And so, Will took to his vigil.
Less than 12 hours after returning home, half-crazed with longing and dread, he began to wait.
And he watched.
That very first night, hours or days or months ago, Molly opened the front door, tentative, always tentative. And she had stood muted in the light borne from the flat, gray tundra that surrounded them, suffocated him. And following his gaze from the porch to the barren forest surrounding the house, had asked whether he was all right. If he needed anything.
A few nights later and she stood in silence, the closed screen door a fortress between them.
Later still, she hadn't bothered to come at all.
And so, he watched.
Watched, with a thin blanket around his shoulders and a shotgun across his lap. Watched, first with a tumbler of whiskey, then with a drinking glass, and then with the bottle, perched dangerously and tipping, always tipping, between his legs.
Watched, with the tattered remnants of a shirt pressed into his fist.
Sometimes, during those hours or days or months, he would awake on the porch with a start, the copper-forged scent of blood and the tossing baritone of the sea ringing from his senses. Until he was sure he would finally drown in it. Until he tipped his head back against that old, creaking bench and willed himself to give in. To be taken.
But still he remained.
And so, he waited.
He scanned the twisted rinds of the forest; looked back and forth, back and forth, across the edge where the precipitous expanse of fallen snow met the upturned reach of fallen foliage. Cocked his head and stared, blind, at every flash of paired yellow headlights that passed the farm.
Sometimes, he'd remember screaming when they had tried to take the torn cloth from him. An austere man in an austere white coat in an emergency room outside Baltimore had picked the remains from between Will's fingers as he'd slept. When he realized it was gone, he had screamed, cursed, landed blows, until a nurse had retrieved it from the bedside trash can and given it back to him. Even then, he couldn't stop shouting. Couldn't stop waving the filthy bit of fabric at the faces before him, blubbering and asking, begging them to understand the miracle he held.
He used to think a lot about tossing it. But he couldn't.
Not now. Not yet.
It was, after all, only when he held the torn piece of shirt against his skin that he could remember how to keep his heart beating. Could recall, with slippery certainty, how to move the blood through his veins.
So no, not now. Not when he still so easily forgot how to breathe. When, after weeks exhumed from the sea, air still clawed its way up his throat, burning and fizzing as though kept filled with that tangy brine. When he still wanted to cough. When he tried to take cleansing inhales of untainted air and failed, and failed, and failed. Not when his lungs, sticky with disuse, did finally open and all he could smell was salt, the dusty, half-wet crumbling of a cliff, a panting near his ear coated in red wine, and above all else, the sweet, sweet scent of whiskey.
Because those moments, with that last sweet, burnt scent shared between nose and lungs, were all he now knew of warmth.
And so, he kept hold of that ruined piece of cloth. And he watched.
Sometimes, he forgot to bring the shotgun. Other times, he left it purposefully behind. And when he did, he'd bare his teeth and open his palms to the darkness, daring the unseen ghoul that reached with deft, brittle fingers at the edges of his consciousness to take him, have him. Be done with it already. Allow him something other than this endless, swallowing, desperate limbo of waiting, waiting, waiting, that threatened to both suck him under and leave him stranded, withering on the cusp of something worse.
He was always teetering, always tipping alongside the bottle between his legs.
Will, with his hands in his hair pulling tighter, tighter, doubling over with his mouth open, gasping in a silent scream, he waited.
Even now, sitting as he was with his drink in one hand and his shotgun in the other, he could not recall how he had returned home. What had transpired after he'd been catapulted from the sea as quickly as he'd thrown them in. After his exposed stomach dragged against the sharp, rolling grains of sand once the maw of the bay spat him so vengefully from its roil. When he'd coughed and crawled and pulled until there was no longer sand beneath him, but grass. Only to lay there, under the agonizing chill of moonlight, with that stupid, stupid torn piece of Hannibal's shirt somehow, somehow still in his hand.
But yet . . . there had been heat. In that darkness between the cold cast of moon and this front porch, on this godforsaken land. There had been pain. Scratchy fabric and firelight and a cupped hand around gashed skin.
And with those brief flashes, came that feeling. A wrought consuming that only existed when he was so very far away from it. And even now, hours or days or months into his vigil, he could define it with no more certainty than the feeling of doneness. Of conclusion. Of the final punctuation behind the final word at the end of the final sentence. That singular feeling that kept him all those nights watching.
So then, after that, when the heat had receded, there was only the shotgun and the whiskey to keep him fortified against the approaching storm.
By god, but did the whiskey smell good. Like the burning logs that existed alongside every moment of those few remaining words. Smelled like the abraded skin of his throat. Like the dizzy, overripe space between consciousness and its blackened brother, between when the numbness enveloped him and the mending of his skin began. The scent of yearning. Like the soft touch of expert skin against his own, so broken and scarred. That sweet, sweet scent.
Sometimes, Will would look down and find himself gripping the front of his shirt, balling the fabric tucked into his hand against the fabric over his chest. The shirt would be damp under his fingertips, as would his face and his neck. In those moments, Will was sure the sea had gotten inside him. Had taken root and must, when he was certain to collapse under the weight of his watch, leak through his crevices. Those soft, frail, broken panes of his body. Wetting his face and his throat and his shirt until furious, infuriated by the depth of it, he would head inside.
Will had left a part of himself behind. He supposed the sea had taken its place.
But Will, he was motionless anyway. No good to or for anything but the muscles of his arm as he lifted and let fall the whiskey. Motionless, except for the flick of frantic eyes searching, searching, searching.
So Will, he could hold the sea while he waited, for as long as it left him afloat.
Eventually, when the tundra or the whiskey made him itch and the consuming prickle of unseen malevolence evaporated from his skin, he'd go inside. Both shaking and stiff-limbed, sometimes with shame but mostly, usually without. And Molly, sweet Molly, would always turn towards him as he lie down in bed. Wrapping her too-warm arms and legs against him, murmuring nothingness and everything into the hollow of his throat with gravelly breaths that reminded him of the sea. And he would succumb, unwilling, into a blank emptiness.
It was only when he slept curled next to her that the nightmares thinned.
Hours or days or months of watching and he sat alone at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal with images of blood, brine, and ill-fitted clothing behind closed eyes. He looked up, around, and said, "When's Wally going to be home?"
At the sink, Molly had slowed the frenzied scrub at a dish in her hands. Tentative - unsure, always tentative - Molly, she had said, "He's still at my mom's."
And Will knew, of course he knew, by her tone, by the way her shoulders twitched towards her ear that Wally had been away for some time. And so, he took his blanket, his bottle, and his gun, and resumed his watch early that night, eager to slip back into waiting, the endless waiting.
And so, he kept his vigil. And he watched.
Jack stopped by twice.
His visits had always been too late in the day, when Will was already too deep into the night to take notice of anything but where the flat stretch of snow met the spiky incline of trees. Where he kept waiting to find the lean, flickering shadow of a man as dark as but distinct from the surrounding dead pines and failing, failing, failing.
"Will," Jack had said, not bothering to sit. Looming, tall and imposing as intended before Will and his thin, tattered blanket. The ragged bit of cloth tucked securely into his palm. His gun. The whiskey. "What's going on here? You have your wife seriously concerned about you."
Will nodded, gripping his shotgun and his drink, ensuring both were firmly planted in hand. For what, he didn't know. He certainly wasn't going to offer either to the towering man, half-blocking his gaze across the wild expanse beyond the front porch.
And Will knew, if he had opened his mouth then, he would have screamed.
Howled shrilly and with the mournful cry of the discarded, the forgotten, the abandoned. All those colorless ones still clinging, shameless and emboldened by the length of their wait.
He would have burst into flames, he was sure. Melted into the ground.
Sundered. Torn, piece by piece, and spread to every inch of the divide between the snow and the forest, until his body peppered the fallow land like his eyes had once peppered its edges.
So he said nothing and eventually, Jack was gone.
The second time Jack came, he brought Alana.
She had crouched before him with empathy but without feeling. He'd intended to bear the scrutiny with as much good grace as he could give. And he had. But then, she had reached up with slow fingers - tentative, always tentative - and pressed them to the torn side of his face.
And Will, he had recoiled with such violence she'd gasped and even though it had been hours, days, months since her visit, he could still see the perfect "o" of her surprised mouth. Her widened eyes. The images replaying behind his lids like some slow-motion, visual dirge.
"Do you know where Hannibal is?" Jack had asked and the noise that came out of Will, almost a laugh, was an ugly, wet, petty thing. The shake of fabric between fingertips, shameful.
And so, he waited.
With his blanket, his shotgun, and the sweet, sweet scent of whiskey eating him alive from the inside out.
Until his eyelids were heavy. Until his skin felt taut and freed around his muscles. Until his back ached and his feet were numb and the whiskey bottle tipped, always tipping between his legs.
Until there was nothing else.
Inhaling and exhaling and inhaling again.
The cold, the burning wood, and the soft caress of mending fingers.
Sometimes, Will would crawl into bed fatigued by his unyielding scan of the darkness surrounding the house, and would wake, not in the morning with the soft sounds of Molly and the dogs moving throughout the house, but back outside. Dressed and wrapped in the blanket, the shotgun and whiskey nearby although he'd brought both back into the house before turning himself over to his bed, his wife. Nothing precipitated such evenings, but they would occur, drawn and spaced so they became some resemblance of a marker by which to pass the resulting time.
He could never remember how long it'd been since the last one.
At some point, hours, days, or months into his watch and Molly stopped turning to him in bed. At some point, he would slide himself between the sheets, cold and anticipating her too-warm touch, but she would rise. He would never follow, but knew he'd find her the next morning on the sofa, curled under his thin blanket, eyes swollen and red. The dogs huddled protectively around her. Will would swallow, quash the flare of jealousy that bloomed poisonous when the dogs picked up their heads and eyed him as he approached the sofa, approached Molly.
He wanted to scream. He wanted to claw his eyes out. He wanted to peel off every inch of flesh until he was wailing, drowning in the resulting gore.
He stopped being able to meet Molly's eye.
So long ago, hours, days, months before then, she had tried to wait with him. Tried to sit next to him on the long bench which always moaned in protest under their weight but remained silent for him alone. The blanket shared between them and her in the crook of his arm and comfortably pressed to his oxter. Her breath fanning warmth towards the inside of his chest.
She, too, was waiting. Watching. Keeping vigil over his absence, as he kept vigil of the endless spread of lonely ground beyond the clean reaches of the porch.
And once he realized that, he'd started to touch himself again, late into night. Once Molly was gone from their bed. Once the dogs slept in the living room. Once Jack and Alana stopped coming by. Once he was certain that he was truly, truly alone, he gave himself completely to Hannibal's memory.
But it was a soulless thing. Desperate, cold, removed from everything that grounded him. A grasping, bitter thing that left him a creaking husk more than it relieved all those endless, endless nights of watching.
Where the snow met the trees.
Where the ghoul was sure to be, if he ever would.
He didn't know how to stop.
This, this one thing, this waiting was what kept him bound to the earth. Only if it was slowly freezing him in place, turning him to stone.
He couldn't stop. Not now, not yet.
Jesus, just take me. Have me. I can't keep doing this, for god's sake, be done with me.
Enough, enough, enough.
He'd screamed it across the endless, endless span of dead land. Cried it out to the purple sky and the scattered stars and to the hollow beat of his heart. Gripped his hair once more, tighter, tighter until he was doubled over around the vacuous suck of his torso. Until his hair snapped and his fingers snapped and he fell apart, flesh from bone, muscle from sinew until nothing in him could ever again be called human. Until he sunk into the depths of the virgin soil, finally, finally drowned by that man, that stupid, stupid tear of fabric. Until he might, just maybe be able to rest.
And so, when he did appear, when the weeks, months, years of Will's vigil came to an end, he was certain it was an apparition.
Will stared into the night. The wiry shadow flickered, in and out, in and out, standing alone and then bleeding into the trees. Over and over and over until Will had to close his eyes, look away, and then look back. With frenzy. Without breath.
And Will, he was drowning again. Had finally been loosed, boneless into the tumult of indifferent waters. And so, he opened his mouth and breathed the caustic alkali because certainly, certainly this endless vigil, this watching and waiting, would never, could never expire. Not now, not when it was finally shriveling after so much of it had bloomed. Not when it had truly begun consume him, body and soul.
And then, the shadow took a step towards the front porch.
Will uncurled from the bench with roar.
And in the movement, he felt each frozen, stony inch of skin break. He felt those tiny explosions, angry and ecstatic, against the dead, clinging pressure of his waiting. The waiting, waiting, waiting, endless, endless nights of waiting and watching and scanning and watching and scanning again. He'd lived a lifetime, an eon on that front porch and now, now he was moving.
His hold on reality, always so tenuously tied to the dark stretch of land between him and the grotesque horror standing at its outermost edge, snapped as he sprinted through the snow.
He stopped, the end of his shotgun inches from the man's chest, to find himself turned back to stone.
He could move closer, call to arms the muscles so encumbered by that thin blanket and used for no more than the weight it took to support his whiskey and this gun, and push it closer. Sure, desperately, frantically sure the moment it touched the clothed chest before him, the ghoul would disappear and Will would have to return to his wait.
"I can't," he whispered at the darkness, at nothing, at the lean quivering at the end of his gun. "I can't do it again. Jesus, I fucking can't. Please."
And so, he stayed, silent and unseeing, for an eternity.
Behind his closed eyes, the cosmos swarmed, burst and restructured. Will was detached, clenched as the molecular divides of his body were slowly, slowly removed and replaced, each by each, explicating and reforming him while keeping him perfectly in place with a gashing, mounting anguish. The world shrunk and expanded around him. The snow disappeared and reappeared, disappeared and reappeared, and still he stood. Alone and unmoving. As the earth beneath his feet buried him alive and thrust him back to the surface. Again and again and again.
He screamed, wild and blind, into the darkness. And the single note of his voice carried through all those decades he'd sat, waiting, waiting, waiting.
And then, all at once, he was whole.
The final punctuation. The last handful of words. The remaining sentence.
He breathed a frenetic, sucking gasp as the shotgun was pushed aside and he let it fall. He heard it hit the snow, a soft thud amongst the aching void in his gut and the thrumming pound of his heart in his ears.
And Hannibal was there.
The apparition, what Will had been so sure was an apparition, cupped Will's face with a warm hand and ran a thumb against the jagged edge of his cheek. Will tried to take another breath but only managed a guttural moan and then, then he was encased. Shrouded by a scratchy woolen coat and a soft scarf and the scents of leather, grass, forged steel, and the dark, dark bleed of wine.
But still, destruction flared in Will's sternum, setting alight his throat and lungs until he could exhale nothing but a billowing, black smoke. And so, still pressed tightly to Hannibal's chest, he found himself striking, with pointed fingers and closed fists, at every inch of Hannibal within reach.
"You fucking asshole," he screamed, striking, striking, striking. "You fucking, fucking asshole."
"I'm sorry," Hannibal said, steady, always steady, unmoved by the blows. "I waited too long. I should have come sooner."
And then, he pressed Will tighter, tighter, tighter until his breath was wrenched from his body and his hands dropped, useless to his sides. Until he couldn't be bothered to replace the lost air, content with this moment, after the lives, the countless lives, he'd spent waiting on that front porch.
"I hate you," Will whispered, screamed, begged, crooned, choked. "I'll never forgive you for this."
Hannibal pressed his cheek to the top of Will's head. "I'm willing to wait. As long as I have to. At least as long as you did."
At first, Will could only shake his head and sob.
But then, after he'd shared the years, decades, millennia of his waiting, his watching, against the fabric pressed to his face, he was able to slow. Regain his breath, return from his fevered wailing. Calm himself, his torment, until it lay between them like a sacrificed animal in the heat of their combined starvation.
"I can't forgive you."
"Maybe," Hannibal said, cupping the side of Will's torn face with a hand much, much too warm for the surrounding freeze. "But I will still wait for it."
Waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
Always vigilant, always keen, searching the landscape, the dead ground and trees, the barren emptiness of rolling farm laid to waste by this lean, unsure shadow.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Watching and scanning and waiting.
For the unseeded earth to give way to new life. For the decimated fields to bear fruit. For the devastated landscape to morph, somehow, unwilling, into a fertile uprising.
Will was uncertain that day would come.
And so, he would continue to wait. With his thin blanket, his shotgun, his whiskey, and that piece of ragged cloth, until forgiveness, should it ever arise, overtook his desire to destroy.
He would continue to wait. And Hannibal would wait with him.
And so, for a moment, he was at peace.