Archer Flynt looked nervous.
The knife jutted out from his hand as if he’d grown it for a new appendage. Its blade gleamed under the fluorescent lights, polished and pristine like the high-end HiFi at the Euphonic Oasis, like the remote control Flynt held in his other hand.
From his hiding spot behind a mountain of boxes, Will couldn’t decide which struck him with the greater fear: the knife or the remote. His heart thudded against his bones, loud and heavy like the heartbeats Flynt had spliced into his first prelude. His hands felt clammy around the gun. He had the narrowest of gaps to aim it through and tried his best to stay on Flynt, but the man would not keep still. Even if he did, Will would still have Hannibal in his line of fire.
Flynt’s bustling looked like stalling. He shuttled from speaker to speaker and adjusted wiring, but whatever his impending design, he couldn’t bring himself to pause and face the man he had tied to the chair. Instead, he kept snapping his eyes up to the humming lights above.
Hannibal’s own eyes tracked Flynt's every move. Will could not discern his expression: stoicism or concentration or suppressed fear. When they first heard Flynt's footsteps, Hannibal nodded for Will to secure his wrists again, enough to make the bonds look undisturbed. Will did as he was prompted, squeezed Hannibal's hand one more time, then dove into the only spot that would keep him from Flynt’s view.
"You used to pace during our sessions, Archer."
Will shivered. That voice, arising for the first time in its true fidelity. The voice that had been living beneath his skin, coursing through him like a new kind of blood. Disembodied and entirely Will’s own — until now.
"Please," Archer hissed. "I’m getting things ready for you." He still couldn't bring himself to look at Hannibal, but his grip on the knife had tightened. "I liked your office," he said. "You couldn’t hear the traffic from the street."
"The silence must have been a relief for you," Hannibal said. "But as you once told me, death is the only true quiet."
Flynt stuck the knife handle between his teeth and squatted down to check a plug. For a moment, Will thought he had a clean shot — Hannibal safely out of the bullet’s path — but Archer was back up and moving again in an instant. His pacing had grown aimless, his thumb twitching against the remote. "Do you remember the time I stopped by your drawing desk?" he asked.
Hannibal nodded. While he held Archer with a steady gaze, Will could see him test the tape around his legs with a subtle twist of the ankle and flex his fingers as if he were warming them up. Was Hannibal the sort of man to take on his captor, given the chance? Will’s brain screamed the words Beverly had said to him: don't do anything stupid.
"You asked about the engraving I was copying," Hannibal said. "Vesalius. The man without his skin."
"I asked what type of picture it was." Flynt replied and did cast a glance at Hannibal then, if only for a moment. By the sickly blue light from above, his profile looked waxen, half-melted. "You told me. You said— écorché. You stood right behind me when you said it."
"I did," Hannibal said softly. "I remember. Did my voice and proximity trigger your sensory response?"
Flynt's shoulders tensed, as if he were suppressing a shudder. He mouthed the word silently: écorché.
Hannibal swallowed hard. "How did you play your instruments, Archer?" he asked. "Did you take their skin? The papers wouldn't say."
Flynt raised a thin, mirthless grin. "My tribute to you, Dr. Lecter. To the gift you put under my skin. Écorché. I absorbed it. I carried it with me like a pitch I could tune myself to."
With Flynt's eyes again elsewhere, Will saw Hannibal twist harder against the bonds around his ankles. "I’m sorry I couldn’t accept the gift you gave me in return," he said. His voice still echoed his expression: steady and calm.
"No," Flynt said. "No, you referred me instead."
The gift. The Catcher's first composition. The Chopin prelude patched together from the cries and heartbeats of the people Flynt had flayed. Will could hear it in that moment, feel it on the surface of his brain like the burn and prickle of a poorly healed wound.
"You didn't try hard enough, doctor." The hurt in Archer Flynt’s voice was starting to border on hysterical. "I blame myself for that. I didn't give you the right set of sounds." In a single step, he was suddenly behind the chair, the flat of his blade pressed up against Hannibal's cheek. "But I have them for you now," he whispered. "I promise you will be affected."
Frantic, Will scurried forward on his knees. He needed a better angle, a less risky shot. Flynt's knife glinted against Hannibal's skin. Where the hell were Beverly and Jack? Were they already in the building, flashlights sweeping through the windowless floors? Will could try for a headshot, but if he missed...
Hannibal, meanwhile, hadn’t flinched away from the knife.
"How will you know?" he asked.
Archer Flynt's aching grin twitched down into a grimace. "I saw the way you looked at her at the opera," he said. "I was there while she sang. You had tears on your face. Wait—" his knife slid down to Hannibal’s throat and he coughed up a laugh that shook his whole frame— "wait 'til you hear what she yielded. You will be moved. As I was moved."
And then Flynt pulled away. He flung his arms up, went still, and Will had his shot. Just a few inches to the right, to make sure Hannibal was safely out of reach and then—
He never saw Flynt press play.
The colonnade of speakers circling Hannibal Lecter spat out a deluge of sound that filled to the brim the whole of the cavernous concrete basement. It was music at first, a blaring approximation of the glass flute melody Will had heard in Flynt's store — but more hollow, like wet fingers on crystal rims. It rose and rose until something began to chase it and cut through it, like a current through an ocean. Amplifying by degrees, until it was almost deafening: the undistllled agony torn from Adrianna Remini's throat by Archer Flynt's knife.
A wave of pain and revulsion seized Will by the stomach and shook him. He couldn't help it — he covered his ears. But Archer still stood with his arms flung upwards and his eyes pinched shut, and Will needed this chance. He aimed again, glanced at Hannibal quickly and saw— nothing.
Despite the aria of horror gushing from the speakers, Hannibal Lecter's body hadn't flinched or recoiled. His face bore an expression that Will could only read as disinterest. Or disappointment.
Flynt, too, sensed something was amiss. His arms had dropped to his sides, his eyes opened and grew wide, and he was moving again, circling slowly to the front of the chair.
He stopped. Whatever he'd wanted to see on Hannibal's face, he didn't find it. He mashed the remote with his thumb, Adrianna's cries grew even more deafening, and still, still the only thing Hannibal Lecter's face would offer the Scream Catcher was mild disapproval.
Flynt's own face fell into utter devastation. He raised his knife. And Will pulled the trigger.
He barely heard the shot over the deafening roar of the Catcher's magnum opus.
Flynt staggered back, away from Hannibal. He spun left to face Will, clutching at the seeping wound in his thigh. He fixed Will with a single look of bewildered rage and then slumped forward — but did not fall.
Gun aimed, breath ragged, Will stalked closer. His ears hurt. From the corner of his eye, he caught Hannibal's gaze, saw his hands already freed and tearing at the bonds around his ankles with agile fingers. A thought crashed again through the fear and panic in Will's brain: what sort of man...
"Archer!" Will couldn't hear himself shouting above the speakers. "Drop the knife!"
The Catcher was still doubled over, torso heaving. Will couldn't see his face. He took a step closer.
Flynt lurched forward, astonishingly fast, head first.
The force of his skull slammed into Will's belly and the shock and pain of it sent Will to the floor. Flynt was on top of him and in that instant, Will knew how the Catcher subdued his victims. Flynt was small but solid, vicious, vice strong. The butt of his knife slammed twice against Will's wrist, hard enough to make him wail in pain and lose grip on the gun. Will made one desperate claim for the weapon, but a swift swipe from Flynt sent it sliding away out of reach.
Over Flynt's thrashing form, Will couldn't see Hannibal. He thrashed and kicked too, and tried to grab with the hand Flynt hadn't pinned to the floor. But the Catcher's knife flailed down at him wildly, caught on his arms and sliced through cloth. Will tried to roll them, misjudged his own strength and ended with Flynt's full weight slumped over him and the knife pressed right up to his throat.
Will stared up in terror. The screams from the speakers seemed to pour out from Flynt's convulsing mouth, the skin around his eyes scrunched up in pain and outrage. Will tugged with all his strength at the wrist holding the knife. He cried out as loud as he could above the roar.
"The rain, Archer! The rain on Oriole Island."
Flynt's mouth shuttered and he stared down at Will as if struck. He must have heard.
"I felt it," Will gasped. "When it hit the roof of the warehouse, I felt what you felt. It was beautiful."
Flynt stared for a moment longer. A spasm passed over his face, and then he dropped down, right to Will's ear.
"It's not you I wanted," he hissed.
Will felt a sting against his skin. The blade started to cut. His arms shook with effort but he could do nothing to pry away Flynt's hand.
It wasn't Will's voice. The knife stopped. As if on command, Flynt jerked himself upright, twisted back and revealed behind him the looming shape of Hannibal Lecter.
He had Will's gun. He wasn't pointing it. His face hadn't changed from before. Flynt's stare dropped and Will followed it, down to Hannibal's feet.
Hannibal had one shiny brogue pressed over a cable that snaked across the floor. The other one he'd hooked beneath it and, with a twist of the ankle, now looped it about his foot. He yanked hard. The song of screams crashed at once into a shocking silence.
Will froze. Nothing existed in the sudden void of sound except gasps and wheezing breath. Flynt turned back slowly. There were tears in his eyes. With all his force, he tore his hand from Will's grip, put the knife up to his throat and sliced.
How quickly had Will shut his eyes? A copper-scented deluge splashed over face. He remembered his dream: the red rain, the fortepiano. And when he tried to scream, he choked on the blood of the dying man on his chest.
He still couldn't see, but he could breathe again, just about. The dead weight had been dragged from his body.
His ears rang with a sustained high-pitched squeal. Something soft dabbed at his eyes until he could blink through the sting of Flynt's blood and find Hannibal Lecter looking down at him, speaking to him.
Will couldn't make out the words — only their urgency. They came through faint and muffled as if through a wall. Hannibal was squeezing Will's hand as Will had squeezed his. His eyes were wide and bright with concern. Will wanted to tell him he's beautiful.
He coughed up the Catcher’s blood. He looked down the line of his body. More blood: his shirt, Hannibal's handkerchief. He twisted his head and saw the mass of Archer Flynt's corpse, motionless in the expanding black puddle of his own making. He'd never let go of the knife.
And then Will saw flashlights, other human shapes approaching with guns drawn. He couldn't tell what they were shouting, but Hannibal Lecter put his hands up just in case.
After that, the worst thing was being separated. Will watched, as if from outside his own body, while Hannibal was swaddled in a first aid blanket and escorted out of the basement. It hurt so much when he didn't look back.
Beverly sat with him in the back of the car all the way to the closest station that would have them. By the time they got there, Will could hear well enough to understand when Katz told him they'd get him some clean clothes. Probably taken off some petty perp.
After they'd seen to the minor cuts on his arms and neck, he was led into a room stuffed with a small army of agents, presided over by Crawford. They all stared. Alana Bloom was among them. When Will saw her expression, he had to look away. He felt oddly self-conscious: a half-deaf scarecrow in borrowed clothes, bandaged arms, hair still plastered to his neck and forehead with the Catcher's blood.
Alana left the room and returned moments later with a bottle of water and two pills in a tiny paper cup.
"Just a mild anxiolytic," she said gently.
Will took the drugs without a word. A few minutes later, he felt less like he might escape out of his own skin, but his teeth still chattered every five minutes regardless.
Jack must have been waiting for the drugs to kick in before coming over.
"I owe you an apology."
"Are you making him give a statement?" Will asked.
"I want to be in the room with him."
Jack looked to Alana, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Will. You know that's not possible."
"You've both been through a terrible shock," Alana added. "He may not want to see you."
Will frowned and stared down at his crumpled pill cup. He wondered if Alana had given one to Hannibal too, but he simply could not picture it.
In the end, Crawford relented — or at least compromised. The interview room they put Hannibal in had a one-way mirror, and Will was allowed to listen in. He peered through the glass as he might into a dream. The elegant, stoic man behind it still didn't seem real.
"How long had Archer Flynt been your patient, Dr. Lecter?"
Hannibal cleared his throat. His hands wrapped around the paper coffee cup he'd been handed but hadn't drunk from. Will could see the red marks Flynt's bonds had cut into his wrists.
"Archer came to me over a year ago. I knew at once that his would be one of the most unusual cases I'd ever taken on. He had already sought help from an otolaryngologists and a neurologist, to no avail. He saw my therapy as his ailment's last resort."
"Many years ago, Mr. Flynt had trained as a composer. He had promise. He'd even studied at Juilliard. But over time, he began to suffer from a progressively worsening misophonia. Somewhere along the way, he also discovered his ASMR."
"ASMR? The skin tingling... stuff?"
Hannibal inclined his head. "Over the years Archer's ASMR grew more intense while his tolerance for many everyday sounds degraded. A difficult position, for someone who had devoted his life to music. The tolerable soundscape of his life became severely constrained. Common sounds and voices revolted him, while others gave him a profound sense of euphoria or peace."
"Was the sound of people in pain one of those?"
Hannibal's eyes had dropped to his coffee cup. They hadn't given him new clothes, Will thought. Did he really not get any blood on his?
"We hadn't discussed it," Hannibal said. "In retrospect, I can see that he had hinted at it."
Beverly glanced over to the mirror. The look she cast was almost apologetic, and Will knew the question that would come next.
"After you were captured, you called Will Graham. If you had access to a phone, why didn’t you call the police?"
Hannibal paused to take the smallest of sips from his cup. He looked, for a moment, almost timid. "Will Graham and I met on a dating site," he said. "We'd formed a connection, and we were due to meet in person soon. I knew Will worked in law enforcement. When Archer forced me into the trunk of his car, in my disorientation and distress I could only think of calling Will."
Will closed his eyes. Through the drug-numbed waves of shock, a feeling surfaced inside him: a possessive sense of something private and precious, protected in that moment from prying minds by Hannibal's careful words. He may have even smiled.
"And your phone?" Beverly asked.
"Archer had taken my personal phone from me. I keep a business one as well, which he failed to find. I used it to message Will." Hannibal's jaw tightened. "I regret deeply the terrific situation I have inflicted on Will. I assumed he would seek help. But I never imagined he would face down a killer for my sake."
After Will's own deposition, Alana came to collect him.
"He'd like to see you," she said.
Will's heart thudded once, but he followed without question. A few staring cops lined the corridors as they passed. Someone applauded. It was all Will could do to stop himself from saying something he'd regret but Alana only smiled. "They think you're a hero."
Why? Will wanted to ask. It was the same thing all over again: there was no redemption in the Catcher’s end. He didn’t even expect the nightmares to stop.
Except maybe something was different. The world didn't sound or feel the same, not since he saw Hannibal looming over Flynt.
Alana brought him to an inconspicuous door and pointed at the sign. "I'm sure both of you could use the respite."
The station chapel was nothing more than a dressed up meeting room. Sheets of semi-transparent plastic lined the window panes, green and red, someone’s makeshift attempt at stained glass. Neat rows of ordinary lecture chairs, split down the middle, faced a table set with a crucifix and lanterns made to look like candlelight.
As Will entered, the man in the first row rose from his seat and turned. Will clutched at the door handle to steady himself. The corporeal reality of Hannibal Lecter still startled, as if he were a figment of Will’s imagination turned flesh, or a shockingly vivid daytime hallucination.
They looked at each other for a moment.
"How are your ears?" Will asked. His own continued to screech.
"Compromised. But they will recover. In the meantime..."
Hannibal walked over to the ancient iPod dock set up on a windowsill. He browsed for a moment, then pressed play.
Will tensed and almost flinched when the music began, but the notes rose up gently, mild strings and orderly baroque keyboards. An antithesis of the Catcher's aria.
"It will help drown out the ringing," Hannibal said.
He was right: the music filled the air, pitched just so to ease the ringing in Will's ears and dial down his heart rate. It did nothing to ease the motion sickness of uncertainty rocking his brain.
"I didn’t know police stations had these," Will said, still half-hugging the exit.
Hannibal settled back down, legs crossed, body half-turned in the chair. His legs were like his hands, Will thought. Elegant and long. Oddly expressive.
"An establishment that deals in human vice and distress deserves to have a place of refuge." Hannibal said.
"Were you Archer Flynt’s refuge?" Will asked.
"I hope I was yours."
Will closed his eyes and tried not to feel too much at those words. He wanted to absorb them, put them under his skin the way Flynt had done. It was easier to drift back to a time when Hannibal existed as nothing more than a voice in his head and a pair of beautiful hands. But there was no going back. Will pried himself from the door and moved unsteadily up the aisle dividing the chairs.
"That was quite a show you put on when he started playing his—" Will hesitated. He didn't know what to call it. "His gift," he said finally.
"Are you so certain it was a show?"
Will laughed without mirth and slid into a chair in the first row, opposite side of the narrow aisle. "I guess I can choose what I believe. Either you really didn't feel anything when you heard her screams and you're a complete psychopath. Or you refused to give him what he wanted."
"Which of the two would you consider worse?"
Will wasn't sure he wanted to answer that honestly.
"Why didn’t you give him what he wanted?" he asked instead.
"Morally, I could not bring myself to show him that his gruesome work had had its intended effect."
Will shook his head. "Don't short-change me. There was something else."
Hannibal regarded him with a curious expression. The corners of his broad mouth turned up in the faintest impression of a smile. "I think I will soon discover that it's difficult to hide things from you, Will," he said.
"Then don't bother trying."
"Very well. If I had shown Archer a modicum of what I was feeling, he would have mistaken it for true empathy. None of us can manifest in our souls a true replica of his singular ecstatic agony." He outstretched an arm and put one hand over an electric lantern, as if he expected to feel real warmth. "Although I'm told you can."
Will frowned and stared down at his bandaged arms. "Alana told you?"
"She said that you feel very deeply. And that I should be careful with you."
Will shuddered. "I can still feel his song. It was more terrifying than his knife against my throat."
Hannibal leaned across the aisle, elbows on his knees and hands pressed together, suddenly and surprisingly close. Will glanced over and his sense of unreality began to lift, replaced by a not entirely unpleasant tingle of embarrassment. He looked down at Hannibal's hands: no longer mere images on screen, but real bone and flesh, capable of touch. He remembered their warmth when he clasped them down in the basement.
"If you wish to shrug off Archer's attempts at art," Hannibal said, "then there is one thing I can suggest."
Will twisted in his seat to face the man beside him. He waited.
Hannibal's eyes caught the light from the mock candles. "Tell me what else you feared while his music assaulted you."
Will felt the sudden strain in his jaw, the fault line between his brows. He let his gaze drop. "I was afraid that— that if you could look at him like that..."
Hannibal inched to the edge of his seat, closer still, almost palpably solid and warm."You feared I might one day look at you in the same way," he said softly.
Will nodded quickly and swallowed back a throat full of tears. How much of Archer Flynt's desperation had actually been his own? He felt the sudden urge to get up and walk out. It would be so much easier than hoping.
Will dared to look up. Their eyes met. For once, Will recognised Hannibal's closeness for what it was: an invitation. He still wasn't sure how much of it he could handle, but he slid to the edge of his chair and leaned forward by cautious degrees, across the aisle. He kept going, slowly, until his forehead met Hannibal's shoulder.
Hannibal made no effort to touch him further. He held perfectly still, a flesh and bone support for Will's overwrought brain.
"I wonder how you can fear that," he whispered, close against Will's ear, "when what you did for me today is etched into my very soul?"
A ripple sailed all through Will but it was neither drugs nor echoes of panic — just a lulling, shimmering pleasure. He sighed and let his eyes close. He felt profoundly tired, curiously relieved. The music around them progressed gracefully onward and Will breathed it in, along with Hannibal's warmth.