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The Hollow Man

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Remember us—if at all—not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

-from “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot

  

“I’m nothing,” Will tells him during an otherwise unremarkable conversation. A conversation that is cognitive therapy is everything but name.

“You are far from nothing, Will,” Hannibal replies quickly, leaning forward in his chair. He keeps his expression blank, but he hopes Will hears the fervency in his voice. It pains him to hear the only man he values devaluing himself so grossly.

Will’s eyes fall shut, and he shakes his head in a frenzy. He’s so used to being misunderstood; it’s difficult to watch. “No, no. You don’t—” He exhales one determined huff, and his eyes flash open. They make contact, dark and desperate for the understanding he has long stopped expecting.  “I’m empty. Hollow. Nothing but a receptacle for other people’s designs. I see what they keep in their heads, but there’s nothing in mine.”

Dear Will, Hannibal thinks, you’re everything. “You catch criminals. You give a home to stray dogs. You saved Abigail Hobbs—twice. You may see dark designs, but your nightmares are your own.” He doubts Will has realized that his nightmares are his salvation. They are the proof that his moral compass still spins toward right rather than wrong. They are the difference between Will and the monsters he inhabits.

“You don’t understand,” Will protests, though the fire has left his voice. His eyes are lowered once more, to the carpet, in an admission of defeat. “I’m hollow inside.”

They speak so often in metaphor—of teacups, of mongooses and snakes, of ways out of dark places. It never occurs to Hannibal that Will might be speaking literally.

--- 

The doorbell rings at half past three in the morning, and Hannibal knows who it is long before he opens the door. He smoothes the wrinkles of his black silk robe, and puts on an easy smile. “Will,” he says. “Do come in.”

“I’m sorry to do this. I know it’s late.”

“Nonsense. As I have already told you, you are welcome here at any time.” He leads Will to the kitchen. “May I offer you wine?” He stops, eying Will speculatively, and amends, “Or perhaps tea.”

Will nods, eyes shut, as he sits on one of Hannibal’s stools. “Thank you.” He stinks of cheap whiskey, even from across the room.

Hannibal starts the kettle. He considers Will’s state of intoxication, then the fifty miles between their homes. Concern flickers through him, sudden and unexpected. “I sincerely hope you did not drive here from Wolf Trap.”

Will’s laugh is bright and sharp, all jagged edges. “I never left Baltimore.”

Although Hannibal suppresses a frown, his concern flickers brighter. He braces his hands on the counter, watches the teakettle, keeps his back to Will. He thinks. Will left his office seven hours ago. “Where did you go?”

“Here and there. Bars, mostly. I wanted to forget.”

“And did you?” Finally, Hannibal turns around just as Will looks up.

Will shakes his head.

“Are you hallucinating?”

There’s a beat before Will says, “Not now.”

Hannibal catches the omission in those words. “Tell me.”

“Nothing in my head belongs to me. It’s all Garrett Jacob Hobbs, Eldon Stammets, Elliot Budish, and Tobias Budge. I see the Shrike’s Copycat Killer and the Chesapeake Ripper. Their victims become mine, and mine become theirs. I can’t get them out.”

Hannibal steps forward, around the island, until he’s close enough to count Will’s eyelashes, to inhale the cocktail of aromas underneath the whiskey. That repulsive aftershave, sweat, bar peanuts, and fear gone stale. “Will,” he says, his voice a lightning rod in the storm of Will’s empathy. “What do you need?”

“Please,” Will murmurs, eyes shut. “I just want something for myself.”

Hannibal cups Will’s cheek, the skin feverish beneath his own. Once Hannibal brings his lips to Will’s, they lose any thought of the tea.

---

That night, Hannibal takes Will to his bed. They move together in the dark, and Hannibal endeavors to make Will forget his nightmares. He fucks him, slow and sweet, like a passionate love scene that doesn’t fit the genre of their lives.

After, when they’re sated and Hannibal feels uncouth with sweat and semen, he lies back, panting softly. He rests his hand on Will’s chest, over his heart. He spreads his fingers through the fine hair, presses against his skin. It’s cool to the touch, slick with sweat. His bedroom is silent but for the sound of his breathing. He concentrates.

That’s when it hits him. Will’s chest is still. It does not rise and fall with the steady rhythm of inhale-exhale. Horror courses through him as the revelation strikes. It’s like nausea, tumbling deep in his gut and rising up in an acid-burn. He can’t breathe against the knowledge, can’t speak against the fear. When he tries, the words dissolve in his mouth. “Will,” he gasps. “Your heart.”

Will’s heart isn’t beating.

“I’m not dead,” Will tells him in what he no doubt believes is a reassuring tone.

“No,” Hannibal agrees. Despite his lack of vital signs, Will has every appearance of life. He looks no different than ever. No less perfect in Hannibal’s eyes. Just anatomically impossible. He sits up and runs both hands over Will’s abdomen, applying pressure experimentally. Will’s heart isn’t beating; his lungs aren’t breathing. He can’t feel Will’s ribs. When he takes Will’s hand in his, turns it over, and runs his thumb along the inside of Will’s wrist, he sees no vein. He keeps his thumb there, where Will’s pulse should be, rubbing circles. “But you should be.”

Will’s smile is lopsided with self-deprecation. “I tried to tell you.”

“I am afraid I do not understand.” 

Will squirms out from under his grasp. He gets up and fumbles with his jeans. When he comes back, he presses something cool into the palm of Hannibal’s hand.

It’s a pocket knife, vintage, dark wood inlaid with mother of pearl, engraved with initials that don’t belong to Will. “It was my father’s,” Will says by way of explanation, but Hannibal still doesn’t understand. Will flips open the blade, the silver shimmering in the pre-dawn light. He lies on his back, and brings the blade to his sternum. He looks up, catches the question in Hannibal’s eyes, and says, “Please.”

Hannibal still doesn’t understand, but he has long since lost the ability to deny Will anything. He cuts Will open with a surgeon’s precision. The cut is clean and practiced. Hannibal’s hand is steady. The blade does not draw blood. 

When he pulls the skin apart, Hannibal sees the truth of Will Graham. His skin is an empty shell. Beneath the thin layer of the epidermis, there is nothing. No muscle, no fat; no bones, no organs. There is nothing but empty space. He is a soft case. There is nothing to hold him up, nothing to keep him going, nothing that looks anything like life.

“See? See?”

Silently, Hannibal pulls the skin back together. It knits itself back together without scar or suture.

He meets Will’s eyes, gone blurry through a sheen of unshed tears. “I wanted to tell you,” Will insists, his voice cracked. A voice without vocal cords; a mystery Hannibal cannot begin to decipher. “I wanted you to understand.”

“Shh,” Hannibal whispers, pressing a chaste kiss to Will’s forehead. “Shh.”

---

The next morning, after a silent breakfast of protein scramble and hazelnut espresso, Will drives to Quantico, and Hannibal cancels all of his appointments. It would be unfair to his patients, he tells himself, to sit before them when his mind is so full of Will.

He spends the day in his office. He keeps the curtains drawn. He sifts through his library, pulling down crumbling hardcovers he hasn’t viewed since medical school. He skims through Gray’s Anatomy, looking for something, anything that might begin to explain this.

In the end, Hannibal finds himself sitting at his desk, staring at a plate of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, concluding that biology can not explain Will’s anatomy any more than psychology can explain his empathy.

It is fitting, he thinks, that Will Graham is a hollow man. Behind closed eyes, Will sees himself, but even that self is not Will Graham. That self is a reflection of the monsters he sees and breathes. Although Hannibal may wear a meticulously crafted person-suit, the monster inside is entirely his own. Will is nothing but a person-suit, a cloak for foreign monsters. 

Will’s gift is his nightmare, and Hannibal wants Will to have no nightmares other than those he puts there. He would do almost anything—anything but give up his own lifestyle—to ease Will’s anguish.

All Will wants is to be his own person. Hannibal wants more than anything to give him that.

As he sits there, in the diluted morning light, surrounded by books he never thought to doubt, questioning the nature of a reality governed by something more than science, Hannibal resolves to give Will a life to call his own. 

---

Hannibal thumbs through his rolodex. He hums along to the melody of Mozart’s Requiem playing on his speakers. He tries to attach faces, then bodies to the names of the rude. 

This isn’t like his normal kills. He can’t just pick a recipe and a business card at random. He needs a matching set.

Every time Hannibal’s memory finds a body to match Will’s build, he removes the business card. He gives no regard to sex or race, thinks only of the quality of the parts. In the end, he finds nine matches. Six men and three women, all between twenty-five and forty, spread across the field of race and ethnicity. They range in disposition and intellect; all rude, unfortunately, but he won’t kill the undeserving. These nine will have to do.

Hannibal does not touch his recipe box.

---

“Something’s changed,” Will announces when he walks through the door. 

Hannibal looks up from his place in the kitchen, where he is preparing dinner. Cordon bleu, tonight, made with actual veal. The texture of the meat is strange beneath his knife, beneath his hands, and he knows the flavor will be off. It will be imperceptible to Will, but Hannibal will know. Taste, however, is a small price to pay when he is saving his salvages for a better cause. Looking at Will—dear, broken, good Will—it’s an easy sacrifice to make. “Oh?” he asks.

“The Chesapeake Ripper,” Will explains. He slides off his jacket and tosses it over the back of a chair.

Hannibal sets down his knife and takes a moment to school the amusement out of his expression. “I take it Uncle Jack found another body?”

Will nods. His gaze rests on the stacks of unassembled veal, prosciutto, and Gruyère. “Peter Jared Farmer. Florist. Twenty-nine. His body was positioned as a scarecrow in his shop window.”

Calmly, although he already knows the answer, Hannibal asks, “What did the Ripper take?” It’s the question Will expects him to ask, and he has no choice but to oblige.

“His skeleton.”

“That is different,” Hannibal agrees. He waits a beat before picking up the knife and resuming his work.

Will shakes his head. “It’s not that. Or it’s not just that. It’s his design.”

Hannibal waits, knowing that Will will go on without prompting.

Sure enough, Will takes a breath—Hannibal still doesn’t know why Will undertakes such unnecessary diversions—and continues. “He’s still humiliating them, but it isn’t just about humiliating them anymore. The humiliation is a ruse, a cover, a distraction.” He pauses to iron out his metaphor. “A red herring meant to hide the truth behind his design.”

“And what is his design?”

“It’s opaque,” Will admits. “It’s like staring at a mirror. I can only see myself, and there’s nothing there.” He sighs. “I can’t see his design.”

Hannibal smiles. “You will.”

It’s a promise.

---

Over the next two weeks, Hannibal takes parts from the other eight bodies.

A marathoner’s musculature. A horror novelist’s blood. A chess master’s brain. A cardiologist’s heart. Just to name a few.

He is not without a sense of humor, even in the darkest of situations.

It’s patchwork, yes. Will will always be a quilt sewn from the fabric of others. But this, at least, Hannibal can give him.

---

“What is it?” Hannibal asks when Will cannot sleep. He trails his fingers along the path of an imaginary spine.

“The Ripper,” Will mumbles, voice muffled by his pillow. “He’s back to taking organs. He broke his pattern.”

“Can you see his design?”

“No. Not yet.”

--- 

“I have something for you,” Hannibal tells Will one afternoon, leading him down to the basement. He would have preferred to do this in his bedroom, but the parts are all downstairs. He unlocks the door without ceremony, promptly revealing the only room in the house that Will has never seen.

“What is this?” Will asks, frozen in the threshold, mentally unhanded by the glimmer of silver hooks and chains dangling from the ceiling.

Hannibal places a hand at the small of Will’s back and guides him to the metallic table in the center of the room. He has placed a plastic tarp over the table, knowing this will be messy. He gestures to it. “Lie down, please.”

“Why?” There’s distrust in his voice, wrapped in fear, though Will tries desperately to hide both. He wants to be better than his doubts.

Silently, Hannibal threads his fingers through Will’s. “I would ask that you trust me.”

Will looks up, nods. “I do,” he insists, even though they both know it’s half a lie. Regardless, he is pliant when Hannibal removes his glasses and helps him onto the table.

“Close your eyes.” Will does, and Hannibal presses a kiss to each of his eyelids.

Hannibal leaves Will’s side to start the Beethoven. While he has a high tolerance for silence, he doubts he could do this without noise. He is giving Will a new life, and it deserves a baptism of music. When the sonata begins, he rolls up his shirtsleeves and hangs an apron around his neck. He scrubs his hands clean under the faucet. He opens one double-wide cabinet with a flourish, revealing Peter Jared Farmer’s skeleton.

This is where he will begin.

Hannibal takes his scalpel to Will’s sternum once again, cuts, and spreads Will open. He starts with the vertebral column, transferring pieces from the cabinet to Will’s empty body. First the coccyx, the sacrum, and then twenty-four articulating vertebrae.

There are two hundred and six bones in the human body, and Hannibal gives them all to Will. He sets each bone in its approximate place before moving to the soft tissue.

His industrial grade refrigerator is full of meat.

He unwraps each slab with tender hands, each movement a caress. He binds the bones with ligaments, overlays the skeletal muscles, and connects the muscles to the bones with tendons. He transposes a network of arteries and veins onto the canvas.

Hannibal works slowly, methodically. The music swells around him. Will is silent, still but for an occasional shudder against the cold. So beautiful in this gift of perfect trust.

Although he cannot see the movement of the sky in this windowless room, Hannibal knows he works for hours, well into the night. Beethoven turns to Bach turns to Vivaldi. His hands are red with old blood, his nostrils full of death’s first decay. He breathes deeply.

He begins work on the organs. He places a wrinkled brain in Will’s new cranium. He coils twenty-seven feet of intestine into place. He gives Will a liver, kidneys, a stomach, lungs. Then a gall bladder, lymph nodes, a spleen, but no appendix.

He pads Will with minimal fat, just enough to keep him soft. He fills him with blood.

Soon there’s nothing left in his industrial grade refrigerator but the heart. He cups both hands around it, gentle in his reverence. He cradles the tissue until it warms to his touch. He raises it to his lips, presses them against the striated cardiac muscle. He inhales, the bloody scent sweet in his nose. He wants to lick, to bite, to consume, but he doesn’t. This heart is his final sacrifice. He rests it in Will’s chest, connecting it to the rest of the cardiovascular system. He rubs, then squeezes, massaging the organ until it begins to beat.

Finally, when the tapestry is done, Hannibal closes Will’s chest and brings his still-bloody mouth to Will’s. “For thine is the Kingdom,” he whispers before breathing a vita nuova into Will’s lungs.

---

“How do you feel?”

Will looks up, a smile in his eyes. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I feel whole.”

---

Later, when he is less hazy, Will has the presence of mind to ask, “Where did you get the parts?”

Hannibal catches the symphony behind the question. The notes of fear and doubt, of disbelief and hurt. He hears the descant, sees the melody long before it begins. “Dear Will,” he murmurs, taking Will’s hand in his own and pressing a kiss to Will’s knuckles. “I believe you already know.”

Will is ashen pale as his new blood supply drains from his face. “Peter Jared Farmer’s bones. Thomas Adoyo’s muscles. Melanie Richter’s blood. Anastasia Eristov’s brain. John Kim’s heart.”

“Among others.” 

Will exhales a shuddering breath through an air quality controller’s lungs. Hannibal doesn’t remember her name.

“It’s you.”

“Yes.” Hannibal smiles. “Do you see it now?”

Will is faint with nausea. He tries to pull away, but Hannibal’s grip on his hand tightens, anchoring him in place.

“You were my design.” It would be a shame, Hannibal thinks, to eviscerate Will when he has only just made him whole.

“It’s been you all along. You killed all of them. Even Miriam Lass, and—” Will covers his mouth. If his new stomach—ripped from a subpar sous-chef—weren’t empty, he’d vomit.

“You said yourself that the Ripper looked normal—that no one would know what he was. Are you truly so surprised to find that you were right?”

Will opens his mouth but no words come out.

“You thought the Ripper saw himself as superior, maybe even as a god. Surely you see it.” Hannibal traces his index finger down Will’s cheek, his other hand still firmly circling Will’s wrist. “Tell me, Will, what is it god does?” 

“I don’t—”

“Come now, none of that.”

Will shudders. “He kills.” 

“And?”

“He creates.” 

“In his own image, yes. You believe I am a monster, but what are you? Dear Will, you are the monument to my monstrosity. What do you think would happen, were you to turn me in?”

“You’d kill me.” 

“No, nothing so mundane. I kill pigs; you are nothing of the sort. I would cut you open and leave you spread apart for Uncle Jack and all the world to see. Then they would see what you are to me, even if you do not.”

“A trophy case.”

“No need to be vulgar,” Hannibal scoffs. “Your choice of metaphor does you a great disservice.”

“How do you see me, then? I was never a teacup, but I’m not a mongoose either. So what am I to you, Hannibal?” 

There are a thousand metaphors on the tip of his tongue, but Hannibal bites them back. Instead he crashes his mouth to Will’s. The kiss is all teeth, sharp and jagged. The passion behind it is violent, possessive—only a parody of romance. After a flicker of resistance, Will kisses back, just as desperate, just as hungry. Will’s lips have always been his own, and Hannibal bites hard. Whatever answer he was looking for, Will finds it in the tang of his own blood on Hannibal’s tongue.

“See?” Hannibal pulls back to whisper against those familiar lips. “See?”

Will nods once before burying his face against Hannibal’s neck. 

God is love, Hannibal thinks.

--- 

Hannibal watches Will sleep that night. 

He is peaceful. He does not squirm or sweat. He does not wake or walk. If he dreams, Hannibal knows it’s of him.

He has replaced all of Will’s nightmares with just one, this last living nightmare, his design.

Will is a hollow man no more.