Work Header

Where All Ladders Start

Chapter Text

Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
William Butler Yeats


Will sat on the edge of his cot and listened to the soft tap of approaching footsteps. Too even for Chilton, who now walked with a slow, hitching step and a cane. It wasn't time for dinner, and he'd had lunch.

The footsteps stopped outside his cell. Someone's gaze landed on him with a physical weight.

"Hello, Will."


Will almost turned to see, but that wasn't safe. He had to stay still, stay calm.

"I'd like to say you're looking well, but perhaps that's too much to hope for."

Far too much. He looked gray, clothes and skin, eyes and heart.

"Will?" Closer, questioning. The slide of a leather sole against concrete. "Are you listening?"

Time passed in the curious way it had now, both torrential and glacial. Five minutes in an hour, five hours in a second.

"Can you hear me?"

The insanity of others lit up his mind like lights on a Christmas tree, but his own was pressing him down to the ocean floor, into a relentless internal twilight.

"It is 3:54 in the afternoon," Hannibal said. "You are in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and your name is Will Graham."

Will almost flinched. The words belonged to a time when he'd clung to his sense of self as if it were something worth keeping.

The fifth repetition made him grind the heels of his hands against his thighs. At the eleventh, he pushed his toes into the floor and tensed every muscle along his spine to stay still. The seventeenth broke him.

"Stop it," he said, and once he'd fractured his silence, the words fell out of him. "Stop, I know where I am, I know."

The knowledge beat uneasy wings inside his skull. He pressed his hands against his eyes until it settled again.

"Do you know who you are?" Hannibal asked.

"I know my name." Close enough.

"Do you know who I am?"

Will did look at him then. Shadows lay comfortably across Hannibal's face and curled around his hands. His eyes were the brightest thing about him. Like Christmas morning.

Will wondered how he hadn't seen it sooner.

"Will?" Hannibal prompted.

"Yes," he said. "I know who are."

"Do you?" Hannibal tilted his head very slightly. "Truly?"

"They were never surgical trophies. You were eating them. Feeding them to us. Everyone. Even Jack."

"Why do you say even Jack?"

"He's the one you're at war with."

"He is a minor player. The Agamemnon to your Cassandra, if you will."

"No one believed Cassandra."

"And Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to pursue his cause. It's surprisingly apt."

"Greek myths are cheap metaphors. You might as well use chess."

Hannibal smiled. "That's better."

"Fuck you."

Hannibal made a disapproving noise. "You mustn't sink to the level of your environment."

"You have to go," Will said. "You can't be here. I can't talk to you." Heat prickled along his spine, and his heart stumbled. "Please. I can't think about this."

"What happens when you think, Will?"

"I can't be here, I can't think about it." He wrapped his arms around himself and gripped his elbows tight.

"Dr. Chilton told me they've had to sedate you twice. Why is that?"

Will shook his head and launched himself to his feet, pacing to the far wall and back as if he could outrun his own soaring heartbeat. He made himself stop and breath, pressed his cheek against cool cement.

He knocked his temple gently against the wall and liked the feel of it: solid, definite. He did it again. And again.

"Will, come here." Hannibal's voice was sharp, and he had one arm between the bars, reaching out.

Will blinked slowly and then went to him. It was easier than thinking about why he shouldn't. Hannibal laid a hand on his forehead and looked into his eyes.

"You're not fevered. They continued your medication once you arrived here?"

"Fully recovered," Will muttered. He stared at the wall over Hannibal's shoulder. "The last pills were…a while ago."

"Do you know how long you have been here?"

"Does it matter?" He leaned into Hannibal's touch. "How many people have you killed?"

"More than Garret Jacob Hobbs, certainly."

"Why didn't you kill me, too?"

"I prefer the world with you in it."

"I don't. Not like this. Can't you do it now?"

"Do you truly want to die, Will?"

Will tilted his head to look at him, and Hannibal brought his hand around to cup Will's cheek. The touch was still grounding, despite everything Hannibal had done to him.

"Did you do this on purpose?" Will asked.

"I don't think I understood the level of distress this place would cause you, no." He paused. "I had hoped to continue our conversations."

Will laughed briefly. "Joke's on you, I guess. No one's perfect. You'd be better off with my brain in a jar. Or sliced and fried. It won't keep in here."

Hannibal watched him. He took a moment to brush Will's hair back from his face. Seconds slid by in silence.

"Where are you?" Hannibal asked, finally.

"Inside my nightmare."

"Tell me about your nightmare."

Will shook his head hard and backed away from the bars. "Can't."

"So I see." Hannibal paused again. The silence was longer this time. "Suppose there were a way to wake up," he said. "Is that something you would want?"

Will glanced at him sideways and rubbed a hand across his mouth. "How?"

"Suppose that I could get you out," Hannibal said, more definite now. "What would you do for me in return?"

"Out of here?" Will took an involuntary step closer to him. "For good?"


"Anything. Anything you want."

Hannibal beckoned him close again, and Will went to him. Hope stirred uncomfortably inside his chest. Hannibal regarded him with a cool curiosity that Will had seen many times. He'd taken it for professional detachment.

"Suppose I asked you to kill Alana Bloom?" Hannibal said.

The words had a physical weight that pushed Will straight down to the floor. His knees hit the concrete with a dull thud. For a second, he let himself picture the knife in his hand, the spray of blood unfurling from her throat. The room wavered around him. "Can't," he choked.

Hannibal stroked the back of his neck with a cool hand. "All right," he said, soothing. "I only wished to make the point. You should take more care in your deals with the Devil."

Will looked up at him. "Please," he said.

"You mustn't think I'll go easy on you because I care for you. You will kill for me. Don't delude yourself about that."


Hannibal pulled into a parking garage and looked over at Will. Asleep or unconscious since he'd fallen into the passenger's seat of the Bentley, his skin shone like pale wax. Hannibal took his pulse. The jump of his heart was too quick, the inside of his wrist clammy and cool.

Hannibal had been willing, even pleased, to watch his singular intelligence deteriorate for a time, to catalogue Will's reactions as his own mind turned against him, but that had been a controlled experiment. What Hannibal had seen in the hospital was the beginning of something more permanent. He found it impossible to regret the decision to remove him, whatever the price proved to be.

He pulled on his gloves and switched license plates with a nearby Cadillac. The Bentley was conspicuous, but a stolen car would be worse. The best course was a quick exit from the city.

Given time, even a week, he might've managed a cleaner method of extraction. As it was, he'd killed only two guards, but that was likely two more than Jack would believe Will capable of on his own, especially given the method of execution.

It was a mercifully short drive to the bus station where he kept an emergency kit in a rented locker. He retrieved it and stopped at a thrift store nearby to buy a blanket for Will, who remained still as death.

Rush hour traffic jammed the streets, and the light was starting to fade by the time he pulled onto I-95 and headed south.

Will twitched in his sleep, finally, gripped by nightmares. Hannibal watched the march of terror and repulsion across his features and wished he could dip into his mind and see the dark wonders at play there. He wondered if Will dreamed of him.