fixating on a small bit of lint on the tie. “We were poor. I wore jeans and a t-shirt, and he wore an ill-fitting suit. The pastor stood at the pulpit, sweating like he had a terrible secret.” Will glanced up long enough to give Hannibal a pointed, dark look. “He said, ‘When the devil appears before you, he will not wear a red cape and horns. When the devil appears, he will instead be dressed fine and showing you everything your heart could ever desire.’”

            Hannibal had a way of tilting his head when he studied someone, like he could twist his gaze further into your mind if he tried hard enough. Will felt his stare in his flesh, in his bones as he looked back down, propping his chin up with his fist.

            “Then,” he continued, “I walked into your office and saw Jack Crawford bleeding to death on your rug. When he said who’d gutted him, I already knew. The person that promised me mental clarity, a paddle when things became too much, and a place where I could finally silence the voices crowding within my mind, was also the man that took those ideals just when I’d whole-heartedly accepted them, and stepped on them.”

            “I promised safe harbor, and instead I gave you a craggy shore.”

            “I sometimes wake up and taste blood in the back of my mouth,” he said bitterly. “You gave me that.”

            There was no remorse in his face at that, only a slight twist of his expression, like he was thinking particularly hard on something. Will finished his coffee and swallowed it down along with the blood that’d pooled on his tongue from biting his cheek.

            “This,” he continued, after a thought, “all this does is solidify that. Do you think that by keeping me in this imbalanced stated, this sense of not-quite finding my footing, keeping me like a dog at your beck and call, will promote some sort of relationship between us? That I’d somehow endear myself to your qualities in order to-”

            That stopped him, though, that thought that created a chain reaction in his mind. Each piece fell into place, and his mouth twisted into a snarl, unable to quite label his emotion disbelief when he could fully believe what he was fast realizing.

            “Capture bonding,” he said, and he glared at Hannibal’s unruffled appearance. “You think that in order for me to survive, I will take on the traits and behaviors of my aggressors so that I live.”

            “It’s the natural order of things,” Hannibal said evenly.

            “It would be a lie, Dr. Lecter. Even if I did, you’d know that deep down it was only done so that I wasn’t eaten for breakfast. That’s what you want to sloppily attempt to base a connection off of? Nature’s way of protecting psyche from trauma?” He laughed, and it was a bitter, rugged thing. “If you genuinely wanted something from me, you’d find that honesty and mutual respect go a long way. If you looked at me as a person rather than an obstacle to ultimately change to your whims, you’d know that.”

            If you weren’t a psychopath, you’d understand that.

            Hannibal’s lips parted, but a knock on the door interrupted him from saying whatever he’d intended. Matthew stepped into the room, gaze bouncing from Will to Hannibal; his thin lips twisted into a smirk.

            “Dr. Lecter, someone is here for you,” he said.

            “Thank you, Matthew. Have them wait in the…” Hannibal paused, considering where to place them.

            “They can come here,” Will decided, standing up. “Our, uhm… ‘session’, if that’s what you want to call it, is over anyway.”

            Matthew looked to Lecter for confirmation, and he gave a nod, amused. Will felt it like grime under his fingernails, and he headed towards the door, brushing against Matthew’s shoulder as he went.

            “How do you feel this morning, Mr. Graham?” Matthew asked, not looking or sounding sorry at all.

            There were many things that Will could attribute to his personality: social anxieties, introversion, a love of dogs and fishing, impatience coupled with a quick wit and a sharp tongue.

            A genuine, all-encompassing sarcasm.

            “Better than your dog Randall Tier,” he said, and he walked out of the room.

-

            Francis sat down across from Hannibal in the study, his expression grave. Just over Hannibal’s shoulder, a mirror rested on the wall, wreathed in ivy and overlooking succulents.

            He tried often enough not to stare at his face in that mirror. In truth, he avoided looking in any mirror –he hated what he saw. The cleft palate always stood out to him as a shining beacon of horror, something to attest to the monstrosity that crept deep inside. He used to turn his head this way, then the other; he practiced his words, although he spoke very little. Every other word held some sort of hiss to it, something that made his tongue fat in his mouth and made his old speech impediment flare up.

            He thought of Will, though, and the way that he looked at him with rapt attention, like each and every sound was grounding rather than horrific. Speaking around him wasn’t so difficult as it was to find the right words to say. In truth, it was just finding a way to make him understand. If one could make Will Graham see, one could make Will Graham feel –and wasn’t that something extraordinary to be privy to?

            “What have we found?” Hannibal asked. With Matthew out of the room, he relaxed in a way that felt familial, calm to Francis. The good doctor trusted Francis, gave him room to grow and be himself without fear of censure or judgement. He’d seen Francis’ creations and marveled at them. He appreciated, understood. Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, two individuals that Francis felt could know him in a fundamentally important way.

            “They were tipped off about Georgia,” he admitted. A frown turned his lips harshly down. “One of our own slipped.”

            “Who?”

            “Saul.” Sometimes, he imagined the way that the letter ‘S’ used to sound. Th-hall. Nasally, breathy. It made his scowl deepen. “I hadn’t wanted him there.”

            “I recall, Francis.”

            “He left his backpack. I know that he carried with him a water bottle, a notebook of poetry, a science-fiction novel, his wallet, and an electronic device.”

            “What sort?”

            “A Gameboy.”

            Hannibal looked mildly perplexed at that, so Francis explained, “Nothing that could trace to an internet. Older technology, battery operated.”

            “I see.” Hannibal steepled his fingers, deep in thought as he stared off at nothing in particular. “It is a grievous error that he made. Do you suppose that it was intentional?”

            “He never should have been in that apartment. It made my calculations off, and one of the men almost killed him as a result. In that moment, when I acted to subdue the agent, that is when he must have left his bag in his haste.”

            “A foolish accident, then.”

            “Where they’ve narrowed it down to Georgia-”

            “How was Will, Francis?” Hannibal interrupted gently.

            Francis didn’t like talking about Will Graham with others. It was a common enough topic within the house, but he kept to himself in the house, far too busy as he was with security, intel, and the plan. Most of the people within were tools, bargaining pieces and pawns on the chessboard to be moved as necessary for things far above the scope of their understanding. The way they said Will’s name tarnished it somewhat, with the thoughtless way they tossed it about –as though he could be so easily Changed. As though he could be so easily Moved. With Hannibal, though, there was another sort of unease altogether.

            “Dehydrated, artificial injuries. He slept a long time.”

            “Did he speak with you again?”

            “He said that he had to survive us.”

            Hannibal nodded thoughtfully at that. Every word he took from Will was carefully weighed, measured for the intent beneath. When he said Will’s name, it was with something much akin to respect.

            “He trusts you,” he noted, and the look he gave Francis was mischievous. “He allowed you to help him to his room, and he allowed you to inspect his wounds.”

            “I did not have the same repertoire with him that Molly and Beverly did. That betrayal never happened.” Francis paused for a considerable amount of time before adding, “I also haven’t threatened him the way others have, here. He knows precisely where he stands with me, therefore there is an even ground despite his situation.”

            “How does it make you feel to have that sort of consideration from him?”

            Francis very much wanted to squirm, but he held still. This was a test, as much a test as any other test he’d ever taken, and Francis was rather good at what he did –lying, conveying something that was or was not real for the sake of his own survival.

            “Respected.”

            Hannibal had a way of looking at people that told you precisely what he thought of you. The look he gave Francis was much the same look that he’d always given him –a thoughtful, amused expression, like he wasn’t quite what Hannibal had ever expected him to be. An accomplishment, all things considered. Hannibal, despite having his plans, loved to be surprised by people.

            “It must be overwhelming to finally have the chance to see him so closely after so many years of watching from a distance,” Hannibal said at last. It was, in his own way, a jab. Francis took it with the necessary grace. He’d been the one to keep tabs on Will, the one to keep him safe from harm or danger while Hannibal was locked up. Despite it being his job, it granted him a sort of knowledge, intimacy that no matter how he described it to Hannibal, Dr. Lecter would never be privy to.

            He thought of the few and rare times he’d seen him smile –those memories were locked away, tucked deep within the recesses of his own memories that no one could ever take from him.

            “He is still interesting,” Francis agreed, “despite the veneer of distance being stripped away. Not handsome, but…purposeful. Each action has a direct meaning and intent.”

            “Continue to keep a close eye on him for me,” Hannibal said, and he turned to take a sip of tea. “Ensure things continue with Matthew in a healthy, smooth manner that follows a natural rivalry.”

            Francis nodded curtly, once.

            “And Saul?”

            Hannibal sighed softly. “I’ll think on that matter with careful consideration. He does have a soulmate underneath our roof, after all.”

            Francis liked Beverly far better when she wasn’t around Saul. She was far more capable without the dead weight. Saul had been necessary at first, but a mistake like this…

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Perhaps it will be a test of her faith in our actions, that she should be the one to decide what should be done with him,” Hannibal murmured, and there was the barest twitch of a smile at his lips. “We’ll see.”

            “We’ll see,” Francis agreed.

            In truth, he hoped that if given the information, Beverly would turn and gut her soulmate for his transgression, but he wasn’t going to get his hopes up.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14:

            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.

            “Kelly?”

            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?

            “Yes.”

            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.”

            “Kelly-”

            “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?”

            “Yes.”

            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.

            “I’m sorry.”

            “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.

            “That so?”

            “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.”

            “Agent Starling-”

            “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.

            “That so?”

            “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.”

            “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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15:

            That night, long after he heard the clattering of dinner plates and laughter, long after he heard music and chatter, and far long after he heard doors closing, showers running, and feet mumbling, Will Graham left his room. It had been locked, but the gum did its job and kept the bolt from setting. A mere fiddling with the ink cartridge of his pen did the rest of the job, and the lock turned with a muted, triumphant click.

            His feet padded along the soft carpet that muffled his steps, and the solidly built stairs didn’t betray him. He paused before the front door, staring. Every muscle in him begged him to go to it, begged him to throw the locks and make a break for it until he could find a road and a good Samaritan to help him.

            He didn’t, though.

            Just how many stalked the trees surrounding the house? Just how many cameras were on every angle he could take to escape? He thought of Matthew knowing the moment he’d tried to run, and he rocked back on his heels, away from the door.

            Instead, he made his way down another hall and headed towards the security room.

            He didn’t expect it to be empty. No matter how many slept, Dr. Lecter was no fool. Sure enough, poking his head in, he saw Francis beside one of the monitors. His back was to Will, but that didn’t stop him from seeing the antenna of a satellite phone that cut into the shadows of the room, nor did it stop him from seeing the map lit dimly by a few desk lamps and the monitor’s glow.

            “You got the voicemail? Good. He’s getting desperate.”

            A pause as Dolarhyde listened to the speaker.

            “The man whose phone was bugged got transferred. I’ve got another guy, but he’s not there yet. Dr. Lecter needs you to find out exactly what they know so far, that we can plan the next step.”

            Another pause, and Will swallowed, a dry click in his throat.

            “You don’t need to know how many dead. You’ll see soon enough.”

            He hung up and set the phone off to the side, beside the monitor. There was a pause, a long and dreadful silence as Dolarhyde stared down at the monitor. The lamplight gave his bones a sharp edge, his mouth a cruel twist. The hollows of his cheeks were pronounced, the curve of his shoulder elegant.

            Truth be told, he looked like a dragon.

            Will slipped down the hall and hunkered down in a corner of it, melding himself into the shadows. From his pocket, he produced a hairclip, nothing more than one of the things he’d found in one of the many bedrooms. Decidedly, and with a fair amount of careful aim, he tossed it at the door. It smacked the wood, fell with a quiet and plaintive thump.

            It took less than two seconds.

            Dolarhyde was at the door, his sharp gaze peering into the dark. The light behind him gave him an ethereal glow as he turned his head one way, then another. Even hidden as Will was, he still felt too exposed, far too noticeable as Dolarhyde took one step, then another out of the door his nose to the air like he could smell Will if he tried hard enough.

            After a pained, loud heartbeat, Dolarhyde turned away from Will and headed down the hall to investigate.

            The moment he was gone, Will rushed into the room.

            The satellite phone was first, although he paused long enough by the computer to glance at it.

Thirty-Two Dead in Will Graham Killing Spree:

The Faces of Will Graham: Dozens Dead in Lecter Slayings

Where is Will Graham?

            News updates. Links to articles. Dolarhyde was watching the media as much as he was trying to watch the FBI. If time hadn’t been a rapid pulse bulging right beneath his eye, Will would have stopped to read them, glean over the first one in particular –thirty-two dead? Will Graham Killing Spree?

            Another time; some time when Dolarhyde wasn’t hunting through the house to see who lurked outside of his door at 3:30 in the morning.

            The back door was quickly unlocked, and he was rushing down the steps before he had time to really consider his actions, before he could wonder just what was going to happen when he was caught.

            Fingers fumbled over a phone number he’d come to memorize over the years, a failsafe to him in times of need or duress. He hadn’t had occasion to use it in six years, normal as things had seemed, but he used it now, running across the back lawn to the safety of the shadows of trees. The air was cold, wet. Cicadas screamed for their lives.

            He didn’t answer the first two times, and Will let out a hiss of impatient air as he dialed it again. If he’d risked his live, if he’d risked his fucking life just for the bastard to ignore his call…

            “Crawford here,” Jack said tiredly.

            Relief seared him, a pleasant burn that made his legs give, and Will pressed his back to the tree, a sob managing to rip past his lips.

            “Jack…Jesus, you finally picked up.” Will let out a sharp, aggravated breath of air as he hunched down, cradling the phone close to his face like the lifeline that it was. “Jack…it’s Will.”

-

            “Cold as shit out here,” Duncan commented.

            Earl swirled his spit around in his mouth before he spat it on the ground before them. Their rocking chairs creaked out of time, and the autumn breeze sent the wind chimes to clacking and smacking together in a horrendous cacophony. Late evening, and the crickets yowled.

            “Hate them wind chimes,” Earl muttered. “Debbie likes them.”

            Duncan grunted. “Debbie likes being a pain in my ass.”

            “Yeah,” Earl said with a snort.

            “Yeah.”

            They stared out at the road, the distant sound of semi-trucks roaring by on the interstate their only companion. It was quiet in Lamar County, peaceful. Sunsets were mighty nice.

            Cold as shit, though.

            “She gonna make us come out here every time we chew?” Duncan asked.

            “Says she wants her house ‘to be a fuckin’ home’.”

            “I’ll show her a fuckin’ home. God damned forty-five fuckin’ degrees out here.”

            “She’ll slap you with the barrel of that shotgun in there, that’s what she’ll do,” Earl replied. “Did it to her brother just the other night, came home drunk and shouting.”

            “No shit?”

            “Slapped him with the barrel of that sum’bitch, tossed him outside to sleep out here.”

            “All ‘cause she found those church folks,” Duncan muttered. “God damn pastor coming around every other weekday. ‘Askin me, when I’m gonna get my ass to the pews? Bein’ a veteran an’ all, when’s my ass gonna warm a pew?” He sent a decisive wad of spit out onto the dirt; a complimentary response to a ridiculous notion as a Sunday morning sermon. “I serve my God’n my country, ‘n I figure I find God in more holier places than a church. Get my spir’tual en-light-ment from the forest, see.”

            Earl hummed in agreement. “More’n one way to skin a cat. More’n one way to love a God.”

            “Got damn eight AM service, wantin’ me to slap my ass on a cold pew,” Duncan continued. When he got on a roll, it was hard to deter him. “Cold as shit pew.”

            “Better them church folks than those god damn psychos running up and down the east coast,” Earl said. He watched his old dog, Mutt, lazily crawl out from under the house in order to plop himself properly at his master’s feet. He nudged him with his boot, rubbed the dog’s side with the heel of it. His tongue lolled as his tail whapped against the wood.

            “Saw that,” Duncan said with a sneer. “Bunch of crazies with their panties in a damn knot, stealin’ them doctors and killing cops.”

            Earl spat on the ground. “God damn cop killers.”

            “Death penalty for cop killers is what I’m saying,” Duncan pressed. “That’s all I’m sayin’, they won’t stop killing if they think they’ll just get a slap on the wrist. They’ll just keep killin’ cops, and I heard that doctor was a nice fellow; testified on account of his finding one of those agents and all. Saved his life since he got stuck with a knife.”

            Earl was stopped from sharing his own opinion on the fate of cop killers when a car pulled up in their yard and eased to a stop. It was a fancy sort of thing, black with chrome accents and tinted windows. The man that climbed out of it looked the real city sort; slicked back hair, leather dress shoes, and a blazer of all the god damn things.

            “Good evening, gentlemen,” he greeted.

            Earl and Duncan shared a look. Duncan spat on the ground, and Earl rocked in his rocking chair.

            “It’s a nice night, isn’t it?” the man pressed.

            “Cold as shit,” Duncan grunted. “Forty-five fuckin’ degrees.”

            “It is chilly.”

            Silence. The car idled, and Earl wondered what sort of year it was. 2015? 2017? His cousin had a really nice Subaru, 2015 with a decent paint job.

            Duncan didn’t have such curiosities. “You lost there, boy?”

            “I am a bit turned around, yes,” the man said with an awkward laugh. “Would you mind giving me directions?”

            “You ain’t from around here, are yeh,” Earl noted.

            “No, sir, I’m not.”

            “What’s a boy like you doing out here? Where you headed?”

            “It’s a bit personal –I hope you understand.”

            Duncan and Earl exchanged looks, and Duncan snickered. Earl absently spit another wad out into the yard.

            “Oh, I understand just fine,” Duncan assured him.

            Silence once more. The man shifted, unsure of himself. Mutt huffed a breath and lifted his head, only now just recognizing a stranger in the yard. He peered up at Earl, as if silently questioning if he should do something about it.

            “Oh, you see it now, do you, Mutt?” Earl grunted. He nudged the dog affectionately and swirled the chew around in his mouth. Tasted like ass, but he’d eat his leg rather than give it up.

            “Really, gentlemen, if I could just-”

            “We don’t take kindly to strangers just hustlin’ along and getting right in our business, see?” Duncan said. He stood up and adjusted his pants, hitching them up at his hips. “So you just get along now and go buy one of them maps at a gas station like all the other folks do when they get lost down here.”

            “Damn Yankees,” Earl muttered in agreement.

            The man was dumbfounded, and he looked between the two of them with the same kind of expression Debbie had when she went to throw a cup away and splashed chew all over her arm. She hadn’t realized it was his chewing cup ‘till that moment, but god almighty he’d never heard the end of it. Now, he was stuck outside in the cold-as-shit weather when he wanted a chew.

            The stranger’s eyes bugged for a moment, and he let out a laugh, incredulous as all get out.

            “You’re serious.”

            “As serious as sin, boy,” Earl said. “Got all them crazies runnin’ around our state, fuckin’ things up and makin’ us get some bad publicity. Last thing we need’s a Yankee boy comin’ down here, huntin’ and gettin’ lost and comin’ after our women.”

            “I’m here on business, it’s simply that-”

            “Lamar County business is our business, see,” Duncan interjected. “And since you’re inclined to your secrets, we’ll be inclined to ours. Secrets like directions, see?”

            Silence again.

            Earl squinted a bit at him, and when the stranger didn’t immediately move to leave, he stood up and went shoulder to shoulder with Duncan, giving him his most impressive stare down. It was a damn good one, all things considered. Farm work and ranch work had left him leathered, sun-beaten and wrinkled. Debbie still liked him, though, when she’d had one shot too many. She said he was a pretty as a newborn babe.

            Now that all those bible thumpers got her roped into weekly church, she didn’t drink no more. Probably didn’t think he was a pretty newborn babe, neither. God damn bible thumpers.

            “I’ll…be going, then,” the man said. He inched back towards his car.

            “That’s the best idea I’ve heard today, Earl.”

            “A damn fine idea, Duncan.”

            They stayed standing until the man peeled out from the yard, fast enough that it kicked rocks.

            They were just sitting down once more when another car pulled up, far less fancy and with a great deal more sputtering and general noise-making.

            “God damn, we’re popular tonight,” Duncan grunted.

            Earl fished about for another wad of chew, then tucked it into his lip. “Damn popular.”

            It wasn’t another Yankee –if it was, they were a decent sort. A pretty lady with wild red hair and the most darling baby blue eyes Earl had ever seen made her way over. She’d turned the car off and tucked the keys into her jacket pocket. Sensible shoes and a camo coat, like she knew how the hell to dress for the elements. Earl liked her infinitely better.

            “I’m sorry to bother you,” she began. The closer she got, Earl was able to see red-rimmed eyes and a trembling mouth.

            “You okay, sweetheart?” Duncan asked.

            “No, I’m…I’m not at all. I’m in desperate need of help, you see.” She fiddled with a handkerchief in hand, and she stifled a sob as her knees tried to buckle on her. At the sight of tears, that did it. Earl was down the steps and leading her up them before he could think of a reason why not to. She was seated in his rocking chair, and after several prompts to Earl, a sweet tea from the fridge was produced.

            “Now, now take it easy, little lady, what’s wrong? Someone get you bad? In some trouble?” Duncan asked. The woman fiddled with the glass and took a sip, casting them a grateful glance. Tears rimmed her eyes, although she fought to keep them back. A strong type.

            “I’m…trying to find my husband, you see,” she said. “I think he’s run off with another woman.”

            “What a got-damn, worthless-”

            “Duncan,” Earl chastised. It wasn’t right to cuss near a lady.

            “Sorry, miss, I just…if he’s left you, why are you going after him?” Duncan scratched his neck where the beginnings of a beard were growing. “Why you want him when, no offenses out here, but he clearly ain’t wantin’ you?”

            She looked up from her glass, and there was fire in her eyes. “So I can beat the sense into him, then out of him, that’s why,” she snarled.

            Earl decided he liked this gal. A sensitive sort that didn’t take shit from no one.

            “Well, we don’t get a lot of people out around here.”

            “I’ve been following him, and I think he passed this way. If I showed you a photo, could you confirm it?”

            “If we’ve seen him, we’ll tell you,” Earl promised.

            And damn, when she pulled out her phone and showed them a picture of that guy they’d just been shooing off their property, it just made Earl’s heart swell a bit. He looked over her head at Duncan, and Duncan looked back.

            “Yeah, sweetheart,” Duncan said with a grin, “yeah, we seen him.”

-

            “Have you ever thought about killing someone, Dr. Lecter?” Will asked.

            He sometimes loved asking questions like that, mostly because of how Dr. Lecter took his time answering. He always gave Will’s question consideration due their seriousness. No matter how odd, off-the-wall, or obscene, he took his time answering. On nights when Will woke up with remnants of his night terrors clinging to his eyes, he needed to know that someone else out there felt that way, too.

            “We all have,” he said after a moment. “Although, I’d suppose you’ve given it a lot of thought lately?”

            “I keep dreaming of killing people,” Will murmured. “I keep…dreaming that I have this…insatiable hunger. That no matter how much I kill, I will always want more.”

            “Have you given your father a lot of thought lately?”

            Will nodded, standing up to pace. He often paced in Lecter’s office, and he liked to think of himself as remarkably familiar with the whorls and dips of his wooden floor. Sometimes the words got stuck, but Dr. Lecter seemed to hear them all the same.

            “Is there some form of aggression to your dreams? In the manner in which you take a life?”

            “My heartbeat feels calm…steady. It doesn’t race until I wake and think back on what I saw.”

            Will paused beside the ladder that led up to a wraparound second story, and he dragged his fingers along the grips of a step. In each groove of the wood, he imagined blood flowing like obscene rivulets, staining everything in its wake. He imagined what his hands had felt like, choking the life from the faceless victim in his nightmares, and he slumped against the ladder, rubbing his eyes to erase the remnants that felt like something much akin to a real memory.

            “In your dreams, death is a release. You’ve honed in on your talents, so much so that your heart no longer betrays adrenaline and gives way to mistakes.”

            “Do you have dreams like that?” Will asked, looking up. Poised in his chair as he was, Dr. Lecter tilted his head slightly to the side.

            “Are you seeking the feeling of normalization through familiarity?”

            “I’m wondering if I should check myself into a psychiatric ward,” Will retorted sharply.

            Dr. Lecter stood, and he crossed the distance between them at a leisurely pace. Will tracked his movements, hands lowering to his sides, and when Dr. Lecter dipped down to meet his eyes, he cringed back into the ladder, the closeness stifling and mildly off-putting.

            Dr. Lecter didn’t move back to give him space. He remained close, crowding him as he tilted his head one way, then the other; His eyes narrowed, and his lips pressed down. That close, Will could smell his cologne that blended nicely with his aftershave, and he gulped a breath of it down before his shoulders relaxed slowly, centimeter by centimeter. Silence sat muffled around them, and just outside of the window, the screech of a weed-whacker grated.

            “Apart from your general aversion to eyes, I see no glazed expression or feverish stare,” Dr. Lecter noted lightly. “Your pulse is strong in your neck, and your knees aren’t weak. You aren’t running a temperature that I can see, and you haven’t mentioned lapses of time.”

            “Wh-Why?” Will asked. Dr. Lecter didn’t step back to give him air. Will gulped down another mouthful of his cologne, and his eyes flickered up to meet a mildly amused gaze. After a shaky exhale, he looked away.

            “You wondered if you should check yourself into a psychiatric ward,” he murmured. That close, Will could track the beat of his pulse at his throat. He stared at it, the even timing of it having a mildly calming effect on his nerves. “You give no indications of a split personality, nor any illness that would cause loss of memory or lapses in time.”

            “I haven’t lost time.”

            “Have you woken in any location other than your bed?”

            “…No?”

            Hannibal smiled briefly, a faint flash of canines. “Then you’re fine, Will. Dreams reflect some aspect of ourselves, but all that this tells me is that you’re particularly stressed, and it’s manifesting in your dreams. You’ve thought often of your father recently, and the only form of control over death one can have is if they are the one to cause it, therefore; it seems to me that your fantasies of a calm, stillness to your killing is that this is the only thing your mind feels that it can control. Life, with all of inability to be predicted, is made safe and normalized with your ability to still your heart when taking a life. Better to take than to have taken.”

            Will looked up to his eyes once more, and he nodded curtly, once. Relief was a slow trickle, but it was warm, and Dr. Lecter’s answering smile as he finally backed away and let Will breathe stayed sweet in the back of his throat.

            “…That’s a relief,” he said after a beat, straightening. The ladder shifted behind him, and he pushed away from it to continue his previous pacing. “I don’t know how I’d fare in court.”

            “If it turned out that you’d killed someone?”

            “Yeah. I don’t know the statistics for a solid defense in regards to someone claiming an alternate personality, but I’d assume that the jury wouldn’t buy that so easily.”

            Hannibal laughed, a warm and low sound. “You know the statistics for soulmates in court, though.”

            Will let out a derisive snort.

            “You scoff at it?”

            “Someone…claiming that because of their soulmate, they were driven to violence is about the shittiest excuse I can think of,” Will explained. “Soulmates aren’t the end-all. They may prompt, they may entice, and they may twist your thoughts and chemicals up a bit, but you don’t lose your mind. To say that a soulmate was the cause of any actions done by a person would be like saying that they’d put a gun to your head.”

            “You’d be especially critical of a person with a half-connection, then,” Hannibal observed.

            “There is no chemical compulsion at that point. The justice system is especially skewed in regards to soulmates, but I don’t buy it. At all.”

            ‘Woe be to the fool that stands before you in trial.”

            Will sat down across from him once more, and the smile given was crooked at best. “I’m no judge…nor am I the jury or the executioner. If I’m lucky, I’ll never even have to walk into a court room so long as I live.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 16:    

            “Will? Will, thank God.”

            Something clattered to the ground on the other line, and Will smiled, an ugly, triumphant twist of his lips. The leaves were cold on his butt, but he hunkered down further into them rather than cringe away, to better keep himself as small as possible.

            “Yeah. I’m not dead.” A pause. “…Yet.”

            “Where are you, Will? Let me get someone, see if I can trace this-”

            “I don’t have much time before they realize I took their phone, so you have to listen to me, okay Jack? You gotta listen to me.”

            “Fuck, Will, I’m listening.” The weight of relief in his voice was tangible through the phone. Will felt it curl into his ear, nestling deep and bolstering him. He wasn’t going to be left. Jack was somehow going to find him.

            “I’m sure you figured out I’m in Georgia, and that’s true. Very rural, lots of deciduous trees. He’s got a cult of psychopaths, Jack, if you manage to find this place you’ll need to come in with a full group. Check out his cousin, it’s in their name –whoever the hell they are.”

            “How many?”

            “Over thirty, last I counted. I haven’t seen them all together yet.”

            “Are they hurting you, Will?”

            “One of them wants to –shit, that’s not important right now, Jack,” Will scrubbed his face, fingernails digging into the soft spot of his eyelids. “Look, whoever you’ve reached out to in the last few days, whoever you’re asking for, they’re working with Lecter. They’ve got an in at the FBI.”

            “Shit, are you-”

            “These guys all think Lecter is their leader, their…’friend’; that he’s going to help them nurture this love of killing, this…” He gritted his teeth, fingers digging into the phone. “Jack, I know why he was after me. Why he let me live.”

            “What’s he planning for you, Will?”

            “He had a half connection to me this entire time, Jack, since the first fucking week we met. That’s why he didn’t kill me, that’s why he’s abducted me. He’s trying to force a staggered connection.”

            Static crackled in his ear as Jack exhaled a breath of air. Far-fetched, he knew, but it was the truth. Will blinked, and he could see Jack laying on the hospital bed, wan but alive. Delirious but altogether whole. Grainy, distorted, like a photograph that aged poorly under bad conditions and neglect. Huddled against the rough bark of the tree, Will thought of the first time he’d been able to see Jack awake just after Hannibal had tried to murder him for getting too close.

            “You were right, you know,” Will said as conversationally as he could. He stared intently at the square tile that his foot rested on. He didn’t like seeing Agent Crawford like this.

            “Right?”

            “When you asked me if he ever cannibalized anyone. I should have listened to you then.”

            “It would have come across as far-fetched to anyone,” Jack managed when he could get the breath out.

            “Next time you tell me something that sounds remotely ridiculous, I’ll believe you.”

            “I appreciate that, Will.” Jack managed a smile. “If you ever come to me with something as asinine as what I first said when I came to you, I’ll believe you, too.”

            “Is this asinine enough?” Will asked dryly.

            “Will…Will, we’re going to get you out of there, you understand me? We’re not going to let him do that to you. I’m not going to let that fucker do that to you.”

            Will laughed a little, stifled and wheezing. “It’s got a less than one percent chance, Jack. That’s not…that’s not my concern, really, at this moment.”

“What are you concerned about, Will?” Jack asked incredulously. “What else could you possibly be concerned about? Are you in a place where you can run right now? Can you run, Will?”

            “I could, but that’ll split them up, won’t it?” Will asked. “Some come after me, some stay, then you maybe only catch half. If I leave, too, he’ll start hurting people, unless –Jack, are they hurting people?”

            “Will-”

            “Are they…hurting other people?” Will repeated, insistent. “They’re hurting other people right now?”

            “Yes,” said Jack reluctantly.

            “What are they doing? Who are they targeting?”

            “That’s not your concern at this moment, Will; let’s focus on what you do know, see if I can get a closer mark on where you’re at, okay? What do you know?”

            “Matthew Brown is a Sherriff in the neighboring town, a Randall Tier was running around the forest trying to eat me.”

            “Trying to eat you?”

            “I’d look at his past patients, maybe people he was able to twist and manipulate. Maybe he got so far into their heads that when you found him out, they couldn’t reconcile it. If you know the people here, then maybe you can trace one of them to him.”

            “Will,” Jack pressed, and Will fell silent. He listened to the cicadas screaming, wondering when it’d get so cold they were silenced. Frogs made a mellow baritone that curled just underneath the notes, softening them but only just.

            “…Yeah, Jack?”

            “I’m going to get you out of there, okay? You believe that, right?”

            Will believed it, although he wasn’t quite sure what state he’d be in when it happened. “…Yeah, Jack. I believe it.”

            “I won’t let him get in your head; I won’t let him get your eyes.”

            “You remember when I first met Bella, and I told you it was the first time that a soulmate didn’t sound so bad?”

            “I remember.”

            Will nodded, digging the phone into his ear. “You two weren’t so bad together, like I’ve seen other soulmates. You two didn’t seem to…cling like your life depended on it.”

            “Bella told me to get you home soon, and I will.”

            “How bad is the distance? You in a lot of pain, Jack?”

            “Don’t worry about that, Will.”

            “Do you have Winston?” Will asked. He needed to hear it, as much as he had enough trust to know Jack wouldn’t let him get carted off to the pound. “Do you have him?”

            “Dr. Bloom took him in because I’m traveling, but he’s okay. She’s taking good care of him.”

            “Good…good. Tell her I’m sorry.” A pause as he licked his lips. “I’m thankful for it, but I’m sorry.”

            “Don’t worry about that either, Will. Dr. Bloom will be alright. Can you think of anything, anything else? Anything I can use to find you?”

            “They’ve repossessed a lot of Lecter’s paintings, furniture, and I think that-”

            Jack wouldn’t find out what Will thought, though. Without warning, he was grabbed by the collar of his shirt and hauled around the tree, the back of his head smacking against it. In his surprise he dropped the phone, and as stars burst across his eyes, he was hauled up in order to stare Francis Dolarhyde right in his furious, dark gaze.

            “Will? What was that, Will?”

            Will groaned in pain, disorienting as it was, and his head lolled back against the trunk of the tree to brace him. While he wasn’t a small man, Dolarhyde held him like he weighed nothing at all, a mere pound of fluff in the wake of his fury.

            “Will, god dammit, answer me!”

            Even if he heard what Jack was shouting into the earpiece, he couldn’t have answered. The faint lights from the inside of the house bled out into the darkness, made Dolarhyde’s eyes black as pitch, murderous as he uttered a guttural, enraged snarl.

            “He can’t protect you if you put yourself in harm’s way, Mr. Graham,” he growled, shaking him.

            Will struggled, kicking out at him to no avail. He hadn’t thought Dolarhyde was much taller than him, but as his legs dangled nearly a foot off of the ground, he reconsidered. Just at their feet, still open to the call, Jack Crawford’s voice was tinny, crackly; far too distorted to make out.

            “You…shouldn’t have done that,” Dolarhyde said slowly. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

            “Put me down, Agent Dolarhyde,” Will urged. He wished he could have made his tone more convincing rather than afraid. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”

            “I’m trying to protect you, and you’re making it difficult.”

            “I’m sorry,” said Will, and he pitched his voice, low and insistent. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

            Francis’ face contorted, became something sinister and cruel as he slammed Will against the tree. His head bounced back against the bark and lolled. Bright lights exploded then lazily spun across his eyes. “I can’t…always…contain The Dragon, Mr. Graham. You have to help me.”

            “I’ll help,” Will promised. The back of his skull ached, and he blinked black spots from the corner of his vision. “I’ll help, Agent Dolarhyde.”

            Wham.

            “Who did you call?”

            Will hissed, groaned. “I…called…I called Dr. Bloom.”

            Wham.

            “Don’t. Lie. To. Me.”

            “I-I did! She’s taking care of Winston, Francis. You didn’t get Winston when you took me, and she has him,” Will urged the words from his lips, clumsy and stupid as they were. They couldn’t know he was talking to Jack Crawford. They couldn’t know. They couldn’t know.

            Wham.

            “Do you know how hard it is to contain him when you do this, Mr. Graham?”

            Will wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It was difficult enough trying to blink the shadows out of his vision, let alone focus enough on Francis to reply. The back of his skull burned, scalded, and at the base of his neck he felt something wet.

            “You don’t…you don’t want to hurt me,” he managed, but it was a lie, wasn’t it? He could see his eyes, see the way the pupil disappeared into the iris, eating at everything in its wake. Francis wanted to hurt him, wanted to hurt something. God it was so dizzying to speak. He dipped and swayed with the curving world, but when he blinked again, he hadn’t moved at all. He lolled limply in Francis’ grip, pinned between him and an unforgiving hard place.

            “Don’t I?” Dolarhyde whispered. “Don’t I want to Change you?”

            “No, Francis, you don’t,” said Will.

            Wham.

            “Fuck,” he spit out, and his head bobbed sloppily, falling against Dolarhyde’s shoulder. “If you do, Dr. Lecter won’t be pleased. He’ll be upset that you killed his…s-soulmate.”

            The words were splinters coming out, cutting gums and lips. It seemed to work, though; there was another lurching, spinning sensation, and Will found himself on two feet once more, though they buckled underneath him. He slumped back against the tree, breaths ragged and torn, dragging against the air around him. He was more than aware of the line he walked at that moment, the space between life and death.

            His heart hammered with it; his bones ached with it.

            “Don’t…don’t make The Great Red Dragon come out, Mr. Graham,” Francis said. His enraged voice had softened, but only just. “I can’t protect you if you make him come out.”

            Will managed a jerky, disjointed nod. “Okay, Francis.”

            The phone at their feet lay in silence. Francis stooped down, scooped it up, and shut it with a decisive snap!

            “Come back to the house,” he urged. “Go to bed.”

            It took far longer than it should have for him to gather his feet underneath him to go. Each step pounded in his skull, hammered just at the back of it, and when he stepped inside, he had to stop to lean against the wall, waiting for nausea to pass. Francis followed, a half-step away from him.

            “I can take care of your wound,” he offered –dare Will call his tone kindness?

            Will gritted his teeth and shook his head. He didn’t want Francis’ hands all over him.

            “I’ll take care of it, Francis.”

            The sudden sound of Molly’s voice wasn’t soothing. It was a safer option than Francis, though, and when Will managed to look up, he fixated on her with the intent of someone that was very likely to vomit soon. The lamplight above gave her the visage of an angel, although the darkness beyond her gaped open like the gates to hell.

            “Thank you, Molly.” Francis said.

            “You’re welcome.” A beat. “Good night, Francis.”

            Molly strode forward and caught Will before he could slump over. She ducked underneath his arm, and with far too much help from her strength, Will was led up to his room.

            He was deposited on the edge of the tub, and a medic kit was produced. He obediently sat still as she washed and cleaned the open wound on his head, her hands meticulous and cold. He thought of hands that warmed him, took hold of his skin and lit it on fire. He thought of hands that sought his out, even as he tried to walk away, even as he tried to distance himself. Molly’s hands were a thing of power, how they carved through the air when she spoke passionately, how they turned out in supplication when she needed him. They were cold, now. Cold and stinging against his skin, but at least he could say that he had the truth. Molly’s hands were cold, and he’d just narrowly missed being murdered by Francis Dolarhyde’s apparent alternate personality.

            “Was it worth it?” she asked coldly. Her voice punctured the silence.

            “…Yes.”

            “Who’d you call?”

            “I wanted to know that Winston was safe.”

            He stifled a grunt of pain as she pressed gauze tight against his head. Arcs of light crossed his vision, and he had to focus for several moments before they went away, leaving him leaning back against her rather than fall onto the tiled floor. The nausea rose, then passed.

            “You didn’t call to find out about Winston,” she said sharply. Rather than shove him off of her, Molly held very, very still. “You’re many things, Will, but you’re not stupid. You wouldn’t risk yourself for that, no matter what you told him.”

            “How long has Francis had that alternate personality? The Great Red Dragon?”

            “…As long as I’ve known him,” Molly replied. “Probably longer.”

            Will hmm’d and stared off to the wall where a painting of a lighthouse had been framed beside artfully folded, decorative towels. “Was it that easy to lie to me for so long, Molly?”

            “I didn’t lie, Will. I care about you, even when you do stupid and dangerous things.”

            “Was it an order for you to sleep with me, or was that just a bonus?”

            Molly sighed, and it was the same sigh as the one she’d given him when he first found out that he’d been abducted. When she first realized the gig was up. “You can care about someone and still do awful things to them. You cared about me, but you kept leaving me.”

            “So you admit that bringing me here at gun point was an awful idea?”

            She laughed and slid fingers through his hair, minding the gauze she’d taped to the back of his skull. Rather than berate him, she wrapped an arm around him and held him close against her, back to chest so that he couldn’t see the expression on her face.

            “Have you ever killed anyone, Molly?” he asked. “With our without Dr. Lecter’s apparent mind-controlling capabilities that send dozens of psychopaths to his beck and call?”

            “No.” She exhaled slowly, her breathing just calming and even enough that he found himself trying to mimic it. Soothing. Real. It could have been like before, except it wasn’t.

            “You would, though,” Will said bitterly. “For Hannibal Lecter.”

            She tensed against him, and she slid her palm across his chest until she pressed it flat to his heart, timing the beats. He thought of warm hands; the promise of a safe place, a shelter from the storm. He thought of cold nights where they lay close together, when he’d occasionally lift the barrier between his mind and hers and share just how messed up inside he really was. Her warm hands would cradle his face, and she’d reassure him that she was there. She cared, and she was there.

            Her hand against his heartbeat was cold. Clinical. No remnants of what they once were.

            “Don’t piss off Francis, Will,” she chided, pressing her palm to his skin like a brand. “He may care about you, but The Great Red Dragon is only interested in eating you alive.”

-

            Lloyd Bowman wasn’t the sort of man that sat before a computer and played God. He was no hacker, no master of decryption or keeper of binary. His expertise lay more in analyzing the written word; papers, textures, sounds, inflections. At his art, he was a ruler, an unstoppable force that found success in the smallest grains of pressed and dried pulp, and he wasn’t so humble that he couldn’t admit it.

            For his plans, though, he needed someone with a far more digital touch. Nick Douglas, spurned ex-student of the FBI, as well as the lovely carrier of the title of Lloyd’s nephew, was much better at such a trade.

            “See, your problem is that you’re trying to glean clues from a group that’s not really trying to make a message,” the guy said. Over the mic and headset, his voice was grainy.

            “They’re not making a message, they’re causing chaos.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” Nick agreed, and there was the crinkling sound of a pop tart wrapper rustling against the mic. “Shit, that went down my shirt –anyway, really what I figured is he’s gotta be recruiting somehow. This ain’t the sixties where you gotta knock on doors to share your message, you know?”

            “Yes. To remain undetected, he needed computer access. He had help with that, though; the facility didn’t give him personal access.”

            “Right, your FBI guy, your hospital men. Shit, you could still have people running around the HQ with your name on their list, right? Who knows just who is working for Lecter, right?”

            “Right.”

            “So I’m thinking, maybe I find Dolarhyde’s trail online or any of his accomplices –what’s that you said? Yancy? Katz?”

            “Saul Yancy and Beverly Katz may be the easiest to trace, as they’re soulmates. Usually soulmates join some form of online group or listing, or they’d previously joined a site to find one another.”

            “People do that?” he asked, surprised.

            “Yes, soulmate dating sites are common.”

            There was a pause as Nick turned those words around thoughtfully. Just around the sound of his chewing, there was the thoughtful tapping of keys from his computer.

            “Huh.” There was another pause. “Yeah, Lloyd, you’re right. I mean, there’s twenty right here, first hit. Websites to find your ‘one and only and more’. What’s the more, Lloyd?”

            “Doesn’t matter what the more is.”

            “I mean, but what’s more than your ‘one and only’?”

            “Bottom line,” Lloyd said, redirecting, “if you can trace them somehow, it may be easier than trying to track Dolarhyde. He’d know how to cover his tracks online.”

            “He might know how to cover his tracks, but no one hides from me. You know that.”

            Lloyd Bowman knew that, as did a particular section of the government database. Nick Douglas had been a promising student at the academy until he found his way into a couple of places digitally that he had no business being in. Once was a happy accident, but four times…

            “I read Masque of the Red Death, but there’s nothing that really stands out as to what they’d do with it,” Lloyd mused aloud. “It comes across as more convenient rather than honestly basing an entire belief system off of the works and ideology as Poe.”

            There was the obnoxious sound of slurping through a plastic cup and straw. “Well, that’s if Lecter believes that shit. Maybe he’s got goals that don’t coincide with what his followers believe.”

            That struck Lloyd, shook him past the frustration of having to hear the sounds of chewing right in his ear. Nick likely had a headset on with the mic directly beside his mouth.

            “Say that again?”

            “This site charges ten dollars a week! Their claim is that they’ll only charge you once since they’ll find a soulmate within that first week, but still. They can’t be that good, can they?”

            “Nick,” Lloyd groused.

            “Sorry, sorry, I mean ‘maybe he’s got goals that don’t coincide with what his followers believe.’ That’s what you wanted, right? You wanted that repeated?”

            Lloyd let those words tumble about, locking into place with slow, easy precision.

            “He wouldn’t divulge his plans to them necessarily. He’d likely say whatever he needed to in order to keep them compliant. He’d make up whatever rhetoric fit at the time, and use them as a means to his end.”

            “So…what’s his end, then? Right now he’s got chaos, mayhem, kidnapping, attempted murder –so far your guy Zeller is still alive, thought you’d want to know –actual murder, escape from custody, arson, and a few other things tucked into his belt. He’s got Graham –presumably alive –and he’s got you in hiding. What’s his end goal? When’s this nut-case going to call it quits and toss in the towel?”

            “Probably Jack Crawford. He gets Jack once and for all, kills off Graham while he’s at it, and he slips into the mist to never be seen again,” Lloyd said irritably. “Kill the followers, sew them all together into a big, giant ‘Fuck You’ for authorities to find once they hunt down his lair.”

            “You take your meds yet?” Nick asked.

            He hadn’t, busy as he was with his plans. Lloyd resolutely took his medicine and leaned back against the pillows with a grimace. The pills made him sleep, more often than not, which is why he put of taking them for as long as physically possible when one’s muscle wall was trying to knit itself back together. There were the faint sounds of keys clacking over the phone, followed by an obligatory slurping noise, then silence.

            “Find where they were recruiting people. Once you find it, find a way to drop that information off to Crawford –discreetly, Nick. Don’t leave a trail just to tease them. Give them the information then erase your online trail.”

            “You think I’ll find it before their computer hacks do?” Nick asked.

            “I know you will, which is why I contacted you.”

            “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Uncle Lloyd,” said Nick, sanguine-sweet.

            “Don’t call me that. It makes me feel old.”

            Nick laughed, and Lloyd pretended that this was nothing more than an obligatory call to check-in on his nephew. He didn’t have a photograph of his deceased sister to wearily stare at as he wondered the implications of what he was asking his family member to do, but he imagined her lurking just overhead, shaking a finger at him. Although she was the younger sister, she often acted as a mother, even when they’d been kids. He sighed, rubbed his face whose stubble was getting out of control, and he scowled at the phone.

            “Be careful,” he instructed curtly. “I mean it.”

            “You got it, boss. Might sign up for one of these couples sites too, while I’m at it.”

            “I don’t know if that’s-”

            “Done.” There was the rustling of wrappers, and a sniffle. “We’ll see if they can get me a soulmate out of this, and I get you an online trail to lead us right to Lecter –or at least his main men. How’s that for getting kicked out of the academy? Getting a soulmate and a hero complex isn’t so bad. Even if I work at Geek Squad part time.”

            Lloyd wasn’t quite sure what stock he put into online soulmate-search sites, but he wasn’t going to question it. Not if it made Nick feel marginally better about his doomed job at Geek Squad where he was kept at a measly twenty hours a week. Maybe Lloyd would call in a favor at a better-paying job, something to keep Nick out of trouble during daylight hours.

            Only time would tell if he’d live long enough to even make the call, let alone cajole Nick into taking the help, but one step at a time.

            One step at a time.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17:

            “You must have been very persuasive to convince Dr. Chilton to allow me into the only room he can’t legally bug,” Hannibal Lecter said, crossing one leg over the other.

            Francis Dolarhyde stared at the mask they’d strapped to his face, a precaution to keep him from biting. It made him think of dog muzzles, the kind used on the dog just down the road from his house that’d bitten an elderly woman when he was five or so.

            His cleft pallet had been so terrible then that when he’d tried to tell grandmother the story, he’d hissed and spit half of the words rather than tell them.

            “Ingenuity,” he said slowly, carefully.

            “Ingenuity and a friend, perhaps?”

            “…Perhaps.”

            They stared at one another, weighing, assessing. Dr. Lecter was quite fine to keep quiet, and Francis in the end only spoke because he was the one to first arrive and disrupt the doctor’s schedule for the sake of a conversation.

            “I’ve read your work in the journals,” he said at last. “It was riveting.”

            “Thank you.”

            “There was one…article where you focused particularly on aspects of death psychologically, and the different social behaviors dependent upon the culture. It appeared to have been edited in order to remove the more unsavory parts.”

            “It was,” Hannibal Lecter agreed. “You’re familiar with my work?”

            “I first read about you when I was in Quantico, working on profiling,” he affirmed lightly. “There was scene that you recreated that I found…fascinating.”

            “Which one?”

            “You redid The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun,” Francis recalled, and he paused to savor the image in his head, burned into his retinas, into his very skull it seemed. He’d dreamt it, pondered it, obsessed over it enough that it took little thought to bring it to the forefront of his mind. “The light that radiated from the woman you conveyed with Daffodils, and I thought the symbolism charming.”

            “Daffodils represent rebirth and new beginnings,” Hannibal Lecter replied. He had a soft, soothing tone, lulling and captivating. “Just what is your new beginning?”

            Not so much what he was trying to begin, but what he’d already done, already achieved with the sleepless nights and long periods where he found himself wandering, watching, reading, observing. The Great Red Dragon haunted him, chased him with its image, its truth and raw, all-encompassing, awakening of life and death held within his great jaws. How many times had he gleaned over every case note, ached to be seen and understood as he so did? Truly, did he sit across from the great Dr. Lecter and still remain in shrouded shadow?

            That would have to be remedied.

            “Your friends haven’t been entirely discreet, Dr. Lecter,” he said finally. “Matthew Brown has been recruiting online, and it pinged one of our watch towers. He was able to cover his tracks before one of the guys at HQ could track his IP successfully, but I later went back and decrypted his trail.”

            “Just who do you work for that gives you those capabilities, I wonder?”

            “Agent Crawford of the FBI,” Francis replied, and if he’d had the confidence then, he’d have smiled.

            Still, though, it was worth it; if anything, to see the tightening of the skin just around Hannibal Lecter’s eyes, the way his jaw shifted and set. Jack Crawford haunted Dr. Lecter, just as Francis had supposed.

            One didn’t often enjoy having their victim escape, after all.

            “He didn’t send you.”

            “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

            “Was your ingratiating of his circle an intentional act, I wonder?” Lecter mused. His body sat still, so very still, but his mouth moved with rapid twitches as he spoke, like he could hiss the words from his lips if he were just fast enough. “Or was it merely done to be placed before me as a token of good will, that you could accomplish this thing?”

            “I’d be an asset to you,” Francis said. “As I’ve already done what Matthew Brown couldn’t do.”

            “Which is?”

           “Covered and completely eradicated any traces of his actions online while he creates your fan club. Social media sites that give access if communicated in such a way as to show utmost interest after screenings, and access to independent militias that would have thorough knowledge of those that creep unknown throughout the United States. When certain persons of interest begin converging on a singular location, the government takes note, but I can help hide their movements. Your Matthew Brown is good at recruiting, but he’s not quite amassing a sturdy group, Dr. Lecter.”

            “Has he chosen so many of fault?”

            “One of these people I recognized as a suspect in a quadruple homicide in Missouri, and another is actually being hunted for burying at least nine people alive and feeding them intravenously until their bodies shut down from diabetic ketoacidosis. If he is finding people for you, a following of like minds, he needs to broaden his search.”

            “And how would you do it, Agent…?”

            “Dolarhyde.”

            “Agent Dolarhyde,” Dr. Lecter murmured, and he smiled thinly. “How would you do better than Matthew Brown?”

            “His access to the security here ensures that you won’t be discovered until much later. Your frequent visitors, late night visitors, and lack of recordings of those visits indicate he’s smudging the records that to the untrained eye won’t be seen unless they delve further. As long as you are on good behavior, that won’t happen.

            “But you don’t just want a gathering of killers, Dr. Lecter. You need…the glue that holds them all together.”

            They stared at one another across the table, and Francis had the sensation of what it was like to be assessed, stripped bare. He’d thought fooling the psychiatric evaluation was difficult; the dance of words between him and the psychiatrist had droned on for forever, each tick of the second hand driving a needle further and further into his eye.

            This was better, somehow due to it being so much worse.

            “What would your glue be, Agent Dolarhyde?” Dr. Lecter finally asked.

            Francis leaned in, to better whisper.

            “Homage is not enough. Worship…adoration. Blind faith, even. Killers will help a friend, but they will want a favor in return, Dr. Lecter. If you can find others, though, those that don’t kill but wish to be welcomed into your fold none-the-less, those that merely have an interest in the concept, those that have invasive thoughts and merely wish to be heard, those that need something to believe in that doesn’t sound like crosses and bible-thumping; place one of each between each killer, and they will hold the group together. Those that would creep and slither about your boot and want so much in return would see the way that others do not question you, do not try and take from you. Naturally, within an isolated location with no other societal outlier, they will conform. They will Become.”

            “And would you plant a daffodil for every person that came to such a place?”

            “A new beginning for each soul that hungered and finally found sustenance to sate what pains them.”

            “What pains you?”

            That was much harder to say, and the words jumbled in his mouth, distorted. He’d practiced his speech, his explanations for hours before a mirror, turning and curving his mouth just-so as he did. Speaking from the heart, though, not the head, made his tongue curl and threaten to hobble him.

            “…I Create, Dr. Lecter,” he said at last, reverent. “I…help people Become more than they are, to further my own growth.”

            “You dream of such a place that you’ve described to me, that you could continue your work?” Hannibal Lecter asked. He sounded gentle, kind. Francis considered him for a long moment, then nodded slowly, once. “You’ve been very much alone. The paradise you’ve described to me, you plucked from your own dreams.”

            “He is procuring for you the muscle. I can help with the rest.”

            “Thank you, Agent Dolarhyde,” Hannibal said, and he reached for him. The handcuffs caught him just short of taking his hand, and Hannibal looked down to them, apparently bemused.

            Francis was no fool, though; he knew just what Hannibal was trying to do, hand spread and open, offering. With the softest of breath parting from trembling lips, Francis closed the distance and took his hand, squeezing tightly so that Hannibal Lecter could feel the strength, the raw power that was his hold, his very touch that promised the blood to come.

            Hannibal smiled.

-

            Jack stared at the six numbers in front of him, and he swore.

            “One of these belongs to Lecter,” he said conversationally to Zeller. He wasn’t answering, though; being in a comatose state tended to do that to people, made their lips useless and their mind vacant.

            “One of these belongs to Lecter, but I don’t know which one,” he continued, and he glared down at the phone numbers like they had the answers for him.

            The phone numbers weren’t speaking, either.

            “I heard Will Graham’s voice today,” Jack confessed. Amidst the heartrate monitors and the other machinery, his voice cut smooth and low. “Early, early this morning. He’s alive, Zeller. He’s going through some shit, but he’s alive. Tried to get him to run, but either he knew he wouldn’t be able to run fast enough, or he’s about to do something reckless.”

            He hadn’t enjoyed listening to one of his old agents toss Will around like a ragdoll. It made him wonder if that is how Will had once felt, hands pressed to Jack’s stomach. Helpless. Indignant.

            Afraid.

            Will had always looked afraid, to Jack; it was something in his eyes. The first time he’d met him, he’d had to intercept him on the way to class. No one had believed Jack when he had his suspicions about the ‘great’ Dr. Lecter; he was an excellent doctor, a model therapist.

            What a load of shit.

            Jack knew someone had to know a side to him that no one else was aware of. Will Graham hadn’t been the first on his list to talk to, but after some digging, he was the most promising. Standing on the GWU campus, backpack filled to the brim and glasses crooked, he’d stared Jack down and curled his lip, a rabid dog prepared to bite. His matching blue eyes were afraid.

            “Can I see a badge, ‘Agent Crawford’?”

            “You don’t trust me?” Jack traced Will’s gaze as it flitted over him and rested just beyond his shoulder. “…You got a problem with eyes, Mr. Graham?”

            “Eyes are distracting,” the kid said, hitching his backpack higher. “You see too much, you don’t see enough; you get distracted by a burst blood vessel, you focus on the whites of eyes that are too white…” His voice trailed off, and his mouth tightened. “That, and I’m not much in the way of wanting a soulmate. Dunno if you’re offering, but I’m not interested in even attempting.”

            “Rest assured, I already have a soulmate.”

            “Yeah, well, the polyamory act was passed for a reason, wasn’t it?”

            “You learn that in school, Mr. Graham?”

            “Oh, yes, all about polyamorous soulmates, staggered connections, half-connections; you name it, I’m studying it. That’s my field.” A pause. “You know that, though, don’t you, Agent Crawford?” he pressed. “You wouldn’t just walk up to me without knowing something about me?”

            Staggered connections. Son-of-a-bitch.

            He had a video conference later with Dr. Chilton from the BSHCI, to try and ascertain if he was aware of a Matthew Brown once working for him that now worked for Lecter. He also had someone at HQ digging through old patient files to find a Randall Tier among Lecter’s patients.

            As much as Will had been able to give him many, many things, a location wasn’t one of them.

            “So I guess what I’m asking you to do, is to make it out of this alive, too,” said Jack, turning a page over. Six phone numbers, six names, and six suspects. Dolarhyde had an in at the FBI HQ, and another was on their way to try and lead Jack astray. “I’m apparently wading into a nest of snakes, Zeller, and I need you alive so I know who I can trust.”

            Zeller didn’t reply. If Hannibal and his followers had their way, he’d never speak again.

-

            Will was given a house arrest anklet the next morning.

            “Just as a precaution,” Dr. Lecter assured him. Seated at one of the chairs in the security room, Will didn’t deign to give him a reply to that, no matter how many crowded his mouth.

            “It’ll allow you to go five hundred yards from the house, but no more,” Matthew Brown said, adjusting the clamp. The sharp click as it locked down felt like a gun shot, and Will glared down at it with extreme prejudice. “You go too far, the alarm goes off. You tamper with it, the alarm goes off.”

            “It’s running,” Howard said, looking up from another computer. “We’ll be able to see where he is at any given point and time.”

            “Excellent,” Hannibal replied. “Now we can be of utmost assurance, Will, that you’re completely safe here.”

            Will managed a grunt of affirmation. Out of the corner of his eye, Dolarhyde worked at his computer with his head held down. At least it was Francis instead of Red Dragon. Francis probably felt guilty –at least a little. He refused to look up from his work. Will wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or uneasy about it.

            “You need to speak to him with respect, Mr. Graham,” Matthew said, standing up. Towering over Will, he leered with the kind of sneer that made anger bubble in Will’s veins. “Everyone here has been taking their time trying to make you comfortable, and you’re wasting that, being rude to him like this.”

            “I think it’s like I said before, Matthew,” Will said, standing up. He stepped just close enough to stand toe-to-toe with Matthew, staring into his matching eyes the color of rat poison. “If you had just left me alone in the first place, I wouldn’t feel the need to make rash decisions.”

            Matthew slammed his palms into Will’s chest, and Will returned the favor, shoving Matthew back so harshly that he fell into one of the computer towers. He tripped over it and fell in a disjointed knot among the wires, curses ripping from his lips like stitches.

            “Don’t touch me,” Will warned him. He looked to the others in the room, his gaze finally resting on Hannibal who watched with a light in his eye and a smile flitting about his lips. “I’m getting tired of everyone here touching me.

            “I think he’s drawn a barrier, Matthew,” Hannibal said, shifting his weight. “You should respect that.”

            “Don’t ruin my connection,” Howard warned Matthew as he tried to detangle himself from the wires. “You screw up the encryption, and we’re fucked.”

            Matthew was scrambling to his feet as Will headed out of the door. The weight of the metal bracelet on his ankle rubbed, a reminder of what he’d sacrificed to get that call to Jack.

            Still, though; if Jack could use any of it to find the house, it was worth it. It was worth the aching at the back of his head, the tender scabs that broke during his shower this morning, making blood ooze along his hair to collect at the nape of his neck. If he’d been a weaker man, he’d have asked Molly for help with it, but he hadn’t lost his pride yet. He could get tossed about like a ragdoll, chased through the forest like a fugitive, and chained to the house by a tracker, but they didn’t have his pride.

            They didn’t have his eyes.

            They did have his sleep, though. Disoriented as he was, Molly was able to ascertain just what the risks of a concussion were after being thrown around like that.

            Hannibal stopped him in the hall with a hand to his shoulder, and Will jerked around, stumbling over his feet in his haste to keep away from him. Poised in the entryway of the house, he regarded Hannibal much like one would something rotten, something left to the side of the waste bin when it should have been burned instead.

            “I’m not doing this today,” Will warned him. “I’m not…doing this back and forth with you today.”

            “A rough night of dreaming, Will?” Hannibal wondered. “Did your nightmares become real when you had to stare into the eyes of the Great Red Dragon?”

            They had, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “I just want to be left alone, Dr. Lecter. That’s…that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

            “And you don’t wish to be touched,” Hannibal tacked on. “You take with you the imprints of those that left their hands on you, remains of their emotions. You took the Great Red Dragon’s anger and used it on Matthew. You took Randall’s tracking and stole a phone. You’re Becoming their feelings, their anger. When you see Molly, will you give her back her sympathy? Was her touch last night so kind?”

            “Stop it.”

            “It must have been a sharp contrast to the abuse of the Red Dragon.” He took a step closer and grabbed Will’s shoulder, holding him in place with an iron grip. Will looked to his chin, focused on it rather than look to the eyes that he knew would be looking back. “Really, though, it must have stung, knowing what you know now.”

            “Let go of me,” Will murmured, a low, biting growl.

            “Look at me, Will.”

            “I’m looking.”

            “Look me in the eyes,” Hannibal ordered. When Will didn’t, he grabbed him by his chin and tilted his head up, pinning Will in place with his stare –one eye blue, the other maroon. Even now, with enough time to process it, it still chilled him to the bone to see it. It reminded him of the studies explaining why people were so uncomfortable seeing brains –their mind could recognize that it wasn’t right to be able to see itself, that if it was visible than something was wrong.

            Hannibal Lecter having his eyes was something horribly, horribly wrong.

            “You can’t make my eyes change by repetition, Dr. Lecter,” Will murmured. “Enough studies have been done that even you should know that.”

            “I’m still willing to be patient,” he replied with a small, barely-there smile. “Truly, all that I ask is when you have the ability to look at someone else instead, don’t.”

            That took Will aback. “What?”

            “There is a privilege, I think, in you choosing to meet someone’s gaze, Will,” he continued calmly. “You mean it when you are at your utmost sincere, when you are far more honest than you’ve ever been. At your angriest, your happiest, and your most volatile, you meet someone’s eyes so that you can show every aspect of yourself because there is that part of you that knows that eyes are the windows to the soul. It is why you are so careful where you place them.

            “While in this house, though, I would caution you with this: if I was able to connect within one singular moment of our past, dear Will, what makes you think that someone else in this house couldn’t as well?”

            The question stung him, left him reeling with the implications. Was he going to connect to Matthew, their mutual anger all that was necessary to bring them closer? Was he going to connect to Molly, their past and their unfortunately mutual feelings for one another becoming something more?

            No. He wouldn’t entertain the notion.

            “By the end of this, you’ll have everyone in this house with a half-connection to me, Dr. Lecter,” he said hoarsely. “Then what’ll you do?”

            “You believe that there is no one here that could make you connect back?”

            “Yes.”

            Hannibal thought about it, his thumb gliding along Will’s bottom lip before it brushed against his cheek. Will drew back from him, and Hannibal allowed it, tucking his hands behind his back so that Will could make a proper escape.

            “I suppose that if anyone else tried to attempt what I am going to succeed at, I’d kill them,” he said simply.

            “You’d kill them all?” Will asked dubiously. “All of these people that moved heaven and earth just for you?”

            “Every last one,” Hannibal promised solemnly.

            Will took one step away from him, then another. He made it to the front door where he scrambled for the handle, and when he slipped through it, he finally broke eye contact and turned away from Dr. Lecter, needing to put some sort of barrier between him and the only person in the world that he was genuinely afraid of.

-

            “You going to Chinese Garden after this, hoss?”

            “Shit, I wouldn’t go there to wipe my ass.”

            “Hey!” The chief looked up darkly from a stack of papers, and he scowled. “My wife loves their pot stickers.”

            There was a collection of laughter, and Matthew Brown spun around in his chair to peer through the open door to the chief’s office.

            “They get those pot stickers from the frozen section at the Piggly Wiggly?” he asked, and there was another collection of laughter.

            “Mayhaps, but half the pay is them making it so I don’t have to,” he fired back. “That, and those little sesame rolls they have at the buffet part.”

            “I’ll bring you back a box, boss,” Johnson said. He swung his coat up over his shoulder and headed towards the door, miming firing a pistol Matthew’s way. “I’ll bring you a couple, too. Change your tune a little. Chinese Garden’s the best damn place in town.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” Matthew muttered, but he smiled all the same.

            These were his co-workers, after all. One had to keep up pretenses if they were to keep things under wraps.

            It was quiet at the Barnesville, Georgia precinct. A few drunken brawls, a few DUI’s, and a domestic dispute was all that really rocked their fine world, maybe some dog fighting here or there. It was monotonous to be there, at best, but it was a necessary part of the job, one Matthew prided himself in.

            Better that than having Hobbs’ job; he had to walk the perimeter all night, every night. The better to keep him distracted from eating his own daughter, or so Matthew had been told. It wasn’t as though he cared, in truth, who Hobbs ate. Hobbs was on a much lower rung than his other worries and concerns, those being along the lines of Molly Foster, Beverly Katz, and her ham-handed soulmate, Saul. Matthew didn’t have to worry much about Francis –that was Hannibal Lecter’s territory. In truth, many of the people in the house weren’t Matthew’s concern, although he put up a well enough act. He liked to organize people into boxes in his mind, and once someone was placed into a box, they never moved from it.

            Will Graham, in particular, was in a box that he reserved for people he had a genuine dislike for. Hannibal-Lecter-encouraged or not, that was a real, honest feeling he had whenever he clapped eyes on the empathy-toting-bastard.

            The phone rang, and he snatched it up before the chief had to, curling his tongue around the hard southern accent he’d practiced so much. “Barnesville Police Department, this is Sherriff Payne speaking.”

            “Sherriff Payne, this is Agent Crawford of the FBI. I was wondering if you had a minute?”

            A sliver of ice slid down his spine at that, and Matthew tensed up ‘tighter than a lady holding in a fart’ as Johnson called it.

            Johnson wasn’t the most prolific, but his descriptions were often accurate enough.

            “Just what can I do for you, Agent Crawford?” he asked, and his tone came out syrupy sweet and just as pronounced as any other southern boy’s. “The chief is busy at the moment, but I’m just doing some paperwork.”

            “I’m working on a case, and I’m going to need the reports of your newest recruits dating back approximately three year up until now. This isn’t a target on your precinct particularly, but you are one of five that I’m looking at.”

            Matthew licked his lips, throat suddenly dry.

            “I don’t have that paperwork here presently, sir,” he said at length, and he rustled a few papers, jumbling them up and ultimately getting them out of order. “Let me get a hold of our lovely secretary though and see what she can rustle up?”

            “That’d be wonderful, Sherriff Payne,” Jack said, and he sounded genuinely surprised. “Thank you for being so obliging.”

            “Oh, we know how it goes, Agent Crawford, when you’re working a rough case,” he said, and Matthew forced a smile into his tone. “You don’t work too hard now, you hear? This your number to reach you?”

            “Yes.”

            “We’ll get a hold of you when we’ve got what you need. Take it easy, now.”

            “I’ll keep that in mind.”

            Matthew hung up when he heard the phone click off with a muted tone, and he leaned back in his chair, his mind swirling and churning into a massive mess as he considered the problem that was suddenly at hand.

            “Chief, I’m going out for a smoke break,” he said, and he fished around his desk for his trademark pack of cigarettes that he kept around for pretenses.

            “Those are gonna kill you one day if a drunk don’t,” the chief hollered back.

            Matthew allowed a lighthearted laugh before he headed out of the side door, loitering in the alley with his heart clamoring in his ears, screeching.

            He lit a cigarette, took a long and painful drag, then called Francis, pacing the confines of the space between two rusted, aged trash cans. A rat skittered past him, and he punted it down the alleyway.

            “Yes?”

            “Francis, we’ve got a problem.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18:

            Will was discovered hours later by a boy around the age of ten. Will recognized him almost immediately, from his light blonde hair to his too serious face. He paused a polite distance away from Will –four and a half steps, to be exact –and he tilted his head in such a genuine gesture of curiosity that Will found it amusing rather than off-putting.

            “You’re Molly’s son,” Will said when the boy gave no greeting.

            “Yes.” The boy huffed a breath and buttoned his jacket. It seemed Georgia was going to finally allow it to be cold, and it was a chill that sunk deep. “You’re Will Graham.”

            “I am,” Will agreed.

            “…Mom said that I can trust you. Is that true?”

            Will considered him, from his nicely laced shoes to his raglan sleeved jacket. It looked far too big for him, the jacket of an adult rather than a kid. He wore it with pride, though, that much Will could see. This was a jacket of heritage, of ancestry. At the tattered edges of it, he could sense nostalgia, a boy that worried over the threads of it whenever he was at his most vulnerable.

            “What’s your name?”

            “Wally. Wally Foster.”

            “…Is that your dad’s old jacket, Wally?” Will asked.

            Wally smiled a little and bobbed his head. He turned in order to show off the back, the name ‘Foster’ in a proud, arched cursive.

            “It was my dad’s, but he gave it to me,” he explained turning back around to give Will his undivided attention. “So it’s mine now. It’s my favorite. He played baseball.”

            “What…happened to your dad?”

            “Cancer,” he said after a beat. Will’s lack of disgruntled behavior bolstered Wally, and he sat down on the step that Will’s feet rested on.

            “My dad died from cancer, too,” Will revealed quietly.

            “Really?”

            “Really, really.”

            Wally nodded, and Will noted his fingers sliding along the cuffs of the jacket, worrying at the threads of it.

            “Your mom said that you can trust me?” he asked, and he silently chastised himself for the break in his voice.

            Wally flashed him a grim smile and nodded. “She said…we can’t trust anyone in this house, but we can trust Will Graham. If something happens, I’m supposed to find you.”

            Will focused particularly on that, on her words said in the mouth of a kid. “She said you can’t trust anyone here?” he whispered, leaning in.

            “Yeah.” Wally fiddled more with the sleeves, and he let out a sigh. “She said not even the other kids. ‘Cept maybe Abigail, but she’s not a kid. You and Abigail.”

            “Did she say why we can’t trust them?”

            Wally liked the comradery Will gave, saying ‘we’ rather than ‘you’. His face brightened, and he shifted closer, like he was sharing a secret. “She said they’re not nice people, Mr. Graham.”

            “Just Will is fine, Wally.”

            “’Kay, Will. She said they’re not nice, and they could hurt us if we’re not careful.”

            Will nodded thoughtfully and looked out over the front yard, a brilliant and loving display of hydrangeas and lavender intermingling into a garden of sorts. He wondered if that was five hundred yards, or if his newfound babysitter would start chirping at his leg if he went too far.

            “Do you think that?” Wally pressed when Will didn’t speak.

            “What’s that?”

            “Do you think they’ll hurt us if we’re not careful?” Wally pressed.

            Will thought of the blood down the back of his head that morning in the shower, the way Molly’s hands had felt at the top of his scalp, cold. Her once warm hands were cold, and he didn’t recognize her anymore.

            In truth, he saw more of her in her son than anything else since his arrival at the house. The parts of her kindness, friendliness, and light were all wrapped into a small, neat bow in her son. Will had wondered where she’d hidden the parts of herself that first drew him to her, a lighthouse when his world was crashing around him, and he saw it now in Wally. She made herself a fortress of stone, something cold, calculating, and willing to pull the trigger should the need arise.

            And all of her goodness she hid in Wally.

            “You know what, Wally, I do,” Will said with a quiet sigh. “I think your mom is awfully smart, and you should listen to her.”

            “I try to,” Wally assured Will. “My dad said the same thing.”

            “It sounds like your dad was a good man.”

            “Say, I’m going to go and see if they have a soda,” Wally said, jumping up. “Since…since I’m going in there, do you want one?”

            Will smiled a little and nodded. “That’d be nice, Wally. Only if it’s not too much trouble.”

            “Well, I was going to go there anyway,” he said, and he was up the stairs and running into the house the way only a kid could run when their mother was smart enough to give their kid the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth.

            Which begged the question: if Molly was really in on all of this, why would she warn her son away from the people that she should supposedly view as her family –the one place she could call ‘home’?

-

            Will was approached by a young woman that evening when he was attempting to isolate himself in his room. She stood at the foot of the stairs, wind-chafed and resolute, and he recognized her as the girl that’d first found him after Nate had died, hands bloodied and mind frozen in shock. She’d worried for him, for a breath of a moment.

            “You’re…Will Graham,” she said quietly, and he tensed.

            “Please don’t try to touch me,” he said warningly. He wouldn’t throw her about like he’d done with Matthew, but there was only so much a person could take before they began drawing lines by force. He imagined his hands around her throat, squeezing before tossing her aside, and his stomach turned. Violent thoughts pushed towards the front of his mind, begged entertainment. He blinked and banished them away. He’d been in the house for too damn long.

            “No, I’m…I’m sorry they did that.” Her smile was watery, wavering as she shifted and reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind one ear. “Some people here are…well, you know.”

            “Are you Abigail?” he asked. He thought of Wally, rambling about just who he was supposed to trust.

            “I am,” she affirmed. “I’m sorry to bother you, I know you’re…you’re having a hard time, I just…”

            She stopped talking and looked down, sniffling discreetly behind a hand. She looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, far too thin for a healthy diet. She carried sorrow in the dip of her shoulders, resolution in the set of her jaw as she looked back up at him with intent, blue eyes.

            “You’re not like other people here,” she said at last, and something in her voice made him tense.

            “Is it that easy to tell?” he asked dryly.

            “I heard a lot of people wondering why Dr. Lecter would bring you here.”

            “I’m wondering the same about you,” Will replied, and he rocked back on his heels as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. “How old are you?”

            “Old enough to understand what I’m seeing when I see it,” said Abigail, and she sniffed again and looked down. “Did you ever hear of the Minnesota Shrike?”

            “I have.”

            “That’s my dad,” she revealed, and she glanced up beneath her lashes to study him. “He’s here, in this house.”

            “Well it looks like Dr. Lecter extends amnesty to just anyone,” Will sneered.

            “He killed girls that looked like me.”

            “I recall.”

            “I thought maybe being here would…stop him from that, but…Mr. Graham, it was either them or me, and now that he can’t go about to find them…I’m scared that he’s going to Change me.”

            Will thought of Red Dragon whispering his wants, his need to Change. Farther down the hall, there was the sound of plates clattering, glasses clinking as dinner was set. Abigail glanced from the sudden noise, then back to him, her mouth fluttering before pressing tightly shut. Despite the openness of the stairwell, she was divulging something much like a secret to him, and he softened his voice to recognize that.

            “Dr. Lecter wouldn’t stop him?” Will asked.

            “He would if you pretended to care about it,” she revealed, equally quiet. “If…you pretended to care about me, he’d pretend, too. Enough to stop my dad, should he decide to eat me.”

            Will thought about that, eye-to-eye with Abigail Hobbs on their respective stair steps, although they didn’t allow their gazes to meet directly. He thought of Wally, then Molly, then the reports he’d read on the Minnesota Shrike, the profile he’d drawn up as an essay in one of his classes when rumor had risen that the Shrike had a soulmate. The flash of her eyes screamed her penchant for manipulation, although the longer Will stared, the more he was convinced of her honesty. If he cared, then Hannibal cared. If Hannibal cared, then everyone else cared.

            “Just what are you trying to ask me to do?” he asked at last.

            “Sit with me at dinner? He always sits next to me and touches my thigh while we’re eating.”

            “And this isn’t a magical quest bestowed upon you by Dr. Lecter to ensure that I start participating in the endeavors of this place?”

            She had the grace to smile a little. “He asked everyone to leave you alone, actually. He wants you to come to us on your own terms, but…I just…”

            “You’re trying to survive however you can,” Will realized, staring at the turn of her jaw. He could smell the stench of it, the same as it was for him. They were survivors, something much the same as the other as they tried to survive their lot in life. Rather than submit to her father’s whims, she instead tried to find a way around it, to preserve herself however possible.

            Will could respect that, although he balked at the thought of having to sit down among so many obviously unstable people.

            “Please,” she whispered, and he cringed from it. “I see the way people here look at you, and I…please.”

            “…I’ll do it,” he said, and her shoulders slumped in relief. “Although whatever superpowers you think I’m capable of, I can’t guarantee.”

            “Thank you,” she said, and he was forced to follow her down the hall, towards the formal dining room where people were helping to set the table, their chatter amiable and excited.

            When they saw Will and Abigail, it was even moreso. He ignored the way their heads dipped close together, their faces alight –if they really were unsure of him and his place in the house, it didn’t show with how they looked at him. Perhaps Abigail was right: Hannibal wanted him, therefore they followed through with his desires.

            “Dr. Lecter would want you to sit down there,” Abigail said, gesturing towards the head of the table.

            Will eyed the spot with extreme prejudice before he meandered towards the seat, ignoring the stares pinned to his skin.

            “You sit there,” he decided, motioning towards the end seat.

            “But-”

            “Your father can’t sit on your other side if you’re on the end,” Will said, and he sat down pointedly in the second chair in.

            Abigail smiled and sat down on the end chair, relief oozing from her skin.

            “Thank you,” she said again.

            “Thank Wally,” he grumbled, and when someone swooped by to fill his glass with wine, he managed a grunt towards them, too. The house arrest bracelet chafed on his ankle. He’d have to find a way to get the fucking thing off of him. Maybe take Abigail and Wally with him when he ran.

            Just how many other people were there that were trapped due to the faults and failures of their parents? Their lovers? Their families?

            When Hannibal walked into the room, deep in conversation with Molly, Beverly, and Francis, he didn’t stop in his tracks at the sight of Will seated beside a quietly contemplative Abigail, but he took immediate notice. His gaze flickered briefly over them, analyzing, before a perfectly subtle smile graced his lips and he looked away. His incisors flashed as he seemed to taste the room before him.

            The space beside Will on the other side remained empty.

            “I’m so happy to see you here, Will,” he said as he stopped just behind his chair.

            Will took a long, pointed gulp of his wine.

            “I wasn’t aware that you knew Abigail,” he continued, and the voices coalescing along the table stilled to better hear him.

            Will had a wild urge to say something particularly nasty, what with the way everyone watched the two of them, waiting. He took another gulp of wine, swallowed it down, and wiped his mouth. Just behind Hannibal, a few steps back, a man with a halo of hair, a shiny head, and dagger-like eyes observed first him, then Abigail that sat just out of reach.

            Her father, then.

            “I do. She’s been showing me around the house.”

            “How kind,” Hannibal Lecter murmured. “Thank you, Abigail, for making him feel more comfortable here.”

            “I was more than happy to, Dr. Lecter,” Abigail replied, and it all felt rather forced to Will, this pseudo-conversation when the three of them were more than well-aware that there was something far larger at hand. “He said it may make it feel more like home.”

            Presumptuous. Will gave her a particularly dark side-eyed stare, which she returned with little to no guilt.

            “Dinner will be delicious tonight,” Hannibal Lecter said by way of reply, and he skirted the table to sit at the head of it.

            Without ceremony, the man with the balding head sat down on the other side of Will. He smelled of sweat contained beneath layers of jackets for a prolonged amount of time, coupled with the aftertaste of cold, dry dirt. The turn of his cheek screamed meekness, but the cunning glint in his gaze as he watched Will from the corner of his eye put Will on guard immediately. He thought of the women he’d only ever read about, people whose lives were cut short due to a covetous, hungry need. He’d have liked to have thought he could have seen someone like Hobbs in a crowd and known them for what they were, but it was a lie, something to self-soothe. In reality, Hobbs looked –at first glance –much like the sort of person you’d forget about immediately after seeing.

            Ultimately leading to your downfall.

            “Mr. Graham,” Garrett Jacob Hobbs greeted quietly. He had a well-mannered, salt-of-the-earth sort of speech, quiet and dignified.

            “Mr. Hobbs,” Will returned lightly.

            “I wasn’t aware that you’d met my daughter,” he said, and the way his tongue curled around the title was possessive while maintaining all forms of politeness.

            “She’s been by far the kindest person in this house,” Will said. “I’ve found her to be invaluable.”

            Hobbs had no reply to that. His mouth shifted and curled in on itself, as though it were fighting back the words he desperately wanted to say. A quick glance to Will’s hardened stare made him shift and busy himself with his glass of wine.

            There were no speeches, no pep-talks. The food was set out for everyone, and those that helped to cook it were thanked, everyone friendly and obliging as they patted one another on the back and thanked Hannibal warmly for such exquisite cuisine: paella with freshly foraged mushrooms, cuttlefish, and a velvety red wine to compliment the taste.

            Will picked his way around what he deemed to be a questionable and therefore undesirable meat.

            With Abigail beside him, those that snuck glances made no move to speak. Beverly and Molly sat across from him, and it was as easy to avoid their stare as it was anyone else’s. His eyes fixed to the corner of his glasses, and he fiddled far too long with his spoon between bites.

            “Abigail,” her father said, speaking around Will’s back. “I’d like to speak with you after dinner, before my night watch.”

            “She was actually going to take me to the library,” Will said for her, after he polished off the wine. He needed it to keep his mouth from becoming too sharp. “Sorry.”

            On the other side of him, Abigail shifted in her chair, uncomfortable. He felt her father’s stare against his skin, prickling and persistent, but he ignored it. She was one of the only things that could have brought him to the table, one of the only things to convince him away from the solitary room that brought him some form of respite. If the look in Hobb’s eyes was any indication, he’d made a good call. One of few, but still good.

            Despite the disquieting sensation of so many eyes on him throughout dinner, when Abigail reached out underneath the table and took his hand to squeeze it, Will didn’t recoil from her. Instead, he returned the gesture, squeezing just as tight.

-

            Hannibal Lecter was the one to walk about with him on the grounds that evening. It wasn’t so much an option, in truth; Will had waited until Hobbs saw himself off towards his shift of night watch, then left Abigail in the presence of a boy somewhat near her age that smiled with an awkward cheekiness. Standing there in the foyer and watching Abigail walk away left Will with something aching just at the space where his ribs met in the center of his chest –something painful and persistent.

            Then Hannibal appeared at his elbow and suggested a walk.

            He zipped his coat against the cold and huddled into the shell of it as he trudged through the damp grass. Hannibal followed, a whisper of a step behind, and if he had something in mind to discuss, it wasn’t voiced. He let Will pause just at the edge of the forest, and he didn’t give voice to the warning that the chafing ankle bracelet provided.

            Birds cried in the dying light, the sun sinking far too soon now that Fall was upon them. Will tracked fast, frantic leaps of bats dancing among the trees in search of bugs, and he stuffed his hands deep into his pockets to maintain warmth. There was the crisp smell of acorns and clover, coupled with the rancid bitterness of the dying leaves on the forest floor. Will inhaled it and held it inside of him as long as he could. When he exhaled sharply, great clouds puffed and curled about his mouth, wisping up above his head.

            “You once told me that you dreamt of a house in the middle of a forest,” Hannibal said quietly, disturbing the quiet. “That sometimes, if your dreams became lucid, you would walk to. Standing in the field beside it, you would look back to the lights and feel some semblance of peace. It appeared much like a boat adrift on the ocean, and it was one of the few times within your own mind that you could feel safe.”

            When Will said nothing in response, he continued, “Is that what you were searching for when you called Jack Crawford? Some semblance of safety?”

            “Some semblance of sanity,” Will muttered.

            “And you found a Great, Red Dragon instead.”

            “There were no speeches tonight. Are you trying to normalize these people to me?” Will asked. He glanced back to Hannibal, scowling. “Because I sat next to a man who’s murdered at least eight women and ate them during dinner.”

            “And you stand now in front of a man that’s killed fourteen.”

            “No, I stand in front of a man that was convicted for the murders of fourteen,” Will corrected crossly.

            Hannibal neither confirmed nor denied. He merely smiled, the faint moonlight above making his blue eye appear far darker than it was.

            Will looked back to the forest that contained the remnants of his panic, the aftershock of the fall of Randall Tier. He felt a scream building, but he didn’t want to let it out. If he started, Will figured he’d never stop –scream after scream after scream before he was swallowed whole by them all.

            “Who did you kill?” Will asked, agonized.

            “You refer to something recent?”

            “Who did you have these people kill?” Will reiterated, and he swallowed down a curse. “That has Jack Crawford sounding so tired?”

            “Thirty-two other people in this country held some variation of your name. My friends supposed that for me to be with someone, they should be utterly unique in every way,” Hannibal said after a long, pressing pause.

            His words stirred something in Will, something that made him round back on Hannibal, a snarl jerking past his lips.

            “Don’t call them your friends,” he hissed, and just beyond Hannibal’s shoulder there were faint shadows moving in front of curtains pulled across windows. “Don’t call those people your friends when you and I both know that you don’t give a damn about them. You don’t give a damn about anyone.”

            “Will-”

            “And don’t…don’t try and claim that you give a damn about me. You just want to possess me, control me because you don’t like being out of control. You have your pawns in there, and you have your lackeys, but when you’re out here trying to wrap me up inside of my own head, don’t try to bull shit me and tell me that any of those people are actually your friends, Hannibal Lecter. Not when just hours ago, you were content to inform me you’d kill any of them, should they stand between us.”

            The look on his face was impassive; it was his eyes, though, that made Will pause, made his breath suck back down his throat.

            God, he almost looked proud.

            “You see me in a way that no one else does,” Hannibal murmured. His voice was low, like he was revealing a grave, dark secret. “I’m glad that you’re becoming comfortable enough to speak your mind to me, all things considered.”

            All things considered being the fine line Will walked between living and dying, he supposed.

            “I shouldn’t be surprised that you could fool them all, considering how many of us you fooled.”

            “Some people just want a place where they feel like they belong, Will. Humans, despite everything, are social creatures. Pack creatures.”

            “Well, you may be fooling them, but you’re not fooling all of them.” Will watched a shadow pause before one of the curtains before they drew it open to stare outside. His smile was a snarl. “There are a few of those people that are well aware that the things you care for are in limited supply.”

            “You refer to Abigail?”

            “I refer to any of them that have to go to sleep with one eye open.”

            “I have Garrett Jacob Hobbs under control. Rest assured he won’t harm anyone here.”

            “His daughter isn’t so confident.”

            Hannibal smiled. “She’s resourceful, isn’t she? You’re so wary of my manipulations that at the first scent of an honest sob-story, you find your way to her and seek to protect her from not only Garrett Jacob Hobbs, but my presumed apathy to her plight. So sure are you of me, but you fail to see her in her entirety.”

            “She’s like me,” Will said, and he was suddenly aware of just how close Hannibal had become. A mere breath separated them, a strong breeze enough to make them touch. He stiffened his spine and wet his lips. “Sometimes…we have to do terrible things to survive.”

            “You led to the fall of Randall Tier.”

            “And whatever she’d done, it’s only so that she survives. I can respect that.”

            “Survive, survive,” Hannibal chanted, and his head dipped low, far too close. “That is your mantra, dear Will. To survive; not to live, not to Become. Just where are your lines, I wonder? When is it no longer survival, and instead basking within your own dark desires and fantasies?”

            Will thought of his dreams where he dipped hands in blood and licked them, thoughts when he wondered if he’d have to break Abigail should she dare touch him. Whatever his expression, it delighted Hannibal; his eyes brightened despite the gloom of the evening, and he withdrew, allowing Will his space, allowing Will enough air to breathe.

            “Just a thought,” Hannibal said, and he turned and headed back into the house.

            Will, despite everything in his bones screaming for him to run, had no other choice but to follow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19:

            That night, Will Graham picked the lock on his door and stepped out into the hallway. One foot out of the door, he froze, and he found himself holding his breath without entirely knowing why.

            Poised on the landing in the dark, he was disquieted by the sensation of someone watching him. In such a house as that, it wasn’t an asinine thing to suppose, and although every muscle inside of him screamed for him to run and run fast, Will couldn’t bring himself to move.

            “I’d go back to your room if I were you,” Matthew Brown said in the dark, not five feet from him. “I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to warn you, Mr. Graham, but there are many, many things in this house that go bump in the night. Things that run out of patience can be particularly unpleasant.”

            He thought to argue, to feign stupidity and confusion. Ultimately, though, Matthew Brown was well aware of just how not stupid Will Graham was, and Will Graham was smart enough to know when he’d been beaten.

            He slunk back to his room and closed the door.

-

            “Thank you so much for coming,” Jack Crawford said wearily.

            “I’d say it was no trouble, but with things the way they are…you can understand my unease in coming,” Bedelia replied, and she shook his hand. She noted the small stain on the cuff of his jacket, the curse of eating fast food while on the job. Dr. Du Maurier didn’t envy the FBI agent his position, nor did she envy his stress level. In all things, she tried to maintain a level of dignity, and the idea of sweating and struggling for the smallest scrap of information on the motives and behaviors of a psychopath seemed, above all, unbearable.

            “You know, I think it’s been what; six years?”

            “Since the trial, yes.”

            “You’ve done well for yourself,” Jack noted, and Bedelia managed a smile.

            “When one is no longer in the constant presence of a cannibalistic psychopath, Agent Crawford, one does remarkably well.”

            “You know, out of anyone that ever knew him, you were the only one to ever get inside of his head, Dr. Du Maurier.”

            “I wouldn’t consider it that way.”

            “Wouldn’t you?” Jack paused outside of the autopsy room and smiled politely. “What would you call it instead?”

            “Dr. Lecter presented to me a person suit,” Bedelia explained. “He was meticulous and careful with it, showing only just enough to reassure people that he had emotions. What he did with them was his business, and he took great pains to hide anything unsavory from me.”

            Jack Crawford had a way of trying to stare into someone, pierce them in place with the sharpest of looks. Bedelia was rather well versed in expressions like that, and she bore it with her own placid, flat expression. Years of psychiatry had perfected the look, made it a knee-jerk response to almost anything vaguely resembling a distasteful time.

            Special trips to Atlanta, Georgia to look at dead bodies was most certainly a distasteful time.

            “Maybe the bits of him you found around that person suit will give us insight when you take a look at this,” Jack said, and he opened the door for her. “I warn you, though; it’s messy.”

            It was messy.

            Bedelia Du Maurier had experienced her own dance with death several years ago, when a patient attacked her and left her with the terrifying choice of choosing her life over his. She didn’t regret her actions; one shouldn’t regret taking intrinsic responsibility for their life and not allowing someone else to make that call. She did regret, however, the actions done that led up to that regretful moment when she got to feel –for the first and last time, she hoped –what the inside of another person’s throat felt like.

            These bodies, in all of their macabre and painstaking horror, had Hannibal Lecter’s name written all over them.

            “These were done in various locations?” she asked, pausing to look at one that appeared to have been buried alive.

            “All over the country. Every single Will Graham except for the one currently missing.”

            “Have you confirmed that he’s still alive?”

            “Yes.” Jack leveled her with a stare that said he wouldn’t elaborate. She took note of the small spot on his cheek that he’d missed while shaving, then continued on.

            Autopsy rooms smelled like chemicals rather than death. It was a pungent stench that perched at the back of her tongue and made swallowing sound like a bad idea. She paused beside the remains of another and looked to Jack Crawford curiously.

            “Hit by a train,” he explained.

            “And somewhere near their bodies, ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,’ yes?”

            “That is correct.”

            She hummed quietly and looked along the many, many rows. Each one, in various hair colors, eye colors, and skin colors, all looked somewhat the same in death. Each and every one held an ashy color to their skin as it tried to rot.

            “This certainly has Dr. Lecter’s panache,” she said after she walked the length of bodies again. “Where Will Graham is alive, perhaps he saw fit to ensure he was the only one left. No other like him.”

            “Is he going to strike like this again?”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she replied. “If he is coercing his followers to kill in as many ways as these people have been killed, the last thing he’d do is repeat himself. That takes away the weight that this carried. If he is quoting Poe, of all things, it lends itself the idea that this darkness and decay will eke out in various ways, each one more toxic and morbid than the last.”

            “What’s his end game?”

            Bedelia looked up at him. “Perhaps it is to finally kill you, since he failed the last time.” She paused in thought beside one of them, a woman with a simple, slit throat. “Have you entertained the notion that this is cult territory?”

            Jack somehow looked even older than his ragged, worn appearance. “Yes. We’re not releasing it in the papers yet.”

            “If they were able to strike on a nationwide scale, yet elude the police for as long as they have, it stands to reason.”

            “How do you see Hannibal as a cult leader?”

            “Easily,” Bedelia replied automatically. “He is a narcissist that enjoys attention on him. The only thing he enjoys more is controlling that attention, manipulating it. He would make his followers devout, fearing no pain and no death. That is the trouble with things like this; when they do not fear dying, it makes them far more willing to commit acts that endanger their lives. It makes them reckless but not stupid.

            “He won’t give any one of them everything. He may have a second-in-command, but no one holds all of the information apart from himself. Everyone has a place, and his unfortunate charisma means that they will happily stay in such a place, to please him.

            “Whatever he has in store for Will Graham, that is not the sole concern,” she continued, frowning at the bodies. “If it was a simple matter of taking him hostage and disappearing to kill him at his leisure, but he’s amassed an entire group of people –at least thirty, given what’s occurred here –for another singular intent. Spreading a message of death, fear, and mistrust.”

            “Mistrust,” Jack prompted.

            “Well, Agent Crawford, he was taken from his apartment by one of the security detail that you assigned to him,” she said calmly. “Half of the news has asked for your head on a proverbial platter, and the other half has lost faith in your abilities to catch a killer. But until you release the information that it’s not just a killer, it’s a following, they will continue to doubt you.”

            “You think that I should go public?”

            “I think that Dr. Lecter is banking on you not going public, thus tarnishing your name until he has you in the position where he can kill you with utmost certainty,” she replied, “where no Will Graham is present to save your life because he already has him locked away.”

            “The division specializing in cults is taking over this case,” he admitted, and it looked like it burned him to say. Jack Crawford not having control of a situation was, for him, something of utmost importance.

            Bedelia smiled slightly, the barest of turns to her lip. “Make no mistake, Agent Crawford; he is attempting to goad you into coming out from your safe space. First Agent Bowman, then Agent Zeller? Have you placed Agent Price in a safe house yet?”

            “He’s attacking all of my men until I have no one to trust left,” Jack sneered.

            “Can you not trust the rest of the FBI?” she wondered.

            His silence was the best sort of answer to that.

            “We have sufficient evidence that places him in Georgia,” he said at last, changing the subject. Bedelia was graceful enough to let him. Do you think that is also to lure me?”

            “Any evidence that you find easily can be considered a trap of sorts, in my opinion,” she replied. “If he is attempting to goad you into the public, what is the best sort of way than to dangle something before you that you can’t ignore?”

            That quieted him, and he stared at the bodies for a long time. His silence was his own, it seemed, and whatever thoughts that came to him were shrouded behind the dark, haunted look in his eyes.

            Jack led her out towards the small sitting area and got her a cup of coffee. They sat together on chairs made from cheap wood and itchy upholstery, their sips disjointed and their thoughts completely, resolutely different from one another. Bedelia resented the acrid taste of what was, no doubt, Folgers coffee with far too many beans, but she endured it in silence because that was what was expected.

            “I understand that you’re having a difficult time with this,” she began, and the look he cast her way made her pause to sift the words about in her mind. “To suspect your own agents of malcontent and abetting a murderer is troubling, as it leaves you in a space where every foothold you take, you have to wonder if it was intentional for you to find it or not.”

            “It’s all hands on deck,” Jack said wearily. “Whether the hands are going to support the foundation that will allow us to catch Lecter or not still remains to be seen. They could tear down the stone instead.”

            “You must have been speaking with Hannibal Lecter recently to use his wording,” Bedelia mused.

            “The day before his escape, I sat down with him and questioned him about a few things. He said to me, ‘You built the foundations of your career on the back of my destruction. Just how much will it take for that foundation to break?’”

            “If you catch him again, if will do nothing but further your career.”

            “Dr. Du Maurier, I have a hard time trying to decide if I want to catch him alive or bring him in dead,” Jack confided. He sounded far more tired than he did guilty from the admission.

            Bedelia set her cup down only half empty, and surveyed him, twisting in her chair.

            “While he has clearly made this a personal act against you, your thought process is not so foreign and alien. You’ve been presented with an unusual situation, therefore your reactions are expectedly unusual. Rather than legal justice, you’d much prefer something in which he can no longer tip the scales.”

            “…I appreciate the sentiment, as well as your insight, doctor.”

            Now for the hard part. She sighed quietly, a barely-escaped noise, and looked away from him, palms pressed together in her lap as though she could wipe away the feeling of grime from having to move about the dead space in which Hannibal’s followers had enacted their morbid fantasies.

            “While I am able to give such insight, Agent Crawford, I have done my best to put my stint with Hannibal Lecter behind me,” she said, studying the mug. Just around the bottom of it, a stain of white from the heat smudged the coffee table. She should have considered putting it on a coaster. “It unearths a part of my past that I’d rather prefer to keep buried and behind me. He was my patient, but that in no way means anything more than his desire to keep me under his thumb and part of his manipulations, as he was aware that at the time, I suspected him of nefarious and dangerous intent. Although you are in every right to seek me out, once I walk out of that door to these headquarters, I’d prefer you don’t.”

            Jack stared at her for a long, long time, his face set in a dark stone. Bedelia busied herself with picking up the coffee mug and taking another sip, as though the harsh grounds that’d made their way through the filter could somehow bolster her.

            When he said nothing more, she stood up and collected her coat and purse.

            “Good luck in your investigation, Agent Crawford,” she said lightly. “I hope that what little I could give helps.”

            Jack stood as well and shook her hand, nodding slowly, once.

            “Thank you, Dr. Du Maurier.”

            She saw herself out, and Jack remained in the sitting area in order to finish his coffee. No doubt, Bedelia mused, Jack Crawford was wondering just how soon Hannibal’s followers would act once he went public.

            She, however, was far more preoccupied with wondering just how long it’d be until she could take off the silly wire that one of those followers had taped to her chest.

-

            “What do you think?” Jack asked once he was in the tech room.

            “I’d say she’s not one of them, but she’s been contacted by them,” Starling said, looking up from the monitor. Her face was set, her mouth pinched in concentration. “There are a few frames where you can see micro-expressions of fear registering. Things you’ve said are things that she already knows.”

            Jack wasn’t quite sure what to think of Starling. On the one hand, having his case taken over by someone that didn’t know Lecter the way that he knew Lecter was the gritty feeling of eating sugared cereal and rubbing your tongue against your teeth. On the other hand, her assurance and capability was certainly helpful in the wake of some of his most trusted men being picked off left and right.

            That is, if she wasn’t one of Lecter’s.

            “Do you think she’s sympathetic to him?” he asked, walking over to see what she was seeing. The cameras within the FBI HQ were fantastic, great frames that could catch the twitch of an eyelash in an air conditioner breeze.

            “Her face is hard to read at times, but I’d say no,” Starling replied. “If anything, I think that if she’s being coerced into cooperating with them, she’s done a damn good job of wriggling out of it. By asking you not to bother her anymore, they wouldn’t have a reason to reach out to her.”

            “We’ve narrowed down a few people, then,” Jack murmured. He thought of the look on her face when she stared at the bodies; her nose had wrinkled, her lips pressed so tightly that they seemed to disappear altogether. There was no hunger, no strange pull that brought her closer to them.

            “I’ve got eyes on interstate activity, but it seems that those that struck are laying low. They could be converging towards a similar place, or they could be still within the general area in which they struck,” Starling said, and she moved over to go through a few things. “Graham getting that call out to you is mighty helpful, Jack. I know he didn’t get a location other than Georgia to you, but now we’ve got a Matthew Brown to track down, and forensics will surely find something regarding these others.”

            Jack grunted. “He wasn’t stupid enough to use his legal name, so we’ll have to go about it the hard way. Cross-referencing photos and time stamps of careers. The precincts around the suspecting areas are cooperating, at least.”

            “Time-consuming but not impossible.” Starling gave him a look. “Progress, Jack.”

            That’s what they’d call progress, Jack knew, but it didn’t feel so good to call it that.

            “We got a lot of information but it doesn’t feel that way. A lot of circles.”

            “That’s where Lecter wants you to be.”

            There was something Du Maurier had said that was needling at him, piercing beneath his skin to burrow deep and whisper treacherous thoughts in his ear.

            “Do you think it was luck that made Price check diatoms?” he asked. In the room full of nothing more than the soft whirring of computer fans, his question seemed too loud, abrasive. Starling looked up from her computer, the image frozen on Bedelia’s mouth closed and tense. Her brow furrowed, and she rocked back on her heels as she considered his question seriously.

            “…Why do you think that?” she asked. There was no judgement, only genuine curiosity.

            “He checked the diatoms ‘on a hunch,’” Jack recalled. “He checked the water bottle’s contents and decided to take the time to investigate the water. She said that Dr. Lecter is trying to lure me out.”

            “Do you think Price was compromised?” Starling asked. Her stare was intent, her blue eyes piercing him in place.

            “Will Graham said that they have people watching and observing me. I never thought Dolarhyde would…but clearly I was wrong.”

            “The question is whether or not you think Price is compromised.”

            Jack sighed and pinched the spot between his brows where his headaches these days most liked to rest. Bella sometimes felt it, in between her own pains and aches. It made feeling it all the worse, knowing that he was somehow punishing her, too.

            “I don’t know,” he said at last, and he let out a dark, curt bark of laughter. “Isn’t that just…hell, I don’t know anymore, Starling. That’s the muck of it, isn’t it? That I don’t know who I can trust anymore?”

            “That’s what Lecter wants,” she replied immediately. “He wants you on edge so that you can’t plan around him, so I’m going to need you to get your head on straight, alright? We’ll observe Price. Clock his comings and goings, his phone, his e-mail. Not because he’s done something, but because you can’t trust anyone, and if that’s going to ease your mind then I’m for it.”

            “Why’d he have to go and check the diatoms like that?” Jack groused.

            “Because he’s a good agent, and on any other case you’d thank him for it.”

            That was true, but as of right now it was a tough pill to try and swallow. Lloyd was dead, Zeller was nearly there, and his only other guy was a suspect. If Lecter was trying to keep his head twisted, he was doing a damn good job.

-

            “That him?” Duncan asked Freddie, nodding towards the man at the end of the bar.

            Duncan smelled like sweat and Coors Lite. It was a sour smell, but it was one she’d gotten used to while they roamed Barnesville, Georgia. Most of the town, in truth, smelled like sweat and Coors Lite, but Freddie’s travels had taught her that a lot of small towns did, and it was an ultimately a completely bias opinion on her part and not at all based in fact.

            One she wouldn’t be retracting anytime soon, though.

            “It looks like it, yes,” she said, seated at the booth.

            “He’s got his little lady with him, too,” Earl grunted. Earl didn’t smell marginally better, what with the gregarious amount of chew stuffed in his cheek. He seemed a little more in control of himself, though.

            “You want us to git him?”

            “No, Mr. Duncan, I think I want to meet him at her house when I do this.”

            “Shyit, yer not fixin’ on killin’ nobody, are you, Ms. Lounds?”

            Earl kicked Duncan under the table for cussing. He was particular about those things in front of a lady.

            “Sorry,” Duncan muttered.

            “I’m not the killing sort, I promise,” she assured them. “Girl scout’s honor.”

            “What’d you do in girl scouts anyway?” Earl wondered.

            “Baking, mostly.”

            “I love those cookies they got those kids selling. Once a year, I buy a whole box and go nuts,” Duncan confessed. “Trefoils, mostly.”

            “What’s the plan, then, Miss Lounds?” Earl prompted. “We can help you work him over real good if you need us to.”

            Based on how intently and earnestly Earl was looking at Freddie, she figured he’d help her hide bodies if she asked sweetly enough.

            “I think that now that I’ve found them, gentlemen, I can take it from here,” she said. Clark Ingram was wearing a baseball cap and glasses, as conspicuous and sad as the first time Freddie had tried to dye her hair blonde to go undercover for a report.

            Frying half of her hair off taught her that wigs were a far better, cheaper, and painless option.

            “Are you sure?” Earl pressed.

            She flashed him a sweet, bright smile. “How about you two give me your numbers in case I end up needing some help?”

            Earl and Duncan both liked that idea. She was given their cell numbers, their work numbers, and the house numbers because a woman named Debbie said it was a good idea to keep a house phone as well as cell phones. Whoever the hell Debbie was.

            “I don’t give much cares to the house phone, but she likes it. Says it makes her feel mighty so-fis-ti-cated,” Earl explained.

            They paid for her meal, bought her a beer and wished her luck. The smell of Coors Lite lingered, although they took the stench of chew with them. All in all, a nice sort of men, if one could get over just how bad they smelled. Their speech, too, was something for the books. Surely not everyone outside of Atlanta talked like that?

            Any outliers of that atrocious accent certainly didn’t live in Barnesville. As the bar filled up, she heard enough people talking that she could almost say that Duncan and Earl sounded like ‘mighty damn fine’ speakers, indeed. She noted dips and curls to the ending of words, lazily tossed either which way, and she mouthed along with them as she waited. Good practice for her writing and all.

            She wasn’t interested in the people around her, though. Unless rednecks with heavy accents suddenly started killing children up and down the dusty main street of their town, her focus was wholly and completely on Clark Ingram and his partner in crime that were seated about twenty feet away with their backs to her.

            They would lead her to Will Graham. She was sure of it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20:

            Will Graham was woken abruptly at 4:09 A.M. with someone choking the life from him.

            In the darkness, he couldn’t see. The pressure alone hurt, hurt, and he gagged on air that wouldn’t come as he thrashed and tried to climb from his blankets. Their knees dug into his sides, their pelvis ground into his gut, and when he gagged again, there was a disorienting sensation of his eyes trying to pop out of his head.

            The only thing, in truth, that saved him was the two of them unceremoniously toppling from the bed as Will Graham fought for his life.

            They fell on their sides, hard. The sudden release of the burning pain on his neck gave way to huge gouts of breath that flooded his veins and made him dizzy, enough that he swayed as he scrambled over and climbed on top of his assailant, gagging on air that he desperately needed.

            Whoever they were, they wouldn’t be deterred. As he tried to straddle him and take control, the man’s legs swung up and wrapped around his neck, dragging him back to the ground as he choked him with his ankles, instead. Will struggled, fought feebly, then repeatedly slammed his legs into the man’s chest, blinking stars from his eyes. Was this it? Was this going to be the end for him, strangled in his opulent prison cell in the middle of the night because someone hated him that much?

            No. No, no, no.

            He shifted and slammed his foot into the man’s gut, knocking the breath from him. Pained, the man relaxed just enough that Will broke his hold and managed to gather his feet up under him, standing and swaying as he caught himself against one of the posts of the bed and wheezed. His lungs burned, his eyes burned, and he thought of Jack Crawford bleeding out on the floor, weakly trying to crawl to his phone for help. Vulnerable. That’s what it was, vulnerable. Someone was trying to waste his life.

            They were attempting to stand. Will shifted and used the weight of his body to swing his leg around, kicking the attacker right in the side of the head. There was a grunt, a wet sort of sound as spittle flew from their mouth, and it seemed to bolster him, made Will’s muscles burn with an urge to hurt, to maim. As the man dropped to the floor, Will climbed on top of him and grabbed him around the throat, squeezing as tightly as he could manage. They struggled, and he imagined their eyes bulging as his had; furious, confused, and disoriented as the dregs of sleep clung to his mind and made it hard to see this as real, real. Spurred on by the gulping, gagging sound, he dug his thumbs into his windpipe, growling.

            He wasn’t accounting for the knife that suddenly bit into his side.

            He felt it scrape his rib, and a burning pain ricocheted, left him cringing off of the man as he clawed at the blade, trying to pry it from his skin. He’d never been stabbed before; movies always made it seem either a casual affair or an all-encompassing pain that never ended, gallons of blood across the floor as a mere pocketknife carved paths of death through enemies and heroes alike.

            He ripped it out of his side, and fuck; it hurt more taking it out than putting it in.

            They were on top of him before he had the chance to really breathe, really feel just what was happening to him, and in a desperate, wild throw of his arm, he swung the knife up. His side burned, spit curses and made him try to cringe away from his own body, from the pain that thump, thump, thumped with every heartbeat. In his wild throw, the blade met skin, sunk deep.

            It parted as easily as cutting paper.

            There was a brief resistance, then blood poured like a waterfall, hot and coppery as just at the edge of what he was fast realizing was the man’s neck, the knife got stuck. Will let out a choking, gasping wheeze, and it was in his mouth, tasting like an electric shock on bare skin.

            “N-no, no, no, no,” he moaned, horrified as the body slumped into him, far heavier than a body had any right to be. He gagged on the taste of blood and wriggled out from beneath him, dragging himself to his feet. He stumbled, ran into the dresser, then managed to find his way to the lamp, turning it on with fingers wet and sticky, slick with the feeling of what someone else’s life looked like.

            He turned back to stare down at the body of Matthew Brown.

            “No, no, no,” he whispered, and he slumped down beside him, trying to staunch the flow. Even without a medical degree, he could see it was no use; his entire throat was slit wide, wider than a throat had any business to be. It was a deep cut, a mere inch difference between halving his head and merely giving it a second, wider-set mouth, and bile rose up in the back of his throat.

            Matthew Brown stared unseeing to the ceiling –one eye green, the other blue.

            “No, no.”

            The blood was spreading, reaching, clawing for him. Will sat huddled in it, his pajama pants greedily soaking it up as his hands tried to scoop up what they could to put it back in him, like somehow he could fix what he’d done if he just tried hard enough. His lips were painted red, and he could taste it on his teeth. He gagged on the smell, on the feel, and he had to take short breaths through his nose.

            Will was only distantly aware of the sound of thunder, the murmurs of concern as people came to investigate the noise then the sudden absence of it. A faint afterthought made him remove the knife from the side of Matthew’s neck, and it fell to the floor with a dull, desolate thud. It’d gotten stuck somewhere there, halfway through decimating vital arteries. Will wondered if someone sewed it back up, they could get him working right again, like a little toy soldier to stand at attention in Hannibal’s army of killers. His eyes shined bright enough. They shined too bright. One eye green, the other blue.

            “Will,” someone said, but Will didn’t quite hear it –not the way one should hear. It was a distant, echoing thing, something that reverberated deep in his bones, chilling in the way it pulled at something in him, something he couldn’t name.

            He was helped to his feet; dazedly, he looked about and saw dozens of people huddled near the doorway, whispering, staring. He could pinpoint Beverly there, then Saul, then Molly –Molly, with cold hands and a warm son. Off to the side, Francis stared, and Will’s head bobbed as he looked to the one holding him up, the one supporting him as his legs threatened to give out from under him again.

            “Will,” Hannibal prompted kindly, and a tremor wracked him, made him fall against his shoulder as he looked down to the body of Matthew Brown. Too much blood. Costume blood, he’d called it while watching movies. He wondered if he tasted it, if it’d come away with the feeling of corn syrup.

            He licked his lips; definitely not corn syrup.

            “Will, look at me,” Hannibal murmured, and Will looked at him helplessly, mouth working as he tried to find a way to say the words, say something to protect himself, to defend himself.

            This was self-defense, wasn’t it?

            Then why did he feel so dirty?

            “He…he…” He couldn’t find the words. Staring into Hannibal’s mismatched gaze, he was at a loss, a complete loss as the weight of his actions settled across his shoulders, a mantle that dug claws deep to his skin to hook in. He’d just murdered someone. He’d just murdered Matthew Brown.

            One eye green, the other one blue.

            Hannibal cradled his jaw as he held his gaze, and if he minded the blood, it didn’t show on his face. There was a kindness in his expression, a sort of mercy as he brushed his thumbs along Will’s cheeks, held him prisoner with the sensation of a sort of stability as the rest of the ground gave way. It was hypnotic, mesmerizing. Will’s raspy gasps gave way to short breathes that folded elegantly into deep, even inhales as he stared at him, counting the irregular heartbeats just beyond his ribs.

            After a minute that spanned an eternity, Hannibal released him and looked towards the group that still clustered, staring. Gaping.

            “Mr. Hobbs, if you’ll take care of Matthew Brown for us,” he said, and Hobbs worked his way through the onlookers in order to heft Matthew’s body onto his shoulder. Will tracked him as he waded back through, disappearing into the darkness of the hall as though Matthew were nothing more than a sack of potatoes to take to the pantry.

            “If someone would clean Mr. Graham’s room up,” he said, and someone else broke away in order to hunt down cleaning supplies. “And if someone would find him a change of clothes, we can take the next step forward.”

            He was shifted to the side, just enough that people could begin their work. His bare feet sunk into the carpet, soaked as it was with Matthew Brown’s blood, made the spaces between his toes wet and tacky. In the lamplight, it took on a lurid shade, something dark and enticing. In the mirror above the dresser, he stared at himself, the startling shock of his person making his skin cold and clammy, making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

            The cut of his jaw was angular, the scruff of his beard wiry. Blood trailed through his hair, down his face, along his cheeks; his neck was darkened with it, streaked with lines that ran rampant to the collar of a pajama shirt that stuck to his chest.

            Set above the macabre display of his deeds, two deadened, muted blue eyes.

            He wasn’t quite sure when, but someone prompted him to the bathroom where he was able to change his clothes, the blood-stained ones removed by an analytical and resolutely quiet Francis. It was then that his wound was discovered, just large enough to be a concern. Perched on the edge of the tub where Molly had doctored him with her cold hands and her warm son, Francis crouched before him with a hand on his knee, lip twisted into something much like a mix between a displeased frown and a child-like smile.

            “You survived,” he said simply.

            Will nodded.

            “That is what you have to do around us. You survive.”

            Will nodded again.

            Francis nodded to the wound, hand gentle on his knee. “Do you want me to fix that?”

            Will thought of Red Dragon’s hands on him, how his head burned and the world spun too fast to catch, blurs of colors that streaked and stained his vision. He shook his head.

            Francis didn’t press him. He squeezed his knee once, stood, and stepped out of the bathroom to fetch someone else.

           Will stared down at the spot he’d been stabbed, but apart from the burning sensation, it didn’t feel altogether too horrible. Felt better that Matthew Brown’s own stab wound felt like, that was for damn sure. He chocked it up to shock; it was hard to feel pain when he was stuck reliving what it’d felt like to cut through living flesh. Far, far too easy.

            The wound wept slowly, like it had all the time in the world.

            It was Hannibal that led him to the infirmary, but it was a daze of too many faces and not enough space. He was seated on one of the metal slabs, and Hannibal presented him with a small handful of pills, brightly colored in the otherwise bleak, stark room.

            Will took them without complaint.

            “You’re not afraid that I gave you poison?” Hannibal asked lightly, retrieving a tray of tools. His eyes cut to the side as he worked, keeping a close watch on Will.

            Will lifted his arm dazedly and allowed him to begin cleaning the wound. It smarted something vicious, spreading along his spine to his toes, but he held still. Better to feel like shit than to feel like Matthew Brown, he supposed.

            “If they are, it wouldn’t matter,” Will said, staring at nothing in particular. “I’m already dead.”

            “I’m already dead,” Hannibal murmured, and it sounded like a sort of prayer. “Don’t go too far away, dear Will.”

            Dear Will. Dear God. Will stared bleakly at the cupboard across from him, a small label at the bottom declaring it ‘gauze, sterile pads, antiseptic’.

            “…Where would I go?” he asked hollowly. No home. Not away from this. Not somewhere safe. Trapped as he was in Hannibal Lecter’s lair, just where could he go that Hannibal wouldn’t be able to follow?

            “Into your mind,” he replied lightly. “Internalizing is what you do. Everything you see, you become some part of. You take it into yourself and reflect the world around you.”

            “…He was trying to kill me,” Will whispered. “I just wanted him to stop trying to kill me.”

            “Aptly done.”

            “His eyes changed,” he said, and he felt like he was going to puke. “He tried to kill me because his eyes changed.”

            The side of his ribs slowly turned numb, and as he breathed shallow, cold breaths, his skin every so often tugged and twisted as Lecter stitched him back together. As the pain killers kicked in, he felt himself floating, a space between sleep and wakefulness, a space between life and death.

            He looked over to watch Dr. Lecter work. The stitches –what he could see of them –were neat and even. He worked with a clinical touch, purely professional as he put him back together. He only glanced up once, briefly meeting Will’s eyes before he went back to his work, head bowed and hands steady.

            Will stared at the reflection in the metal of the cupboards; two unfocused blue eyes stared back.

            When Hannibal was done, it was bandaged and he was given his clean shirt. He was given a rag to wash his face of the dried blood, and when he felt that he got most of it off of him, Hannibal led him to his office so that he could seat him by the fireplace.

            Will stared into the embers and counted the pops of the wood. Numb. Numb was nice.

            “What are you thinking, Will?” Hannibal asked. He sat across from him, one leg hooked over the other, back sunk deep into the cushion. The clock on top of the fireplace chimed the time. Five o’clock.

            “I’m…trying not to think at all,” he managed, and he stared into the fire. It licked and caressed the wood, even as it devoured it. The wood lay still, still as death, still as Matthew Brown laid on the floor of his gilded cage. He shuddered, but it was a disjointed thing, a disconnect between his mind and his body. Whatever pain killers Dr. Lecter gave him, they were good.

            “How did it feel when you killed him?” Hannibal asked. It somehow sounded reverent.

            “…Intimate.” He could still taste his blood in his mouth. He could still feel the grain of the leather-wrapped handle in his palm. A sob started to build, but it was stifled by his heavy, ugly breath.

            “What associations crowd your mind?”

            “Dr. Lecter…” Will managed to tear his eyes away from the fire, and he stared across at his old therapist, his jailer, his mortal enemy. “I…I don’t want to think about this right now. I don’t…want to think at all. Can…can we just stop your games, for now?”

            “Can you shut off your mind so easily?”

            “I can try,” he said, agonized, and he slid deep into the seat of the chair, turning his head back to the fire. “I can certainly try.”

            He felt Hannibal’s eyes on him, even as he slipped into a desolate wasteland of dreams.

-

            Clark Ingram was in a bit of trouble.

            Jack Crawford’s silence in regards to the news was broken, it seemed. As he hunkered farther and farther into his chair and watched television, the more uneasy he became, so much so that when Emma returned with a cheap, flimsy hat from the gas station, he put it on with the sort of panic best left to prey, not predators.

            “Relax,” she hissed under her breath to him. Clark watched her pluck and pick at the fried pickles she’d ordered, casual in her mannerisms. “You acting like this is only going to get you caught.”

            “Easy for you to say, you’re not on the news,” he muttered. When his face flashed up again, he cringed lower into his seat. Following it were the faces of Molly, Beverly, Saul, and Francis. Following those, of course, was Hannibal.

            “That’s because I wasn’t so stupid that I waved to Jack Crawford as I left, and I wasn’t so dumb that I lost my wallet at the fucking crime scene,” she retorted. “I’ve had my face in the news before. I survived.”

            “Yeah, and how many of you and yours are left not behind bars?”

            The glower she gave him could have melted the rubber off of the soles of his shoes. “I wasn’t hired to be your emotional nanny, I was hired to transport you from your job to the house. When the cargo cooperates, it’s a fairly easy job.”

            “What other cargo have you transported?”

            “Where they arrived safely to their destination, I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you.”

            He was only mildly mollified by her successes –whatever they were.

            “If they-”

            “If I buy you another drink, will you shut up?” she hissed.

            They glowered at one another, but he conceded. Another drink was produced for him, and they were left to their little corner of the bar where people cut glances and sent whispers trembling along the air.

            He desperately tried to convince himself that it was because they ‘weren’t from around here’.

            He’d had a bit of a head rush, waiting like that, though. The gas station bathroom had just been cleaned, and the guy had even tossed an air freshener in there that didn’t make the entire place smell like ‘shittrus’. The little gas station manager had been easy to terrify under the desk, and the feeling of the blade sinking into the mouthy FBI agent’s skin kept Clark awake with the kind of exhilarating pleasure that he’d been searching for since his last kill.

            It hadn’t been a woman, but the rush of getting one up and over the FBI made his head light in a different sort of way.

            “You two doin’ alright over here?” the waitress asked.

            “Just fine, thanks,” Emma replied.

            “Sounds good, just holler if you need anything,” the woman urged, and she sidled away with a tray of beers.

            “Have you ever killed before?” Clark murmured when the news cut to commercial.

            “You’re trying to lay low, and that’s the conversation you strike up in a bar?” she asked skeptically. “Just shut up and drink your beer.”

            Any other woman that tried to speak to Clark like that, he’d have slipped into their bedroom the same night and put his hands around their neck. She was one of Hannibal’s, though, and Hannibal didn’t pick just anyone for the jobs that put someone out in the public. He was meticulous in his choices, careful.

            If Emma was the one ensuring he was brought to the house alive, Clark wasn’t quite so sure he’d even get one foot in the bedroom.

            So, he shut up and drank his beer.

            They rolled out of the bar with a crowd of people that had designs on a Waffle House. Clark wasn’t quite sure what the hell a Waffle House was –someone mentioned a grit was involved with it? –but he was buzzed enough that when someone clapped him on the shoulder to tell him that he was ‘a man among men’, he was just calm enough that he could laugh, thank him, and continue walking.

            Out on the freeway, Emma drove sober while he lolled about in the passenger seat.

            “That sign out there said ‘fresh fruit stand’,” he said to her, squinting out of the window.

            “It did.”

            “We should stop and get some.”

            “If you wanted food, you should have followed the herd headed to Waffle House. It’s the only 24/7 shop in a one hundred mile radius,” she replied. “Besides, we’re not stopping ‘till we get there.”

            “We’re close?”

            “Ish.”

            Clark hadn’t been allowed to know where the big house was until he’d completed his job. He supposed it was a test of sorts, that Dr. Lecter wanted to see how committed he was before he let just anyone join his following.

            Clark had never been one for groups and followings and cults, but to finally find a place where his urges were not only accepted, but welcomed, he figured he’d make a few adjustments. Learn to be flexible. Broaden his horizons from the women he took out for drinks to the occasional FBI agent.

            Besides, Lecter had told him that if he killed Agent Zeller, he’d have at least five different girls waiting at the house for him, all ready and ripe for his choosing.

-

            Will dreamt of a thousand skies and a thousand stars. He traced them with his eyes, and when they leapt from the air and came raining down in spirals of luminescent fire, he spun around them with outstretched hands, reaching. He grasped with a need that ached, everything just out of reach of his wanting, hungry fingertips.

            There was one that landed into his palm, perfect and burning and bright. Without hesitation, he cradled it close and consumed it, something that crawled through his veins and burned, burned down the column of his throat. The world around him spun, bent, and as the fire seared through his veins, he gazed upon the burning embers of light above and had a sensation of everything being just right.

-

            Agent Crawford walked along the hall of the hospital with resolute, slow steps. His phone call with Bella hadn’t sounded so good; he chocked it up to her having to do this alone, seeing as how he was states away without any sign that he’d be home soon. He wondered about his brother, if he should maybe call him –just to have him check up on her, of course. Bella was a strong woman, resilient in the face of any challenge.

            Still, just to know that someone was there to support her would be nice.

            “Agent Crawford,” the nurse at the desk said with a smile. She accepted his entry into the ward without checking his ID, as he’d been there enough. Zeller was looking better, although he hadn’t woken up yet.

            Brain activity is there, the doctors assured him. There’s still a chance that he can recover from this.

            At least one of them might. There was nothing that Jack could do for Lloyd.

            How does it feel?

            “Evening, Zeller,” he said, walking into the room. Time with enough wounded agents had taught him that there were faster recoveries when one still engaged with them verbally. One of his agents that’d taken a hit in the field informed him that they could recall each and every word he’d said to them, logged away in a place where they found the strength to come back to the real world and live.

            Fuck, just how many of his agents had taken a hit? Stood at death’s door? Waited for him to save them? Waited for him to do what he felt like he was an absolute failure at?

            “All that we can say for certain is that we’ve got a pretty good lead,” said Crawford. He took his coat off and hung it on the rack by a chair, along with his winter hat. The heater by the wall hummed in return, kicking on.

            “See, I’m getting in reports of new recruits and officers from some of these small towns, and there’s two precincts that are delayed in giving me what I need,” he continued, and he went over to the heater to turn up the dial. “Both are good spots with a lot of widespread property, and I’m giving them a few more days before I turn up the heat. But progress, Zeller. That’s what Starling calls progress.”

            He turned around to face Zeller, finally having worked himself up to seeing the pallor cast over his agent’s skin, the closed eyes and bruises brushed into the hollow of his cheeks.

            How unhappy for him, then, to see that there was no Zeller in the bed, stubble having reached epic proportions for one that so easily grew a beard.

            Instead, a note rested just at the pillow, the handwriting so glaringly familiar that it seared Jack’s vision, leaving him blinking curling whorls of ink from his gaze as he bellowed for the nurse just down the hall.

            And darkness and decay, and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over us all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21:

            Will woke with an urgency that belied the dragging weight of his muscles. There was a disorienting lack of knowing just where he was and how he’d gotten there; it took far too long for him to realize that it was Lecter’s office and that he’d fallen asleep in the armchair. His neck ached, and his back cringed from the awkward angle. The fire had gone out hours before, ashes cooling against the stone. He stared at them, then found himself rising to his feet, needing something.

            Down the darkened halls he ventured, a weird sort of urgency that pushed, pushed. He paused at a corridor, unsure, then turned to the right, the very blood in his veins urging him forward, whispering that if he just walked faster then it’d be alright –run, if he could. His side burned; he couldn’t. He couldn’t run, but he could hurry, hurry fast.

            Will stopped just before a door that he found to be locked after a brief test of jiggling the handle. His hands passed over the frame, glided along the heavy, sturdy wood that remained as a barrier to him –a barrier to what? He pressed his fingers to the whorls of the wood, like he could ingrain his fingerprints to it if he pressed hard enough. He was becoming part of this place, he thought dazedly. He was bleeding into the walls, the paint, the hunger. He wondered if Molly would tell Wally to trust him now.

            Go, go, something urged, and he pushed harder. The smoke of dreams still curled through his mind, foggy and hot in the lungs, and he leaned against the door, pressing his cheek to it. Go, go.

            He gave a start when the sharp sound of a lock turning cracked through the otherwise silence of the hall.

            The door opened, and Will stepped back to give them space. He shifted impatiently from foot to foot, a tremor working its way through, him; when the door opened just enough to admit him, he pushed it the rest of the way, a hiss of aggravated air rushing past his lips. He had to go; he had to go.

            “Will-” they said, but Will wasn’t listening. He was pressed against him before he could truly think, before he could fight against the rush of endorphins that flooded him as his skin met skin, as his heartbeat thudded once, twice. It was dizzying, the sense of utmost relief as he pressed his face into the hollow of his neck, needing something –contact, exposure, relief.

            It was a drug, and it washed over the walls of his mind, leaving him drunk off of the sensation of just what it was to feel sweet, sweet peace. Arms wrapped around him, and god, could it feel any better? Could he feel any more at ease? This thing that lay draped around him, this chemical reaction that made his muscles loosen their tension, made his bones stop grinding against his sinew; he blinked starlight from his eyes, imprints leaving bright lights in his vision.

            It was that thought that prompted him to look up, to blink past the haze that reassured him that everything was going to be alright if he just touched. Shock was a dousing of cold water across his skin, a sharp plummet in his stomach that sent him stumbling back from him, falling over himself where he landed on the floor of the hall, hard.

            “No, no,” he whispered, horrified. No, this wasn’t true; no, this hadn’t happened. In all of his nightmares, in all of his wildest thoughts that ran rampant throughout an imagination that more often than not sought his destruction, he hadn’t thought to consider such a thing, such a fucking thing that had less than a one percent chance of occurring:

            A staggered connection.

            Hannibal Lecter was his soulmate.

-

            “Dr. Chilton, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.”

            “No trouble at all; this is a messy business, as I’m sure you know,” Frederick replied. He didn’t often like to play the martyr; it stemmed from an issue that he had with pride, according to the psychiatric evaluation he’d done on himself years before. “I have agents swarming my establishment, investigations on all of my employees, bad press…I found a reporter in one of my laundry bins, trying to hide from security.”

            “Well, with three people of your employ aiding Hannibal Lecter in his current killing sprees, we have to take precautions,” Jack replied.

            “Three?” Frederick sniffed.

            “Three,” Jack affirmed. Frederick often equivalated him to that of a bull dog because of his mannerisms. He could almost hear him setting his jaw as he continued, “Further information has revealed that a Matthew Brown of your establishment is working with Dr. Lecter.”

            “Matthew Brown?” Frederick said, scalded. “No, no, I haven’t employed him for at least three years, Agent Crawford. You can’t blame me for him.”

            “No one is blaming you for anything,” Jack replied calmly. “What can you tell me about him?”

            Frederick found himself pacing, a certain sort of unease at a question like that. Despite sitting before many a certifiably insane person with a magnifying glass, he didn’t take well to being in what he’d heard his employees call ‘the hot seat’.

            “Dr. Chilton?”

            “Yes, yes,” he said, irritated. “It takes a moment to try and remember someone you fired years ago.”

            “Fired?”

            “Matthew Brown, yes…yes, I fired him.” He nodded, the memories slowly surfacing. “He had a habit of speaking to the patients. It wasn’t anything altogether horrible, but it is a rule here. I don’t like the orderlies getting too friendly with the patients; it breeds the idea that they could potentially get them a lighter sentencing if they were to become friends, or it could ruin the integrity of the screening procedures for letters and potential gifts that come into my establishment.”

            “Do you know what sort of things he’d say?”

            “Well, that was the problem of it,” Chilton replied, pacing. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but Crawford often made him feel like he had. “He would disable my microphones so that when I played it back, I couldn’t hear anything. Fired him right in front of everyone to set a better tone in my workplace.”

            “Did he speak often with Dr. Lecter?”

            “As often as he did any other.”

            “And there’s no way you could find out the sort of things they discussed?”

            “What is this, years ago he planned some sort of…of heist in order to free Dr. Lecter?” Frederick demanded. “All because I fired him?”

            The silence was long, the sort of silence Frederick liked to do when questioning people that came to his office. He could recognize it as a sort of power play, to see how long the other could hold out before speaking. Seeing his own tactics turned against him was in poor taste, in his opinion. He paused by a window and stared down at another set of agents that made their way up the steps of the hospital, suited and serious.

            “I understand that this is a frustrating thing for you,” Jack said after he supposed an appropriate amount of time had passed. “I’m just trying to do what you’re trying to do.”

            “Oh, are you?”

            “Help people as best as I can. Hell, we get Lecter fast enough, I may be able to persuade the courts that he’s still best suited locked up behind your bars rather than someone else’s.”

            “He is best locked up behind my bars, Agent Crawford! If it hadn’t been for-”

            “Thank you for the information regarding Mr. Brown. I’ll call you if I have anything else.”

            “Now wait just a moment! You’re saying that-”

            He wouldn’t be able to confirm what Crawford was saying, though. The call disconnected, and he hung up the phone, grinding his teeth. It was a bad habit, and sooner or later he’d have to do something about it, but there they were. There they were, and his hospital was under enough suspicion that he’d be lucky to get a borderline personality disorder sent to his doors, let alone anyone as rare as Lecter after this was through.

            A troubling state of affairs, indeed.

            He was musing and scowling out of his window at nothing in particular when there was a knock at his door.

            “Come in,” he said dismally.

            He turned around, and a man and woman entered the room, steps in sync. Her fair hair and pale eyes were a stark contrast to the man’s short, buzzed hair and darker skin tone, but from head to toe they were dressed the exact same. Chilton couldn’t have said if it was the eerie, blank expressions, or if it was the knowing look they gave one another, but it set his teeth on edge. He found himself grinding his teeth again despite the ache in his jaw, and it took far too long for him to relax, shoulders rolling forward then back. He thought their pattern and distinction odd, but no comment was made. If he wanted Lecter back in his cell, he’d have to play nice with the FBI.

            “I just got off of the phone with your boss,” he said by way of greeting.

            The man tilted his head slightly, his dark eyes fixated on Chilton with the sort of intensity that made Chilton nervous. His lip curled in retaliation, and his spine stiffened.

            “I don’t think you have,” the man said. He had a smooth sort of speech, the hint of a musician’s tremor to the words.

            “Haven’t I? Has the FBI sent another department? How many people are you going to have crawling through my work space?” Chilton demanded. The woman closed the door behind her, her head tilted as she surveyed Chilton from head to toe.

            “Is he what you thought?” she asked the man.

            “Oh, yes,” the man said lightly. “Exactly as he was described.”

            “Now see here, I want to speak with your boss! The FBI can’t send people left and right as they like, coming here and interrupting what-”

            “Do you want to speak with him?” the man asked.

            “Wh-what?” His interruption ruined Frederick’s tirade, muddled the whole thing. He’d had a couple of clever quips to toss in, just to really dig it to him.

            “Do you want to speak with him?” the man repeated, just as calm as before.

            “…Yes, in fact, I do.”

            The man produced a satellite phone, which was odd enough in Frederick’s humble opinion, but he made no comment on it.

            “It’s dialing,” the man assured him.

            “After I’m off the phone, I want to see your credentials,” Frederick muttered, and he put the phone to his ear.

            “Good afternoon, Dr. Chilton,” their boss said.

            His voice after all this time was chilling, sent an icy pain down his spine that froze him in place. It wasn’t so much that it had been a long time since hearing it, but rather what the ramifications were of his hearing. His eyes, wide with shock –and dare he admit a little bit of fear? –bounced from the woman to the man, and he managed to shuffle away from them, shaking his head.

            “No…” he managed, which wasn’t at all what he wanted to say. ‘Help’ would have been nice; perhaps a ‘someone call the police’ could have also sufficed, if he could have yelled. They were blocking the door, though, and he wasn’t the sort to leap from a three-story window just to try and save himself.

            “Oh, yes,” Hannibal Lecter said pleasantly. “Before you, you see two of my associates, I’m sure.”

            “…Yes,” Chilton said faintly. He broke out into a sweat, gaze bouncing between the two of them.

            “That is Tobias Budge, a lovely musician from the Baltimore Symphony, as well as Maggie Kester.” There was a pause, and one thing that Frederick hated most of all was Dr. Lecter’s ability to wield pauses far better than Frederick himself could. “You remember Mr. Kester, don’t you? Rick Kester?”

            Chilton’s knees buckled.

            He caught himself, though, and he leaned back against the wall as he stared at the woman and the man, side-by-side and perfectly calm. “Yes…” he managed, a break in his voice. “Y-yes,” he said, a bit stronger. “I remember.”

            “I found Tobias after he shoved the neck of a cello down a man’s throat to try and play his vocal chords,” Hannibal said. “And Maggie all but tracked me down through Francis Dolarhyde. She’s resourceful. The agent that brought her husband to you –you remember that agent, yes? –she killed by placing a magnet on his pacemaker. He had a bad heart.”

            “I don’t know where you are, Hannibal,” Frederick said, swallowing down the terror clawing its way up his throat. “I don’t know where you are, I couldn’t possibly…”

            “A long time ago, Dr. Chilton, I informed you that if I should ever manage to be released from your institution, I’d never forget you. You laughed and informed me that there was no such likelihood, seeing as how you held the key to my future.” There was a pause that oozed bitter delight. “Do you recall?”

            Frederick certainly recalled. He didn’t feel quite up to acknowledging it, though.

            “I’d hate to not keep my promises though, even after my release. I think it’d be quite discourteous of me. As I’m unable to personally sit down and catch up, seeing as how I’m currently busy, Mr. Budge and Ms. Kester were more than happy to come by.”

            “Dr. Lecter, really, you don’t have to-”

            “Oh, but I do, Dr. Chilton. I keep my promises, however I may.”

            The line went dead. There was a prolonged pause; Chilton was quite familiar with pauses and just how varied they could be. He used them far too much in his work, or so the critics said. There were some pauses used to illicit guilt. There were some pauses used to test people, to wait out their impatience until they couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Some pauses were used to deliver a particularly good jab against colleagues that didn’t understand his genius. There were some pauses when Chilton struggled to come up with something that fit the narrative of what his diagnosis was on an inmate –those pauses were especially troublesome for him and kept him awake late at night. Dr. Bloom informed him that he had those sorts of pauses all wrong, although he humbly thought otherwise.

            This was a pause of resignation, though. It was a stalling sort of pause, the kind when one realizes just the sort of situation they’re in right before everything falls to pieces. He could see this pause in all of its wretched glory, see it for what it was and what it meant for him. Chilton numbly hung up and passed the phone back to Tobias Budge’s patient and waiting hand.

            “It’s so nice to finally meet you in person. When you testified to have my husband killed by lethal injection, I thought a meeting was long overdue,” Maggie gushed. She had matching brown eyes, flat and soulless despite her eager tone. “Let’s sit down and chat.”

-

            Freddie Lounds’ foot sunk into a particularly soft spot in the ground, and she cursed.

            She was only a mile or two into the woods, but it felt like an eternity. Her car was parked as discreetly as she could get it on a turnabout, and there was a moment of hesitation where she’d debated the honest pros and cons of just going back to it and calling the cops. She wasn’t cut out for hiking through the woods towards the potential hiding place of a den of serial killers. She was a writer, for God’s sake, not some woodsy folk.

            Investigative journalism and all. If Jack Crawford wasn’t going to play nice, Freddie Lounds figured that she in no way owed him anything that would help him catch Clark Ingram. He said find Will Graham, and she’d find Will Graham. Maybe get some kind of award for being the only one smart enough to hunt down the man that’d stuck an FBI agent with a stiletto with his partner not even fifty feet away. Jack Crawford was so concerned with sticking it to Lecter that he was missing the piss in the proverbial pie.

            It probably said something about her that she was more concerned with her story and her career than helping anyone -she often wondered if that made her a psychopath to some degree, that her successes were more important than their lives. As she picked her way around a particularly muddy patch near a fallen tree, she wondered at her gall, that she’d rather go about this the hard way than just call Crawford and tell him she’d found Ingram. Pride. There was a whole lot of pride involved.

            Maybe not a psychopath, but certainly a narcissist. She wanted the glory, and it’d be a damn good feeling to shove it in his face when she called him from the safety of her car with Will Graham in tow. ‘Found your guy,’ she’d say casually. Found him and I didn’t have to incarcerate someone else before I got to him.

            Her readers would just love that.

            She wasn’t quite sure about the girl that’d accompanied him, though. She didn’t seem the murdering sort -she had an innocent, mom-did-drugs-and-I-suffered sort of expression. Freddie couldn’t discount her, though; it was the innocent ones you had to look out for. There was something about her that was utterly recognizable, but Freddie couldn’t put a finger on it. Emma. Clark Ingram had called her Emma. Something to table later, after she’d saved the day.

            Hannibal Lecter had murdered at least fourteen people while aiding others in therapy, after all. You couldn’t discount the innocent ones.

            She wondered if Will Graham would allow a photo op of her saving him when the time came. Things to think about later, when she wasn’t sidling around a tree in order to avoid slipping down an unpleasantly muddy hill.

-

            Lloyd was woken abruptly by his phone vibrating off of the nightstand and onto the floor. Drug-induced sleep was difficult to wake from; it left thick dust over his thoughts and made his throat hoarse. He groaned, shifted, and tried to turn just enough to scoop his phone up. The wound burned in anger, and he triumphantly grabbed it before collapsing back into bed, sighing. He hurt. A lot.

            “What do you have?” he asked, turning the speaker phone on.

            “You’re going to want to see this,” Nick said by way of greeting. “I found it.”

            The laptop was far easier to reach. He kept it just to the side of him while he slept, for ease of access in case he woke with a hunch. He turned the brightness down as it started up and burned his eyes. The e-mail loaded, and he clicked the prompted link with a yawn.

            “I gotta say, these guys have a flare for the dramatic,” said Nick as Lloyd waited for it to load. “I think this is more theatrics than genuine belief, but maybe that’s just me trying to normalize these weirdos. Either way, it’s wild.”

            The page loaded to a black screen with red ink dripping from the top of the page to the bottom. Lloyd blinked lazily and stared at it, thinking of how his blood had looked dripping onto the pavement. The thought hadn’t come to him before; trauma, most likely, that his mind had repressed it until now. He’d laid there, pressed on top of the assailant, before someone turned him onto his back. His blood had dripped to the pavement much like it did on the webpage, and he wondered just who’d designed it to get the vision oh-so very right.

            “How’d you find it?” he asked. His voice was rough, gravel across concrete. He waved his mouse over the screen before it shifted from an arrow to a pointing finger on a particularly plain spot, and he clicked the apparent link curiously.

            “A bit of this and that. Say, I got a date lined up with a girl from that soulmate site. Wish me luck, right? They claim I’ll find ‘the one’ with just one date, but it can’t be that easy. I need to make a real experiment of this.”

            “Nick,” Lloyd cut in.

            “I mean, if she’s the one then I won’t complain, you know? Her photo was cute and all, but I’m not going to get too excited. It’s easy to get your hopes up, I’m sure, but-”

            “Good luck with the date –now tell me about how you found this place.”

            “You don’t really want to know, do you? Because if you do, I’m actually really fucking proud of it, but it’s kind of like ‘how do I cut this down to laymen’s terms so that you-”

            “You’re right,” Lloyd cut in irritably, waiting for the screen to load. “I don’t really want to know.”

            “I figured. So, you find the link yet?”

            Lloyd hummed an assent.

            “Here’s where it gets good, right? Has it loaded?”

            “It’s loading.”

            Nick’s excitement bled into the earpiece. “Guess what, it won’t ever load. It’s a dummy link. It makes you think that you’re going to, like, the next step, but then you don’t. You just look at this seventh-grade emo site for sad kids for ages and it never loads.”

            “So how’d you get in?”

            “Looks like these guys are basically recruiting those with a little bit of tech smarts. Smart on their part. They don’t just want fangirls, they want some real shit. If you basically hack into the interface –sounds more complex than it is, trust me –it pops up with a chat box that you can send a message to them through. They get back to you pretty quickly.”

            Lloyd froze, staring at the hourglass loading icon as it continued to turn and turn and turn. “I’m…guessing you did exactly that.”

            “Hell yeah,” Nick said with a laugh. “Guess who I’m talking to right now?”

            Lloyd’s blood went cold. “Who, Nick?”

            “Agent Francis-Fucking-Dolarhyde, that’s who,” Nick crowed. “I’m tracking their IP right now. I’ll send the information to Crawford once I find them. The little fucker’s trying to give me the slip, but I’m good. I’m damn good.”

            “Nick, do not engage with them,” Lloyd said, and he pulled himself to a sitting position with a wince. “You think he’s not tracking you and looking into your background as you try to find him? He was an actual FBI agent, not one of your tech buddies that you play Dungeons and Dragons with on Roll20.”

            “That’s a really sharp crowd, Uncle Lloyd,” Nick said off-handedly. “Don’t knock them just because one of them keeps playing a Halfling that dies every other session.”

            “Nick, I’m serious, don’t-”

            “Besides, you wanted my help, right? He won’t find me. I’ve got no trail that can be tracked, and this will show the FBI just how to find these ass holes. I’m helping you out, remember? That’s my job? That’s what you got ahold of me for?”

            “This isn’t one of your games that you can talk yourself out of if you get in too deep. One mistake, and you’re dead. Do you hear me? In the real world, to lose means that you die.”

            “I won’t lose. Don’t worry.” Nick was miffed; it sounded through on the speaker as he let out a curt huff of breath. “You’re welcome, by the way. I’ll call with more information.”

            “Nick-”

            He hung up, and Lloyd cursed, glaring at the screen that kept dripping blood with slow, lazy ease. A lot of animations made blood look odd, just different enough that no one took it seriously. They made it ooze rather than spread like water, reaching and grasping with all intents of a liquid set free from a container.

            Liquid spreads to meet the space in which it rests. In a cup, it is a cup shape. In a box, it is a box shape, his eighth grade science teacher said.

            He stared at the blood dripping, and he nodded to himself as he bookmarked, then exited the browser. Whoever made the animation certainly knew what it was like to see blood spilt. They had a perfect, genuine understanding of just what that looked like, had seen it often enough to know.

            And Nick was barreling straight to them.

            Oh, good!

Chapter Text

Chapter 22:

            Will paced the floors of Dr. Lecter’s office with a frightful vengeance.

            Dr. Lecter never questioned his stress tics, as busy and fidgety as they were. When agitated, he had a habit of chewing on his lips and cheeks so hard they bled. When he was afraid, he was either aggressive, or he paced to release the tension. Hands that needed to keep busy couldn’t in an office like Lecter’s, so they tapped on his hips. Will appreciated that no matter how he tried to gain control of his emotions, Dr. Lecter merely observed and never passed judgement.

            “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked after a painful five minutes of watching Will pace from the safety of his chair.

            Will stopped his pacing and glared at the bookcase to the side that housed Chaucer and Thorough. “I…I saw someone’s eyes,” he admitted, and God, that made it true. He rubbed at his eyes, like he could scrub away the potential imprint they’d made on him. “I’m so careful about it, but I saw theirs. I saw them.”

            “We’ve only briefly spoken about your aversion to eye contact, but this seems to stem towards something more than just ‘eyes are distracting,” Dr. Lecter noted.

            “What if we become soulmates? What if they’re stuck with me? What if I…I can’t…” He paused and fumed at a painting on the wall, like it was to blame for his misfortune. He wanted to rip it apart, feel the strips of threads from the canvas grate against his fingertips.

            “Your word choice is astounding, Will. ‘What if they’re stuck with me?’”

            “Soulmates take away your choice, Dr. Lecter,” Will said impatiently. He turned away from the bookcase and painting so that he could better emphasize his words. “I’m only about a year into schooling, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that. The fact that your own body takes away your choice, the chemicals in your mind calming you in their presence; whether you want to or not, every aspect of yourself is suddenly drawn to them.”

            “That sounds a lot like general attraction.”

            “General attraction doesn’t give you anxiety or genuine pain when you’re too far apart,” Will snapped. “It doesn’t make you feel their pain like it was your own, consume you to the point that at the first physical connection after waking, you all but fuck one another to try and get the urges in your skin to stop.”

            “Were your parents soulmates, Will?” Hannibal asked.

            Will jerked back as though he’d been struck, and he stared at Hannibal with a genuine expression of horror.

            “It’s not an unfair question,” he added, tracking Will’s slightest movements.

            “…It’s not,” Will agreed. He fumbled with words that lodged in his throat, and he coughed to dispel the pressure. “…They were.”

            “You don’t talk about your mother. We’ve talked about your father, but not your mother.”

            “My father’s dead,” Will said, and he’d paid monthly therapy bills for about a year in order to say that without having some sort of anxiety attack or dissociative episode attached to the fact. “My mother…might as well be.”

            “She’s not in the picture?”

            “She hasn’t been since I was a kid.”

            “What do you remember of her?”

            Will began pacing again.

            “…Questions about mom? I’m feeling…a little cliché,” he said to the vase near the wall. Dr. Lecter didn’t entertain a reply. He waited, as he always did while Will wrestled with the indecision of whether or not to share. He was a patient man. Will sometimes felt guilty that he made him wait so damn much. “…I’d lay on the chaise and cry a bit if I could sit still,” he tacked on needlessly.

            “You can do as you like, as you know,” Hannibal replied, amused. “This is your hour, Will.”

            “I don’t remember much.” He sat after a long, delayed silence. “I…remember that we had the same hair. Her hair, his eyes, her skin tone, his chin. I was comprised of parts from the two of them equally.

            “She had one blue eye, one hazel. When she wore certain colors, they almost looked the same. She left a lot, and I remember dad staring out of the window. He said she’d come back. Then she would, and he’d smile again. Then one time, she didn’t.”

            “Where would she go?”

            “Not too far, since he wasn’t in pain. I didn’t realize distance was a correlation until one day he was popping pain killers to try and make it stop. Then he got a prescription from the doctor so that the distance was numbed. Then when we ran out of money and had to move, he just found a way to get used to it.”

            “So your earliest memory regarding soulmates was the many ways in which it could go wrong,” Hannibal observed kindly.

            Will nodded as he pivoted and crossed the room once more; the steady thudding of his shoes on the floor was cathartic, calming. “Yes.”

            “You watched your father for years afterwards, seeing nothing but his pain and his resilience.”

            “Yes.”

            “So it stems closer to you fearing the reality of not being entirely in control,” Dr. lecter noted. In the quiet of the office, the only other noise was the clock ticking. It beat with the pulse just behind Will’s eye, and he turned from his pacing to stare at Hannibal with something akin to shame.

            “…My perceptions of people are already skewed due to…you know,” Will said. His shoulder twitched into a shrug.

            “Your empathy disorder.”

            “Yes.” He sighed, raking fingers through his hair. “ The idea of…connecting so much with someone that even as I take on aspects of who they are, they become the earth beneath my feet, the air I breathe…doesn’t that terrify you, Dr. Lecter? That simply by existing, they…change you?”

            “Yes,” Hannibal agreed. “You and I are just alike. We don’t enjoy the prospect of someone having the sort of effect on us that would change the essence of who we are.”

            “You don’t…bleed into people the way that I do,” Will said, staring at him. He focused on the spot just below one eye, where the cheekbone gave him the appearance of something not altogether human. “I have a hard time believing that anyone could change you.”

            “Some people, under the right elements.” He smiled, all canines. “I’ve certainly adapted to the needs of my patients.”

            Will frowned. “Did you have to adapt your therapy style to me?”

            “Would you want to know if I did?”

            “Yes.”

            Hannibal considered him, then nodded. “I did. I have always been able to sense a desperate need from you to be honest with yourself; however, there is a resistance you have in sharing such details that would ultimately help you. You have to stop being your own enemy.”

            Will sat down and stared at him, perched just on the end of his chair. “How…did you adapt to me?”

            Hannibal inched closer in his chair as well and rested his elbows on his knees. “You have a natural inclination to view the world as your enemy because of what it has the ability to do. I adapted my therapy so that you would see that out of any other place in the entire world, this was the one safe space in which you didn’t have to have your defenses up.”

            “You’d do that with everyone,” Will protested.

            “This is a safe place for everyone, yes,” he agreed. “But when you came to me and spoke of delusions of blood on your hands, dreams where you indulged in dark aspects of human nature, you spoke with the expectation of someone waiting for judgement.”

            “I’ve been told that some of my thoughts aren’t exactly…tasteful.”

            “Rather than simply assure you that your thoughts are valid, I shared my own with you, too.”

            Will laughed a little, humorlessly. “Do you not share a lot of yourself, Dr. Lecter? Don’t you open up to people?”

            “I’ve certainly opened up to my therapist,” Hannibal assured him. “And I’ve made a habit of opening up to you. You could refer to it as a form of quid pro quo: you’ve shared your secrets with me, so I have shared aspects of myself with you.”

            “Quid pro quo,” Will repeated, and he smiled crookedly. “I’ve given aspects of myself to you, so you gave me some in turn. I think that I can work with that.”

-

            The door didn’t lock.

            That hadn’t stopped him from barring it with a dresser.

            If the stitches in his side hadn’t threatened to rip, he’d have shoved the fucking bed there, too.

            They hadn’t had time to remove the bloodstains from the wood, darkened as it was, but someone had thankfully gotten rid of the rug. Will stared at the spot where Matthew Brown died, and he tried to focus on his breathing.

            Breathe in. Breathe out.

            His blood burned, whispered with a need that urged him to go just down the stairs where he knew Lecter was waiting for him, ever-so-patiently. He dug nails into the skin of his wrist and dragged, focusing on the pain of it rather than the whisper in his ear that said that if he just let him in, everything would be alright.

            He didn’t move. He couldn’t move. He wouldn’t move.

            The mirror above the dresser was shattered. Shards of it lay across the floor, scattered and disorganized pieces that lay every which way. The light from the lamp bounced from piece to piece, leaping and dancing about in a dour yellow glow. His fingers drummed listlessly across the surface of one, trying to resist the urge to stab it into his eye.

            What have you done to your eyes, Will? What have you done to your eyes?

            It was like a drug, he knew, the need to see him. It was a drug, a desperation of two halves to become whole, to balance the chemicals that churned within him that wanted, needed to be with him, needed to quiet the storm within that ached, ached worse than anything he’d ever felt before.

            He’d survived holding his father as he died. He could survive this. He could do this.

            He could do this.

            He looked down to the mirror shard, caught the colors of his eyes. One blue, the other maroon.

            “No,” he said calmly, staring at the fractured image. “No.”

            This was not the darkened halls of his mind, though, where doors opened to nightmares that he fought to contain. His ribs ached, his muscles ached, his eyes ached, and there was far too much of it that was real for this to be one of his dreams, something where he’d wake with a start in his bed, sweating but ultimately alright.

            Hold on, Jack had urged him on the phone, helpless as he was to help. Just hold on.

            He wrapped his hand around the oblong shape of the mirror shard and gripped tight enough to break skin. It sliced smooth through the first layer, brought beads of blood to dot along his skin. Did Lecter feel that? Could he feel it, waiting just forty feet away from him? What else could Will make him feel, now that they were irreversibly connected in a way that’d mark him forever?

            “No,” he growled, and he brought the shard violently to his eye.

            No.

-

            Beverly had to work especially hard to get away from Saul.

            It wasn’t so much that he was terrible to be around; in truth, he was a decent sort of person. He told cheesy jokes, he enjoyed classic rock, and he was respectful of the people around him.

            If she’d found him as her soulmate under any other circumstance, Beverly Katz knew that she could be happy with him.

            As she ducked under a low-hanging branch, satellite phone to her ear, she ruminated on that sour, honest truth: this was not a circumstance in which she could be happy.

            “It’s bad,” she said when they connected her to her boss. “I know you wanted to wait until the rest of the followers showed up to the house, sir, but I don’t think we can.”

            “And why’s that?”

            She sighed and skirted around a tree, gaze leaping around the ever shifting leaves. “Because, sir, Will Graham’s eyes changed.”

            Agent Hoff of the CIA let out a low, aggravated curse.

            “You’re sure?”

            “Saw it myself. One of the followers attacked him in the middle of the night, and Graham killed him in self-defense. Lecter swooped in, stared him down, and Graham woke up with a mismatched pair.”

            Hoff let out another curse, this one particularly exotic. “What’s their next move?”

            “They’re going to Crawford’s next, sir. They might postpone for a day now that Graham’s eyes have changed, though.” She paused beside a stout oak that still clung to his leaves. “Should I take out Ingram when he arrives? Saul got a call that from the transporter that he’s going to be here soon. She’s been driving him in circles because Lecter didn’t give the okay yet for him to arrive.”

            “Only if it can be discreet, Katz,” Hoff said. “Can you make it look like one of the others got their hands on him?”

            “There are a few teenage girls here that he may try to grab. I could make it look like a disgruntled father.”

            “Discreet.”

            “I’ve been discreet,” she shot back. “What do I do with Graham? Now that his eyes have changed, I’m worried that-”

            “I’ve got an idea,” a woman said, dropping down from the tree.

            The phone was dropped, and Katz was on the woman before she could even think to hesitate, before anything more than instinct and training could take hold. She’d been seen. She’d been heard.

            She had her gun to the woman’s temple and was prepared to shoot when she recognized just who it was.

            “…Are you Freddie Lounds?” she hissed.

            “Are you going to shoot an innocent civilian, Agent Katz?” Lounds asked. Despite being pinned from torso to ankles, she looked remarkably calm. Rumpled and muddied, but calm.

            “What the hell are you doing out here?” Beverly demanded.

            “Same thing as you, I’d imagine. Saving Will Graham, finding the nest of killers –only, your face is plastered over every single TV across the nation as one of the top five wanted in conjunction with Lecter’s escape.”

            After a brief moment of hesitation, Beverly clicked the safety back on with a muted snap!

            “Do you understand how utterly stupid you sound right now?” Beverly wondered. “How dangerous this is?”

            “Yes, the patrols out here are unfortunately thorough. I was almost found, and I had to climb that tree and hide out for a few hours. I was thinking about continuing on when I heard you getting patched over to what I assume is your boss back at your HQ.” She shifted once more and glared up at Beverly. “Can I get up, or are you going to hold a gun to me all day?”

            Beverly, after a beat, stood and helped Freddie Lounds to her feet.

            “Ingram should be here,” Freddie said. “They were turning onto a road when I started into the forest miles ago.”

            “How did you find him?” Beverly asked. She didn’t put her gun away, but she didn’t level it at Lounds, either.

            “He left his wallet in a bar, and I followed him.” She preened a bit, fixing her hair and tousling dead leaves from it. “He wasn’t the smartest. Lecter didn’t choose so well for that little venture.”

            “He’s not really a follower, but he was interested in the ‘amnesty’ that Lecter offered,” Beverly replied after a beat. “His test was taking out Agent Zeller.”

            “Is that how Dr. Lecter gets so many of them? He had Agent Dolarhyde track down killers out and about and welcome them to a little group therapy?”

            “That’s classified,” Beverly snapped. “Least of all to a reporter.”

            “Off the record,” Lounds said, and Beverly snorted. “I mean it. I’ve already got a good story going with getting Will Graham out of here alive. You let me help you, and I’ll keep you out of my articles.”

            “It’s a false identity,” Beverly said with an eye roll. “Whatever you put in there about Beverly Katz, it won’t mean much to me.”

            “Katz does seem like an outrageous name,” Freddie admitted.

            They stared at one another, the whistling sound of wind through the trees curling about them. Dead leaves scritched and scratched along one another as they tumbled about, and the sound of a bird chirping off in the distance punctuated Beverly’s long, morose sigh. She was used to slip-ups in this particular job –years before, when she’d first infiltrated Lecter’s following, it seemed that one thing after another had become a dangerously long list of slip-ups.

            “The CIA gathers intelligence,” she said at last.

            “Yes.”

            “When suspects to threats of terror against the government began moving towards Georgia, we took notice. I was to investigate and report back.”

            “Did you think it was a terrorist threat?”

            “We weren’t sure what to think.” Beverly put the gun away and grabbed the phone from a pile of leaves and twigs, closing it. Her boss would have hung up, waiting for another call that everything was clear. She had about ten minutes before he got nervous. “I got here, and although it wasn’t a threat to the government, this is a threat to national security. Lecter had Dolarhyde amassing a cult of killers from all over –not just the US. He’s got a few wanted men from the UK, some from Mexico, three from Canada. Dolarhyde promised them a safe space where the government couldn’t reach them, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s true. Common cell phones are no good out here, this place isn’t on any map, and when they had a guy at the Sherriff’s department, the stretch of road leading here was patrolled by him and him alone.”

            “Why haven’t you done anything yet?”

            “There were about thirty more that are supposed to meet here within a day or so, after the heat lessened. He wanted to strike then.”

            “Are they the thirty or so running around killing Will Graham’s?”

            “Yes.”

            “And Will Graham’s eyes?” Freddie prompted. “I heard you say that his eyes changed?”

            Beverly gave her a nasty, suspicious look.

            “…Off the record.”

            “That doesn’t matter. No, no,” she continued, lifting a hand when Lounds opened her mouth. “The situation is such that we need to pull him. It’s escalating.”

            “Did your boss tell you that?”

            “No, but I can draw my own conclusions. If you’re out here, Lounds, then I need you to get Graham out of here.”

            “You’re not going to do it?” Freddie Lounds asked.

            “I have my own orders, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help.” Orders. Orders like Saul, only Saul hadn’t originally been part of the plan. Beverly hadn’t planned for Saul, but now she had him and it made the years taste bitter. She felt his curiosity for her whereabouts like a warm jacket. Orders like Graham, only becoming remarkably good friends with Graham hadn’t been part of the plan; the look on his face when he realized she was part of Lecter’s clan had been a punch to the gut whose bruise hadn’t healed yet.

            Orders like killing any witnesses, only here was one stupid reporter prepared to get her big break –if she could live to tell about it.

            “Alright, Katz, what’s the plan? How are we getting Graham out of here?” Freddie asked. She had the nose of a journalist, and Katz hated it. She hated how the news spun things, how they fought and griped and pissed and moaned to get a story –whether accurate or not –and she hated people like Lounds most of all because here she was, a civilian in a room with a bomb about to go off, and rather than trying to protect her, Beverly was most certainly going to toss her to the den of wolves.

            If it got Will out safely, though…

            “Alright,” she said, and she planted her hands on her hips. “Alright, this is what we’re going to do.”

-

            Jack stood in Zeller’s hospital room. He wasn’t being of much use, in truth. He stood around the sea of agents, doctors, and security guards whose answers all culminated into one large, horrifying truth:

            No one knew where Zeller was.

Dear Agent Jack Crawford,

            It’s unfortunate that someone else had to bring this letter to you in exchange for Agent Zeller, but as you’re well aware, I’m quite busy at the moment.

            There are not many people in this world that you have a connection to. When I was planning and considering my actions, each step carefully laid out and analyzed, I spent a significant amount of time ruminating on who it is that you tend to spend your time with. Connections fostered through personal experiences and the sharing of like ideas is what brings people together, but imagine my surprise when I realized that you haven’t many people at all.

            There is, first and foremost, your wife. There is your brother, but you are estranged at best. There is Agent Jimmy Price, Agent Zeller, Agent Bowman, and Agent Dolarhyde –that betrayal must have been difficult, I’m sure. Surprisingly, the most intense and painful connection for you is none other than Will Graham, whom I have here at my convenience for awhile yet.

            Agent Dolarhyde works for me. Agent Bowman is deceased, and Will Graham is missing. With Agent Zeller now missing and gravely injured, I wonder at how you’ll tighten your grip on Agent Price. Your wife, to my understanding, is with a select group of people that have her location a secret, even to you. With only one person that holds the knowledge of her coordinates, imagine my surprise, once again, as the intel came to me that it was Agent Zeller who not only knew her security detail, but also her wherabouts?

            Soon enough, you will have nothing left, Agent Crawford. We often spoke of clock hands, the second hand consistently moving time forward without our consent. How small it is compared to the rest of the clock, but how instrumental it is at fostering change and eking away what little you have. Soon enough, there will only be you and me, and what a delightful thought that is.

Do get some rest. My sources say that you are looking rather unwell.

                                                                                                            -Dr. Hannibal Lecter

            He was rereading it a fourth time when Starling snatched it out of his hands and slipped it into a small Ziplock baggy marked ‘evidence’.

            “I’m not done with that,” he snapped.

            “I’m done watching you with that, sir,” Starling replied, and she handed it off to another grunt.

            She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but the sort of pretty that lingered and left imprints on the eyes. As they glared at one another, two starving dogs eyeing a piece of meat, it was surprisingly Crawford that was the first to relax his stance and look away, blinking her fierce glare from his retinas.

            “I wasn’t aware that Zeller knew where they’d relocated my wife,” he said bitterly.

            Starling hummed quietly and looked over to the bed that was neatly made, nary a hair follicle in sight that didn’t belong to someone in the room presently. In profile, her nose was sharp and a deep divot carved a shadow underneath her eye –lack of sleep. Crawford probably had one much like it.

            “Someone had to know. I don’t know, Price doesn’t know; if Zeller’s lucky, he dies from his injuries before he gets to wherever they’re taking him.”

            It was a dark sort of statement to make, but Jack took it in stride –it was the truth, no matter how ugly. He couldn’t quite imagine what Hannibal Lecter would do to him to get that information, but past exploits of the Chesapeake Ripper could give him some form of clarity.

            He hadn’t quite been able to forget what it’d been like to stare at flowers spilling out of the corpse of a man woven into a tree. In his dreams, he imagined himself woven into those branches, his woes caressed with petals that soothed, even as he died. Zeller was going to have a fate much like it if they didn’t get their asses in gear.

            “Still think that Price is not compromised?” he asked. “He purposefully mentions him as one of the few left.”

            Starling shifted her weight and planted her hands on her hips. “You can’t blame Lecter for your circle of loved ones being so small, Jack,” she said quietly. “You’re the kind of man that doesn’t let people in. It’d be easy to pick out those that he could use to jab at you.”

            “Will Graham doesn’t let anyone in, either,” Jack said heavily.

            “All the better for him –if he’s a steel wall, Lecter doesn’t have a chance of trying to change him.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 23:

 

            It was an anonymous tip to a specific address that led Crawford to a nest of the bastards in the end.

            “Can’t trace the e-mail that the tip came on, but they said they tracked the IP address to this place,” Price said in the SUV as the driver cursed and cut through a lane of traffic. They didn’t want sirens in case they spooked him, but they did want to get the drop on the bastard. “Got our best guys trying to see just who it was that did it, but it’s a ghost. Can’t figure who did the good deed.”

            “Maybe one of his own finally turned on him,” Jack grunted. He wouldn’t get his hopes up, though.

            “Was the flight bad?” Price asked sympathetically.

            “Red eye here, no sleep, on the road,” Jack said irritably. “It was a flight.”

            “Well, we wanted to be part of the team that got him, didn’t we?”

            Jack grunted. “We sure this address checks out? It could be a trap.”

            “They checked it out, Jack,” Price assured him. “It’s under the name of one of Chilton’s own ex-employees, and before that it was rented out to someone of the suspiciously familiar name ‘Matthew Brown’ before being bought out from the renting company approximately four years ago.”

            “Hell, it’s three miles from Graham’s old apartment.”

            “Well, it can’t all be about Will Graham,” Price said cheerfully. “If they were this close, it would be a good meeting place for Dolarhyde when he needed to hold Lecter Support Groups. Being close to Graham could be a coincidence.”

            Price tended to think that he was funnier than he was. If Zeller was awake and in full health, he would have bantered with him. If he was still alive, he could have laughed at least. If they knew where he fucking was, they could maybe tell him about Price’s bull shit later. Jack wasn’t quite sure if he was up to the task of bantering, but he was definitely up to the task of rounding up a Matthew Brown -or, at least whoever it was in that house. The ride in the jet had been a long one, his feet stuck to pacing along the floors as he waited: waited on the plane, waited to hear about Will, waited for full autopsy reports, waited for information on the cult. The hardest part of the job, he figured, was the feeling of always waiting –always one step away from where he needed to be.

            Which was exactly where Hannibal wanted him.

            “We’ve got a guy hacking Dolarhyde’s laptop to break the encryption,” Price said, checking his phone when it beeped. “He says that it could still take another day or so.”

            “Do you think Will Graham has another day or so?” Jack wondered.

            “…If what you said about his phone call is true, I think he has time,” Price replied gently.

            Jack wasn’t so sure about that. While time hadn’t given him a perfect understanding of Will Graham, he did know that Will was, first and foremost, a survivor. If he didn’t see a way out, he’d chew off his own tail like a rat stuck in a drain pipe if he thought it’d save him.

            The house that the SUV’s surrounded was a quaint, three story set-up with a white picket fence and a two-car garage. The driver, in his haste, bounced up and over the curb, and Jack gave him a nasty glare as he was thrown about before he hauled ass out of the vehicle.

            While he wasn’t part of the initial rush in, Jack did follow behind with a shotgun and the desire to make someone bleed coursing through his veins. The door was smashed open, and somewhere inside he heard the faint sound of someone yelling.

            Then all hell broke loose.

            In the back yard, there was the sound of a muffled, echoing whumph, then the loud crack of an explosion. Jack had seen explosions before, and this one didn’t quite make his top ten.

            It did, however, create just the right amount of pandemonium.

            Instinct was key in a fight. Jack ran to the side of the house as agents flooded inside, and he kicked the gate to the back yard open, finger on the trigger. Someone ran towards him from the side: bam. They dropped, and he headed towards the fire that was fast spreading across the backyard as agents tried to either detain or drop the dozens of bodies that were rushing every which way. Someone ran for him, knife in hand: bam. They dropped.

            Someone leveled a gun towards one of his men busy handcuffing a suspect: bam. They dropped.

            Bam, bam, bam.

             He wondered if he dropped enough of them, they’d finally stop coming out of the woodwork. Gunshots riddled the air, punctuated by shouting and the sound of crashing and shattering inside of the house. By the time Jack reached the grass where two agents were busy dousing the fire with water from the hose, the sound was slowly quieting around them, a sudden rush of noise that in the wake of the emotion, was left far too quiet in the aftermath. It made his ears ring, and he stared about the chaos that contrasted with the perfect shade of eggshell white on the fence.

            He’d only had to shoot six times. For an extended magazine on a shotgun, that was the perfect amount.

            As he looked back to the many bodies littering the backyard of such a quaint, lovely neighborhood, though, he wondered if it could really be called perfect.

            Wherever you go, death follows.

             “Sir, seven confirmed kills inside, fifteen confirmed in the yard,” one of the men said, holding his gun at port. “Ten living, either wounded or otherwise.”

             “Good job,” Jack said, looking about. “We’ll have a lot to do here.”

            He thought of Will Graham in those moments that haunted his dreams. No one often liked to think about what it felt like to almost die, but Jack relived it often. Shock and post-traumatic-stress gave the memory an odd distortion that made thinking on it oftentimes painful and unclear, but one thing that he always remembered clearly was the expression on Will’s face as he tried to help Jack hang onto the tenuous threads of life. His eyes, eyes that always seemed so afraid, were impossibly wide, and the sounds of his rasping breathing were nails dragging down his back soaked with sweat. Bella often woke him from nightmares where all Jack could hear was the sound of Will’s breathing.

            When he’d recounted the scene to the prosecuting attorney, they recorded it so that Will could recite it word-for-word on the stand. Stress ultimately trashed that plan, but they’d tried.

            God almighty, how they’d tried.

            “There was…blood,” he said, and he rubbed his eyelids roughly, knocking his glasses askew. “I…I looked around, and all that I could think was…there was too much blood. The human body contains maybe a little over ten pints of blood, and even if paramedics got there, would he even live? I could…feel him dying inside of my own skin. Every heartbeat…I thought, I’m going to have to feel someone else die in my arms, too. First my dad, now this man…and Hannibal Lecter did that. He…he did that.”

            “Three injured agents inside, none outside,” the agent continued. It pulled Jack from his thoughts like one removed their foot from a particularly stubborn mud hole –first slow, then all at once. “Ambulances inbound for retrieval. The explosion was from a crude bomb, looks like. Bomb squad will take a look and report back.”

            “…Good job,” Jack said again, hollowly. Looking about at the bodies caught unawares, he wondered what Will would think if he had to see so many bodies. So much blood.

            How does it feel?

-

            It was the pain that ultimately forced Hannibal to break through the barricade Will had made in front of the door.  

            Sitting there, cupped hands pooling with blood, Will tried to muffle the pained sounds. They issued past his lips like curt, short reports of a small caliber gun, and he was hauled to his feet with utmost care.

            He’d missed his eye, but he got his temple quite nicely. The twist of it curled along his cheekbone and down to his jaw. Hannibal looked it over, smeared his thumb through the blood, then sighed.

            “Oh, Will,” he murmured.

            Will held still, catching the drips that slid down his chin. His stomach roiled unpleasantly, even as there was a measure of peace at his presence, at the touch of his fingers that sent tendrils of warmth and assurance through his skin to his very cells.

            He wondered where the mirror shard was, and if he’d have enough time to grab it before Hannibal stopped him.

            “Don’t,” Hannibal murmured, still cradling his cheek. Warm. Assuring. “I can sense your intentions, Will. Don’t.”

             Will didn’t. His hands were still cupped with blood.

             He was led downstairs with the sort of care one gave delicate china; his ribs ached, and when he exhaled sharply, the side of his face ached. In that moment, the gentle touch of Hannibal’s hand on his elbow was the only respite, and even so it was a horrific one at that.

            What did he do to your eyes, Will?

            People idly went about their business in the hall, although their motions and intentions stumbled to a stop when they saw just who Hannibal was walking with. Their stares were pinpricks, and it made Will’s lips twist to a snarl, eager to bite and snap.

            “He’s…”

            “Dr. Lecter truly…”

            “What I wouldn’t give for…”

            “You’re blessed,” someone said at his side, and they touched his shoulder. Will didn’t stop to think; he grabbed them by the front of their shirt and slammed them into the wall, the sharp crack of it echoing down the hall. He felt everything in a slow, sluggish motion; the gaping mouths widened, the pool of blood that began its eager descent to the floor between them. The whispers stuttered to a stop, stunned, and the person before him froze, a deer in headlights.

            His blood splashed and spattered at their feet, and his fingers were slick with it. The seconds passed with harsh presses of his pulse at his neck, and their stare of horror and shock sunk deep beneath his skin like a bad tattoo. They were afraid of him. He’d made someone afraid.

            “Don’t fucking touch me,” he snarled, glaring at them. “If any of you people touch me again, I’ll kill you.”

            “I’m sorry, sir,” they whispered. “I won’t touch you again.”

            Their deference to him, coupled with their obvious admiration, blistered and smarted. After a harsh, slow breath, Will nodded in agreement and let them go, flexing his fingers. Bloodstained hands smoothed the rumpled fabric of their clothing, like he could somehow erase his actions, and he nodded again.

            “Come along, Will,” Hannibal coaxed lightly, and Will turned away from them, trying desperately to ignore the staring. He rubbed at the stiff, sour expression at his mouth, then blanched at the metallic smell that clung to his nose. He’d smeared his face with blood.

            Hannibal led him to the study where he was deposited at the small table. He stared down at his hands, his violent, capable hands. When Hannibal drew away from him to fetch a medic kit, they yearned to reach out and grab him.

            He tried to stomp those urges deep, deep down. His heartbeat stamped soulmate, soulmate, soulmate into his bones.

            “You’re in shock,” Hannibal said lightly, returning. He knelt beside Will to begin cleaning the wound. “And you tried to stab your eye out. You are sometimes prone to internalizing and punishing yourself that way, but you’ve never displayed an outward physical attack.”

             “I don’t want it,” Will murmured. “I don’t want your eye.”

            “Some aspect of you did,” Hannibal replied evenly.

            “No, you…set the foundations that would do this to me. You made this happen to me.”

            “I certainly didn’t make you kill Matthew Brown,” Hannibal returned. “He tried to kill you because of the half-connection born between the two of you, and you refused to let him.”

            “No, you…you encouraged it,” said Will, and he pressed his palms to the top of his pants, trying to rub the blood off of them. If he pushed too hard, would it instead sink beneath his skin rather than wipe away? At least he could say that this was his blood this time, not someone else’s. He let out a choking, rasping laugh. “We’re not the same; we only connected because you forced a situation in which the similarities of our minds would entwine. I’d remind you that there are laws against that, but…”

            The sudden antiseptic against his wound stung and made his eyes water profusely. He jerked away from Hannibal and stood in order to pace the length of the office, shaking hands rubbing roughly against his thighs, like he could wipe away the traces of what it’d felt like to have a person’s dead weight rest against his collarbone.

            “If it was just self-defense, Will, do you suppose that we’d have connected?” Hannibal wondered. His light, pressing tone was belied by the warm, pleased sensation of his contentment that Will could feel like a second skin. Content. Despite everything, the bastard was content with what was happening.

            But of course; he’d managed to give Will his eye.

            “There could have been many things that, in your mind, were perceived as self-defense when you killed. I don’t know your history, your…mind.” He paused and swallowed down the rush of far too much spit in his mouth. He wanted to throw up.

            “There is some kinship in it, though,” Hannibal said genially. “Say as you like, but there had to have been some part of you that –in realizing it was Matthew Brown you’d killed –took pleasure in seeing his death.”

            Will stopped mid-step at that, stung. Blood dripped lazily from his chin, a slow and staggered sort of thing as it clotted and dried. Standing calmly by the table, Hannibal regarded him with a hooded gaze and a crafty smile, and Will thought of the bedtime stories his father told, the ones where the heroes were sometimes lost in their search for glory and gold.

            “If they were pure, they’d have lived.” His father had said. “People like to speak of the pure-hearted ones, but they don’t tell of the many that died before the hero came, the ones that weren’t so pure. The ones that ultimately lost everything.”

            “…I enjoyed seeing Matthew Brown dead,” Will confessed, staring at Hannibal. “If anything, because it meant that there was one less of your cult left in this world.”

            “Did you take pleasure in the way that he died?”

            Yes.

            “…Killing him felt righteous,” Will replied. It scalded.

            “You know, I marvel at that,” Hannibal said, and he abandoned the medic kit in favor of pouring two cups of tea for them. When he offered one to Will, Will shied from it and folded his arms across his chest tightly. “You say, and you have said, ‘I’m already dead.’ I recall that moment in the court room, when you spoke to me and me alone. ‘I’m already dead,’ you said, as though no matter what your next step was, what your future steps were, you were ultimately branded by my actions. The moment you saved Jack, you knew there was a time limit over your head. I thought of that, as I paced the confines of my cell. ‘I’m already dead.’ Yet still you would kill each and every person in this house if it meant that you’d survive it.” 

             “How many nights did you lie awake, wishing fervently you’d just killed me instead?” Will sneered. 

            Hannibal stalked towards him, and the close proximity made him freeze, every inch of skin suddenly far too aware of how close he was. Now would be a good time to touch, his body whispered, betraying him. He locked his muscles, glaring. He swayed forward; he swayed back.

            “You may not feel it as I feel it, but this…this is an experience I have never enjoyed before, Will,” Hannibal murmured. That close, he smelled of alcohol wipes and sandalwood. “Perhaps there were times when a bout of impatience struck me as distinctly troublesome, but make no mistake; this was a plan that I long ago created that I knew one day would come to fruition.” 

           “So much so that you decided that be damned my own wants and dreams, yours were more important.” 

           “You who once sat in an office much like this and confessed to me that sometimes you dreamed of what it would be to not feel so conflicted at all times, to feel as though you didn’t always have to fight a battle in your own mind; can you say that this is so horrible?” Hannibal taunted. “Ever since your father died, you felt that you were dead, too. Tell me, Will: Was killing Matthew Brown so horrible because it really felt so good? Because for once in your life, you actually felt alive?” 

            “Shut up,” Will snarled. 

            “In that moment when instinct and adrenaline were your humble guides, when you didn’t have to stop long enough to remember just who it was inside of your skin, was it truly so horrible to not struggle with the same conflicts that you’ve always struggled against?”

            “I said shut up, Hannibal.”

            “Do you mean to tell me that you’d much rather live listlessly, a shell of your true potential?” Hannibal pressed. 

            “Shut up.” 

            “Because if that is true, then your father pouring his heart, soul, and time into you was a waste. If what you’ve said about him is remotely accurate, dear Will, dare I say that he’d be ashamed to see the conditions in which you’re willing to live, all the while I’m simply trying to help you stop warring inside of yourself and simply come to accept and love who you really are.” 

            Will wasn’t quite sure where his thoughts leapt, but before he could quite consider them, his entire body was swinging into a punch that sent Hannibal flying back, a satisfying crack snapping through the room with the speed of whiplash. His entire arm sang with it, his bones creaking as a sharp sting made his knuckles bitch with a vengeance, and the aftershock of it brought him stumbling a few steps forward where he caught himself against the back of a chair. 

            Hannibal lay sprawled on the ground for several, painfully long seconds. 

            An odd, wheezing snarl rumbled along the tense undertones of the room, and it took several moments for Will to realize that it was the sound of his breathing. His cheek and jaw smarted as though he were the one to have been hit, and a distant voice in the back of his mind whispered their pain is your pain. Their joy is your joy. He’s your soulmate, Will.

            Hannibal stood and adjusted his suitcoat casually, like this was an everyday sort of occurrence for him, to be struck by his captive. Once his cufflinks were straight, he peered up through the fringe of his hair, lips curling into a smile that wasn’t at all kind. 

            “Don’t ever talk about my father,” Will said hoarsely in the silence that pressed too tight. “Don’t…don’t ever talk about him. He lived trying to give me the sort of life that you’ve happily ripped to shreds, all for the sake of your desire to control everything around you like puppets.” 

            “Puppets,” Hannibal echoed, and the tips of his canines flashed. 

            “And you can say that I enjoyed killing Matthew Brown –I did. I did, and it felt righteous. It felt good because he wasn’t a good person, and his death means that innocent people can be kept safe.” 

            “Innocent people like you, Will?” he asked, sanguine sweet.

            Will glared. He had the sudden impulse to hit him again. “At least when I look in the mirror, I can see myself for what I really am.” 

            “And now your outward appearance can finally match realities within,” Hannibal replied, and Will had only a half second to tense before he was sent back on his heels as a fist came from nowhere, creating an explosion of stars across his eyes. He fell back against the table, and the teacup that Hannibal had attempted to offer him before spun wildly before it fell to the ground. The sound of it shattering on the hardwood felt like pinpricks in his ears, and Will steadied himself, reaching up to press his fingers to the skin that smarted and hissed. Just across from him, Hannibal did the same. Between them, the tea spread with reckless abandon, greedily soaked up by the rug.

            “…Your pain is my pain,” Hannibal murmured. He lowered his hand and flexed his fingers. Will felt his knuckles smart, and there was a disorienting sensation of not knowing whether it was Hannibal’s pain or his own in that moment. “If you strike me, I strike you.” 

            “…Even Stevens,” Will replied in agreement. “Does that mean that if I die, you’ll die too?” Dare he sound so hopeful? 

            “Oh, Will,” Hannibal sighed. “You’re already dead.”

            He thought to argue, but there was truly nothing to say. He was already dead, dead long before he’d even met Hannibal Lecter, dead long before he’d even heard of Agent Crawford and cannibalistic therapists. In truth, he began dying when he first heard his father say ‘cancer’, when he first had to catch a chunk of hair that fell from his father’s head. He was dead when his father was standing at the kitchen sink with a teacup in hand, staring out of the window, then suddenly was falling to the ground in convulsions. The teacup shattered, and Will caught vomit in his hands because that’s all that you can do when someone is dying next to you and you know that you can’t bring them back because they’re sick, sick, and the green tea scalded on his bare leg as he called the ambulance.

            The teacup shattered.

            Will didn’t pick up the shards until many hours later, long after his father had been declared dead. The shards were discarded in the trash, and he never saw them again.

            “…Yeah,” he said, and he nodded. He looked to the teacup broken between them, the tea that soaked into the floorboards of the house. He wondered just how much this house would consume from them before its walls wept secrets. “Yeah.”

            He scrubbed a curse from his lips and made his way to the door, foot crunching over the shards of the teacup. It was brittle and gave way beneath his weight, and it gave him a savage sort of satisfaction. Hannibal didn’t stop him, merely watched as he opened the door and slammed it shut behind him; truly, Will mused, Hannibal had no reason to chase him. He had a house arrest bracelet on his ankle that would reveal his location at any time, and he had a soulmate bond that ensured that no matter where he chose to hide, Hannibal would always be able to find him.

            Pacing in the hallway with her hands on her hips, Molly paused and looked up to meet his gaze. He thought of cold hands and bathtubs, how she’d let him lean against her from what he later had realized was a mild concussion. When she saw his eyes, ugly and mismatched and wrong, something in her face shifted, cracked to reveal genuine horror and fear, and its honesty was so raw that it took him aback, made him freeze because all he could think of was Wally on the steps of the house and how he was Molly’s warmth and goodness.

            “…Oh, Will,” she said softly. He felt stripped down to his bones and found wanting. He thought of the game his father had played with him when he was young, and he wondered if he’d only been told two tales from Molly, and he was still waiting on the third so that he could find out what the truth really was.

            “Oh, Molly,” he returned, and he had to resist the genuine urge to cry.

            “Do you always drink so much?” Beverly asked as Will finished another double shot. His vision swayed, but he stayed firmly planted on his barstool, looking about the bar whose noise was too loud, too chaotic amidst his own tumultuous emotions. He couldn’t make much sense of them, so he drank them away. Far cheaper than a cannibalistic therapist, that was for fucking sure.

            “Sometimes,” he said after far too long. “I’m sorry if this is giving you a bad impression of me as a roommate,” he tacked on. 

            “Well, as long as the bills get paid, it doesn’t matter, right?” 

            Beverly Katz was her name, and Will wasn’t so good with small talk. She was his roommate though, and apparently she was the sort that needed to bond with the person she shared a living space with. The last roommate was a quiet engineer that worked odd hours and slept for even weirder ones. His departure to a different school to begin his graduate program left Will with a five hundred dollar rent bill and not enough money to make it. 

            Thankfully, Beverly Katz had answered the ad and firmly believed in chore charts. 

            “This your favorite bar?” she asked when he didn’t try to keep up the conversation. She kept her hair long and framed around an oval face, her chin defiant and her brows tilted just enough to always seem on the edge of a particularly funny joke. Will decided that out of all of the faces he’d seen, she had a nice one. The sort that one could be comfortable around. 

            It was probably the whiskey talking, but that was okay. 

            “I don’t…really go out much,” he said. “Never seen this bar in my life.”

            “No?” 

            “The loud spaces…make me twitchy.” He gestured towards the jukebox that suddenly fired up, and he shifted in his chair, disquieted by the rancorous laughter nearby. “I’ve been told I’m an introvert.” 

             “I could see it,” Beverly agreed. “You one of those geeky types that watch a lot of anime?” 

            “What?” 

            "Nevermind,” she said with a snort. “Nothing, you’re fine. We’ll get along fine. Drink up, cowboy. That Jack and Coke’s got your name all over it.” 

            He was going to say something along the same lines, but when he turned to actually look at her, someone bumped into his chair and sent his drink spilling over one of the few shirts that didn’t have perpetual wrinkles in it. It wasn’t so much the stain that he knew he’d now have that bothered him –in truth, Will only lamented the loss of his drink.

            “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”

            “It’s fine,” he assured them, dabbing half-heartedly at his chest.

            “No, oh my god, let me get you another drink!” the girl said, and days later Will would figure that it was her tone of voice that made him look up, look up and really see just who it was that’d made him look like the sloppy drunk that he certainly felt like.

            She was pretty. More than pretty; she practically glowed.

            “You don’t have to,” he said, but that wasn’t quite what he wanted to say. “I’ve been told that it’s common for men to buy the drinks instead.” Stupid. Why’d he sound so stupid?

            “Oh?” She sniffed and flipped cornsilk blonde hair over her shoulder, her brows scrunched impossibly high. “What, since I’m a woman I can’t buy you a drink since I spilled yours all over what looks to be like your favorite shirt?”

            “My favorite shirt?”

            “You’re holding onto it like it’s your favorite shirt,” she explained.

            Will relaxed his grip on the front of his shirt –she wasn’t wrong.

            “…It’s my favorite shirt,” he agreed, and he tried to ignore the amused snicker of laughter from his new roommate. He was pretty sure he was bombing this entire socializing thing, it was a mistake as far as he was concerned to even be out and about at a time like this, on the anniversary of finding Jack Crawford bleeding to death on his old therapist’s rug, but-

            -She surprised him when she tugged him from the stool, and his clumsy feet followed, leaving him standing a head or so taller than her and swaying like a scarecrow in the breeze.

            “Say…do you want to get out of here?” she asked breathlessly, excited.

            He looked over her head at Beverly whose brows were up to her hairline. She had mismatched eyes, and she winked one slyly at him, grinning around the lip of her drink.

            “…I…”

            “I’ll bet you’re a smooth talker when there’s no one else around,” she said, unheeding of his hesitation. “I’ll bet you have more to say when you’re not so scared of so many eyes.”

            “I don’t want to see your eyes,” he blurted.

            Her smile made his skin warm from head to toe. “Well how about that; me neither. My name’s Molly. What’s yours?”

            “…Will,” he found himself saying, and he managed a smile. “I’m Will Graham.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24:

            Saul found Beverly out by the pond a little while later, devoid of a nosy journalist. His arms wrapped around her waist, snug and secure, and his head rested on her shoulder with the sort of familiarity that came with time and a soulmate connection. The agitation in the set of her jaw lessened somewhat at it, made her relax against him in acceptance of his affection.

            “I was looking for you,” he said. “Dr. Lecter is off to meet Clark Ingram.”

            “Did he need me to go with him?”

            “No, he just said that you should keep an eye on Will since Francis and Howard can’t.” Saul smiled against her neck and kissed it. “I thought to say something about Will not wanting to touch you with a ten foot pole, but…well, I didn’t.”

            “Not everyone gets your jokes,” Beverly said affectionately.

            Loving Saul was easy when he was closeby. When his skin was against her, it was enough to quiet the voice in the back of her head that demanded that she snap his neck and dump the body. Chemicals and all, and she’d learned to hide that aspect of herself from him.

            That part wasn’t easy. It was never easy to hide from a soulmate.

            “He’s got a black eye,” Saul said. “I think Will hit him.”

            “Well…we knew it wouldn’t be easy,” she said. “I’ve lived with him long enough that I knew it wouldn’t be easy. He’s stubborn.”

            “The others…have you heard the others, Beverly?”

            Beverly turned around, causing him to let go of her. His arm swung, wavered, and she responded in kind, reaching out to clasp it so that he felt grounded. She’d never considered herself the grounding rod for someone, but Saul needed it.

            How in the hell he’d gotten roped into following Lecter’s every word, she’d never truly understand.

            “What are they saying?”

            “They’re happy because he connected –Lecter said that he could create an environment in which staggered connections could occur, but…a lot of them don’t like Will Graham.”

            “Well, it doesn’t matter what they like,” Beverly said evenly. “What matters is what Dr. Lecter wanted.”

            “Do you think they’ll do what Matthew did?”

            “Saul, Matthew was supposed to attack Will,” she said impatiently. She felt the sting of her words along his emotions, and she tried to soften her tone. “The half-connection…that just made it more realistic. But he was going to attack Will no matter what. That’s the job Lecter had planned for him.”

            “So he…wanted Matthew to die?”

            “He wanted Will to embrace the darker aspects of himself that he’s kept so firmly locked away. To do that, he had to...make regrettable choices.”

            Saul had nothing to say to that. Once upon a time, he’d been a person of interest, someone to truly watch and follow as he carried out Lecter’s orders. The letters one of her guys had intercepted had been almost poetic, Saul’s words fluently conveying his admiration for the artwork that Lecter displayed. He asked how it’d felt, consuming one’s art, how it’d felt to see one’s desires and actually follow through.

            Beverly supposed that his faith in Hannibal Lecter stemmed from the fact that his own confidence and assurance were both sorely lacking. He’d looked to someone that needed no validation from anyone, and that was his messiah of sorts.

            “Saul, you trust Dr. Lecter, don’t you?” she asked.

            “Of course,” he replied without hesitation. “I just wonder…what if we…traded someone for Matthew, and that someone never thinks of this place as his home?”

            “He got Will’s eyes to change in a month,” Beverly said with a kind laugh. She kissed him on the mouth, marveled at the fact that his kisses never failed to make her heart pound. Having a soulmate…just felt so right. “He’ll get Will to come around. He’ll be able to see this as his home. Give him time.”

            “I love you,” Saul said softly, kissing her again.

            “I love you too,” Beverly replied, and her smile was utterly sincere.

            It’s a shame that I’m going to have to kill you.

-

            Loving Will Graham was like loving a house of mirrors; with each and every angle, you’d see another facet of yourself reflected back at you with careful distortion.

            Molly did anyway, though. From his rumpled hair to his well-loved leather coat that smelled of fresh earth and kindness, she loved him with a fury that burned deep in her belly and made the aches and pains of her lost love ease. He wasn’t anything like her late-husband, but that was alright. There was something steady in the way that he looked at her, like he’d already found a way to strip her down and actually liked what he saw beneath.

            She didn’t have time to introduce him to Wally before Hannibal Lecter got ahold of them, though. Hell, he didn’t even know that there was a Wally.

            “I’ll see you tomorrow?” she asked, juggling a few grocery bags and her cell phone. It was pressed tight to her ear as she fiddled with her house key, and when she found the door already unlocked it was an irritating surprise. Wally always forgot to lock the door.

            “Barring working late, yes.”

            “You know, you work so much that it’s becoming concerning,” she teased, and she nudged the door shut with her foot, elbow catching the light switch to the side. “Workaholics are a thing, you know.”

            “I know.”

            “Besides,” she continued, “if you don’t come, I may be forced to bring someone else with me, and we all know how much I hate having to invite Tiffany.”

            “Tiffany’s nice,” Will offered lamely.

            “You hate Tiffany.”

            “She’s not my friend, so I’m given leave to dislike her.”

            It was always like that, with Will. The way he looked at people was so acutely good. He had a way of knowing their turn of mind, of knowing their thoughts and personality without really having to engage too much with them. The first time he’d met Tiffany, he’d nursed a whiskey all night, maybe sharing four or five words at a time before sitting in a dour-like silence.

            On the way back to his house, he’d admitted that her jealousy of Molly felt like, to him, a thick scab that’d been picked far too soon. Alcohol gave him mildly loose lips where sobriety normally kept his thoughts behind a steel wall.

            “Right, right, you’re allowed to dislike her,” Molly agreed, and she turned on the kitchen light as well, setting the groceries down. Wally’s lack of presence was an irritant; likely upstairs on that X-Box that one of his friend’s mother’s said that he ‘just had to have’. “I’m just saying, I’d like you there with me instead.”

            “I’ll do my best,” Will said with a warm laugh, “barring tackling my boss on my way out of the door.”

            “That’s all I ask,” she teased, and she sighed. “I’ve got to go.”

            “Have a good night, Molly,” Will said warmly. “Have sweet dreams.”

            “You too.”

            It wasn’t until she hung up that she turned to holler for Wally, and as she sucked in a deep breath to do so, it was cut short, something that left her reeling as she stumbled back against the counter and scrambled for the mace that she kept on her keys.

            The man sitting at her dining room table with a gun leveled at her barely blinked.

            “If you reach for that mace, your son will die,” he said dispassionately. His mouth fumbled with the ‘s’. “The son that Will Graham is unaware that you have.”

            Silence. That was what sat between them as Molly’s hands pressed down flat against her keys and contemplated his threat. There were many people that froze as a deer in the headlights when they were afraid –Molly always hated that comparison. Deer didn’t just freeze in the headlights; when they saw them, they had a brief moment of shock before they almost always, always attempted to run because animals were flight or fight and as prey animals it would always be flight, only they flew right out of the pan and directly into the fire. Deer didn’t die because they froze in the headlights. For the most part, they died because they tried to run from the headlights.

            Rather than run, Molly held very, very still.

            “Where is my son?” she asked slowly. Her voice shook, but she couldn’t fix that. Fear was natural as she eyed the gun that he held, not with a casual demeanor, but with taut and careful deliberation.

            The man tilted his head slightly to consider her, then gestured with his free hand. “Come closer. Away from your things.”

            Molly took a couple of steps closer. She felt dread as the sweat that prickled along her hairline, mussing the foundation she’d laid over her skin with careful strokes of her brush. She paused a few paces before the chairs, but he crooked his hand and gestured closer. She gulped an unsteady breath, then took another deliberate step.

            “Where is my son?” she repeated, a little stronger.

            “Not far. Sit.”

            She thought of Wally, afraid and in a place he didn’t know, and her fear ebbed in the wake of a gust of fury that rippled along her spine as she sat, locking her in place next to a stain on the varnish from the one time Wally had gotten into her acetone. That day was a smudgy memory, but Wally had learned that acetone did more than just eat away nail polish; her hand protectively covered the spot, as though she could hide his mistake.

            “Who are you?” she asked.

            “My identity isn’t important right now. You are Molly Foster, widow with a young son that had to watch his father die of cancer. Tragic.”

            Molly glared at him, palm pressed flat to the sore spot on the table.

            “Cancer is an ugly way to die,” the man continued, unflinching. “The body rejects liquids. It secretes. The smell is unbearable. The hair falls out, and there is no end to the vomit. They are weak, frail. They Become, but it is a wasted becoming. The family is left worse off, not with the death but with the time wasted trying to prolong a pitiful life.”

            “Stop.”

            The man stopped, potentially due to the level of fury that rippled with her voice. He tilted his head the other way, and in the dim kitchen lighting Molly could faintly see the healed scarring of what once was a cleft palate. It explained the faint lisp that made his brows twitch to a frown as he spoke.

            “You are dating Will Graham,” the man began again, after a moment. “My boss is rather interested in that.”

            “And just who is your boss?”

            “Hannibal Lecter.”

            Hannibal Lecter? Molly recalled the newscast on him –serial killers weren’t really always what the news went to, anymore. It was bad publicity about ‘who the public should really fear’ in truth, so they were mostly quiet. Their focus was more on terrorism from the Middle East, gun control debates, and the polarized elections that kept everyone up in arms. When it was revealed that he was cannibalizing them, though, they’d been all over that.

            And Will Graham had survived him.

            “He’s in prison,” she said faintly –her voice was tinny, far away.

            “His reach extends past his bars,” the man assured him, as though she needed that assurance as he pointed a gun at her. “And you are dating the one person that he currently has any form of interest in.”

            Molly saw quite a few options, in that moment, sitting across from a man and what looked to be a rather capable 9 mm XD. She wouldn’t say that she was necessarily a professional in dealing with stress, but losing her husband slowly –painfully –had taught her a lot about separating her mind from her emotions. She’d overcome that grief; this was no different. In the quiet that was too quiet because Wally wasn’t upstairs playing his X-Box that’d been a gift after her husband’s passing, she took a breath and made a choice, something that felt too heavy for a setting like a low-income household with poor laminate on the floors and a scuffed table she’d found at a Habitat for Humanity for five bucks and some change.

            “If you were going to kill me, you wouldn’t have abducted my son,” she said slowly. “A wasted expense.”

            “A waste,” the man agreed.

            “What do you want, then?” Her voice trembled. “Will Graham?”

            “We want you to keep dating him,” the man said. “And we want you get close to him.”

            That took her aback. “…Why?” Better yet, “No, where’s my son? You’re holding my son hostage so that I keep dating Will Graham?”

            “In due time,” he assured her. “If you comply, your son will be safe. Get close to Will Graham. Keep him under your thumb emotionally; Dr. Lecter said that he takes on the emotions projected around him. Love him. Give him a sense of peace that he has never known.”

            Her mind twisted, wrenched. She thought of Will on the first night they’d met; drunk, swaying, and so sad it somehow made her want to tuck him in close and hold him until the pain trickled away from skin that smelled like pine needles and regret. She thought of the way he’d followed her from the bar, his words awkward and fumbling but so sweetly tender that it made her laugh. They danced in his front room to music playing from tinny laptop speakers cranked far too high, and in the darkest part of the night she let him strip her clothing from her body, inch by inch as he kissed her skin and left marks that she admired the next morning rather than felt shame for.

            He asked if he could call her when they were sober, and she’d said yes.

            “If I do this,” she said quietly, “are you going to hurt my son?”

            “No.”

            “Are you going to hurt Will Graham?” she pressed, insistent.

            “No.”

            “He doesn’t talk about what happened to him,” said Molly, scathing. “But I see how it marked him. How it follows him. You think that if or when he finds out what you’re asking me to do, it won’t hurt him?”

            “There are many kind of pain, Molly Foster,” the man said. The cursed gun hadn’t moved even a centimeter. “Some pain buds new growth. When roses die in winter, you cut back their stems to the dirt, that they grow anew. The flowers that come after are somehow more vibrant from the harsh but necessary attention.”

            “You’d compare him to a fucking flower,” she sneered, “he is a human being.”

            “You struggle with nature versus nurture,” he noted. “Is this your final answer?”

            It wasn’t, and he damn well knew it. Molly could see it in the set of his shoulders, the way he didn’t move to put his finger on the trigger because he knew he didn’t have to shoot.

            “I want proof of my son’s life,” she said, curt. “I want to know how you’re containing him, and I want to speak to Dr. Lecter myself.”

            Wordlessly, he reached into his coat pocket and retrieved what looked to be a cheap version of a smart phone. He tapped a few icons on it, then set it on the table.

            A video of Wally played with the small speakers on as loud as they could go.

            “So…you knew my dad?” Wally asked. His voice was small, so small. It’d been a couple of years, but God did it feel so fresh sometimes that it took her breath away and made her tongue feel fat and heavy in her mouth.

            “He was my cousin,” a man with sandy hair and green eyes said. “I was sad when we drifted apart…then when I heard he passed, I had to give my condolences.”

            “When’s my mom going to meet with us?” Wally asked, all innocence and wide eyes of a child.

            “Oh, soon,” the man assured him with a laugh. “If I’m lucky, I can maybe be part of your family. Would you like that, Wally?”

            “If mom likes it,” Wally decided. He held the same tone that every small child did –what mom liked, they liked. What mom disliked, he abhorred. “We’ll see.”

            “You’re a smart kid, Wally,” the man decided.

            “Yeah,” Wally agreed.

            Molly lunged for the phone, but it was snatched from her grip. The sob that tore from her was barely stifled by her furiously shaking hands, and she glared at the man in front of her as he exited from the app and tucked the phone away.

            “That is a live video,” he explained. “I have access to your son at all times, Molly Foster.”

            “You’re a sick fuck,” she hissed.

            “Do we have an agreement?” he asked. His lip curled.

            “How often do I get to see him?” she demanded. “How long until this is over?”

            “In due time,” the man said calmly. It belied the hawkish stare he’d settled on her, as though she could lunge at any moment. Fuck, but she felt like it, that need to take her son and run and run and run. Her foot twitched, and her muscles clenched and unclenched, waiting.

            “I’ll do it,” she said, and it hit harder than it should have, that feeling of giving in. It sounded so innocent, ‘watch Will Graham’ but she knew it wasn’t, couldn’t possibly be so fucking simple. “I’ll do it, but only if you let Wally think it’s really like that. That we’re one big family, and he doesn’t have to know the truth of the monstrous things you’re planning on doing.”

            “We’re doing,” he corrected, softly.

            “What do you want? Information, access; I don’t believe that it’s really just to make Will-fucking-Graham feel like the most important person in the world.”

            “Information, naturally. A way to keep him from straying too far. You are to be his anchor, and his place to go when the darkness bites too hard. It should be easy for you, I’m certain. There is already a foundation of affection between the two of you, as it’s been noted.”

            “Fine, done,” said Molly curtly. “Are we finished?”

            The man smiled, something small and cruel. “Yes, for tonight. Dr. Lecter thanks you, Ms. Foster, for your cooperation. I’ll inform him of your desire to communicate.”

            Molly had nothing to say to that, and he didn’t seem to care to wait for a reply. He kept the gun leveled calmly at her, and when he saw himself out of the back door, he locked the bottom knob behind himself as the door closed. A jab, in truth. She had no doubt he had every way and means of getting back in, should he want to.

            It was only once he was gone and the smell of his aftershave faded that she allowed herself to tuck her face into her hands and honestly, truly let the horror of what’d just happened sink in. Molly wasn’t much of a crier –childhood, she supposed. There was always a threat from her parents that if she didn’t stop fucking crying there’d be something to really cry about, so instead she gulped. Molly Foster, widow at the tender age of twenty-three was very much a gulper, so she gulped. She gulped down the sob that was hammering nails into her throat, the sob that she could already feel echoing in her ears, a sob she felt would one day rip from her despite the breaths she struggled with now. She thought of Will Graham and how he always looked a breath away from a bad decision, how he seemed both dangerous and safe at the same time, and she wondered if that sob would come when she least expected it, when he was holding her close and whispering his sweet poetry into her ear; she’d let out a scream so horrendous that even he’d run from her, then where would she be?

            Where would Wally be?

            She sat there with her face in her hands for a long time, gulping. The house felt too open, too invasive, and after a couple of hours she found her way back to the counter where the milk was getting to room temperature and the lettuce was looking a bit soft.

            Will answered on the first ring.

            “Miss me that much?” he joked. Will had a deep, mellow sort of voice that softened around words that ended in harsh consonants. Her throat tightened, burned enough to make her gasp out a breath.

            “Yeah,” she said, and she pressed her hand to her eyes. “I…yeah.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            Did he always pick up on everything so fucking quickly? “…If I came over and stayed the night, would you be mad at me?”

            “Did something happen?”

            “Yeah…you know, you don’t talk much about Dr. Lecter. And by much I mean…ever.”

            He stayed silent at that, ever an impenetrable wall after what’d happened.

            “And you know that I…you know, sometimes grief just sets in,” she said with a strangled laugh. “You know how that is, don’t you? How you’re looking at an orange, and maybe you think ‘oh, wow, Dr. Lecter used to eat oranges before each session’ and suddenly you’re feeling everything you thought you’d put behind you?”

            “He didn’t eat oranges, but I know what you mean,” Will replied gently. “Come on over, Molly. I’ll tell Beverly not to lock the door.”

            Molly’s steps echoed with sharp, staccato taps after she’d put the groceries away and saw herself out of the bleak, dark house. It was a house, not a home without Wally in it, and throughout the entire drive to Will’s, throughout the evening where he held her and didn’t try to pry words from her lips, throughout the night as she gulped against his chest and tried to sleep, Molly wondered just how safe Wally could really be if she dared to open her mouth and tell Will what really was leaving her puffy eyed and stoic during an episode of their favorite show.

            She ultimately gulped the words down, though. It wasn’t safe otherwise.

            Molly gulped down a shuddering breath at the sight of the man that climbed out of the passenger side of a rather austere and spacious car. There are some things that a person knows because they’re told; there are some things they know because they are quick enough to stay quiet and observe. Some things, though, are complete and utter instinct, and despite the fact that Francis Dolarhyde of all people was a complete and utter monster to Molly Foster, she found herself taking a minute step closer to him at the sight of Clark Ingram, hands planted on her hips to steel herself.

            The man looked like a rapist. Cold, empty eyes, even red-rimmed from hangover, conveyed a deep-seeded and utter dispassionate care of women as he glanced over her, then along the rest of their small group thoughtfully. The woman beside him, Emma, gave him a careless glance before she tucked her keys into her coat pocket and lingered by the headlights.

            “Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in the flesh,” Clark Ingram said with an amiable smile. He extended his hand to shake Hannibal’s, which was returned with a professional, thin-lipped smile.

            “Clark Ingram. Welcome,” Hannibal greeted. “With me are my associates: Agent Francis Dolarhyde, Ms. Molly Foster, Mr. Howard Chapman, and of course you know Miss Emma.”

            “Nice to meet you all,” Clark said with a grin. “This is…wow. You really had me jumping through hoops, you know.”

            “Did I?” Hannibal asked. His brow lifted briefly, a flicker so fast that Molly almost hadn’t caught it. Seeing it, though, filled her with a sort of dread that nothing but instinct could give.

            “Yeah, the back roads, the FBI, the whole thing was really exciting, but that last leg was just a doozy.”

            “A doozy,” Hannibal echoed, and he smiled just enough to flash incisors that seemed entirely too sharp on a human. “But here you are, now.”

            “Here I am, and I’m ready for whatever else you’ve got for me, Dr. Lecter. You can ask Emma; I did my job.”

            “Oh, yes, the job,” Hannibal agreed amiably. “Only, Mr. Ingram, you didn’t do the job.”

            The cold wind whistling was the only noise that accompanied his words. Clark Ingram frowned, something confused and mildly childlike. Petulant.

            “I don’t understand,” he said at last.

            Hannibal nodded, as he’d expected this. “Your job was to kill Agent Zeller. You didn’t.”

            “I did,” Ingram returned irritably, “and he bled like a stuck pig.”

            “Agent Zeller is currently in my basement awaiting questioning, actually,” Hannibal returned pleasantly. It was the sort of sweet that made one’s stomach ache. “My informant in the FBI informed me of his location, and he was retrieved from a hospital where he’d just been taken out of surgery.”

            Shock was something Molly was more than used to seeing. She’d had her own twists and turns with Dr. Lecter in regards to shock and how one both registers and reacts to it. Seeing it on Clark Ingram was mildly cathartic, as she was more than aware of his track record and the things he’d done to women whose only mistake was being fooled by a pretty face and a 100-watt smile. First, he paled; his cheeks turned a ruddy sort of red, then the air squeezed from him with a slow and painful look to his ribs, like they’d soon break.

            “Bull shit,” he said shakily. “This is ridiculous. I did my job, and now I want my payment for it.”

            “Payment,” Emma echoed, and there was a smirk to her voice that didn’t register on her granite face. “Are you so stupid that you didn’t notice the circles I drove you around while I waited for the word from Dr. Lecter?”

            “You really were invaluable, thank you,” Hannibal agreed, glancing to Emma.

            “I stuck him good, and I strolled right by that god damn FBI agent, and he didn’t even notice! What the hell did I risk everything for? I made that fucker bleed for you, and this is the thanks that I’m going to get?”

            “In reality, it turns out that he is one of the few to know the location of a person in question that I wish to meet with, so I am relieved to find that he is very much alive; that being said, however, I’m in no position to allow you into this house and its sanctuary.”

            “You promised me women, you god damn-”

            “Oh, yes, the women.” Hannibal nodded thoughtfully, and it was that sort of aloofness that made the hairs on the back of Molly’s neck stand on end. “Emma?”

            The silencer on the end of her gun muffled the shot, although it was nothing like Hollywood. Suppressed shots sounded more like something far, far away, with the impression of an echo from a canyon that reverberated back to the ears and left one feeling somehow wanting. It was not the first time Molly watched someone die, nor was it the first time she’d watched someone shoot them to do it. Over the years, enough experience had given her the sort of schooling to keep her features calm, even as Emma’s eyes grazed over her with an acute level of scrutiny, assessing.

            Years had given Molly something that she wasn’t sure Emma had –a perfectly controlled, shuttered face. Not even Will could see past it, it seemed. She stood alone with her thoughts, the craggy rocks against an unrelenting ocean.

            “Lovely, as always, Emma. Where you were the one to engage with him personally, I thought the honor should be yours,” Hannibal said warmly. The false tone of affection was grating. “If you’ll have Mr. Hobbs take care of this, we’ll be back inside where it’s warm in no time.”

            “He lost his wallet,” Emma said curtly. “I didn’t notice a tail, but there could be problems.”

            Hannibal glanced to Francis, who nodded grimly.

            “Without Matthew at the sheriff’s department, I haven’t heard much chatter,” he said after a moment. “Someone could come sniffing if he doesn’t show up to work soon.”

            “Someone that could have a missing wallet and a hunch?” Molly asked.

            Francis nodded. “I’ve lost word from the other house. No report yet,” he said.

            “Emma can deal with Matthew’s disappearance,” Hannibal decided. “And we’ll double security at the perimeter. Will is particularly…displeased with the notion of what’s occurred. We need to be prepared for him to attempt something rash.”

            Rash, like attempting to carve out your eye wasn’t rash. Rash, like the faint bruising around Hannibal’s eye wasn’t rash. Rash, like how it felt for Molly to see him with mismatched eyes, the one person in the world that she felt couldn’t have possibly ever been moved by Hannibal Lecter.

            God, and she’d led him right to him. Hook, line, and fucking sinker.

            They headed back, and she lingered towards the back of the small procession, alongside Francis. She thought of the way he’d looked, following after Will who’d swayed and shook after his stunt with the phone. Pained. Afraid. Disgusted.

            “You must be happy,” she said, quiet.

            Francis hummed non-committedly.

            “No, really. All of your planning…your watching, your meticulous notes and careful actions…it all finally came true. Hannibal Lecter has his soulmate because of you.”

            She wasn’t quite sure what it was, her poking at him. She’d witnessed the Red Dragon surface before, and it’d left nightmares that clung to her eyelashes and stuck whenever she tried to blink. Perhaps she, too, was feeling rash now that everything was spiraling.

            “When you took him to the bathroom,” she said, softer, “to clean him up after killing Matthew, what’d you say to him?”

            At that, he did speak. Francis didn’t speak unless necessary, unless there was something ultimately important that he felt the need to convey. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He wet his lips, almost a nervous gesture, then tried again. He stared straight ahead, gaze fixated to the house. She knew that he had no love for Matthew Brown, the same way that she had no love for Matthew Brown.

            “I said that he had to survive us.”

            “Survive,” she murmured, and she nodded. “And now you have to survive watching him be a soulmate to Dr. Lecter.”

            Francis stopped walking and fixed his intense, probing stare to her. She thought of that fateful night, when she’d first turned and found him at her table with a gun trained on her. He’d somehow seemed so untouchable, then, so formidable. Now, facing her with that same look, it didn’t seem so black and white. If anything, lurking beneath that dangerous edge, there was a glimmer of fear, of utmost uncertainty.

            “Say what is on your mind, Molly Foster.”

            Molly stopped and met his gaze head on. “I’m just wondering how you’re going to live kow-towing to Hannibal Lecter while he tries to twist and manipulate his soulmate bond to get Will Graham into his bed. First I fucked him, and soon enough Hannibal will try, too…it must be difficult for you.”

            If it stung him, it didn’t show. Francis blinked lazily, then reached calmly into his jacket pocket and produced a cheap-looking, poor man’s smart phone. A fancy burner phone, all things considered. He tapped on the screen a few times, then lifted the camera to show an angle of one of the parlors.

            Wally sat beside Abigail, coloring.

            “I still have complete and total access to your son at all times,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Your position as Hannibal Lecter’s romantic proxy to Will Graham means ultimately nothing now that he has what he wants. You and your son are disposable.”

            He left her with that haunting reminder as he smiled kindly and put his phone away. Left alone on the gravel path back to the house, Molly shivered in her coat and glanced to the doorway, unsettled to find Hannibal looking back at her, the light of the house silhouetting him and leaving his expression in the shadows. She could hazard a guess to what it was, though. Cold. Calm. Calculating. Cruel.

            Clark Ingram was disposable, too. She gulped down the same sob she’d been holding back for four miserable, haunting years, and she hurried into the house to find Wally.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25:

            Will cleaned his face up and took a long shower. The back of his head was just scabbed enough that he didn’t bother with a bandage; in truth, Francis’ alternate personality tossing him about wasn’t a concern anymore.

            He’d lied to Jack Crawford. He hadn’t been able to make it.

            There was a discoloration to the wood on the floor, and remnants of the mess Hannibal had made breaking the door down made his lip curl and his stomach turn. He saw himself from the room with the sort of toe-dragging that was forced; something in his veins whispered, begged for him to go find Hannibal, that all would be well if he could see Hannibal, that all could be right if he’d just go find Hannibal.

            Rather than do that, he found himself wandering the house, avoiding the sounds of voices. Any time he’d find himself walking into a room, he’d pause and listen, breath held to the muffled noises of comradery and pleasant conversation. It wasn’t until the library that he found some respite, and he perused row upon row of books of various shapes and sizes, the smell of worn and well-loved paper easing over the tension in his neck with gentle ministrations.

            Hannibal was precisely three hundred footsteps away. The fact that he was aware of that burned with a wicked sort of rage in his gut.

            “Are you sure this is okay?”

            “Yeah, my dad is working the perimeter again; he won’t know.”

            Will stilled beside one of the bookshelves, tensing. Tucked away into the far corner of the library, Abigail’s distinctly manipulative voice was muffled, unsure of itself. Fuck, but he thought he’d finally found a place to be alone.

            “Is he really the Minnesota Shrike?” the boy asked –likely the one Will had passed her off to in order to keep her father away from her.

            “Yes.”

            “What’s that like?” he wondered.

            She didn’t respond to that, and Will pressed his back against the wall, willing himself to melt into it. What was it like, the boy wondered, to be the daughter of a man that murdered girls that looked just like her? What was it like to have someone so utterly, painfully connected that the spider webs of their affection bled out into the lives of the innocents surrounding them?

            “A lot more calming than you think,” she said, and Will nodded along, resolute.

            “I guess you’re not the one he’s eating,” the boy joked.

            Will imagined Abigail cringing along with him, and he nodded again, grim.

            “One day he might,” she said, and the silence following was the sort of heavy that left one weak in the aftermath.

            “One day he might,” Will murmured in pained agreement, and he bowed his head to rest his cheek against his knee. The scabs alongside his eye still ached when he blinked too tight, and his eyelids made muted clicking noises as he closed them. He wondered when he’d be more scabs than man, each little bit of him eked away until there was nothing left. A bruise had been forming where Hannibal had hit him back. He still felt the ache in his knuckles, and there was a surreal tinge that made him unsure as to whose bones were the ones that’d bruised.

            “I don’t think you’re happy here,” the boy said.

            “We’re all happy here,” she retorted, curt.

            “No, we’re…we’re alone, Abigail. You can be honest. When you think no one can see, you’re afraid.”

            “And you think that you know me?” she sneered. Will tasted her unease like sour milk. “You think that you can look at me and see what’s real and what isn’t?”

            “I’m trying to,” he returned, calmly. “I want to.”

            “You can’t always get what you want,” said Abigail, bitterly. “Your home life may have been boring, but at least you never thought you’d wake up just in time to watch your father slice your throat.”

            They were quiet, then. The boy had nothing to say to that, and Will didn’t, either. He wondered if he went to Hannibal and begged him, he’d be devoured; inch by inch until there was nothing left of him but the parts that Hannibal would keep tucked away forever to look upon at his leisure, when they nights were cold and his fucking soulmate bond told him that he missed Will Graham in all of his hateful and bitter glory.

            Will watched their shadows slip out of the library after, Abigail’s hand to her mouth like she could tuck away the kisses he’d likely pressed there for safe keeping. Will remained, and exhaustion gave way to dreams that felt like the uneven dips and sways of a boat creaking on choppy waves.

-

            Jack Crawford didn’t often give way to feelings of delusions of grandeur. He liked to consider himself a logical man –mad when the circumstances allowed, happy when there was something to be happy about.

            Triumph in the face of genuine, honest success.

            “Ten out of the thirty-two isn’t bad,” Starling said –likely reassuring him than not.

            “Considering the other twenty-two are dead, I’ll take it,” Jack replied.

            “All mouths were checked for cyanide pills,” Price chimed in, gesturing towards the hallway of doors whose rooms housed some of the most wanted men and women in the country at the moment. “Each person had a false tooth that was removed with the sleepy juice tucked inside.”

            “Sleepy juice,” Starling repeated, and Jack couldn’t have been sure if she thought the joke funny or if she found it tasteless to think of cyanide as sleepy.

            “No one talking?”

            “A lot of requests for lawyers; seems like they all have the same one.”

            Naturally. Jack frowned and mouthed at the toothpick he’d snagged from the diner on the way out. He hadn’t had much in the way of good food recently; his belt now took another notch to cinch it just right, and there was something in the way his photo had turned out in the newspaper that said he’d maybe lost too much meat on his cheeks. Bella last told him she worried about his health, but now that he didn’t even know where she was anymore, he supposed she couldn’t worry too much about it. Meat or no meat, that bastard was still out terrorizing the public; diner food would just have to do.

            “This guy isn’t requesting a lawyer,” Jack noted, glancing down to the file.

            “I think it’s a set-up to bait you,” Starling said, her voice dropping low in warning.

            “You don’t think he’s willing to talk?”

            “I don’t think he’ll have anything to say that you’ll like,” she retorted. “Remember what Du Maurier said: they want you to find them.”

            The room that he stepped into was tepid, the heater having just kicked on to stir up dry, stale air. Sitting across from him with his hands cuffed to the table, the man regarded Jack much the way an old and unfamiliar acquaintance would; calmly wary, as though one had all the time in the world to test their unease. Jack held the man’s file carelessly, and he paused just before pulling the chair out to sit down.

            “Pleasant day,” Jack said unpleasantly. “Do you mind if I sit?”

            “No, sir,” the man replied.

            “Charles Mead,” Jack noted, sitting down. “Corporal Charlie of the Cyber Surveillance Unit who served two terms in Baghdad and one in Kandahar. Psychiatric discharge from the military post-Kandahar.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “You didn’t ask for a lawyer.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “But you’re not willing to talk much, either,” Jack noted. “Just this ‘yes, sir’ ‘no, sir’ bit. Does that get tiring?”

            “No, sir.”

            Jack rubbed a thumb along his bottom lip, then tucked the toothpick into his inner jacket pocket. The man’s military, blunt gaze didn’t move an inch. “I’d imagine it was Dolarhyde that picked you up and dusted you off.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “They’ll be expecting you to report; what happens when you don’t?”

            “Precautionary measures will be taken,” Charlie Mead assured him in a tone that wasn’t at all assuring. “I’m not concerned.”

            “No, you don’t seem to be,” Jack agreed. “Why’s that?”

            “We planned for you, Agent Jack Crawford,” said Charlie.

            “Is that why you’re not afraid of talking?”

            “What makes you think it wasn’t the plan for me to talk?” he wondered. “What makes you think you weren’t tipped by one of us, manipulated by one of us?”

            “Was I?”

            “Were you?”

            Jack and Charlie regarded one another, and Jack leaned back in the chair, letting its squeak drag out unnecessarily.

            “See, I’ve got time,” said Jack. “Do you?”

            “Time is an illusion,” Charlie murmured. “It’s not the amount of it, but what you do with it that counts. You’d know about that, though. Time and all of its shortness and quickness, I mean, sir.”

            “Hannibal Lecter teach you that?”

            “No, sir.”

            “What’d he teach you?”

            “He taught me how to waste yours,” Charlie replied. “Military teaches us not to waste. Dr. Lecter taught me the art of it. Keep you here, drag you out. Tell you with words that aren’t words how badly you made this, how you’re the reason Will Graham had to be taken. Get in your head with my words that aren’t words and make this all the worse for you because you’re so desperate to hear that you’ll let me talk however I wish, time wasted and all.”

            Jack stilled at that, although his face didn’t show it. Poker face, he heard Bella coach in his head. He felt her distance like a deep, aching bruise along his spine and neck. The farther she went, though, the safer she’d be. Fuck, the farther from him everyone was, the safer they’d all be.

            “He taught you that, did he?”

            “He was happy where things were,” he replied, and he didn’t so much as smile as he gnashed his teeth. “He had his soulmate, his hobbies, his work. Your actions led to this. If you’d have just left him alone, Will Graham wouldn’t be where he is now.”

            “And just where the hell is that?” Jack wondered. His voice held too much iron.

            “Why don’t you ask Agent Price, sir?”

            Jack Crawford and Charlie Mead stared one another down for some time, weighing. Jack had had many stare downs like this in his line of work –there was always that wish, that hope that maybe if he looked hard enough, he’d see behind the mask displayed before him, the best of the best of the best of military intelligence until they booted him out so quickly his head spun, so quickly that a trained killing machine had no other choice but to reach out to those that understood him to ease the screaming and torments from his past.

            “Dolarhyde didn’t have to work hard to get to you, did he,” Jack mused.

            “No, sir.”

            “You got anything else you feel the need to tell me before I go and bring your bosses in?”

            Charlie didn’t rise to the challenge; he kept his bearing remarkably well as he nodded curtly, once. “Wherever you go, death follows, Agent Crawford. How does that feel?”

            Jack had nothing to say to that. It wasn’t until the door behind him buzzed that Jack stood, and he saw himself out with the sort of walk that he supposed a dead man would make, the kind where each step counted because each step was in of itself precious and ultimately numbered.

            Just down the hall, Price signed off on something and shook the agent’s hand, his smile not quite reaching his eyes as he turned to survey Jack. The distance between them was both too close yet not close enough, and when Jack finally reached him with his numbered, doomed steps, it was with trepidation that he settled a hand on his friend and colleague’s shoulder.

            “Price, let’s talk diatoms.”

-

            Dolarhyde was a busy man.

            He enjoyed it, though. Being busy meant that he didn’t have time to socialize with the pawns and idiots alike running through the house with heavy steps and rancorous laughter. Being busy meant that he didn’t risk running into Will Graham in the hallway where he’d have to stare at his mismatched eyes and school himself with utmost care.

            Red Dragon sat coiled behind his lips, daring him to rip Molly Foster’s mouth from her skull for her insolence.

            “The whole house?”

            “Ten imprisoned, twenty-two dead,” his informant confirmed. “Anonymous tip.”

            Francis studied the computer messaging system in front of him, and he nodded. “I’ve got someone.”

            “A new recruit?”

            A rat under the guise of a new recruit. Francis waited patiently for Nate Bowman to reply, and he hummed quietly under his breath.

            “No,” he said at last.

            “What do you think?”

            “They have twenty-two of our dead on their hands.”

            Their silence was understanding. His informant didn’t like him anymore than he liked them, but they’d do their job. He liked those sort of relationships better than the sorts where one had to play nice and pretend so that they could get their work done. Most of the people in the house left him with a wide berth, allowed him to go about his work –awe and fear, he knew. It was not the fear that he wanted, though, but the awe

            Red Dragon could work with that.

            Francis read Nate Bowman’s reply, but a noise out in the hallway stopped him from adding anything more. “Hold,” he said into the phone, then muted it and slunk to the door, peering out.

            Will Graham.

            The dim lighting in the hall prevented his eyes from gleaming too offensively in their awful discoloration. One eye blue, the other maroon.

            Red Dragon hated it. He wanted to eat the maroon eye, devour it and gain power from it, Become more from what it meant, that Will Graham could learn enough of someone to grow from them, to Become some part of them. To know was to understand, and to understand was to Become. Even as Red Dragon abhorred it, Francis found himself hoping from it.

            “I thought you’d be awake,” Will said flatly. His mismatched eyes looked tired, and he had a bruise to match Hannibal Lecter’s.

            Francis blinked lazily at him, head bobbing once, briefly, in assent.

            “I don’t want to sleep in that room,” he continued. That room, that room –the room with the Matthew and the blood and the moment when Hannibal caressed his face so gently as his eyes bore into his head with darkly vivid desire –

            “You would sleep here?” Francis wondered.

            “Which one are you?” Will asked, and it was only then that his low, gravelly voice faltered ever-so-briefly.

            Red Dragon licked his lips. “Always both, Mr. Graham,” Francis reminded him, softly. “We are both now two halves of something whole, for better or worse.”

            Will Graham cringed from that, and the relief at his discomfort with the thought of Hannibal being his soulmate made Francis’ blood warm. He wondered at his skin, at the feel of it beneath hands that would know every which way to turn his body, every which way to bend him, to mold him, to –

            “Better you than…” him was the unsaid word that fell between them. Better Francis than Hannibal. Better Francis in his room with his wires and his computers and his tech than risk someone else finding him, someone else with hunger in his heart and a delightful sheen of red to his teeth as he curled in close.

            “Do you think you’ll survive in here?” he asked, but he regretted it. Survive, survive, but how could Will Graham see him when he was too busy trying to survive him? How could Will see Hannibal as the only monster when Francis was the one turning everyone else every which way around him, playing them against one another, playing them against Will, doling out life and death as was fit, as was necessary, all because he dared to serve someone that years before had sunk his teeth into the notion that someone like Will could ever be changed when –

            “I asked you once to not leave me like this,” Will said shakily, “and you did. You left me there, and now I’m here asking you to not leave me like that again.”

            Francis’ breath caught, and he thought of the first time he’d ever seen Will Graham behind the lens of a camera. Morose. Downcast. Downtrodden. He didn’t photograph well, but the first time Francis had caught his smile on camera, he’d stared at it for far too long before moving on. Purposeful. Not lightened by the happiness, but Francis had wondered for hours later what’d been said to make his eyes brighten so much.

            Francis was no fool, though. He knew what Will meant, the leaving and the staying, and the first time Will had been introduced to his room that was in truth a prison. He’d left him, then, but now…

            Maybe it was the mismatched eyes. They took what little self-control he had, in truth. He reached out, a carefully deliberate motion that he knew Will could track, and he touched his fingertip to the scab just at his temple, tracing it gently down to the apple of his cheek where he paused. Francis’ skin tingled, and he let out a slow, deliberate breath.

            “There’s a couch by the window,” he said at last, and he opened the door more for Will to enter. “And a blanket in the bin beside it.”

            Will was inside of the room and across to the couch before Francis could fully shut the door behind himself. Francis considered him, huddled among a thick, plush blanket, then he lifted the phone to his ear and took it off of mute.

            “I’ll take care of it,” he said to his informant, and he hung up abruptly. Almost at a loss, unsure of himself, Francis turned to Will and said, “If you behave poorly, he will come out.”

            “I won’t touch your things,” Will promised.

            He couldn’t have said if it was the way he said it, or the way he made himself small on the couch, but Francis believed him. This was not a mission to attempt any form of intel –with his bracelet and his eye, Will Graham knew precisely where he stood within the house. The poor man likely wanted rest, a respite from the people around him.

            And he’d sought out Francis to find it.

            It was difficult to remain focused on his work with Will Graham watching. He continued his messages with Nate Bowman. He toyed with security cameras and observed the perimeters that he’d placed cameras on. Saul was working the perimeter, as was Howard and Hobbs. Three for a perimeter that big was risky, but they needed to have eyes closer on the house to watch Will Graham in case he did something risky.

            Something risky like seeking out Red Dragon.

            Time passed. Will Graham, who’d sat so attentively still as he watched Francis work, slowly slumped into his chair. After a time, that slumping became leaning, and leaning became laying. By the time Francis finished securing his databases and passwords, Will Graham lay in a huddled heap on the couch, the blanket haphazardly across his feet.

            Francis would have liked to have said he left him like that, but he didn’t. After he finished shutting down his computers, he scooped up the blanket that smelled of lavender and laundry detergent, and he lay it across him with deliberate purpose, hands tingling at the thought of what it’d been to touch him.

            Red Dragon snarled, wondering at the taste of his blood. His light and sound. His essence.

-

            Brian Zeller lay weak and dying in the basement of The House.

            Hannibal stood just at the foot of the bed and observed him clinically, a detached air to him. Francis Dolarhyde stood just to the side of him, but his presence was ultimately unnecessary. He was as much a doctor as Hannibal Lecter was a door-to-door salesman, however; he provided the perfect emotional manipulation that Hannibal himself couldn’t quite boast. He hadn’t worked with Zeller the way that Dolarhyde had.

            He felt Will sleeping upstairs, a mere eighty-two steps away. His veins hummed at the thought, the reality that what he was feeling was real and true, tangible as one felt that moment when the blade finally broke skin; soulmate, soulmate, soulmate.

            “You were young when I was arrested,” Hannibal began. “You were new to the task force. It must have been a shiny recommendation for you to go anywhere after Agent Crawford gave you a stamp of approval; you ultimately decided to remain with him, though.”

            Brian Zeller watched Hannibal dispassionately, the rising and falling of his chest staggered in time with the heartrate monitor.

            “I commend loyalty such as that,” Hannibal continued, and he glanced to Dolarhyde. “I myself have colleagues and friends who would do much the same.”

            “Fuck you,” Zeller managed hoarsely –his eyes were trained to Dolarhyde, though, not Hannibal.

            “I understand that you had a run in with one of mine,” said Hannibal, and he nodded to the bandages. “I had to fix a couple of poorly done stitches, but the wound should heal nicely now.”

            “You didn’t bring me here to fix me,” Zeller managed, but the exertion of words pained him, and he fell back into the pillows with a ragged sort of noise in his throat, something wet and sticky sounding.

            “Yes, that’s right. It was merely something done out of kindness.”

            “You want something…in return.”

            “You know where Bella Crawford is,” Hannibal agreed pleasantly. “I understand that you’re having a difficult time in regards to pain, but a simple location is all that I request.”

            Zeller let out a slow, uneven breath. The gash in his throat was barely held together, and it showed in how painfully he swallowed. “…Graham…give you that bruise?”

            Hannibal’s heart hummed, even as he couldn’t fight the whisper of anger at someone pointing it out. While alone in his bedroom, Hannibal had marveled at the look of it, something ugly and discolored. He wondered if the bruise was much like Will felt whenever he thought of his maroon eye –something unwanted but hauntingly beautiful. The bruise was a testament to his soulmate’s capacity, his tenacity; the body’s response to violence was beautiful to Hannibal, how the color rose and pressed against the skin, insistent to be seen. He loved it, in truth, what it represented.

            For Zeller to point it out, though…

            “We have all the time in the world, Agent Zeller, to talk about that. For now, though, I’d love to discuss Bella Crawford. Francis?”

            At being addressed, Francis turned with a small doctor’s medical bag, and he offered it to Hannibal with the mildest of expressions, something ranging towards a dangerous interest at Hannibal removed the first of the tools that’d be used to take him to the ultimate goal of finding Agent Crawford’s wife.

            “Now, let’s try this again,” Hannibal said kindly.

            Zeller’s screams were hoarse and muffled, but they resonated in the basement walls just the same.

 -

            Will woke to someone’s hand over his mouth.

            He sucked in a breath, and around the disorienting twists and turns of his sleep-riddled mind, the only thought that he could sink his teeth into was, Red Dragon is going to kill me after all.

            The second thought was, not if I kill him first.

            Within that inhale, though, there was a distinct taste of the same exact Japanese Cherry Blossom that’d plagued his apartment for the last four years, and it gave him just enough of a jolt to freeze.

            And in that freezing, his straining ears caught the sound of her voice.

            “-and we don’t have a lot of time,” Beverly hissed into his ear. “If you want out now, Will, you follow me, and you do what I say. Nod if you understand me.”

            Will nodded.

            “I’m going to let go, now,” she continued. “Don’t scream.”

            He sat up the moment she stepped away, and in the gloom of the office he tracked her over to the small duffle bag that she slung onto her back with quick, efficient motions. She paused just beside the door and motioned for him to follow.

            “Is it time to pay the piper?” he asked.

            “I’ve been doing monthly installments,” she quipped in return. “Come on.”

            Will stood, and he followed her across the room to the door that sat shut, a barrier between him and them. He thought of their first meeting, how she’d been all but pushing to ensure they lived together; it’d seemed like fate, then, that she sought out such a piss-poor apartment and didn’t mind the fact that the washer didn’t work half of the time. It didn’t seemto bother her that her prospective roommate didn’t feel the need to buy a new one, either. ‘That’ll do,’ she said, and it was done. It’d all fallen into place so quickly Will hadn’t thought to be suspicious, but there they were now, a mere foot apart, and Will wondered if he’d ever cease to be amazed by the lunatics running about and fucking with his life all for the sake of Hannibal-fucking-Lecter.

            “Lead the way,” he said, and he gestured to what he hoped was freedom.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26:

            The house was as quiet as the grave.

            He tried to think thoughts of rest, of just enough unease that they could really feel like his dreams. Would Lecter know the difference? He was awake, that much Will could tell; there was an undertone of savagery, something reeking of tendrils down Will’s skin that suggested he go to find out just what his soulmate was up to in the middle of the night.

            Instead, he focused on attempting to dampen his own wakefulness, his own fear. No, no; he had better keep the fear. Surely, underneath it all, Hannibal would always be able to smell his fear?

            “Will,” Hannibal had once asked him, “what is your biggest motivator? Your strongest drive?”

            “Fear,” Will had replied, and the admission was needles pricking his tongue. More often than not, honesty hurt far worse than the lie.

            His footsteps were muffled, but he pained at every squeak, at every huff of air that his straining ears caught. Will hated old houses far more than new houses; they held onto memories and sounds tighter. The carpet that muffled his steps clung to troubles, and the dry wall glared accusingly. Was this house a loyal mistress? Would it rat him out in the end?

            Truly, he supposed, it wasn’t the fear that dug him into the darkest parts of his mind. It was his imagination that did him in.

            At the base of the stairs he paused, and it took Beverly only a moment to notice.

            “I want Wally,” he whispered.

            The look she gave him could have melted steel. “No.”

            Empathy was like that, he supposed, as he stole up the stairs anyway. He thought of Molly’s kindness and how she hid her light in Wally, and it seemed that he didn’t have much of a choice when he thought of it like that. In looking, Will saw, and God sometimes he sorely wished he didn’t have to see.

            Beverly caught up to him just beneath the painting of Deer in Kasuga. Grimaced scowls were shared beneath the painting, and he bared his teeth. Just beneath the surface of his skin, he could feel Hannibal rushing through his veins and arteries, daring her to stop him, daring her to get in his way.

            “He’s a child,” he snarled.

            There was a brief moment there, stolen in the shadows of the house, that took Will aback. The look on her face was unreadable, but there was something just in the corner of her eye that made it uncertain as to whether or not her fear was for him or of him. He wondered if Hannibal had crept into the turn of his cheek as he’d looked at her; maybe having to stare into his mismatched eyes allowed it to sink in just who it was he was capable of connecting to? The things he must be willing to do to get his way?

            “I’ll get Wally.”

            “Will Molly let you?”

            “Will Molly let you?” Beverly countered.

            Grimaces were shared beneath that painting, and Will looked up to it before he nodded somberly, once. Dolarhyde said he could kill anyone in the house and Lecter wouldn’t mind. Rather than kill, Will wondered: if he saved anyone in the house, would Lecter mind? Would his soulmate mind so much if he rescued a few people that didn’t need to be there, that didn’t deserve to be there?

            The stag in the painting stared at him, mocking. The moment Beverly rounded the corner to get Wally, Will set out to find Abigail.

            He knew her room from his exploration in the house. The door sat closed but unlocked, and when he eased it open it swung on silent hinges.

            Abigail lay sleeping; at the sound of his shoe on an unforgiving floorboard, she was awake.

            “Dad?” she asked.

            Will hated the sound of her voice, then, afraid; who else would leave the lights off as they came in but one that meant to do her harm? The one that honored and ate girls in the image of the one he loved, the one he tormented over? Will stood straight and still as she passed a flashlight over him, the brightness burning.

            “There’s a lamp,” he noted, voice far calmer than he felt.

            Abigail turned the light off and tossed it alongside her on the bed. “There is.”

            “I’m leaving,” said Will in the darkness. He fixed his eyes to the sliver of moonlight beneath the curtain that barely dusted along the floor. “You should come.”

            He couldn’t see her suspicion, but he could feel it like the unsettling touch of rancid meat. “Where?”

            “Out of here.”

            “Home?”

            He truly tried to keep the snark from his voice. “Are we really in a position to go home?”

            He looked back to her shape in the dim room, and even her shadow seemed to waver. After a brief inner battle, she finally turned the lamp on and set down what she’d been clinging to in her other hand.

            “Let me get dressed,” she murmured, and she headed to the closet.

            “Nice K-Bar,” he noted, and he turned his back so that she could dress.

            “Dad gave it to me,” she replied, “for hunting.”

            Once dressed, she passed by him to gather her things, and Will turned to study the knife, picking it up. She’d already removed it from her sheath when Will had called out to her. In that moment, unknowing of who he was, she’d been ready to become a killer. A murderer.

            Will could relate to that, although he sorely wished he couldn’t. Matthew’s mismatched eyes hung before him, accusing.

            “You gut a lot of deer with this?” he asked.

The blade was sharp against his thumb and broke skin with hardly any pressure. He stuck his thumb into his mouth to lap up the salty copper.

            “When my dad and I would hunt, yeah,” she said, and she passed by him to rifle through a box beside the window.

            “Was it a gift?”

            “The best of gifts,” Abigail assured him, “that I used to kill my mother.”

            Silence. Will contemplated the memory of what it’d felt like for another man’s blood to pool in his mouth as he stabbed him. He tongued the aftertaste of his own blood in his mouth and decided that it didn’t taste quite the same.

            “Was that the price you paid to come here?” he wondered, hoarsely. “The price so that Hannibal would keep you safe?”

            “Yes.”

            Will could see no grief as he turned to assess her. She stood in profile to him, the lamplight casting half of her in shadow and half in a yellowing light. He saw resolution, and pain. He saw determination and cruelty as she turned to face him, guiltless. Abigail was as much a survivor as he was, only he couldn’t have been certain if he’d have had half of her drive at that age. His father had still been alive, then, and Will had never once woken up in the middle of the night with a knife drawn because he supposed that he was about to die. He could see them, though, her demons; they shifted the planes of her face and made her appear lethal and more than capable.

            He then saw the precise moment that her face melted away to mortal terror.

            He couldn’t say later why he didn’t hesitate. He felt the quick, rapid blink of his eyelids, the coarse grate of his chapped lips pressing together. Her mouth dropped, and her eyes grew wide; it was the first true and honest image of fear he’d ever witnessed on her face. It was enough, though, for him to turn; in turning, he threw the arm that held the knife out, hard. There was some part of him that felt shock, in how easily the blade gave way beneath skin and tissue -was the human body truly so frail? There was another part of him, though, that hissed out a curse and threw himself further into the knife, shoving it deeper as he stared into the eyes of another monster in the house that’d dared to try and kill him.

            Garrett Jacob Hobbs stuttered a breath of shock and pain. His eyes widened, much like his daughter, as he fell further onto the knife to rest against Will’s shoulder as he wheezed.

            Will tugged the knife up as he hefted Garrett Jacob Hobbs off of him and onto the floor; the back of the blade parted flesh until it became stuck on the beginning curve of the ribs. He tugged the knife out of him as the body fell limply, and Will marveled at the blood that stained his shoulder and spread out onto the floor greedily.

            “Oh…my god,” Abigail whispered, and Will turned to her, heaving a ragged and coarse breath.

            “Let’s go,” he ordered, and he stepped over the body of Garrett Jacob Hobbs.

            He found Beverly at the painting of the stags. Beside her, Wally squatted with eyes at half-mast. Likely he thought this a dream, something to forget about later over breakfast.

            Will wished sorely that it was a dream; if this was a dream, surely he’d wake up soon?

            “Are you-”

            “Not mine,” he interrupted, coldly. “Abigail is coming, too.”

            He didn’t have to turn and look to know that she was crouched just behind him. He felt her shock and delight in equal parts, something that tasted bitter like a Vitamin-C tablet stuck on the tongue. The delight was because she was in shock. The hurt would come later, as would the anger. The self-loathing. The grief.

            The horror.

            Beverly stared at him, hard. After a short breath, she gestured down the stairs and crept with them, eyes keen on any movement, any sign of another body awake in the house. They passed the hall where Dolarhyde’s security room lay, towards the back door that Will had once stolen out of in order to call Jack. Wham. Don’t do that. Wham. Don’t make me hurt you. Wham. I can’t protect you if you do this. Wham.

            His steps stuttered as his head hissed in reminder to the pain. He couldn’t wait to call Jack again.

            The back door opened, and they stepped out from the warm indoors to the stinging cold air. The beginnings of winter in the south was a dark affair, with humid air dropping close enough to freezing that it was a wet and frigid bath to be caught outside. Will gulped in a shocking breath and slunk down the marble steps, their feet whispers on the stone, the surest of signs that somebody would find them.

            Someone inside of the house began to scream.

            A couple of doors slammed.

            All of the lights on the house went on.

            “Run,” Beverly hissed, and they stood and sprinted down the small incline to pass the pond and reach the forest. Bright light spilled out onto the lawn, marking them, and along with the wet and the cold Will also felt the sudden shock of Hannibal’s surprise.

            Quickly followed by his fury.

            “Hannibal’s coming,” he chanted, and it hitched in his breath. “Hannibal’s coming, Hannibal’s coming, Hannibal’s coming…”

            He slipped on the frosted dew on the ground; he caught himself and continued to run past the pond.

            They reached the treeline and burst into it, wet branches slapping their faces. Beverly turned on a small light and flashed it onto the path for them, her own breathing quiet as she forced herself to keep pace with them. The light glanced off of Will and then to Wally’s bright and horrified eyes. He didn’t know why he was running, only that he had to; Molly’s light was smart enough to know when it was the time to question and when it was the time to act.

            Will stumbled over a rock and skidded down an incline of freezing leaves and hardened mud. He stumbled to a stop at the bottom and paused in order to help the others down. Abigail fell into him, and he eased her over the rocks so that she didn’t fall. The stitches in his side screamed at the action, but his heart pounded harder: Hannibal’s coming, Hannibal’s coming.

            Wouldn’t he always, though? They crested the incline and ran again, their steps a little more staggered, a little more cautious. Wouldn’t Hannibal always come for him, his desire so strong that surely the bond would always lead Will back to him?

            How was he of any help to these people, then, that deserved so desperately to get away?

            He stopped running and grabbed Beverly, shaking his head. “I can’t,” he wheezed out, and he pressed his hand to the stitches in his side. “I can’t go with you.”

            “What the fuck, Will,” she hissed.

            “He’ll find you guys if I do.”

            “We’ll get you to Crawford now, we’ll-”

            “I’ll lead him away from you. Get Abigail and Wally to safety, then bring Crawford here. Whatever the hell you’re doing, Beverly, just get Jack here and I’ll be okay.”

            Abigail and Wally stopped, hands on their knees as they tried to breathe. The look on Beverly’s face shifted from blank surprised to a dark unease, something much akin to a genuine friend that honestly cared about what happened to him. It made him uneasy, like he was seeing Beverly for the first time.

            “Will-”

            “Just promise you’ll get Jack,” Will snapped, and he backed away a few steps, pointedly. “Promise you’ll get Jack here and I’ll be okay.”

            “Okay, Will, I promise,” Beverly replied, and she grabbed Abigail and Wally by their arms, hauling them up. “Come on, guys.”

            Will didn’t look back as he turned and ran in a completely different direction. He wasn’t sure if he’d be strong enough to do this if he did.

            He could feel Hannibal in his heartbeat, urging him to stop, to wait, to hold still just let me find you. He kept running, and it was only after he tripped and fell into a tree that he turned and backtracked, leading Hannibal in a large, looping circle. He could see the haze of lights in the distance that told him that the house was on full-alert. The slices of it cutting through the trees taunted him, and by the time he broke the treeline he was gripping the rips in his stitches as he wheezed to a stop next to the pond that he’d first slipped beside.

            Hannibal found him soon after, closely followed by Howard and Dolarhyde. Will glared at them balefully, sweat beading his brow as he spit blood from his mouth from biting the inside of his cheek. While Dolarhyde looked ruthlessly enraged, Howard appeared to be strangely afraid.

            Just before him, Hannibal turned his hands out to Will, palms up. Blood stained his suitcoat.

            “Will,” he began.

            “No.”

            “Will,” he said again, gently. “We found a body in one of the upstairs bedrooms.”

            “Alright,” said Will, digging his palm into his stitches. “Alright.”

            “Did you murder Garrett Jacob Hobbs?”

            “He was going to kill her,” he snarled, and he drew himself up to his full height. “You had something like that in this house, and he was going to kill her. I killed him first.”

            Hannibal stepped closer to him, and Will backed away. He stepped in the same place as before and slipped though, and Hannibal reached out to steady him, locking him in place with both hands as he gripped his arms. He reeked of blood and sweat, something metallic and tangy that clung to the back of his throat.

            “You killed him to protect her,” he said kindly, “and yet you still came back when she ran.”

            “Don’t go after her,” he snarled. “Don’t you dare go after her.”

            “Is that why you returned?” Hannibal wondered. “To let her get away?”

            “She took Wally, too,” said Will, and he despised how his heart thrummed in delight at Hannibal’s touch, how it ached for him to press close to him and feel him. “She took Wally, but just let them go.”

            Hannibal didn’t speak for a few moments, taking Will in by eyesight alone. He likely noted his sleep-rumpled clothing, his bedhead. Did he also see how he leaned to the side, pained by his wounds? Could he still see the bruise at his eye from a fist that smarted, even as it aimed to hurt?

            “I felt you kill him,” Hannibal revealed, and he tugged Will close and wrapped his arms around him. “I felt the moment that you killed him.”

            Will tried to shift away from him, but Hannibal held tight. “Shut up.”

            “And do you know the most surprising part of that for me, Will?” he asked, and he tucked his mouth against his ear to whisper.

            “Don’t-” Will hissed, and Hannibal’s arms wrapped tighter, pressing his heartbeat to Hannibal’s.

            “I felt not one sliver of guilt or horror as you did it. One could even say that you delighted in it.”

            Will closed his eyes, and he pressed his forehead into Hannibal’s shoulder, slumping against him. He thought of Abigail’s eyes, how similar they’d been to Garrett Jacob Hobbs’, and he thought of how they must be now, narrowed in concentration as she tore through the forest and tried to break free. His heart hummed with a contentment that made his bones lazy, and he could almost imagine the chemicals pumping into his bloodstream now that he’d allowed physical touch to creep in. Seratonin was soothing, even as his mind screamed, raged at the way his body gave in so easily to the calming notion that now that Hannibal was near, everything was just right.

            “What did you do to me,” he asked, agonized. “Why did you make me do this?”

            Hannibal passed a hand over his hair, pausing just at the nape of his neck. There was some part of him that thought to lie, but Will felt it the moment that his resolution hardened to tell the truth. He resented the subtle ways that his body made him more than aware of what his soulmate was thinking.

            “Because I was curious,” he said at length, and he passed his hand along the back of Will’s hair again.

            Will pressed his face into his neck and tried his hardest not to cry.

-

            “Excuse me, officer?”

            Emma wore the only dress she’d packed; a soft blue summer dress paired with a white cardigan. It made the drive a little colder than if she’d worn jeans, but image was everything. She’d even pinned a bow into her short hair to give all appearances of that ‘All-American Gal’ that southern boys just craved.

            “What can I help you with, ma’am?”

            The officer at the desk looked up from his crossword puzzle and smiled. She noted his quick glance to her left ring-finger, his shoulders deflating slightly when he saw the modest band. She tucked her hands neatly onto the counter.

            “My husband is Sherriff Payne. I know he’s missed a couple of days of work, and I just wanted to bring in a doctor’s note as well as a letter from him to the chief.”

            “So you’re the elusive Mrs. Payne! We hain’t never seen you at the Bar-Ba-Qu’s! I swore you was a myth!”

            Emma made sure to blush prettily as she dipped her head. “Yes, that’s me.” She made sure to sweeten the southern drawl as she added, “He’s got something awful, and he doesn’t have much of a voice otherwise he’d have called. We were in the hospital the first night!”

            “Shit, Mrs. Payne, that’s awful to hear. I’ll get these to chief, and you tell that sum’bitch he better get better soon.” He paused, likely realizing what he’d just said. “What I mean, being that I hope he heals up nicely.”

            “I figured, thank you.” She smiled, then saw herself from the police department. Barnesville wasn’t a bustling town in the early morning hours, but she was careful all the same. Emma waited until she was getting into her car before she lifted her phone to her ear in order to call the house.

            “Yes?”

            “He’s covered for at least two weeks. Enough to finish the next part of the plan before the final act. After that, they’re going to wonder where one of their own’s gone.”

            “Thank you, Emma,” Dolarhyde said. “I’ve gotten a report about what happened at the house in DC. I need you on a flight.”

            “When?”

            “Tonight.”

-

            “Jack,” Price said, slowly. “This is getting ridiculous.”

            “Just answer the question, Price. We’re talking diatoms.”

            “We’re not talking diatoms,” Price huffed, “come on, Jack; I’m not stupid.”

            “No one said you’re stupid,” Jack assured him.

            “No, no, you’re wanting me to claim that I was told to search the diatoms in order to find the location that you should begin your search for Lecter because I’m working for him.”

            Jack stared across the table at Price; Price stared back dispassionately.

            “I was just wondering why you thought to search the diatoms. It could have been bottled water that he poured in the travel container.”

            “It could have,” Price agreed. “It also could have been what it was -which was tap water from Georgia.”

            “Just a hunch to check it?”

            “Just a hunch.”

            Silence once more. Price took a sip of the obligatory water set in front of him, and Jack responded with a sip from his own.

            “I’ve not been charged with anything, Jack. I’m just humoring you by sitting down to even talk about this.”

            “I’m aware.”

            “If you were charging me, I’d get a lawyer,” Price continued, “and you want to know who that is? My twin.” At the flicker of annoyance on Jack’s face, Price grinned. “Yes, the one you’ve heard all about. He’s a lawyer, didn’t you know?”

            “No one’s charging you. We’re just talking.”

            “You realize this is what they wanted? You’re wasting time questioning me when you should be checking in on any relations to Hannibal Lecter or whether or not the paperwork from the precincts came in. They’re just trying to mess with your mind, Jack.”

            Jack studied the small dent in the metallic table, a gift from a furious detainee. He wondered if Will was alright, or if he was having a particularly difficult time, captive as he was. What was Hannibal feeding him? What was he doing to him?

            “He got Dolarhyde; why not you?” he wondered.

            “Dolarhyde was never on our side,” Price retorted. “You can’t think you lost someone that you never had. I’ve always been in your corner.”

            “I guess my problem is, every time something happens and you’re there, it leaks. There’s a leak around me, Price, and I’m just trying to stop it.”

            “Then you’re wasting your time right now. Just like they wanted you to.”

            They considered one another again, and Jack sighed.

            “Tell me I’m wrong,” he urged. “Tell me I’m wrong, and tell me why I’m wrong.”

            “You and I both know that that’s not how the legal system works. If you make a claim, you have to support it with evidence.”

            Price bore his stare remarkably well, all things considered. Years of exposure to Jack in various states of behavior had surely desensitized him to the expression. There was something wretched in it, though, as Jack saw the flicker of genuine hurt on Price’s face. He was bearing their conversation well, all things considered. How would Jack react if someone accused him of being a double agent? He looked at the distorted image of himself on the table, and he sighed once more. What in the hell was he doing?

            How does it feel?

            “Who is the leak, then,” he asked. “Who is it in my division that I can’t trust?”

            “Well if you’d let me out of this room that I was urged to ‘have a conversation’ in, I’d love to help,” Price replied. “Barring anymore accusations thrown my way.”

            Jack rubbed his eyes, resented the sting at the edges that said he’d gone too long without sleep. He wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation around. He wasn’t sure how to get control of the thoughts that were tossed every which way in his mind.

            He was rather lucky, then, to hear:

            “Jack, phone call for you,” Starling said, opening the door. “It’s Freddie Lounds.”

            “Lounds,” he swore, and he stood up.

            Price tracked his motions and leaned back in his chair, stretching. “She trying to get a new story from you?”

            “Naturally, but you’re going to want to hear this,” Starling said, and she smiled grimly. “Says she’s got a special delivery for you, as well as some rather specific coordinates to a house you’ve been itching to visit.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 27:

            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.

            “Do you?”

            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?”

            “No.”

            “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.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 28:

            Molly Graham slipped into Hannibal’s study late that night, long after Howard had gone off to his next task. Will tracked her even, short steps and thought of the last time he’d seen her in such a muted dark: drunk, wavering, and decidedly devilish as she stripped his clothes off of him and pressed kisses sticky from grenadine and peach vodka across his chest.

            He’d trusted her back then.

            He didn’t know which Molly it was that faced him, a classy coffee table and years of secrets between them. He thought of his long-dead father and the game he tried to teach him, how each step forward seemed to have led him to this moment where three Molly’s faced him and only one was real -a fool’s sort of game, perhaps. Maybe each and every one of the Molly’s he’d met were real in their own way, and he was finally going to see the distorted thing that they created when merged.

            “Hannibal’s asleep,” he said, like that could somehow give comfort.

            A taut line left her shoulders, and she nodded.

            “I was surprised to see Beverly,” she offered, and her voice was ragged from forcing it to some semblance of quiet. Will wanted to weep that she didn’t ask how it felt to be connected to someone like Hannibal.

            “You and I were the only two surprised to see Beverly.”

            “FBI, do you think?”

            Will sat up on the couch and made room for her, and Molly accepted the silent offer and sat down, knees pressed tightly together with hands clasped. This Molly was contained. This Molly wouldn’t just survive.

            She’d overcome.

            “Jack would know,” said Will, and he leaned back into the leather. “He wouldn’t have been so afraid if she was.”

            “CIA?”

            “I wondered. Maybe something else. Maybe she just hated Saul.” A lie, but a good one. He’d heard enough stories about Saul to know that Beverly had not only grown to love him, but she relied on him in some ways.

            Not anymore.

            Silence. He could still catch small wafts of the perfume she’d worn for the day, something that carried over to him when she flipped her hair over her shoulder and stared pointedly at her knee.

            “I didn’t even begin to trust it until she said that you were coming, too.”

            “I appreciate that, Molly.”

            “Then to see you back here, I-” Her voice caught, and there was another long pause of silence. “You came back so that my son could get away. So that Abigail could get away.”

            Will’s smile wasn’t kind. “Sooner or later I’m going to have to stop being so nice.”

            “Those two kids would be the only ones I’d have said deserved it,” Molly replied, “so you made a good call.”

            More silence. It wasn’t the lack of things to say that had Will so quiet, but rather the exact opposite. He thought of masks and faces and how there was no one in the world -save Hannibal -that quite knew him like Molly did. There was ease in her presence, but no comfort. Time changed that. Her lies had changed that.

            “I didn’t see you at Saul’s massacre,” he said bitterly.

            “I was out in the hall; I left when I realized what was happening.”

            “Won’t your keepers be upset?”

            “They’re not my keepers,” Molly snarled, stiffening.

            “You’re right,” he agreed, and he let out a soft huff of air. “Tell me they’re blackmailing you, Molly. I don’t believe that bullshit about death being rejuvenation or whatever-the-hell they’re chanting now. That’s not you.”

            “You don’t know me.”

            “I know who it was you pretended to be,” Will pointed out. “To keep a façade that long, there had to be some kind of truth to it.”

            He could almost feel the hesitation in her words, so he scooted just an inch or so away from her on the couch, giving space without giving ground. He wondered if her lips still tasted like maraschinos or if she’d been able to scrub their memories away so easily as it seemed.

            “They took Wally,” she whispered, and he had to lean in to catch the admission. “They had Wally for so long, Will.”

            Vulnerability was an interesting thing. Most people didn’t enjoy being in a position where they could potentially be taken advantage of -no one liked to feel as though their right to choose had been stripped away. Truly, that was the deepest violation to Will, that no only he be taken but made just desperate enough that he had no choice in his future. He either survived, or he didn’t.

            He either killed, or he would surely be killed.

            “Did you love me before they took him?” he asked, and fuck he was so tired of sounding like this. So fucking, god-damn vulnerable.

            “I was starting to,” she said, and when he offered his hand she took it tightly. “I was falling in love with you, and they took him away from me.”

            “If it’s true, I don’t hate you for it,” he offered, and the laugh in response wasn’t so amused as it was despairing.

            “I used to be a good person.”

            “If you say it enough, will you believe it?”

            Her grip tightened in his, and she looked across the study to the fireplace whose embers still glowed petulantly.

            “You think I’m saying it for myself?”

            “I think that you’d say anything if it made you hate yourself a little less.”

            She looked at him, and Will wasn’t quite sure what it was that she saw, let alone what it was that she was looking for. She smiled, he smiled, and somehow they were laying against one another, her back pressed to his chest as he wrapped arms around her to keep her from falling onto the floor.

            “You’re being bold, Molly Foster,” Will warned her. He thought of Hannibal, still sleeping, and he cringed.

            He didn’t let her go, though.

            “Did Hannibal honestly send people to look for them?” Molly asked. That was a much more vulnerable question. Will could taste her hope as well as her despair. She was having a hard time overcoming at that moment.

            “I don’t know. He’d be stupid not to.”

            “Because Wally?”

            “Because Abigail not only owes me her freedom but her life,” he retorted, and it sounded a little less giving when he worded it like that. “No matter how horrifying he was, that was the man that raised her. I killed him so that she didn’t have to.”

            “So she’s going to find a way to Jack?”

            “She will,” he agreed, and he tried to make it sound a little less like a threat and more like a voice of hope. “She’d be foolish not to.”

            “I didn’t know her that well, but from what I could see, she was no fool.”

            “She’s not,” Will agreed.

            More silence, this time broken only by the sudden and sharp sound of the baseboard heater kicking on. Molly flinched as though it were a gunshot.

            “Your wound is healing nicely.”

            “Which one?” he asked, and he didn’t try and stop the snark from entering his voice.

            “…Everyone in the house was talking about how you tried to carve your eye out with a mirror shard.”

            “Everyone,” he echoed bitterly.

            “Did you?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Will,” she admonished, but it wasn’t the same as before because nothing could be the same. She’d lied, and even if he could understand it, it didn’t stop it from hurting so damn much.

            “None of you have ever been in my position,” he said -not because he owed her anything, but habit begged him to explain. “You can’t say that if you had a forced soulmate connection to someone, you wouldn’t do the same.”

            “You’re right,” Molly agreed grimly. “Honestly, I’d have probably killed myself if that had happened to me.”

            “No more overcoming?”

            She was quiet for a minute or so, then said in a small voice, “I honestly don’t see how I’d survive something like that, let alone overcome it.”

            The embers hissed, and a stray bit of wood popped. She pressed back into him, and Will let her.

            “You’re all going to bleed me dry,” he murmured, and Molly’s breath caught. “I wonder who I’m going to have to kill next to set you free.”

            “You could kill Hannibal,” Molly replied, and a shudder ran through her. “Anyone here that has ever had ill intent towards you only first began it because he looked at you and for some reason you were smart enough not to look back.”

-

            “Hello?”

            Hannibal’s voice when he was surprised awake in the middle of the night was far less calming than their sessions. Will gripped the receiver tightly and tried to focus on it, though, despite it not having the sort of grounding ability that he so desperately needed.

            “Dr. Lecter, I…I’m s-so sorry, but I…”

            His voice hitched, and there was silence on the other end. Will took in a warbling sort of breath that got caught halfway in his throat, and he exhaled with the sort of force that reverberated through the tinny speaker.

            “Will?”

            “I’m not…okay, I’m…I need your help. Please.”

            “Where are you?”

            “I made it home, I’m at the apartment…please.”

            Time was odd. One moment, Will was staring down at the phone, and the next he was sitting on a couch, a blanket around his shoulders. He trembled and clung to the itchy wool. His phone, his phone; where in the world was his phone? Had he lost it? Had he dropped it? Had he ever even made it to the damn thing to call?

            “You’re dissociating,” Hannibal noted, and Will jumped at the sudden sound. First, his voice, then the heater; it clicked and hummed low. Then, the whirring of the refrigerator, and suddenly Will was aware of himself, of his heartbeat and how it felt too soft against his skin, how he felt far, far away and connected only by a loose thread that threatened to snap and leave him out of himself.

            “I’m sorry,” he murmured, and he sunk into the blanket tighter.

            “Don’t be,” Dr. Lecter admonished, and somehow even at 3:00 A.M. the man was dressed in slacks and a modest jumper. “You called because you needed help. Did you hurt yourself, Will?”

            Will looked down to his knuckles that were split and bleeding, one of them not sitting quite right. He flexed cramped fingers, and it burned.

            “I hurt someone,” he said absently, “at a bar.”

            “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

            Those words didn’t come so easily. He thought about them for a long time before forcing them from his lips, heavy with what he’d done. “He wouldn’t leave us alone -kept hassling my friend.”

            “What was the final straw for you?” Dr. Lecter asked.

            “He had knife mange,” Will recalled, and he flexed his hands again. “I told him I knew someone savvy around a knife. He grabbed me and hauled me outside.”

            “Then?”

            Then, Will thought savagely, then I fucking hurt him. I fucked him right up.

            “I didn’t know how to stop,” Will confessed, and he curled in on himself, pressing his forehead to his knees. “I just kept…hitting and hitting and hitting him, and he stopped fucking moving but I didn’t, and my friends had to haul me off of him.”

            He wasn’t sure what to do about the silence after. He heard the noises of a well-functioning apartment with far too much sound and clarity, and they rubbed against his skin and cursed him. He’d hurt someone, the apartment hissed, and he hurt them bad.

            And he’d fucking liked it.

            “Do you know the status of the man that you hurt?” Dr. Lecter asked.

            “Hannah called an ambulance, and they took me home,” Will said miserably. “I…they just let me go home. They said they called an ambulance, and it was fine.”

            “Are you telling me now out of guilt?”

            “I wanted to keep hurting him, Dr. Lecter,” said Will, and he lifted his head to look at his therapist, eyes wide and wild and God he felt so unhinged. “I wanted to keep hurting him, but who does that? Who hurts someone and wants to do more, wants to find more people to…to…”

            “Did you call me to hurt me, Will?”

            “No,” Will blurted, far too quickly. He turned to Dr. Lecter, but he fell just short of reaching out, hands uncertain and afraid. “No, I…I just…felt myself falling. I was standing still, but I was falling, and I knew I needed help. Please…you have to help me. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

            “You’re not going to hurt anyone,” Dr. Lecter said, and his voice was just gentle enough that it seemed almost plausible to believe.

            “How do you know that?” he asked miserably.

            “Because rather than go and look for another person to hurt or another person to fight, you called me,” he replied, and somehow even at 3 in the god damn morning he sounded so blissfully calm and sweet. “And where your intent was not to hurt me, I can only assume you took the right steps to de-escalate yourself and get treatment. Your forced detachment from your violence was a dissociation from yourself entirely, yet here you are now able to sit beside someone without harming them. That speaks levels to your control, Will.”

            “You’re not afraid of me?”

            “I’m no more afraid of your capacity for violence than my own,” Dr. Lecter assured Will, and he stood. “Come, let me treat your hands.”

            His touch was clinically kind as he doctored Will’s bruised, cut, and potentially broken fingers. He paused on the right middle finger and felt along it, a shallow bowl of water to the side, as well as a damp and warm rag. The water sat pink and placid.

            “Not broken, but sorely used,” he tsk’d, and he gently placed Will’s hand in the water again. “Artificial wounds for you, then. You’ll wear your capabilities for some time, though.”

            “I’m capable of hurting people that are used to hurting people,” Will realized.

            “Sometimes, Will, hurting bad people genuinely feels good.”

            Will’s relief was bitter, like biting into soft spring bark. He thought of how it’d felt so good to hurt someone, and in the end he took the pain of his hands in stride, as a lesson: One could not hurt another without taking some part of it into themselves.

            They stayed much like that for most of the dark, early morning, Will too afraid to move and Dr. Hannibal Lecter too kind to dismiss himself until Will was comfortable. Late night TV droned on in the background, although neither one of them truly watched it. When dawn slunk through the window just to the side of them, Will made him coffee, the hesitance in the good doctor’s acquiescence just enough to make an exhausted Will laugh.

            “It’s French press,” he assured him, and he busied himself in the kitchen, making more noise than usual to make it. He needed domestic sounds, something smacking of a normal, healthy life. No sleep meant no school, but he’d e-mail the appropriate faculty. Dr. Bloom would be more than understanding if he’d had a rough night, although thankfully the details would remain locked behind Dr. Lecter’s kind mouth.

            “I detest the idea of insult, but I am surprised that you don’t keep to the normal and easy forms of Folgers or the Starbucks that I passed on the way here.”

            “There are few things that I feel like I have complete control over,” Will replied, handing over a cup. The coffee’s sharp, soothing smell permeated the small apartment. “How well my coffee is made in the morning is one of them.”

            “Then you and I are in agreement.”

            They drank their coffee in silence, something far less sinister and far more companionable. The only sounds were the scuffing of their cups on the counter or the occasional cough. Dr. Lecter didn’t try to make light of what’d happened. Will didn’t try and justify it. He rinsed both cups, set them in the leaky dishwasher, and saw his therapist out of the door, ready for an honest-to-god nap.

            “I can pay extra, if…” His voice trailed off at the firm but absolute shake of Dr. Lecter’s head.

            “Don’t think of it.”

            He paused just on the other side of the door and turned to look back at Will with a small, mysterious smile.

            “This may be an unpopular opinion to society,” he said, and it was just vague enough to make Will look up from an impeccably shined shoe, “but I personally believe that your ease in transitioning from peace to violence stems from a natural need that you have to protect.”

            “Protect?”

            “Fear drives you.”

            “It does,” Will agreed reluctantly. “That’s what we’re working on in therapy.”

            “With that fear comes a hyper-sensitive awareness of those around you that could pose a threat to both you and your loved ones. Where this person intentionally placed themselves in a position of discomfort, your psyche naturally became what was necessary to keep them from hurting anyone else.”

            “Are you trying to justify me beating someone so senselessly that they were unconscious?” Will demanded, and he stared into Dr. Lecter’s unyielding brown eyes.

            “I’m not justifying it. I’m saying that personally, Will, it’s a testament to your character that you were so willing and ready to step into that role to protect those that you love. You recognized the threat; then, you neutralized it.”

            It was the pride, Will decided, that softened the sentiment. Dr. Lecter, apart from fatigue at the turn of his brow, looked proud as he appraised Will’s disheveled appearance. He was unjudging and fucking proud of what Will had done, what Will had deemed as inexcusable and cruel.

            “Thank you,” Will said at last, unsure of what else to say.

            “If it’s any comfort,” Dr. Lecter added, and he saw himself down the stairs of the apartment complex.

            And somehow, it was a comfort to Will as he closed the door. His bandaged hands ached, and he headed towards the bedroom to sleep. It came in waves, but the relieving part of it was rather than suffer the nightmare of seeing him mutilate a man over and over and over again, instead he dreamt of Dr. Lecter assuring him that he was proud.

-

            The next morning, Will woke to an empty study. The fire had long since died, and the room was cold save for the ancient, rusted baseboard heating that clicked and popped as it tried to push warmth across wizened floorboards. The walls looked as though they were weeping.

            He wondered if Abigail had gotten away.

            Molly’s perfume had long since faded, as had her presence. Will sat up and shook blurred dreams from his mind where he just kept hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting, and he left the study to go and take a walk. Dr. Lecter, too, was awake, although Will felt his presence on the opposite end of the house, quietly suspicious. The soulmate connection urged him to hurry on his way to where he was most supposed to be.

            Rather than do that, he went in the opposite direction.

            He didn’t make it far, though; he was intercepted at the steps leading down to the driveway by a tall, lithe man with dark brown skin and a pleasantly cold smile.

            “You’re Will Graham,” he said, and his matching eyes were fixated. Just behind him, a woman with matching brown eyes smiled in a way that was just as chilling as her counterpart’s.

            Will took an instinctive step away.

            “We don’t mean to pry, of course,” the woman said, and her voice bubbled up, eager and all sorts of kind. “We were informed to look for you.”

            “Why?”

            “We have a special delivery for you,” the man replied, and at that cryptic remark he turned and walked down the steps to the car.

            In that moment, somehow pinned in place by the presence of a woman whose expression alone sent warning signals through his mind, at the sound of a sudden, loud whine, he gave a start. His heart skipped, then began to pound; at the sight of Winston barreling out of the back seat of the car, Will Graham made a sound somewhere between a cry of surprise and a hiss of suspicion.

            That suspicion didn’t stop him from dropping to his knees as his beloved dog barreled into him and made quick work of licking him everywhere, from the top of his head to the bottom of his shoes.

            “Hey, hey,” he soothed, but he wasn’t quite sure who it was that he was attempting to calm down. His hands trembled as he stroked down the soft, thick fur of his closest companion since Hannibal Lecter first decided that he was going to gut an FBI agent. Normally, licking and all other manner of reckless abandon wouldn’t have been tolerated, but after everything that’d happened Will figured that he owed it to himself as well as Winston to let it slide this once.

            “Dr. Lecter thought that you’d enjoy having him here,” the man said, awkwardly standing nearby.

            Will didn’t answer so much as make another odd noise, something like acknowledgement but also dismissal.

            “By your reaction, we were happy to help,” the woman added.

            “Did you kill Dr. Bloom to do it?”

            Will looked up when they didn’t answer right away, and he looked between the two of them, unsure in truth as to who was the more dangerous counterpart. There was something unhinged about the woman, grief in the way her eyes still seemed sad even as she smiled -this was somehow balanced by the man that stood at perfect attention, his straight shoulders and elegant hands lending an artistic lens to him.

            Will decided it’d be safe to just hate them both and hold them at a distance like everyone else in the house.

            “Those weren’t our orders,” said the man.

            “…That wasn’t what I asked, though.”

            “Thankfully, we didn’t have to disobey his orders,” the man added, and he smiled briefly. “Dr. Lecter would have been disappointed if she’d had to be disposed of.”

            “Oh,” he said, and Will relaxed his grip on Winston’s fur, unaware that he’d even done so in the first place. He flexed cramped fingers, and he stroked down the dog’s side, willing his hands to stop shaking. “That’s a first.”

            “Dr. Lecter respects Dr. Bloom,” the woman informed Will. “He actually requested that we do everything in our power to ensure that it didn’t come to that.”

            “I wonder just how far his level of respect extends to the two of you,” said Will, and he looked back to Winston, rubbing the soft spot just behind his ears. “Would he elevate you to art, or would he respect you just enough to spare you?”

            That took the woman aback, but the man wasn’t disquieted by the question. “Our work outside of the house is a testament to his regard for us, wouldn’t you think? He keeps people within these walls whose notches on their belt would rival Dr. Lecter’s, and yet it is merely the Symphonic Strangler and the widowed wife of Mr. Kester that are able to blend into society and do his bidding and extend his reach.”

            “You have two murders notched into your belt,” Will remembered. He’d studied the Symphonic Strangler due to suspicions of his having a soulmate.

            “With the help of Ms. Kester, it’s now seven,” the Symphonic Strangler assured him.

            “I don’t recognize your name, but I’ll go out on a limb and say you and your late husband have more notches than that, Ms. Kester.”

            Ms. Kester smiled. “Please, call me Maggie.”

            “No, thank you.”

            “It’s a name you’ll want to remember, as with the help of Dr. Lecter we’re becoming something like a legend,” she retorted, just annoyed enough to make Will laugh.

            Will looked back to Winston, his smile crooked. Crouched awkwardly, staring his beloved dog in the eyes like he was the only thing keeping him sane, he said, “Funny thing about legends; they have a habit of inevitable death.”

            “As do we all,” the Symphonic Strangler said.

            “Yeah, but how much time is left, I wonder?” Will stood, and Winston stood with him, tail slashing through the air with wild happiness. “You’re talking about becoming something like a legend, but even you won’t survive the 24-hour media cycle if tomorrow Jack Crawford and the FBI burned this place to the ground.”

            Maggie Kester looked as though she had something profound to say to that, but at the touch of the Symphonic Strangler beside her, she stilled. Their equally complacent smiles as they walked away, saw themselves into their car, and drove away needled at Will, but he reminded himself that their forced calm was a sign of victory.

            Hannibal feeling just guilty enough to procure for Will his therapy dog was another reminder of victory. With that, he went inside to plan his next step, Winston close on his heels.

Chapter Text

Chapter 29:

 

            Francis Dolarhyde watched Will Graham through the lens of a rather expensive camera.

            While he couldn’t always be the one documenting the comings and goings of the target -his work with the FBI was a full time job, after all -he did take over the job when he was able to. Odds and ends sort of shifts, the menial tasks of following him home as he stumbled drunk from a bar. His notes were far more extensive, his study of growth and character not only accurate but insightful.

            In truth, if left to Matthew Brown, Francis Dolarhyde was more than aware of how quickly the plans would crumble, left in the wake of his petty feelings and narcissism. He thought of daffodils and wondered when they’d be able to finally begin planting them. He wondered if Will would plant one, too.

            “I’m back,” Molly said in greeting as she came into the living room.

            The apartments across from Will Graham’s were a month-to-month lease with the tenant a lowly, forgettable Henry Brown. He seemed smaller than his 6 feet in height, and the way he ducked his head when paying the rent ensured that the landlord didn’t stare too long at the cleft palate that would make Francis’ alias memorable. He mumbled. He wouldn’t make eye contact. He lived alone and never filed noise complaints. The landlord would, in truth, miss Henry Brown when he finally decided to leave.

            Francis Dolarhyde looked forward to taking showers above room temperature water.

             “What’s the report?”

             “He’s fine.” At a short glance from Francis, she added, “He found his bike, although he noticed that someone had replaced the brake pads and the chain. He thought it was potentially a good Samaritan or someone more along a ‘chaotic good’ spectrum.”

             “He saw nothing?”

            “No,” she affirmed. “Whoever returned the bike did their job well. He didn’t see a thing.”

            Francis Dolarhyde had it on good authority that he did his job very, very well. While the bike thief wouldn’t see another sunset, at least Will Graham had a chain that wasn’t one small bump away from snapping. He glanced down to the photo that he had of Will stopping in genuine surprise to stare at the bike that he used during the summertime for commuting; the photo after was a small, tentative smile, like he couldn’t be sure if he should be more happy than bemused.

            “I’ve recruited two more. I’m giving their information to the secondary house for Charlie to scan.”

            “You trust Charlie with a lot of things,” said Molly, sitting down on the couch. Perched behind a mesh screen taped to the living room window, he zoomed in on Will Graham going to sit out on the balcony of his apartment, and he snapped a photo.

            “He was military. He understands how to follow orders.”

            Molly Foster wasn’t military. In truth, he found her to be unnecessary, but he deferred to Dr. Lecter’s opinion in that regard. Dr. Lecter was confident that her presence would ensure that Will maintained a healthy social life, and the confusion in the soon-to-come aftermath would be more than enough to keep him at just the right level of imbalance to potentially become compliant. Compliance meant Change. It meant Becoming.

             How happy for Hannibal Lecter, that all of Francis Dolarhyde’s carefully laid plans would lead his inevitable triumph and soulmate.

            Normally, Dolarhyde and Molly Foster didn’t speak after she debriefed him. It suited him fine, as she refused to go to the house that was now a home without Wally Foster in it, but sometimes he felt her presence too close and he longed to devour her. Red Dragon whispered lovely thoughts, dark thoughts, and when he snapped another photo he was far too aware of her walking across the room to peer over his shoulder at the image he’d captured.

            “It’s a nice photo,” she commented.

            “What do you want, Molly Foster.”

            People didn’t speak to him unless to voice their wants. He was one of Dr. Lecter’s trusted, and that was something to celebrate, even as he wondered when it would be his turn to look across the masses and see awe and adoration alike. It was his birthright, his claim. Red Dragon hummed in his veins. Would he always stand to the right? In truth, when the time came would Will Graham truly look to Hannibal Lecter? Or could he, perhaps, look to the right of him instead?

            Red Dragon snarled behind his lips, but he kept the sound safely tucked away.

            “Are you always taking photos of him?” she asked. “When he does…anything that you can see?”

            In answer, he silently began to scroll through the previous photos, such as the one where she kissed Will goodbye, just inside the sliding balcony doors. He paused on it and turned to look up at her, waiting.

            She stared down at that photo for a long time, wheels turning. Just at Dolarhyde’s elbow, a composition book rested.

            “Do you take notes, too?” she asked in disbelief.

            “Intel,” he said, and he glanced back out of the window.

            Will Graham drank alone and stared down at the street below him, watching cars drive by. His eyes rarely, if ever, looked across the way to the dingy apartments whose residents’ use of the month-to-month lease ensured a constantly revolving door. Dolarhyde would have to leave, soon. Eight months seemed to be the longest a person could go without becoming a memorable tenant. He’d have to start causing minor disruptions to blend in with the common rabble of the apartments soon. A busted leak. An unclean apartment when he finally left. Unmemorable.

            “What do they-”

            He slammed his hand down onto the composition book as she tried to open it; the sudden sound in the otherwise silent apartment snapped and spit.

            “Sorry,” she said immediately, and she retreated. She hadn’t yet found her footing, found her place within this group that for all pretenses was her new home she’d made from a wicked house. Her son was in the secondary house, surrounded by so many nice people that were under very specific orders to be nice. At the price of Molly Foster’s obedience, of course. Footholds were slippery for her, and God how desperate she was to find one.

            He turned in his chair to survey her flatly, and he saw her gulp down a nervous sound. She’d seemed somewhat out of breath ever since she first sat down across from him and tried not to be afraid -like she was swallowing down a sob, in truth. He liked seeing that in her, that this person whose lips housed the affection of Will Graham was afraid to show them, lest he rip them off of her.

            Red Dragon begged that he use his teeth when he did.

            “I keep close intel,” he explained. He may not like Molly Foster, but she was still part of the plan. For now.

            She took her time gathering her words, and it was with care that she spoke next. “You have a lot of notebooks like that by your computers.”

            “Yes.”

            “Are they all of Will Graham?”

            He blinked once, lazily. “No.”

            It was a good answer. She nodded, and the tense turn of her shoulders lessened.

            Will seemed to be napping on the balcony, empty glass beside him. Dolarhyde snapped another photo and stood.

            “Is there a schedule?” Molly asked, tracking his movements.

            “I have dinner with Jack Crawford and his wife.”

            Molly said nothing to that. He supposed she thought of his fooling Jack Crawford the same way that she thought of fooling Will Graham -tasteless. Cruel. In truth, it wasn’t just the way that Will Graham leaned into Molly Foster’s kisses that made his blood boil so quickly, no hesitation in the thought that if he pinched her neck in the right spot, she’d become paralyzed.

            It was the fact that in reality, she was a good person and no matter how long she was exposed to Francis or anyone from the house, she’d never understand them. She’d never Become like them.

            Will Graham, though; Will Graham could understand. In understanding, he could feel, and in feeling he would Become. That was enough to ensure that Francis endured Molly Foster’s ultimately annoying goodness that made her protect an innocent child while ultimately abetting in the fall of an ambiguously grey man.

            Dinner with Jack was mundane. Francis thought of how sometimes Will went out onto his balcony late at night and stared at the stars with an expression that Francis couldn’t necessarily name, but something he felt. He kept a photo of it by his heart, next to his biggest secret. He thought of the first time that he saw his eyes and how he felt Changed; how Will Graham hadn’t Changed, too. He drove back to the apartment after dinner and parked seven blocks away precisely. His silent steps jolted a tipsy university student that hiccupped and stumbled out of his way as he strode by.

            His silent steps ultimately also startled Molly Foster as she perused the composition notebooks beside his computer.

            “What are you doing?”

            There are many people that attempt to hide when they’re caught doing something suspicious. They fold in on themselves; they jump. There is a startled moment with hearts racing as they try desperately to hide their flaws, their wrongdoing. Molly Foster instead stiffened, and when she rose to face down Red Dragon, he tracked another gulp that sent her terror back down her throat where it belonged.

            “These are all Will Graham,” she snarled, and her anger seemed to match his. “I read every single one!”

            “Those are private,” Francis said. Kill her, Red Dragon hissed.

            “This is ridiculous, you put, ‘paused on quad between classes…finished homework right before class…an A+ in communications…sat in car for twenty minutes before going home.’ You literally…Jesus, you people record everything!”

            There was a heat rising to his skin that wasn’t just anger. It added to his fury, though. “Enough.”

            “You even log when he makes the mistake of taking the exit towards Lecter’s old business after class!” she cried, and if she sensed the sudden urge that Francis had to strangle her, it didn’t deter her. “Does he ever have a private moment when you people aren’t hounding him? Does he have any sense of identity left? You’re all sick!”

            “Enough.”

            Something inside of Francis was ripping, ripping, ripping, and he thought of the photo that he kept by his heart, the one where Will Graham stared at the stars with a look in his eyes that reached far beyond himself. He thought to silence her, to take her and place mirrors so that he’d see the Change as it happened, as he took out contacts and stared into mismatched eyes on a still face and tried to make them see.

            Will Graham loved Molly Foster. Red Dragon raged and bruised bones as he screamed to kill them both.

            Something must have shifted on his face because Molly’s open mouth snapped shut. She gulped again. And again. As his face reddened, hers paled.

            “Francis-”

            “Put the composition book back,” Red Dragon snarled, and Francis tried to think of Hannibal Lecter, of daffodils and a house where Will Graham could plant the seeds for a home. He couldn’t kill Molly Foster now; Will Graham would surely experience the grief process and set their plans back at least three more years.

            She set the composition book back. She gulped again.

            “Do not touch his things,” Red Dragon said, and Francis held so very, very still. If he moved, Red Dragon would truly take control and everything would be cast adrift, lost in the moment when Francis was forced to realize that Red Dragon would always have some form of control over him, that nothing he did would ever be out of Red Dragon’s reach.

            “Okay.”

            “You will leave, now,” Francis forced his lips to say. He was falling away, falling away and he felt the tail uncurling from around his leg, the wings spreading because he was greater than the sum of his parts, stronger and better and just how easy would it be to Change her?

            “Francis-”

            “Francis isn’t here,” Red Dragon snarled, and smoke unfurled from his nostrils.

            “I’m leaving like you said, Francis,” Molly said, and she gulped again. “I won’t touch your things. I’m sorry.”

            She didn’t wait for him. Molly Foster backed away, eyes on Red Dragon’s terrible visage the entire time as she saw herself to her purse, then out of the door where she likely fled down the stairs rather than risk the elevator where she could be ambushed at the bottom.

            Francis held very, very still. Red Dragon longed to fly after her, to devour her.

            To Change her.

            Time passed, and he felt control of his limbs returning, inch by painful inch. Pinpricks fluttered across his skin, and Francis made his way to his composition books where he meticulously put them back in order, save one that he took out with careful deliberation. Hannibal Lecter promised daffodils. Francis Dolarhyde stared down at the very first notation he’d ever made on Will Graham, the first time he saw him and was forever Changed. Alongside it, he laid the photo that he kept by his heart and stared at Will Graham longing for the stars, and that feeling that he couldn’t quite name returned, pinching. Red Dragon growled, but it was distant and didn’t feel so dangerous at the moment.

            When it was time for bed, he took out colored contacts remarkably close to his own left eye, and he slept. As he slept, he dreamed. As he dreamed, he hoped. As he woke, reality returned.

-

            Francis Dolarhyde stood with Hannibal Lecter and observed Will Graham standing across from them. His dog, Winston, sat at his feet with a guarded, wary gaze set towards them. Francis had almost killed the dog when he removed Will from the apartment, but a quick, curt noise from Molly Foster stopped him. If he killed the dog, they’d lose Will she said. Hannibal Lecter agreed. The dog lived.

            It glared at Francis, as though it sensed what its fate had almost been.

            “Dinner?” Hannibal asked, bemused.

            “Not with your followers,” Will said, and in his own way it was said with haste. ‘Not with your followers,’ he said, as though to remind Hannibal that that aspect of this plan was what chafed most of all, that Hannibal had recruited dozens in his need for Will Graham to be contained. ‘Not with your followers,’ he said, as though to say that somehow, down the road, should Will Graham reach out to Hannibal there’d better not be 30-or-so people reaching back with him.

            Hannibal nodded thoughtfully, and that seemed to spur Will on to add, “Just you.” A quick glance was cast to Francis, then back. “And me.”

            “And Winston?” Hannibal asked.

            “And Winston.”

            Hannibal’s smile was a quick, fleeting thing that disappeared as he leaned back into his chair. “Did you have something in mind, Will?”

            Francis heard the ‘dear’ part of ‘dear Will’ without it being said. Red Dragon paced along the recesses of his mind. He wondered what sort of dreams plagued the unwilling other half to Hannibal Lecter.

            “Not out there with the table and the whole song and dance,” Will replied. His hand found the top of Winston’s head, and he rubbed one of his ears. “No human meat, no eight thousand courses, no…”

            “Games,” Francis said, and the sudden sound from his mouth surprised even him.

            Will glanced to him, and his mismatched eyes burned. They were the wrong sort of mismatch, the wrong sort of Change. He nodded slowly, once.

            “No games, Hannibal,” he murmured. “I just want…you, me, Winston, and dinner.”

            He hadn’t looked at the stars lately, but then again neither had Francis; his work kept him far too busy to look up, let alone look at Will Graham through the lens of a camera. Francis wondered what it was that he saw up there in the darkness of the sky, if he once wondered what it’d be like to try and touch them. He wondered if he asked, if Will would plant daffodils with him.

            “I’d love to have dinner, Will,” Hannibal said, and the faint lines around his eyes deepened as he smiled. “Is this an olive branch?”

            Will’s expression shuttered, and he rubbed his bloodstained eye savagely. “I hurt,” he said, as though that explained everything. Maybe, as soulmates, it did; too much distance and lack of physical contact so soon into the bond surely ached, a pressure in his skull that he couldn’t quite reach because it couldn’t be fixed without Hannibal. That dependency, surely, was horrific in of itself to someone like Will Graham. He was not a person that vocalized need, let alone dependency.

            “If it’s the soulmate bond, we could-”

            “Dinner,” Will interrupted, savagely. He looked up and glared at Hannibal, spine stiffening. “Just dinner.”

            “Just dinner,” Hannibal echoed, and the smile lessened, if but a tic. “Do you have something in mind?”

            “Nothing human,” he warned again, and he turned on his heel and walked out. Without missing a beat, there was Winston close at his side, tail wagging. As Will crested the doorway, he paused just long enough to add, “Thank you for…for Winston.”

            Before Hannibal could reply, he was gone.

            Francis sat back down at his computer and pulled up new e-mails, ignoring the feeling of Hannibal’s thoughtful gaze on his back. He imagined that the tattoo that he’d gotten in secret so long before -years, in truth- glared back, waiting to leap from his skin and lunge. He wondered what Will Graham would say, if he saw it.

            “Do you suppose that it’s the soulmate bond?” Hannibal asked. “Or do you suppose he is planning something unorthodox?”

            Francis didn’t look up from reading the update that Emma sent him. At least things there were going smoothly. “What does your bond tell you?”

            “He hurts.”

            “He was honest with you.”

            “He could be hiding other things, though.”

            Francis glanced over to him, then back. He chewed on the fat part of his cheek. “I wouldn’t know if he did. He has engaged with no one.”

            That was a lie. Francis was well aware that he’d spoken to Molly, but somehow the idea of sharing that information didn’t sit right. Most things weren’t sitting right anymore, in truth. Francis wasn’t sad to see Saul die, but later that night when he finally allowed himself to rest, he thought of how Will Graham had begged, and how he’d never begged for himself the way he’d begged for them to spare Beverly that sort of horror. Francis covered his ears, but that didn’t hide the truth. He turned his head, but that didn’t stop reality. Something in the way he’d trembled kept Francis from telling Hannibal about Molly.

            “It comes down to Abigail,” Hannibal decided. “If she is as clever as she seemed, she will either use the FBI to hide behind, or she will disappear entirely with Wally to avoid the wrath of both the government and our friends. She knows we have people in the FBI. She won’t risk it.”

            “The news is calling us a cult,” Francis informed him. “They’ve dubbed us ‘The Red Death.’”

            “Nationwide?”

            “A few call for Jack Crawford’s head, and Dr. Chilton’s missing.”

            “Zeller will break soon,” Hannibal added, and crafty fingers glided along his bottom lip, his thumb brushing the curve of it kindly. “Then we will have the lovely Bella Crawford at our disposal.”

            “Nick Bowman, too.”

            “Then everything is going to plan.”

            “Not if we have to abandon the house,” Francis disagreed. “Precautions can’t be crutches.”

            Hannibal studied him from eyes at half-mast, but Francis didn’t give it much attention. They’d had this discussion before. “We must be flexible, Francis.”

            “I know.”

            “You’re trying.”

            “I’m trying,” said Francis, and he forced his shoulders to lessen their taut stretch against the fabric of his shirt. “Constant deviation from a plan is sometimes the sign of a plan not thought out.”

            “In this case, the variables of Will Graham?”

            “Perhaps. Or the other people. People are messy variables.”

            “You’re doing well,” Hannibal assured him. Despite everything, the kind, gentled tone did wonders for Francis. Sometimes, validation from others was nice. Validation from someone he both loved and abhorred was both better and worse at the same time.

            “Location isn’t everything,” Francis finally agreed. “Whether she goes to the FBI or not, the red death reaches all. Where it occurs in its final form is nothing but coincidental and only furthers Jack Crawford’s fear and paranoia.”

            Hannibal was quiet for a while. Francis watched the latest video upload of Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier getting into her car and disappearing into the night, then checked on his other marks. With her leaving, he wasn’t entirely concerned. She hadn’t spoken anything more or less than what was demanded of her, and her removal ensured that she wouldn’t make a grand appearance and muck up the final act of their hard work. Everything was quiet. At the risk of feeling rather cliché, Francis felt that it was too quiet. Things were bubbling, brewing, and it felt like the great, big breath before the righteous fury of a dragon’s roar.

            “Have you planted daffodils for every person that has died in this house?”

            Francis didn’t look up from the computer. “I have.”

            “Did you show Will?”

            “No.”

            “The other safehouse has a garden,” Hannibal assured him. Then, “I believe I’ll have dinner with him in the study.”

            It was sounding much less like planning and far more like an intimate sharing of personal details. Francis wasn’t sure what to say in turn, if he should allow Hannibal to confide or if it’d burn a little going down, like well-whisky on the rocks.

            “Do you want me just outside?”

            “I believe so. The first time we had dinner alone together, he was in shock.”

            “You held a knife to his throat,” Francis remembered. It’d felt odd, then, seeing it. Will Graham had oozed fear from his pores for most of the drive, even before he knew that they were ‘different’. In that moment, Dr. Hannibal Lecter holding him against a wall with a butter knife had felt surreal almost, as though Francis were pulled in two directions with lack of surety in which way to turn.

            “Did that trouble you?”

            He took a short sip of the coffee at his elbow. “No.”

            It was a lie, and there was a taut moment as he inhaled and tasted Hannibal Lecter’s amusement at such a blatant attempt. He amused Dr. Lecter in the many ways that he contorted and twisted himself to try and be what was necessary. He wondered when the time would come that he could unfurl to his great height, his great strength, and devour. Would Hannibal Lecter be afraid? Would he realize his mistake, letting something like Francis get too close?

            Maybe Will Graham would offer to help him when the time came.

            “What is Beverly’s current state?”

            “She’s sleeping,” Francis replied, and he glanced at another computer monitor to confirm. “When she wakes, she eats little and speaks less.”

            “Saul was regrettable.”

            “Saul was a mistake,” Francis couldn’t help but correct. “His worship only fell as far as his mouth.”

            “You don’t regret his death?”

            “I regret that Will Graham saw it.” Francis glanced back to him and studied the way that he tilted his head. “You regret it, too.”

            “You wondered once where Beverly Katz’s loyalty lay, and now we know. I don’t regret that.”

            “But you regret how he begged you. He turned to you and said ‘please’.”

            Regret for someone like Hannibal Lecter was intimate to witness. There was a breath that caught, followed by lips that pressed closed tight. He stared at Francis, Francis stared back, and he was distinctly aware of the color contacts he wore and how one day Hannibal would recognize that they weren’t real at all, that he was just as impressionable as Hannibal and Matthew Brown.

            “Tell the members of the house that we’re going into the final act,” Hannibal said, and he stood up from the desk in order to circle it and touch Francis’ shoulder lightly. “We want them at their best.”

            “And Will Graham?”

            Hannibal’s smile that time wasn’t at all kind, and if Francis had been a lesser man he’d have shivered. “Leave my soulmate to me.”

            The unspoken word of warning stayed with Francis long after. Red Dragon stirred just under his skin, hissing.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 30:

            Will stared at the table setting in front of him, and he swallowed the sudden rush of bile that turned his spit bitter. Just to his side, Winston paused and sniffed the air, head tilted to catch the faint clattering sounds of copper lids being removed from elegant dishes of fine china. Rich, golden tapers cast a dim light along vines that crawled amongst potpourri and crystal decanters of blood red wine.

            Just across from him, Hannibal delicately laid a small, cooked bird beside figs and walnuts.

            “This is…”

            Hannibal glanced up at him briefly, and the smile just at the edge of his lip was dangerous. “This is just dinner, Will. As you said.”

            “As I said,” Will agreed, and he sat in the proffered chair, tugging at the collar of his buttoned shirt.

            He could do this.

            “This is an Ortolan,” Hannibal informed him as he set the plate before Will. The candlelight flickered across garnet cufflinks, and when he passed behind Will, he caught the faint scent of a musky cologne. Will’s heart clenched, pounded. The endorphins rushing through him made his veins tingle warmly. “I wanted you to be sure that it was no human that we consumed tonight.”

            “Thank you.”

            “I can be reasonable, Will,” he cajoled lightly, and he poured a glass of wine for the both of them. “I wanted you to know that.”

            “I know,” Will replied, and he glanced around the room, swallowing down a heavy gulp. He could do this. His skin hummed, hissed for him to reach out, and he forced his hands to still in his lap. “I…am…trying to be. Reasonable, I mean.”

            There was a brief pause, a minor hiccup in his step as Hannibal turned to sit down, and Will’s fingers cramped from how tightly they were clenched. The mismatched stare was calculating, but there seemed to be something in Will’s face that made his expression soften, hesitate almost. It occurred to Will that, despite how much planning Hannibal had done to make this happen, now that Will was here before him, he was at a loss. Dare Will call it nervousness? Was Hannibal actually nervous to be before a Will that seemed almost willing?

            He could do this.

            “I’m listening, Will,” he prompted, and if Will didn’t know better he’d have almost said the good doctor’s tone was fucking gentle.

            “Let’s just…eat,” Will urged, and he forced himself to reach out and grab the wine glass, taking a long and heavy gulp. The bitter tang on his tongue was a good distraction.

            Hannibal agreed with a dip of his head, and he picked up the cooked bird, displaying it for Will to see.

            “You consume the Ortolan in one bite.”

            “Aren’t you supposed to place a napkin over your head?” Will asked.

            Hannibal’s smile was crafty. “Are you afraid that God will see, Will?”

            “I don’t fear anything anymore, I think,” said Will, and he picked the bird up by the legs, staring into Hannibal’s hideous, mismatched eyes. He could do this. “Do you?”

            “Oh, certainly. You are made of extremities, either consumed by your fears or completely without fear. For the most part, the rest of us feel fear in healthy doses of medium increments depending on the situation.” The look he gave Will made his grip on the bird tighten. “What has taken your fear away, I wonder?”

            Will swallowed heavily, and he gritted his teeth. He could do this. “If you’ll only kill me if I try to kill you and fail, then I have nothing to fear from you.”

            “Do you trust that to be true?”

            “I can feel you in my skin,” Will revealed, and it ached so badly to say it. His voice dropped to a whisper. “And all…all that I can feel is that you’ve wanted me for so long that now that I’m here, you don’t know how to reach me. Nothing you planned for could have truly predicted me.”

            “You are unique,” Hannibal agreed. He sounded reverent.

            “And you wanted me to see you in your entirety. Two halves of a whole.”

            “You don’t fear that someone else within this house will take issue to you, as Matthew did?”

            “No.” Will’s mouth turned bitterly cruel as he tilted his head, mirroring Hannibal’s expression. “I could kill anyone in this house, I think, and you wouldn’t mind.”

            “Even if you turned your blade to me?” Hannibal asked –dare he sound amenable to something so ludicrous?

            “Even so.”

            Will tilted his head back and dropped the bird into his mouth, biting down harshly. Bones ground against bones, muscle and sinew against his teeth as he chewed and swallowed it, spitting the feet back into his hand. The rich flavors were lost to him, consumed as he was in the harshness of his deed. Just across from him, Hannibal stared with rapt attention, and there was a dizzying moment where Will could feel the need, the want that rippled off of him, desperate. His skin burned, hissed, and the ugliest part of his mind whispered treacherously, now would be the perfect time to touch.

            “Maybe,” Hannibal replied, hoarse.

            He stood, and Will stood with him, staring. He could do this.

            “You knew that I’d killed Randall Tier before I asked,” Hannibal murmured.

            “I knew the moment that I landed on Randall Tier that I’d permanently damaged him,” Will replied. “I knew, and I wanted him to have to lay there, helpless as I ran away. I told him, “Fuck you.’”

            “You didn’t hesitate to stab Garrett Jacob Hobbs.”

            “I didn’t need to.”

            “How long have you been having dreams about murder, Will?” Hannibal wondered. “How long after I was arrested before you began dreaming about death?”

            That was a little harder to reveal. The truth always hurt worse than a well-crafted lie. “Not long.”

            Hannibal seemed to savor his words. “Long before I escaped.”

            “I keep thinking about teacups,” Will said. “How it shattered, and I never saw my dad alive again.”

            “Do you go back to that moment in time just before it?” Hannibal asked, “passing your hands along its wholeness, how everything seemed to be somewhat alright?”

            “I think about it. How one moment it was whole, and another moment it wasn’t. I thought…if I wait long enough, maybe it will fix itself. When I got home, I looked at the pieces and the dried and stained tea and thought, ‘if I wait long enough, it’ll piece itself back together again and be whole.’”

            “Did you think of the cup that fell between us? The one that, the longer you stared, the worse it seemed to be?”

            “I hate you,” Will reminded him, and Hannibal circled the table. The candlelight made the hollows of his cheeks sunken, and he thought of the nightmare stories that a babysitter once told of demons that crept through the night. They always devoured those foolish to stray along their path, and there Will was, goading one.

            He could do this.

            “My dear Will,” said Hannibal, and he reached up to gently touch the scar near Will’s eye. Will’s skin hummed, and he forced his eyes to close. They were closed right in front of the enemy, and yet closing them was the most natural thing in the world. Such trust from their bond was vinegar in an open wound. “I know.”

            Years ago, long before Will ever lost his father, let alone met Hannibal Lecter, there was a girl named Pauline. Pauline found her soulmate at the age of 9, and she wouldn’t let anyone forget it. By fifteen, she was the only girl in school with a soulmate, her best friend in the entire world, Bobby.

            Will was her regrettable science partner.

            “You just don’t understand,” she said, and she let out an agonized groan.

            “You’re right,” Will agreed, and he jotted down a couple of notes from their study guide.

            “He’s been sick for a week. No contact, no physical touch…my skin itches. My skin hurts,” she whined, and he let out an irritable grunt.

            “It’s just a week.”

            “Have you ever been kissed?” she demanded.

            Will didn’t answer that. His lack of answer was good enough to Pauline.

            “You can’t imagine, then, what happens. You’ve never even liked someone, let alone felt what it’s like to kiss them. Having a soulmate…it’s ten times better, you know? It’s ten times better than any crush, and if you don’t touch them, even just…just holding hands, it literally hurts.”

            “Sounds awful,” Will replied without missing a beat.

            Pauline wrinkled her nose, and she turned her attention to looking out of the nearby window. “You’ll probably be one of those that never has a soulmate if that’s how you think. Freak.”

            Will sorely wished Pauline had been right.

            Hannibal’s kiss was magnetizing. A soft, lazy zing slithered along his skin and left him tingling, and there was a drowsy moment as he inhaled the taste of him where everything felt just right. This was his soulmate. This was the one. If he never kissed another, that’d be alright with him. Everything was as it should be.

            Hannibal’s arms wrapped around his waist, and Will pressed closer, a hand flat across the small of his back.

            “You hurt,” said Hannibal against his lips, and Will pressed his forehead into Hannibal’s shoulder, nodding.

            “I hate you,” he whispered. Then, “I’m trying.”

            “I know.”

            Silence, and just to the side of them, Winston whined. Will looked to him, then back to Hannibal, and not for the first time he regretted ever taking Alana Bloom’s advice to go and see a therapist.

            “I’m trying,” he repeated, and he pressed his lips to Hannibal’s. He was trembling, but there was something chilling in how his heartbeat began to slow, calm and at ease as the world stilled around them to hold its breath.

            Hannibal relaxed against him, and Will wrapped his arms tight around him –

            -Then drove a linoleum knife directly into his kidney.

            A searing pain streaked along Will’s back, and he screamed in pain as he crumpled to the floor, the knife clattering to the ground beside him. Just across from him, Hannibal lay in a crumpled heap. He made no sound, but he thrashed wildly and gasped for breath that struggled. His veins bulged in his neck, and for a dizzying moment he seemed to silently scream.

            No. No, no, no, no, no.

            Will’s gasping cries cut off at his neck and left him wanting. Frantic legs kicked him back, back, back, and he hit the pillar with a dull thud, heart racing and ice cold as it hammered glass shards through his veins. Winston was there, but his whines fell to unhearing ears, his anxious tongue along Will’s shoulder and arm not felt. His ears were roaring. Tunnel vision made him nauseas, and all he could see was Hannibal struggling.

            Hurting.

            No, no, no, his skin burned, his skin burned; you’re hurting him. You hurt him, you hurt him, you –

            There was the ricocheting slam of a door, and Will turned to the side, a sob of pain ragged on his teeth; this was it. This was how he died, feeling the pain reflected from a man who he’d rather see dead than –

            Francis Dolarhyde stared at the scene before him, and he blinked lazily, once. Will thought of the first time that he met him, how he’d seemed so earnest, and how his touch weeks later had been kindly tentative as he pressed fingers to the scar by his eye.

            Dolarhyde turned and looked to Will rather than Hannibal.

            “Sir?” he asked calmly. His lips didn’t slur the ‘s’.

            “Burn this place down,” Will managed to grind out. Fuck, getting stabbed in the kidney was agony. He gulped down a cry of pain. “And let him die.”

            No, no, no, no, no –

            Francis Dolarhyde bent down and studied Will from head to toe, taking stock of his injury -rather, his lack thereof. He looked to Hannibal and the streaks of blood that trailed along his side, rivers thick and dark. It was a good stab, deep; Jack Crawford would have been proud. Hannibal looked deliriously near unconsciousness, still silent in his pain. Could he feel Will’s rage? Will’s fury?

            Will’s betrayal? How deep had that sunk in?

            WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WHATHAVEYOUDONEWHATHAVEYOU –

            Francis picked Will up and held him close, his steps sure and calm as he headed towards the door. Will tried to think of Winston following close behind, of Abigail Hobbs finding Jack Crawford, of Beverly really, truly maybe surviving killing Saul, of his surviving murdering Hannibal –

            NO, NO, NO, NO, NO

            “N-no,” he hissed, and a pain reverberated and pulsed around his kidney, leaving him dizzy. “I can’t, I can’t leave.”

            “They’re just chemicals, Mr. Graham,” Francis informed him, not unkind. “Don’t let them control you.”

            It hurt, though, it hurt and he was going to die like this, wasn’t he? Wasn’t this how it ended, the only way in which Hannibal Lecter could fall being if Will Graham fell, too?

            He thought of how relieved Jack Crawford had been to see him in the hospital, as though everything could only be okay if Will Graham had lived through Hannibal Lecter’s terror, too. He’d looked, and Jack Crawford looked back, and somehow they’d always be connected through Hannibal, that their relationship only grew because Hannibal. All roads, in the end, led back to Hannibal.

            His silence seemed to be enough of an acquiescence. Dolarhyde skirted Winston pacing impatiently by the table, and he headed towards the door with purpose, holding Will tight against him so that he didn’t fall.

            “Don’t let Beverly die here,” he managed, and the echoing pain made his eyes water. Black spots danced in his vision.

            “I won’t.”

            “Or Molly,” he pressed.

            “I will retrieve them, Mr. Graham,” Dolarhyde assured him, and he turned the handle decisively on the door.

            Life is comprised of moments. Will could adequately explain several moments that defined him: who he was, how he behaved, what he believed. He would first mention his father’s loss of a soulmate, how that day he witnessed Bill Graham stare out of the window and weep for hours. He would mention the one fishing trip where he accidentally caught the hook in the leaves up above the two of them and brought acorns raining down, how they laughed and his father talked of happy accidents. He would briefly mention his father’s death, although that truly affected him the most despite the least amount of time taken to speak of it. He would mention the first time he’d met Hannibal Lecter, how he felt both calm and afraid. He would mention the last time he saw him in that same office, walking away from him with blood on the cuff of his trousers. He would mention the day that Hannibal Lecter was sentenced. He would mention graduating from college, how he saw so many friends and acquaintances within the crowd but God dammit his father wasn’t one of them. He would mention briefly one of the first men he ever had sex with, how they’d both been awkward and laughed about it afterwards. He would mention meeting Molly, how they’d danced together in the quiet of the living room where he proved that he wasn’t so awkward when it was one-on-one without the crowds and the noise.

            He would gloss over getting kidnapped. He would mention murdering Matthew Brown. He would lament the forced Âme décalée, bemoan the murder of those whose names were just too close to his. He would agree if someone asked about murdering Hannibal Lecter, his soulmate. Yes, that would define him if nothing else did.

            Truly, when all of the lights in the house went out and a screeching, alarming siren sounded, that was another moment that Will would remember in its entirety when he realized that he would forever be changed by Hannibal Lecter, even if only just a little. That maybe, while hating him, there was a very small part of him that would always have to love him.

            “Run,” Hannibal managed to wheeze, and its faint noise wasn’t so much as heard but felt. It sunk into his bones and branded him. Run, as if to say that Hannibal himself didn’t matter –run, as if to say that none of this, in the end, was worth it if something happened to Will that was out of Hannibal’s control.

            Francis Dolarhyde ran, and Will was distantly aware of the sounds of shouting, of panicked terror. What it happening? Is this happening? The siren drowned out distinct words of panic and calm alike, but Will could hear Winston’s barking over the din, as well as the sounds of a megaphone hooked up to a loud speaker blaring the sort of sound one hears when there is genuine emergency. It's time, the loudspeaker announced. It's time.

            “They’re here,” Francis realized, and he abruptly took a sharp corner and went barreling down to the basement instead. The door closed shut behind them, and as a pulsing, persistent pain made Will whine, he smelled the confusing scent of gasoline.

            Then everything above them erupted into flames.

-

            Jack Crawford stood as a sharp silhouette to the flames that licked up stark white pillars of a house whose entryway gaped from being blown open just a minute before. Smoke billowed from the house in great gouts, as though the thing were alive and trying to draw breath. Adrenaline was a pressure drumming in the pulse in his neck, and in truth it was only Starling beside him that kept him from trying to rush in to find Will.

            “Good thing you brought the fire department,” she commented, and his grip on the shotgun tightened.

            “Always bring some kind of fire department in things like this,” he replied, only that wasn’t what he wanted to say. Where’s Will was a good start, closely followed by Where’s Hannibal.

            “You just keeping yourself from running in on your own?” Starling wondered.

            “If I thought I’d survive it, I’d try.”

            “Sometimes being the boss isn’t so nice,” she commented. “It’s not like the FLDS days where I was the first one cuffing bastards.”

            She was trying to distract him from the feeling of helplessness as he paced and waited, information being relayed through the walkie that sat just in reach. Mostly talk about fire. Mostly talk about bodies. Some talk of apprehending. “Bit higher rank, bit higher pay grade? Bit less danger?”

            “Something like that,” she agreed. “Bit more anxious, though, waiting.”

            “Sir, I’ve got Purnell on the phone,” Price said, and the way the flames flickered and lightened his face gave his mouth an eerie twist. “It’s urgent.”

            Given the way his men were currently rounding up any that came rushing from the house to escape the fire that’d started inside of it, Jack couldn’t have said that a phone call at a time like this truly qualified as urgent, but he took the phone anyway. Eyes, mismatched shades of brown, stared at the plantation home that would have once been the sort of place to hold historical tours and luncheons for debutants, and there was an eerie sort of feeling of standing in two places at once, seeing the house in its finer glory as they’d secured the perimeter, then seeing the flames erupt as his men moved into position to storm the place. A tripped perimeter wire, Rogers had said on the walkie, although they didn’t know exactly who had done it.

            “Ma’am,” he greeted curtly, watching the flames.

            “If you’re able to apprehend Beverly Katz, she is to be sequestered in a separate van until further notice. No questioning her until we’re at HQ.”

            That took him a moment to process, and the words rolled around. A woman burst through a window, her cries of agony drowned out by the flames that greedily devoured her form as an agent rushed in to help. His heartbeat beat at his eye as he watched.

            “Beverly Katz is –”

            “A major player in your investigation, yes. We’ll talk more in private.” Her voice was unyielding, curt. “A separate van, Agent Crawford. I want her survival a priority.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            The agent quickly had the woman moved to a gurney where she was rushed to an ambulance that sat at the end of the driveway, waiting. Jack hung up and considered her, still and blackened with the sort of sickly smell that made his stomach churn.

            And somewhere inside of that blaze, Will Graham was likely fighting for his life.

-

            The basement didn’t smell so much musty as it smelled chemical. Dolarhyde’s steps were no more hurried than before, and there was no pause to consider the din of chaos up above. Francis Dolarhyde turned down a hall whose lights remained off, and the care he took in unlocking the door, then locking it behind them wasn’t lost. This was a planned action.

            They wanted Jack Crawford to be there.

            “What’s happening?” he asked, and a rush of heat washed over him that took his breath, smoke an imaginary thing in his lungs that made coughing difficult. He gagged on the taste and took a breath.

            WHATHAVEYOUDONEWHATHAVEYOUDONEWHATHAVEYOU –

            “The plan.”

            It was different, that voice, and something about it made Will try his best to stifle the desperate noise of pain trying to claw past his lips. Red Dragon was carrying him, now, not Francis. Red Dragon would devour him, should he tempt him.

            “What is your plan?”

            Silence. The look leveled on him was dark, eyes whose depths were cold and never-ending. He could fall into eyes like that, Will thought. He’d fall in, and he’d likely never find his way out.

            “Don’t kill Jack,” said Will, and it was almost desperate. He could feel Hannibal upstairs, bleeding, feel it in the way his own breath shook with labored effort, and God the thought of Jack dying in the house as well was just too much.

            Silence once more. His hold on Will tightened, but nothing else.

            “Please,” Will added.

            “Conserve your strength,” was the curt, ungiving reply. “Focus on closing the bond between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham.”

            The next hall was musty, and the walls were dirt. Will’s head lolled into Red Dragon’s shoulder as they walked, and just out of the corner of his eye, Will could see Winston prowling ahead. The noise above them didn’t bother him so much as the smell that he was especially interested in near the next door; he paused by it and turned to them, tail wagging erratically.

            “You will be quiet,” Red Dragon growled, and it was as much a warning as an order.

            Despite the pain rippling along his back in short, curt waves, Will nodded. Two hundred yards away from them, Hannibal lay dying. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

            What have you done, Will? What have you done?

            The air was both hot and cold as they emerged from what looked to be a refinished root cellar tucked well into the thickness of the trees. Red Dragon didn’t lock that door behind them, but instead maneuvered Will onto the damp bedding of pine needles and aged deciduous leaves, somehow gentle despite the way his mouth rippled in a silent snarl. They were within the trees, far enough from the house that the roar of fire that seemed to spread with every breath couldn’t touch them, great buffets of black smoke rising into the night. The house was alive, then. It was time to tell its tales.

            Just out of the treeline, dark figures with guns stalked. Firelight illuminated the curt, stark letters of F.B.I. emblazoned on their backs.

            “You’ll stay here,” Red Dragon said, and it wasn’t a request. He pressed close, the sound of his voice told more in the vibrations against Will’s ear than anything else. “Chiyoh is watching you. She will kill them if you reach out to them. She will hurt you if she has to.”

            “Chiyoh?” Will whispered back.

            Red Dragon blinked once. “Hannibal Lecter’s cousin.”

            “Wh-what are you going to do, Francis?”

            “You know that I’m not Francis.”

            Red Dragon wasn’t Francis.

            “You’re going to finish him?” Will whispered back, and he pressed close as well. He inhaled danger as he did. “You’re going to make sure he dies?”

            “Yes.”

            Will nodded, and when Winston lay at his thigh to place his head in his lap, Red Dragon took that as his cue to leave, his figure melting into the trees with the eased practice of a very, very good killer. His steps were silent, and although just a mere twenty feet away a FBI agent walked, there was nothing that Will could do to reach him. The Great Red Dragon was on the move, and Will didn’t want another innocent’s blood on his hands.

            It was a sudden pain that enveloped him and took away all chance to even think of how to escape before Red Dragon returned. It took his breath and made his lungs burn, thudded in his heartbeat, and spread with each rushing sensation until he was slumped into the tree trunk, forced to bite into the fat of his hand to keep from crying out. Hannibal was in pain. Something was happening to Hannibal.

            WHATHAVEYOUDONEWHATHAVEYOUDONEWHATHAVEYOU –

            “No,” he whimpered into his skin, but it was drowned out by shattering glass as the house continued to destroy itself. Someone had set their safe space on fire. Someone would have rather it burned than Jack Crawford find it.

            Jack. He had to get to Jack.

            You’re going to murder your soulmate, Will. You have to go find Hannibal.

            He wasn’t aware of his fading into unconsciousness; much like the lulling sensation of floating on water, small waves of darkness fluttered over him, left his eyelids heavy and his skin aching from a constant burn, a constant, persistent pain that wasn’t his. The waves washed over him, enveloping him. Will Graham thought of teacups and wasn’t quite sure how to fight it. He swallowed water and drowned in how Hannibal’s heartbeat was weak, how it seemed to replace his own because in truth, weren’t they the same?

            He came to with a woman injecting him in his arm with a foreign substance, the glitter of the needle only seen in the wavering light from the distant fire. He thought to fight it, to resist; his muscles were heavy, his skin hot. His heartbeat was slow and ugly in his chest.

            “Molly?” he mumbled, mouth fat.

            The woman that looked up to him wasn’t Molly. Judging from the planes of her cheeks and the almond curve of her eye, it was certainly someone that could boast the name Chiyoh. Lips pursed in concentration slackened, and when Winston lifted his head to whine, her hand dropped to rub his ear idly.

            “You’re in danger,” she said calmly.

            “I’m in pain,” he replied, only that wasn’t entirely true. Will looked down to the syringe that lay abandoned by her knee, felt the way that the pain seemed to seep from his pores rather than remain imbedded, hissing. His heart thudded once, twice; strength returned to it as he took a deep, slow breath.

            The need to go find Hannibal was gone.

            “Where’s Hannibal?” she asked curtly.

            “Hurting,” he said, and he shifted against the trunk. “What’d you do to me?”

            “It’s medicine to mute your bond. I’m going to go find Hannibal.”

            “Isn’t that what Red Dragon is doing?”

            The look she gave him, even in the muted light, was scathing. “Is that what you think he’s doing?”

            It wasn’t, and they both knew it. Will watched Winston lick her hand kindly, then noted the rifle beside her, just within her reach.

            Within his reach, too.

            “It doesn’t last too long, but it will do the job until we make our next rendezvous point,” she said, and she stood in one smooth motion, one moment the rifle on the ground and the next in her hand. Away from his hand. “When I find Hannibal, we will go.”

            “What about Molly?”

            Chiyoh’s face hardened, and she stepped away from him. “She knows the plan.”

            “And Beverly?” he pressed. His back pressed into the trunk, and he thought of the look on her face as she held Saul close, then killed him. Was he going to scream like that? Was he going to scream and scream and scream? “What about Beverly?”

            Chiyoh must have been informed about what happened to Beverly. She looked to the house set ablaze, back to Will, and gave a slow nod. “I’ll do my best.”

            “Thank you,” he said sincerely; not for Hannibal, but for the drug that worked the feeling of dying from his bones, left his mind sharp and quick and God was she really going to try and get Hannibal? Was she going to get Hannibal and leave Beverly behind? Was he going to have to kill this Chiyoh, too? How many people was he going to raze to the ground before all of this was over?

            You’re all going to bleed me dry, he’d told Molly. I wonder who I’m going to have to kill next to set you free.

            As the butt of a rifle connected with the back of her head and sent her crumpling down with a soft, surprised noise, Will decided that no, she wasn’t really going to try and rescue Hannibal.

            “Good hit, Earl.”

            “Shit, Duncan, I know. Come on.”

             He was helped to his feet by two men in camouflage and black, their faces hidden behind the sort of masks worn by hunters. Will thought of his father leading him through the woods, how they preferred fishing to hunting. It was one thing to go and find your dinner. It was another to be so skilled that the dinner came to you. Across the one man’s back, an assault rifle rested, and his counterpart that’d knocked Chiyoh unconscious held another much like it with calm care as he scrutinized Will from head to toe. They went to find their dinner. They were ready to devour.

            “You alright?” one of the men asked, and there was a brief moment where Will struggled to decide if Chiyoh had actually just drugged him, or if any of this was even real.

            “Who are you?” he asked.

            “Name’s Earl,” the man said, and he gestured to his friend that scanned the forest around them. “That there’s Duncan.”

            “Will Graham,” he said, and maybe it was the quick way that Earl was already bent down and tying Chiyoh up that made him decide that no, this decidedly wasn’t a dream.

            He was going to escape.

            “Shit, we know it,” Duncan said, not looking back to them. In the short distance, the fire blazed and wrapped its caress around the walls that kept killers safe. “We saw you on the TV. Recognized you when that fuckin’ traitor came carrying you out. Recognized that cop-killer.”

            “Everyone’s been looking for you,” Earl added. He finished tying Chiyoh up and stood, surveying Will from head to toe. From behind his camouflage mask, eyes wizened by crow’s feet scrutinized him, assessing.

            “Did you do that?” Will asked, gesturing towards the fire.

            “No, they did that,” Earl replied, and his mouth puckered. He looked, for a brief moment, torn between spitting and cursing. Will wondered if he had a chewing habit. “Your FBI-men started to move in real quiet, then the house went and lit up in flames.”

            “Real odd noise,” Duncan agreed with a nod. “Like a ‘whum-whoosh.’”

            “Dolarhyde will come back soon,” Will said, and Earl nodded solemnly. “We have to get to Jack Crawford. This is a trap.”

            “Was there a redhead lady in there with you?” Duncan asked. “Lounds?”

            Will looked to Duncan, then back to the house. Just at his feet, Winston waited with baited breath, although just beneath his calm exterior his skin trembled periodically. He was a therapy dog, not meant for things like burning houses and psychopaths. They needed to get the hell out of there.

            “I don’t recall,” he said at last, then took a step back. Without Hannibal’s pain and anguish crippling him, he felt the need to run and run fast. “She’s going to wake up soon,” he added, glancing down to Chiyoh.

            “Movies make it seem longer,” Duncan pointed out.

            Will’s smile was a grimace. “This isn’t some movie. Believe me.”

            “We killin’ her or leavin’ her?” Earl asked him.

            “Leaving,” Will replied, and he stepped over her pointedly. It was balance, in truth, that made him walk away from someone that was most assuredly Hannibal Lecter’s cousin and therefore someone to hold with suspicion and scrutiny. She saved him from dying through the bond to Hannibal Lecter; he owed it to her not to kill her while she was unconscious and unable to defend herself.

            “I’ll lead you ‘round to them,” said Earl, and he took the lead. Smoke from the house blocked the moonlight, but flickering reds and oranges gave jaunty breaks in the black treeline that sat as silent observance to the things happening just past their branches. It was winter, now; felt like it, at least. Winter in the south was dark and cold. No insects clicked and hummed in the night. The animals of the forest had likely smelled the fire and ran. Survival instincts. Much like the creatures of the forest, Will felt the need to run, too.

            “Didn’t want to come up, seeing as how they’d likely think us as one of them,” Duncan said quietly, and Will hummed in agreement. Knowing Jack, they’d be back in DC before they could shout ‘Don’t shoot!’ or ‘I’m innocent!’ Maybe coming out with him, Jack would slow down for just enough of a second to pause.

            “You said you got some friends in there, though?” Earl asked, voice softening the closer they got to the treeline. “I heard you talkin’ with that lady.”

            “Two people,” said Will, and he wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or weep. “They really ought to be saved.”

            “Hopefully they get to them. They got the fire department, cops, FBI; couple of other badges runnin’ ‘round. Fuckin' hot in there, though.”

            Within two hundred yards of them, Hannibal surely still lay dying. Maybe, just maybe he was already dead. The bond was quiet. Abigail must have made it out alright since the FBI was there.

            He saw the lazy turning lights of police car sirens and SUV’s before he saw the people milling around them. As the trees thinned, sharp movements in contrast to the roaring blaze came out in various bursts, figures as shadows holding arcing streams of water that leapt into the bright red.

            They broke the trees and walked across the lawn into the driveway, and Will saw Jack.

            “Jack,” he said, and that was too quiet. “Jack,” he repeated, a little louder. He felt blood on his hands, felt the warmth of Jack Crawford’s life bleeding out onto the rug, and his hands clenched to fists, his nails digging into the fat of his palm. “JACK.”

            He couldn’t have said if Jack turned around because he heard Will’s voice, or if he merely felt the stare of something desperate and fearful. He turned, and much like the flames had caressed Hannibal’s back as he looked over his flock, the brilliant blaze of the house surrounded Jack and left him dark and demonic before it.

            “They’re roundin’ up survivors,” Duncan noted, but his voice seemed far away.

            “Maybe they got Ms. Lounds,” Earl replied.

            “WILL!” Jack shouted, and there was triumph as much as there was fear.

            Will smiled, then let out an agonized cry as something clawed up his spine and seized his chest, gripping tight. It hurt, it hurt, and as a wave of blackness swept over him, his knees buckled. The last thing Will could grasp onto before he fell unconscious was the sound of his own screaming, on and on and on into the bleak and unforgiving night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 31:

            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.

            “What?”

            “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.

            “Screaming?”

            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.

            “Yessir.”

            “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.”

            “Will –”

            “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.

            Right?

            “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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 32: 

            He was allowed to see Abigail after he gave an official statement detailing the events within the house. He was allowed to see Wally, too, but when he asked about Beverly and Molly, even Jack turned him down.

            “As of right now, everyone is being detained here in respective cells or rooms until further notice,” he’d explained. “Your statement correlates with what Abigail Hobbs said, as well as what we were able to get out of Wally, but even I have to draw the line somewhere, Will.”

            “I’m going to work more with Wally and see what I can do, but I’m going to urge you, Jack, to remember that he is a traumatized child. We don’t know what he went through in that house,” Alana said. The look she gave Jack said quite clearly how many times she’s repeated that same sentiment in one way or another.

            Jack looked as though he had a profound thought to that, but Will clearing his throat took the wind from his sails.

            “They’re victims,” Will had said, staring out of the room he was to be contained within. So long as he behaved and his deadened connection didn’t cause anything ‘untoward’ to happen, the door would remain unlocked for him to come and go as he chose. “I had to get them out.”

            “You’re a victim, too, Will,” Alana had reminded him, standing beside Jack.

            “No I’m not,” Will retorted, and he’d turned to look at them sharply. “I overcame.”

            That was how, much later that afternoon, he found himself seated within the garden that the FBI had dedicated for those battling the all-consuming agony of what soulmate-severance truly was, alongside Abigail Hobbs while Wally tracked a few arachnids trundling through the winter flora and fauna.

            “It’s December,” Abigail said when he sat down. “I thought you’d want to know.”

            Will watched Wally poke at a particularly terrified spider. “I wonder how regulated this garden is. Spiders shouldn’t be out and about like that if it’s December.”

            She looked at him for a long time, then followed his gaze and watched Wally, too. “I heard heaters kick on. You can see the openings up top to even cover this whole place, need be.”

            “That’s a lot of money for an FBI headquarters to use.”

            “Soulmate severance is no joke,” Abigail replied, then immediately caught herself. Will noted her quick movements out of the corner of his eye, how she fumbled for something else to say.

            He still felt hollow, carved out like spaghetti squash. Something was missing, and along his skin there was the burn like the aftermath of shading done on a particularly large and vicious tattoo. A cat scratch that kept getting fussed over, only it was all over his skin and even his eyes hurt sometimes. Blinking hurt. He wondered if it was the fire that finally took Hannibal, or if Dolarhyde had gone back to finish the job after all.

            “What happened at that house?” Will asked raggedly, when words finally came.

            “Agent Crawford asked me not to tell you.”

            “I told him that I killed Garrett Jacob Hobbs because he attacked you.”

            “I said the same thing.”

            Silence again. Wally lost the spider within the cracks of the walls, and he began his next search intently.

            “I only know what happened because I was informed about certain things that were to occur once Jack Crawford managed to find the house,” Abigail said at last. Her voice shook, and Will nudged around the particular use of the word ‘once’ Jack found the house, not ‘if’. “Most of the house…they thought that Dr. Lecter was going to free them. Through embracing death, they conquered it.”

            “I read The Masque of the Red Death,” said Will, and his plucking hands found some grass below their bench. Fingers twitched and fussed over the crunchy and dry texture. “Death is disguised and finds his way to Prince Prospero in the end. He takes him from the palace where he’d locked himself away because in the end, the red death reaches all.”

            “Yes.”

            “Jack Crawford is still alive, though.”

            He looked at Abigail, and her hands fussed with the buttons on her mittens, her eyes trained fixedly on Wally. He tasted the smoke from that night, and he coughed to lessen the pressure in his chest.

            “Unless Jack Crawford was representative of death, not Prince Prospero,” he realized after a moment.

            “Dr. Lecter’s words were poetry,” she whispered, “and he promised all of those fools safety within that castle, knowing full well that one day death would come to tear it down. That was the plan.”

            “What’d he do, Abigail?” Will asked, and even though he could feel the emptiness that told him yes, yes, Hannibal Lecter was dead, he felt his presence then, looming over them with his wicked and careful planning.

            “If the perimeter alarms were to sound, then everyone was to reach into their pocket and withdraw a small capsule with a pill,” she said slowly. “That pill gave them approximately ten to twenty minutes to destroy any evidence within the house that hadn’t already been burned in the fire, then if they were captured they’d already be dead. Secrets couldn’t be pried from them. He wanted Jack Crawford to have to live with that.”

            Will let those words sit in the air between them, heavy with its realities. That didn’t entirely sound like Hannibal, although it did sound like a contingency plan concocted by Dolarhyde. Hannibal wanted a show, and Dolarhyde didn’t want witnesses.

            “Did they find Agent Dolarhyde?” he rasped.

            Abigail didn’t answer, and that was enough of an answer for him.

            “They didn’t find Hannibal’s body, or they wouldn’t have needed my confirmation,” he added slowly.

            “They’re waiting for the place to be stable enough post-fire so that they can round up any bodies missed. I think Jack said agents had the place under control to keep reporters out. The entire house had been installed with an additional pipeline holding gasoline, so when it went—”

            “It went quick,” Will agreed. “I was there.”

            The center of his chest was hollow and ached when his arm brushed it to adjust the hat on his head. He wondered if someone cracked his ribs open, if they’d find dust and cobwebs inside, or if he’d spill out the secrets of the house onto the garden walk for them to collect.

            “I never thanked you for killing my dad,” Abigail said as Wally triumphantly held a bug aloft, the sunlight glinting off of its exoskeleton.

            “He would have died anyway the moment Jack arrived,” said Will bitterly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have notched my belt.”

            A lie, in truth. Garrett Jacob Hobbs would have never let Abigail leave that house alive.

            There was a hesitance to her silence that made him look over at her, her face in profile sharper and far more the manipulative predator that he knew she could be, the same as he knew himself to be. His ribs ached when he breathed. He needed to go see Hannibal.

            Only there was no Hannibal to see.

            “Tell me, Abigail,” he prompted when she didn’t speak.

            “A small selection of us,” she said after a prolonged hesitation, “were to exit through the basement to a rendezvous point in the woods. There was transport waiting, as well as papers that would have gotten us anywhere around the world that Hannibal wanted us to go.”

            “Who?”

            “Dr. Lecter, Francis, Chiyoh, Beverly, Saul, me, and you.”

            Will thought of Beverly and Saul, and suddenly he didn’t feel like talking anymore. Spit turned to rust in his mouth.

            “Then I heard what Beverly did to Saul after she helped us escape, and I wasn’t sure what the plan was anymore,” she continued.

            Will stood, and his hands shook. He stuffed them into the pockets of the standard-edition FBI coat that he’d been loaned, and the breaths that huffed from his mouth curled about his head like the smoke of a great, red dragon.

            “I killed your dad because I wanted to kill your dad,” he said, staring at Wally releasing one bug to go and stalk another. “I think, given the chance, I’d do it all over again.”

            He left her with that, and he headed back to his room with a hand pressed to his chest as though he could find the place where bone and sinew ended and that wretched emptiness began.

-

            Jack was working on paperwork.

            Cases like these were like that, this he knew. The paperwork is what finally let it all sink beneath his suitcoat. He blinked, and he saw firelight. He blinked again, and he saw that he’d scribbled out the words suspect first began in a scrawling, messy script. He’d have to redo it. Maybe not. Maybe he just needed a damn nap.

            Hannibal Lecter was dead.

            Jack wasn’t sure how to express the feelings in regards to that thought, coupled with the hair-raising noise of Will screaming. When he first saw Will emerge from the dark, grasping claws of the forest trees, his heart had stopped. Surely these men were holding him hostage, waiting to pull the trigger in the final moment to show Jack once and for all who was in charge?

            But then Will shouted his name, and everything else wasn’t important anymore.

            He wasn’t sure which noise pervaded his mind more: the gasping sounds he’d made as he tried to staunch the blood flow from Jack’s stab wound, or the sound of his screaming as he dropped to the ground and began to writhe. That scream made his blood cold, made him want to turn tail and run and run and run until he could see that Bella was safe because he knew that noise better than anything else in the entire god damn world.

            Soulmate severance.

            “God dammit,” he murmured, and he grabbed the next file to update. Suspects were being questioned. Suspects were being identified. Bodies were being confirmed.

            Most of the fucking suspects had committed suicide on the lawn of their burning horror house.

            One had survived, though. At the sight of his accomplices dropping, one boy had turned whiter than a sheet and started backing away until he’d backed right into an agent that frisked him and dumped him into the first car that they could have en route to HQ. Don’t fucking lose that one, Jack had said to the agent. You hear me? He dies, your job is mine.

            And Will Graham had become a soulmate to Hannibal-fucking-Lecter.

            A noise just outside of his door made his stomach lurch. The lack of a body was an itch he couldn’t reach, but he just had to be patient. When the place was a little more stable, they’d run DNA scans on anything they could get their god damn hands on. Will’s pain, his screaming, was the best of indications, but at hearing that Will had been the one to kill him?

            There was no wonder to the trauma he’d subject himself to just to save people.

            There was no body yet, though. No body meant no rest for Jack Crawford, no respite from ragged moments of sleep where he woke to Hannibal gutting him again and again and again.

            Will Graham had gutted him too, though. It felt good knowing that Lecter would know just what that felt like.

            He wanted you to lose, Will had said, staring out of the window in his room. That was the trap, Jack. He wanted you to find him, and he wanted to ensure that all of the many ways in which you could find closure would be destroyed, too. Dead witnesses, dead house, dead end. Only now, he’s dead, too.

            Another noise, this time a creak of a shoe on a faulty floor. Jack was standing and striding across his office sooner than he’d have liked to admit, hand tapping at his holster where his gun was. Hannibal Lecter was dead. Will Graham’s agony confirmed it.

            They hadn’t found Dolarhyde, though.

            They hadn’t yet found Molly Foster, either.

            He wasn’t sure what Will would do when he found out that information, but he was tabling it for the time being. Will Graham’s opinion be damned, he was a victim in the circumstances they were dealing with –whether of ‘sound mind’ or not meant nothing in regards to dumping information on him that could potentially impede investigation. He’d been in that house for a couple of months, not a day.

            Who knew what all had happened? What all he’d endured but couldn’t say?

            Enough that his eyes had changed. Enough that Jack hadn’t made it in time.

            The details of the investigation were, therefore, not Will Graham’s concern at this time.

            The hallway was empty, though, bright lights burning on weary eyes. Jack stared at the walls in a muted taupe color, something just off enough from white that it didn’t feel as oppressive –according to studies. Jack didn’t much give a damn about white walls or taupe walls, but maybe this was an indication he should get some sleep, put his head down long enough to quiet the wicked thoughts of –

            “Getting paranoid, Jack?”

            Jack turned around and stared into the eyes of Lloyd Bowman.

            He’d have immediately supposed it was a dream, if Lloyd didn’t look like utter shit. His skin was sallow, and there were lines along his neck that suggested he’d had to sleep at an odd angle for some time. Days, in fact. Weeks. A couple of months.

            With a wound like his, Jack could figure he’d had to sleep at just the sort of angle to keep pressure off of his abdominal walls, away from the muscle and tissue that’d been torn apart by one of Lecter’s followers.

            Lloyd’s smile was wan, and he leaned heavily on a cane. “You didn’t send my wife flowers.”

            “I did,” Jack replied.

            “No, Price did. I asked, and he said he put your name on them, too, but he was the one to pick them out. A nice assortment of lilies ranging from Callas to Stargazers.” After a thought, “Those are her favorite.”

            “She mad at you?”

            “Mostly crying,” Lloyd assured him. “Then relief. A nice, home cooked meal.”

            Silence in the hall. Jack considered Lloyd, and he tried to reassure himself that his heart pounding was because he was angry that this meant that Lloyd had faked his death, disappeared rather than died.

            After everything else, though, Jack wasn’t quite so sure that he could fake anger. Not now. Maybe he was something like his wife, where the anger could set in after he had time to feel relief.

            “You look like shit,” Jack said at last. The words weren’t right; they turned sour in his mouth and made his tongue curl. They weren’t what he wanted to say, but they were all he could say.

            Maybe he could bring himself to be angry, after all.

            Lloyd, bless him, laughed. “You too, if you don’t mind me saying.”

            “I don’t mind.”

            “It was a safe house,” he said when Jack didn’t press for anything. Jack figured he needed to take his time rather than bulldoze into a barrage of questions. It was tempting to, especially since Zeller’s health was touch and go. He couldn’t bully Zeller into living, but he could damn sure talk Lloyd in circles around himself as he all but interrogated him. The lack of a body made him aggressive, fidgety. They needed to get into that house soon.

            “I’m not sorry,” Lloyd continued. “I heard about Zeller, and my only regret is –”

            Jack knew not to hug him, seeing how he leaned on the cane. Instead, he reached over and grasped him by his shoulders tightly, squeezing. He wasn’t sure if he could convey the relief that doused him with a quick bucket of water overhead, but he was trying. Things had become far too emotional, far too muddled for Jack, a person who knew how to categorize and make boxes for people rather than let their lives and his bleed together.

            Something had changed, though, that moment that Will Graham had saved his life. Then later, when –rather than Jack save him –Will had had to save himself the only way that he knew how.

            Lloyd’s secretive smile warmed, and he grabbed Jack by the shoulder and squeezed just as tightly.

            “You’re so sly, but so am I,” he said, and despite everything, Jack had it in himself to laugh, rasping and ugly.

            “Get your ass in here,” he replied, and it wasn’t quite a demand.

            It wasn’t quite a request, either.

            Lloyd followed him into his office, and maybe things were going to turn out alright after all.

-

            Nick Bowman sat across one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen.

            Alright, potentially not.

            It was pretty damn close, though.

            “You play on Roll 20, too?”

            “Yeah, logged maybe a couple thousand hours. It’s one of my passions,” Emma gushed, and she stirred sugar into her tea. They were at a quiet coffee shop near the edge of town, everything draped in taupe and coffee bean décor. They showed migrant workers on canvas paintings sorting beans and carrying large, wicker-baskets of blatant consumerism, but the music overhead was nice and their dark roast really was exceptional.

            It was a good first date, in reality.

            “Awesome,” said Nick sincerely. “That’s just…wow. We’ll have to play together some time.”

            “That’d be fun. I warn you, though: I play rogues, and my sneak attacks are almost always on a nat. 20.”

            “That’s why your character is on my side, not fighting me,” he laughed.

            “Fair enough.”

            Her smile was just on the edge of coy, and her pixie cut framed apple cheeks and a button nose. He wasn’t one to think about details like that, but if this was going to actually be his soulmate, Nick figured that he owed it to her to try and see her as maybe the love of her life would see her. Slight yet sturdy. Capable yet quiet. She seemed, to Nick, a mix of paradox and that American-girl aesthetic that companies looked for in their models for advertising.

            “So, why did you sign up for that site?” she asked curiously. She tilted her head just-so, in order to better analyze his words, and Nick couldn’t help but admit that the scrutiny was kind of alluring. Maybe there was something to Uncle Lloyd’s words, that he didn’t get out of the house enough. Now that there was someone interesting staring across the table at him, he’d have to reconsider the advantages of socializing with people that didn’t live in their own decrepit apartments while they shouted intermittently in their mics about whether or not they were using homebrew, 3.5 rules, or 5e.

            Rules lawyers, the lot of them.

            “I was curious at first, since they claimed they’d find a soulmate for me in a week,” he confessed. “I like to poke holes in things like that. Dunno why.”

            “Sounds like you like to be right about most things.”

            “Maybe.” She laughed, and it bolstered him to continue, “I don’t regret being wrong right now, though.”

            “You think they got your number?”

            “Dunno about them, but I’d like to give you mine, if you’re alright with that. It’s faster than e-mail.”

            “We’re not soulmates yet.”

            Yet. He considered the use of its word and her confidence in saying it. He wondered if Lloyd had gone back to the FBI yet, or if he was still laying low. According to the reports on the news and the interwebs, there was no body accounted for, but it looked like that poor abductee had made a soulmate connection while a prisoner there.

            Then Nick’s own digging revealed that it was Hannibal Lecter of all people he’d connected to.

            It made soulmates sound sticky in his ears, but he understood her feelings on the matter. She’d signed up for a dating site, after all.

            He wrote his number on a napkin for her, since he was feeling rather cliché and that’s what some people did in coffee shops on dates. She accepted it with a smile, and they walked out of the small coffee shop boasting half off specials for soulmates on Sundays. Maybe, just maybe if this worked out, they’d come back on Sundays and bask in the slowly-laid foundation of memories.

            Maybe she’d game with him, and his group would finally have that assassin they were looking for.

            She walked him to his car, oddly enough. It was a piece of shit Camry from the 90’s that, on a good day, turned over the first time. After getting booted from training in Quantico, Nick hadn’t had the best of luck, but at least that car had stuck through his ups and downs, his work and lack thereof. It was a thankless job being someone like Nick, but as he turned around and looked into Emma’s eyes, one hand poised on the roof of the car and the other on the door, he wondered if maybe he wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.

            She leaned up and pressed a kiss to the spot just at the edge of his lips, gentle.

            Then drove a knife into his gut and twisted, hard.

            “Francis Dolarhyde wanted me to inform you that, while your skills are exemplary, he is not currently in the market for a hacker that couldn’t exhibit enough self-control to make it out of FBI training and into the real world,” she whispered into his ear. “But for what it’s worth, I thought you were doing rather well up until this moment.”

            Nick opened his mouth to expel the rush of sound that filled his head with screaming, but nothing came. He felt suddenly cold, then hot, then numb; something wet was gathering along his stomach, his legs, his shoes, but he couldn’t quite reconcile his shock with what that meant.

            Dying, you fucking idiot. You’re dying.

            She pulled the knife from him and wiped it on a clean rag before depositing it into a large envelope. He saw her put the envelope into her purse, but the rest was dizzying to track, his blinks slow and lethargic. A voice, rough and panicked in the back of his mind warned him that by pulling the knife out, she was dooming him to die, but that wasn’t quite grasped onto either. Everything was sliding, sliding, sliding away, and he was eased into the driver’s seat of his car gently, he feet tucked up by the pedals.

            He blinked again, and his vision swam. It was difficult to describe it as pain, seeing as how everything was muted and distorted to the touch, too far away to really grasp onto. His head lolled and bobbed, and somehow he found it pressed against the window, staring at the back of Emma’s head as she strode across the parking lot and climbed into a waiting car.

            As it peeled away, Nick closed his eyes and fell into deep, fading sleep. He kept time with his death based off of the wheezing from his weakening breath.

-

            Zeller’s first words upon waking at the hospital were, “Where’s Jack,” followed closely by, “Where’s Hannibal?”

            Within twenty minutes –twenty only because of traffic –Jack was there, closely accompanied by a harried Price and a Bowman that the nurse insisted on helping into a wheelchair.

            Jack wasn’t sure how to take looking at him, bruised and battered and missing fingers. The head surgeon had informed them that the fresh surgery wound had been to remove his kidney, but it had been done with utmost skill and precision. He was